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Tonight Will Be Fine

22 December 2016, 13:00

Iceland's Bedroom Community has grown over ten years from a small collective of likeminded composers into one of the most highly regarded labels around. We meet founders Valgeir Sigurðsson and Nico Muhly to discuss the interconnected nature of what might at first seem vastly different forms of music.

To call what happened at Reykjavik's Harpa venue on 3 November, as part of the Iceland Airwaves festival, a mere label showcase, party - or even just a concert - would be a vast understatement.

True to the collaborative and wildly innovative nature of the label, the evening – held in celebration of Bedroom Community's decade long existence – was particularly special in its inclusion of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, who, led by label founders Valgeir Sigurðsson (pictured above, right), Nico Muhly (pictured above, left) and Ben Frost, delivered a programme that explored in the work of label linchpins like Nadia Sirota, Sam Amidon and Daníel Bjarnason, each creators of vastly different sounds, in a way that shone light on the similarities to their disparate works and allowed each individual's methods to take centre stage. Far from a stuffy classical concert or display of one imprint's prowess, it felt like watching one of the world's most gifted bands let loose.

It was a fittingly unusual evening for Bedroom Community, which has long thrived by operating under the premise of being more of an ecosystem cultivating music than a traditional record label, one which has birthed beautiful work from not only the aforementioned but composers and songwriters as diverse as Paul Corley, Puzzle Muteson and, more recently, the likes of aYia. With Valgeir Sigurdsson's Greenhouse Studios acting as the control centre, within ten years they've gone from being a side concern for a bunch of preternaturally talented composers and producers to become one of the most respected record labels in… the world? Yeah, I'll say it. The world.

That night at Harpa has stuck with me two days afterwards when I meet with Valgeir and Nico in downtown Reykjavik, the city Valgeir calls home. In honesty, its unconventional methods, sheer breadth and not inconsiderable beauty have played on my mind ever since, and understandably, that night was big for them too.


Valgeir Sigurðsson: “It started with me talking to Airwaves about how I would like to present the idea of Bedroom Community around our 10th anniversary with a focus on the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra. The idea was to split the programme in to an hour of us and an hour of them, but as we started talking about it we quickly agreed that it would be more interesting to throw it all together and not present it in two halves.”

Nico Muhly: “Part of what made that concert crazy is that there’s not really a model for that sort of thing. An orchestral concert has a really standard format; there are three pieces, two short-ish ones, one long one, and you rehearse them in a certain way. But this was all that, with another thing inside it, with another thing inside that, and a spatial separation of all those things. The thing that makes what we do distinct in a sense is that we are all composer performers. There’s a piece of mine we did called “Mixed Messages” which the orchestra could just play and I could've been dead, it would still have happened. And that’s great, but there’s also the model of music making where we’re actually inside the orchestra, or manipulating them in some way. For me, that’s fun. You write a piece and you get to do something. Normally, unless I’m conducting, I’m just sat in the audience feeling nervous. It’s much less nerve wracking when you perform, because there’s at least something that I’m in control of. If you're just sitting there, there’s literally nothing you can do. You can’t take off your clothes and run up there and scream. If you’re up there performing, you can drive it, even if it’s with one of those fake steering wheels that they give to kids.”

One of the evening's standout performers was Sam Amidon, a man whose traditional folk-based compositions might at first seem quite apart from the rest of the roster's often very classical leanings, but someone whose singular voices flourishes amid the compositions they build around his skeletal foundations. From rough and ready beginnings, under Bedroom Community's tutelage, he's become one of the most arresting and individual singer songwriters I've heard in years.

Sigurðsson: “Nico played me his first album, which I thought was a demo. I thought maybe I could help him with his music. We decided to let the first album be the thing that it is, but we wanted to collaborate, and take his music making in to Nico’s world, and my world, in his next thing.”

