We wanted to make disco, or house music, which sounds real and not to technical.”
RETRO STEFSON in particular a very young band, if you consider their ages. But they did a lot of music in their lives and know exactly what they do and how to get attention. After the success of Kimbabwe in 2011, they recently released the third longplayer Retro Stefson. An extensive tour followed and we had the opportunity to meet the guys from Iceland before their show in Jena and also to talk to singer and head of the band, Mr. Unnsteinn Manuel Stefánsson.
What do you think about touring? Do you enjoy the time on the road or is it more stressful than fun?
I like it but it’s definitely difficult. The bigger you are, the comfortable it gets. While the band is getting bigger, you have more opportunities. You get a better car or shorter distances to drive, because you have more gigs in different towns, or you get more off-days and can go to a thermal or something. We don’t have to worry about finances, because when a band from Iceland wants to go out in the world and tour they collect the money as they need. There are normally a lot of worries about touring but we never have had such. Considering how young we are. But the problem which occurs when you tour a lot- I’ve been touring for four years- is that you cannot really do anything what you can commit in life and that’s a difficult thing. You don’t go to a normal university unless you stop all this work what you have been building up. So that’s the difficult part about touring.
Let’s talk about RETRO STEFSON‘s last LP. It came out at the 24th of March this year, and the cover reminds me of the theme of the HOLI Festival, which was on the 27th of March. Is there a connection between? Do you celebrate the Festival of Colours on “Retro Stefson”?
Originally it came out, before we were touring, at the end of October last year, but only in Iceland. So this date in March is a total coincidence, but when we were looking for references for the cover we found this festival and we start looking more and more into it. We got in contact with the Indian Embassy in Iceland and went to the Indian specialty stores which is very rare to have in a country like Iceland. So there we got great contacts and references. But then we didn’t know how it will look on the photos, so we were experimenting a lot and found out, that it is the best to generate the colours on the computer.
So it was just the pure dust?
Yes, the dust and everything like that were real. And then we had small LED lights and so the original photos are totally different. They show the theme, because we didn’t really know what we are going to do. We had a very good photographer from Iceland and a very good graphic designer. He spent a lot of weeks working on it.
Your new record is influenced a lot by house and disco music, but you started your career with rap music. Tell me something about your music history and the changes.
When you are a kid you listen to all kind of music and when you grow up your musical taste is changing. Since we are playing in the band for such a long time, the sound we make also changes with us. We started when we were kids and now we are 23 and things have changed a lot. So if two 33 years old guys would start a Reggae band, they would play Reggae for the next 10 years. But if two 13 years old kids start a Reggae band they play maybe a few years Reggae and then dub reggae later and then dubstep. So it would change into something else, because they grow up. On the first album I played acoustic guitar, on the second an electric guitar and now I am not playing guitar at all. That’s also a difference. The first album contains songs we were playing since we were kids, so it contains a lot of acoustic stuff like BELLE & SEABASTIAN. On the second album I was DJ’ing already for two years so it was a bit more dancy. And before the third album we were DJ’ing a lot. You know what your taste in music is and then you find a palate with the rest. We wanted to make disco, or house music, which sounds real and not to technical.
What kind of music do you prefer as DJ? What do you play?
I mostly play house and my brother is deep into bass music.
RETRO STEFSON: “When you 18 years and from Iceland you don’t have the energy to only listen to Metallica”
Did this happen on purpose that you went to do house music? Was it like you listened to house music and decided to do this as well and the rest liked that idea, or was it just like that your wrote something and said Let’s do it! ?
That’s a good question. [laughs] I am always writing music. And the way I write music is always changing in the way I listen music by myself. When you 18 years and from Iceland you don’t have the energy to only listen to METALLICA. You are going to clubs. And then you want a kickdrum in all the songs all the time, this changing is happening subconsciously. Then you notice that everyone in the band is listening to dance music the whole day. So it’s more a matter of growing up and rather than decide upon each other. But we still like to listen to a lot of hip hop music.
The music of RETRO STEFSON is very organic despite being quite influenced by electronic dance music. Is this important for you as playing in a live band?
It is very import for us to play live. We also use Ableton Live. We write a lot of music on that, but if you just use the Ableton Plugins it would sound like every other crap on the internet. So we take some songs to the band and practicing them and then take those song back to Ableton Live for recording. This is how we do. We go back and forth in the program. A lot of songs you can listen to on the album are made in Ableton Live.
