Every year in early November, as the strength of the sun’s rays diminish, Iceland Airwaves shines a spotlight on Reykjavík’s music scene – where home grown talent burns particularly bright, late into the long night skies. Noir electro pop, all-female rap troupes, a metal kid turned R&B star, and an honorary Icelander with a predilection for outlandish beats – we catch up aYia, CYBER, Auður and Jae Tyler in the town they’ve all called home and find out more about what makes them tick.
NEW NOISE: ICELAND SPECIAL
We take a look at the most exciting music coming out of Reykjavik right now…
What is your earliest musical memory?
My earliest musical memory is my mother humming. She was always humming. I also remember when we first got a computer in our house. I had this programme where you could record for 10/20 seconds so I started recording my voice. I would play it and record over it again and again because I didn’t know how to play the guitar, so I was using my words. There was this feeling of listening to it and knowing I was making a song. I was making music and it was the best feeling in the world!
So you have multiple projects on the go, can you tell me more about how aYia came into being?
I actually met the two lads that are in the band with me separately about two and half years ago. One of them was helping me make music with very old rhymes and the other one was recording a weird sci-fi country album that never actually came out! After a couple of weeks of working together, I learnt that these two were friends. We then decided to close the group into a triangle and make music together.
I think originally the sound was super chilled and we said: “Let’s make music you can listen to while you’re driving in your car very late at night out in the countryside where you can drive very fast.” So, it was super scary but fun and would be perfect for that situation. We wanted to make music that was like driving into the darkness.
And what have you been working on lately?
aYia has been asleep for some weeks now. Sleeping in some kind of hibernation, which is very good because you’re then renewing your skin and it might be that aYia is becoming a new creature. We have more people that are joining the fellowship.
We went to make a music video for a new song in a sand mine. There was this guy from LA that was very excited about the song who contacted us and came here with his crew and just shot it and it was amazing.
So you’ve also been working on new music then?
Yes, and we’re planning on releasing an EP with Bedroom Community. I don’t know exactly what time it will arrive but I know it will be soon.
So, tell us CYBER’s origin story and how the project has evolved since 2012.
Jóhanna Rakel: Like all good things CYBER started as a hypothetical mess. More of a concept than a band. Salkan (Valsdóttir) had the lipstick “Cyber” from MAC, I thought it was a cool name for a band so we just decided that it would be our band.
We were 17 at the time so, of course, we wanted our band to be something totally radical, so CYBER started as a thrash metal/pop/rock/disco duo. Unfortunately, I had no musical background and although Salka was a drummer, the thrash metal thing didn’t quite work out for us!
A year later we got a chance to rap at a women’s rap event in a cellar bar in Reykjavík. Knowing nothing about rap we threw together a beat on an iPhone app and wrote horrible lyrics, but at the end of the night people loved it and I guess we liked the feeling of being on stage!
You released “CRAP” last year, can you tell us more about how the EP came together?
Salka Valsdóttir: It took us about a year to write and compose “CRAP”. CYBER was still just an unborn baby in our bellies and we didn’t know exactly what we wanted it to become. But we wanted to find our sound and our voice. We wanted to make hip hop that really spoke to us and something we hadn’t heard before in Iceland.
We talked to a lot of people in the underground hip hop and electro scene that we looked up to and got them to work with us on this project. “CRAP” became the base for CYBER, with very experimental themes in both sounds and lyrics but still works with a lot of mainstream elements.
There’s a theatricality to CYBER, particularly on stage – tell us more about what motivates this.
Salka: We live in a time where you can see anything anytime and listen to anything anytime, so I think you have to be clever and really elevate your performance in order to get people’s attention and keep it there for 30 plus minutes.
In CYBER it’s usually also driven by trying to do the “impossible”. It’s a very specific feeling when an idea like “Hey, it would be great to be carried on stage in a coffin by eight drag queens!” becomes real. That moment when we look each other in the eye and think “Hey, we actually made it happen!” is like no other feeling. It also helps that I work in a theatre so I can always get props and costumes to make our ideas pop!
So you just released your debut LP Horror, what’s next?
