Published Apr 30, 2009One of the more imaginative rock records so far this year draws its character from unlikely locations. Storsveit Nix Noltes is an occasional Icelandic collective of Balkan music enthusiasts who also play in Benni Hemm Hemm, mùm and many other bands. Being an 11-piece band has its advantages - three guitars! accordion! sousaphone! - and disadvantages - logistics being their number one stumbling block. But during their few windows of opportunity, the band make the most of its time together. Royal Family/Divorce was recorded way back in 2006 following their one and only tour. Captured entirely live to one-inch tape in a cabin outside Reykjavik, this album rages with mind twisting Romanian folk melodies filtered through a maelstrom of detuned guitars. The disc, being given wide release for the first time via Fat Cat Records, displays a strong kinship with metal within entirely traditional, if fiercely electric, musical forms.
Exclaim! spoke to Ólafur Björn Ólafsson over the phone from Reykjavik.
How did the band come together?
Back then we were living in Reykjavik more or less, now half of us are living abroad in Berlin or Holland or New York, so there's a problem with physics to be in the same spot at the same time. When we started out we were hanging out a lot because we were going to the same art school, so it was natural for us to do something together. Although people were doing their own thing the other days of the week this was more like the weekend party thing. It's like a social party dance thing for us - it still is!
The tone of the music is much heavier than your first album! How has your approach changed?
Lots of things happened between the two albums. The way we recorded those two albums is pretty similar. We worked with the same engineer from the start. He takes recording very seriously. He would show up at our shows with a two track Revox, and he became very much involved with how we wanted to sound on record. We record live to tape. When we recorded this album we had been touring quite a lot and the music becomes much more refined, more shaped by us. It's true - it's heavier! There were more members introduced to the band and it changed with them as well.
It sounds like you're more confident. You're really using the room tone and saturating the hell out of that one-inch tape.
Yeah! That was the idea. We wanted to find a space, we would have liked to find a place with just one microphone and a small room. We found what we wanted in a small cabin right outside the city.
What's the learning process for this complex music, do you use sheet music, or learn the melodies by ear?
The way we work is with sheet music. These are all traditional folk sounds from Bulgaria and those parts. We transcribe it if it's something we like. We make even small elaborate scores sometimes.
Do you notate things like overdriven guitar?
It's more like we group certain things together. We figure out a part where violins play solo, or two play together - or this is where accordion and acoustic guitar play together. But each member has total control of his input. The recording is like documenting, taking a picture. We don't do a lot in the mix, or overdubs, we just catch what's there. That's how the band works, we're not into spending a lot of time in the studio.
Do you think your music is likely to reach people who are into Beirut and A Hawk And A Hacksaw?
Yeah... I guess. Were not very aware of newer [interpretations of Balkan] stuff. Really, I have the first two Hawk And A Hacksaw albums, but that's as far as that goes. I like what he was doing. He got authentic Balkan musicians to play with him on recordings.
But what you do isn't ornamental; you're really channeling the heart and soul of the music.
We really try to put a twist on what we do, not doing it consciously, but to put some originality to it, it's not about making cover versions and trying to sound Bulgarian. It's "what can we do with this stuff to make it more interesting?" though it's perfectly valid as it is. It's all about trying to find a new aspect to it and something that works for us. I guess that's what most bands do!
Although in fairness, you're taking on traditional tunes - this has a concrete, cultural root to it, which doesn't mean you can't make it abstract, but that you ought to be educated about where this music came from.
There's this guitar player here called Hilmar Jenson. He taught us a lot, and our approach to this music has a lot to do with how he presented it to us. The way we feel free to improvise with some parts and leave others where they are. You would learn the melodies by heart, then see what happens if you try this and that but be faithful to the music. So Hilmar is to be thanked.
Is there a heavy metal undercurrent to this album? There are a couple of moments that sound like Black Sabbath in the Balkans.
There are three guitarists in the band, and two of them are driven by metal. Doom metal. We really like it. The drone stuff, where there's a deep fundamental with loads of feedback, we're very fond of that. It's funny because - you were referring to our first album, which is more upbeat and light, but this one is heavier and dronier - this is something that when we play live, people have problems with. They don't know what to do. They don't know if they've come to the show to see this traditional Balkan group where they can relax and have a glass of red wine, and it's all cozy and nice. Then all of the sudden you hear this really aggressive noise, very serious and aggressive. Lots of people have problems with this 'cause they don't know what box to put us in.