“IT’S PRETTY HARD TO BE A ROCKSTAR WITH A CONSCIENCE”
“I have to tell you about one accident,” offers up Jón Valur, the blonde, baby-faced drummer, leaning forward from a six-strong scrum of testosterone. “We were playing in a club in Iceland and when I was packing up I was also looking and talking to somebody so when I bent over to pick up my drum stick I accidentally went so straight down that my high hat stick went right up my nose and poked me in the inside eye! I saw everything blurry for a second, pulled up and everything was bloody. The strangest thing ever,” he notes in his excited, cut-and-paste English before quickly remembering another anecdote. “And after one gig in Germany I dared Hilmir – Ármann was talking to a girl – so I dared him to puke in front of them and he did! What became of the girl, Ármann? She went away pretty fast I think.” He chuckles as he reminisces about embarrassing the band’s bearded frontman.
“I thought it was really funny,” admits Hilmir, the synth player in question, “but I did it and it was not so funny. I kinda messed up the mood.”
“That’s not true,” counters Ármann, “you went partying in the hotel room.”
“We did our rock star thing and pretty much fucked up a balcony in Bremen. We felt really bad afterwards. It’s pretty hard to be a rock star with a conscience,” says Hilmir, shaking his head.
“Actually,” guitarist Snorri adds, “that night they were being so rock star, but I wanted to go early to bed and I accidentally got a big hole in my head and there was loads of blood. I was just the man going to sleep. They were rocking hard and I got injured,” he states incredulously and they collectively sigh in mock sympathy, confirming our assumptions that this emerging Reykjavik six-piece are all about fooling around.
“We don’t take us in person very seriously, you know?” asserts Jón. “We’re just friends having fun.”
Having known each other since they were teenagers at school, they tease each other with ease, but back then they weren’t making the intricate, Yeasayer-like soundscapes they set about creating when they formed Who Knew in 2005.
“Around puberty I rebelled,” explains Ármann, “shaved my hair off and was going to be straight edged. I didn’t really know about metal, but I bought a drum set and I wanted to do metal, except we weren’t mean-looking enough to pull it off; we were small and skinny.”
“Everybody was playing metal and we wanted to be part of it,” Snorri justifies as Ármann continues.
“We just wanted to create music and have fun while doing it,” he says, “but we hated our old style and that’s the story I think.”
Another thing that went out with the metal was their previous name. “We had an old name that was horrible,” Jón begins, “but it’s so bad I’m not gonna say it.” Smiling coyly they all refuse to divulge the information, but assure us it was so confusing that people had a hard time saying it.
“They were like, ‘And next on stage is…er…who knew?’ and that’s how we got our name,” states Jón.
“It’s like, what’s the band supposed to be called?” Ármann adds. “I don’t know, who knows, who knew? Like a question.”
Last spring the band released their debut LP, ‘Bits and Pieces of a Major Spectacle’, in Europe and Iceland, but it’s not available in the UK yet, unless you want to fork out twenty English to a private seller on Amazon. Coming in at a full 11 tracks, it incorporates sharp Interpol-styled riffs with an almost glam rock Bowie falsetto to generate echoey, synth-accompanied atmospherics. Single ‘We Do’ is a cacophony of six instruments, all of which sound like they’re being played in different rooms and the listener is the only one to hear the delectable crash as they come together. This is something that follows throughout the record, only varying in pace. Second track ‘Made Belief’ is more of a gentle clamour, with soft cooing harmonies in the background.
When these guys approach writing they all bring ideas to the table and encompass their combined influences, from Ármann’s operatic interest – “my sister was all about opera” – to Jón’s Deep Purple obsession – “already at six I was listening to Deep Purple” – and bus rides.
“I don’t know what it is,” he admits with a thick layer of innocence in his tone, “but all the different kinds of people riding together and you’re looking at the scenery outside and getting so much information at the same time, you know? Then some ideas pop up in my head.”
They practice in their homemade studio, which they pulled together in an old garage with stolen supplies and a door from a brothel. “It’s called Studio Crooked,” Snorri tells us, “because we had no skills at all. It was supposed to take two weeks to build, but it took six months.” Jón owns up to getting the materials from building sites around the area. “We didn’t have any money but we really wanted that studio,” he confesses. “We had hoodies and running shoes,” jokes Ármann as Jón utters his worries of getting sued and Snorri tells us that their door was from a “hooker house.”
“It had suspicious stains and stuff in the velvet and we bought it!” exclaims Ármann, pretending to be horrified. “But it was really good to have our own studio because we didn’t have money for endless hours of studio time, but there we could figure out what we wanted to do.”
Snorri describes these sessions as a case of someone bringing a riff or synth line to the table and the others taking it on board or completely shooting it down. “Sometimes it’s awesome and sometimes you say, ‘Oh that’s horrible man, we have to get something new’. So it’s often a compromise.”
“There’s six of us in the band and we all have our opinions, so you can imagine we argue constantly, but in the end it collapses into a song,” announces Baldur Helgi Snorrason, Snorri’s older brother and Who Knew’s second guitarist, who’s equally as beardy as the frontman. “Imagine having two brothers in one band,” states Snorri, wide-eyed, “it’s a lot of arguments and it can end up turning into a competition sometimes.”
As for lyric duties, that’s down to Ármann, who says he always has a song going around his head, which Snorri describes as his “theme tune.” And despite being Icelandic, Ármann chooses to write in English. “It’s more fluent I think, more accessible,” he ponders. “And also…” He pauses for a few seconds, gathering his thoughts. “I don’t know. I’ve had dreams since I was a kid in English as well as in Icelandic, so it’s my language as well.”
Who Knew played their debut UK show last month, but to get a real sense of these guys, ask Snorri. “Someone once said it’s like a musical orgy,” he says. “I think it’s quite fitting.”
By D K Goldstein
Originally published in issue 25 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. February 2011