So everything is live?
No. On our second album Kimbabwe we played everything live, but on Retro Stefson we have a lot more of programed stuff. We were working with a producer so we were programming in all kinds and different ways. HERMIGERVILL is our producer. He is also doing the warm up for a lot of shows.
So he plays in the band, does the warm up and also does the production stuff?
HERMIGERVILL: Yeah, it is funny. We made the album and then it came out and then we realized, oh shit, there are so many new electrical sounds, what are we going to do with it? So I stayed with them, and grabbing them.
You were living in Berlin. How is it compared to Reykjavik? And how do you use this inputs for songwriting?
Yes, but we moved back to Iceland in 2011. We were living in Berlin for only half a year. But a lot of press content says, that we are still living in Berlin. Back in the center of Reykjavik there are five different clubs where my brother, Logi Pedro Stefánsson, is a resident DJ. But there no one wants to listen to the indie and electro stuff you can hear often in Berlin. It’s all dance, house and techno. And of course hip hop. There are no high society clubs where you have to pay 10 € or more to get in. You get in for free and then you have a bar and just start dancing. When everybody is dancing they move the desks away. But you have the same hipsters in Reykjavik as in Berlin. They are reading the same internet websites and whatever. There are similarities, but Berlin is different in the part of seeing people. There are people you have never seen before. Some kind of punks, or all kind of people. You will never meet them in your live, but you live in the same city. You just see them. That’s very interesting.
It changed our sound as well. One reason why I liked Berlin as a place for writing music was, that it was quiet and peaceful. We lived a little bit outside where nothing was happening, in Moabit, north western of Berlin. The only people who live there are families. And not a single club. I lived six months in Berlin and never went to a club, but I like clubbing in general. But in Berlin I found the time to write music. In Reykjavik there is a lot to do, a lot of parties to attend and people to meet. So Berlin was peace and quiet for us.
But what was the actual reason for moving to Berlin?
It was too expensive to fly back and forth to play our shows in Europe. We had so many gigs. But then we came home to Iceland to record one song and this song became very popular in Iceland. It’s called Qween and is on Retro Stefson. So we had to fly back and forth again, because we had huge gigs in Iceland and then we weren’t renting apartments and always flew back to Germany.
You are singing in many different languages. English, Portuguese, French, Icelandic… and you were in Germany. Can we expect a German song as well? And why do you sing in so many languages?
No, there is no German song planned. But I spoke in different languages since I was a kid. And it became very natural. When I am writing the lyrics and having a story, and the first word that comes into my mind is a Portuguese word, then I just write it down. Instead of finding an Icelandic word for it. And that happened in a lot of songs. But on the new album everything is in English.
How did you learn all these languages?
Because our mother is from Angola, South Africa, and our father is from Iceland. But they met in Portugal. That’s where we were born and where we lived until I was 5. Then we moved to Iceland.
And the French part?
Our father gave us a dictionary once when we were going to Paris for vacation. And we were just looking inside and thought “Yeah, cool words!”.
Do you believe in music as a fulltime job or is it more like a hobby to spend you freetime?
It is definitely a fulltime job, or no, it is more like a religion. You have to be in it, or not. That’s what I think. And if I would start doing something else like working in a cinema loft I wouldn’t sleep at night, because I have to write this song. It has to be difficult and it has to be hard and it has to be fun. It is the same if you become a monk in writing music. Can you imagine at the age of 12, that you would own all the instruments that you own today? Because I was thinking about this. I’ve been moving a lot of times since we lived in Germany. And then I was wondering where is this keyboard and where is this monitor and where is all my stuff? And it’s everywhere. Some at my father’s house, some at my mother’s house. And when I was 12 I couldn’t imagine, that I have this army of gadgets. And now I have. And I realize that it is more than a hobby. We were talking about this today. You can be a fisher, because you like fish, for example Salmons and Trout. But you can also be a fish biologist. That’s the difference about being a musician. You can be the hunter or the scientist.
At the end I would like to ask you, what do you think about the two words “hope” and “passion”?
[Hermigervill]: [calm] You can’t get anything without both of these things. It is prerequisite. What is life without this? It would be a meaningless existence.