“Everything I used to listen to back in the day was remixed by these guys”, the sound engineer tells me. For the past hour I have been sitting through a sound check at Lee’s Palace watching three individuals meticulously test their set-up for the evening’s performance.
“Come here,” Biggi motions me over. I jump off the chair and hesitantly make my way to the mixer.
“Put these on,” he hands me a pair of headphones and I do as instructed.
“OK now, just play around with the sliders; bring this one up to the mark”, he points to one channel and I proceed. (Now this one, all the way up.) I have successfully mixed familiar track. “Now, turn this knob.”
“I can’t hear anything,” I say sheepishly.
“That’s because it is really subtle,” Biggi responds by turning off everything else. I now notice a subtle kick-drum. “Subtle elements are important. Well there you have it. This is what I’ll be doing the entire evening.”
As if on cue Daníel joins us on stage, “What are you guys up to?”
“Biggi decided he is retiring, so I’ll be replacing him tonight – how do you feel about that?” I inquired.
“Well maybe just as an assistant,” reality check, heartbreak…whatever.
This was my unexpected introduction to Birgir Þórarinsson (aka Biggi Veira) and Daníel Ágúst Haraldsson of GusGus, perhaps just as unexpected as their show at Lee’s Palace in Toronto earlier this month. Artists of this caliber are generally booked through one of the city’s few electronic music promoters and at one of the few predictable venues too. Yet this show somehow slipped under the radar, booked at, of all places, Lee’s Palace and on a Tuesday night. The snob in me loved everything about the zero you-know-whats that were given by the promoters who took on this gig – a gig like this will pack, these guys just knew.
Trust me, you have heard of GusGus, if not by growing up to their early works than through raging to Maceo Plex’s remix of their single Crossfade last summer. Biggi and Daníel represent a rather veteran collective that nucleated in 1995 and, at one point, had up to 12 members focusing on music, acting and film production. Although the team is currently significantly smaller (down to four members), the collective gave rise to some commendable spin off talent such as formation of the Arni & Kinski production company (videos for Snow Patrol, Florence and the Machine, Damien Rice) and Emiliana Torrini’s soundtrack contribution to The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. GusGus longevity and ability to organically innovate their sound over the last 20 years is precisely what peaked my interest in speaking with them.
“So this year is your 20th anniversary,” I begin. “That’s quite a long marriage – do you have anything special planned to commemorate the event?” The two laugh and explain that in actuality they probably got started a bit later. “It took us a bit of time to decide ‘what we want to be when we grow up’ and if we were, in fact, a band. It is more realistic to say that ’96 was the year GusGus was born as this is when the record deal with 4AD came our way,” concludes Daníel.
“We are thinking of something special though, perhaps incorporating the film element we originally began with for the fans who have been following us for a while,” adds Biggi. “Of course, not at liberty to reveal any details, so you will have to just wait and see.”
Iceland is not exactly a new kid on the global music block, pumping out internationally recognized artists like Bjork and Of Monsters and Men for a while now. The recent international appreciation for more Iceland-originated artists perhaps has a lot more to do with the western culture being ready to appreciate individualism. To my observation the duo provided more insight:
“Iceland is versatile. The culture values individualism and creative output even on day-to-day basis, like work. In music, you are more likely to become popular for being different from everyone else, not for jumping on the same trend. We didn’t want to come in and be another set of The Sugarcubes. That would not have worked there,” explains Daníel.
Having been around long enough GusGus is in a good position to assess how digital technology developments impacted music production over the years.
“Our set up may have changed to be more modular, but in reality the process is the same,” notes Daníel.
“When the band had a lot of members, the producers and the singers would branch off and work on their ideas. We would then come together and combine it all to see what happens. Everyone was flexible with their points of view which allowed to give birth to the tracks,” offers Biggi. “We do it very similarly now. Someone starts humming something or comes up with a beat and we just add onto that. There is no fixed formula although maybe there is a bit of process for initiating a new project.”
