Guðmundur Óli Pálmason: “I think everybody has troubles in their life at some point. We are not special in any way, we just take those feelings and try to transform them into creative energy. We are not glorifying the darkness, but we have to deal with it anyways.”
Na het melancholieke ‘Móðurástin’ (2017) is Katla’s tweede album ‘Allt þetta helvítis myrkur’ zopas verschenen via Prophecy Productions en daarop laat het IJslandse duo Guðmundur Óli Pálmason (ex-drummer Sólstafir) en Einar Thorberg Guðmundsson (Fortíð, Potentiam) een verdomd matuur amalgaam van doom en post metal horen die beelden van de woeste IJslandse natuur voor je geestesoog tovert. Wij raakten daarover aan de praat met Guðmundur Óli Pálmason en het werd een interessant, uitgebreid en leerrijk avontuur.
Vera Matthijssens Ι 29 november 2020
How are you doing over there is Iceland?
Pretty good, considering the situation. Over here we also have more people being infected than during the summer and of course our economy has been hugely affected by the whole thing. Me, personally, I was working in the tourist industry. I was driving tourists, now there is no single tourist in Iceland. There hasn’t been a single tourist in Iceland for months. So, financially it is difficult and personally also, I haven’t seen my girlfriend for seven months now. It is definitely a very tough time and it is all because of covid-19, but we just keep on going.
We start where we ended the previous time, that was when the first album ‘Móðurástin’ came out. Were you a bit satisfied with how this album was received and things like that?
I don’t know, to be honest. There were some things about that album that I definitely liked, especially when it came out. Sure we were very proud of it and everything, like one always is when you make a new album. In hindsight, I think there were a lot of things that we would have done differently, doing it now. Obviously, because our new album is very different from the first one, so I think a lot has changed in our artistic approach and just the way we write music, the way that we produce, but, you know, an album is always the child of its own time and its own circumstances and it is totally futile to think we should have done this or that differently, because we always do the best we can at that time and we do it like we think it should sound at that time. This time around for example the biggest change was that we did not use an outside producer. We did everything ourselves and I think that results in something way much more that we want to sound, without having someone else, being the mediator in between. Thinking back on that first album now, if there is anything I dislike on it – dislike is not even the right word actually – if there is anything we would like to change on it right now, it would be the production of it.
That is a pro, that you can do the production yourself, because I remember back then it was already your aim to keep everything in the family so to speak…
Exactly. This time around, both me and Einar himself, we wanted to trust Einar for the production and I think it was probably more difficult for him than for me to take that step, because it obviously put all the pressure on him to do a good job with the production. I trusted him to do that and the result is something that we are very pleased with. Why would we have somebody else doing it, while he can do it? I think it make more sense to sound like we want to sound. Not by the ears of a third person. Even though the guy who had recorded and produced our first album is a good friend and everything. Nothing against him, but he is into different music and has different ideas than we have. So this is more us.
Some of the compositions – or parts of the compositions – should be ten years old. Is that true?
Even older. I can tell you the story about that. In 2006 Einar and me decided to make a side project together. We had worked together before, in a band called Potentiam. I recorded drums with Potentiam in 1999 on their album ‘Bálsýn’ and at the end in 2005. In 2006 we decided to make a side project. We wanted to approach the writing from a totally new angle, something we had never done before and to be honest, different from what I ever heard from any band doing before. So we went into the studio with no music at all and I recorded drums – only drums, no music – and Einar wrote music on top of these drum tracks. We made a whole album like that, but for few reasons that album was never released. We did not think about using any of those songs for our first Katla album, maybe because we were in a different mindset, but when it came to writing songs for our new album – we already had a few songs – we suddenly wondered and asked ourselves: why don’t we use those old songs? We re-recorded everything, so it is not the old recordings, but it is exactly the same songs. The structure of the songs is exactly the same and the structure by the way is very muddy, because they were written with just drums. So there is no verse, chorus, verse, chorus, but very fluent. There are two songs on the album and two songs on the special EP from that time. Those four songs are actually fourteen years old. And they are still some of my favourite songs.
If you still like them, it should be a pity to let them gather dust on a shelf…
Exactly and we never released anything of it fourteen years ago.
