The raw energy of HaZaR’s music is dragging Reykjavik’s dance scene into the NOW.
By Bob Cluness
Icelanders love their electronic music and have done for some time now. We know all this because they decided to make a documentary called ‘Electronica Reykjavik,’ about the history of the electronic music scene and the main movers and shakers within.
But while techno, house and experimental electronica are now well represented in Iceland, there’s been something missing. In the outside world, dance music has been evolving and brewing at an unprecedented pace thanks to the bass heavy sound known as dubstep. The last decade has seen dubstep rise from a small London-based underground genre, to become the global international standard and lingua franca when it comes to expressing electronic dance music. And in this respect, you get the sense that Iceland is only now playing catch up.
But there are some people who are now rising up to fill this bass void, and one such man is HaZaR. The man known as Arnar Helgi Aðalsteinsson to his girlfriend and bank manager has been skulking in the background of Iceland’s music scene for over a decade now, first as a member of electronica group Plat, then as a producer, mixer and master to a range of Icelandic artists such as Ölvis, Ampop, Pornopop, Stafrænn Hákon, Futuregrapher, and Legend. But he first came to people’s attention as HaZaR back in 2010 when he started making dance music tracks that he released via his SoundCloud page. Since then he’s gone on to become known as one of Iceland’s first true exponents of the “Wub”.
HaZaR’s music mirrors what is currently happening in the US right now with the rise of Electronic Dance Music in that, with a refreshing lack of reverence, he swoops in and takes from a variety of styles from house, to techno and drum and bass, wrapping it up in thick layers of bass wobble that’s full of boisterous energy and ruffige. A classic example of this can be heard on his track “Gulikall” from the free ‘Helga’ compilation issued by Möller Records in 2011. While the other tracks contained new-age ambient sounds, soft electronica and Aphex Twin inspired beats, “Gulikall,” with its tight and pressured bass production, and a menacing, near paranoid presence, stood out like a sore thumb.
We met up with HaZaR for a pint at Kaffibarinn to talk about his past, making mistakes as a producer, and how everyone should stop being so serious and start dancing…
Tell us about your early days and how you got involved in electronic music in Iceland.
Many years ago, back in the ‘90s I was in a duo called Heckle And Jive with my friend Villi [Vilhjálmur Pálsson]. Have you heard of it?
No, not really.
Well the stuff we did back then is no longer on the internet, but it was mostly breakbeat and drum and bass music. I was going to the club nights back in the ‘90s, but I was a mostly looking on from the sidelines. At that time, a lot of people were doing experimental electronic music and stuff like that, but we were doing drum and bass. There were some drum and bass nights and guys such as Breakbeat.is were there, but in terms of actual production and releases, there wasn’t that much at all, not enough to make a scene anyway.
So when did you first start getting involved in music production?
It started way back when I went to London to study audio engineering. I started that back in 2000, and when I finished that, I came back to Iceland and wanted to open up a studio. At the same time when I got back to Iceland, Villi then went off to London to study the same course. So when he got back, we stated our studio together.
This was the Plat studio right?
That’s right. At the time I started working with a multimedia company, making music for CDs and presentations during the whole multimedia bubble that was going on. That all fell apart, but by that time I had a studio made for producing their music, so when the company folded, I kept the studio and kept on going.
What was it that drew you to producing music in the first place?
Hmm… that’s a good question. Well, I had been producing music for a lot of bands at the time and I really don’t have a specific answer for that. I’ve actually never thought about it until you’ve asked me! For me It’s always been something that’s pretty much second nature. I just love doing it!
I guess though what actually drew me in was drum programming. I’m a drummer so I like things such as breaks and riffs, and I’m really into programming beats so that’s where the technical love comes from. I really love artists such as Squarepusher, who create really intricate, technical music.
While you were producing music, you started making your own music with Villi as Plat. Why did you start that?
Well as I mentioned, myself and Villi had been doing music together as Heckle And Jive before we went to school and started the studio. By the time he came back from school, I had already started the groundwork for what was to become Plat the band. Plat was just a way of exploring the nature of some of the ambient music we liked. The music we made had a lot of space, a lot of acoustic elements.
What we were trying to do was do it all live. We never used a sequencer at the time; we played everything live with actual instruments and then we manipulated everything in the studio. So, for example, you had me scratching a microphone and then manipulating it for use as a rhythm piece. Or we would lay a drum track which we would then mess up and distort.
You released one album back in 2004 called ‘Compulsion’. Why did the band not go any further?
We actually started by releasing a 12” back in 2003 that was released in Holland. But then we got a call from some crazy American dude who was really interested in the band. I didn’t know it at the time, but since found out that he was going through a mid life crisis and was following his dream of starting a music label!
So how did he find out about you guys?
He found us through the internet. We were on this online music making forum, and the guy that ran the forum put him in our direction. He went on to release it in the states. He actually put a lot of effort into the actual release, and we were actually charting on college radio. But it didn’t seem to pick from there. Then I went back to producing bands.
After Plat the band, you spent several working in back in production. But then you resurfaced in 2010 under the moniker of HaZaR. Why did you start that?
HaZaR was actually the very first name that I used when making music many, many years ago. And it’s a little cheesy, but it’s simply a manipulation of Arnar H. Cheesy! [laughs].
Well I’ve heard worse! [both laugh]
Anyway, it was a couple of years ago and I was, to be quite honest, really fed up with music production because I was producing work that was… [Pauses] I was just really just fed up of whiny music. Everyone was just crying their eyes out to some really boring music. Everything was being played really melodramatically and I just got tired of it. So I told my girlfriend that I was taking a year out of production to make and study dance music again. The thing is, I´d been producing guitar bands for quite a few years and had been away from electronic music for a while.
