A bedroom community in Reykjavik – interview with Ben Frost and Valgeir Sigurdsson


Tony Mitchell talks to Australian musician Ben Frost and Icelandic “director of recording’ Valgeir Sigurdsson on a crisp but sunny spring day in outer suburban Reykjavík.

Bedroom Community is a highly unusual label. Based on the outskirts of Reykjavík, it currently involves a roster of six musicians: Nico Muhly, Sam Amidon and Puzzle Muteson, who all reside in the USA, two Icelanders, label founder Valgeir Sigur∂sson and composer-conductor Daniel Bjarnason, and a transplanted Australian, Ben Frost, who moved to Iceland in 2005 after a visit to Valgeir’ studio in 2003. The label’ musical identity is difficult to pinpoint, as it ranges from Frost’s noise-oriented Theory of Machines, the title track of which was included on Mary-Anne Hobbs’ 2008 dubstep compilation Evangeline, to acoustic folk albums by Amidon and Muteson, and classical albums by Muhly and Bjarnason.

The latter’ highly dramatic Processions involves the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Bjarnason, along with the harp and percussion duo Harpverk. Then there’ Frost and Bjarnason’ highly experimental collaboration Solaris, commissioned by the Unsound Festival in Crakow, Poland, which is run by another Australian, Mat Schultz. Shultz invited Frost and the Necks to the 2009 festival, before commissioning Solaris for the 50th Anniversary of the book by Crakow sci-fi writer Stanislaw Lem. Mentored by Brian Eno under the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative in 2010, Frost, together with Bjarnason, workshopped the highly restrained and subdued score for Solaris in Cracow with the Sinfonietta Cracovia, then developed it further in Reykjavik. After performing and recording it in Cracow, they performed it at Unsound New York in April 2011, with a barefoot Frost on guitar and laptop and Bjarnason on prepared piano. There’ a chance it will be restaged in Australia in 2013.

Besides being label founder and head producer, the quiet and modest Valgeir was Björk’ main studio engineer from 1998 to 2006, and has produced a slew of other Icelandic artists such as Múm, Slowblow, rappers Quarashi and troubadour Megas, as well as Bonnie “Prince’ Billy’ 2006 album The Letting Go. He has also released two albums of his own music, 2007′ Ekvilibríum and the 2009 film soundtrack Draumalandið (Dreamland): music for a documentary by Andri Snaer Magnason about the devastation of the Icelandic countryside and natural resources by US company Alcoa and the Kárahnjúkar Hydropower Project, at the behest of the pre-Kreppa (economic meltdown) Icelandic government. This included input from Muhly, Bjarnason, Frost and Amidon, who sings a powerful, glitched-up Icelandic folksong, “Gryylukvae∂i’. This year a documentary about Bedroom Community was released, Everything Everywhere All The Time, directed by Pierre-Alain Giraud, featuring Valgeir, Sam, Ben and Nico’ 2009 Whale Watching tour around Europe, as well as their work in the studio. (Available at Icelandic Cinema Online, as is Dreamland.)

Brei∂holt (literally “wide hill’) is the closest thing that Reykjavík has to an “old school ghetto’. A dormitory suburb (or bedroom community) situated in the south-eastern part of the city, a half-hour bus ride from the centre of town, it was built between 1967 and 1982 to provide cheap housing for low-income working class people, who by 1983 numbered 15,000 (Iceland’ total population is about 320,000). That included 15 per cent of the country’ single-parent families. Since 2000 it has also attracted the highest proportion of non-Icelandic immigrants in the country.

The upside was that more than 50 per cent of the inhabitants of Brei∂holt were under 22, and in the late ’70s, Iceland’ punk scene was emerging. A local youth centre started organising RykkRokk, an annual outdoor rock concert. There were also a lot of empty garages where bands could rehearse, including the Sugarcubes. Later houses were also leased to artists and musicians, which was how Valgeir’ Greenhouse Studios came into being. When it became a record label in 2006, Bedroom Community seemed a logical name, both in the sense of its satellite location, and because the musicians on the label were a virtual community. Ben takes up the story, with assistance from Valgeir:

BF: The runner up to the name Bedroom Community was Slaughterhouse Records … I don’ think we’d have the careers we have today if we’d called it that!

TM: But Greenhouse Studio’ been going since 1997?

VS: Yes, 15 years now, and the label sort of grew into the studio rather than out of the studio. We were working here and using the studio, and we had music we were recording and collaborating on, so it made sense to create the label, as none of us was really on a label at the time. The first album we released was Nico’ Speaks Volumes. Then very soon after came Theory of Machines.

BF: The bones of that album were there before I moved to Iceland. To be perfectly honest, a lot of the pieces I wasn’ really sure about until we started to work together, and then everything started to make a lot more sense. Which is pretty telling of most of the things we’ve done.

