Bardi Johannsson could be considered quite the Renaissance man. With nearly three decades of musicianship under his belt (at just 40 years of age), the Icelandic artist has not limited his lengthy career to just one path. In fact, the multi-instrumentalist seems to have tried every skill under the sun before focusing on music completely—and that may be why his records are so damn good.
Johannsson made a name for himself with his band Bang Gang, but he has also joined forces with other musicians as well: The band Starwalker is his partnership with French musician Jean-Benoît Dunckel of the group Air (who you may know from the Virgin Suicides soundtrack), and Lady and Bird is his pairing with singer-songwriter Keren Ann. But with countless opportunities for collaborations and new opportunities, Johannsson has had to leave Bang Gang to the side since his last album release in 2008. So now, with the release of a new Bang Gang album The Wolves Are Whispering this past June—seven years later—Johannsson's fans have something to cheer about.
The Wolves Are Whispering is an album that reflects seven years of growth and invention, both technical and personal. In some tracks, dark, heavy instrumentals are paired with sonorous vocals that echo a clear sense of despair or even anger, but dreamy, guitar-driven songs intercut the record with beams of light. Performed live at Bang Gang’s latest Reykjavik concert (the first one in some time), the album gives off a very human sense of multidimensionality: It contains multitudes.
While Bang Gang may not be on the mainstream radar, at least in the United States, Johannsson's following in Iceland is at the super-star level. But still, the musician thinks of himself as an indie artist, mixing his music and managing his career himself—and selling out Reykjavik’s Gamla Bío theater in two weeks. Johannsson’s hype is well-earned, thanks to his developed artistic vision and altogether musical expertise (that is even leading him to become a mentor on Iceland’s version of The Voice), but still, Bang Gang remains more of a force in Iceland than anywhere else—so we hopped on a plane with WOW Airlines to find out just what he was about.
After the concert, we met up with Johannsson in the lobby of Reykjavik’s Alda Hotel to talk about his latest release and his career as a whole. And with his wry sense of humor and unquestionable talent, it’s no wonder why the artist has become one of Iceland’s most beloved musicians—and why he should be on your radar by now.
You’ve been very busy the past seven years with all your different projects. Have you been working on this new Bang Gang album bit by bit through that time or is it something that you focused on more recently?
I just worked on it for seven years straight! No, I was actually going to release it five years ago, but then I had the phone call to do something else. We released a classical Lady and Bird album. We did a release concert for the one before in Iceland with Keren Ann and we had just recorded, so we had Bang Gang, Keren Ann, and Lady and Bird. We had it with the symphony orchestra and EMI wanted to release that as a Lady and Bird album. So we had a classical concert, and then after that we had an offer to make an opera, and then a few film scores, and then I did a classical album, theater, everything. So each time I had scheduled the Bang Gang album, I had the phone call for something else and I was like, “Yeah, that’s great!” And then…
Is there a medium you haven’t worked with yet that you’d like to?
Animation movie—I haven’t really done that yet. I haven’t directed a movie. I’ve done co-directing on short films, but they’re really indie. I was a journalist. I had worked in the swimming pool as a lifeguard. The radio show. I had a TV show. Maybe reading the news...that’s something I want to do.
How long have you been recording music professionally—20 years or so?
Well, I released my first song when I was 10 or 12, and it was called “Out of Tune” and I sung it out of tune. I was really proud. The album was re-released on a CD and I had it removed on the re-release. I was making cassettes when I was maybe 16. I made 20 cassettes with a band called Up Yours. Then, I went to college and then I was writing for magazines, film reviews. I went to work in the swimming pool for six months, which was really hard because it was 12-hour shifts. When you’re a lifeguard, you can’t listen to music. You can’t read. You have to watch people swim for 12 hours and it’s cold out and it’s warm inside, and if you’re on 12-hour shifts it’s really hard to keep yourself awake. So, I ended up going to study Icelandic language and was writing for gossip magazines. Then, I did one year of clothing design and I wanted to be a clothing designer, but at the same time, I had two songs on a compilation album that I had been doing and then one of them got signed on Warner, so I had a record deal. So from there, it was just that.
So you’ve had a lot of projects leading up to this.
Yeah. I wanted to be a lawyer. I wanted to be all kinds of stuff. But I’m still excited by all this stuff. But music gives you—you can do videos. You can sew the clothes for some of the videos. You can do legal stuff if you’re your own manager. So you get a little bit of everything.
You also do a lot of collaborations with a lot of different artists—are there any artists that you haven’t collaborated with but you’d like to?
Well, some of them are dead, so it’s going to be hard to work with them. But I always wanted to work with Jason Pierce from Spiritualized, and Brian Molko from Placebo. I think that’s all.
What do you look for when you’re looking for people to collaborate with?
I think it’s really important that they are talented and fun—have humor. Together—only talent, no humor is no good. Only humor, no talent—good friend. Good friend, no band.
