All Photos: Sachyn Mital

Get By with a Little Help from Our Elves: An Interview with Samaris

Samaris transform 19th century Icelandic poetry into haunting, modern compositions with electronics and a clarinet. Yet emerging success hasn't changed their disposition, or their sense of humor.

Icelandic music is often contextually compared to its home country, and the creators themselves, in that it has clear links to the sublime aspects of the Arctic country, like natural elements such as glaciers and geysers, and its culture, such as fantastic beings in stories (like elves). The young band Samaris possess a unique sound even amongst their Icelandic peers. Pulling lyrically from 19th century Icelandic poetry, Samaris transforms the classic texts into contemporary songs with electronics and a clarinet. The trio, formed in 2011, consists of Áslaug Brún Magnúsdóttir on a haunting clarinet, Þórður Kári Steinþórsson (“Doddi” for short) wielding the dark electronics and Jófríður Ákadóttir’s captivating voice.

I became familiar with them while browsing the Iceland Airwaves schedule for 2013. Though I have yet to visit the country for the music festival, I like to be aware of what artists might be on the verge of getting big there and Airwaves’ lineup is a great resource to figure that out. Samaris’s music video for “Góða Tungl” off of their self-titled double EP was what hooked me on them. The stark repetitive music throbs with morose undercurrents and, in the video, the jerky motion of dancers recalls something Darren Aronofsky might have directed. It certainly earned them notice from taste-makers in the music industry like the radio KEXP station and press like The Line of Best Fit. The group followed up their combo EP with a proper full-length album Silkidrangar on One Little Indian in 2014. The album earned positive reviews across a number of small outlets but wasn’t enough to push them into the larger global stage. Fortunately, the band’s potential continues to grow as they find more time to dedicate to their craft.

In the first half of 2015, they are still introducing themselves to the world. Samaris had the opportunity to perform a few tiny shows in the US, including one recorded for KEXP and another smaller industry set in Los Angeles. From the west coast, they then came to New York City for an free performance as part of the Annie O. series at The Standard Hotel. This was to be their first proper show in New York City and the small penthouse room was packed with people interested in checking out the band. Before the set, and ahead of the release of Silkidrangar Sessions, a re-visioning of songs off their proper full-length, PopMatters had a chance to look out on the city with the band and to get to know them better.

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What does Samaris mean?

Ákadóttir: We found it in a magazine it. It was a comic series called ‘The Phantom’. There was a character called Samaris. We got it from there. But it doesn’t have a particular meaning or funny story.

Steinþórsson: Actually we got a message the other day. Somebody told us it means songbird in Turkish. I had no idea.

Ákadóttir: Yeah so it maybe could mean a lot.

How would you describe your music?

Steinþórsson: Probably I wouldn’t.

It’s easier to enjoy on its own merits?

Ákadóttir: It’s usually the problem with describing music, like describe your music [in three words]. It’s very limited. But our sound is kind of dreamy … electronic obviously. Melancholic. Sometimes it can be fun, upbeat. It has that dreamy feel to it. I don’t know if dreamy is the right word for it, but a distant, atmospheric feel to it.

How much of that atmospheric feel is drawn from Iceland itself?

Ákadóttir: It’s hard to say.

Steinþórsson: Of course it is. Take inspiration from where you are.

Ákadóttir: Subconscious, definitely

Steinþórsson: Some of our lyrics are really poetic.

Ákadóttir: It’s like anthem or ode to nature words. And that influences the music.

Your lyrics are mostly poetry right?

Ákadóttir: They are all poetry. We are recycling. We use old lyrics and words. Sometimes they have songs, sometimes poetry from the 19th century romantic era.

Steinþórsson: Sometimes it is a bit like sampling poetry, like one or two lines from this.

Magnúsdóttir: And we don’t like the next line like maybe it’s too religious or something like that so we’ll skip it …

Steinþórsson: Then just take from somewhere else and mix it up.

How do you find audiences are receptive to the clarinet?

Ákadóttir: People are usually very pleased with it. They are surprised that it is a good fit.

Magnúsdóttir: Some people make weird faces when I play it. I think maybe that is because they are laughing at me because I look weird when I play it.

Ákadóttir: For us, it’s an experiment obviously. [Áslaug and I] are both clarinet players and we had it in the studio. We just tried it out and it sounded amazing. Same as the poetry and the electronic beats in the backing track.

Magnúsdóttir: We never decided to do it that way.

Ákadóttir: We are just kind of seeing what we can get out of it. The clarinet is such a cool instrument. We obviously know how to play it very well classically. But when you add effects on it and put it in this context, you open up a whole new range of options and sounds. We’re still finding new things.

You do have the dreamy, dark quality on some tracks. How did the three of you come together?

Magnúsdóttir: I have known Doddi since we were just six years old together in school. Then I met Jófríður in a music school. We both studied classical clarinet. Then, we had this idea and I contacted [Doddi] back in 2011.

You will be putting out the Silkidrangar sessions soon. How do the live versions differ from the studio versions?

Ákadóttir: We played in the studio for the live album. It was recorded over two days. Kind of bring together our favorite bits from what we’d learned from having the same songs on heavy rotation for like a year. So we came into the studio, sometimes we wanted to completely start from scratch and remake the whole song. Sometimes we just wanted to play it as it is. We got people to play with us. Improvising a lot .

Steinþórsson: They didn’t even listen to tracks.

Ákadóttir: Yeah, we just pressed play.

Magnúsdóttir: We had no idea what we were really gonna do.

