New Beginnings


New Beginnings

By: Zoë Robert

Published in the 2014 January-March issue of Iceland Review & Atlantica – IR 01.15. Words by Zoë Robert, Photo by Páll Stefánsson.

1. Retro Stefson has a party vibe to its music, while your solo project, Uni Stefson, is more mellow. Is this a reflection of you growing up?

We actually started out more as an indie band but got more upbeat as we progressed, as we grew older and as my brother [Logi Pedro] and I started going to clubs, but the songs I have on my solo project are the songs I didn’t find a path for in Retro Stefson.

For my solo project I try to work with producers that I haven’t worked with before. For example, Oculus: I asked him to make a soundscape for me. He has this great, what I call ‘glacial soundscape,’ but it’s a bit of a joke when we say that.

2. So is it really true that all Icelandic musicians are influenced by nature...?

Yeah, definitely... and I wanted to take part in that [says half-jokingly]. It’s funny when we go abroad as a band—Retro Stefson has been together for nine years now—people still say ‘yeah, let’s go and see this Icelandic band,’ and they are perhaps expecting something totally different. Then they get this group of school kids playing world music with techno influences but I think that is part of what has kept Retro Stefson around. People don’t really know what category to put us in.

3. The lyrics of your first single, ‘Enginn grætur’ (‘Nobody Cries’), are taken from a 19th century poem, ‘Stökur’ (‘Quatrains’), by Jónas Hallgrímsson. What is the song about and why did you choose this poem in particular?

It’s a melancholic poem. Not too long after he writes this he passes away in Denmark. He’s remembering Iceland and this one love. He is clearly talking about a lady—two ladies, actually. We used to sing this poem in the choir [at college].

I was quite frustrated [when I was] in Berlin [earlier this year] trying to write lyrics. I had a kind of writer’s block so I just took the guitar and started singing and this was just the first thing that came.

4. You’ve usually sung in English in the past. Why Icelandic this time?

The first song was just accidental, because of this poem and I even checked out the English translation of it, but it didn’t seem as right. It’s so easy to be a young guy in a pop band and write some mediocre lyrics in English.

When I did the first single, I thought ‘ok, maybe I should have the rest in Icelandic as well.’ We have great lyricists in Iceland now so I thought ‘damn, I should give it a go too.’

5. You’ve said in previous interviews that you were also a little afraid about singing in Icelandic because you were concerned about the rise of nationalistic political parties.

Could you explain? It’s a kind of identity crisis. Poems from these times [the 19th century] were romantic and nationalistic. Who do I identify myself as? A black man or a white man? Can Icelanders be black? Can I be singing these poems? And the answer is yes. Of course I can. In a way it’s my own little method of protest.

6. Would you say discrimination is a problem in Iceland?

I think it’s the most open country I’ve been to [Unnsteinn was born in Portugal to an Angolan mother and Icelandic father and has also lived in Germany]. My mother came here in 1995. She’s so black that small kids thought she was blue but she adapted very well, although I guess it was difficult.

I was blind to seeing the racial tensions or problems, though, because we only had Icelandic friends, spoke the language 100 percent and grew up here, so it was always very easy for me to say ‘no, no, there isn’t anything here’ but then maybe there is.

7. You recently started hosting a new television show, Hæpið. Tell us about the idea behind the program and what sorts of issues you’ve been covering.

For the last ten years there hasn’t really been anything for under-30s and when there has been something it’s usually for 15-year-olds so you can’t really talk about serious issues. Our first show was about sex and dating, which some people were quite shocked about. And then we did a show about nightlife and then the third show, which was really popular, was about prejudice and racism.

8. You’ve been vocal about the closing down of live music venues to make way for hotels in Reykjavík in recent years. How has the growth in tourism affected the local music scene?

Well, all of a sudden there are no venues to have a decent concert. Very few. Why would a tourist come to Reykjavík? They are mostly here for the culture, I think, so why would they come here if there is nothing to see really, except other tourists?

9. What makes Icelandic music different or special, in your opinion?

The music scene here is really small. It was always very easy to get this thing or that thing borrowed because everyone knows each other. Also the radio is shitty anyway so no one is releasing music towards getting played on the radio. No one is trying to please everyone and we don’t have these huge record labels here.

10. What’s happening with Retro Stefson?

We will start recording new stuff early next year [2015] but I’m not sure we will be as active in terms of touring. When we were touring a lot we were in our early 20s. I was sleeping in the same bed as my brother six months of the year—it was totally crazy and no one was getting paid. And now everyone has rent to pay and you know so we have to think more in logistical terms... but I hope we can still play festivals.

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