Muhly: “The first album - But This Chicken Proved Falsehearted - he made with my really good friend Thomas Bartlett. We share a studio in New York and we’re like family. This album is crazy, and beautiful, and so specific. It’s one of the more bizarre things that exist in the world… just buy it, tonight. Anyway, I’d been playing these weird gigs with Sam and Thomas. He’d be playing at Sin-é in the East Village and I’d just hop on the piano and play one song. I realised that his musicianship was something special and crazy, and I thought it would be so fun to get him in this ecosystem and see what happened. I don’t think Sam has written an original song in his life – it’s all retellings of things – but what’s so spectacular is his arrangements. He reduces them to two chords. It’s a version of interpretation where he’s taking a known text and then reducing it into his own thing, and in reduction, you can set up other scaffoldings on top of it. That was how we would do his albums, he would record just the barest bones - him and guitar or banjo - and we would get up there and build things on top.”

Sigurðsson: “With Sam, you might hear a different version of the song that has nothing similar to the original, only a couple of words, but it’s all based on the same thing. He keeps the titles!”

Muhly: “I wrote a piece with him called “The Only Tune”… that’s a piece of music that’s me and him doing his process in two different ways. Some version of that folk song exists in most Western traditions; two girls, something goes wrong, body floats down a river, guy takes the body, does things to it, makes a violin, plays the song. But there are so many different versions of it, sometimes with different tunes. In the English folk tradition these are known as the child ballads, and you’ll find versions of them in the Appalachian tradition, in Scandinavia… they all disperse. With Sam it’s about how you find the itinerary through the story or a specific melodic gesture, and then you obsess. The good news for us is that if the music that you’re working with is good you can kind of do anything with it. There’s a kind of expanding ecosystem built in Valgeir’s control room, and it includes what I can do, what Ben Frost can do, what Paul Corley can do… you just drop someone in there and leave it for a month and see what happens.”

For someone such as myself – who grew up with folk and rock music, and just about understands how those songs are put together - the appeal of an artist such as Sam Amidon or Puzzle Muteson is obvious. I totally get it. But though those are my roots, in recent years my taste has grown more experimental (pretentious?), with my mind now open to contemporary classical composition, ambient music, noise and electronics in a way that sometimes leaves me wondering whether this might be the true path to musical enlightenment, and not guitars and riffs and choruses after all. Once you've gotten your head around music this complicated, I wonder what remains the appeal of 4/4, 3'30" rock songs? What is there, once you can get an entire symphony orchestra to do your sonic bidding, that keeps someone like Nico or Valgeir interested in folk music?

Muhly: “In your mind as a modern human being, replace the word ‘music’ in that sentence with ‘art’, or ‘craft’, or ‘food’. And then say it again. I don’t think anyone who is making micro cilantro dishes at a pop up restaurant in Hackney with this foam and all that shit is thinking about someone roasting a chicken in a village in Romania with any kind of disdain. It’s just different, and not in any bad way. Folk art is a great example. Think about knitting. Knitting is something that basically everyone knows how to do, but that isn’t to say that people who knit can’t think about deeply complicated garments, it’s not to say that those two things aren't related. You’ll always see in really fancy cooking tomes someone saying that the thing they like the best is their grandmother’s roast chicken. And you'll see now that grandma, when she goes to Tesco, she can buy gluten free flours, things to make foams, weird shit… and all of these things are trickling up, down and around. Next time you think that sort of thought, go find the craziest most high art version of a thing - I think food is always the best example, because it’s so visceral - and in your mind trace the origins of the technique. Classical music is slightly different to non-notated traditions in that we have this obsession with notation and we have a learnt, received technique, which is to say, when making French sauces, knowing what a béchamel is doesn’t mean that people aren’t thickening shit with flour other places, it’s just that we know what it’s called. It doesn’t mean that grandma doesn’t know how to do it either, it’s just a different way of organising the information.”

Is finding music that has a malleability to it important, if something is to become part of the Bedroom Community ecosystem?

