Interview: Agent Fresco’s Arnór Dan Arnarson on memory, emotion and new LP ‘Destrier’

Agent Fresco Promo 2015
Photo: Birta Ra’n Photography

Iceland’s Agent Fresco are a band working hard at the sustained peak of their artistic powers. Debut album A Long Time Listening marked the group out as ones to watch; a cohesive unit creating a unique and uncompromising kind of rock music, and one that has built an intensely devoted fan base that reaches beyond the boundaries of their native land, despite the commercial challenges of physically travelling beyond those same borders.

The band are set to return with their new album, Destrier, on the 7th of August, a work that has developed through the trials and tribulations of body, mind and spirit, and one that will cement Agent Fresco’s status as a group capable of consummate musicianship, stunning depth and enviable range. As the album release date looms and the band’s fanatical audience await to greet the new material with open arms, frontman Arnór Dan Arnarson found time in a no doubt hectic schedule to answer our questions.

Skin Back Alley: The new album is very different to your debut, which had the very specific thematic focus of Arnór Dan’s father’s illness. As I understand it the music for Destrier was ready some time ago, but events overtook you and changed the album’s perspective. Can you explain how the lyrical themes of the album came together and what they are?

Arnór Dan Arnarson: Yeah, I actually remember feeling inspired to create a very uplifting album after A Long Time Listening, but that didn’t really happen. Long story short, I was attacked in front of my sisters in Reykjavik a couple of years ago. This experience changed me and I felt forced to start over with the concept of the album and decided to explore anger and angst instead.

The album seems to have a darkness to it lyrically and musically, but equally seems to want to find a constructive, positive outcome for those feelings and emotions. Is that something you were consciously trying to achieve?

I’m really happy to hear that! We consciously worked with a lot of opposites and contrasts for Destrier, so in no way is it meant to be a completely dark album. I often felt like Tóti was approaching the instrumental parts with creation as an inspiration and I approached the lyrics with destruction and devastation in mind, so there was always this balance between the two of us. We then intertwined his harmonic and rhythmical ideas with the lyrical concept of the album and that’s hopefully why people will experience it as a dark, but hopeful album.

As far as I know in the English language, a Destrier is a medieval warhorse. Why that album title? What does it mean to you?

You got it. Well, very simply put, this album acts as my Destrier. It was created to confront destructive emotions such as anger and angst. I just really wanted to explore that battle within and the Destrier just felt like a perfect, beautiful and powerful metaphor for this process and album.

You released a stunning video earlier this year in “See Hell.” What was the experience of making that video like? Was it difficult to visit/revisit the headspace that inspired the track? It’s an extraordinary and emotionally intense piece of film.

Thanks for checking it out! Well, making videos is something that I take very seriously and I wanted to create a video that reflected not only the message and mood of the song, but also take it more personally and capture some insight on how it was writing this album. “See Hell” is where I raise questions about the nature of violence and specifically the act of revenge and its consequences, but this whole process of writing this album turned out to be more than I could handle and by always staying close to raw emotions and feeding off angst and anger made me almost fall victim to my own personal Stockholm Syndrome, and that was exactly what we wanted to capture in the music video.

How did you come to collaborate with Freyr Árnason, Gísli Þór Brynjólfsson, and Arnar Dan Kristjánsson on the video?

Freyr and Gísli both work at this fantastic media company called Tjarnargatan and we brought in their entire team. Arnar Dan is an actor I know, but I didn’t just want him for obvious name reasons, although it makes perfect sense for Arnór Dan and Arnar Dan to work together! No, I wanted him because I knew that he is this intense actor that really breaths for his art and I hope that people can experience that by watching his performance. I think he went on for like 14-16 hours straight that day of shooting, quite the animal!

The track incorporates some of your renowned technical abilities as a band, but never loses sight of that massive, accessible melody. Was that deliberate? Do you ever feel that you are consciously trying to make your music “more accessible” in theme or sound?

Not at all. The way that we write our songs have always started with Tóti. He pretty much writes all of the instrumental parts, records them and sends me the demos. I listen and usually the melody pops out instantly, but I demand that it has to gush out and stick on the tip of my tongue afterwards. If it doesn’t, then I haven’t found the right melody. I think that it’s a combination of that and also the fact that when I write the lyrics I like to chase the same syllables, rhythm and gibberish sounds that I originally sang when creating the melody. Maybe that makes it sound more accessible? Perhaps. I don’t know. Or maybe it’s just the fact that I was raised with a love for 80’s and 90’s pop. Who knows!

Did you have a “sound” in mind when you came together as a band, or when you approached each album, or has your style developed more organically?

Þórarinn is pretty much the mastermind behind our sound, so I can’t really answer on his behalf, but everything so far has felt very organic and we’ve slowly but surely build up some kind of character in our sound.

Agent Fresco - Marino Thorlacius
Photo: Marino Thorlacius

A UK audience have probably heard you before without necessarily realising it. Am I right in thinking that ITV’s Broadchurch TV series included some music written with fellow countryman Ólafur Arnalds?

Yep, that’s me alright. I wrote the vocal parts and melodies for his album For Now I Am Winter and that positive experience led me to the Broadchurch score. Ólafur was very kind in inviting me onboard to write and sing the vocal melody for the end credit themes “So Close” (Season 1) and “So Far” (Season 2). Do check out the Broadchurch series, I’m a fan of the show myself, it’s great stuff!

