Imagine this: One year you’re a flailing hardcore drummer, your head down, sweat flying as you pound the skins for tortured Icelandic metal-heads Fighting Shit. A few years later, baton in hand, sample bank at the ready, you’re topping the classical charts as a refined composer of swelling, swirling, orchestra-electronica. Your name is Ólafur Arnalds, and your third album, For Now I Am Winter (Mercury Classics), traces a thin line between darkly melancholic symphonic pieces and state-of-the-art crunchy electronic beats and laptop samples.
The 25-year-old Arnalds is that rare bird in the music world, a polyglot who traverses styles as easily as most musicians play a three-chord blues. For Now I Am Winter exposes Arnalds’ truly old soul; brooding strings (performed by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra) swelling with icy melodies; throbbing, muted beats bracing against the cold of yearning vocals (Arnór Dan); and eerie sampled tones.
Your career path from drumming in a hardcore band to creating sweeping, electronic/orchestral music has been rather unusual.
I've always been interested in all kinds of music, and I still don’t do one particular style. My whole life, I have been without a direction, just doing whatever I feel like at that moment and whatever interests me at the moment. It's not like I decided to quit playing hardcore; rather, it's that the focus somehow went toward what I am doing now.
Were you originally a drummer?
I originally focused on piano, but I didn't play piano; the drums were my main direction, and I was interested in classical music, too.
Drummers, being the main rhythmic players in a band, can become myopic in their tastes. But you were into dance and classical as well as hardcore.
I am more of a composer than any kind of a performer. I'm not sure if you could even call me a drummer, because in the end I was only interested in creating music. I was approaching music from a drummer's point of view, but I was also often writing the music for the bands on piano or guitar. Even though I played the drums in those bands, I didn't call myself a performer. And I still don't.
And did you write purely electronic music as well then?
Yes, and I have an electronic music project now as well; it's more techno-dancey stuff. It's called Kiasmos. We've made a couple of EPs on Erased Tapes Records.
ForNow I Am Winter is beautiful, but also very melancholic.
It's more going for a theme rather than something I was personally experiencing. I am fascinated by melancholic music. It grabs you in a different way. It grabs more of your body. But melancholy music also peaks more inside of your head somehow. Most of my albums have been rather melancholy and with this one I wanted to go even further, to be ominous and dark and scary. At the same time, I always feel bad if my music is too dark so I always try to leave a little sense of hope in it. I don't want to be responsible for any depression.
Where did you record For Now I Am Winter?
It's recorded mostly in my home studio here in Reykjavik, where I did all the electronics and mixing. We went to Harpa concert hall to record the orchestra, and another studio, Studio Syrland, to record the string quartets; then piano at my studio, which is in a complex called E7. I don't have a console but I also don't like working purely in the box. I try to use real synthesizers and analog stuff, tape echoes and analog compression. I don't like the sound of completely digital electronics, although I like using digital programs and methods to arrange the music and organize everything. But I prefer the character of analog sounds.
Which analog synths did you use on For Now I Am Winter?
A lot of Korg MS10, Juno 60, Yamaha CS50, Korg Poly 6, and Korg Delta string machine for ambience. I run most synths through a Roland Space Echo; it gives them life. Even if you don't use the Space Echo very much, just running them through that machine saves them in a way that I really like. I also have a beautiful US Department of Commerce compressor with RCA tubes. Originally it had 600dB of gain; it was really just a distortion box. But my engineer and I have been modifying it. It's a real color box, it's so old and dark; it removes all the high end so you get this wonderful, warm, round sound. It changes the sound completely. It's unusable on most things but if we want to do something drastic, then we go to that.
How did you create the drum rhythms for the bulk of the album?
Mostly in Pro Tools, though I don't use any programs. It's mostly putting samples on the timeline in Pro Tools. Most of the drum samples on the new album are from techno and trance sample banks, but they are heavily modified. And I create my own sounds as well. For example, the snare drum in “Only The Winds” is my studio door slamming.
The song “Reclaim” features some interesting counterpoint between the various strings. Are those live, performed strings or samples that you've arranged to create a string section?
All the strings are live, but there's two layers of strings. The orchestral strings, the more staccato strings, are far away and distant sounding because we recorded them in a huge room and mixed them in a very wide stereo field. The main strings were recorded in a very small room and kept very dry. I like that they are kind of calling out to one another from different rooms; one is close and in your face and the other is distant and full.
How did you create the crunchy-sounding beats in "Reclaim"?
It was kind of unusual in this song that the beat actually came first, before any other element of the song. The beat was created by just arranging samples on the timeline in Pro Tools; most of them are some silly techno drum samples. Then I used the Universal Audio Moog Multimode Filter a lot to make them all sound very dark and “closed” somehow. There was only one kick drum but I sent all the samples to a master bus where I put an HP filter on it, which I automated to change the resonant frequency of the kick drum in time with the beat ,and that gives the beat its groove—the fact that some dynamic is changing constantly. The master bus was then also heavily compressed to bring out the sustain between the hits; that helps to also bring these otherwise generic things alive. The rest of the song was then written and piled on top of this beat.
Could you break down the title track: the origins of those vibrating swells in the intro, the skipping beat—which sounds like giant bugs flapping their wings, the small eruptions, the strings, the oddly ascending tones also in the intro, synths used, etc? The track, though subtle, really evolves from start to finish.
The swells in the intro were originally a string arrangement. Those swells are a rather common string technique in my music—maybe too common—so I decided to try something different and try to achieve the same swells with my Juno106. I took the exact MIDI channels that I had programmed for my string arrangement (I use string samples while writing, although everything gets recorded with real players later) recorded each voice separately to give it that feel of unique string players and ran every one through my RE-201 Space Echo on the way in. The eight total recorded channels of Juno via this characteristic echo make it as alive as a synth can get! Later in the track you can hear the original string version of this. The slow ascending tones in the intro is a Kontakt sample library I built myself using a Kalimba and a tape echo and the beats are mostly manipulated samples from banks as well as Juno's noise oscillator. I sidechain compressed the hi-hat with the kick to give it life. There is lots of side-chaining going on in general…
I could, of course, talk endlessly about equipment and techniques to achieve certain sounds, but I think the most important thing about this track is its development and the fact that nothing is “boxed.” I don't count eight bars and then go into a chorus. The track slowly develops from the dry sound of a synthesizer to include an intimate piano and string quartet to finally the grand orchestra swells. The same thing is happening in the stereo-image: it starts narrow and ends really wide with the addition of those wider elements. It's those things I spend a lot more time thinking about than what gear I should use…
What other projects you are currently working on?
I'm currently in Berlin working on a sound/visual installation for a gallery here, it's my first venture into such fine art, and I'm having a lot of fun! But apart from that and a couple of movies in the near future I'm spending most of this year touring and promoting my new album.
Ken Micallef is freelance writer and photographer based in New York City. His work has appeared in many publications, and a few of them still exist, including DownBeat, eMusic, and Modern Drummer.