Your other projects also have a different sound than Bang Gang—how would you describe the mood of your new solo album?
I think it’s quite personal. I didn’t plan anything. It’s quite diverse, but what I like the most is—someone had a nice description of it. I have to look it up. Some guy nailed it, a journalist found a really good word for it.
It feel like a mix of light and dark. Some songs are more pop than others.
Yeah, it’s been hard to label it. All my four Bang Gang albums—the first one was really electronic. The next two were all pop-rock, alternative, indie, electronic. Even trip-hop. It’s hard to categorize it, and I like that. I like that I’m hard to categorize.
How do you think you’ve grown as an artist since the last Bang Gang album?
I’m better at mixing. I mixed this album myself. And little by little, I’m becoming more honest with lyrics and saying actually what I’m thinking or what I have been thinking at some point in my life. They aren’t all correct things, but my first album was really reserve and all mysteries. I know what the songs are about, but no one else does. The second was a little bit more, but still not really. The third one was more open, and this one is really.
What was your process like writing really personal lyrics?
I just felt like, “Why not?” I’m also becoming more and more direct as a person. I’m working on saying exactly what I think and people just have to take that. So at least they know where they have me. I think that’s very important. If everyone is really honest, then things are so easy because you don’t have to think about it. And if people are honest, you don’t have to take it badly.
What’s one of the biggest lessons you’ve learned in your time as a musician?
It’s when industry people tell you you can’t do something—most of my career I’ve been meeting managers, record people, publishing people, and everyone is telling me, “You’re an artist, you can’t do that. You don’t understand how it works. Blah blah blah.” My biggest lesson is that everything is possible and you can do everything by yourself. I’m not rude to people, like an asshole. You can’t care about yourself. Some people are like that in general—not just artists, but there are a lot of people who just need someone to do everything for them. But artists have been raised in thinking that they can’t do anything by themselves.
Was your “Who is Bardi” video a reaction against that?
Yeah, I did that because at that time, 2003, I was a journalist. I had been a journalist before and all the bands at the time had released videos of them in the studio talking nice about themselves and explaining how they do that and trying to be so artistic. I thought that was really...when I watch interviews like that I just think of Spinal Tap. So I just wanted to do something that is fun to watch, so that was my goal. And to make fun of all the clichés—like what people think about Icelandic artists.
There are all these clichés, but do you think there is anything that makes Icelandic musicians or the Icelandic music industry unique?
Well, we are, of course, elves. And we are pure.
You go to the hot spring.
Yeah, we get inspired by the mountains.
What is your writing process like?
I just go to my studio and there’s no light. It’s completely dark. So I go in the morning when the day starts and I finish in the evening when it’s dark so I don’t see the daylight. I don’t see out the windows—maybe that’s why I go in my head for inspiration. But I like driving in the countryside and I like the space. In New York I get claustrophobic very quickly. People are all in your face. When you’re hungover, it’s extremely bad.
If someone wanted to get more into Icelandic music, which bands or singers should they listen to?
Samaris, and then GANGLY, and also Sindri Már Sigfússon, who is in two bands, Seabear and Sin Fang Bous. They’re good. There are many bands here now. It’s different when I started—back then there were maybe five bands selling records outside of Iceland in 2003. It’s a lot more now.
Are there any specific artists who have inspired you?
I listen a lot to The Stranglers, The Doors, Sonic Youth, Burt Bacharah, Lee Hazlewood, Spiritualized, Philip Glass, Carpenters. I could probably go on for a long time.
Is there anyone who inspired you to get into music in the first place?
No, actually. I don’t get starstruck, so I don’t see myself as someone else. I’ve never actually imagined myself onstage. Most bands, when they were 16, wanted to be like Mick Jagger or wanted to be like someone. I did listen to a lot of Smashing Pumpkins, though, and Metallica—and I still do. I listen to the old Metallica albums sometimes just to remind me of that. But there are young artists who see themselves on stage—I was actually never going to sing onstage. It was never my plan. My plan was to do music and play guitar onstage and someone else would sing it. But it happened in my second album when I had a record company and I said to them, “Do you have any ideas of someone who could sing these songs?” And then they said, “Why don’t you sing them yourself?” I said, “No, I don’t think that’s right.” And then they said, “Yeah, just do it.” But singing in the studio is one thing. I never thought about that I would have to stand on stage. in front of people and sing it. So the first concert when I had to sing, my voice was….I was so stressed. You could hear it in my voice because I was shaking and it was horrible. I felt so bad.
But it’s getting better?
Yeah, it’s better now. I’ve accepted that I have to sing.
Last question: why are the wolves whispering?
Because they are not screaming. The album is really subtle, but there are really a lot of things going on emotionally and musically. There’s lots of drama, but nobody’s screaming. There’s a lot of tension, but not aggressive tension. The wolves are whispering—not howling.