by Dan Grunebaum
There’s more to Iceland than Björk or even Sigur Ros, says Bardi Johannsson on his first visit to Japan.
“You can pronounce Bang Gang like you want. Whatever makes you happy,” offers Bardi Johannsson casually. I’m in a vast conference room at Universal Records, interviewing Johannsson about his unit Bang Gang’s forthcoming first release in Japan. Johannsson is here for a concert at the Aichi Expo, and his local record label ICELANDia has organized a day of publicity in Tokyo with the help of distributor Universal.
Created as a “surf band for the Arctic Ocean” by Johannsson and a friend in high school, Bang Gang became a one-man rock-tronica production unit when Johannsson, later asked to contribute some tracks to a compilation, couldn’t come up with a better name.
Bang Gang first came to attention in 1998 when one of those singles, “Sleep” was noticed by Warner’s East-West imprint in France. A further single, “So Alone?,” became an MTV hit in Europe, leading to the release of Johannsson’s debut album.
Like many Icelandic artists, Johannsson has had to set his sights on a worldwide market from the start. “It’s impossible to make a living in Iceland unless you make shitty records that sell a lot domestically. That’s why we have separate pop and indie scenes, because the pop crowd just thinks about selling records, they don’t think about how they feel when they’re making the music. But there are only 350,000 people, so why try to make some shitty music just to sell 8-12,000 records in Iceland?”
Needless to say, Johannsson puts himself firmly in the indie camp, which he describes as small but cooperative. “The indie people are the ones selling either 50 records in Iceland or a lot abroad, like Sigur Ros.”
But Johannsson’s indie leanings don’t mean his music is inaccessible. On the contrary, his new album Something Wrong is full of simple, striking melodies and hypnotic electronic beats, made doubly approachable by the presence of a number of come-hither female sirens.
For the first time, the album also saw Johannsson stepping up to the mike himself. “I was singing on the demos, and everyone said I should just sing it myself. But some of the songs I thought would sound better with a female voice, so either I had to cut off my balls—but that would create a problem because when I have to sing with a lower voice, I’d have to sew them back on; I would need testicles that I could plug in like a microphone—or just have a female singer. I decided that would be easier.”
Johannsson’s longtime contributor, the enticing singer-actress Esther Talia Casey, remains a force on the new album. She sings on two tracks, including the forebodingly seductive title song, in which she coos, “Can you feel what is wrong? Can you do what you want?,” and answers, accompanied by sexual sighings and evilly acidic guitars, “I can feel what is wrong. I can do what you want.”
Pressed on the meaning of his lyrics, Johannsson is reticent. “I don’t want to explain them. It’s for me to write and you to understand. I have my way of understanding and I’ve never wanted to talk about it—and it’s not fair to some people.”
Since he’s not fo rthcoming, it’s impossible to know exactly what Johannsson is getting at. But it’s clear that he hasn’t shied away from controversy in his career as a musician and video producer. “I produced and co-wrote the first Icelandic erotic show,” he boasts. “It was hard to get people to be in the show because everyone knows everyone.” The program, he says, became the highest rated on its TV channel.
The moodiness of Something Wrong is also a product of Iceland’s dark climate and Johannsson’s nocturnal lifestyle. “It fucks up your head a bit. But I go to sleep at six in the morning anyways. Sometimes I don’t even notice the difference between the seasons because I stay inside too much.
Iceland’s violent history is also in the background. “The Icelandic sagas are very rock’n’roll—very brutal and nice,” he says without a trace of irony. “This is what we are raised with—and drinking some stuff and vomiting in someone ’s face and pulling out his eye.”
But don’t expect Johannsson to call on Icelandic tradition in his songs anytime soon. “If you have a fetish, you might like it. But for me it’s like bad rap. I like the guy who does it with Sigur Ros, but you can like the guy and not like what he’s doing.”
Something Wrong is available on Alljos Entertainment’s ICELANDia Records, which is releasing a number of albums by Icelandic artists previously unavailable in Japan.