“We’re stuck in this band.”
Bands split up for a lot or reasons, but what is it that keeps them together despite clashing egos, personal conflicts, or mood fluctuations? Iceland’s Mammút seem to have figured out the secret. They have been playing together for over fourteen years, getting better and better with each new release. Their music cannot be easily put into one genre box: in each song, elements of rock, psychedelia, pop, you name it – merge into a vast, dramatic, and very unique sound. A concentrate of personal emotions, trials and tribulations, it is nonetheless a truly band sound that transcends the five individuals behind it: Katrína Mogensen (vocals), Alexandra Baldursdóttir (guitar), Ása Dýradóttir (bass), Arnar Pétursson (guitar), and Andri Bjartur Jakobsson (drums). This is all the more visible in Mammút’s live performances, haunting and mesmerizing not only in terms of music, but also in terms of energy that the band manages to cultivate on stage.
Mammút’s fourth album “Kinder Versions” came out in July 2017, in a way opening up a new chapter in the band’s history. It’s their first written entirely in English and also their first released on Bella Union – the result being an unprecedented international attention and well-deserved acclaim way outside Iceland.
What makes this band tick? What kinds of stories does “Kinder Versions” tell? I talked with vocalist Katrína Mogensen and bassist Ása Dýradóttir just before their big show at Gamla Bíó during Iceland Airwaves 2017.
NBN: Do you guys remember your first Airwaves as Mammút?
Kata: It was in 2005, at this very small pub. We were 15-16 at the time. I remember it very clearly. Everyone was smoking so much, and we felt so…adult. Smoking and drinking a lot. I remember just a lot of cigarette smoke.
NBN: And you’ve played at every Airwaves ever since, right?
Kata: Yeah! We missed one, in 2013. We were touring at that time, so we’ve played every Airwaves except 2013.
NBN: Is there a particular Airwaves that stands out in your memory?
Ása: It all goes into this bundle of Airwaves. All the years mash up and morph into each other. But I really liked this one time… Well, I didn’t really like it, but it’s very clear in my mind. It was when we put sheep blood in our hair.
Kata: Yeah, I think that’s the most memorable one.
Ása: My brother was playing with us, so we had more drums. And we all had sheep blood in our hair. It was old sheep blood, so it was rotting. And Kata put most of it in her hair. We were all just vomiting…
Kata: It was in 2014. We were very angry at the time. We were having a fight with Icelandic music industry. They were giving us shit, and everything was going downhill. But still we had just released an album that we got an award for [NBN: The band’s third album “Komdu til mín svarta systir”], so we were very confused. And all of a sudden the music industry of Iceland didn’t want to export us.
Ása: Something changed that year. I think we got some of our “fuck it” or “fuck you” attitude.
Kata: Yeah, I think that was the most crazy Airwaves because we were so drained and so exhausted. And we were very angry artists.
Ása: Angry and tired.
Kata: And we wanted to be repulsive, in a way. That’s why we put sheep blood. Because you know, at that time of the year you can buy blood everywhere and it’s very cheap. Cheap sheep blood [laughs].
NBN: What is it normally used for?
Ása: To make black pudding, stuff like that. We don’t do it, but our parents did it. It’s very traditional.
Kata: And at that time, we were all a bundle of vegetarians…
Ása: If I concentrate I can actually smell it and get gagging, in a way.
Kata: I don’t find it that repulsive.
Ása: It was a tense Airwaves, because of everything that was going on. We were running around venues… But it was a beautiful time.
Kata: It was magical [laughs].
NBN: Do you feel like the reception of your music has been evolving?
Ása: Yeah, definitely. There’s more respect and interest.
NBN: Is there a difference in how the audience reacts to your music when you sing in Icelandic and when you sing in English?
Kata: Yeah, like with this album – we’ve never received so many foreign reviews. But it’s also because we have Bella Union, so they’re helping a lot, it’s more out there. In that way, we’re getting much more feedback. But then I also feel that at concerts, when we play an Icelandic song, the audience is very happy.
Ása: Yeah, so you can kind of play with it.
Kata: At the moment we really love the English songs. But it’s very fun to put an Icelandic song in between, to mix it up a little.
NBN: Does language make a difference for you when you perform?
