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Destined: Stafrænn Hakon

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Soon-to-be well-known guitar anti-hero speaks with Dusted about self-releasing albums, recording at home, and not really knowing how to play an instrument.

Destined: Stafrænn Hakon

Olafur Josephsson, whose solo instrumental albums are released under the name Stafrænn Hakon (it translates as “Digital Hakon”), demurs when asked to describe his music. “I think it would be best described as a wall of guitar drones or something like that,” he wrote in an e-mail to Dusted. “Maybe it’s country, maybe it’s punk rock.... you decide!” But then he writes something else that provides a little more insight, “I find it kind of relaxing when I listen to it myself.”

Not just anyone will embrace a label like “relaxing,” especially when considering the confusion that will arise with accompanying comparisons to punk and country. Relaxing? Those genres are seldom that. Moreoever, Stafrænn Hakon works in the anything-goes world of post-rock, a domain usually reserved for collectives showing off their musical virtuosity or flooring listeners with their Blakean marriages of Heaven and Hell. Stafrænn Hakon’s introspective, cheerily atmospheric recordings come along as a substantial change of pace. “Relaxing” or “quiet” albums have a way of putting us on guard.

But Stafrænn Hakon’s Skvettir Edik a Ref is both; it’s also one of the most thoughtful albums of 2003. The dense atmospherics of other bands from Josephsson’s native Iceland, like Múm and Sigur Ros, are obvious points of reference, but those comparisons have their limits. Josephsson’s work – while not exactly minimal – boasts substantially less ornamentation than either of those acts. The “wall of guitar drones” that Josephsson described sounds ominous – a gigantic imposition on the track, the thing to which attention must be paid. But it’s like a wall bounding a Zen rock garden – it’s part of the scene, and not really in the way. Gentle leads parts emerge and fade back into the ambience, like on “Tætir Rækju,” the album’s opener. Skvettir Edik a Ref is what post-rock has seldom been – an album that revels in its Spartan presentation, and becomes stronger as a result of needing less.

Allthough only two Stafrænn Hakon albums have been released in the US, Josephsson has been recording solo material since late 1999. “At that time I was playing with two other guys at our practice space as band. So I had to use the 4-track to record some of our songs as a band. The results were always kind of bad, so I started doing stuff after the other guys had left the practice.” The band folded shortly thereafter, and Josephsson continued recording music he described as “chaotic acoustic guitar stuff” alone in his basement. His songs are still built around the acoustic guitar, although he favors alternate tunings that create upper-register ambient sounds. “I’m not really any good at the guitar playing, I would say. I think when I figured it out, I started playing around with my own tunings. Tuning the guitar can open up a new sound world for you.”

His recording process eventually became more involved. He began teaching himself more and more instruments, and graduated from recording on four-track to recording and editing on his computer. These changes added greater structure to the material. “In early 2001 I started playing around with drum machine on my CPU. That’s when most of the songs got basic song structures with drum machine, guitars, bass and melodica.” A few of the songs from these early recording sessions were self-released in Iceland on the album Eignast Jeppa, re-released by Secret Eye Recordings in the US this year.

Like Eignast Jeppa, Skvettir Edik a Ref was recorded at home, one song at a time. “The recording process was quite simple as it came along with the writing process. I might have come up with a melody or something, and just recorded it right away. Most of the songs didn’t evolve at all...they were just recorded right away, mostly in two takes or so.” Like other home recorders, Josephsson enjoyed the freedom to work on songs when inspiration struck. “Recording at home suits me really well. I don’t have any deadlines or anything, so I’m basically always ready to record. If I’m in the mood for recording, or I do have something to record, I’ll just sit down and do it. Sometimes it just comes out from experimenting with the guitar. Maybe I’ll be recording sounds from the guitar, and it will suddenly evolve into tune by adding some more stuff to it.”

Because Josephsson’s work depends so much upon sounds rather than upon particular ways of playing, his work rarely falls into definite fashions. There’s very little mashing up of styles – there are no recognizable parts of rock, lounge, jazz, folk, or psychedelia. But Josephsson still credits his influences. “There are so many good musicians around, so most of the ones I like have had some influence on me. Not one musician particularly. If I take an example: Górecki had a big influence on me, same with Nick Drake, who had a huge influence on me.” Josephsson admitted that his one-song-at-a-time approach leads to subtle changes in the recordings based on his listening habits. “It just depends what is going on inside my head at the time. I might be listening to lots of electronic stuff one day, then the song will be with some electronic-esque drum part, for instance.”

Resonant is currently working on re-releasing a number of Josephsson’s previous albums; he’s enjoyed a modest amount of exposure since partnering with the label, opening for Godspeed You! Black Emperor in Iceland and having one song, “Talkn,” included on The Wire’s tenth Wire Tapper compilation. Since self-releasing Skvettir Edik a Ref in Iceland during August, 2002, Josephsson has recorded another album’s worth of material. “Hopefully it will be released on Resonant around May next year,” Josephsson wrote, but added, “we are trying not to get this small market overflown with Stafrænn Hakon records, if you know what I mean.”

By Tom Zimpleman

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