The two agree that producing an album is metaphorically akin to birthing and raising a child. Eventually one has to release it (the album, not the child) and let it have a life of its own with the fans and critics reacting to it however they want to.
“For the first little while you experience a post-production depression. You have grown so attached to this thing and now it is gone,” explains Biggi. “You don’t want to create anything for a while and when you do everything you play sucks.”
“But if you keep trying,” adds Daníel, “something starts coming together. You put a few tracks together and get a vision for the next album.”
“Usually at that point we isolate ourselves in the summer house. You do that any earlier or too late in the process and nothing good comes out of it – we’ll just hang around otherwise,” concludes Biggi.
To my inquiry on how the band managed to develop a distinct sound while still staying relevant over the last two decades, Daníel offered a more of exploratory perspective, “We tend to follow our own interests and either continue exploring an idea we played around with in the previous album or just do something completely different.” Biggi views their past works in distinct phases, “For example, the first two albums were sort of our exploration of the 90s trip-hop, Attention (2002) and Forever (2007) were more of an early 80s house and punk vibe. We went deeper into house direction with 24/7 (2009).”
In fact, it was the 24/7 that lead to the partnership with Kompakt.
“It was time and we realized that the sound on 24/7 resonated most with what the label was doing,” recalls Biggi. “The label is very rooted and we like working with them for their integrity,” adds Daníel.
“How did Plex’s remix come about and what were your initial thoughts?” (I know you were all wondering).
“It was [Michael] Mayer’s idea,” chimes in Daníel. “We trusted him. How do I feel about it? We’ll my vocals got cut out…” he jokes.
“The thing with remixes is that you just hand over the ingredients and someone else puts them together in whatever way; it is always unpredictable,” adds Biggi. “I was fixing my loft when I listened to it for the first time and then called Mayer to tell him he has a hit.”
The topic of ingredients brought about some questions I solicited from the more music production-savvy fans. My inquiries about their favorite synth and secret sauce of layering techniques were preceded with a fair warning that as someone with music training but no notion of digital production process, I will need the Dummy’s Guide To version of an explanation.
“Do I have to pick ONE synth?” laughs Biggi. “I’m going to give you a few just on the account of being around for this long.” Roland SH-2 was used for all polyphonic stuff until 2007, ARP 2600 was used a lot for bass in the 90s until Biggi started going into more modular approach with Doepfer.
“D-O-E-P-F-E-R,” Daníel helps me with the spelling (thanks!)
“Doepfer is friend and creates good basic sounds, which I then use as needed,” explains Biggi.
“It’s like making soup; we create our own stock,” simplifies Daníel, considerate of my earlier discretion advice. “My favorite toy is the 808 drum. It is flexible, has unique and very organic sound. Once I played with it, I was in love.”
“With the layering, I like to keep it simple,” continues Biggi. “There are a lot of producers out there who like to thicken it up, but I don’t think that’s necessary. I create my own drums, bass and not into soft synths. I record different sounds for analog synths too. Making that stock.”
I stuck around for the show, obviously. The energy at Lee’s Palace was a mixture of come-back tour vibe and what one would encounter when a long-awaited hit act finally makes it to town. The more mature crowd raging to old and new tracks alike was refreshing and yet there were enough people of the younger demographic just as familiar with all of the music. No pretentious bull shit, ageism, drunk kids in the corner or disapproving looks from the adults – just authentic fun all around, people jamming with their eyes closed. Daníel’s energy on stage was consistent with his performances across past 20 years. Prancing around and interacting with guests in the zone with him, he looked liberated, free and very opposite of the cool and collected man I interacted with earlier in the evening. “I’m just going to go change into an outfit I wore through all of the 90s,” he refers to his all red number as he takes a break between sets. Biggi took on an even maestro demeanor on stage. Calmly mixing tracks throughout the night in his platform shoes, only briefly shifting glasses to the tip of his nose to check the track listing like a chef following a recipe. “Get us a copy of this article,” he requests as we were parting later on that night.
Well, hope I did it justice. If not, you two can come back for a retake anytime.