You need to go to Iceland to understand what makes a country like that so magical and the people living there so truly unique and open-minded. The darkness of their landscapes, the majesty of their glaciers and even the feisty, cold winter wind that blows from Rejkjavik to Eskifjordur is all part of one of the most special countries in the world.
All those aspects certainly must make an impact on the artistic creativity of the Icelandic people, given how much this country has gifted the music scene with artists like Bjork, Sigur Ros or Emiliana Torrini, just to mention a few of them, through the last four decades.
When in 2007 four young teenagers from Rejkjavik, Kjartan Hólm on guitar, Guðfinnur Sveinsson on guitar too, Elvar Jón Guðmundsson on bass and Jóhannes Ólafsson on drums (then replaced by Andri Freyr Þorgeirsson) got together to record in few hours their debut album, totally instrumental, called Reistu Þig Við, Sólin Er Komin Á Loft... (meaning Rise and Shine, the Sun's Up...), nobody would have expected the impact that their sound made not just in their native Iceland but in many countries worldwide. Their music is instinctive, raw, travelling in the same way a locomotive may do, with sonic acceleration and deceleration executed with the heaviness of an experienced rock band and the ethereal fluidity typical of the Icelandic music sounds. The band decided to call themselves For A Minor Reflection.
Opening for Sigur Ros in their 2008 Tour, gave the opportunity to the band to have global exposure in the music business, something that allowed them to create a more sophisticated second album, a year later, called Höldum í átt að óreiðu" (Heading in the direction of Chaos). Their second record did, commercially, very well too and the band continued their career as For A Minor Reflection until 2013, by releasing the live EP Live At Iceland Airwaves.
The band, although not officially dismantled, has stopped their activity since that live album and the band members have all gone for separate ways, getting involved in new music projects but still maintaining a great relationship and, who knows, maybe the doors open to the future for another release as For A Minor Reflection.
Bluebird Reviews meets one of the main creative forces of the band, guitarist Kjartan Holm, to talk about the career of such a seminal band like For A Minor Reflection, in proximity of the 10 years since the release of their debut album. Holm has just released a new album with his new band called Tofa, a highly interesting post-rock music project. the album, their third as Tofa, is called Teeth Richards and, despite the pressure for the ongoing promotion of Tofa's new album, Holm kindly accepts to take us through the history and career of an extraordinary collective like For A Minor Reflection.
For A Minor Reflection - 2007 circa
BBR - Kjartan, welcome to Bluebird Reviews, so good to talk to you. For A Minor Reflection is one of the most original instrumental rock band of the last 10 years, recognised as such by the worldwide music press since your debut in 2007. Was the choice of creating music through instrumental suites a deliberate choice for the band since Day 1 or were you initially thinking of adding a singer to the band's line-up but then things just changed?
KH - Well, originally we thought about having vocalists in our band but, as we started playing together, we found ourselves increasingly more comfortable just being an instrumental rock band. So yes, initially we had other plans but when we realised that we were feeling more comfortable expressing our music in that way, we said "Hey, this is the way that works for us, let's keep it that way". Funny, when I think about it, because currently I am working with a band that includes vocalists and I feel very comfortable as well working with music in that way. I just enjoy exploring different sides of music and have an open mind. I think it helps me, as a musician, to be constantly challenged.
BBR - Your debut album Reistu Þig Við, Sólin Er Komin Á Loft... (Rise and Shine, the Sun's Up...) sounded so immediate. It was the work of 4 creative forces improvising on the spot and able to carve music in continous movement, with changes of tempo that then defined the band's style for years to come. Who have been yours and the band's music heroes that fired up the extraordinary creativity that the whole band express in their sound?
