Unfold: Ólafur Arnalds talks inspirations, inventions & his upcoming Australian tour

An indescribable amalgamation of ambient, classical and electronic sounds has seen BAFTA winning artist, composer, musician and producer ÓLAFUR ARNALDS carve a captivating edge into the realm of modern contemporary music. 

Distinctive, yet mutable, this maestro’s created a unique musical landscape that fuses style and technology, and pushes multiple boundaries in composition and performance – both in the studio and on the stage.

While he may not be a household name in Australia, there are high chances that you will have encountered Ólafur’s work at some point in time. His music has been swept through the airwaves, onto the screen and even into space, garnering him a rich range of career successes modestly tinted with effortless chic.

After over fifteen years in the industry, Ólafur has now expanded his virtuosity even further by developing ground-breaking new software called ‘Stratus’, which transforms the humble piano into a unique new instrument. His highly anticipated new record, re:member, formally introduces the Stratus and bridges the territories between technology and acoustic instrumentation in a beautiful feat of ingenious engineering.

Hot on the heels of sell-out shows in the UK and US, we had the chance to talk with Ólafur Arnalds about his iconic experiences, musical experiments and production ethos before he brings re:member‘s global tour to our Australian soils later this month in a performance offering like never before.

Your career has been somewhat of an antipode to many classically-influenced musicians: you started out as a drummer in hardcore and metal bands, and now you’re selling out concert halls around the world with avant-garde (mostly) instrumental performances. Can you tell us a bit about your transition from writing parts for Heaven Shall Burn’s Antigone in 2004 to the release of your first studio album, Eulogy for Evolution, in 2007? Did this feel like a natural progression?

O: I don’t really think about what I’ve done before in terms of it being a career that started back then and led me to where I am now. It all feels very natural to be. Each thing leads to the next one. I think my punk years cultivated a DIY attitude and work ethic in me that’s still there after all these years. Since I started dabbling with classical music it’s been a journey or experimentation and exploration – that still continues today.

Less than twelve months after your solo debut, you put out your second major release and were put on the bill to support Sigur Rós for part of their European tour. At the time, you were only 21 and this would have been a pivotal point for their music and global exposure – did this have any impact on your personal and professional aspirations?

O: I was just thinking about this tour a couple of days ago because on the European tour we’re on now we’ve been playing some of the same venues as I played with Sigur Rós 10 years ago, except now it’s my name of the poster. I think mainly that tour gave me a kick in the ass to try to go further with my music and set my aim high.

While predominantly trying to circumvent generic questions: who would you say are your biggest musical influences (besides Chopin)? Have you had any mentors?

O: I am mainly influenced by aspirational people who’s careers extend outside of music such as David Byrne, Björk, Bowie…

Undoubtedly, the ensuing years been a huge whirlwind: you were composing and releasing a lot of music – especially with Found Songs and Living Room Songs – and working on numerous ongoing projects, such as Kiasmos. How were you able to facilitate such a massive workload?

O: I live and breathe in this work, that’s key.

You’ve done some phenomenal collaborations with several different artists, and there’s often a variety of musical backgrounds. Your work with Nils Frahm has been particularly remarkable: Trance Frenz is not only very beautiful music, but it also reveals a very humbling creative relationship and friendship. Are there any important elements that should be considered when approaching this type of work?

O: Collaboration is something I do all the time – whether it’s Kiasmos or in my own music. It’s something I really enjoy and have embraced more in later years. Me and Nils are friends and both musicians, I think it’s inevitable that we’d end up making music together. Usually it’s just something that happens when we’re hanging out. So I guess my advise is to… make music with your friends?

You also sent a song into space last year as part of the Sónar Calling GJ273b project. It’s a pretty crazy idea! What was your take on that?

O: I loved the philosophical aspect of it. It’s a project that asks more questions than it answers, and the purpose is to create discussion and interest – rather than to necessarily actually contact aliens. I’m a huge space nerd so I felt very honored to be a part of this.