Kata: One of the reasons for taking the decision to write in English was because…It was at one Airwaves, we were at Reykjavik Art Museum, and it was totally packed. We were signing in Icelandic at the time, and I was expressing my thoughts and all, and all of a sudden I looked at everyone and was like ‘Well, maybe four percent of the crowd understands me.’ And I felt very…disappointed. I would love for them to understand me, because I find it important. I got a bit claustrophobic, like “Ahhh, they don’t understand me! I’m trying to say something here!” And they’re like “Wow!” but I’m like “There’s more to it than this!” So that was one feeling I got. So definitely, I love going abroad and signing in English because you can feel this extra connection. But it took a long time to take this decision, or to get to the point where it felt right. It was only for this album that it felt right. We talked about it for the third album, but it didn’t feel right.
NBN: What has the reaction in Iceland been like? Were there any critics who went like “Oh, why are you guys singing in English now all of a sudden?’”
Kata: We have a big music scene here, but there are basically no critics. You get nothing.
Ása: You’re right. It’s so low. No blogs, podcasts, or anything – it’s just dead. It’s just musicians [laughs].
Kata: Maybe that’s why it’s so good, you basically never get a bad review. I think we’ve gotten like a four-minute talk about the album, but they were mostly talking about something different. Like “Yeah, they sing in English now. I miss Icelandic,” and that was over.
Ása: And also talking about relations, like “I know her sister” or something. This is very Icelandic and weird.
Kata: So the music reviews and critics in Iceland…it’s very poor.
Ása: Yeah, it’s always the same handful of people.
Kata: And the handful is three or something [laughs].
NBN: It’s probably hard to write about music here when you basically know all of the musicians personally…
Ása: Exactly. That’s why maybe it doesn’t work.
Kata: Right. There’s this one radio critic, the number one critic in Iceland. He’s the brother of the producer of the album.
Ása: Yeah! So that says a lot.
Kata: On the radio, he felt like he was choking on something. It was holding him back.
Ása: He couldn’t have an opinion, because it would be linked to that.
NBN: Did you write this album with a concrete theme in mind or were the songs emerging spontaneously?
Kata: The concept always comes in the process. I think our two latest albums had very strong concepts of what they were about. The two before maybe had a very strong vision of how an album should be recorded or something. I think they were more like a preparation for the last two. But it always comes along with the songs and with the lyrics. Also the title and everything.
NBN: What would you say is the main message of “Kinder Versions”?
Kata: It’s about memories and time, and how you change memories, what happens when you erase a kinder version of something terrible.
Ása: It’s like six sides of one story. Like a hexagon of an experience or a period of time.
Kata: Exactly. There’re so many sides to everything. So each song is focusing maybe on one specific time or one specific feeling, looking at it with layering a kinder thing of something or taking it away.
NBN: Does this come from personal experience or would you say you’re influenced by bigger events in the society
Kata: I think we are very personal. In every song, with every beat, drums, bass, guitars – we never put anything unless it’s really saying something to us. You know, you can really feel it in some guitars and so on. It’s really trying to say something. So I think it’s very personal, and with the lyrics too. Of course, we’re very affected by our surroundings, but it comes from within.
NBN: In the song “We Tried Love,” there’s this little choir loop that goes through the song. How did you come up with it?
Kata: You’re talking about the kids’ choir? It’s my niece and nephew! Children of my sister.
Ása: They are so cute. We were taking out the good parts for the recording, and some of them were so hilarious.
Kata: But it happened in the process. When you have written a song and recorded it, sometimes you add this other layer on top of it that is just almost as important.
NBN: I feel like it adds such innocence to the song.
Kata: Yeah! Because it is a heartbreak song about parting with someone. But there’s no hatred, rather this desire to have peace, and innocence. It’s a song about surrendering to something. So I think it’s very nice that you get that, with the voices, this innocence. Afterwards, when I was trying to figure out the song, that was one of the words that came up. And we have a very strong vision of how we want to do the music video. We want pets, furry pets, like farm animals – something very innocent.
Ása: But the song has a very simple message – “I love you, but thank you, bye.”’
NBN: And what about your recent cover of Cher’s “Believe” – does this song have a special meaning for you?
Kata: Yes, it has a special meaning!
Ása: We were in Texas in 2007. Me and Kata were going to that famous record store in downtown Austin. We were very excited, we were eighteen and in Texas. We were trying to order a taxi and it didn’t arrive, and then some really fancy people were coming to the place we were staying at, like in a limo taxi, so we just knocked and asked “Can we take this taxi? It’s really nice!”, and the driver was “Well I’m going downtown anyway, so just hop in.” And it had a karaoke machine.