KH - It's interesting that, within the band, we all liked different type of music. I remember, back in those days, to be listening to a lot to artists like Blink 182, mainly that kind of College Rock Music. Gudfinnur instead was very much into Coldplay, Andri liked a lot of metal kind of stuff while Jon was listening to a lot of material of the English band The Smiths. As you can see, none of the bands I just mentioned had anything to do with the music that we were playing, which is kind of ironic. We shared though, within the band, a common love for the sound of bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor and given how different were our music preferences, our inspiration was really coming from many different musical directions. Which is what helped our sound to be constantly on the move, rather than being static, which is not the type of art making we wanted to create. We just plugged in and away we went. As you said, our music was really a genuine combustion of four musicians carrying their own backgrounds, amalgamating them and creating something that we thought it was truly unique, back then.
BBR - In 2010, on the back of the huge impact of the 5000 copies that your debut album sold, you recorded the follow up to Þig Við, Sólin Er Komin Á Loft at Sigur Ros' studio in Iceland, in Sundlagin and mastered the new album, Höldum í átt að óreiðu" (Heading in the direction of Chaos) in Los Angeles. Given the more substantious budget you had at the time, do you feel that your second album shaped up the band's sound in a slightly different way or was the album just a natural progression of the band's musical path?
KH - I think that the way our sound shifted, on our second album, was due to the fact that it was planned in the recording, rather than doing it in the same way we did the first album. As you were saying, the success of our first album, touring a lot, partly with Sigur Ros, made possible that we could get the right financial platform on which we could build our second record. Whilst the first album was written in two months and recorded in just about 5 hours, in a garage, with a raw sound, full of improvisations and somehow also mistakes here and there, (if you really listen carefully to it), the Komin Á Loft album was instead super clean, in a way. Recording in a proper studio, with fantastic equipment, made certainly an impact on the way our second album sounded. You are certainly right about the fact that working in a proper environment changed the shape of our sound but I also thought that, because we wanted really to give to it a proper stab, like other bands out there were doing, we might have sounded a bit too refined, borderline commercial. In retrospective, I enjoyed much more working instinctively on the music in a more raw way as we did on our first album, because it's the same way I like to work right now with Tofa. In my opinion, it also captured more the essence of our art as a collective, while on the second one we were colouring our sound a lot more, by building some layers on top of our music and making it sound far too polished for my personal liking. We spent three months in L.A. making that album and that timeframe sounded like an eternity for someone like me, used to write music and record it on a much faster pace. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy working on music adopting many different approaches, including the way we did on the Komin Á Loft album but the way we sounded on our first record was more a clear mirror of my idea of making music.
BBR - The band has not recorded new material since the 2011 EP and there has not been a new release from FAMR since the 2013 live album Live At Iceland Airwaves. Is the band planning to surprise their fans with a new album anytime soon, to celebrate your 10th anniversary together?
KH - We were just discussing this the other day, it would be really fun to do something about it together next year. There are some logistic issues, though, due to the fact that we are now all living in different countries and we are all focusing on our individual projects with other bands. All that I can say is that we are not making any new music at the moment but we have a lot of unreleased material that we have accumulated through the years. It might be possible that, should we be able to find the time to get together and work on this yet unreleased material, one day we may release it on a new record but, at the moment, we are all focusing strictly on our own projects. To be honest with you, the material for a new For A Minor Reflection album could be already there to be released but, call it maybe being lazy or any other way you want, at the moment to work on a new For A Minor Reflection album is not our priority. We will see what happens in the future, anything is possible.
BBR - Kjartan, we are aware that the best part of the tunes written by the band came from your inspiration. What does help you to put you in the right state of mind when it comes to create new songs?
KH - When we made the first album, all the songs came from a very emotional part of ourselves, as a band. You know, coming from a country like Iceland where the weather is never really great and sometimes it's a bit depressive, it kind of triggered the state of mind that brought us to record the album in that way. I guess you may call it "atmospheric", in terms of general mood but I felt it was very simple and straight forward, in its lyrics. The second album was a bit more warm, not just in term of sound but about the style of the lyrics too. As I said before, we tried to apply to our sound a bit more colors that might have somehow, influenced also the general mood on the album. Thinking about your original question on writing songs, I guess that the real answer to you would be that I really don't know precisely what my state of mind was, when I wrote the songs on both the studio album. Maybe there was just an unconscious wish to express my happiness to be alive through the songs! (chuckles).
