Mar 15, 2023
By Dom Gourlay
Photography by Einar Jarl
Icelandic outfit Kælan Mikla are Robert Smith’s favourite band, an it was indeed during a show at Hyde Park with The Cure in 2018 that Under the Radar first discovered them.
The trio – Laufey Soffía (vocals), Margrét Rósa Dóru-Harrýsdóttir (bass) and Sólveig Matthildur Kristjánsdóttir (synthesizers/electronics) – formed a decade ago in Reykjavik after entering a local poetry contest. Since then, they’ve released four albums to glowing levels of critical acclaim. The most recent of which Undir köldum norðurljósum came out in October 2021.
Their songs evoke a gothic sensibility with elements of industrial and ambient textures coupled with Laufey’s distinctive vocals. While the lyrics themselves range from Icelandic fairy tales and folklore, to fables of magic and mysticism.
Currently opening for Finnish singer/songwriter Ville Valo across the UK and Europe, Under the Radar caught up with the band while they were literally en route to Warsaw for the first show of the tour.
Dom Gourlay (Under the Radar): The tour starts tonight and you’ve just played Grauzone Festival in the Netherlands. How did that go?
Laufey: We played Grauzone on the Saturday night and it was really nice.
Sólveig: Before that we did three shows with Ville (Valo) in January. In Helsinki, so that was kind of the beginning of the tour and then we took a break and came back on the tour now. That was also very great. It’s been super nice to meet them already and stuff like that.
You’ve obviously played lots of shows in different parts of the world over the years. Which audiences do you find most responsive to your music? In which part of the world does your music resonate the most?
Laufey: I think it’s very hard to say.
Sólveig: I don’t know. Do you mean because we’ve played many different kinds of shows? Or like,
Which territory or territories does Kælan Mikla have the strongest affinity with?
Laufey: I think it’s very nice everywhere.
Sólveig: It’s always nice. There’s always a different kind of crowd, but I feel like everybody is the best.
Laufey: I think we never went to a country that hated us!
The first time that I saw you play was at Hyde Park in 2018 with The Cure and your set was one of the highlights of the day. Robert Smith has since gone on record saying you’re his favourite band. Has the endorsement of The Cure and Robert been instrumental in spreading the word about Kælan Mikla?
Laufey: The people who went to festivals or shows like the one in Hyde Park then saw us by accident. That’s very nice. We’d love to do something like that again. We were super excited when we got asked to play that show in Hyde Park, and it’s always been really nice in the UK for us. So, I’m extra excited for this tour, especially when it reaches the UK.
You’ve been playing together for a decade now and attained a consistent level of critical acclaim ever since. Did you expect to become internationally recognised when you first started out ten years ago?
Sólveig: No, we started out by entering a poetry competition. We were never gonna be a band, but then we just became a band.
Laufey: It was an accident.
Sólveig: An accident, yeah. But we are very happy about the outcome. We were just talking about this yesterday when we were sitting down we actually said, “Did you ever think this was gonna be us here in ten years when we started out?” It’s incredible.
When I listen to all the different musical elements that go into your sound – there’s elements of post punk, there’s elements of classical, there’s elements of industrial. How does the whole thing come together? What inspires you to bring all these different elements into the mix? Listening to all four albums in chronological order, there’s a clear musical progression all the way through. Is that deliberate, especially when introducing new elements to your sound?
Laufey: I think it’s pretty deliberate. We all have different influences. There’s so many different things coming together and we never choose to be a certain genre. We just do what we feel like doing and don’t limit ourselves. We just keep to the spirit of…
Sólveig: … Kælan Mikla! That’s the biggest part for us because Kælan Mikla is a character. She’s this person from the Moomins, and we feel like the three of us become her on stage so when we create music. We want to keep her spirit in all of the music that we make. But she can sound differently depending on our mood, as long as we keep her in its spirit.
Your songs tend to be very thematic in terms of focusing on Icelandic fairy tales, folklore and heritage. Is that an important aspect of how you see yourselves as a band? Will you be exploring different themes in the future?
Laufey: I think we are always inspired a lot by winter and cold themes. Kælan Mikla is The Lady of the Cold in The Moomins, and we are from a very cold country. So, we are very inspired by that and beautiful nature. We try to channel that into our sound.
Sólveig: I think we’re more inspired by emotions and surroundings rather than bands, if that makes sense? But, like you were saying before, all the songs are very mixed in terms of genres. And I think it’s just because we are all very open to different kinds of genres. Like at home, we don’t all listen to the same music, but when we’re together, we listen to the same music. So, I feel like my influences come from this part. Then Magi’s (Margrét) influences come from this part, Laufey’s here and then we all are inspired by this. Then somewhere in the middle there’s Kælan Mikla. So, you can hear many different folklore stories in many different genres.
The visual element and presentation of the band both live and on your music videos seems to be quite detailed. Is that as important as the music?
Sólveig: It’s a very important part for us. Because also we sing our lyrics in Icelandic so it’s little bit difficult for everyone on earth to understand it .So, we feel if we bring theatrical elements into it maybe people are more likely to understand and get more into the music, you know? Also, it’s just very important for us. We are all very into art and visuals.
