Storied Reykjavík: A City that Experiments with Musical Genres

Interview with Icelandic

band Amiina

There’s nothing like randomly discovering a band for the first time. You find one song that lures you in, then you listen to the next one and before you know it, they become the most played artist on your Spotify playlist. This recently happened to me with the song ‘Perth’ by the Icelandic music group Amiina. It captured a mood I was feeling at the time, and it’s as if the song found me. After listening to ‘Perth’ and other songs from the same album, it led me to virtually meet Maria Huld Markan Sigfusdottir, one of the founders of Amiina, and Magnús Trygvason Eliassen, who joined the band in 2008. 

Originally, Amiina started out with four women – María and Hildur as violinists, Edda as violist, and Sólrún as cellist – who met at Reykjavík College of Music. With a background in classical strings, the band started to experiment with different genres of music, which naturally led to more studio work requests and collaborations with different bands and artists. Through that, they were contacted by Reykjavík’s acclaimed music group, Sigur Rós to play with them at the release concert of Ágætis byrjun in 1999. Sigur Rós envisioned a concert with a theatrical experience and asked the members of Amiina to do an improvised introduction by making a world of sounds through their instruments. That resulted in a 10-minute piece leading up to Sigur Rós’ first song. From then on, they toured with Sigur Ros, which later resulted in the group creating string arrangements for the bracket ( ) album. After that, María, Hildur, Edda, and Sólrún decided to explore their own world, bringing on more members, and using small tapel harps, glasses to experiment with sources of sounds. This led to the group’s first EP, Animamina

There’s a very melancholic and experimental vibe to your music. How do your personal experiences and feelings help you create this kind of music? 

Maria: I guess it happens subconsciously, and I think we all act on our own experiences to music too. We benefit from growing up in the classical environment as well, with melody writing and stuff like that – I’m a composer, so I compose my own music, symphonies and orchestras. I think that sense of structure might be classical in a way but can be used in a completely different context too. Most of the music we make is timeless, it’s not bound to a certain fashion or uses of instrumentation. I think that’s something we strive for. 

We also don’t use vocals or lyrics so it gives space for people to feel connected and free to whatever they want. We really experienced that when touring – there would be three generations of a family together in the audience who would be having their own relation to the music. We also seem to be able to play for kids – we’ve done projects for music in films for kids. We can also play with rock bands in pubs, and play in theatres for a highbrow experience. Our roots lie across it all and reach different audiences,  I think that’s important for us.

How does Reykjavík inspire Amiina?

Maria: Reykjavík is such a small city and feels like a community. There’s lots of music coming out of Iceland. The city kind of works like a village – everyone knows each other. It’s a hard city to just focus on one genre so you have to experiment with different things and be open to many collaborations across all genres. Magnus plays with like 20 bands, so he’s always working with different genres and doing different things from theatre to jazz. 

Magnus: I get to collaborate with loads of people. It kind of just happens naturally because it’s a small society here. I’m also closely connected to the improv scene as well. Actually I mostly play at improv now because most venues are closed or have a limit with capacity due to the pandemic. Some people say that venues are closed due to tourism but this is a relatively small city, and I think there’s a 500-capacity venue opening up once the pandemic calms down and another smaller venue has recently opened too. There’s also a huge folk and jazz venue – I think the venue holds 600 people. So there is a lot happening in this city.

Photography by Juliette Rowland

What are some of the qualities in music from Reykjavík? 

Magnus: There’s traditional Icelandic singing music, and also choir singing which has been very popular. Actually choir music is making a big comeback right now with cool indie bands, including Maria – she’s writing choir music and doing different stuff with that. People get to develop their own voice and you’re allowed to do whatever you want. There’s no money in music here so you have to go abroad to make a living, so that’s why musicians do a lot with different genres and other bands here.  

These days, it seems almost impossible to create something truly unique, something that hasn’t been done before. But after interviewing Amiina, I found out that this band manages to find unconventional ways to perform, delivering a very unique and different concert experience for their fans. In 2013, Amiina released their EP The Lighthouse Project, which was inspired by a past project where the original members were asked to perform in a lighthouse for the Reykjavík Arts Festival. From that experience, the band decided to tour across Iceland where they’d only perform in various lighthouses around the country. 

