A layer of clotted soy milk floats to the top of Hildur’s porcelain teacup. She hastily takes the first swig and swirls the clumps away. Crowded on the table are home baked cakes and biscuits. The four girls draw miniscule portions off the table to nibble in a continuous circle of mismatched saucers.
They are smallish girls with ruddy cheeks and wide, sparkling eyes. Despite themselves, Amiina is cute. Their predilection for knitting and twinkling instruments certainly doesn’t tarnish such an image either.
But through the looking glass their glockenspiels belie the gravitas of their music, melodious and cryptic as the Jabberwocky himself. Their sound, much like their coffee klatch, is intimate and rife with mellifluous dialogue, be it the chatter of summer plans with boyfriends or the call and answer of singing saws and Korean bells.
Though lyrics are few and far between, that’s not to say Amiina's new album Kurr doesn’t strike a chord with its listeners. On the contrary, it resonates in the most unexpected of ways.
By Jonas Moody.
Amiina is Edda Rún Ólafsdóttir, Hildur Ársaelsdóttir, Sólrún Sumarlidadóttir, and María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir.
Moody: This is all very cozy here around the table. It’s almost looks like the picture on the album cover (see below), only eating tea and crumpets instead of knitting an enormous scarf.
María Sigfúsdóttir: We focus on the table. When we play live there is the table with all these small instruments. It’s almost like we’re cooking or making something.
Sólrún Sumarlidadóttir: It’s always like that. There’s always a table between us, sometimes with instruments and sometimes with food.
Hildur Ársaelsdóttir: Knitting is like our creation of music.
SS: We knit the whole thing ourselves. It took a few days to get there so we took turns.
HÁ: And did you notice the needles? They’re mallets.
SS: But it’s about us coming together and making something in a certain world that we’ve constructed around us.
M: So the latest world you’ve created is called Kurr (Coo) like the sound a pigeon makes. Where did that come from?
MS: We were satisfied with the sound of the word and its meaning and look.
HÁ: It’s nice that the word is a sound.
SS: That’s what we thrive on, sounds and textures. It’s right to have a word for the record that is a verbal interpretation of a sound.
M: It means a word that sounds like what it is.
SS: Oh okay! How do you spell it?
M: Jeez. It’s hard. It’s Greek. I’ll send it to you in an e-mail.
HÁ: Because we don’t have lyrics, it’s hard for us to pin our music down with words.
SS: We have so much trouble with titles.
M: Some titles are real words, some are names, and some are nonsense. Like "Sogg," right?
(All look at each other knowingly)
MS: Actually there were some letters left on our whiteboard after everything had been erased and we looked at them for months and they spelled “sogg”.
M: Where did "Kolapot" (coal poking) come from? That’s just bizarre.
MS: Hildur and I had to register the song so walked through town on the way to the office and made up a story of someone who…
HÁ: …lived in a cottage, or…
MS: I can’t remember; it was really far-fetched. Originally it was called “Kolakot” (coal cottage), the name of the cottage where they lived.
SS: And then we just switched the k for the p because it sounded better.
M: That’s quite an elaborate process. It that how it works when you make your music too?
SS: We don’t write individually. It’s all of us putting ingredients into the pot and seeing what comes out.
M: But it’s not as haphazard as blindly tossing in whatever is at hand, right? You four are all classically trained musicians.
SS: A lot of kids have some form of music education, because so many people go to music school here. It actually creates openness to a more varied type of instrumentation.
MS: It’s just grab something you like and figure out something nice with it. Not necessarily within the framework of how it’s meant to be played.
M: I hear a lot of idiophones—all those musical oddities that are struck, shaken, stroked, and scraped—like singing bowls, thumb pianos, musical saws, and a celesta. What’s the draw?
MS: They’re easy to play—very accessible. It allows us to let go and do. You have something that you can just hit and there’s a sound. If have to learn a new instrument your musical ideas just stop.
SS: It’s easy to be spontaneous on these instruments.
MS: Also, they have a very clear sound, which is the opposite of strings, which have a more earthy and complicated sound. Out other instruments are metal, crystal clear. We had to have some kind of opposite to the strings.