Muhly: “Well, with Daníel Bjarnason’s orchestral music, you have to do it the way it’s written. But he has other pieces, “Bow to String” for example, where it’s about there being an aggressive specificity of how you record it and build it in a studio, and once you have that beautiful document, you reverse engineer 25 different ways to play it. What’s great about the piece is not that it’s so flexible, it’s that you establish a master text version of the thing and figure what else can happen from there. It’s less about the malleability of the music and more about the malleability of the musicians, the creators who are willing to say ‘yes, there is a core text of this thing, but let’s figure out a way to do it with two people, let’s figure out a way to do it with a million people…’. You perfect a dish in a restaurant, and you figure out how to make it at home, you know?"

Sigurðsson: “Not everything we work on works like that, but a lot of it does.”

Muhly: “I remember when you were working on Speaks Volumes ten years ago and thinking, ‘we are never going to be able to figure out how to do this live’. And I think all of those things we have in some way figured out how to do live. Reverse engineering, that’s the key. The recording on Valgeir’s Equilibrium is Restored, it’s so specific, but when we do it live some things are generated by exactly the same process that we used in the recording. With other things it’s like, well, that sound, I can actually replicate that by sticking my thumb in the piano’… that process is super fun.”

It wasn't long after they met that Nico and Valgeir were sticking their thumbs in each other's pianos, so to speak.

Muhly: “One of the reasons we started to work together was out of pity. It’s how all great stories start! Valgeir was working with Björk in a New York studio where I also had a room because I was working with Philip Glass. At that time I was a second year masters student out of Juilliard, which is great, it has the best resources and a ton of money, but when you have your pieces recorded there… in my freshman year I got a cassette, and in my last year I got a CD recorded with just a stereo mic above the stage, and my name written on it in crayon basically. No further comment. So I sent Valgeir a couple of my recordings…”

Sigurðsson: “I remember you said you were recording in someone’s kitchen…”

Muhly: “Yes! I had just started thinking about doing some solo electronic things, and I went to my friend’s crazy apartment because it was quiet, and recorded it with an Edirol. It was so janky…”

Sigurðsson: “It was not pretty, but I thought I had an idea to achieve this in a successful way and maybe add something to it. At the same time I had been thinking about an outlet for my own music and a way to push myself out of always being a collaborator, and searching for a reason to finish a piece of music that I had.”

Muhly: “We had opposite problems. I had all these pieces that were done and written and recorded but sounded terrible, and you had… I still have these, you had 8,000 half drafts of things that were all MP3s. Basically we organised a very informal barter, I was like ‘I can help you fix all this shit if you can help me with this’. And you were just like, ‘get on a plane’.”

Sigurðsson: “Do you remember, we had sushi and I asked, 'do you want to be part of this label then?', and you said…”

Muhly: “Yes! All it takes is good sushi. Was it a Nobu? God, we’re so ‘90s. Ben Frost was about to move to Reykjavik, we were all babies basically.”

Sigurðsson: “Ben came and basically lived in my studio. We met when I went over to Australia in 2001, and we just kept in touch. He came to visit Reykjavik for a week a year before and said he’d come back and move here. I thought ‘yeah, sure’, and then he just did. For a few months I was thinking, ‘when is he going to move back!?’. But between the three of us I thought we’d have a broad and interesting range of music to work on, and we'd all help each other out.”

Muhly: “It was also about realising that it doesn’t matter if your music sounds like someone else’s music, it’s more about how you can be helpful around the house. Everyone does different things better, and that’s nice. It’s helpful to have someone else’s ears. Ben Frost is a really great first listen person, because he’s not about to tell you something that he doesn’t think."

Sigurðsson: “Just playing something for other people, even if you don’t get notes or a round table conversation about what you just heard, you can just feel the parts where it didn’t feel like the room was reacting. The structure of the label and releasing and manufacturing the music and the promo and all that, it's more of a channel for getting the work out. That is what it’s still about, making the music. I thought we should do it our own way, find out how it’s done. I never thought it would be a label with ten or eleven people on it. Maybe it would be a little side project, an eccentric thing that we would occasionally do and then at least there it is, we’ve put it out. For me now, more or less everything I do is related to Bedroom Community. But in the beginning it was more a feeling of wanting to create and take the time that I want with it, work with these people and not just have it go in to the same drawer that all my sketches go in to. So the label is there for that. But I never thought I would go out there and look for people to put on the label.”