So what did you learn about dance music then? What were the challenges?
I found myself listening to stuff that appealed to me in the way Squarepusher did all those years ago. And I was really taken aback to the techniques being used by producers today, the breaks, the sounds and things like that. And I really got into how these were being made, so i could crack them to do it myself.
In terms of dance music, what are you listening to right now?
I’m listening to a lot of the EDM stuff from the US at the moment. But right now, and this IS a guilty pleasure, I’m listening to that Swedish artist Avicii. He’s one of the rising stars there, but I’m also listening to artists such as XXYYXX. That guy is amazing. He only 16 years old!
So what were your early releases as HaZaR Like?
The reaction was… nice, good effort, something like that. But I put a lot of tunes online that I’ve removed now. At the time I wasn’t too picky, I wanted to finish the tune, put it on the internet, and waited to see what the feedback was. And to be honest a lot of the early stuff I was doing was a lot of crap. Imitations of dance music templates and things like that. But as time passed, I learned what worked and what didn’t. I began to figure that I wouldn’t quite have my own sound, so to speak, at the start so I just said to myself that I was going to play with these styles for a year to see if something would happen. And it took me a year before I worked out for myself what my sound was going to be.
At the moment my game plan is to get better. The thing is that the way I work now, I work really fast and I’ve been reconsidering that for a little while now; that maybe I should spend a little more time on some of the tracks. Sometimes I can make a track in a night. Sometimes it can take a couple of days. But once it’s done, I just really want to release it because you learn a lot from just releasing it and taking a step back and seeing the reaction to it. And once that’s done, you learn from it and you go and start making another track. I’d rather do that than sit down and spend 2 months making 3 tracks only to find that people didn’t like them. I’m always keeping busy and I learn through trial and error.
The first time many people noticed you was when your track “Gulikall” appeared on the ‘Helga’ compilations from Möller Records. How did you get involved with that?
Well they’ve been friends of mine for like forever. And when they first started the label, I played a Möller Records gig with them just outside of Kaffibarinn during Menningarnótt 2011. When they discussed putting out the compilation, they asked if I would like to put out a track But at this moment, I’m not officially part of the label.
Do you find it interesting that of all the tracks on the compilation, yours stands out so differently?
No I don’t find it that weird. It may seem out of place to what’s being released here in Iceland, but not when I compare it to what I listen to.
Approaching dance music the way you have, do you think that it’s given you a different perspective as to how dance music is made?
Maybe, in some ways. Ignorance is bliss for some people. I mean, I haven’t been studying dance music for 20 years and it’s not always been what I’ve been doing, but I would say that it gives me an advantage in that I can be a bit careless. I don’t know the rules, so I don’t have to follow them and it doesn’t matter if I break them. I’m not constrained by the way that you are supposed to make certain styles, such as house music for example.
In your position, you seem to have a unique overview of what’s happening with the electronic music scene right now. Where do you think it’s at right now?
Obviously it’s been picking up over the last couple of years, with the creation of Möller records and Weirdcore starting up again. And you’ve had the electronic nights that Ísar Logi has been doing at Iðusalir. In terms of the music being made… I don’t know. It’s just my standpoint, but I feel that people are maybe sometimes too serious.
Really? In terms of their music?
No, not in their music but more in terms of the vibe. There seems to be this “artistic” vibe going on, a lot of self-consciousness, instead of people just having fun and not being afraid to just dance and have a good time. Of course you can’t force people to do what they don’t want to do. We have a great scene here but I think that in some ways it’s frowned upon to be a bit commercial.
As a producer, what do you think of the Icelandic music scene in general right now?
Well as a producer,one of the things I see with Icelandic music is that it’s presented that everyone in Iceland collaborates and works together like it’s a big family. It’s often said that everyone is open and is up for new music and stuff, but I’ve found that it’s not all that true to be brutally honest. Well, they do, but only up to a point. Some people might not admit that, but to me there is a “Box” that people put each other in, and there is a certain point where that if you truly want to go in your own direction and it went against the grain of what was happening in the scene in general, you don’t get gigs, some producers won’t work with you, and you don’t get the support that you should.
This year’s Airwaves is looming on the horizon. How are your preparations for it coming along? Is it going well?
Yup it is. Actually I’m working on the set as we speak. I don’t know for sure, but it seems from the schedule that I have an hour and a half for my set, which is interesting because I’ve never had a set as long as that. So right now I’m making a few new tunes, which is cool because I have a rule that whenever I play a gig I make at least one new track.
What are the challenges for you playing that long?
The challenge is simply that I’m going to be starting at 1am, so everyone will be drunk and I’ve gotta make sure that it’s going to be a party. I still want to push my own stuff, but I need to make sure that people at that time enjoy it. It may have some breaks in it because of the live aspect but I will be taking a lot of tracks
When you’re playing live, what is your set up? Is it all live, or mostly based on a laptop?
I have several effects and an old ms-20 synth as well as one of those launchpad controllers so I can keep it fairly live and be able to react to the crowd, but of course I won’t be building the tracks from scratch. It would suck sound wise, so I don’t do it.
So why should people come to the night you’re playing?
Well you’ve got guys like Steve Sampling, Nuke Dukem and Thor. A guy like Thor, he’s been around the electronic scene since day one and he definitely knows how to work a dancefloor and Stebbi [Sampling] is making some great music right now. As for me, I’m just going in there to make people dance!
HaZaR will be performing on Friday 2nd november, 01:00, at Faktorý downstairs.
You can steam and purchase his music on his Bandcamp site.