Hjálmar: From Keflavík To Kingston
The Icelandic band Hjálmar has, since its creation in 2004, become something of a cultural phenomenon in Iceland.
The band that started out as an Icelandic reggae experiment managed, despite the disbelief of established record labels, to touch the island's souls with its capturing mixture of sunny reggae and Icelandic musical roots. The band's authentic sound, sincerity and respect for the music and audience as well have made Hjálmar one of Iceland's most cherished bands with an appeal to a wide group of audience. The band's live performances are extremely tight, energetic, and colorful and at the same time relaxed.
In May 2009, Hjálmar went to Jamaica to record at the famous Harry J Studio and the Tuff Gong Studio, along with local reggae artists such as Cat Coore, Sticky, Robbie Lyn and Dean Fraser. Those recordings ended up on Hjálmar's fourth album, "IV", released in September 2009. The album was nominated as "Best Pop/Rock Album"@ the Icelandic Music Awards 2010 and was chosen the "Album Of The Year" by Rás 2 national radio. Along with IV, Hjálmar also released a documentary about the making of IV in Jamaica called 'Higher You and I'.
In October 2010 Hjálmar released their fifth album, Keflavík Kingston, a collection of previously unreleased singles along with several new songs. Among the songs on the album is Ljósvíkingur where Hjálmar joined forces with Mugison, a dub version of Dísa's 'Anniversary' and 'Dom hinner aldrig ikapp' with Timbuktu. The album release coincides with the release of an extensive photo book (264 pages) that includes photos from the very first days of Hjálmar in small town Keflavík, the making of IV in Kingston in 2009 and other events in between. The photos in the book are all shot by photographer Guðmundur Freyr Vigfússon (Gúndi).
The individual members of Hjalmar are all well respected within the Icelandic music and entertainment scene as either solo artists, text writers, producers (albums, music for TV, commercials, film and theater) as well as playing and recording with other Icelandic artists and bands.
IMX chatted with Hjálmar's Guðmundur Kristinn Jónsson:
The first question has to be: you're from Iceland, one of the whitest countries on earth - why reggae?
Well, Siggi and I worked at this small studio in Keflavík called Geimsteinn, owned by Icelandic rock legend Rúnni Júl. We were making this reggae song with Rúnni, called Gott er að gefa, and we instantly felt that reggae suited us well. We asked Rúnni if he would like to make a reggae album with us but he was into gospel at that time and wanted to make a gospel album instead. We then just decided to go for it on our own.
Is it an island thing?
No that was never the thing. We just wanted to make good music. Reggae is really interesting because there's a lot of space in the music - the roots reggae usually has a nice and warm sound with hammond organ, tape echos and easy guitar parts with few chords. My background is in sound engineering and I found this sound field to be an interesting one to work with - it doesn't hurt that it's a feel-good music with positive vibes and you never get bored of playing it even though you have to play it often...which is often the case with us.
The band formed in 2004; who was behind its formation and who were the original members?
Siggi (singer / keyboard) and I (guitar / sound engineer) wanted to make a reggae album and we brought Steini (singer / guitar) along who then brought drummer Kiddi Agnars into the project. Finally we got Swedish Petter Winnberg to play the bass. This was the composition of the band when we made our first album.
What were your main musical inspirations at that time?
Siggi and I found a CD with Reggae Classics from 1976 in the shelves at Geimsteinn that really inspired us, but of course, like all Icelanders, we had listened to Bob Marley, who was the only reggae artist available in Icelandic music stores at that time.
Has the band changed much since then?
The band has changed quite a lot. We have had some people leave and new ones coming in and when that happens it always changes the sound of a band. But we've also gone through different types of reggae - our first album was wild roots reggae and then we slowly moved over to more adult reggae and now I would say there's more party and sunshine in our reggae then ever.
Was it a struggle initially to get people into your music, or was it embraced from the beginning?
Based on audience response it was embraced from the beginning. When we started playing in 2004 we very quickly became the talk of the town and we filled every show. It was a great time with lots of sweaty gigs. Our first CD was also well received - it took it only 6 months to go gold. The hesitation was more to be found with the record companies because no one really was keen on releasing our album in the beginning - they simply didn't believe in the concept of Icelandic reggae. They thought no one would listen to it and boy were they wrong.
What other influences in your music have you explored aside from reggae?
Mainly folk music - but also all sorts of other music. We are all musicians by profession and some of us are also sound engineers and producers so we are involved in lot of other projects with other types of music very much different from reggae.
You went to record in Jamaica in 2009 - how was the experience? And did you make them drink Brennivín?
Being in Jamaica is not much different from being in Russia - where we have also been a few times. Everything is different from what you're used to - there's poverty and crime and you don't enter the streets alone or just do what ever you want to do. You're kind of the only white kid in the neighborhood and it's always interesting to be the one that stands out from everyone else. Still, we were there with Cat Coore who's a famous musician and personality there so we were left alone and could do things that other visitors can't.
While in Jamaica we spent most of our time locked away in the studios we worked in with local musicians and sound engineers. We were so lucky to get to record at both Tuff Gong and Harry J. And for those who don't know much about them, Harry J is the studio where Marley recorded most of his stuff - and a lot of other famous reggae albums have been recorded there. Tuff Gong is the studio that attracts all the big names today that go to Jamaica to record - such as Sinéad O'Connor.
During the recordings we got to work with many legendary musicians in Jamaica - well known local artists that have worked with all the big reggae heroes and for us it was fantastic to get their recognition - they actually liked our music very much and have kept in touch, something we didn't necessarily expect.
About the Brennivín - no we didn't give them any Brennivín but they got us hooked on Jerk Chicken! When Cat Coore came to Iceland to play at the release concert for IV in August 2009 we made sure he got plenty of Brennivín in exchange for the all the chicken.
What effect did it have on your sound? Did you play gigs there?
As said before we worked with local musicians and they definitely put their mark on the album. They were fantastic - we had great female background singers and then the percussionist Sticky blew our minds - he was so good! After seeing and listening to him play, percussion isn't just percussion to us - it's the seasoning and we prioritize it more. It has become one of the most important thing for our sound.
Unfortunately we didn't get the opportunity to play gigs in Jamaica but we have thought about going back to play and see and enjoy more of Jamaica. Hopefully we can do that one day.
There was a documentary made, right?
Yes - we brought a small crew along and made a documentary about our stay in Jamaica called 'Hærra ég og þú' ('Higher You and I'). We released it with the album we recorded there, IV. It's also been shown on TV in Iceland and at the Reykjavík International Film Festival (RIFF). It's pretty good - if we may say so.
And now you have a photo book being released along with a singles album, can you tell us more?
Sure - our good friend Gúndi is a photographer and he has photographed many of our adventures right from the beginning. He also came along to Jamaica. We've therefore always had a lot of good photos around. The idea to make a photo book came up many years ago but it was in Gúndi's wedding in San Francisco last summer, when we were talking about good old times, that we decided to finally go for it. The book is called Keflavík Kingston - referring to the photos being from our initial days in small town Keflavík, our sessions in Kingston and then many events in between. The album, also called Keflavík Kingston, is a collection of our singles so far but it also includes a few new songs.
What do you all have going on separately and collectively at the moment?
At the moment we are all very busy. Apart from Hjálmar we're involved in several new projects and releases for this Christmas - one children's album and two Christmas albums. As Hjálmar we're playing gigs in relation to the release of the photo book and the new CD, Keflavík Kingston. We also already have some ideas for our new album - and if they turn into reality it will be something else for sure!
More Hjálmar here: