Hey! Congratulations on ‘Destrier’! Blew me out of the water completely! Before we delve into the actual interview, though: how have you been?
Really good. We’re still recovering a bit after the ‘Destrier’ release concert here in Iceland which was the biggest production of a concert we have done. We arranged ‘Destrier’ for a total of fifteen people. Hopefully we can do a production like that in Europe someday.
I’m sure there’s tons of people that are itching to learn what Agent Fresco is all about. Why don’t you introduce yourself and the band for a bit?
I’m Þórarinn Guðnason (Tóti) the guitar/piano player. Then we have Hrafnkell Örn Guðjónsson (Keli) on drums, Vignir Rafn Hilmarsson on bass and Arnór Dan Arnarson does the yodeling. We are a group from Iceland known as Agent Fresco and we play music. I hate trying to convince people to listen by labeling our music but we kind of play ‘progressive rock’, which is the label I hate the most but I think it comes the closest to describing us by genre.
I’d like to go in-depth on a couple standout songs, if you don’t mind, but first I would like to talk about your sound and influences. I had a very hard time describing what you might be going for, trying my hardest with ‘Biffy Clyro meets Leprous meets At the Drive-In’. How would you define your sound?
These are all references we’ve heard before. And we like all of those bands very much and we take influence from a variety of sources but I like to think that we take the most from our selves. By that I mean diving into theoretical ideas, emotions and translating thoughts into music. We are at least in no way trying to sound like anybody while not forcing us to not sound like anybody. It’s just a result of what we discover.
To give us a small indication of your taste in music, could you name us three albums that really shaped you as a musician or that have clear hooks in the sound of Agent Fresco?
Sound wise I think we will all agree on Dredg - ‘The Pariah, the Parrot, the Delusion’ which is in my opinion one of the best sounding albums ever. If I were to name three albums that have shaped me I would begin with Yowie – ‘Crytooology’, a band from Australia that have some of the most interesting rhythms I’ve ever heard and completely lacking in harmonic context, using fretless guitars to get as far away way from it as possible and only suggesting pitch up and down, similar to a human voice. Then I would say Avishai Cohen – ‘Gently disturbed’, an Israeli jazz bass player that uses complex rhythms in a beautiful harmonic and lyrical context. Then I’ve been held by a mild Bach obsession for the last few years (along with the accompanying inferiority complex). No need to explain him but he is still the master of harmony and counterpoint.
Right, so as I said, I’d like to go in-depth on a couple songs, starting off with one of the singles ‘Dark Waters’. The song has an instant ‘pop-classic’ kind of feel without getting tacky or overly sweet. Was that a conscious effort or did this song just come about naturally?
Dark Water was the first song I wrote after releasing ‘A Long Time Listening’ back in 2010. I wrote it based on the piano motiv and the drum rhythm that had been stuck in my mind for a while. We like working with strong opposites and if you think about it there are quiet few in Dark Water. Minimalistic piano on top of busy drums with heavy, twangy guitars while a falsetto voice is singing a kind of lullaby over it all. It’s all about finding balance between simplicity and complexity, the extreme boundaries and the natural while still sounding like you’re from planet earth.
’Pyre’ was the one song that immediately stood out to me when I first heard the album. What’s that sound in the intro? A pitch-shifted natural harmonic?
Yup. I wrote it around the time I discovered that it’s really easy to play a B natural minor scale using only natural harmonics on the guitar. So it starts with the root – p5 – m3 played with harmonics and then on the fourth beat I kick in the Digitech Whammy and slide from the p4 to the p5 which creates a more complex Bminor7add9 chord. Then I use the Whammy to slide between the p4 and p5 which makes the guitar sing.
The song just instinctively progresses from melodic verses into groovy choruses. What can you tell me about the writing process for the song?
Me and Keli went to my home town Blönduós in the north of Iceland for a writing session for the album. We were going to stay there for a week but due to bad blizzard we were stuck there for a month, alone in my childhood home with no internet. We were getting a bit weird in the end and doing a lot of experimenting with spectralism which resulted in ‘Let Them See Us’. Most of Pyre was also written there and it’s the song Keli was most involved in the writing process. It’s also the song that changed the most over time and we finalized the structure of it in another trip we took to a remote place for rehearsing and writing in the east of Iceland.
’Howls’ was another song that really stood out to me, mainly because of its infectiously upbeat groove and ‘feel-good’ vibe. It really is a polar opposite of some of the darker songs on the album. It’s also a bit more progressive in terms of rhythm and time signatures, I think. Does this song stand out to you at all, and if so: why?
Yeah we’re really proud of it. During that time I had recently come out of a long relationship and noticed that I was writing a lot of melancholic stuff so I decided to try to write a song in major key and the result was ‘Howls’.
