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Interview: Aðalbjörn Tryggvason (Sólstafir)

Even in the context of modern metal’s constant genre mashups and reinventions, it’s tough to nail down Sólstafir’s boundaries. If you phrased it as a joke — “What do you get when you combine Burzum, Darkthrone, Fields of the Nephilim, Smashing Pumpkins and Sigur Rós?” — the punchline probably wouldn’t be Sólstafir, even though frontman Aðalbjörn Tryggvason names all of them as primary influences. And as disparate as they are, those influences make sense once you listen to Sólstafir’s atmospheric, epic music, whose facility for moving seamlessly between extremes has only improved since the band formed nearly 20 years ago.

On September 2, the Icelandic cowboys release Ótta, the followup to their 2011 breakout album Svartir Sandar. On the new record, divided into eight tracks named for an ancient Icelandic timetable, the band gets even moodier and more contemplative — without ditching the hard-driving, head-banging moments that give the band their captivating contrasts. The album also continues Sólstafir’s collaboration with producer Birgir Jón Birgirsson — known for his work with Sigur Rós and, recently, Alcest.

I recently connected with Tryggvason to chat about the new record, Iceland’s metal scene, spaghetti westerns, and why he prefers singing in Icelandic.

— Beth Winegarner

Your new album, Ótta, comes out in September. Can you talk a little about the album and its themes, particularly the fact that the songs are named after the eight Icelandic segments of the day?

Our guitar player, Sæþór, came up with this idea quite before we did the album, so the idea was always at the back of our head. It’s an old timetable called Eykt and is the length of time equal to one-eighth of a solar day; roughly three hours.

The lyrics themselves are not directly related to the titles, but more like eight individual stories that can be connected to a certain time of the day. Some lyrics are night based, the next one can be taking place in the morning, and so on. It’s basically tales of summer, winter, forgiveness, death, breakup, love, drugs, fear, hope, youth, and sadness. I guess what people go through on daily basis. In this case, our lives.

Where did you record the album, and who produced it?

Sundlaugin, an old swimming pool that the Sigur Rós guys made a studio out of some years ago; they don’t own it any longer though. It’s located about 15 kilometers outside of Reykavík with a little river running through the studio building and some trees next to it, what we over here would call a forest. Beautiful place and a great studio. Birgir Jón Birgirsson produced it, along with myself; our good friend Silli Geirdal co-produced.

What are you particularly proud of about the new album?

That it somewhat sounds timeless, and it sounds just like it’s supposed to sound. We used a lot of old and newer equipment during the recording that we’ve never used before — we’ve sort of never recorded the same album with the same equipment. The closest has been Svartir Sandar and Ótta since it’s the same studio, but drums, organs, and most of guitars are different ones, and of course, a different producer. But it sounds very much like us. And we’re very proud of all the string section stuff; it was the first time we tried that out and basically had no idea how it would come out, but it turned out great.

Sólstafir started out as a black metal band, but soon went in a more meditative and experimental direction. What prompted that change? Do you think the band is still in the process of finding its voice, or are you where you want to be?

A lot of the change took place when I discovered that Billy Corgan was writing cooler riffs than Fenriz. I think we, for sure, found our very own ground, let’s say, 10 years ago, when we were doing Masterpiece of Bitterness. The album before, In Blood And Spirit, sure had a lot of our own elements, but Masterpiece was a way bigger step into creating our own sound. But it’s not like we sat down one day and said, “Hey, let’s. . . ” That has never happened. From being a band that did a demo that sounds completely like Burzum, back in 1995, it took nine years to come up with the style we had progressed into on Masterpiece of Bitterness. So we’re not jumping bandwagons overnight here. And from Masterpiece to Ótta, I think it’s a perfectly natural progression. But I can tell that, if we started writing a new album tomorrow, it would sound a lot different than Ótta, ‘cause we could never repeat ourselves, not even if we tried.

