Siobhán Kane spoke with Sólrún Sumarliðadóttir of Iceland’s Amiina ahead of their show on September 25th as part of the 16th Dublin Fringe Festival.
Some years ago, Amiina fell into the habit of making a kind of magic, through their string arrangements for Sigur Rós and through the last collaboration Lee Hazlewood ever did; their creativity rendered in part like a huge gilded tapestry of sound, that is as comforting as it is transformative. Playing every instrument they can find, over the years they have incorporated such things as zithers and saws.
The template for their disciplined yet free work process was set years before, when the four friends started collaborating at the Reykjavik College of Music in the ’90’s. There is a warmth about their work, surely evolving out of their close, deep friendship and a sense of simple vitality bound up in the very act of living, which is very present on their first LP Kurr (2007) and EP’s Animamina (2005) and Re Minore (2009).
Their performances routinely touch on something that goes beyond the simple responsibility of playing live, instead a kind of philosophy translates. Maybe it is more about the spirit that flits joyfully throughout everything they do. This spirit was very present in their performance as part of the Festival of World Cultures in July, achieving beautiful collaborations with both Caoimhín Ó’Raghallaigh and Donal Dineen, and an expanded line-up featuring Kippi Kaninus and Magnús Trygvason Eliassen gives their old work new life, and their new work two more old souls.
Siobhán Kane talks to Sólrún Sumarliðadóttir.
Did you know of Caomhín’s work before you collaborated together for the festival? No we didn’t actually, and it was a real treat, his music is absolutely beautiful.
You incorporate some instruments into your work that are associated with traditional Irish music, had you been exposed to much Irish traditional music over the years? Not really, growing up. Of course you hear a bit of this and that, and there is a really nice radio station here on our national radio, Radio 1. It has always played a lot of different types of music, so we gained decent exposure to all kinds of music, that is the way it has been for a long time actually, it has really nice programming which can be quite hard to find on the radio.
That’s very true, and which is why something like the Festival of World Cultures works so well, it encourages people out of their usual listening tastes. Absolutely, it is a really important thing I think.
You have two new members of the band, how did that come about? We have been working with Maggi for about three years now, but Vignir, or Kippi Kaninus which is his alias, [laughs] well, we knew of each other for a long time. Around three years back he came for some shows with us in Europe and opened for us, and half a year later we got the offer of doing a big show at a festival and thought it might be nice to actually collaborate with someone and expand the show, instead of bringing in session players, so we called him and it was the beginning of this thing we are doing now.
It obviously must impact on your work process. Yes, the dynamics have changed, but it is very enjoyable, It is nice to expand the ways you work and force yourself into a different context, it is very inspiring. We still do a little bit of music, just the four of us, but it is nice to be flexible.
Picking up less obvious instruments, and objects not traditionally regarded as instruments must have also added to that flexibility, since you had come from such a stringent classical training. Yes it definitely did, it opened up a lot of possibilities and ideas, and also just having the freedom to experiment without having to think of technique too much, it was liberating at the time, epsecially when you come from this strict background of classical training, the two sides accompany each other really well. To discipline yourself, and get used to working with details and techniques, but still having the other side of being able to just fool around and do whatever you feel like.
It partly explains your live performances, which seem like a mixture of those two aspects also, the formality and the fluidity, and sometimes when you are moving on to different instruments, and the delicacy with which you do it, it often seems like you are dancing. We do think about that actually when we are doing our setlist, because it really does matter how we move on stage, so there really is a little bit of choreography in what we do.
Will the songs on the EP [Re Minore] appear on your new record? Yes, they are actually all on there, although two of them have changed slightly, we recorded some parts again, but the rest are the same. The album is mastered and everything, it is going to be out in September, we are really looking forward to that. We also used the photographer we have worked with before, and we designed it ourselves, it is a continuation of Kurr I would say, but….different.
