GUSGUS ARE FOREVER
Published in Grapevine Magazine: Issue 3 on Thursday, March 08, 2007
Icelandic dance music pioneers GusGus recently released their long-awaited fourth full-length album. Entitled GusGus Forever, many of its tracks have been driving Reykjavík clubs wild for a long time, building up anticipation with the city’s dance-crazed kids. Now, they rejoice. The Grapevine sat down one of them to discuss Forever, their music, their live shows and to take part in the imminent hype-fest.
The end was near and the heat had already been turned off by the time I visited the GusGus studio in the now-defunct Klink & Bank art factory, the place where most of their new LP, GusGus Forever, was conceived. It was autumn of 2005 and Klink & Bank was to close down in a matter of weeks. There were quiet streams of people all over; musicians, artists and architects gathering and packing the products of their labour and the tools of their trade to be moved to strange new locations.
Programmer Birgir Þórarinsson (usually referred to as Biggi Veira in GusGus paraphernalia) welcomed me to GusGus’ part of Klink and Bank and told me about their recently finished album, the sounds that inspired it and the tools used to make it. He did this for well over two hours, regardless of the cold, and of the fact that he was very busy and could only squeeze me in for half an hour. That particular rant started, like most good monologues, with a stupid question. “What does this thing do?” I asked and pointed at a strange looking deck of some sorts that had a seemingly infinite number of brightly coloured cords coming out of it. He proceeded to tell me and didn’t really stop after that.
Playing me songs, humming melodies, explaining the workings of various transistors, oscillators, filters and gates, he just kept on going. I remember thinking that any musical outfit that has him aboard need not worry about their creative side. His sheer interest and involvement – his passion for the music, if you pardon the cliché – struck me then, as would it strike me when I next sat down for an interview with him nearly two years later. The album that was reportedly completed two years ago was just seeing a release. This fact invites the amazingly bad pun of asking if it’s called Forever because it took that long to come out.
After a polite laugh, he answers; “No, the story with the name is that Stebbi [Stephensen, AKA President Bongo] was DJ-ing in Russia at some point. We’ve had a fair amount of success there and in the eastern bloc – too bad that the profit from album sales there rarely finds its way back to us – so people knew who he was and were lining up outside the club he was playing. As he was passing the line, someone from there shouted ‘GusGus forever!’ Hence the name. I take it as a compliment to our music, the thought that it has its place in eternity.”
Rhythms that Tear Bodies Apart
As for the delayed release, Veira explains that band members’ pregnancies are mostly to blame. “And I have a full-time job, I have an expensive lifestyle now, and a family to support. No use playing bohemian any more.” He adds that the band actually had an album ready for release in the summer of 2004. “It was ready and we were intent on putting it out, but I ultimately felt it wasn’t… enough. It was a good album. My wife says it was great and all. But the material hadn’t advanced enough from what we did on [2002’s] Attention, more like a spin-off of that album. I wanted to go further. I had a very strong concept in mind, which was ‘degeneration’, and I felt we hadn’t gotten that tone just right by then. But then we did, and Forever is exactly the way it was supposed to be.”
He tells me that many of the songs off the 2004 version show up on Forever unchanged. However, as the forum GusGus have been affiliated with since evolving from the nine-person art troupe it began as is ever changing and, well, fickle, this begs the question if those songs are still relevant today. Are GusGus simply so ahead of the times that they defy trends, or make them, rather than follow? Veira has thought about this too.
“Well, it’s true that things get dated very fast in this scene. Those who put something out that’s reminiscent of last year’s sound get dismissed immediately. You can divide those who make our kind of music into two groups, what you may call pioneers and followers. The line between the two is vague, but for the purpose of the topic, we could say that some people working within the field are exploring and creating in their music, just as any artist would. And then there are the producers, whose aim is rather to make a cool song for the club, what’s in right now at the cost of their own voice. They feel no need to search for the boundaries of creation, rather opting to manoeuvre their beats so they’ll work in the club. You’ll usually get a hit that sounds like the others and is catchy for a few plays, but has no real longevity, because nothing special was put into it. Even if it is a great song.
“With those that keep searching, the music seems to have more ingredients; their music always has a longer lifespan. Last year saw a sort-of revolution in German minimal-techno that’s really influenced the sound that’s in vogue right now. And that sound is in the vein of some of our songs from 2004, for no particular reason, except maybe that we never chase trends or make music using the sound or rhythm that’s ‘hip’ right now. We use the same instruments that we used in ’92, we do things on our own terms, and it is pure coincidence that what comes out is suitable for clubs. It’s because I am a sucker for rhythms that tear your body apart.”