Alcest faced some backlash this year for moving completely away from its black-metal roots on Shelter, an album also recorded in Iceland with Birgir Jon Birgisson. Are you worried about anything similar happening to you guys with this album?

Not at all. One might call it being lucky, but normally when we tour, 90 percent of the people don’t wanna hear our old stuff, they wanna hear the new stuff. Our audience has always been growing the more we change, and we like reaching music fans with more diverse music taste. And we’ve never made any sudden dramatic change between our albums; there are still a lot of heavy guitars or pounding drums here and there, along with screams and some other hidden Satanic messages.

Your lyrics are predominantly in Icelandic. What kinds of ideas or feelings are easier to express in that language, as opposed to English?

Icelandic is way easier to express, ‘cause there is no filter from the mind towards the microphone. And the more clean vocals we have, I find it more comfortable to sing sounds that come more naturally. Then there is always the thing that you can hide more your vulnerability singing in Icelandic, ‘cause it’s rather limited who understands it.

You guys just played the Maryland Deathfest in May, and did your first (brief) U.S. tour. How did it go? What do you make of the American audience, and were you able to visit any tourist sites while you were here?

Awesome — we had a great time in America and the audience was extremely grateful for having us over there. And it was even better to have this great “finish line” being the Maryland Deathfest after driving across the east coast between the clubs. We had some time over in Philadelphia, but apart from that, nothing. I saw one kebab place next to the St. Vitus Bar in Brooklyn, then we drove up to Toronto and Boston/Cambridge, and it was the same: drive 10 hours or so, load in, lucky if you ate, play for 90 minutes, load out, drive 10 hours. Long distances over there, and we met quite many who had driven for hours just to come see us, and that just makes it all worth it. So another USA tour is definitely high on our priority list.

Invisible Oranges recently featured Iceland’s metal and extreme bands. Is there much of a metal community there? What’s it like — and do you feel part of it?

Of course we feel like a part of it, ‘cause when we started the band there were not metal bands around here, so we’ve sorta always been around when other bands have popped up. We used to play a lot more in Reykjavik and Iceland, but we don’t anymore; we’re always on the road, so when we land back home you don’t really wanna take the office home with you. But of course, we do play here once in a while. There are a lot of really good bands here, and the level of professionalism seems to be getting higher, putting more effort into making good albums, designing cool merch, go tour abroad, not just play drunk once a month at the local rock bar. I like to believe that we’ve had some influence on that, and that makes us feel good.

Are there any up-and-coming bands in Iceland, metal or not, that you’d recommend to our readers?

Börn. Vök. Saktmóðigur. Kontinuum.

I’ve heard that Fields of the Nephilim were a big influence on you guys, particularly early on. Is that true? How did they — and other bands — shape what you wanted to do with Sólstafir?

They were a huge influence. Our ex-bass player come back from London in 1994 with an album of theirs that some record store guy had tricked him into buying, and we totally fell for it. You could say they became our third major element of influence at that time, along with the Smashing Pumpkins and Darkthrone. It was the guitar melodies that I fell in love with at first, and then just the whole package — I mean the classic line up is just the coolest band ever to walk this planet. I remember when we did “Bitch in Black” in ’97, that was totally influenced by them, and of course a lot of things since.

I’ve also heard that you guys are pretty big fans of spaghetti westerns. What’s your favorite?

That holds hands with Ennio Morricone, who has been a massive influence on Sólstafir, and FOTN were influenced by him as well. So the spaghetti westerns are somewhat the perfect art form, the music score itself is a masterpiece of its own, and then you have the eye of Sergio Leone through the lens; what a master.

For a Few Dollars More is my fave. It was the first one I bought many years ago, and the music just had such an amazing impact on me as a songwriter. I used to go to sleep with that score in my headphones. The Good Bad and the Ugly is somehow the masterpiece of the trilogy, and it’s amazing piece of work as well, but For a Few Dollars More made more of an impact.

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