M: Any other strange beasts in the mix?
SS: One electric guitar with glitter on it.
MS: Come on, girls! What else?
HÁ: Oh! The famous “glassophone.”
SS: It’s four wine glasses hooked up to mics.
MS: Then there are zithers, accordions, harpsichords, and a harmonium.
M: Some people have placed you as the standard bearers of the “krútt” (cute) movement alongside Sigur Rós and Múm. Is this what you signed up for?
MS: It’s been a big misunderstanding. Two or three years ago every Friday the paper would come up with names for different people and places. I was flying home to Iceland and I opened the paper to find a picture of myself as “the leader of the ‘Úlpa Gang’” (“úlpa” meaning anorak), who are “left-wing, read poetry, and have political opinions but don’t really know anything about the issues.” But I hadn’t even been in Iceland. It was just bullshit.
That was exactly the same period that “krútt” came out. Someone picked up on it and people were making jokes. Then there was the Krútt Festival in Snaefellsnes in 2005.
SS: At the time it wasn’t used in a negative or diminutive way.
MS: The festival was just a joke. They had a lecture on krútt and exhibitions and Múm played and (Stórsveit) Nix Noltes. But afterwards krútt was taken seriously. They were talking about it on Kastljós (a nightly news magazine show) trying to define the word krútt, and it got totally out of hand. The meaning of the word krútt is something little and not to be taken seriously, and that’s bad. A lot of the people who have been labeled “krútt” are doing good things and that shouldn’t be diminished.
SS: I get the feeling that the word is used to put people down who are beginning to do well. I don’t understand this need to squash people.
M: Regardless of what you call it, there is a tendency to characterize music coming out of Iceland. I asked you about it when I interviewed you three years ago and you told me, “It’s like when someone tells you that you look like your sister, but because you've grown up with her, all you can see are the differences.” Three years later with some experience under your belt, what can you say?
MS: In Iceland we haven’t had the culture of pop music business for 60 years. We still have trouble understanding what a single is, and an A-side and a B-side. We don’t have all these formulas of how to make a band and how a career is supposed to happen in such a way, and your songs are supposed to be three minutes long because that’s radio-friendly.
When you start out in Iceland, you are so unaware of those “rules,” and that may be why there are certain freedoms here. When people start out here they make a record, and some people like it and it’s released. Talking to young people starting out in Britain, they are so aware, even before they form a band, what it’s supposed to be. They pick a genre. Then according to that genre they have to have this and this and this.
Here people are just fiddling around, making music, and releasing it. The mindset of being a band here is different.
M: Part of your edification as a band outside of Iceland must have come from your long-standing collaboration with Sigur Rós. After playing on three albums with them and years of touring, do you ever feel like this relationship overshadows your own music—instead of being Amiina, being identified as the girls who play with Sigur Rós?
SS: But that’s what we were for a long time.
HÁ: It’s true!
SS: It’s nothing we want to escape from.
MS: It helped us when we were starting out as a band.
SS: The experience on the road and what touring is about and the music industry.
MS: It’s natural that people link us to Sigur Rós, but we are slowly trying to establish our name as Amiina. But it takes time. It’s only a year since we stopped touring with Sigur Rós.
M: Would you tour with them again?
SS: It’s a possibility, but now we want to concentrate on our own project and find our place.
M: So after touring with four boys, what is it like to be a band of four girls?
MS: We have always been quite girlish when we’re together. We’ve never been too…cool (at this word, tiny María strikes a muscle pose and knits her brow).
HÁ: It’s nice. We can stop by the health food store when we’re on tour.
M: So besides miles of health food stores, what does the future hold?
SS: We’ll just continue until we don’t want to do it anymore.
MS: You can’t plan your life when you’re in a band.
SS: But we’re all women and there’s the question of families.
HÁ: But that’s going to be synchronized. We’re going to make the mini-Amiina. Amiiniina!
Listen to “Seoul” from Amiina’s new album Kurr (Coo).
Amiina will be touring America in September and Europe in October. For tour dates see the band’s MySpace page.