VS: I remember when you gave me the demos for Theory of Machines and another CD, and I took them both on a drive, and I came back and said “I’m not sure about this one, but this one here is going’. And the other one was your band project, wasn’ it?

BF: And in many ways, that was a turning point. At that point it could have really gone either way for me. It was a pretty critical point when you made that call, and nudged me more towards one than the other, and I think it’s definitely the braver choice.

T M: Valgeir, you’ve described yourself as an “upptökustjóri’ or “director of recording’, rather than a producer …

VS: Right. The word doesn’ mean producer, it has more to do with directing, like a theatre director. A record producer has this historical thing that a lot of people don’ really understand, because in most other lines of work it’s more connected with the financial side of things. It’s the same in French, “realisateur’ is more like a director.

BF: The process of recording now is more about capturing the bones of a song, or the bones of an artist, or composition, and then the actual process of producing the recording is really in the mix. That’s when the record starts, because you can really rearrange the whole thing. It’s a far more post-production way of working than it used to be. When you take that into account, when Valgeir gets credited as the “mix engineer’, it’s laughable, in terms of what was there in the beginning and where it ends up.

TM: One of the distinctive things about this label is that it seems to combine classical, electronic, noise, ambient, folk and even some pop. It goes across the whole spectrum in a way that’s quite unique.

VS: I think that’s more to do with the personalities involved rather than any overall shape. This comes from us liking what the other does, and having an opinion, and being respectful, and sharing, and also something to do with how listening habits have changed too. We’re all interested in these different types of music, and we just don’ see a reason to limit it. For me it’s more exciting, the contrast.

BF: I agree. The thing I keep coming back to about this general consensus is that it all fits together somehow, against the odds – it’s not really a tangible thing. I think a lot of it comes down to the fact that it all goes through these hands, this house and this studio. The history of the record label is that it was a studio, and the reason we had a record label was we had enough money to pay for microphones and an engineer, and pay for a building. While my record By The Throat might be in a very different category of music as far as the listener is concerned, the fundamental fact is the piano you hear on that record is the same piano you hear on Sam’ record, and on Nico’ record, and it has gone through the same microphones and the same pre-amp, recorded by the same person, and I think there’ something to be said for that.

VS: And the fact that everything has the same purpose, goes through the same ears and the same tape, shaped by our same collective – we all sign off on it.

TM: So you can say that there’ a Bedroom Community sound?

VS: I think you can definitely say that. The records are coming from such different places, I think, and that helps them come together as a coherent body of work. Even though, at least for me, it’s very important that everything has a strong individuality to it.

BF: At the same time there’ a lot of freedom in that. You can rest easy that no matter how far it goes, it’s still going to fit. Solaris is a very interesting example. It’s the first time, at least for me, that we did a big chunk of the record outside the studio. We recorded the strings in Cracow. But having said that, Valgeir was there, and we were all there, and in some ways I think the big struggle with that record was making it feel like ours again. Pulling it back into shape. There were elements of it that just didn’ feel like mine, didn’ feel like ours. It felt a bit foreign actually. It was partly a practical thing – it’s much cheaper for us to go there rather than 28 people come here. It was also a great studio. We did the premiere performance of it on a Saturday and then we recorded it on the Monday.

TM: How did you connect it with the Tarkovsky film?

BF: We just sort of watched it and responded to it in a very offhand, unprepared way. In fact I think the first time Daniel saw it he had a piano in front of him.

TM: Another thing I’ve noticed is that you’re releasing a lot of your stuff on vinyl …

VS: That’s the future! It seems to be something that people are interested in, and it’s the best format if you like to have an object in your hands. We’re trying to do as much as we can on vinyl now.

TM: Just looking around the record shops in Reykjavik, it seems there’ a lot of your records on vinyl, compared to other people’.

VS: I was in London last week and I went into Rough Trade, near Brick Lane, and I don’ know where to begin to look for things any more. I was wandering around the store, and I was at least going to check if they had our records, and I couldn’ find anything. It’s all broken down into sections, and I didn’ know what they call this music! I finally saw they had Solaris on a listening post – I wouldn’ have known how to find it otherwise. I just want a Bedroom Community shelf!

BF: Labels are now almost more important than genres.  There was a radio interview a friend sent me the link for with John Schaefer on WMRC, nothing to do with us or me, and he used the adjective “Bedroom Community’ when describing this guy’ music – “very Bedroom Community’!

VS: I’d like to know what that means!

TM: So you’ve got your own genre now? Nico is a classical composer, and so is Daniel.

VS: Yes, in the pen and paper sense, of writing scores. And also in the sense of providing a structure around which things work – it’s like an orchestra commissions a piece. It’s more in Daniel’ and Nico’ world than perhaps in mine or Ben’. And then at the other end you have someone singing and playing the guitar, but it still knits together.

TM: With the Dreamland project, were you commissioned to do that?