More Kiss than Kraftwerk?
GusGus seems a very trendy and fashionable band. Just witness the accompanying pictures. In fact, they are in all likelihood the trendiest bunch of hipster thirtysomethings in Reykjavík, nay all of Iceland (Björk has turned 40, and she is more of an institution than a person). GusGus make hipster music, which in turn gets played at hipster clubs. They wear hipster clothing. They have hipster names. They have hipster haircuts, and those of them that grow facial hair grow it in a hipster fashion. Of course, this says nothing about the band or its music. If it did, then there would be little more to say. But this fact accentuates that GusGus has an evolved and seemingly thought-out image appeal, unusual for their brand of techno, which has throughout the years been decidedly anti-celebrity. More Kiss than Kraftwerk in terms of presenting themselves, as is evident on the cover of Forever, where each member is presented in an iconic fashion.
Veira tells me that while it has always been a part of dance music dogma that fans should experience and celebrate the music rather than its makers, the band has always had fun playing around with their image on album covers, etc. “Trying to personify the music, characterise it. The idea with the icons is not exactly a claim to be worshipped. It’s more like an attempt to personify us in this way, and to convey the idea that every person is a saint…”
Every member of GusGus, or just people in general?
“Every person, of course [laughs]. We are all a part of God, you know. Not made by him, but we have a part in him, in the divine. We all keep a part of the divine within ourselves. And this is why we are all saints, and we need to see ourselves as such, to respect each other and ourselves.”
The Edge of Reason
Our talk somehow shifts to Gusgus’ notoriety as a live act. Their hometown shows, which usually take place at downtown club NASA, are infamous for their party hearty atmosphere and have long since surpassed any cult status bestowed upon the band (that sells around 1.000 copies of its each release domestically), selling out every single time. Veira tells me that the band always puts a lot of effort into each concert it throws, and that they differentiate from many techno bands’ live sets by keeping it organic, so to speak. “I usually have each part of a given song available while on stage, that way I can mix and extend the track in accordance with the vibe of the room, so I can interact with the crowd.
“You try and create something new while on stage that way, not going by a set timeline. The interaction between [Gusgus singer] Earth, Stebbi, myself and the crowd along with that freedom means that every show is a bit different and there’s invariably something new going on. Therefore, it’s always very exciting to play the songs, like ‘what’ll come out of it now?’ every single night. And sometimes, when you manage to ride a successful combo to new peaks, you wind up stepping back and going: Yes! Something awesome just happened.”
I turn the talk to our Klink & Bank interview, where he told me that their live show shared influences with sleaze-rockers Trabant. “A certain atmosphere came to be through the Klink & Bank wing we shared with the likes of Trabant and Ghostigital, one that defined a live show as the best place to explore the limits of the music you’re creating. Everything’s at your fingertips at a live show: you have the powerful sound system, the pulsating crowd and sweaty performers – the moment is now. And that creates a need to do something unique, to blossom, more than fiddling in the studio ever will. You try and take the show as well as the music to the edge of reason. And people fuckin’ dig that. Understand?”
Earlier in our talk, Veira spoke of degeneration as an underlying theme or concept he had wanted for the album. When pressed on the subject, he relays his vision of the state of the western world today, that it has reached its peak and is slowly but surely deteriorating and degenerating right now. “We’ve seen this happen with every great culture,” he says. “Our grip on the world is declining. Something will replace it, but we don’t know what. That’s causing a lot of anxiety in society. People are afraid of the idea of anarchy, of the unknown and of each other, and that causes countries like the US to react violently to ensure their place in this faltering world. People are naturally scared, that’s a normal phase.
One of the clearest signs of degeneration is when societies lose their value systems; we don’t even know what our values are anymore. 150 years ago it was very clear what we stood for and would fight for, but the lines have blurred and a lack of direction has taken their place. This makes people scared, as I said, but it also invites for new ways of doing things. What’s happening is the degeneration of the old, an invitation and a chance to try something new. Really, the parties in Rome were probably never as fun as during the last days of the empire. One of the things we’re saying in our music is: anything goes. Listen to your heart.”
Is the ultimate message of GusGus then that of escapism, of dancing while the city burns?
“Well, I guess you could call it that. Liberation from the fear of change. Even though there are a lot of scary things going on in the world as it is today you can’t be afraid of finding your own ways, of being true to yourself and independent of reigning forces and values. There’s nothing more to be found there, we need something new, and in order to do that we need to be liberated from the old and degenerated.”
GusGus will celebrate the release of Forever with a live show at Nasa on March 24.