Maria: We were completely fascinated by the acoustics, and performing in the lighthouse. We played at the bottom of the lighthouse and the listeners were at the top so the music travelled up to them, then to the ocean. So that’s when we got the idea to tour in lighthouses. We played in four different lighthouses across the country – some were very remote, others were cone-shaped with many floors. There was one smaller lighthouse with just one floor and we performed in the middle of the machinery that runs the whole lighthouse. 

Amiina’s live performance of ‘Perth’ from the lighthouse

Talk to us about your newest project, the Attic Series. What are the inspirations behind this new project and how did it come to life, especially during the pandemic?

Maria: In 2011 during the holiday season, we created an advent calendar for our listeners. Each day, people could open up a new track of ours, or new sounds, or even recipes of mulled wine – it was just a fun, festive thing to do. When looking back, some of those tracks were just so good, so we wanted to go through all of our older recordings and revisit some of that work to put out next year. We also did this because of COVID, since we can’t get together to record new music now. So instead, we’re going through the archives and going through old music we haven’t released. We have to really dig up things because we never intended to release them – it’s like going into the attic and finding treasures, so that’s why we’re calling this new project the ‘Attic Series’. The music in the newest release was made in the summer of 2019 in a Lighthouse in Denmark. So we’re revisiting this lighthouse theme – the sound was derived from the lighthouse or things connected to the lighthouse. So the new project will be called Pharology, which is the scientific term/study of lighthouses and signal lights. 

Magnus: It’s an ongoing project. We have a lot of stuff that didn’t fit anywhere or we weren’t really happy with back then. It’s a shame to have hours and hours of music taking up space in our drives. So this was a good way to start releasing it. Some of it sounds better now than it did when we first listened to it – much better than I remembered. But other stuff, is just total fucking shit [laughs]. 

Before Attic Series, your last LP was Fantômas. What were the inspirations behind that album?

Maria: Fantômas was a commission for a score of a 1913 French silent film. Amiina got commissioned to do the new score for the restoration of the film. We performed it live in Théâtre du Châtelet located in Paris. We really loved the outcome of that work so we decided to make an album and did a tour of the album in China, Europe and other places, performing with the silent movie playing in the background. It’s an hour long film so you could see every bit of Paris in the film and you could almost smell it, so bringing in the score with it was interesting. In 1913, the story was pretty primitive so with the score we tried to bring it together. Some scenes are extremely long and odd, and some scenes that need to be longer are really short, so we tried to draw out the scenes using the score. It was a unique experience. 

Amiina performing the Fantômas score with the silent film playing in the background

What’s the music scene like in Reykjavik?

Magnus: Rap, in Icelandic, is big here and R&B is also popular. We have quite a few Drake-like musicians which is cool. It’s a tight knit community here – everybody knows everybody. If an artist does rap one night, they might do improv another night. There’s this thing we do like Monday night football – where there’s a team and people get substituted – but it’s done through music. So you’ll play something then tag someone else on stage to play whatever they want.

Which Icelandic artists should be on our radar?

Magnus: Ingibjörg Elsa Turchi, she’s absolutely fantastic – she does more jazz and improv. Then there’s Gyða, she recently released a record – she’s a solo cello player and has commissioned a lot of people to write music for her and she plays it. There’s also sideproject.

Maria: Kælan mikla (also spelled Kaelan mikla) plays slow punk rock metal. It’s very interesting to hear what’s new for some people but nostalgic for others as they remind me of the music I listened to years ago. It’s almost like when cassettes came back again and I thought “What? Why?” [laughs] I was so excited to throw them away, and same thing with CDs. Everything is just recycled from the past. I’m really interested to hear what people have been doing during the pandemic. 

What’s currently on your most recently played Spotify playlist?

Magnus: There are three songs that are most played on my Spotify right now: Stoney by Saba, Brokeup by Arca and Hunijui by Young Killer. 

Maria: Marissa Nadler. She’s an artist that’s the most played in my Spotify because she creates such soothing music and it can be listened to in different ways. Also, my own music just because I’m obsessed with tracking my Spotify list! 

Amiina will release their next project Pharology on June. 25! Stay tuned for their new album: // Spotify // iTunes // Instagram // Twitter // Facebook

Photography by Juliette Rowland

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