Laufey: I think we enjoy the visual aspect just as much as the musical aspect. Yeah, definitely. I think it’s super important.
You’ve already mentioned about singing almost exclusively Icelandic. On a personal level I think it’s really interesting when bands stick to their native tongues rather than just sing in English. Is that something you’ve been conscious of from the outset?
Laufey: People have asked us why don’t we sing in English, and some people would prefer to hear us singing in English, but I think also because we started out in a poetry competition and our lyrics are very poetic we would not be as good at writing in English. I feel like if I’m writing a lyric and I would force myself to write it in English, it’s going to lose the poetry of it. We’ve had good experiences with people telling us that they can feel the music even if they don’t understand the language so yeah, it works.
You’ve shared stages with a lot of acclaimed artists, people like The Cure, Pixies, Slowdive and Ville Valo Villa. Has each one been a learning experience where you’ve taken something away that’s helped benefit Kælan Mikla in any way?
Sólveig: Yeah, definitely. I guess we are always learning too. We’ve shared stages with some big artists so we always learn a little bit. It’s all an experience.
Are there any plans for a new record? Will there be a fifth Kælan Mikla album?
Sólveig: Yes, we are going to write it after the tour. We’ve been so busy since Covid. We released our fourth record during the pandemic but and never had the chance to tour it. So now we finally have the chance to tour it we’ve just been touring and touring and touring and we’re touring and we have two more tours for this record. The one that’s starting today and the one that comes right after that, both with Ville Valo. Then after that we are spending the summer in a very small isolated town in Iceland to hopefully write album number five.
Do you sort see yourselves more as a studio band or as a live act? Which do you prefer?
Sólveig: Both, but I think we are very much a live band.
Laufey: I enjoy the studio but I feel like we are more of live band.
Sólveig: It’s so difficult to be on the road all the time, and after the US tour then we’ll have done four big tours in just a year, which is insane. I guess it’s good to be able to do this while we are still young!
What is the biggest challenge that you’ve had to overcome in being a band? I guess one of them must be touring and being permanently on the road.
Sólveig: Absolutely, and also just problem solving in weird situations. I think we’ve learned so much just by doing things ourselves.
Laufey: Fucking up then having to prepare all over again.
Sólveig: I feel like I’ve been in the past school ever.
Laufey: Tour school is a very good school!
Sólveig: Because there’s also like personal things that you have to do. You have to be away from your loved ones for a very long time. You have to meet and work with people that you maybe don’t like. I’m not talking about the crew; I’m talking about people that you meet on tour.
What advice would you give to a new band that’s just starting out? What would you tell them to do? What would you tell them to avoid?
Sólveig: I’d tell them to just try everything out. It is great to learn yourself. Just go for it. We didn’t know Laufey could sing but we just decided to do it.
Laufey: We did shows without knowing our own songs. We went on tour without knowing anything about how touring works, and of course we made a lot of mistakes, but we’re still learning. That’s how we learned, by experience.
Sólveig: Also, do not be afraid to ask for advice. This is something that I was always afraid to do just because I’m a woman and I always felt like I couldn’t really speak to men about touring and stuff. I felt like I should know everything but I’m just this dumb girl. So just ask, get advice and learn from experience.
Do you still feel there is a stigma attached to women in music? Do you believe women aren’t treated the same way as their male counterparts?
Sólveig: Yeah, definitely. It really differs between countries and even music scenes. Like now in the post-punk scene everywhere, I feel like it’s more equal than in other places.
Laufey: It’s definitely a big problem still. Even if we are getting somewhere within certain scenes, in some countries, you show up to the venue with our roadie. The guy who carries our equipment and does the sound, and the promoter goes to talk to him instead of us. He’s a man so he must be in charge!
Sólveig: It’s very funny actually. Same also with some people working at venues that just don’t listen to you. They don’t listen to us, so I’ll very often ask some male person I know to tell them what I would like so it’ll actually get through.
Laufey: It was an opening band one time and we got them to speak to the guys in the venue on our behalf.
It’s really sad though, isn’t it that still happens?
Sólveig: It’s sad but also just kind of funny. It’s just so weird.
Laufey: Yeah, it can get quite funny.
Sólveig: We just… oh, that’s also a lot of advice!
Are there any other artists or bands you’d recommend Under the Radar and its readers should check out?
Sólveig: We did a show with an Icelandic band called Mammút the other day. They’re big favourites of ours.
Laufey: There are a lot of cool bands in Iceland. It’s so hard to name them all because we could probably go on forever.
Are you playing any festivals this summer? What else have you got lined up for 2023?
Sólveig: We have some festivals in the summer like Sideways Festival in Finland. I’m very excited for this, and also, we’ve got Wave-Gotik-Treffen in Leipzig.
Laufey: We have some festivals in Iceland also. We’re super excited for that. It’s not been announced yet so we can’t say it, but if people want to plan a trip to Iceland in September we will be playing somewhere!