For A Minor Reflection - 2009 circa
BBR - Yourself and Andri, your drummer, are currently involved in another side project with a different band, right now, Tofa. How different is the sound of such bands from the For A Minor Reflection's one?
KH - It's a lot different from the FAMR's one. The current project in which myself and Andri are involved to, as you said, it's called Tofa. It is certainly full of energy, very noisy, almost brutal in its rawness, that's for sure! (chuckles). We record our songs ourselves in the way we like the most, without pulling any strings or spending too much time on mixing or adding any trickery. We have just released our third album, called Teeth Richards and, in comparison to FAMR's music style, with Tofa we have vocals through our singer, Allie Doersch. The songs are much shorter and faster and it took me a while before getting used to leave time for somebody within the band to sing, rather than blasting my guitar all the time. But in the end I got the nag of it. (chuckles).
BBR - Kjartan, in the last 10 years the music industry has suffered the biggest blow ever in its history. How difficult does it get, nowadays for young artists to self-finance and produce themselves and therefore to be able to express their artistry?
KH - I remember when we started as For A Minor Reflection. There were certain more opportunity for artists and bands to make records and travel abroad to tour, back in those days. As you said, nowadays everything is much more complicated. There is no more money left in the pot of the music industry, therefore everything is becoming much more, like Do It Yourself kind of attitude. It's definitely much harder to try and impose your art, within the business but it is not impossible. Just keep believing in yourself and do things on your own, a bit like I am doing right now with Tofa. I like to believe that there is always a way that things in music, as in life, work out in the end, as long as you keep investing in yourself and in your art.
BBR - Iceland is a magical country that has been so finely described through all its most favourite muses. Sigur Ros express through their music its nature and beautiful sceneries, Bjork all its different otherwordly, natural colours and Emiliana Torrini its mood, through delicate vignettes of Icelandic's daily life. Which of Iceland's many values do For A Minor Reflection carry through their music?
KH - Difficult to say. My first instinct would be to say that there is a certain connection with nature, as it often happens with Icelandic music in its globality. I remember when Sigur Ros released that splendid DVD called Heima, where their music was expressing all the different colors and movement of the Icelandic life. I feel that, at the same way, For A Minor Reflection's music, through its waves of alternated heavier and softer interplay within our songs, captures that same kind of vibes, although in our own way. Personally, the first thing that For A Minor Reflection's music makes me think of are the streets of Rejkjavik, the colors of the houses, the people, the vibes of our capital city.
BBR - The music genre that For A Minor Reflection has been labelled with has been often defined either as avant-garde rock or post rock. To the eyes of Bluebird Reviews, your music is just the natural chemistry between 4 skilled musicians. On an average, how many hours of jamming and music improvisations the band needs to record on tape, before deciding which material get chosen for any of your records?
KH - Well, believe or not, we never did a pre-recording session on any of our albums, to try and find the right mood for any new material we wish to record. We just plugged in and go. When we felt we had something we all liked the sound of, we were just going for it without thinking too much, just going for it. A very simple approach, perhaps old fashion, some might say but that is what worked better for us.
BBR - Kjartan, Bob Marley once said: "One good thing about music is that when it hits you, you feel no pain". Has music ever served you as a healer in any moment of your personal life or in your career as a musician?
KH - So many times. I listen to music, daily, a lot, until it gets time to go to bed at night, just to give you an idea. I can listen to stuff like, say from Bizet to Rihanna because for me there are no bridges with music, I can listen to either pop music or classical one without having to compromise with any of them. Every genre, every style creates a different connection with my emotions and it really doesn't matter what the musical source is or where it comes from. Music is certainly the best therapy I can think of. Well, perhaps that and some beers too! (chuckles).
Giovanni "Gio" Pilato