Kata: There was like a disco karaoke bar inside the car.
Ása: And we chose Cher’s “Believe” – it was just on shuffle, very random. And we were almost crying because we couldn’t believe we were in America, and signing Cher’s “Believe,” and watching the American things go by – because we had never been there before…
Kata: And after that it has been our main karaoke song.
Ása: But it was very random that we covered it. It was like a comic relief when we were making the album. We just needed something easy and beautiful. We were fooling around with covering it, and it sounded so good, so we were like, “Ok, let’s do it for real!” We recorded it in London this spring. So it began as a joke, but we really liked it.
Kata: Yeah, we really liked it. It’s also funny when you do it at concerts, because it is like a comic relief. It’s like a karaoke song. And also the lyrics, “Do you believe in life after love?” – that kind frames the question of the album. So it does fit, in a way.
NBN: At which point of the creative process do you feel most vulnerable?
Ása: When you’re writing. When you perform, you’re in your essence, in your safe haven. But writing is tricky. it really pushes your boundaries. And it’s exhausting, and very beautiful when it works out. It’s very schizophrenic.
Kata: Yeah, and you always think it’s gonna be your last album.
Ása: You cry a lot when you’re writing.
Kata: Especially when you’re starting out…And you find like “This is a big misunderstanding. I should have never been a band. We should quit now. We don’t even like each other. What are we doing?”
Ása: Yeah, like “Why are we spending so much time together?”
Kata: That is definitely the most vulnerable thing. And you’re also maybe shy with your own melody, or a lyrics line.
Ása: And it’s also very wavy, because you feel like a genius one day and then you do some new song a day after and you are like “This is the most horrible shit I’ve ever heard, what was I thinking?” I think it’s the same in every creative field.
Kata: And also sometimes the egos clash. I’m bringing a beat to the drummer and he’s just like: “Why are you bringing me a beat? You’re not the drummer!” Sometimes it’s like that, and sometimes it’s like “Oh, nice beat. Thank you, I love it!” So it’s also just the communication between us five.
Ása: And who of the five is having a bad day, who’s having a great day…
Kata: Sometimes someone is just in defence like for a week. So that is the most challenging thing. But we’re very good at it. I think this is why we’re good at it – because we get through it. We’ve had our arguments as people, but the reason why we’ve always got through it and why we’ve been playing for fourteen years together is because we’ve always had this collective vision. So it’s like us five and then there’s just something else that keeps us going. If we didn’t have that, then we would just split up. Not because we hate each other – we would still be very good friends. But it’s because we have this collective line that we all know is a like higher purpose or something.
Ása: Yeah, and we don’t even question it. And we’re very addicted to playing music together.
Kata: We wouldn’t be playing together if we didn’t have that naive confidence. And we’re all aiming at the same thing, though we’ve never even talked about it.
Ása: Before an album, we never settle down on like trying to get this kind of vibe, or sound, or genre. Never. So we don’t know what we’re doing in that way. It just always comes very naturally. But we’re really addicted to it.
NBN: Where do you think this common vision comes from?
Ása: I think we just made it up by playing together as teenagers, and then in our twenties, and as adults.
Kata: I think it probably always was there. In a way. But also, you just realize so much stuff afterwards, when you look back. So it’s more of a thing that you see afterwards. Me and Arnar were talking about this yesterday. We’ve just always had this vision of the reason why we’re doing it that has nothing to do with arguing between us. It’s just something on another level.
Ása: And we really don’t argue. I’ve been watching other bands, or some people you know that are in bands, and sometimes it’s horrible! How can people be so mean to each other? Aren’t they a family? How can they be so nasty? So I think we’re not having a bad time together. [laughs]
Kata: No, we’re not having a bad time! But there are conflicts in the writing process.
NBN: I’ve read in some interviews that you all have very different music tastes.
Kata: Yes! That’s one of the reasons why the outcome is like it is – because everyone is pushing their influences into one song, one album.
NBN: Has any of you ever thought of doing a side project, or going solo?
Ása: Yeah, there’s just no time! [laughs] Not this year at least. I mean, we’ve been doing some music outside the band. Kata has been doing theatre music and singing with other bands. We’ve all been session musicians also.
