eMusic Selects: SprengjuhÃ¶llin
Mad, mod and bursting with energy, Icelandic quintet SprengjuhÃ¶llin outfit big melodies with blaring brass and bounding guitars, making songs that transcend language and geography. A distant, foreign cousin to ’60s groups like the Action and the Kinks, SprengjuhÃ¶llin write the kind of pop songs that seem at once both novel and familiar.
But the music is just the half of it; SprengjuhÃ¶llin’s songs are like novellas, with misbegotten characters stumbling dumbly around empty ideologies and taking long trips with no destination in mind. In order to appreciate all aspects of SprengjuhÃ¶llin’s songwriting, eMusic spoke to dual frontmen Snorri Helgason and Bergur Ebbi Benediktsson and asked them to explain what each of their songs are about. Those explanations — along with a few perilous personal misadventures — are below.
On what, exactly, ‘SprengjuhÃ¶llin ‘means:
Snorri Helgason (guitars): SprengjuhÃ¶llin directly translates as “Palace of Explosions.” It’s not a real word in Icelandic or anything. To us, it means something that’s big and stable — like a palace — but is also really destructive and unstable — like a bomb. There’s a contrast in that word that we like. The thing with our band is that each member is from a really different musical background, so we have this chemistry going where everyone brings something from their world to the table. We find a middle ground, and that’s the final product.
On the dangers of playing Icelandic television:
Bergur Ebbi Benediktsson (vocals, guitars): We got contacted by the biggest television station in Iceland. They were going to broadcast us live, playing a new song, in front of the biggest swimming pool in all of Iceland. This was in the beginning of August, and it also happened to be the warmest day recorded in all of Reykjavik — it was 25.5 degrees Celsius (about 80 degrees Fahrenheit). All the girls were running around in bikinis, everything was just going so well, so we decided that we were going to be such winners that, when the song was over, we were going to jump in the pool with the girls with our clothes on, and that would be the end of the television show — it was a live broadcast.
Well, as soon as the song ended, Georg, our bass player, just sort of panicked. We were supposed to hold hands and jump into the pool in a coordinated fashion, but he just ran out ahead of us, crashed into a bunch of children, and then hit his foot on this metal plate that said “No Diving.” When he hit the water, we just saw blood everywhere. He started yelling “Aaaagghhh! This is horrible! This is horrible!” His toe didn’t quite fall off, but they had to give him like 15 stitches. It looked like a slaughterhouse when he got out. Then, after all of that, the producer of the show came over to us and said, “Um, you know what, guys? Don’t kill me, but the broadcast was a total failure. We didn’t get anything.”
On why New York isn’t much safer:
Bergur: We were invited to play two music festivals in Canada, one in Winnipeg and one in Vancouver. We thought that it was a relatively long flight for just two gigs, so we used some contacts in New York to put ourselves on the bill with another Icelandic band, FM Belfast.
Snorri: It was my first time in New York City. It was great to see and to talk to New Yorkers. I loved talking to cab drivers with funny accents. Our first night in NYC, we were really jetlagged but really excited.
Bergur: There was suddenly just an air raid of eggs. Some guys throwing eggs from a five-story window. I guess this is just how people from New York welcome tourists?
Snorri: So me and Bergur started laughing really hard, but the other guys in the band didn’t find it that funny. Our drummer went out to the street to look up at the building to see if he could see lights, or some asshole laughing in the window or something like that, when a garbage truck came by and the driver screamed, “Get out of the street, you morons!”
Bergur: The thing is, we liked it — we were willing to pay for an experience like that.
The songs: What They Mean, Where They Came From
Bergur Ebbi Benediktsson
GlÃ¹mur is a Christian name. It pretty much means how it sounds — it’s someone who’s gloomy, someone who’s mysterious and dark. He’s the protagonist of the song, and he’s sort of like a bum. The person who’s singing meets GlÃ¹mur in a park — where, you know, bums hang out — just sitting on a bench. GlÃ¹mur starts talking about his life: he’s been everywhere, he’s had all kinds of jobs, he’s been involved in a lot of interesting stuff that happened in Icelandic history in the 20th century. He’s like a Forrest Gump type person, who’s squeezed himself into a lot of situations. Today, he’s a total loser, but he doesn’t have any regrets. He’s just a fun bum who’s done a lot of things and has a lot of children everywhere.
If you listen to “GlÃ¹mur,” you get the perspective that he’s misunderstanding everything. He thinks he’s still great. This bum thing, it shows up a lot in literature — how bums and tramps are always so optimistic. They don’t own anything, so they don’t have anything to lose. I had an uncle; he was either at the top of society or the bottom. As soon as he had anything — a good job, his family was stable, a great car — he started drinking again and lost it all in a few months. So then he’d start up again.
