Photo by Guðný Lára Thorarensen and Guðmundur Óli Pálmason
Nearly 20 years after their formation, Iceland’s Sólstafir are set to release their fifth full-length Ótta early next month. Following one of the most ambitious releases of Sólstafir’s career thus far, the double-album Svartir Sandar, Ótta maintains that album’s sonic breadth with a more balanced and focused sense of composition. With a compositional approach that can be both orchestral and commandingly heavy at the same time, Sólstafir’s music has greatly evolved since the band’s early days with the sound becoming less an echo of what’s come before them and more a distinctive sonic exploration that is wholly their own. Vocalist/guitarist Aðalbjörn "Addi" Tryggvason talked to Noisey about Ótta and why the Smashing Pumpkins are one of the greatest bands of all time.
Below, Noisey has the exclusive stream of Ótta, which is out on September 2. Pre-order it here.
Noisey: It’s been three years since Svartir Sandar. It was an incredible album and saw you guys exploring a broader, even more orchestral aesthetic. Was there a different approach with Ótta?
Sólstafir: These two share that in common, that they are the only two albums that we have sort of set down and said, well, we can write a new album now. We wrote Svartir Sandar in like three months. So we sort of discovered that we could write an album like that. So we sort of did the same approach with this one. Working related ideas that we are going to work as a unit from ten to four every day for almost three months. Music wise, we don’t know what’s going to happen. Ideas will affect one another in rehearsal. Ideas will cook up. Everyone brings their own ideas through the door. So, we don’t know what’s going to happen. We can only write Solstafir songs. We can’t really do anything else. If we would do the same thing tomorrow, start writing a new album, it could be a totally different album. It’s just like we’re some sort of slaves: human radio antennas. Whatever’s gonna come through, we’re gonna put it on the tape.
I think that’s something that’s always translated through Solstafir’s music very clearly, that you guys are more conduits for this music and you’re not necessarily pushing any idea or direction. You’re letting the music come through you.
I think in reality, whatever you read or see or listen to, you’re bound to be inspired by it whether you admit it or not. The last six or seven years, I’ve been listening to Neil Young a lot. So, there’s a lot of Neil Young influences there. It’s like you’re building a dam. Let’s say we’re building the Hoover dam and we’re filling the dam with all sorts of crap – all this crap being music. So then we’re going to explode the dam and we don’t know how this stuff is going to get piled up again – some unconscious Neil Young inspiration, along with Joy Division influence that will stick together – you don’t know man.
You mentioned Joy Division and Neil Young. My question for you is where did it start for you? When you think about your coming into music and discovering music, where did that start for you?
As a kid, it was Michael Jackson. I remember the first cassette that I bought was Thriller. My mom had bought Thriller. And then of course I got my first vinyl which was Led Zeppelin I from my mom. The first CD that I got, well, the first CD that I stole was Ride the Lightning. The first CD that I got was Scream Bloody Gore. So then of course it was death metal, Led Zeppelin, and The Beatles; Slayer, all of that. So I guess as long as I’ve been a human being I’ve always been a metal head.
I’ve had an affair with the Beatles—Lennon—I’m education myself about what The Beatles are about. What is Thin Lizzy about? You know, the last six years, I’ve been exploring Neil Young. Getting a doctorate degree in Neil Young. It’s always been the metal stuff and rock and roll. I can’t escape that. It’s like breathing oxygen. But I’m always having affairs with other stuff—it’s like putting all sorts of influence in your top hat.
Do you remember a specific point in time where you heard an album or a song and said “Okay, this is what I want to do—I don’t want to only be a listener anymore. I want to create this music. This is something that I have to do.” Was there a moment like that for you?
Something about “Jump In the Fire” from Kill ‘Em All. When I heard that, I was like, “What the fuck is this?” I’d been listening to some Michael Jackson and then AC/DC came along, of course—but that album, it was nothing like “This is what I’m going to do,” but it twisted some knob, I guess. My dad had an amplifier and a bass guitar; I was always a bass player as a kid. I learned piano and then started skateboarding, so piano became uncool and I started playing on my dad’s bass guitar. From the day that I remembered myself, I’ve always been playing an instrument. From six to ten—piano, bass guitar from ten to sixteen and then I started playing guitar. It’s just like having two feet. It’s always been there. I can’t really remember life without playing an instrument or having it in my life. It’s always been in my surroundings.
