Quarashi closes the circle

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Twenty years ago, the band called Quarashi came into being, merging rock, rap and electronica. This band would become one of the most popular bands in Icelandic history and even came close to world fame before they ran out of steam. Now the band members have come together to close the circle, as they call it, by playing a gig at Þjóðhátíð and releasing a new EP.

-Árni Matthíasson-

arnim@mbl.is

 

Twenty years a go a couple young men got together in a garage in the west of Reykjavík to experiment with music. One of them had given up on rock and roll while the other had sunk himself into hip hop and electronica. Despite their different backgrounds they instantly hit it off and decided to call a third man who had experience with singing for different rock groups. From this collaboration the band Quarashi was born and became the most popular Icelandic band for many years and even managed to call attention to itself outside of Iceland.

The two guys who started it all were Sölvi Blöndal, who had played with SSSpand, 2001 and Stjörnukisi, and Steinar Orri Fjeldsted who had gotten to know hip hop and skate- culture during his time in the US and was at the time visiting Iceland for the summer.

Steinar says he got to know Sölvi over the summer and they got talking about music, “He was making beats and I was writing rhymes, I had recently moved from the US and was only planning on staying the summer. One of the things we spoke about was how boring Icelandic music was and that lead to me showing up at the garage and us recording.”

As previously mentioned Sölvi had given up on Rock and had left Stjörnukisi after their victory in the Músíktilraunir contest in 1996. “ I had lost interest in being a drummer, had discovered computer based music and was making beats. Somehow that developed into me hanging out more with Steini and with other skaters so it was also a change on a personal level for me, I was changing environment. It’s fun when you close one door and another one opens but I could never have imagined the kind of influence it would have.”

Steini:”We were a good group of guys from the West of Reykjavík and Sölvi’s crew, a mix of indie and hip hop. I listened to electronica a lot back then, even more than hip hop, and still do, I barely even knew what rock and roll was. It was Sölvi who introduced me to rock.

Sölvi: “More than anything we just had a good vibe. Steini brought in some electronica genes, skating, Big Beat, Ninja Tunes and Prodigy, I was listening to all of that and it influenced me a lot but we connected best with hip hop and so Quarashi became an amalgamation of all kinds of influences, not exactly hip hop, not exactly big beat, not exactly rock, it had its own sound.”

Steini: “We listened to a lot of music, I was living in Hverfisgata and it was a party place, I lived there with a buddy of mine and we spent the whole summer partying and thinking about music and by autumn we’d formally become a band without ever sitting down and saying : should we start a band?.”

Sölvi: “ I called Hösssi, Höskuldur Ólafsson, because I knew him, we went to school together at MR. He was pretty much the only guy I knew who could sing, as crazy as that sounds, and he was also a rocker. He decided himself to try rapping, so that was sort of a coincidence too, he just asked: Can I try to rap these lyrics? We thought it was awesome.”

Steini: “ I remember when Hössi walked in the door wearing a leather jacket with his long hair and a shirt that said rock n´roll on it and I thought who is this pretty boy? And then he just said: I’ve never rapped before, can I try?”

The beats multiplied and eventually they had five songs and the guys decided to release the songs and do it themselves. At this point there were four of them, Richard Oddur Hauksson was their DJ.

We just got laughed at.

“Obviously nobody wanted to release our stuff,” says Steini. “Icelandic rap! We just got laughed at.” Steini: “When Switchstance finally came out, after some initial trouble, nobody wanted to sell it. Still, the EP took off almost instantly, sold out in the span of a few days and we started playing everywhere. We only had these four or five songs but we just played them three or four times every gig.”

Sölvi: “I have to admit that up to that point I hadn’t felt like much of a success musically speaking, so for me it was something completely new. Just that a news paper like Morgunblaðið would write about us was a huge deal to me, there was a picture of me in the papers and somebody was writing about what I was doing, I could hardly believe it.”

Steini: “I had been in music and written a few songs, but I had no idea that you could actually be famous or popular in Iceland, and when teenagers started running after me or someone would pull on my jacket, I just got scared, I had no clue what was going on.”

Sölvi: “I have to admit I had wanted it for a long time but when it finally came I wasn’t that comfortable with it.”

Steini: “Weird, you’d walk the Hverfisgata instead of the Laugarvegur just to avoid meeting anyone. It happened too fast.”

Sölvi: “Maybe a little too fast.”

Steini: “But we fully participated in it, we were very active during that time, we’d do five gigs a week and then we’d be recording the Egg album at night. Then the Egg came out and it also did great things, “ The Egg being their first LP which was simply named Quarashi.

Sölvi: “The Egg took three or four months, it was a strange work process because we were learning all the steps as we went along, how our sound should be. I had no idea how to make a record, how many songs should be on it? 12, 15, 16? I was unhappy with The Egg for a long time afterwards because it wasn’t exactly how I wanted it to be and I didn’t listen to it for fifteen years. However, I still meet people who love it and wonder how we even managed to make it at that time since we didn’t have computers to record. Today I feel The Egg is a great album, it has a lot of creativity and a lot of ideas.”

Steini: “I love The Egg and I always have because it’s so fertile- it has so much speculation to it, it goes all over the place, it’s so alive, a long journey.”

-You could say that the evolution of the band was organic up until The Egg-  You were obviously not thinking too much about things, just doing whatever sounded good and no one was there to say: No , wait, you can’t do that! When you guys went to record The Egg you had to do so with a purpose, decide where you wanted to go, create consciously.

Steini: “Switchstance and The Egg were not really like that, that moment didn’t come until we made Xeneizes, that’s when we sat down and discussed how we needed to follow through with what had worked and how we could create a hit, we didn’t think much about that before then. We hadn’t started thinking about going abroad, that was never even a thought.”