“Keyrum Yfir Ãsland”
The title literally means “Driving Over Iceland.” We talk about places in Iceland that people know about, and people have the experience of doing a road trip around Iceland. Road trips in Iceland are kind of unique. We have very bad roads to begin with. We sometimes have really bad weather. In the summertime we have 24 hours of daylight and people just go mad — they don’t want to fall asleep at all. So this song is about a guy who goes on one of these road trips and goes completely mad. He ends up in the mountains in the wilderness and he doesn’t want to go home unless someone goes down and collects him. He’s just going to stay there. He’s going to become a mountaineer.
“SÃÃ°asta BloggfÃ¦rsla LjÃ³shÃ¦rÃ° Drengsins”
This song is basically a manifesto that goes wrong. It’s about a guy who claims, in the song, that he’s completely independent. He’s not dependent on anything, including religious concepts, like God. It’s a very typical thing for young people to read about all kinds of revolutions around the world, and to just get caught up in that. When people really dive into this kind of stuff, if you claim you’re independent from everything, you just lose your mind. There’s nothing to live for if you’re independent from everything. You have to be attached to things.
This guy has a little doubt. He admits sometimes that he misses God. What happens is that he out-thinks himself; he is so completely independent that he’s become dependent on his own ideology. This guy in the song, he’s always criticizing, but in the end, he’s nothing without this bullshit he’s stuffed his head up with. Eventually, he goes insane because he out-thinks himself. He starts to think that he’s independent of himself. And if he’s independent of himself, then he doesn’t really exist. In the next stanza, he floats into a mythological place — it’s this beach from Norse mythology — where the people go after they die. So he’s on the beach, and he’s physically OK, and he wants to talk about his experience, but he can’t — he doesn’t have a mouth. None of the people on the beach have mouths. They got it taken away because they wasted too many words on bullshit. The title of the song means “The Blond Boy’s Last Blog Entry.”
“Sumar Ã MÃºla”
“Sumar Ã MÃºla” means literally “Summer in a Promontory”. “MÃºla” is a common place name in Iceland — it could be just about anywhere. It is also the suffix of a few street names in the commercial sector of ReykjavÃk, which contains office buildings and, in general, very boring establishments.
That said, the song’s name and meaning is supposed to be a little bit of a riddle. The protagonist is stuck inside a promontory — meaning either he is stuck inside a projecting mountain or stuck inside an urban office building. It’s summertime, and he thinks he’s missing out on a lot of stuff. But he thinks too much, since he has the typical modern day “thinking-sickness.” The protagonist feels that he’s missing out on the summer because he’s locked inside an office all day long, but he what he thinks he is missing out on is some Jane-Austenish 19th-century drama sensation — couples kissing each other under trees in the meadow or floating down streams on rafts, listening to Rimbaud deliver poems. The song lyrics cite various influences from 20th century Icelandic poetry, and even directly some direct lines.
“NÃº er tÃminn”
“NÃº er tÃminn” means “Now is the time.” I have a typical “carpe diem” message. It’s a call for our generation to establish itself with a name and meaning and stop listening to what the old folks say about the importance in life. The guy in the song says he knows nothing about agriculture or wool and just wants to eat his sushi, be easily persuaded and have fun. It is sometimes fun just to go with the flow and let go of hard and difficult ideologies.
“Worry ’til Spring”
I was thinking about Mississippi John Hurt — do you know him? He’s got this weird finger-picking style that a lot of times copies the melodies of his songs. So I was thinking about that, and about the song “Blackbird” by the Beatles, and that kind of inspired me to try that method out. I was trying to figure out Mississippi John Hurt‘s version of “Stagger Lee,” and I kind of stumbled upon this melody. I just worked my way along on that. I was working at a kindergarten at the time I wrote this, and during the lunch breaks when the kids just finished eating, we’d go into this little room and play children’s songs. One day I started playing songs that I’d been writing and I played that song to them and they really liked it. I used to do that a lot when I was working there.
“ÃžÃ¡ Hlupu Hestar A Skeið″
This song was first written in English, it was called “All the Horses Are Gone.” This was one of the first songs that Bergur wrote and presented to us. It’s an expression in Icelandic folklore — these old tribes and families that lived here in Iceland in the old days, the song is a description of a battle between the two of them, and then it becomes a trip through Icelandic history.
“FrÃ¡ Gleymdu Vori”
That’s really just a typical love song — a lost love. The singer is describing a romance that’s ended, and he’s comparing it to a rainy day in spring.
This one is about this guy — and there are a lot of these guys around — that just do not want to dance at shows. They think they are too cool to dance. They just hang out at the bar and get drunk and then maybe sway around in a semi-violent manner and spill beer everywhere. It’s a really short song, and a short lyric about that. It’s about being afraid to dance and hiding it behind some kind of coolness. They kind of envy and hate the people that are dancing.
“Flogin Er Finka”
Actually, the direct translation of the title of this song is “This Bird Has Flown.” It’s about a girl that’s left, just like the girl in the Beatles song. It’s about being alone on a winter afternoon. You go out, your car door is frozen shut, you can’t turn the key. All in all, it’s just a gloomy winter’s day.