Ákadóttir: We were just messing around. We thought this is for fans, for people that have been listening to the album. It’s limited edition. It’s just for people that wanted a little bit more. We’re not targeting it to broaden our fanbase or whatever.

Are you writing music on the road, while touring?

Ákadóttir: We are much more productive in the studio.

Magnúsdóttir: We were in Berlin earlier this year and did some drafts. That was fun.

Steinþórsson: I have some drafts that I’ve been doing sometimes. Wherever I am.

Will your next release, after the Sessions, be an EP or an album?

Steinþórsson: I think it’s going to be a full album.

Magnúsdóttir: Just go for it.

This is your first performance in New York. How were your L.A. and Seattle performances?

Ákadóttir: Fun yeah.

Steinþórsson: Really fun.

Ákadóttir: It was very small scale…

Steinþórsson: Twelve minutes.

Ákadóttir: …so finally we get to play a full set in the States.

Magnúsdóttir: It’s a really cool place.

Ákadóttir: We’re really looking forward to it.

What have been some of your favorite places to perform outside of Iceland?

Magnúsdóttir: We went to Sicily last summer. That was weird.

Steinþórsson: Poland.

Ákadóttir: Poland.

Magnúsdóttir: Sydney in Australia.

Ákadóttir: Oh yeah, that was so much fun.

Magnúsdóttir: Those may be our favorites.

Ákadóttir: Crazy sunny. Crazy far away …

Magnúsdóttir: … where we’re still jet-lagged and everything is like whaa…

Steinþórsson: Eastern Europe was really fun. Basically it has been really nice everywhere.

If there was any current band you could tour with who would you wish for?

Ákadóttir: Yoko Ono.

Magnúsdóttir: Yoko Ono, in support of a Southern America tour. That would be really cool.

Steinþórsson: [laughs]

Since you now have your dinner, what are some of your favorite foods?

Ákadóttir: I love eating pizza.

Magnúsdóttir: We heard the New York is so much better than the L.A. pizza. So we’re going to try the New York pizza now. I hope it’s going to be amazing.

Anything you are looking forward to doing while in New York?

Magnúsdóttir: We are just going to check out MoMA.

The Bjork exhibit is there.

Ákadóttir: Go to Central Park. Just sort of see the sights.

Magnúsdóttir: Strawberry Fields.

Steinþórsson: Harlem.

Magnúsdóttir: Harlem.

Ákadóttir: We have already been walking around in Brooklyn.

Steinþórsson: Check out some records shops.

Magnúsdóttir: There’s like a feeling when we are driving around the city; where should I start? It’s a big city and you’re like [going out of your mind noise].

Ákadóttir: You want to see everything.

Magnúsdóttir: You want to see everything but you don’t really know what to do. But we’re getting a bit used to always coming to a new city so we just have to adapt quickly.

Have you acquired any fun tour stories?

Ákadóttir: In L.A. for example, the guys they went out partying and they met Ron Jeremy.

Steinþórsson: Oh that was in L.A. That is a really good photo.

Ákadóttir: Apparently he was asleep. They weren’t sure if it was because he had some kind of sleeping disorder and he just falls asleep on this bar or if he was actually really wasted.

Steinþórsson: We were going to talk to him but …

Magnúsdóttir: He was like not to be bothered.

Ákadóttir: I took a really good picture. [laughs]

Steinþórsson: I lost my passport in the plane.

Magnúsdóttir: That’s not really funny. Locked out our tour manager.

Ákadóttir: It’s always like that.

If a fan comes up to you, do you prefer to give autographs or to do selfies?

Magnúsdóttir: We are a bit awkward in the selfies.

Ákadóttir: We are just awkward in general.

Magnúsdóttir: We are awkward in general. We do not get stopped on the street but when we played in Sicily that was kind of weird.

Ákadóttir: It was a small town and someone was like I like your show.

Magnúsdóttir: I like your show and can we take a selfie. We were like “ohhhh”.

Ákadóttir: It was horrible.

Magnúsdóttir: And people post their selfies on our Facebook page and I see them and I’m like “oh my god” …

Ákadóttir: [echoes] Oh my god.

Magnúsdóttir: … do I really look like this? What is this doing on the internet. So I think I would prefer the autograph.

Steinþórsson: I think that fans are much more happy with having a picture.

Is there anything you wish I had asked about?

Magnúsdóttir: You should have asked us … this is my moment to shine.

Ákadóttir: Shine Áslaug, shine.

Magnúsdóttir: I don’t know. I need to prepare for this kind of question.

Steinþórsson: He didn’t ask about the glaciers.

Magnúsdóttir: Thank you for not asking about the glaciers.

Did elves write your music?

Ákadóttir: Yes they did.

Magnúsdóttir: Yes, in the lava.

Ákadóttir: Yeah we’re just lying in the lava and these elves come crawling …

That’s the headline.

Magnúsdóttir: Watch out! I hate bad headlines so watch out. I remember we did an interview when we released this album Silkidrangar. There was this journalist who called me and she was like, “So what’s the name of your album?” And I was like Silkidranger, which means “silk cliffs.” Then the headline was like, “Samaris release their album ‘Fish Cliffs’ (‘Fiskidrangar’).” I was like how? Why?

Ákadóttir: And she repeats it many times in the interview.

Magnúsdóttir: This is so bad. I was like this is a bad journalist. Why didn’t she ask me why I named the album “fish cliffs”?

Ákadóttir: It doesn’t make any sense.

Steinþórsson: [laughs]

Magnúsdóttir: That was horrible.