Icelandic artist astvaldur is fresh from the release of his debut album. Released via his Berlin collective and label oqko, ‘At Least’ is a sublime work of deconstructed ‘club’ music one could file in the vicinity of Arca and Lotic. Wallowing in lower frequencies and arctic melodies, astvaldur’s voice stands out as unique and highly refined, rising shoulders above the hyperconsumerist tendencies of the mesh of genres he draws inspiration from.
Thanks for taking the time to speak to us! Where exactly did you grow up in Iceland?
I grew up in Reykjavík but spent my teens on a farm 20 minutes from Reykjavík.
How was growing up there? Were you exposed to music early on and did those early experiences have an influence on your decision to develop your artistic side?
I was always a easy kid, never had or caused any big problems and never really had some uncontrollable need to stand against authority or showing any incredible artistic potentials. However, apparently there was something because my mother sent me to my towns art school for children when I was a kid and I took some classes but never for a long time. I also never studied any art or music actively. But when i got older I started to understand that I could not work or live in a way that made me feel like part of a system that I felt was failing in so many ways. So I took the decision of doing something that could at least in some way break out of this certain framework we seem to position people, ideas and procedures in.
I spent a lot of time on the countryside when I was a kid and then when I was from 8 to 10 years old I used to travel around Europe with my father which I guess created the need to leave Iceland or to understand that there was something more from an early age.
Do you have a musical background and what were you up to pre-astvaldur?
I learned to play the guitar for some years when I was a kid and a teenager. And around 12 years old I started playing in bands, mostly prog rock bands with a good friend of mine from Iceland. After that I started playing in a progressive electronic pop/rock band but the roots of alternative and progressive rock always stayed close.
So has Post Rock/Progressive always been quite an important influence in your work?
For me both progressive music, more academic work and some electronic music have similar qualities, like the necessity for further contemplation of what sonically you perceived and physicality of the sonic content. So in a way for me the introduction to progressive rock in my teens was the gateway in to electronics and more academic work. So for me to leave behind progressive rock would be like not remembering my childhood or not giving any credit to something that I feel shaped me.
We were told a story that involved you, prog-rock and a volcano, can you tell us more?
As a matter of fact a couple of weeks after Eyjafjallajökull erupted I was recording an EP (that was never released) with my progressive rock band Draumhvörf in a summerhaus just underneath the eruption. So when we were jamming one night and getting to a climate of a post rock jam it started raining and all the rain was black so all the windows completely turned black and the summerhouse was mostly windows.
Fast-forward to 2015, the year you and your colleagues created the multidisciplinary label oqko. You are all based in Berlin which is home to labels and collectives like PAN, Creamcake and Gang Of Ducks. Where do you see yourself standing amongst these labels?
We created oqko back in 2015 because we didn’t feel like we really fitted into other labels at the moment. Our take on art was a bit different we felt and we wanted to keep an interdisciplinary approach to our work as well as working as a collective rather than a label. We’ve learned a lot by doing this while every release of us has been very different and most of them both time and energy consuming.
It is very important for us to be based or stationed in Berlin for numbers of reasons. Both logical reasons like PR, distribution and ect. but also the proximity to so much interesting art that both emerge from Berlin and also migrate to Berlin. I don’t really see us positioned in between of these labels and I don’t think we are to position us. We do what we think is interesting and we take every release and every year right now as a interesting option to see how we can further develop this concept of oqko in a century that seems to exponentially grow technically and socially.
Your debut album “At least”m which was released in February, is a conceptual album where very melodic content is combined with a very characteristic sound design. How did you achieve the balance between such crafted experimental sound design and the melodic aspect of the album?
I’ve always been a fan of interesting melodies which do not really have to be “catchy” so I wanted to use that. I tend to think fast and take fast decisions and then fall back and contemplate them for long so I think the melodies resemble that. I am very interested in more academic sound pieces and composers and that’s where I think I received the interested to create the sound design part.
They way I composed it or balanced it is all built in for me that I think about the melodies in frequencies and combine the sounds designs with that. So the sound design is as much a part of the melody as the melody itself. Therefore the melody which is produced by something that can be perceived as an “instrument” is often not detached from what you could think of as the “sound design”
Does each song from the album work separately or are they a part of the same final concept? If so, what is the final concept that the people should know is behind this LP?
There are 7 different themes which develop throughout the album. I wrote this album with a lot of concepts in mind. There was no complete overall concept but more like a reference to a general one.
“At Least” represents some different concepts to me. At least for now, in the sense of time we can not perceive us existing differently the At least now. This is at least what you are, where you exist, how you perceive, how you act. You can at least do something and nothing more. At a moment you are at least thinking in this way. You can not know where or how you will exist in the next moment. And at the time of the album I was at least in a place in a time with certain ideas, thoughts, feelings and perceptions.
On the album there are a lot of thoughts, questions and general contemplations over physicality, sexuality and general perception of life. A big topic on the album is porn, sex and nudity and how society seems to create a taboo with these things and creating a problem that would otherwise perhaps not really exist. Every song can stand on their own though because they all talk about or touch different topics within my thoughts at that time.
The album was created when I moved in Berlin so this album is more a child of Berlin than Iceland for me. And moving to a new city from a place as small as Reykjavík can be very discomforting in the sense of you have to reevaluate yourself in many ways. In communities like Reykjavík everything seems to go in trends and smaller groups. Being a musician or an artist in Iceland is very hard because of the lack of input you have from the surrounding, the community is very good but for me it feels very closed up and everything grows from the same or similar ideas or concepts.
Did you feel liberated when you released this LP? Is this what inspired the title of the album?
Yes I felt very liberated. We waited for a long time for what we thought was the right time to release it and it felt very good to have it out there. It is a very personal album so I was also a bit stressed about it because in a way it is the first time I reveal a certain part of me.
Just to close our conservation, I wanted to pick up on a point from one of your previous interviews. You talked about how artificial intelligence and randomness is something that you would embrace in the process of electronic creation. Do you think that this means that in future we will not be able to create our own music or even define the existence of it?
Well in that interview I was more referring to being able to utilise or embrace how the world is changing. how the boundaries between human operations and digital based operations start to become smaller. We should not be afraid of using this randomness that can get be created by some sort of another intelligence, which is not human. When computers have started to learn in ways we don’t learn there can be other outcomes that we could never have thought of. Just like the playing of the musician introduces randomness, errors and what you could call giving it a human touch which apparently everybody seems to like, the introduction of another computerised randomness, or other artificial learning processes can create other sort of “mistakes” that can be unforeseen but give the piece a new value.
But I think and hope people will always be able to make music the way they want. I’m strongly against standardisation in art even though it leads to a lot of art that I very much don’t like.
‘At Least’ is out now on oqko. Buy the record here
Article by A. Rodríguez