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Interview: Jón Aldará of Hamferð

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The Faroe Islands are a chain of islands located between Iceland, Norway, and Scotland. Renowned for their unpredictable and extreme weather, it is not surprising that landing at Vága Floghavn, the country’s only airport, can be something of an ordeal — as we began our descent through the clouds, silhouettes of cliffs and mountains emerged, and the plane was lashed by wind and rain. And as we attempted to land, the flight attendant assured us that it is normal to feel like the plane would be “split in half,” but I still felt uneasy when it tipped sideways and lurched up and down. Waiting for the bus at the airport is a completely different experience: nestled between steep hills and at the mouth of the huge lake Sørvágsvatn, the view outside the window was constantly changing, with blankets of mist drifting over the hills.

The Faroese landscape is stark and extreme: the mountains and fjords of the treeless archipelago are often shrouded by fog, and hamlets cluster around the rugged coastline, leaving much of the country uninhabited and unspoiled. From the coast, glimpses can be caught through the mist of neighboring islands and sea-stacks, and sheep can often be heard bleating in the distance.

Given the fate of the native languages and cultures of the Faroes’ similarly-sized neighbors like the Shetland Isles and the Isle of Man, it seems isolation has been both a blessing and a curse for the Faroese. Despite a tiny population of approximately 48,000 and a challenging environment (stormy, cold, and dark), the Faroe Islands have a distinct and robust cultural expression and a language that has endured despite of hundreds of years of suppression. Also, they boast a rich literary tradition and retain many of the characteristics of Old Norse, from which the language evolved over time. The Faroes have a remarkably vibrant artistic and cultural life, too, which has seen local singers like Teitur and Eivør come to international recognition; the viking metal band Týr are also well known within their style.

Indeed, the language and culture of the Faroe Islands are two key elements of the musical world that death-doom metal outfit Hamferð have built for themselves.

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The name of the band comes from native folklore, and they translate the term as referring to a phenomenon where “living images of sailors [appear] before their loved ones.” Hamferð have a discography that, thus far, has sustained a single narrative: the Vilst er síðsta fet EP (2010), debut full-length Evst (2013), and follow-up Támsins likam (2018) comprise the story of a family beset by tragedy and plagued by supernatural elements drawn from Faroese folklore, all written in the band’s native tongue. The latest album Támsins likam chronicles the beginning of the saga the band has created while also serving as the final installation in the trilogy.

Band vocalist Jón Aldará was kind enough to meet with me in his hometown of Klaksvík where we discussed the art and environment of the Faroe Islands, playing live, as well as the musical style and lyrical world that Hamferð have carved out for themselves.

— Emily Mei Marty

So, has this been a pretty busy year for Hamferð?

Yeah, pretty busy. We released the album in January [2018], the first album on Metal Blade, so lots of work around that, lots of media attention; much more than previous releases. So there’s been a lot of cool things happening, trying out different types of interviews, that was probably the biggest thing around the album release. In regards to business, in general, quite a lot — concerts, there’s been some tours, the album release was a little late for festivals, we’re hoping for more of that next year. It’s all about strategy. For us, it’s been quite busy, and for me, doubly so, probably, because of the Barren Earth album as well.

And you’re touring [soon] with Svartmálm; is that your first tour with another Faroese band?

No, actually, our first European tour was with Týr in 2011. That was Moonsorrow, Týr, and another Finnish band called Crimfall. This is a little bit more intimate; it’s only us, and we are headliners this time, as opposed to being the first opener, and we know the other guys from Svartmálm quite well, so it’s going to be quite a chill little tour for us. It’s not a big tour, five dates, and it’s Scandinavia, and we’re making Sweden this time, which is oddly enough a country we’ve never gigged in before as a band.

Do you find playing Scandinavia is different to playing in continental Europe, in terms of the audiences and the responses you get, particularly Iceland?