VS: It was a film score, so yes, I was asked to do that, and I wanted to make an album, so I used the film to make something worthy of a release. The music in the film was quite different from the release – I had to trim it, and edit it down, make space for dialogue. But I ignored that in the writing process, I did whatever I wanted to do, and then took away what was in the way.

TM: You’ve said that there’ not really a music industry here in Iceland.

VS: No, I don’ think there is one. There are a lot of people here and all they do is make music, but there’ not really a domestic market. Everyone is looking for opportunities outside Iceland, even when they start off.  But you also have local bands that just play together, and don’ have any profile outside Iceland.

BF: Everybody has their local troubadour, their local Bob Dylan, and everyone who’ over a certain age listens to that guy. That exists in every country, I think. But it seems to me that Iceland has a very high ration of exporting the exceptions to the rule rather than the norm. I think that here, in terms of the history of Icelandic music, Sigur Rós is not really typical of Icelandic music.

TM: Whereas Megas, who’ probably completely unknown outside Iceland, is a troubadour, and he even sounds like Bob Dylan.

BF: But sings in Icelandic …

VS: … and has been very influential on everyone who grows up here, but doesn’ really mean very much outside Iceland. He was really the first one to do what he was doing, so he really paved the way for others. I think it’s a tradition that goes back to literature, which was very much what he was inspired by, sort of twisting it a little, and showing it in a different light, that no one had really dared to do before.

BF: Iceland’ too small to have a music scene. There’ probably a lot to be said for the nature of Icelandic music as having a particular sound in that there’ too few people. If you’re a good guitarist, or a good drummer, you’re never just going to be in one band in Iceland. You can’ play every week in the same band because every person in town will have seen you.

VS: And maybe that partly has to do with our ignoring these boundaries between classical or experimental music. We’re all involved in various things here and it’s close – Daniel is conducting at the opera. People in the classical world come here and do sessions – it goes back and forth like that.

BF: It really comes down to the fact that it’s too small to specialise. It forces collaboration.

TM: Something that always comes up is the influence of the landscape …

VS: I think wherever you are and you grow up and what you’re surrounded by – books and landscape – it all gets into your blood somehow. I don’ know how that translates into music – maybe someone who listens to the music and then looks at the landscape or the other way around will make the connection. I don’ think any of us looks out the window and thinks “I’ll be inspired by the view’. So maybe it’s a more complicated path.

TM: The Dreamland project dealt directly with landscape.

VS: That music was responding to those landscapes being destroyed and demolished and abused and sold off to corporations, so the music is about the land and the landscape.

BF: And very successfully too. I think that for me that’s the most Icelandic music on the Bedroom Community label.

VS: It’s propaganda! It’s definitely taking the side of protecting, and looking beyond just selling off the landscape. So it’s taking a clear view of the subject, and at the same time pointing out things that have been going on throughout history. And the music was there to help the viewer to understand this a bit more immediately, and maybe have a stronger emotional response to the film.

TM: By the Throat made me think of landscape somehow…

BF: That was a funny one. It amused me no end. people talked about glaciers, and how dark it was. I wrote most of it here in the summer in 2009, when the sun doesn’ go down! I don’ even think landscape is the right word. There’ an atmosphere there that’s pretty palpable for sure. Landscapes and records, I have a particularly funny relationship with these statements about music, especially that now I’m on this side of it. I still to this day read things about Theory of Machines being about the sound of glaciers ripping apart, and most of it was conceived in an apartment in Chinatown in the middle of Melbourne! Maybe it’s totally accurate, as by that point my head was already here, or at least Iceland was on my mind a great deal, back in 2004 and 2005.

TM: Do you feel you still have connections with Australia? You’ve become Icelandic in a way, you speak Icelandic …

BF: I’ve been here a long time! I certainly feel very at home here.

TM: The Solaris project got some funding from the Australia Council.

BF: It did. It was basically a research and development grant, which I used for a great portion of Solaris, which was a huge help. It was an expensive project! In that way the Australian tax payers were very good to me. Hopefully in some way that is making a contribution.

TM: What motivated you to come here in the first place?

BF: It was really very simple. I came here to visit Valgeir, and I felt at home, so I moved here. That’s pretty much the gist of it. The more elaborate, complicated answer is that we worked very well together. Valgeir’ been my mentor, collaborator and best friend for a long time now. It seems much more dramatic now when I think about it, but at the time it was really easy. I suppose my life was probably less complicated at that stage – no kids, or mortgages or anything – and at that stage it made sense. It’s where I felt I needed to go to get where I was, so I moved here, and the rest is history.

Special thanks to Hildur Maral Hamíðsdóttir.


About Author

Tony Mitchell is an honoraray research associate at the University of Technology, Sydney. He has edited a number of books: on global hip hop (Global Noise, 2001), on Australian Popular Music (Sounds of Then, Sounds of Now, 2008), and New Zealand Music (Home Land and Sea, 2011). He is currently co-editing a book about Icelandic music.