Salka: Jóhanna has been working on a special EP that will be composed and written only by her. I’ve been focusing more on production for the past few months so there’s a lot of exciting productions that might be released through CYBER soon. There are many exciting things… Festivals that we can’t talk about yet, an xmas special with Emmsjé Gauti, a specially curated new year’s show with a latex funeral involved, a music video for “HLAUPTU with HATARI” and more shows abroad!
Let’s start at the beginning, how did you first get involved in music?
So, I was like 10 or 11 when I started playing guitar. I was really into garage rock, then I started playing in bands and I got really into heavy metal and death metal. From there I started studying jazz guitar at the Conservatory in Iceland. Around 17/18 I started going to more shows and then I remember seeing James Blake for the first time. I was so interested in someone taking all these melodic ideas and harmonies, and putting them into an interesting soundscape. And as much as I love jazz I think there is not enough focus on like the overall sonicscape so seeing him take advantage of both these elements – that was really a big moment for me. That was a changing point.
How did you find the transition from metal to electronic R&B? It’s not really a common leap…
The thing is, when I was in metal bands I would program all the music for each instrument in the same way I do now, so changing over was just really logical. It just really made sense to me to take that leap. It just happened. Life is amazing that way.
Do you think the free form nature of Iceland’s music scene is in part to thank for making this a more organic change?
Definitely. It’s such a small community. I remember going to death metal shows and seeing electronic bands opening, so there have never really been “scenes” in Iceland – it’s more fluid.
Can you tell me more about Alone, the making of and the reception to it?
Alone is a concept album that I made, alone. It was written in one key. It was recorded by one microphone, by one person. It’s sort of about this period in my life where I lived in a town called Hafnarfjordur.
I got really isolated during one particularly brutal winter there. I was literally stuck at home for days, and meanwhile I was going through sort of a rough emotional period: my girlfriend was travelling around South America, I lost a friend of mine, my parents and sister were in the US so it was sort of a shitty winter. I’m proud to have sort of embraced the hard things and to have tried to change them into something good. There are a lot of beautiful emotions that come through an experience like that.
When did you first start playing music?
I first started playing music when I was eight years old. I was inspired by my dad hearing a Johnny Cash song on the radio on our way home from eating at Pizza Hut! He heard it and then went home and learned to play it. I was just amazed at that. I was like how can you do that? How can you hear something and just be able to play it? And so my dad was like well I’ll teach you a chord. So he taught me e-minor and then I started just sort of learning more chords on my own.
When did you first start getting a sense of the Jae Tyler project as it is now?
I would say that after I made the record – which was maybe nine songs that was just whittled down into five for the “Show & Tell” EP which just came out. After that I started thinking about getting the band together.
Tell us about the music you create and what you hope people will take away from it. What do you want it to say?
The music is really fun but it’s also sort of depraved. I talk a lot about depression. I talk a lot of about suicide. I talk a lot about these things I feel like everybody is familiar with in a way. Or at least most people are. A lot of the things that I write about are very personal to me, but I try to convey them in a non-personal way – as if taking on a character, a different person’s perspective.
I don’t want to hide behind the veil of irony, which I feel is a common thing to do. To almost make fun of yourself to the point using sarcasm to nullify whatever message you have. I feel like that happens a lot in music its sort of a defence mechanism. I think that I just want people to know whatever they feel or however/whoever they are… that it’s ok.
What is the most important thing to you as an artist?
I would say, I guess, the most important thing to me is just having an audience. I want whatever audience finds me to feel that, to know they’re important to me, because otherwise there is really not much purpose behind what I do.
I don’t make music for the sole purpose of being liked per se, though if a person who is having a really hard time reaches out to you and is like “your stuff helped me through that time” – that is the most extraordinary thing to me. It’s more that it’s all just bullshit otherwise.
Anyone that reacts to your art is your audience. An audience can even really despise what you do they’re still an audience. I think the worst insult to me as an artist is if someone hears my music and they’re like “Meh, I don’t care. It sounds like nothing. It’s fine. It’s okay.” And then it just never affects them. Everything else follows, as long as you have an audience.