Photo by Orri Jónsson
Icelandic composer and producer Olafur Bjorn Olafson is no stranger to the concept of musical eclecticism, in fact that turn of phrase seems to be imbedded in his psyche. Writing and performing under the moniker Óbó, Olafson specialises in forging emotive, cinematic pieces, the sounds contained within combine and stretch as wide as the Icelandic landscapes of his native country and his debut album Innhverfi (released on Morr Music) showcases this expansive aesthetic. Having been a touring member of pretty much every important band to come out of Iceland in recent years, including Sigur Rós, Olafson has finally stepped out on his own and released an album that has certainly been worth the wait.
We caught up with Óbó to talk about the genesis of Innhverfi, how the album came together and the excitement of taking he whole thing on the road.
Your new album Innhverfi has just been released. What was the driving force behind you creating it?
I started recording it around eight years ago, so it’s taken a long time to put together. The reason it’s taken a long time is because I’d been touring with bands and didn’t want to hurry it. I kept on writing songs and arranging, re-arranging and re-recording different parts. I started recording the first song in 2006 during the time I was touring with Emiliana Torrini, then I started touring with Sigur Rós and lots of other bands as well. I was travelling a lot but was always writing songs when I was working on those tours. Then I would return to my studio in Reykjavik and record what I had written. It’s really good being on tour with all those great bands, but it’s not really the same as recording your own music. That was always my main artistic passion.
I think the long gestation period comes across in the music, in that the songs seem to be carefully considered.
Yes, I wasn’t having to meet a deadline or be tied to a particular genre of music so the songs could take their time to form. I was lucky because I could pursue whatever I found inspiring at that moment and I think the album is quite diverse because of it. I was able to let the music grow and was aware that, if I wanted to create the sort of album I wanted, I had to allow myself time to develop a kind of identity of my own instead of doing something just for the fuck if it. I try to write songs that unfold really slowly and capture something very singular rather than being concerned too much with form. Like a verse should go here; a chorus should go there. I wanted to distil a certain mood within the music.
I guess the opening track ‘Uthverfi’ is a good example of that – the track doesn’t break until around the three and a half minute mark. For an opening track of an album that’s quite an unusual move. Was that a sort of statement of intent?
[laughs] Like if people go to the record shop and want to check out just one song and listen to the first track and have no idea what’s going? I suppose it can be easy to alienate listeners but at the same time it’s a healthy way to get into music if you have to earn it a little bit and allow the music to open up. Maybe it’s a bit introverted but it’s the way it came together.
I think there are a lot of similarities with classical music in the way the reward comes a bit later on in the tracks.
The form of pop music and the form of classical music can be so at odds. Classical can be all about sitting in a room listening carefully to the music and pop can be really instantaneous. I started studying classical piano when I was six and finished studying music formally when I was twenty six, so I suppose my background meant there would always be elements of classical music in the album. I like the way that kind of music can be humanistic – it breathes and inhabits its own space. I think there can be different rules for different sorts of music and it’s good to be aware of that when crafting songs.
There are a lot of different textures created by lots of different instruments on the album. Not only strings and piano but what sounds like glockenspiels. Was this variety of instrumentation deliberate?
Sort of. I was just picking out whatever sounded interesting to me at that time. If I thought of recording a track using four vibraphones I would just do it. Like the song ‘Stilla’, I wrote that track whilst I was recording some music for a theatre production here in Iceland and wanted to record a version for the album but take it a lot further. I wanted to make the album sound good a whole as well and for the songs to work together. I didn’t want the album to necessarily sound like seven singular songs but for the listener to be able to appreciate the songs together and for them to work as a single thing. I have to say that when it came to ordering the tracks, Alex (Somers; producer) played a big part in sorting the order of the tracks. He came up with an order and I was really happy to go with it. I never thought about a certain track opening up the album or anything like that, I was open to suggestions. We weren’t aiming for an album that would be an instant hit. They just work really well together and inhabit their own space too.
You played Iceland airwaves this year. Am I right in thinking this is the first time you’ve played these songs live?
Yeah, this was the first time I’d played these songs properly for a room of people. I was open to the songs perhaps not being reproduced exactly as they are on the album, but they ended up coming pretty close. It’s always a fact that things will sound a bit different live, especially because there are so many different instruments on the album, but I think it went well. I really enjoyed the shows and thought there was something different happening during them compared to the versions on the album. I played three shows at at Airwaves, I only had two musicians playing with me for the first show, then four musicians, then six for the final show. I was trying out different versions of the band.
What conclusion did you come to?
[laughs] I think it sounded really great with six people, that was my favourite. The other ones were nice too because I’m really drawn towards music that’s sparse and simple and has really good song writing at the base of it.
I’m really impressed with Bill Callahan’s music and I was listening to a lot of Jim O’Rourke when I was writing some of these songs. Also, some recent composers like Daníel Bjarnason. I don’t think I’m one of those people who is always trying to have their finger on the pulse. I am curious and listen to things that I find interesting.
What have you got planned over the next year?
I’m playing Eurosonic Festival and in Holland in January and I’m opening for another Icelandic artist called Sóley for some shows in Germany – I’m really looking forward to playing with her – and hopefully I’ll be playing some more shows after that. I’m just excited that the album’s out now I’d like to give this album the bulk of my energy to help it grow as much as possible.