Kata: Of course, everybody is interested in what would happen outside of Mammút.
Ása: But you never put anything else first.
Kata: You also see how rare, or how special it is to have five collective minds doing one thing. And the egos clash sometimes, so you have to really stay a collective. And then of course there’re these other issues. Like I’m a front woman and all that, but at the same time we’re first and foremost a band.
NBN: I think it’s very perceptible when you perform, that you’re a band. The way you move, and the communication on the stage. Do you guys spend a lot of time together outside of music?
Ása: Yes. They are my only friends [laughs]. I was thinking about it the other day, “I don’t have many friends. I’m always just with my band.”
Kata: I’ve been trying to collect some friends through the years. But it was like a decision, to find somebody else [laughs]. But we’re best friends.
Ása: Yeah, we hang out a lot.
NBN: Do you find more inspiration in happy times or in sad times?
Kata: I think the sad times.
Ása: Yeah, You get so stupid when you’re having fun that you’re not writing anything. I think that’s what so good about Iceland – it gets so dark and heavy in winter, so you just kind of allow yourself to be a little depressed, and you do a lot of stuff but it feels like you’re doing nothing and it’s all shit. But then spring comes, and you go over what you did this winter, and it’s great. Because your mind is different. And then you’re just being stupid in the summer.
Kata: I think in general we’re all quite happy people. But we have something very dramatic to express. But then also, when this album was finished I thought “We cannot make another dark, heavy, dramatic album ever again! This must stop! I want to make a happy album!”
Ása: You said that in July, so this is July talking.
Kata: And then I was thinking about it, and I mean, very sad people and depressed people, they often become comedians or entertainers.
Ása: Yeah, you get so cynical when you’re down that you kind of see the unimportance of everything.
Kata: Yeah, and maybe if you are a happy person, or an optimistic person, you can find space for going deep because it won’t last forever and it won’t push you over the edge.
Ása: I think we should just continue with depressing music. [laughs]
Kata: Yeah. But I would love to do like a very happy EP.
Ása: I think you need other bandmates for that [laughs]. We could try it though…
Kata: Yeah, and make like…Happy versions [laughs].
NBN: Talking about Bella Union, what has it been like for you to work with an international label?
Ása: It’s been great. It’s given us a lot of opportunities. It’s just really nice to be working with someone who is really honest, and hard-working, and really respected. It’s nice to be linked to that, and we feel very honoured.
Kata: You can feel it. I think it’s a very big part of the album also. If people are listening to the album, it’s also because they find Bella Union an interesting label, so it helps us in that way too. And we really like the people running the company. It’s a very cosy label.
Ása: It’s the first time in our career that we solemnly trust the people we’re working with. We’ve always had this cross against the industry and wanted to do everything ourselves.
Kata: We worked with a label called Records Records here, but it’s only one guy.
Ása: And he’s our friend, he’s the best. So I’m not talking about him.
Kata: Exactly, he’s always been so good to us. So I know you weren’t talking about him. But to everyone else that we’ve worked with: not been a very good experience.
Ása: Yeah, it’s been like a rocky, rocky road.
Kata: The industry side of music, you don’t realize how this is such a big part of being in a band. That’s the hardest part.
Ása: So now we feel like we can be calm about everything. We don’t even worry any more, we just trust them.. It’s a really nice feeling, and a new feeling.
NBN: When were you approached by them, or how did the deal come about?
Kata: It happened in 2014. Simon, he had seen us two times at Airwaves, so he knew about us and found us very interesting. Then we met at another festival and sealed the deal.
NBN: So that happened at the angry Airwaves when you were wearing sheep blood?!
Kata & Ása: Yes! [both exclaim]
Ása: So happiness doesn’t suit us. [laughs]
NBN: Maybe it was the magic of the sheep blood!
Ása: Yeah, maybe it had some magic spirit in it or something!
NBN: So what’s next for you guys? Now that winter is approaching, are you gonna be writing a new album?
Ása: We’re on a tour right now. We’re going to Canada, then we’re touring Europe and Britain till December 2.
Kata: And then…You’ve been working on demos for the next album.
Ása: Yeah, we have some time in February so we’re going to Scotland to record some demos there. I think we’re making a new album!
Kata: I think so too!
Ása: After this summer we were like “Never again!” But now we’re doing little demos and all…We’re stuck in this band.