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Interview: CeaseTone (IS)

The wait for the debut album by CeaseTone has been a bit of a long one. The band’s de facto leader and principal songwriter, Hafsteinn Þráinsson, has been worrying over these songs since 2014, tweaking them and refining them every step of the way. But, today, at long last, Two Strangers is finally, officially in the world. We couldn’t be more thrilled for the band, and couldn’t be more thrilled to hear this full vision, which brings together a tart electronic pop mind into the body of a passionate rock band.

To help celebrate the release of Two Strangers, we are going to let you hear the full album right here, as well as treat you to the interview with did with Hafsteinn and drummer Sólrún Mjöll Kjartansdóttir at this year’s SXSW Festival when both were preaching the gospel of CeaseTone on their first American tour.

This is your first time playing shows in the U.S. How has that been going so far?

Hafsteinn Þráinsson: It is not as hard as many of the other tours I’ve tried because there have been a bit of a space between shows. The way this tour has been organized, all the gigs we’re doing are with the Icelandic Embassy, so it’s like good hotels. I was in Boston, and going to have the same gig in Chicago after this.

It’s a pretty big deal for a band from Iceland to come over here and play shows like SXSW, right?

Hafsteinn: I don’t know. I think not a lot of Icelanders know what SXSW is. Everybody in the industry does but the common knowledge isn’t that great.

You came to the States as a duo. Was that just a way to cut costs on your first trip overseas as a band?

Hafsteinn: Yeah. There was so much confusion when we started organizing this. First we thought I was just going to go on my own because we didn’t think there would be the budget. But then we got this thing with the Embassy, and it turned out we could have actually taken all the members with us. But it was too late. Everything had already been organized.

Is it a huge thing to have the Icelandic Embassy supporting the band like this?

Hafsteinn: I guess it is a bit of confirmation for us that we’re doing something right. In part it was becasue we had been accepted to SXSW and Axel [Flovent] was also accepted. And our managers just pitched this idea to Iceland Naturally, the ones organizing this stuff. They wanted to help. It made perfect sense. This is a program that’s been going on for about 10 years or so, called “A Taste of Iceland.”

Your music an interesting mix of electronic and traditional rock elements. How do you balance that out? Who handles the songwriting and production side of things?

Hafsteinn: It started out as a solo project. The whole album process works almost like a solo project. I work a lot with Þórarinn [Guðnason] who gives me a lot of perspective on a lot of songs. I always had this concept of mixing pure electronic and pure acoustic elements together, finding this balance. I mean, like, just having acoustic guitar and raw synth. To have it really clear, the differences in sound. That’s what I tried to get out of all the songs but with different variations. In “Full Circle,” we go from the verse being just synths and electronic drums, and you go over to the chorus which is electric guitar and full blast rock drums, and so on. The album is called Two Strangers because I’m always creating these new connections. Everything in the new album is like these two things contradicting each other.

Is it mostly you recording everything then?

Hafsteinn: I started doing the demos at home and I laid out everything and made templates. Then we went to the studio with Sólrún and recorded some drums, but then I recorded the rest. It’s a lot of sampling and it is a lot of electronic drums as well. I sampled over the acoustic drums and so on. But I did a lot of the recordings for the album myself. For the vocals, I just set up a booth at home in my garage. I was really lucky that I had really hi-tech gear to play with and three months for myself, which can be good or bad. You can start losing your ides and don’t know what sounds good or bad. Then you can hear “The Bright Side,” which is our new single. That was recorded completely by me at home. That song came really late and you can kind of hear it in the mix, it’s a lot different than the rest.

How has it been adapting those songs to play live and have a full band bring that sound alive?

Hafsteinn: There used to be five of us. We had an extra keyboard player. It has been this search for a simplified set up, which delivers everything. Right now, we are four members and I just started to incorporate a lot of playback, which ties everything together. Putting all the ambient synths and some of the backing vocals into the playback, so we don’t have to have an extra member to do that. For Sólrún to play with a click track, it just started to be way tighter. A lot of drummers don’t like playing with a click track but I’ve seen it done really well. Like with Agent Fresco, who I’ve played with a bit, we always use play back. It always works for this kind of music.

