Benni Hemm Hemm - A Liberating Change
Benni Hemm Hemm is the band of Benedikt H. Hermannsson. The band’s first release was the "SummerPlate" EP, in the summer of 2003 and the first performance of the big band was in 2004. In February 2008 the band recorded their third LP, "Murta St. Calunga". The album was released in Iceland in June 2008 (on Kimi Records) and in Japan January 2009 (on Afterhours). In the summer of 2009 the album was released in Europe and the US (on Kimi Records) and later that year they recorded his third EP, “Retaliate”, Benni’s first collection of songs sung entirely in English and due out in April.
BHH have been going quite a few years now - can you give us an overview of how the whole thing started? Was it just you originally or a full band right from the outset?
It was all very unplanned. I came back to Iceland after studying electronic music in The Hague and had an urge to write a few very short and simple pop songs. Those songs ended up on my first EP, Summerplate, and initially I tried to play the songs on my own. When Kitchen Motors contacted me and asked me to play at their 5th anniversary I thought that the best way to do that was to get as many brass players as possible to play with me, as well as a drummer and a guitar player. And that was supposed to be a one off show. But we played more shows, added a bass player, and all of a sudden we had recorded an album and were playing a lot, and then we just kept going. That possibility hadn’t occurred to me before it happened.
Right from your "Summerplate" EP you had a very unique sound - one that Rolling Stone's Fricke described as “the ragged glories of Broken Social Scene and the sunshine prospect of Brian Wilson conducting a troupe of Salvation Army horns at a 1967 Smile session” - how well does his quote describe the BHH vision?
I’ve realised recently that there is quite a big difference between what I see and how people have perceived my band. And that is mostly about image, which is something I don’t care about at all. Therefore I have avoided everything that has anything to do with that, and I’ve tried my best to stay away from being holed up as something or the other. When people start listening to a new band there is a tendency to say that they are like some other band. Belle and Sebastian was my weight to carry. When Hjaltalín started out everyone said they were like Arcade Fire, which is absurd. Anyway, now I’m starting to realise that people in some places have this clear picture of what I am and what my band is like and they say it to my face: This is what you’re like and this is your best song. And often that sounds to me like they’re talking about another band. Having said that, Fricke´s quote sounds good, and I take it as a compliment, without a doubt. But I don’t really understand what it means. And it is therefore not the BHH vision. Maybe he’s right and I’m wrong – that’s actually highly likely.
What other kinds of influences (musical and otherwise) do you have as a composer or songwriter?
I find certain things very inspiring, but I can’t name bands that I’ve tried to sound like. I can’t name that kind of influences. I think that’s something to avoid at all costs. But going to see art exhibitions, reading English 19th century poetry, walking and physically moving in general...these things are the starting point of all my music. I’ve also been listening obsessively to Bill Callahan and Cat Power, and I just got an amazing record with French medieval music. This is also find this very inspiring.
Have you always composed all of the BHH songs or are some of them co-written?
I’ve always written all the songs. Except the cover songs of course...
How on earth did the band grow to such monumental sizes - and what's the biggest amount of people you've ever had on stage?
The really big versions are always made for special occasions. The normal size has usually been 9 or 10 people. The biggest version of the band is probably the one that performed at Iðnó in June 2008. That was over 40 people. But it also goes down to a trio and every now and then I play solo shows.
I know you've performed with various iterations of the BHH model, from solo takes on the songs to trios and quartets. Having such a big array of musicians in the studio must present an obstacle when it comes to touring?
At first I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. So I just took a 9-piece band on the road and hoped for the best. It was a lot of hard work to keep everything afloat but we always came out of it alive. I’ve also been extremely lucky knowing all these wonderful people that have been in my band, everyone I have toured with has been extremely nice and considerate to others, which is the key to making things work on tour. In general it’s just been great fun touring with my band, no matter what the size is.
You moved to Edinburgh a while ago - how has that affected you and the band in terms of writing / recording?