Iceland is interesting, we’ve played there a couple times — I think Scandinavian countries seem to be more familiar with us, it’s a smaller demographic people-wise, so it’s probably slightly easier to get your name out there in the Scandinavian countries. Very few of them are much more than five million people, Iceland is 300,000 and has a pretty solid metal scene, and Norway, it’s usually very nice playing there, we have lots of people who know about us there, and Denmark as well. Denmark is sort of an extension of the Faroes — some people would say the other way around… but we’re very closely connected to Denmark, I have lots of friends there, so it’s usually a very nice reception there as well. Germany is usually a good country [to play] as well, people are very eager to come to concerts, and usually we get a very good response too, so the differences are not that huge. Other parts of Europe are different, of course. It’s all a cultural thing, I would say.

It seems like in the Faroes, local music is really supported, and the arts in general — why do you think that is?

I think we’re very proud of our cultural output, all of it. I think it’s a positive feedback loop in a sense; usually, Faroese musicians have a tendency to produce quite high-quality music — at least that’s how I perceive it — and a big proportion of them are very interesting or have a high-quality output. So, the Faroe Islands, as a country, has a reason to be proud of that almost immediately. So, the support is being fed by that quality, and it’s very difficult to say, but I would say that the support springs from the actual artistry of the people. So, where the artistry comes from is another question. Is it something inherent within our culture, is it from our traditional music, or nature that’s a big inspiring factor? That’s a good question, but I would say the music itself inspires support from the community.

The bands seem to kind of punch above their weight in terms of how people there are, and how many bands…

Yeah, there’s a lot of music and a huge proportion of that is of surprising quality, yeah, people are very careful about their making music.

Yeah, it seems like there’s a long tradition of folk music here. I was reading on the Tutl website about the skjaldur and the chain-dancing…

Usually, the kvæði [traditional ballads sung during chain dances] and the skjaldur and other types of folk music — and the vísir (I’m not sure if there‘s an English translation for that exact word) — those kinds of things have existed, but we haven‘t had things like classical music. I think it‘s been very limited how much classical music has been able to reach the Faroes, in the times when it was at the height of its popularity, so it‘s been kind of isolated, and we’ve kind of had small infusions of people coming to the Faroes, and maybe starting something and leaving again, and it‘s kind of morphed into something on the Faroes.

Popular music — I‘m not super familiar with the whole history of Faroese music — but the popular music has had a huge, quick development, since maybe the 1960s or so, when people started recording things, so we’ve had a massive boom since maybe the last half-century or so, but I guess that‘s the case with most of the world when it comes to pop and rock. So, in a way, we’ve been following the world trend, with maybe a ten-year lag.

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Has that type of folk/traditional music influenced your music directly?

Not musically… it depends what you define as “traditional” music. If you look at the psalms, there‘s been a tradition, maybe a recent-ish tradition, of making our own melodies to certain psalms, and these are even new psalms. There‘s one that we play on our first EP called “Harra guð títt dýra navn og æra” — it’s a Faroese-composed melody, to a translated lyric from a Norwegian psalm-writer [Petter Dass]. So, that has definitely inspired us; it’s kind of a dark type of melodicism, a dark type of atmosphere, that we’re very inspired by, these Faroese psalm-melodies. But, folk music in general, and the kvæði and skjaldur and stuff, somehow it lives within us, somewhere, and it might color some of our endeavors musically, here and there. I think some older songs of Hamferð have a little bit of that folky quality, especially from what I’ve heard other people qualify it as. I don‘t hear it very much myself, but people have likened it to some folky music. So, there might be something there.

Maybe by osmosis? From all the churches that are here, I imagine most children would encounter that type of music growing up and going to church, and that type of atmosphere as well.

Yeah, definitely. We are young enough to have been subjected regularly to all kinds of pop music; when we were in the 1980s and 1990s, we were basically on par with most of the world in staying tuned to the popular movement, so we haven‘t been isolated from international music, in that sense. But we have been subjected to a lot of Faroese music, of course, so it comes from there. But it hasn’t been conscious — we haven‘t been writing consciously, thinking about what kind of music we want to put out. The only thing we’ve been conscious about is having a Faroese feel, or feeling our surroundings in the music that we write, somehow, and our culture.

