Mount Esja is Reykjavik's own mountain. Most of the time with a little bit of snow on "her" top, even in summertime. But suddenly there is a band called Esja.
Reykjavik.com, September 2007
Esja, a New Peak in the Musical Landscape
Sveinn Birkir Björnsson
Picture of Esja members Daníel and Krummi
In many ways, this is an unlikely union. The coalition of former GusGus frontman, and now a successful solo artist, Daníel Ágúst, known for his enchanting and delicate melodies and experimental pop-electronica; and the prince of Icelandic metal, the rough and rugged Mínus frontman, Krummi.
Who brought them together? Merle Haggard, that’s who. They both share the love for country and western music and for a few months the pair of them has been collaborating under the monicker Esja making music that could best be described as alternative-country. Their live shows, where they are joined by drummer Frosti Runólfsson formerly of the deathmetal group Klink, and piano player Halldór Ágúst Björnsson have been well attended. And, after releasing a few demos on their myspace.com site, the duo has slowly been building quite a following.
A Grapevine reporter sat down with Esja for their first ever interview and learned a little about their friendship, passion for music and their longing for the road.
You guys are in some ways an odd couple, how did this collaboration begin?
KRUMMI: Well, I don’t think we are such an odd couple.
DANÍEL: We are both in the same Zodiac sign…
KRUMMI: Yes, we are both in the same Zodiac sign, there is exactly ten years between us, he is born in 1969, and I am born in 1979. He was considered to be, and is still considered to be, one of the most prominent singers in Iceland, so I don’t see much of a difference between us, except for those ten years. But I can tell you why we started working together. Unless you want to do it Daníel?
DANÍEL: No, you go ahead.
KRUMMI: We had been running into each other through the years, and there was this strange attraction between us. We really enjoyed talking to each other; we have similar humour and got to know each other quickly. We had a similar taste in music and shared many interests, so we became good friends. Then we started to talk about how we wanted to make music together. Some roots music, country music, so we ended up in Daníel’s Studio one night. It was raining outside and we had been drinking a little and the mood was right, so I just nailed down some basic guitar tracks in the studio. Then we went home to get some sleep, but when I returned the following day, Daníel had laid some vocals over the guitars I had recorded. After that, there was no turning back. We immediately saw we had something special on our hands, so we decided to try it.
DANÍEL: Yes, we felt there was a special chemistry at work.
KRUMMI: We fit together like peanut butter and jelly, like sugar and Cool Aid.
You both come from very different musical directions, and together you head off in a third direction, so to speak.
KRUMMI: That’s right. This is common among musicians; we don’t necessarily always listen to the kind of music we are usually playing. At least that has been my experience. Behind closed doors, I might be playing Merle Haggard or the Eagles. Some people think I sit at home and listen to death metal all day, or that Daníel is at home, dressed in his tight neon-green pants, listening to dance music. That is not the case. So, we just decided to follow our passion for this kind of music, master it, and make each other happy.
Where does this interest in country and blues music come from?
KRUMMI: This is the original music. Pop and rock music comes from this music.
DANÍEL: I don’t look at our music as following any genre. Of course, we draw an inspiration from what we are listening to, but this is not really a country band.
KRUMMI: Precisely, the music has actually been developing more in the direction of blues if anything.
DANÍEL: It was more of “joke,” so to speak, to start making country music.
KRUMMI: Exactly, it was more about just writing music, you know, just do what we like. We just want to make good music, regardless of any genres.
So, there was no intention to follow any particular musical direction?
KRUMMI: No we just wanted to make good music.
DANÍEL: Our lyrics are mostly about being on a journey, taking a road trip, being in motion. That is what happened when we started working together. Things were set in motion. That was my inspiration, that is what I wanted to sing about, setting things in motion and starting over.
KRUMMI: Yes, and that was one of the first ideas we had, to go on a road trip. We wanted to go to the Southern States in the US and make music there, in the right environment. But first, we had to find out if we could make music together, so we started to write, and that went so well, that we managed to write eight or nine songs in a few months. We managed to create our very own distinctive sound from the beginning and that is not something that happens every day. Some people spend years trying to find their own sound. It has been a very successful collaboration.
So, it was love at first sight, so to speak?
KRUMMI: Well, yeah, in a musical way, but we are best friends today also.
DANÍEL: There was something magical in the air.
I wanted to ask you about the names you have been using for yourselves in relation to this project, Spike Raven and Dapper Dan?
DANÍEL: Sometimes, you have to be able to make jokes at your own expense. This was just another way to spice it up a bit with some humour.
KRUMMI: Like, Spike Raven, my name is Oddur (lit: spike) Hrafn (lit: raven), and you know, Daníel is just always so dapper, the artful dodger, so Dapper Dan came easy. This was mostly just an inside joke for us. And it’s cool. But we will not be called that in the future.