How have you seen yourself evolve as a musician since then, and have you seen your perspective to the music you create change in certain ways?
I’ve never mastered one instrument. I can still write a bit on piano because I learned as a kid. Then I played bass. Then I played a drum kit as a kid. It may be a bit difficult to explain—no, I never think of myself in that sense as a music writer since I don’t use music song structures. It’s sort of like a punk band because we rebel these rules. We don’t know them. I’ve said this before: there are a few rules if you’re going to make it as a band. Don’t open up with a ten-minute instrumental song. Don’t open up the next album with a 19-minute song. There are stupid things that Simon Cowell will tell you as a young kid: don’t do this if you want to make it. It always comes natural to kind of follow your heart somehow. We build our songs around our ideology about music at any given time.
I think it’s great that you mention Simon Cowell. I think it represents not necessarily a problem but a prospective on music that is very endemic for people today. When you think about the popularity of extreme and heavy music, and the culture that has been associated with that since the band began, what’s been your perspective on the culture of extreme and underground music since Solstafir began in 1995? Where do you see Solstafir in that spectrum and in that timeline?
Of course, black metal was reigning during our beginning... and then death metal and Pagan metal and now it’s this occult and 70s rock that is really popular. It all comes in waves and trends. I think we’ve withstood through all that. People are always trying to pinpoint what we are doing. There was one certain time that we basically made a career decision that we weren’t going to jump on that Viking metal train, we weren’t going to jump on that bandwagon. Amon Amarth, you know, they mastered it. We had it all coming. We are from Iceland. We were singing in Icelandic. We use Norse mythology in our lyrics. Simon Cowell would tell you to do that. We didn’t want to do that. Probably a stupid idea because we would’ve made more money in that, but we probably would have killed ourselves. We sort of decided not to do that. Imagine this: we listened to Dark Throne and then I discovered The Smashing Pumpkins. Smashing Pumpkins changed the way I approached my guitar and wrote riffs.
Really? That’s awesome.
Maybe I’m diverting away from your question. [Laughs]
No, no. Feel free if you’re gonna talk about the Pumpkins.
Are you a Pumpkins fan?
Very much so, man. Kind of cut my teeth on Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie.
Well, there’s not many people that realize this, but the Pumpkins always had these eighth fret tones, and you can hear it. There’s not many guitar players who do that. I should be saying Hetfield or whatever, but it’s Corgan. He was heavily influenced by Phil Lynott from Thin Lizzy. He just has this tone, man, and it sort of changed the way I write on guitar. Pumpkins were always about heavy music and then quiet music, and we sort of did the same thing. It’s such a funny thing because they have the most stupid name in the world, and people associated them with grunge. I don’t like Pearl Jam. It’s nothing to do with Smashing Pumpkins. I think the Smashing Pumpkins are one of the greatest bands that I’ve seen in my generation. But people don’t see that, I think. Seriously? Just listen to this shit. Even when I have the kids in the car and we listen to “Rhinoceros” I go: “Oh my god, I would have killed at least seven people if I would have written that riff.”
“Zero” still has one of the heaviest fucking riffs I’ve ever heard.
Yeah! And James Iha even said in an interview once that he always thought of it as some sort of Judas Priest song, because it does sound a bit like “Painkiller” if you think about it. The second riff is like “Painkiller.” Corgan was sort of a metal guy in disguise because he was a guitar shredder with guitar solos, and then he was of course using Big Muff like Kyuss and throwing a little bit of stoner into it and all these Thin Lizzy influences and Joy Division influences. So yeah, I could talk about The Smashing Pumpkins all day, and then they have the best drummer in the world so. [Laughs] It changed a lot. If you add that a little bit with the Fields of the Nephilim then you sort of have us. I’m telling all our inside secrets now. [Laughs]
What’s ahead for you guys this year once the album’s released?
This year’s been quite interesting. We finished the album in January or February. We toured America in May and did all those festivals in the summer. Now summer’s over and we’re about to write the score for a movie here—an old classic. So that’s coming up. Then we have two gigs and then in November we have a four-week European tour, and we’re gonna fly out from that to you guys. So we have a seven-week tour coming up, so we’ll be rise and shine when we come the US and A. [Laughs]
J. Dick may or may not be in a Smashing Pumpkins fan club.