Yeah, I‘m from Australia, and when I started listening to black metal — we don‘t have a lot of blizzards, or ice.

It‘s not a black metal-ish country…

Not really. But, when I actually went and experienced these climates and countries for the first time, it kind of clicked with me in a different way, and resonated with me in a different way than it had before. And I feel similarly with your music; I could still appreciate it, on a lot of different levels, but when I came here and saw the landscapes, how dramatic and stark it is, it made sense in a different way than it had before.

You feel the connection between the music and this place?

It just makes sense. I can see where it all comes from.

That‘s great; it‘s the best compliment you can get, I guess.

Was the way you sing, especially your clean singing — was that influenced at all by that type of singing, the church music, or has that just developed organically?

Yeah, it‘s developed very organically. It‘s not something that I’ve been conscious about, either, it‘s — I‘m not a trained singer at all, so I haven‘t studied any particular forms of singing.

So you‘ve never had lessons or anything?

No. So it‘s mostly from the music I’ve listened to, I‘m pretty sure. I could have been singing differently if I‘d been listening to different music, I‘m not sure. I have a feeling that this is just how my voice naturally sounds, and if I try to do it different ways usually it doesn’t feel as natural. So it‘s the most natural way for me to express myself, vocally. I’ve listened to a lot of heavy metal, from my teen days onwards, so I guess my ideas of melodies, and the type of melody that I like, the type of expression that I like, comes from the cleans maybe, of classic heavy metal style. Iron Maiden has been a big thing for me, and maybe some power metal bands, just because I have that type of voice, that connects to that style, I don‘t know. It‘s difficult to pinpoint, really.

It sounds quite operatic to me, so I assumed you must have had some kind of classical training.

It‘s probably because I’ve always enjoyed that kind of vocal style in general, but I don‘t know. It comes so naturally that it‘s hard — I haven‘t been trying to directly emulate any particular style, necessarily. It‘s just what I’ve been able to do the best, like, “oh I can do this thing, then let me do this thing, this is what I can do that sounds best.”

And it was the same for your gutturals and screams?

Yeah, that was also the same, just finding out, “okay, I probably can‘t do this, because this hurts, I can‘t do that…” I think I had some friends that made some Lamb of God-style music, and I tried to see how I would fit into that, I tried to do some vocals for them, just because they needed someone, and it this kind of modern scream, [the] Randy Blythe type of thing, and it doesn’t really work. My default mode is probably the 1990s death metal style growling, it just feels more natural.

And the chemistry between the band, on Támsins likam… the way you play seems a lot more integrated than it has been on the past albums. Was that a deliberate thing for this album, or has it just evolved over time?

I think it‘s just improved over time. The players have improved, the guys are just getting better. It‘s very interesting to look at the development of the guys. Each new album has had a different bassist, so that probably affects the feel of the album differently, so they get a little bit of a different groove each time — at least that‘s been for the last three albums, hopefully we don‘t have to find a new one for the next album. But, for example, our drummer Remi [Johannesen], his evolution over the last ten years of the band‘s existence has been incredible. He’s an extremely sensitive drummer, he has a very good eye for details. He has a very good sense of what to do to make it interesting, but not deafening. So, his evolution has been magnificent, and it‘s a very strong element with our music, because I think it‘s one of the unique aspects of our music, with his playing, and we‘re much more restrained in regards to the guitar department, but both of those guys have just improved massively as well, and they know how to play both the kind of music we make… Hamferð music in general, but trying to make it as unique for the band as possible. It‘s not an easy thing to do, but we try to have our own feel. All the tiny things work its way up to a unit.

I definitely think you have a distinct sound… actually, there was a review of Támsins likam on YouTube, and the reviewer made an interesting comment: that the combination of your vocal style, and the musical style and the language, means it would probably be almost impossible to emulate what you do.

That‘s a big thing too, yeah. That‘s a good question, whether that would be the case if we had sung in English. You can try to look at other bands — there‘s also the thing about having quite complicated song structures, sometimes, or arrangements, because in a way our music is kind of detailed: it‘s quite layered, especially for this last album. It has a lot of focus on the arrangements; it‘s not very poppy, so it doesn’t have huge hooks all over the place, it works a lot as an atmospheric album as well, and there‘s a lot of ambiance, so, that would also be difficult to copy… or, who would want to do a cover version of that, you know? The more detailed and not-confronting the music is, the harder it would be to copy.