I’m interested in how your Icelandic roots have shaped you as a band. For those of us who don’t know, what is the music scene like in Iceland and how do you feel your location has helped (or hindered) you?

The location sucks when it comes to touring, but it’s been fun being a part of the Icelandic music scene. It’s quite something alright. When we started as a band, we only had one rule. Perform as much as possible. Didn’t really matter where we were performing, we basically said yes to everything. You can practice all you want, but nothing beats the real experience in front of a live crowd and in all kinds of venues. When it comes to the music scene, it’s pretty open and you’ll probably end up performing with a ton of different bands, if you’re up for it. I guess that’s what makes it so versatile and interesting. No mainstream, no real money to make and a lot of different acts performing together.

Do you care about how your music is described or classified? It seems to incorporate so many different styles. How do you talk about your music to others?

Not really, but I understand the need to label and describe music. It’s just so fucking boring to do. We’ve been labeled with over 40 different genres and attached to so many bands, often bands that we’ve never even heard of, but I guess I hate it the most because of the personal involvement with the band. I really pour everything into the lyrics and performances and to then be labeled as if you were just some kind of a product just sounds very unappealing and is against my whole purpose with Agent Fresco.

Has signing with Long Branch Records/SPV made a big difference to you? I imagine it might allow you to concentrate more on the creative and performance side of your work as a band?

They’re definitely helping us in reaching further and to be connected to media outside of Iceland. I still answer a shitload of emails, work our social media, handle our financials and book shows in Iceland for instance, but it’s so important to have Long Branch to act as the middle man outside of Iceland. You never want to be the salesman for your own music. It sucks. You really don’t want to do it and nobody wants to hear the musician try to sell his own music. It’s awkward as hell. But I’ll tell you one important thing about Long Branch Records. They were the only label that didn’t question our music and didn’t try to tell us that we needed to focus on a certain genre when we were working on getting signed for our second release. That’s why we appreciate and respect our collaboration and we can’t wait to release Destrier.

Kerrang! premiered your video for lead-single “Dark Water” in the UK and you’ve had coverage from the likes of MTV and Rolling Stone. Have you found the patronage of those high-profile publications helpful, and how do you see some of the smaller blogs and ‘zines (ourselves included!) playing a part in supporting your music?

The obvious answer is that you all help us in reaching out to people we originally wouldn’t be able to reach. This is something that we’re incredibly thankful for. Blogs and ‘zines are just really important today where I feel like we live in period of time where people seem to not really have the patience anymore to dig deep into records and need a little bit of an introduction to new music. I’m not trying to sound old here, it’s just something that I’ve noticed within myself as well. Times just change and so do we.

I understand you played a special acoustic set at this year’s UK-based TechFest. What inspired you to play a stripped-back acoustic set of songs?

It actually started as a summer job for the city of Reykjavík. We applied as Agent Fresco and wanted to recompose our songs acoustically and perform them on the streets of Reykjavík. We had a lot of fun doing this, but it also made me realise that I was given a chance to really get intimate with the crowd and talk about the songs in a more personal manner, so we kept doing this after our summer job ended. Turns out that this almost every time ends with me and some of the audience in tears. “Eyes of a Cloud Catcher” is just really difficult to sing when it’s stripped down. It’s essentially about the moment where my family and I said goodbye to my father in our living room and the words during the acoustic set just plays the whole scenario up in my head. It’s all a really beautiful and overwhelming experience for me and I love that people can connect to that.

Are you lining up any more UK shows after TechFest? Where can we expect to see Agent Fresco making an appearance in 2015/16?

I can tell you that we will definitely be back in the UK later this year, but for this summer, we’re only doing UK Tech Fest. We’ll do a very brief tour in Germany in September, where we’ll perform at Reeperbahn, but a month long European tour will be announced soon for November and December, so stay tuned for that!

What will a successful future look like for the band? What would you like to see happen on the back of the release of Destrier?

I just want to be given the chance to perform in front of as many people as possible and in as many countries as possible. Nothing beats connecting with people. That would make me very happy.

Destrier is released on the 7th of August via Long Branch Records/SPV. You can watch the band’s video for album track “See Hell” below, along with a teaser clip for new song “Wait For Me.”

Agent Fresco have now confirmed the following European tour dates for Autumn/Winter 2015:

18th Nov: Utrecht, dB’s
20th Nov: Maastricht, Muziekgieterij
21st Nov: Louvain-la-Neuve, Festival la Ferme
22nd Nov: Leeds, Belgrave Music Hall
23rd Nov: Glasgow, Ivory Blacks
24th Nov: Milton Keynes, Craufurd Arms
25th Nov: London, The Black Heart
26th Nov: Paris, Le Klub
27th Nov: Oberhausen, Air Pressure Festival
28th Nov: Dresden, Beatpol
01st Dec: Prague, Rock Cafe
02nd Dec: Vienna, B72
03rd Dec: Ljubljana, Channel Zero
04th Dec: Milan, Circolo Svolta
05th Dec: Genf, Usine
06th Dec: Zürich, Kinski
07th Dec: München, Ampere
08th Dec: Nürnberg, Club Stereo
09th Dec: Zwolle, Hedon
10th Dec: Osnabrück, Kleine Freiheit
11th Dec: Hannover, Lux
12th Dec: Weinheim, Cafe Central
13th Dec: Wiesbaden, Kesselhaus

Connect with Agent Fresco at:
Facebook: facebook.com/agentfresco
Twitter: twitter.com/agentfresco
Instagram: instagram.com/agentfresco

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