You mentioned that there are ten years between the two of you, and you have been working on almost opposite ends of the musical spectrum, have you learned a lot from each other?
KRUMMI: Yes, a whole lot.
DANÍEL: Working with this guy inspires me in so many different ways.
KRUMMI: The feeling is mutual; to be working with Daníel is magical, good things just happen. To be working with someone who just comes up with a melody from thin air, from nothing, writes lyrics, and just approaches this like a professional, not because he has to, but because he enjoys it. That is in his nature, and it is very inspiring. And just the person he is. How he thinks, talks, and is in general. It has changed my life in certain ways to know that there is such a beautiful human being in this world.
DANÍEL: Of course I had a little more experience, I mean, ten years is always ten years, but the interest and the passion for music; that is the fundamental issue. He has his way own approaching music, I have my way of approaching music, and together, it is perfect.
How different is that approach?
KRUMMI: It is a bit different, but still, we haven’t been playing together long enough to really be able to define it properly. This is for instance our first interview, and we don’t really know how to behave. But that is all going to change. We don’t really want to define how we work all too much. We just do it.
DANÍEL: Krummi mentioned the improvisational element. I am used to working with a lot of improvisation, using something that comes to mind on the spot and just throw it in there, and then keep working on it. Krummi had a large collection of guitar lines and phrases that he had been collecting for years, without having the opportunity to really do anything with it in the environment he has been working in, with his band that is.
KRUMMI: I was never able to develop songs from these snippets I had, because I had never found the right melody or lyrics I was looking for, so I would just file it for storage. When I dragged it from the storage and played it for Daníel…
DANÍEL: …I started getting ideas from that directly
KRUMMI: Exactly. He would get ideas, and it became something. It was like we had both been waiting for someone to come along who would allow us to convey something that we had always wanted to express.
DANÍEL: Was it a coincidence or fate?
KRUMMI: I would say fate, for sure.
Had you been listening to each other’s music before?
KRUMMI: Yes, I had been following Daníel for a long time. I have always admired him as a singer and a performer.
DANÍEL: The same here.
KRUMMI: Some of the stuff he did in the old days is stuff that I like to listen to by myself at home and we have been coming to each other’s shows for years, where he is playing both as a solo performer and while he was playing with Gus Gus, I was there, and Daníel is always at Mínus’ shows.
DANÍEL: Yes, it is refreshing. Expanding the horizon, to try new things, see different landscapes, that’s something every good road trip should include.
Is it a humbling experience for you to hear how kindly you describe each other?
KRUMMI: Well, I am not exactly saying that we are running around naked with the hair dryer all night…
DANÍEL: No… but this is of course a confession of love through friendship and music.
You are both busy with other projects, Daníel as a solo artist, and Krummi with Mínus, who are just about to release a new album, is it difficult to find time for this?
KRUMMI: Yes, sometimes. We had decided to go on a road trip that we had intended to be on now, but you can’t just abandon your other projects.
DANÍEL: No, you have to follow through on the commitments you have made. But when that is over, we will focus on this project.
KRUMMI: We just try to find the time in between. That has been working for us so far. We don’t look at this as something we have to do; this is something that we want to do.
So when is the road trip planned?
KRUMMI: We can’t really say for sure. But it will take place. We just want to rent a car, drive on desolate roads and stay in obscure motels and meet people that we would otherwise never meet, under any other circumstances. Go to Memphis and pay our respect to the King. Just to be on the road, soak it up and get inspired. The idea is that we can reflect those encounters in the final product, which will be the album.
Krummi, you are somewhat showing a new side of yourself as a guitar player in this project. This was something of a surprise to some people.
DANÍEL: Obviously, he has been in a band with two guitarists, so it would have been ridiculous if he would have been playing guitar as well.
KRUMMI: Exactly, I never had an opportunity to express my inner guitar player. I have played many different instruments since I was a kid, just being around my father (Icelandic musician Björgvin Halldórsson). I have always loved playing the guitar, and always wanted to be a guitarist, I am not really a great guitarist, but I can play enough. I can deliver the effects I am looking to deliver, and I am always learning, especially after we started playing together, and it is just such a unique opportunity to be able to play in a band with such a great singer, and let my dream to be a guitar player come through.
DANÍEL: Yes, and I just get to sing. I have learned to focus on just the singing when I am performing, I can play a little guitar, and a little piano, but if I am doing that while I am performing, it just sucks the energy out of my performance, and I just want to focus on really delivering the words.
KRUMMI: Just follow your own passion; that is where you will find true happiness.
Wow, are you able to top that Daníel?
DANÍEL: I don’t think I can.