Well, how different is it for you, writing lyrics in English compared to Faroese? I think the grammar of Faroese seems quite different — not that it would be challenging, obviously, as your first language, but is your approach quite different, say writing English lyrics for Barren Earth and then something in Faroese?

It is different, yeah. You have to be constantly aware of where your English is coming from, because it‘s not a first language. It‘s a second language, basically, and it‘s a language that, generally, I feel very comfortable with, and a lot of people in the Faroes do feel quite comfortable with it, but it‘s not built from being among English-speaking people. It‘s built from media, music, movies, all these sorts of things, so there‘s always the danger of cliches hanging around, and all this stuff that has been the basis for learning English, which are not how people generally talk, and it doesn’t free you completely to use English. So there is that restriction, you have to be aware of that all the time.

But, when it comes to Faroese, it‘s the first language, so it does feel a lot more… I have noticed it in the last couple of years, at least, that you feel much more free, you feel that you could do more, you feel that you could express yourself more precisely, and with a lot more variety. I wrote a lot of English before Hamferð, and it was the way I thought, generally, metal should sound like, but now I’ve come to the terms that I certainly write better in Faroese. But I do have a decent enough grasp of English; there is that idea that you should somehow make people understand what you‘re trying to do, and with Hamferð, there‘s so much emphasis on feeling and atmosphere that you don‘t need that as much, but maybe with other music that I do, it is really good to be able to communicate to people more directly.

Something I noticed listening to Barren Earth and then what I could understand of Evst and Támsins likam is it seems like there are some similar themes there, particularly in mental states and different psychological responses to situations. Is that something you’re interested in, generally?

It‘s something that, naturally, I gravitate towards, or have been gravitating towards. When you want to express yourself personally, usually it becomes this kind of abstract version of psychology or self-therapy, it‘s kind of a common thing to explore the darker sides of yourself, and then express it in these types of lyrics. I think I’ve been doing that, for Barren Earth — I’ve been able to balance the idea of English being more restrictive with the fact that I‘ve been more free to do whatever I want, lyrically, on the Barren Earth albums. Hamferð is kind of self-imposed restriction of trying to make the lyrics express what Hamferð is about, conceptually.

It‘s a lot about specific Faroese things, so I have to try and see what things are unique to the Faroe Islands, and the Faroese people, and the Faroese culture, and which type of settings can I have the story happen in. Whereas, in Barren Earth, it‘s just like, “do whatever you want, man.“ I joined the band after they had already put out two albums, so the lyrical world was already sort-of built, and I had been listening to them a lot earlier, as well, so I knew the whole of their music and their lyrics. I wanted to try to continue that in my own way, and they started with this kind of self-reflected, dark, sad, lyrics — that kind of thing.

So, I‘m just putting my own spin on that. I always try to put it in a more or less specific concept. The [Barren Earth album] A Complex of Cages was a lot about isolation, basically, and all the kind of psychological issues that causes you to become isolated from society, and I guess that is something that I‘m very focused on, generally. It‘s something that is a big thing in my life, in some ways, so it‘s something that I found kind of cathartic to be able to put out with that album.

Is Hamferð a vehicle for that as well? Or because of the narrative, it‘s…

Hamferð is, as well. There are definitely things that correspond. Usually what I do is I write in a different manner. When it comes from Hamferð, my vocabulary is usually somewhat down-to-earth, it‘s not very obvious, and I try to explore the language quite a lot. I do that when I write English as well, I like to use the language, but it‘s more of a metal thing with Barren Earth, it seems. That‘s how I think when I hear the music. Barren Earth‘s music is very adventurous and often quite crazy, and much more metal-based than Hamferð is, probably. So I always try to express myself in a more maybe aggressive manner, or dramatic manner with that band, where Hamferð is much more introspective, in a sense. But there are connections — it‘s usually about reflecting on things [like] the darker aspects of what I find in my psyche.