 

Back to Punk.

 

Sölvi: “I have to admit that with Xeneizes I thought: I come from rock roots, I’m going back and into punk!”

Steini: “And that’s when Stick ‘Em Up came to be.”

Sölvi:” I knew that sound, knew how to get that sound from the guitars, it was just a coincidence that Nu Metal was becoming popular overseas.”

Steini: “We accidentally went into that loop with Korn and Limp Bizkit.”

At this point the members of Quarashi were four, although many more people were involved both in the recording process and gigs, Ómar “Swarez” Hauksson had made a guest appearance on The Egg and was now formally a member of Quarashi.

The third LP, the before mentioned Xeneizes, came out by end October 1999, a few days before the release Quarashi played their first Airwaves gig, which were held in hangar 4 at the airport or Reykjavík. In the crowd, among the concert goers, were scouts from EMI and as a result of that show Quarashi signed with Columbia Records.

The next few years were spent reworking tracks from Xeneizes and recording for a new Quarashi album to be released worldwide, it was named Jinx and came out in 2002. What came after were tours around the world, interviews and all sorts of events.

Sölvi: “I found it to be a fun but weird time. It became harder as our stay overseas progressed.”

Steini: “ Huge tours, hotel rooms, flights, concerts every day, agents and tour managers, sound guys and everything that comes with this kind of thing, it was crazy. I wasn’t even allowed to skate because I could hurt myself and then I wouldn’t be able to play. It was still an awesome time, but I didn’t realize it back then, didn’t notice what was going on until afterwards. It’s amazing to have been a part of this but at the time it I took it for granted.”

Sölvi: “It was an amazing adventure and everything happened in the right order. If we’d gotten a deal in ’96 or ’97 we would never have finished an album but in 2000 we were ready. We had good practice from home and we’d learned some discipline.”

 

Horribly bad concerts and low morale.

 

Jinx came out in april 2002. Later that fall Höskuldur, one of the founding members, decided to quit.

Steini: “We had been completely worn out, we had played a lot, The US, Japan, Australia, the US again, it was a long run and we were really tired and sick of each other, we were always together in a bus, morale was not great towards the end.”

Sölvi: “We did a Europe tour and those were some horribly bad concerts and low morale.”

Steini: “Low morale and lots of drinking, people were in no shape to play, that tour totaled us. If we could have just stopped and asked ourselves what we wanted to do- but there was no time for that we were always on the go.”

Sölvi: “We were also bad at communicating between ourselves. Today we have much better communication, we’ve learned to talk to each other, but back then we didn’t, either we didn’t speak or we screamed at each other, that certainly didn’t help with morale.”

Despite all of those problems Quarashi had not yet disbanded. Ólafur Páll Torfason, a.k.a. Opee joined the band in early 2003 until Egill “Tiny” Thorarensen joined the band.

Quarashi’s deal with EMI was broken in spring 2004 and shortly thereafter the band started recording a new album. Guerilla Disco was released right before Christmas in Iceland and in Japan in early 2005 and was well received there. Even so the band began losing steam and held its last concert in August 2005.

Sölvi: “There was a gap between us for a long time after we quit but Steini and I have always been in touch and we realized we could still be friends after the band quit and today we’re really happy with what we did.”

Steini: “Today we’ve all calmed down, we’re all doing what we want to do and we respect each other and each other’s opinions.”

Sölvi: “ It takes a while for people to realize they can still be friends even though they’re not in a band together and we still have this music together.”

Quarashi reunited to play the Besta Útihátíð in the summer of 20011.

Sölvi: “It was amazing to be there and hear the crowd of eleven thousand people chanting Qua-ra-shi, Qua-ra-shi, Qua-ra-shi, I thought everyone had forgotten about us and I got a bit misty-eyed when I heard that.”

That fall they released best of albym with all of their best songs as well as some unreleased material. Around that time the members of Quarashi stated that they were closing a chapter but later it was revealed that they would do more than just say goodbye, they wanted to close the circle, as they worded it.

Steini: “Today it’s as if we’re just back in that garage, we’re just doing this for ourselves and it’s great if someone likes it. We enjoy making music together and we pretty much always have even though there have been times that weren’t as good as others.”

Sölvi: “Maybe the ego came between us and the music.”

Höskuldur joined for the goodbye concert and will also be joining this time around but that is not all, the band will be a five person band: Sölvi, Steinar,  Höskuldur, Ómar og Egill.

Sölvi: “We have one song ready and we’re working on two or three more so I’m optimistic we’ll be able to put out a five song EP this fall. That is, of course, a return to the original EP, to kind of close the circle. We can’t say that we’re saying goodbye but we’re closing the circle.”

Steini: “Even though we can’t say that we’re saying goodbye this will still probably be the last big release, though you can never tell.”

Sölvi: “ The stars have aligned so that people are ready to make new music now, it wouldn’t have been possible a year ago or two years ago but it’s possible now. What happens next no one knows.”

 

A consensus reached on Þjóðhátíð.

 

As stated earlier in this interview Quarashi plan to perform in Þjóðhátíð in Westman Islands this coming week end.

On Thursday it came up that many of the bands that had been slated to play decided they wouldn’t play unless the festival holders would apply themselves more to the cause of preventing sexual violence from happening at the festival and Quarashi released a statement supporting those performers.

On Friday a statement was released stating that a consensus had been reached between the Festival committee and the bands that had withdrawn. With that it became clear that those bands and Quarashi will be playing at Þjóðhátíð.

Sölvi says he’s happy that an agreement was reached.

“I believe that the festival committee will do their very best to insure the safety of all festival goers with the help of whoever is best suited for the job.”

 

 

 

 

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