Your lyrics seem to come from a very deep, emotional place. How do those come to you? Are you simply writing things down as they come to you or it is being affected by the music?

Hafsteinn: The lyrics and music always come from two different places. I started “The Bright Side”…the reason why it came in so late is because I was doing a song for a commercial for a meat company in Iceland, and I got this reference that I was supposed to make something a bit similar. I just really started liking the track and started working a bit more with it. The reference I got was kind of dark, so I just made a whole song out of it. The melody was one of those melodies where it’s the first one I sang over it and, like, “Oh yeah, that works.” I usually write lyrics when I’m hung over. [laughs] The doubts you have in life and all that stuff gets to the surface. I think with “The Bright Side” is just something…last summer, I was hitting rock bottom with my musical career. There were so many doubts about how this was going to play out. I just finished the jazz guitar lessons that I had been in for five years and I was going to start classical composition, but right after that things really started to work out. I got a bunch of projects like Axel and Agent Fresco and all that stuff.

Is that something that you do a lot of, writing music for commercials?

Hafsteinn: Occasionally. Sometimes I do some beats for hip-hop artists. Nothing you might have heard of. Just some dudes who asked me for some stuff and paid me a little money for it. I have done things for a sketch show in Iceland. You just have to be diverse to be able to do anything in Iceland. And I work as an audio engineer. That’s where I make most of my money.

What about your choice to sing in English rather than Icelandic?

Hafsteinn: It’s so hard to make things sound good in Icelandic. You have bands like Moses Hightower who have the best lyrics. And you’re always not going to be able to write something that good. Things get more accepted in English. You don’t have to be this lyrical genius.

Many of the other Icelandic artists we’ve talked to have pointed to the arts education programs in the country and how much they helped put them on the path to be in a band and be a working musician. Was that the same for you? What inspired you to start making music?

Sólrún Mjöll Kjartansdóttir: I started playing piano when I was three, and when I was six, I started playing bassoon. I didn’t like it because I wanted to play cool songs, like Stevie Wonder which is pretty hard to play on bassoon, especially when you’re six. I wanted to feel the power so I started playing drums when I was 10. Then I got to play in a couple of projects like this old blues rocker in Iceland who is pretty famous there. Bubbi Morthens, who’s like the Icelandic Bob Dylan. That became my job last year and that’s really nice to get paid for what you love to do. Especially if it’s music.

Hafsteinn: For me, my dad is a huge music enthusiast. He has thousands of records and knows more about current music than I do. “Hey, man, have you checked out the new Drake album.” [laughs] Always trying to stay relevant. He always pushed me into this old stuff when I was a kid. Then I was just playing with his guitar and my mom had a guitar, and I was always doing some stuff on it. I never really thought, “Oh yeah I’m going to start learning!” I just got a guitar and started picking up songs. Then I got into the jazz thing when I was 15 or so. Finished that at 21. It became a chore to study when I was in high school, but it has always been this thing that I never have to think about. I just do it.

How do you feel learning jazz and playing blues have influenced the sound of CeaseTone?

Hafsteinn: I think the chords voicing and progressions sometimes…they’re not jazzy but there is the feeling that, “Oh I can change scales and tunings.” It gets sometimes a bit pretentious if you start using a lot of jazz chords in this music so you have to know when it’s appropriate and when it’s not.

So much has happened to this project in what seems like a really short period of time. Does that feel the same way to you or does it feel more natural?

Hafsteinn: I’ve been working on this album for so long, I don’t feel like that. That’s a good thing because so many things changed with the songs in this time period.

Sólrún: And as a full band, we are pretty new.

Hafsteinn: We started recorded it in late 2014 but then we added in three more songs that, I think, are really important. “The Bright Side” is something that people have reacted the best to so far. And I didn’t start working with Þórarinn until last summer. There was this other guy who did the recordings and was a friend of mine that I wanted to have finish the record but he has a full time job at Harpa, so he didn’t have the time. Then I felt like Þórarinn is going to take it to the next level. It’s one thing to work with a guy who knows how to mix, but it’s another working with a guy who has this musical intuition and takes it a bit further.

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