I moved to Edinburgh one and a half years ago. "Retaliate", the EP that’s coming out in April, is the only recording I’ve done after moving to Edinburgh. For me it has changed everything moving to Edinburgh. And changing everything and make a new start from a different place is a very good thing I think - it’s been very liberating for me. My songwriting has changed quite a bit. Of course I speak English here every day and often it reaches the point where I start thinking in English - and then I found myself writing songs in English. Which is great fun for me, because until I moved to Edinburgh I thought I couldn’t write songs in English the way I can in Icelandic. And I didn’t really have any need to do that, and honestly I didn’t understand why all these Icelandic musicians were writing songs in English. And I still kind of don’t understand it. But it’s happened very naturally for me, and I’m excited about that. But I’ve also been writing songs in Icelandic. And I have been exploring new ways of writing music, which has also been very liberating for me. One of the things I’ve been working on is a piece which will be performed at the Reykjavík Arts Festival. It’s an hour long piece which consists of 13 songs and is written in Icelandic and English, two lyrics which are sung simultaneously. Alasdair Roberts, a friend of mine and an amazing Scottish musician, will sing it with me. The piece is written for the two of us and The Reykjavík Wind Ensemble. But the biggest change for me after moving to Edinburgh is that I completely stopped caring about everything that has got something to do with the music industry. Not that I had a horrible experience with the music industry, but I just started focusing on writing music, performing it, and I’ve been fairly successful at staying free from everything else.
You've found quite a lot of good musicians to work with in Scotland, right?
Yes I have. I’ve been playing with Alasdair Roberts, who I mentioned earlier, Emily Scott, who performs under her own name, Owen Williams, who plays drums with The Pineapple Chunks, Bart Owl, who has a great band called Eagleowl, and then I have been playing with a few members of The Second Hand Marching Band. Now that’s a big band - there are usually more than 20 people on stage when they perform. And then I have been playing bass with a band called Withered Hand, which is the band of Dan Willson, who will be supporting me on the Europe tour in April.
How has the response been in general to Murta St. Calunga following the US / European releases?
Good, I think. Honestly I haven’t paid very much attention. But I think it’s good.
The album is a "fantasy journey through the world" - yet as a band you really have travelled the world! What have been your most memorable performances and places along the way?
Our trips to Japan and America were real adventures. Our shows in Vienna have for some reason always been magical. There’s too much to mention...
You're off on tour again next month: which shape will the shows take this time around, and what material will you be playing?
I’ll be touring with a trio for the most part. And we’ll be playing new songs, the songs from the new EP, and old songs as well.
Your show at the Reykjavík Arts Festival sounds particularly intriguing. Can you tell us more about that?
I was sick in bed, with a fever and shaking with pain, and then I suddenly got this idea to write a long piece of music for a wind ensemble and two singers, who sing in English and Icelandic simultaneously. And I lay in bed thinking about this for a while and realised that I was feeling perfectly fine and I seriously felt like the idea had healed me. It was ridiculous. But I took that seriously and started working on it right away. This was more than a year ago, and I just made the finishing touches to it a few days ago. I’m very happy with the lyrics, which stand out from everything else I’ve done. I wrote them in both languages at the same time, and I make use of all the different angles of that duality. Sometimes the words sound the same but have a different meaning, sometimes they sound completely different but have the same meaning. And the funny thing is that Icelandic and Scottish English are so similar, that often they sound the same and have the same meaning. And this results in a language you can kind of understand but not quite. And sometimes it sounds like Alasdair is singing in Icelandic, and so on. And working with the Reykjavík Wind Ensemble is very exciting as well. It will be a blast.
Where do BHH go from here musically, thematically and physically? Is there anything you haven't yet achieved as a band (or as a solo artist) that you'd like to?
I have a lot of songs written that I’m going to record soon. I’m going to record an album in Iceland this summer. That album will be sung in Icelandic only. I’m extremely excited about that. And then I’m working on an album with The Second Hand Marching Band, which is half done already, and planning to record another album in the autumn. Physically, I guess I’ll be in Edinburgh for the next few years. Then we’re headed back to Iceland I think. Yes, there are things I haven’t achieved, by myself or with the band. Fortunately there are. It wouldn’t be nice having nothing on the agenda.
And finally, what future plans do you have for your solo material, and how does it differ from the BHH project?
I try to avoid separating my different projects, so for me it’s all the same thing. I try to approach playing solo shows as Benni Hemm Hemm with the same mind set as writing for the wind ensemble for example. That’s much more exciting than boxing myself up and getting into the appropriate position for each project.
"Whaling in the North Atlantic" Video by They Shoot Music
Source: Iceland Music Export (IMX)