Einar used to live in Norway, but now he returned to Iceland. Isn’t it easier to work together now?
He was living in Oslo, even when we started the band. Even when we started working on our first full length album ‘Móðurástin’, he was still living in Oslo. I think all of the guitars for ‘Móðurástin’ were recorded in Oslo, but this time around he was already in Iceland for a couple of years. Well, probably it should have made a bigger difference as it actually did, because the way that we work is unlike any other band that I have been working in before, because mostly we send our ideas on files through internet. We don’t really meet each other that often. We talk on the phone. In the last few months we mainly met each other to take band photos. Other than that we don’t need to be that often in the same place at the same time.
Do you both live in Reykjavik itself?
Well, we both live in the Reykjavik area at the moment, but both of us are going to move away from that area. I just bought a house on the countryside and Einar is doing the same, but his house is on the other side of Reykjavik from me, so we are going to be further apart now, maybe two hours from each other or something like that, but it won’t affect the way that we work. It’s going to make some things easier, because we have more space. I already have my drums in my living room for instance. I could not do that in Reykjavik. If everything works well, we will be able to make more music this way.
It is an ongoing process indeed. That is also something that struck me in Iceland: they are really keen on modern facilities. They are open to techniques which are not so familiar yet in continental Europe, for instance, in the supermarket you cannot pay with cash anymore…
No, I think Iceland would already be cash free if it wasn’t for some people buying drugs. Maybe even drugs you can buy with crypto currency, I don’t know, I don’t do drugs. But indeed, in the last one hundred years, Icelanders have really embraced new technologies. Another example you can mention is the way we use hot water to heat up our houses. I think we always think that way, we always try to make life as easy as possible. Everything is heated by the volcano’s, we are never going to run out of hot water in Iceland. It is magical.
And still it is such a dark album. Of course I can understand that life is harsh in winter when you don’t see daylight for six months, it must be depressing…
Yes, honestly it is sometimes very difficult, especially when you are in battle with other things in your life. Both of us had to deal with shit, like everybody does. I think everybody in their lives has troubles at some point. We are not special in any way, we just take those feelings and try to transform them into creative energy. As difficult as it is sometimes, because these dark, depressing moods can be so overwhelming you know. The title of the album – as you might know – translates to: ‘all this fucking darkness’. It is very much like this fucking darkness, we are not glorifying it. This is fucking hard, difficult, but it is here and we have to deal with it.
In the title track we hear that huge storm, very typical for Iceland…
Yeah we got those North Atlantic storms here, I think at least five times every winter we have hurricane level storms. They can be hurricanes class 3 or 4, they are just not classified as hurricanes, because hurricanes spin, but these Icelandic winds they come straight of the Atlantic. Especially the south coast suffers from its brutal force. All of this of course affects us, being the inhabitants of this land. It is a cliché to say it, but it is a cliché because it is true. I think we would not sound the way we sound if we were from Bonn or Ghent or Lebanon. We should not sound like Katla if we were from those places and I think that goes for every band. Every band, every person, is a product of their environment.
That is true, surely for Iceland, because you have the urge or you have the kind of gift to express the nature of the island – which is extremely beautiful, but on the other side it can be extremely cruel as well – in the music. I think that is why it appeals so much to me…
Yes, I am happy to hear that and that is exactly what we are trying to do…like for example… we are not a full out doom metal band. We are not My Dying Bride. We are not complaining about my girlfriend left me and life is so hard. Why does everybody hates me? We are more dealing with… yes it is cold and dark, yes it is depressing, yes it is hard, but… there is always this ‘but’ at the end of our songs. There is always this little glimpse of light, so it is not a total misery I think.
Is there something special you want to free about the lyrics, a general tendency going on maybe?
