The first time I listened to Starwalker’s first single Bad Weather, I was hooked. It was dark, mysterious and soothing, and yet there was something unique and refreshing in the melody behind those somber vocals. Starwalker’s Icelandic/French team-up is the result of a fairly new friendship between Bardi Johannsson (aka Bang Gang) and Air’s Jean-Benoît Dunckel, who met less than two years ago through the suggestion of a mutual friend. Intrigued by their sound and story, I took advantage of my upcoming trip to Iceland to have a little chat with the project’s co-founder, Bardi Johannsson.
On October 31, the Icelandic composer kindly welcomed me to his home in Reykjavik, where we talked about life in Iceland, his multiple projects, my obsession with Game of Thrones, his fear of flying that led to his love for Icelandair and, of course, Starwalker’s sound and plans for the future.
Upon my arrival, Johannsson politely asked me to take my shoes off, offered me a much-appreciated cup of coffee and led me to his bright cozy living room. Immediately after sitting down on the comfy red couch, he keenly played all fours songs from the upcoming EP on his CD player. Spoiler alert: they’re damn good! The darkness and melancholy introduced in their first song takes a subtle joyous turn in the next single, Losers Can Win (out in February 2014), and then spins out unexpectedly with Moral Sex, which Johannsson eloquently described as “Christmas on acid.”
Unassuming and incredibly charismatic in an oblivious way, Johannsson’s warm and unusual personality is portrayed perfectly through Starwalker’s beautifully crafted sound. We talked and laughed for a good two hours, and before I left he gave me a quick tour of the studio where he spends most of his time creating those lovely tunes. By the time we said goodbye, I felt as if I had been hanging out all morning with a good old friend.
So how did the idea for this collaboration form?
We met through a mutual friend in Paris. She emailed us saying, “You have to meet for coffee or something.” So we met for coffee and we decided to do a little session to see if something nice would come out. Then we did another session, and then another, and then another and…and we liked it. First we did Bad Weather and we thought, “Ok, this sounds nice, let’s do another one.” And then we had four songs, and we continued until we had about eight songs that we liked, and then we just decided to go for it.
How long ago was this?
About one year and a half. It’s been a long process because we live in different countries. Sometimes there’ll be like two months between recordings, but I think this can be good because we can listen to the songs again after a while and think about it. We work on a track and if we don’t like it we use maybe two elements from it and start from scratch until it becomes something nice.
You are both talented multi-instrumentalists, so how do you distribute your roles within the band? Is there a main songwriter?
No, it’s really fifty-fifty. We both play all the instruments, but Jean-Benoît is a better keyboard player than me, so if it’s a complicated part, he plays it.
How is the composition process and exchange of ideas? Is it all via Internet? Do you record here in Iceland or in France?
We meet a lot, but it’s not so bad. There are everyday flights and I think it’s five, maybe six hours from the center of Reykjavik to Paris. So it could be worse, he could be living in Brazil. We have recorded separately, but I would say 90% happens together. I think working with someone over the Internet is bizarre, it’s not the same chemistry. We record everything in Paris in Air’s Atlas Studio.
Do you have a name and official release date for the EP?
No name yet, but the official release will be February 17, 2014.
Are you planning on playing live anytime soon?
Actually we just booked our first concert in Iceland for the Sonar Festival in February. We want to do this concert and see how it goes. We are open to playing more shows, but we’re basically just taking things as they come. We wanted to start like a young band, with a song and a video, and see where that would take us.
I feel there’s an idea of creating mystery behind the project. Why all the secrecy and slow unveiling process?
It’s just the way it happened. I think it’s because we’re a little bit shy. It’s just how we are, there’s no marketing company involved. The project is a reflection of our taste and what we can do with what we have. We are releasing a full-length album in September 2014, and before that we’ll release another single over the summer. I think where we’re heading is going to be a little surprise for the people. We’re growing into something that we really enjoy. With the next single, Losers Can Win, we’re evolving more into our own sound.
Does it reflect Air and Bang Gang’s styles much?
No, I think it’s less that, actually. It may be the poppy side of both.
What’s the general musical direction you’re aiming for then?
Nothing with this project is really on purpose. It all has evolved from our instincts and that’s the fun part about it. We don’t show up in the studio with any rules. Even though we’re going more pop, we’ll also be more weird on the tracks that are not pop. So I think we’ll end up going further into pop, which we haven’t done so much before, and also further into weirdness. I think if you do something and you’re happy with it yourself, then others will like it too. There’s so many people writing music for other people and not for themselves. I don’t see the point in doing that.
Tell me about Bad Weather. What’s the message behind the song?
I don’t want to destroy people’s own interpretation of it.
Fair enough! What about the video? What’s up with those creatures?
That was intentional. We had thought about a few scenes that we wanted to do, then we went to places in Iceland that looked like they were from another planet. The lyrics are referring to something spiritual. There’s a little reference to rituals and that’s why we chose that location and those creatures. It was directed by Saevar Gudmundsson and Jeaneen Lund, and we shot it north of Iceland, near where they’re shooting most of Game Of Thrones. It’s an amazing place. Also, if you see the next video for Losers Can Win it has balloons too, but different. I think there’s a little bubble concept going on. I think when we got one bubble for the second video we realized there was a concept and decided to add a second bubble to make it clear. But I think nobody’s going to notice, unless they read that there’s a bubble theme happening. Maybe there’s a good really reason for it, but I don’t know it. Or maybe we just like bubbles.
What about your other projects?
For Lady And Bird, Keren Ann and I did an opera two years ago, and now we’re working on putting that in an animation film, but that’s going to be a long process. I’m also working on Bang Gang’s new album that will be released next year.
Jeez! Where do you find the time?
Well JB also has a project called Tomorrow’s World. We have it in common that we just don’t stop. We don’t spend time going out a lot like people think musicians do, we’re not having wild parties all the time. We’re in the studio a lot—for us that is a party. That’s where we get our enjoyment.
How have Iceland and its landscape influenced your music?
I mean, I don’t go out look at mountains and then go write, you know? Some people assume that. I was speaking to someone the other day, and they were describing my life and it was something like, “You go out, you get inspired, you walk around, have coffee…” But what if you get inspired when you’re not close to an instrument? Most of the time, work happens in a room with no windows. I’m sure living in Iceland has had an impact in my character, but there’s no ritual of going to the mountain, get in yoga position, get inspired and come back to write.
“Go to the geyser, follow the river upstream…” That’s not what I meant!
(Laughs) I know, but some people really think that if you’re Icelandic, that’s how it goes. That you stand still in nature, almost like in a helicopter shot, getting inspiration. (Laughs)
Let’s talk about that odd promo video from way back, “Who is Bardi?” At first I didn’t know it was fake and it kind of freaked me out. Why did you do it?
(Laughs) At that time, record labels always wanted to do electronic press kits of the “making of the album” documentary. I had seen a few and they were all really boring and self-centered—the artist in the studio talking about how great they are. So I though I should do one that I would like to watch myself, and I wanted to just take it all the way. I think I succeeded, or at least I enjoyed watching it. It’s like 90% fake and 10% true. There are a few interviews with my friends that are true. For example, the time I wanted to hitchhike and I couldn’t do it—that’s a true story. I was at a party in a summerhouse and I wanted to go home cause it was too much for me. I can’t party for two days. So my friend drove me to the road, and I was just standing there for probably an hour or something and I just couldn’t put my thumb up. I ended up going back to the party.