As Kiasmos, Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds and musician Janus Rasmussen (who is originally from the Faroe Islands) have built an ambient, danceable sound that references Arnald’s solo piano work as well as Rasmussen’s electro-pop sensibilities. Signed to London label Erased Tapes Records with a self-titled album released in 2014 followed by an EP in late 2015, Kiasmos brings the Reykjavik party to the Phi Centre March 31 for a sold out show. We talked to these pals about touring, musical evolution and backstage rituals.
Phi: Your music is often a blend of electronic and classical. What do you think fascinates people about the mix of these two sounds?
Ólafur Arnalds: I don't think it's going to be exciting forever, to be honest, so we will have to adjust eventually. It's a combination of two things that are kind of blowing up at the moment: It's this neoclassical scene that has become very popular in the last few years, and at the same time, electronic music has become huge. Very few people had mixed these two things together before and so people get very excited about it.
Phi: You’ve mentioned that you wanted to create two different experiences with the album and the live show. How would you describe the two experiences?
Janus Rasmussen: When you make an album you don't really know how people are going to listen to it or experience it. With the live you can kind of just decide what you want to go for, and obviously, it was just more fun to have a party for us.
ÓA: Yes, it’s a controlled environment, so we can choose that the show is a party. We could have chosen to make it chill out ambient show...but we decided to make a party instead!
Phi: You’ve been traveling the world playing in front of thousands of people every night. How do you keep it interesting?
JR: Before every tour we revisit the entire set. I'm actually doing that right now, I just opened up the session on the song Thrown and I'm editing some parts out, adding some extra percussions. After doing the show 100 times, we know, for example, that a certain part of a song at a certain point gets a bit low and needs some improvement. After every tour we will revisit things, always try to make it better step by step.
ÓA: After you tour a whole year you become quite good at doing the show so you need to challenge yourself by adding new material.
Phi: So the show in Montreal will be different from the one you played last year at Mutek? Will there be a lot of fresh stuff for people to listen to?
ÓA: Yeah, probably half of the set is going to be new songs and even the songs that we played back then are going to sound different, we're rearranging everything and it will look different too.
Phi: Does a particular city influence how you prepare a show?
ÓA: A city might not influence our sound, but a tour, yes.
JR: I kind of know what to expect in Montreal; the crowd is very knowledgeable.
ÓA: We have a different show for a North American tour where we are usually the headliner as opposed to a European tour where we mostly play at festivals. Both sets are completely different…. In America we play small clubs for 500, 600 people but in Europe we play in big festivals in front of maybe 10,000 people--of which 5,000 people have never heard of us. So how do we grab their attention right away? We need to start our sets really high.
Phi: Do you prefer that big-room, festival feeling or the more intimate vibe of a small club?
JR: They're both fun in their own ways. It's fun sometimes to have a headline tour where we can totally build up and tell the story, where people bought a ticket to see us and where we can be free to decide what we do. But at the big festivals we kind of have to make an impact otherwise.
ÓA: Otherwise people will go see another band! In that way, I probably prefer the headline shows even though they are much smaller. People also have a lot more patience, so we can build up songs up for 15 minutes with ambient stuff because people know something is coming, so they anticipate it. In a festival, on the other hand, we have to start with a dance beat right away just to grab people's attention.
Phi: What does a typical show day look like for you guys? Do you have any rituals?
JR: Our traveling is so hectic we usually fly the same day, land and go straight to soundcheck. If we get some rest between to the soundcheck and the show...
ÓA: ...Then we're very lucky. But often we’re so tired because we’re flying from the other side of the world. I remember in December we arrived to a show after a 20 hour flight. How do you put yourself in the mood to play and dance after that?
JR: It can be very frustrating because you want to do it but you can't find anything in yourself to get motivated you're like, ''Yeah South America!!!... but I came from Hong Kong, ahhhhh!''
ÓA: And we don't do drugs, so...
JR: …we drink Red Bull and we dance backstage.
ÓA: We put on trap music and we twerk upside down, do silly stuff and loosen up a little bit.
JR: It really helps to dance and be silly before the gig. One thing I've learned is, don't be sad before you go on stage.
Photo credit (cover): Jim Bennett