Yes, definitely with this album I would say that the red thread running through all of the lyrics is darkness. It is in the album title and in every song, the lyrics deal with darkness of some kind. Some of it is internal and some of it is external. We are not just talking about Nordic winters, we are also talking about the darkness within one’s soul, which is not entirely exclusive to be a Nordic matter. What makes it worse here, talking from personal experience, I would say it is so much harder to fight the darkness of depression when there is external darkness as well. You don’t get sunshine, you don’t get daylight, and you feel like it is night all the time. It literally can be overwhelming, but on this album there is also a song like ‘Hvitamyrkur’ which is literally translated to ‘White Darkness’, it is a word that I invented by the way. I don’t know how it is in Flemish, but in German for example you can still change a word as long as you follow the grammar rules. Same with Icelandic. Thus ‘Hvitamyrkur’ means white darkness in one word. I wrote this lyric when I was driving these trucks that I was telling you about, but from a glacier in a total whiteout. I don’t think people understand what a total whiteout is. It means that it is so white that it is darker than dark, if that makes any sense. Because, when it is dark, you turn on the headlights and you see a little bit in front of you. But when everything is white, you cannot turn on any lights. You don’t see the difference between the ground and the sky. You don’t see if there is an abyss in front of you or it is just flat. You see absolutely nothing. I have been in these conditions a few times and it was a life altering experience to do that and drive solely by GPS. A very nice feeling, but you just have to trust your instruments. That’s how this lyric came to me. It is still about darkness in a way, because it is about being lost, it is about not seeing anything. It is the opposite of black darkness. You are still as blind, but you are blinded by white. Darkness in every form, even darkness in the form of light.
Yes, the heart of the country can be harsh, even dangerous for your life…
Oh yes, of course, being a professional, I know what I am doing. I don’t take chances that I don’t know or put anyone in risk. I also know, if I was there, not knowing what I was doing, I’ll be dead. It is as simple as that. These are potential dangerous conditions and when you experience something that is life-threatening – even though you are in a so-called ‘controlled environment’ like a car – but just step out the car, you are dead. One step can change your view on things.
That’s true and that’s how you try to deal with the elements of nature of course…
We always think, as humans, that we are in control, but we are not in control of nature. Nature can wipe us out. No matter if it is individual or as a whole species, but nature can wipe us out. For example, I don’t think we are killing the planet. We might be exterminating ourselves, we might be making the planet unliveable for ourselves, but nature in some way or form always survives. We are not above nature, we are way below nature. I guess that is also a very kind of heathen outlook on life. The only true God is nature. Nature in all its forms.
Makes me think of one of the thoughts about covid-19, the idea that it might be a revenge of nature. If there are too many people, nature wipes them out to find a new balance again…
I think you are right. I just don’t think that nature is conscious about that, but I think you are totally right, because the more populated we get, the more we also go into the territories of wild animals and that’s where a lot of these viruses come from. They say that corona came from a bat… we are going further and further into the territory of wildlife. Basically we are destroying it, but when we destroy it, we also take things back with us, like viruses. So yes, in a way it is nature’s revenge. In a way it is nature’s way of saying: hey stop! But it is just not a conscious thing.
If the permafrost is going to melt, new viruses will be spread over the earth as well…
Exactly. They have found viruses that have been frozen in the permafrost for twelve thousand years, since the last ice time ended. We don’t know what’s going to happen when it gets released. Well, we are reaping what we have sown. .
In the first song I was immediately struck by the chants and the general atmosphere… ‘Ást orðum ofar’, what does it mean?
It means ‘Love Above Words’. Hard to translate literally. I write most of the lyrics. Einar wrote some of them. I wrote this one. It means that love is unconditional. However, it is not very romantic, it is actually about my children. It is about how you cannot put into words how much you love them. Words cannot describe it. It also has a double meaning. No matter what you say, you cannot solve things by saying things, you need to do things. Love as an action to be above words. Do things make people feel that you love them, don’t just say things. Another double meaning is that something is so strong that you cannot put it into words.
I know that you are also a very good visual artist, involved in photos, the artwork and videos. How did it start? Was this interest in art already there when you were a child?
I was first taken by music, before I was taken by visual art. I was very much into music as a kid, by the age of ten I found heavy metal when I started listening to Metallica. I got music from my mother, my mother is very musical, but my father does not listen to music at all, but he had a camera. He used to take photos and stuff like that, but it was a proper camera. I was always a little bit interested in that, but it wasn’t really until I was in my twenties when I started playing around with the camera. Dropped it for a while, because I didn’t find myself in it. But when I was 27, I got into it fulltime. I have been doing it since then. You can say that I started relatively late doing visual art and for the first year it was just photography, I did not see it as art. It wasn’t really until five, six or maybe seven years ago that I started doing photography as an art.