So, do you find playing live challenging, because you‘re exposing yourself? Or is it not like that, because there is this narrative and this atmosphere that you‘re sustaining?

Yeah, with Hamferð, we have a very particular expression live, which is sort of theatrical, maybe restrained theatrical expression, and somehow I try to connect that somehow to the atmosphere and music as much as possible. Barren Earth is a bit different, it‘s a bit more divorced, and also because the lyrics, usually, deal with the issues in a more comical manner, or a more extreme manner, so it doesn’t need super-seriousness around it, the different issues that are mentioned in the lyrics — that‘s a much more fun [and] crazy type of performance, at least compared to Hamferð. Because there‘s a lot of fun elements in Barren Earth‘s music, so we try to also use that live as much as possible.

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Yeah, the venue you played in Reykjavík [Iðnó] was quite austere, and you’ve done the concerts in the grottoes [Klæmintsgjógv] and the eclipse video and things like that: is that just part of experimenting with and bringing new types of atmosphere to the music?

Yeah, if we can, we definitely choose our venues carefully. You can do that on the Faroes, and you can do that under certain circumstances in other countries, like Iceland is — you can try to find these nice venues. But when you’re touring, of course, you end up in lots of different places, bars… and then the atmosphere becomes different, and it’s more difficult to exude that kind of epic, grand thing that you’re trying to do, but you just have to push through and try to do it anyway.

Not every country can have fjords everywhere…

No, exactly [laughs]. It makes total sense to do as much as we can here on the Faroes — the grotto thing, the eclipse, playing outside — that’s not something I would recommend people to do that much, because it’s quite challenging to just stand outside on a piece of land and just play, and it was just a video, and the churches. It makes sense for us, and we really want to try these kinds of things. Because it matters a lot, the venues for the concert and the surroundings. Especially for people to get into the mood before the concert, and maybe, as well, after.

Usually, at least, if the concert goes [well], people will hopefully kind of forget their surroundings in a way, which is at least what we’re hoping for in the small bars and stuff… and at least people tell me that they can be transported out of this tiny, dark, beer-stained arena. It doesn’t have to be a thing that matters a lot, but it really does.

For the show you did in Tórshavn, in the Sjónleikarhúsið, were you able to do more than you normally would for a show? Or was that essentially a standard concert that you recorded as well?

Well, we planned it and had general rehearsal the day before, and then rehearsed there in general throughout the week, and we have our own light guy, Egil, who does lights at the Copenhagen Opera, very fancy guy… he’s an old rockstar, he [was] the bassist for Teitur Lassen’s old band, Mark No Limits, back in the 1990s. So, he was doing this kind of light production throughout the week, getting everything right, and that’s currently not the situation for all our concerts, but it would be great to get to a stage where we can do these things, but that’s a long way down the road.

And you’re playing Wacken next year — the first time since you won the Metal Battle. Are you looking forward to your return?

Yeah, it’s going to be interesting… six years later, we’re coming back. There’s going to be so many people there. Any band that plays one of the four main stages will get a big crowd, generally, even if you play at 1 p.m. or something, there will be plenty of people there.

You said hopefully more festivals next year, as well?

Hopefully, yeah. We have a few lined up, and we’re working on getting more. We want next year to be as busy as possible so we’re hoping for that.

The drummer, Remi, he lives in Denmark… is it hard logistically to sort that out with touring and work?

We usually make it work. If it’s an important show, or if it’s something that we feel we need to do, we try to make as many shows as we possibly can. Sometimes, we have to decide it’s a bit impractical in regards to work, and we have to transport at least four people from the Faroes. We have a very good financial support system here, for artists travelling to perform outside the country, so it’s not as big a hindrance as it has been. But there are some issues, that might lead us to decide for one show somewhere we have to say no, because it’s maybe too much hassle.

It does happen, but usually we try to make every show that we can. It is a little bit more challenging when you’re a non-professional band, with everybody having work and these kinds of things, but we believe in it enough to try to find a way.

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