’The Autumn Red’ is my favorite song on the album. It’s the epitome of your sound with a groovy, polyrhythmic groove, catchy guitars and vocals that stick after a single listen. Yet, the song is still heavy and stays interesting because of its unusual progression. What can you tell me about its writing process?
‘The Autumn Red’ is greatly affected by one of the strongest musical concept on ‘Destrier’. That is different interpretations of rhythm. It’s exactly the same motives being changed by a single element, the drummers right hand which changes the way you interpret the beat thus changing the way you experience what’s going on by either beating on quarter notes or every third 16th note. This concept is taken the furthest on Destrier in ‘Mono No Aware’ where you can think about the pulse in three different ways at once. That means that the person sitting next to you could be hearing a totally different song then you and that also means that you might be able to listen to the song in different ways.
’See Hell’ was the song that pulled me in with regards to your vocalist’s tone. He reminds me quite a bit of Leprous’s Einar Solberg. He manages to really convey a lot of emotion in his tone without sounding overly dramatic. Was it hard to find a vocalist that meshed well with your style?
It’s a pretty funny story how we all met. Me and Keli had been friends since we were kids and we were all studying in the same music school. We had never heard Arnór sing, and I had never even met him. But the guys said he was very open minded and fun so Boggi, our old bass player, invited him to join for a big battle of the bands here in Iceland that we had signed up for three weeks prior to the competition. He heard some demos and was immediately on board. He didn’t really sing for the first two rehearsals and just hung around listening. Then on the third one he picked up the mic and I think we all felt that we were on to something. Three weeks later we won that battle of the bands and I remember that as the moment that I decided to pursue music. Call it fait or luck, that’s the way it began.
’Angst’ is one of the shortest songs on the album, coming in under two minutes. Are… Are those 8-strings and screams I hear? How did this make the album, considering how melodic and ethereal some of the other material on the album sounds?
Like I said earlier we love contrasts and Angst is definitely a contrast compared to all the other songs on ‘Destrier’. It’s the only song where Arnór screams and during the recordings he wanted to save his voice for that session. So the screams were the last recordings we did and what a moment I’ll never forget. I’ve never seen someone scream with that much outlet and emotion. It was in no way a controlled careful scream but a mixture of pure outlet and tears. After the long and painful dealings with the lyrical themes of the album it was done and we could take the next steps.
I want to end the in-depth part of the interview with one of the most beautiful songs I’ve heard in a long while: ‘Death Rattle’. What can you tell me about its theme and the approach for this song?
I’m finishing a bachelor degree in composition in the Icelandic Academy of Arts which is more classically based studies than I had done before and I was very intrigued by the harmony theory in classical music. So I decided to try to write a modern song following some of the guidelines given in classical theory drawing circles around things I liked in my assignments and studies for two semesters and ‘Death Rattle’ was the result.
Never mind, I want to ask one more in-depth song about ‘Mono No Aware’. I noticed something very cool in terms of songwriting, where you had this reprise of earlier musical themes on the album. I think I heard ‘Destrier’ coming back as well as the very intro of ‘Let Them See Us’ that opens the album is reversed on ‘Mono No Aware’ to close it off? Very cool! Was it hard writing these themes back into the closing song or did it come about naturally?
Some of them came naturally and some had to be arranged very carefully to not sound forced. ‘Mono No Aware’ is the song I’m the proudest of on ‘Destrier’ and it closed a chapter for me personally that was the composition process of the album. I remember starting to write the chord progression in the beginning and Keli was with me and said: ‘You know I was playing those thirds up just earlier?’. So I accidentally began writing his piano noodling and I love that progression. It’s all possible minor and major chords yet something is very natural about it. Arnór had the song for a while and after some discussion we decided not to force to vocals into it and let the instruments sum up ‘Destrier’ without to many words.
I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing you guys live, but I would love to and might make sure that I’m there when you come to Utrecht on the 18th of November. What can we expect from you live?
Playing live is for me a whole other feeling then when composing. It’s about interpreting your own work. Kind of like dancing with yourself. I try not to focus to much on the audience which may sound arrogant but it’s because I would much rather that they would see me doing my dance rather then seeing me dance for them.
Are there any songs you particularly enjoy playing more than others when you’re doing a show?
I always have to play new songs about ten times live before being completely comfortable with them. It’s some kind of choreography you can’t rehearse anywhere else but on stage. But after that I enjoy playing every song as much.
Tying into that question: what are some of your personal favorites on ‘Destrier’?
It’s a tough questions but ‘Howls’, ‘Angst’ and ‘Mono No Aware’ are defined candidates.
I want to thank you so much for your time! ‘Destrier’ has been a gift and I love it! Is there anything you’d like to say to the rest of the world to end the interview?
I just want to thank you and the people that really take the time to listen and interpret our album as a whole piece. It’s not given and we really appreciate that people are doing that. Peace!