When I look at the cover, it makes me chill, cold, desperate…
I am happy to hear that. It was one of the reasons why we formed Katla. It was not just to make music. I cannot remember if we talked about this in our previous interview, but of course most people know my history with my old band and how that led to me approaching Einar about making Katla. But a big part of it was not just because I wanted to make music, it was also because I needed to write lyrics. I had a lot of inspiration that I needed to get out. That inspiration came directly from my job as a tour guide by the way and the third inspiration was that I wanted a platform for my visual art. I told Einar from the start I was going to do all the visual art for this band. I have always seen Katla as a vehicle for Einar’s music – and some aspects of my music, I write some but not as much as Einar does – for our lyrics and thirdly for my visual art. Katla was literally created for this. So it is not like: we have a band, oh we need some visual art, what can we do? My goal for Katla was clear from the start.
What can you tell – in this respect – about the video clips you are making?
This is really the first time that I make proper videos. I did one video – well, I directed one video for my old band. I wrote the script and I did the production for the ‘Fjara’ video, it became very popular actually. Then I did one video for that band totally on my own, which was completely comprised of photographs, but I had never done the whole videography, never done a video completely by myself, except for that video that was comprised of photographs, but that is a little bit different. We just got this idea of making videos for Katla, but didn’t know how to do it, but finally we said: fuck it, let’s try. So we did a video for the track ‘Salarsvefn’ which will be released next week. Then after that video, I got the taste for it and then, when it was decided that ‘Farg’ would be the second single, I thought: Why don’t we make a video for ‘Farg’ as well? It is a very, very simple video, but for me, it was more about the concept rather than having it visually amazing, because – to be honest, here’s the thing – when we did the ‘Fjara’ video with Sólstafir, the whole video was my idea. I wrote the script, I found all the locations, I wanted it to be about Iceland, Icelandic nature and stuff like that,… We did that in 2011. How many times has that been copied now? All of these videos, foreign bands coming to Iceland, using Icelandic nature? Every single black metal band is releasing a video today with Icelandic nature… with bad shots that they bought on line… it has no soul to it anymore… and I say that as a tour guide who loves fucking Icelandic nature… but it has no fucking soul. So I thought with Katla, if someone should be making videos like this, it’s us, but no… we are not going to do it. We need to do something different. Why should we repeat a formula that – sorry if this sounds like bragging – I came up with about ten years ago. But I thought no, let us just do something different and I think you can tell that the ‘Farg’ video is different from other videos. It is not so professional to be honest, but it is different and the same will be when you see the ‘Salarsvefn’ video next week. It is also a little bit different.
You are right about the copying, it often happens that I wonder if it is from the same director as ‘Fjara’ because it is a popular clip…
It really is. I remember when we did ‘Fjara’ it was unheard of that a metal band was using nature like that and all these places. So yes we brought the mould there and I’d like to say that I had a huge part in making a new mould there, which became a template for all the bands to use, but in Katla I am not going to do that. I want Katla to be more artistic, if that makes sense. There is no need to repeat, especially there is no need to repeat what we have done in other bands. Of course, talking about that is a little bit frustrating for Einar, that Katla is constantly being compared to Sólstafir because Einar has nothing to do with Sólstafir. I think his song-writing is way above what Sólstafir is doing, especially today. I have not heard it, but I have been told that it sucks, I haven’t heard it. Some of the best music I made is definitely with Katla and I am not just saying that, but it is very soulful in a way, it has a lot of connection to it… Some of Sólstafirs music was also like that, but it got lost.
I think this goes further and deeper, is rawer, less catchy…
I think it also shows in one fact: I was very much stoked for Sólstafir to sing in Icelandic, because I felt this is who we are. Now I think they switched to English, I don’t care, I am not going to judge them, but for Katla we will never do that, because our souls speak in Icelandic. If we start to sing in English, we are not being honest about who we are. We are not talking from the heart.