Iceland has been going through a hugely transitional time over the past few years in terms of economic changes and issues surrounding natural and energy resources. I read Bjork’s open letter to the government a couple of months ago, which is a continuation of the protesting about the Magma Energy situation, and trying to preserve the future of Iceland’s precious natural resources, how do you feel about these issues at the moment? It cannot be far from your mind. It’s hard to say, obviously all of this situation about energy and natural resources, it has been a huge issue for years now. When everyone here woke up to this issue was the big construction and Magma a few years back, and there were a lot of protests against it at the time, so that was the first time that everyone together woke up. We have something very special here, and very delicate and precious and it has been very strange how this whole thing has been mismanaged. It’s been a very strange situation here for the past two or three years, well actually it has just got stranger, as it was already strange. I have sort of been ignoring the news to be honest because it has been a little bit too much.
Nattúra as a resource established by Bjork and Sigur Rós, helped on by others including yourselves is vital, because it illustrates that politics is for everyone, affects everyone, and often musicians and creative people have quite a following that can be quite powerful in its own right, even if it is just about increasing awareness. Absolutely, it is very important here. I think because it is such a small community here in Iceland, it is very easy for things to change dramatically. If there is someone in power who decides they want to do things a certain way, then it is very easy to shift the focus and just do it. That is one of the great things about living in a small community, but it has its downsides because there is always this kind of herd behaviour, we are like a flock of sheep. I remember when I was growing up there was a craze for this foot massage thing, then everyone bought this foot massage thing, then I remember that Sodastream was the big thing, then everyone had one.
At least those are quite soft, tame, sweet things. [Laughs] That is true, but it starts off that way, and then can lead on to more disturbing things, like the way this community developed into a money crazy community.
You mentioned quite recently that Iceland had become disturbingly materialistic, and one positive out of the terrible economic situation is that it has forced a complete turnaround, it was really surprising to think of Iceland having fallen prey to that trap, as Ireland had also, it seems the opposite to the soul of the country, or something. I know what you mean. I think that there has been a lot of positive change already here, and it’s been a big relief, just seeing how people have shifted their focus from this materialism and craziness onto something that has more value; thinking about each other and the community. People are giving themselves a little bit more time, just to be with each other and take care of each other. I don’t know how long it’s going to last, but at least there definitely has been a change, you can really feel it walking around the streets, it’s more relaxed, people are more friendly, they are considering more than themselves.
There is a lot of really good stuff going on more than ever, the environment is even more creative at the moment as well. There is a lot of really great jazz going on these days, Maggi is a jazz drummer by trade, K Trio is another band he is in, they released an album late last year and there is another one coming out later in the summer, there are such great things happening.
Have the changes affected musicians and artists there in terms of it becoming more difficult to get funding for projects? Yes, but mostly in the private sector, as that sector was funding a lot of the arts before, and that has sort of disappeared altogether almost, but there is still govenrment funding and city council funding, it is a little bit less but it is still there. It is tough to make a living from being a musician, and it is even more difficult with so many people not buying music anymore, this infrastructure isn’t really working anymore with the record companies, so it is a very unstable environment and it is hard to know which way to go, actually. Releasing an album is not as straightforward as it used to be, you used to be able to get in touch with the record company, make a deal and that was sort of it, but now it is about how it will develop, and we have to consider if we want to give someone the rights to our music when we don’t know if they are going to be around much longer, it is exciting but a little bit scary as well.
It seemed profoundly poetic that Lee Hazlewood’s last collaboration and recording ‘Hilli (at the top of the world)’ was with you, and that the song ended up being an ecological fable essentially, about a land so dark that the inhabitants need the snow to see by, until one day the snow melts away. It seemed desperately sad, yet the song is a building kind of legacy, a plea to keep fighting for things to be better, whether emotionally or environmentally. Yes, and you know it was the most amazing honour to work with him on that, it is quite surreal actually, to think that it happened, even now. It was the most special thing, it was all about hope.
Amiina‘s new record will be released in September. They will play as part of the Absolut Dublin Fringe Festival on Saturday 25th September. Check out www.nattura.info for more information on Iceland’s environmental situation.