Muhly: “There’s no A&R process.”

Bedroom Community don’t go looking for bands, but bands sure come looking for them. There is even talk around Reykjavik, much to the duo's amusement, of there being a 'BC Sound' – we for instance went to see a band on the recommendation of a friend during Airwaves festival because we were told they "sounded very Bedroom Community". As it turned out, that band happened to be Strange Boy, who are now part of the Bedroom Community extended family, contributing a track to their recent Yule compilation. How does that feel then, for people to spot a kind of aesthetic in your work, either as an individual or a collective, whether you agree with their assessment or not?

Muhly: It’s interesting to see, how suddenly people take stuff from the work you make. That’s crazy to me still. Just this morning a young composer said to me ‘I’m really inspired by your work, here’s my thing, people say it sounds like you’, and I’m like, ‘whoa, that kind of does sound like me, weirdo!’.”

But what is it that you recognize?

NM: “For me personally it’s certain notes and certain rhythms and certain ways of organising sound, but I think with something sounding like our world, I think that’s to do with production, attention to detail, attention to arrangement as part of the construction of the thing. Strange Boy is a good example; those arrangements are so much a part of the composition, they make it in the studio and then find out how to do it live. It’s not that nobody else is doing it, it’s just that those people happen to know us.”

Sigurðsson: “Maybe at this point perhaps there are people out there who are inspired by our process and our sound. We do get a lot of submissions, people who think they would be a perfect fit, and close to 100% of the time its a ‘yeah but… no’. Often there are things that sound great, but there’s no connection that makes me want to bring it in to that eco system.”

Muhly: “Also there’s so much music that is going to be fine. And I mean ‘fine’ in a good way. For me the label exists because the music we were going to be making in 2006 was going to be homeless, unless somebody dealt with it. There’s a sense of it being like the RSPCA is for animals - someone had to deal with the situation, and that was Valgeir! There’s a lot of music that’s good and is going to be fine without needing to come in to this incubation. Puzzle Muteson is a good example. The reason he’s involved in any of this shit is that I was bored out of my mind in 2008 living in Paris and I literally went on MySpace and started clicking through random music. I happened upon this weirdo singer songwriter from the Isle of Wight with one song on his profile called “A Tightrope Dance”. And I was like, ‘whoa, this is amazing’, so I wrote to him and said ‘send me everything’. I sent it to Valgeir, and we were like, ‘this is kinda great’, but we got the sense that it wouldn’t be fine. I knew I could do something specific to help, I knew Valgeir could do something specific to help, I knew that the studio environment could help… I just called the dude and said ‘meet me in London, we’ll figure it out’. I didn’t think it was doomed music, it’s more that if people are making something really specific with the potential to be fragile, I think what we can do as a community of people is help. That was music that was definitely not going to be fine. And now its not just, fine it's great.”

The latest in the line of might not be fine but could yet be great artists to crop up on the Bedroom Community radar are aYia, a mysterious electronic outfit who many deemed to be the breakout band of this year's Airwaves festival. Their releases have come as part of a digital singles club called Hvalreki (Icelandic for 'beached whale'), which Valgeir envisages granting the label even greater creative freedom when it comes to the artist they work with, and work they release. Above, aYia perform a new song "Easy", recorded exclusively for Best Fit at Greenhouse Studios.

Sigurðsson: “The Hvalreki series was a new idea of ours that didn’t commit us to do a whole production, one that allows us find out where bands belong in Bedroom Community. I like aYia a lot and I like what they do, so I’m helping them. We’re a vehicle for their music, hopefully. It's hard to tell before we really get to know them collaborative they want to be, and what else they could bring to Bedroom Community. Could they be a part of a Whale Watching tour, for example? Maybe, and maybe that’s what the next ten years will be. I think it’s going to keep being us old guys, but also it needs to open up, because we have the structure now, and I have less time. aYia coming in is a little experiment, but let’s see where it goes.”

Conducting little experiments, and seeing where they go. It's worked for Bedroom Community for ten years, and long may it continue to do so.

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