You have paved the way of one of our trips in Iceland. Due to that ‘Fjara’ clip, I wanted to see that airplane and did the four miles walk…
Yeah we used to drive with those super jeeps down there, but that is not possible anymore. Now we have to walk. Last year or the year before, there was a Chinese couple that was caught in a storm while walking down there and the third song on our album – it is called ‘Líkfundur á Sólheimasandi’ – a very short and sweet title – is about them. ‘Likfundur’ means when a dead body is found and ‘Sólheimasandi’ is the black sand beach where the airplane is. The reason why that title came to me was because I was reading the news when this young Chinese couple unfortunately lost their lives in a storm there and I just thought that it is a nice title. I am sorry if I am a horrible person, but the title was too good not to use it.
No, in some way you honoured them…
It is not directly about them. It is an instrumental song anyway, there are no lyrics. I just liked that title.
What about ‘Husaviker Jon’?
That is Jon from Husavik indeed. He is a character from an old Icelandic folk tale. Basically, in the folk tale he is so evil that when he dies, he is not allowed into hell. So the devil gives him one piece of coal and said: go from the north and further down where it is very cold and you can start your own hell, because he has only one piece of coal, the hell-fires in his hell are very small and it is very, very cold. And this is a metaphor for Iceland. The hell that Husaviker Jon made, is Iceland and everybody in Iceland is a servant of Husaviker Jon. Basically what we are doing there is describing the very, very tough conditions that people lived with here in Iceland through the ages, basically up until the turn of the 20th century.
There is a bonus CD. The title is ‘Blótar Gömlu Goðil’, what does it mean?
It is hard to translate directly. It means like sacrifices to the old gods, or worshipping the old gods. You can say ‘ceremonies for the old gods’.
Why are these songs not on the proper record, why did you select them for an EP or was that random?
No, it was not completely random. We has 13 songs I think when we started working on the album. We did not know exactly how we were going to split them up, but we knew that we were going to split them up into two releases. That was mostly because we felt like they did all fit in the same kind of mood. Originally ‘Husaviker Jon’ was supposed to be on the EP, not on the album. But then once that Einar had done the vocals for ‘Husaviker Jon’, some things changed. We thought: oh this is a really good song, we should keep it on the album, not on the EP. So we moved it over to the album. I would say ‘Farg’ for example. People seem to llike ‘Farg’ a lot, but I don’t think that ‘Farg’ would actually fit on the album. It has a very different vibe to it musically. So it needed to be taken off the album, so we decided to put it on the EP. It was really just a question what fitted together musically.
Indeed, ‘Farg’ is a beautiful song and it is also a very special song for your buddy Einar I think, isn’t it?
Exactly. He wrote this song and the lyrics about his friend that I knew a little bit, but I was not as good friends as they were. They were basically childhood friends and this friend had a lot of mental problems. He committed suicide, in 2012 I think it was. I think it was very hard for Einar and Einar wanted to deal with it. To be honest, I always put a question mark above songs about certain people that commit suicide, because I think it should never be glorified, but I don’t think Einar did that at all in this case. I can really feel that it is a very honest tribute for his friend. The title ‘Farg’ means ‘heavy burden’ and the lyrics are literally saying ‘put your heavy burden on my shoulders’, so Einar is saying to his friend: I will now carry your burden, you don’t have to carry this anymore. I think that is a very beautiful way of saying goodbye. I think he literally needed to say goodbye to his friend. I think he did a very good job on this song definitely, so that is the story behind that song. Einar actually described it himself very well when he said it was self-therapy.
A deep-draught song indeed. Gummi, I thank you for the time we could speak about your new Katla album ‘Allt þetta helvítis myrkur’! I will wind up or your evening is totally gone on that Belgian freak haha…
Don’t worry, I have nothing special to do and I am actually one of those musicians who love to talk about his work. We all love it. If you ever meet a musician who says he does not like to talk about his work, he is lying. You are interested in what I am doing, that is a big honour for me. If people are interested in reading about what I am doing, that is a big honour for me. I never take those things for granted. I think many bands make that mistake, about taking their fans for granted. I have never done that. I am very thankful that people actually bother to listen to our stuff. I try to be a humble person.