Jumping forward to your latest and fourth solo studio album, re:member. This record has predominantly been centred around a very innovative concept: two remotely triggered semi-generative, self-playing pianos. The Stratus Pianos, or Stratus, were invented by yourself and software programmer and audio developer Halldór Eldjárn, and have the capacity to play a spontaneous array of notes based on the algorithm. Essentially, the idea for this came when you stumbled across a pretty awful pianola-style instrument, but the concept of its playing mechanism offered a tangible new way for you play the piano differently and create an extended platform in your composition and performance. What were some of the challenges involved with making and using the Stratus, and how easy was it to integrate with your existing rig?

O: Well, we did spend two years on it. Probably the longest I’ve ever worked on anything really. It really gave me a new way of thinking about music and creativity. It made me super aware of the process and how getting lost in writing music is often dependant on doing things in a new way, getting out of your rut. This whole process of experimentation was really the inspiration for the album.

You’ve referred to re:member as your “breaking out-of-a-shell album”; which takes and coalesces raw influences from multiple genres. Besides introducing the Stratus into your workflow, how have your composition and production processes evolved, and were there times where you needed to exercise any creative restraint?

O: I tried in fact to not exercise creative restraint, but to take the raw influences and put them straight into music. However I do think creativity thrives within limits, so things like the Stratus software – which is inherently limiting – can push you further.

One of the record’s leading singles, ‘unfold’ featuring SOHN, is an exemplar of the musical diverge that we see in this album. The track opens with a hallmark piano and string arrangement, before amalgamating with reed instruments, soft beats and ethereal vocalised falsetto harmonies from SOHN; it offers a newfangled vibrancy, whilst still encompassing attributes that are distinguishable in your compositional style; it feels very exuberant and liberating. Can you tell us a bit about how this song was made and what intentions lay behind the vocal parts?

O: As are most good things, the vocals at the end were a happy accident. It doesn’t really have big intentions but was rather something spontaneous that I did with SOHN when he was staying in Iceland for a while and working the studio next to mine. He came over for a drink one night and I played him this demo I was working on and he just started singing.

And speaking of beats, you’ve also been playing an insane amount of shows with Kiasmos, especially in the European circuit. Word on the street is that there might also be a new album next year… Can we expect to see you and Janus together in Australia sometime soon?

O: We are definitely on a break for a little while and not fully sure when we get back to it. But Janus is doing some DJ sets as Kiasmos in the meanwhile.

We’re very excited to have you back in Australia next month for your re:member tour, which will be performed in some of the best concert halls in the Southern Hemisphere. So far, the other legs of this tour have garnered exceptional reviews, and it’s been a quite some time since we’ve seen you play here! How do you think this tour will differ from your last?

O: I have more musicians on stage – not to mention the 3 pianos. We are also touring with a drummer for the first time and the light production is really quite something. It’s definitely a very long tour. Right now it’s all great. Looking forward to coming back to Australia. Try asking me again in a year and we’ll see where we’re at.

Tuesday, November 27
QPAC, Brisbane
Get your tickets here.

Wednesday, November 28
Sydney Opera House, Sydney
Get your tickets here.

Thursday, November 29
Canberra Theatre Centre, Canberra
Get your tickets here.

Saturday, December 1
Melbourne Recital Centre, Melbourne
(SOLD OUT)

Monday, December 3
Melbourne Recital Centre, Melbourne
(SOLD OUT)

Tuesday, December 4
Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide
Get your tickets here.

Photo by Benjamin Hardman

Questions by FREYA DINESEN

Intro by CAITLIN MEDCALF

CHECK OUT MORE INTERVIEWS HERE

SEE ALSO

PURPLE SNEAKERS’ BEST SONGS OF 2017
ANATOLE RELEASES ANOTHER VITALISING MELODIC OFFERING IN ‘OUTGROWN’
GET AMONGST KIASMOS’ ENTHRALLING BLEND OF EXPERIMENTAL TECHNO WITH THEIR ‘BLURRED’ EP

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Ex-con(servatorium) music nerd sharing some cents.