Interview with Iceland’s VAR: Júlíus Óttar Björgvinsson On ‘The Never-Ending Year’

VAR - Photo by KRÍA
VAR - Photo by KRÍA

By Hannah Means-Shannon

Icelandic band VAR spent a year creating their aptly titled recent album, The Never-Ending Year, a title which for many of us will seem eerily resonant.

They followed this by planning a video recording of a live play session featuring four songs from the album filmed at Orgelsmidjan, Iceland’s only pipe organ workshop, and a location very near to the hearts of the band members. The audio recording of the live play session proved compelling enough to release on its own as the EP Live at Orgelsmidjan, and now the video of the session has also been released on Audiotree. 

While the album itself, and also the EP soundtrack, offer very interesting listening experiences, seeing the video components for the session really brings a fuller understanding of this special location, what it means to the band, and the ways in which the band members work together in performance. As the band admits, too, the performance of these songs is unique and takes different twists and turns than the original studio recordings, and seeing that performed in real time is inspiring, as is the scenic footage included to give us a sense of the venue’s location. VAR’s Júlíus Óttar Björgvinsson kindly agreed to answer some questions for us about this multi-media experience and putting together The Never-Ending Year

Hannah Means-Shannon: The video of the performance is really beautiful, visually. Was it important to you that the visual elements should be as beautiful and authentic as the experience of the music? Was the band involved in giving opinions on the video?

Júlíus Óttar Björgvinsson: It was of course important for us to make it beautiful visually, and that’s why we asked a really talented man called Baltasar Breki Samper to do the videos for us. He is a filmmaker and has a great eye for detail. We put our faith in him and we didn’t know how it was going to look until he sent us the videos and he delivered them beautifully, so he gets all the credit for that.

HMS: I feel like the video takes a different approach for each song, suggesting the differences between the songs, too. “By The Ocean” opens with greeting the ocean, for instance, and in “Moments”, we see drone footage of landscape and winter views. Do you think there are correspondences between the visual approach and the songs?

JOB: “By The Ocean” was not from the same session. That was something Júlíus did with Eiður, the producer, and his wife on a nice summer day for fun, but we felt it fit very well with the other videos and it sounded really good, so we decided to include it with the other songs for the EP. The other visual shots are ideas from Breki, which he married beautifully with the feelings of the songs.

HMS: I read that you felt the recordings at Orgelsmidjan brought out differences between this music and the album recordings, and that made you willing to release the EP. What were some of the major differences that you noticed?

JOB: We love working in the studio recording tracks, one instrument at a time and then digging deep into sounds and overlay. But when we play all together, we get a very different energy, much more rough, and every beautiful mistake stays in. We have even talked about doing the next album with a much more live feel to it, similar to the EP.

HMS: I think the track order on the video is actually different from the track order on the EP. For you, what does presenting the songs in a different order bring out in the two different mediums?

JOB: The reason is mainly that we felt it would look better visually to have “By The Ocean” first on the video as it felt more of an opening on the video, with me (Júlíus) going in and playing alone, and then the rest of us joining in for the rest of the songs.

Julius - Courtesy
Julius – Courtesy

HMS: When you are playing live, whether for a recording or for a performance with an audience, do you have specific goals that are different from studio recording, or do you prefer to stay close to a studio recording experience?

JOB: Playing for an audience is always different, and as we don’t usually use playback during our live performances. They can be a little more rough around the edges. Sometimes we feel like there is something missing when practicing some of the songs, just the four of us. Then we usually just crank it up to 11 and put our hearts into it and try and make everything come together. We are not trying to make it sound like the album at all. And in the end, it’s all about doing your very best and doing it from your heart.

HMS: Can you tell us about the venues in Iceland where you like to play live?

JOB: The venues have changed a lot over the years. Places keep closing and new ones replace them, and some of our favourites are no longer open. We really like to play venues where you can really be close to the audience, feeding of their energy and creating an intimate experience.

HMS: How did you come to have a rehearsal space at the Orgelsmidjan and how does that tie into the location’s history?

JOB: Egill and I’s father is an organ builder and I’ve been working with him at the organ workshop since I was a kid. We had a little corner at the workshop where we could practice at first, but through the years we have been bringing more and more instruments and all sorts of things to the workshop, so we take up more and more space there, much to our father’s joy, hopefully. It is a very nice space by the ocean and that has been a big influence on us. We love to do everything there, practice, record, and even do shows.

HMS: How did you create and record an album called The Never-Ending Year before the actual never-ending-year happened for the world in 2020 due to the pandemic? Was there an idea behind this title about the experience of time?

JOB: The process of making the album, from recording the first demos to the finished album took a year. So the title of the album is mainly a reference to that year, a process that seemed to never end. The title is also a reference to an older song from our album Vetur.

HMS: Can you tell us about your working relationship with Eiður Steindórsson, who I know did the audio for the video, later EP? I see that he worked on The Never Ending Year also. How did you start working together and how would you describe his musical way of thinking?

JOB: We have been fans of Eiður and all the music he has made for a long time. He has been in bands here in Iceland that we are big fans of, like Future Future and Vera. We thought Eiður’s sound would be perfect for the first song that we recorded for the album, so we asked him if he was interested in recording one song with us.

Working with Eiður was so nice musically and we also made good friends with him during the recording, so asking him to record an album with us was kind of a logical next step. He was really interested in doing an album with us, joined in from the beginning of the writing process, and produced and recorded the album.

Eiður is a perfectionist and really professional in every way and that is why we always call on him when we are recording something.

HMS: I see that The Never Ending Year was released with vinyl variants as well as in other formats. How does the band feel about the vinyl format? Is it something that ties into selling merchandise at performances, or is it more about online fan requests?

JOB: A vinyl release is something that we really wanted to do, and when John at Spartan Records showed interest in doing that, we said, “Yes” right away. The variants that he made are absolutely beautiful and we are really happy with the reception it got.

VAR - Image by KRÍA
VAR – Image by KRÍA

HMS: On the band’s Instagram account, I saw a video from November 2020 where some metal was being melted in a pot on a stove. I’m very curious about what was going on there. Can you tell us about where this is and what happened?

JOB: I was making some Christmas ornaments at the organ workshop by melting old organ pipes and putting them into a new form.

HMS: Also on Instagram, I saw that you (Júlíus) were in a band that released an album when you were 14 years old. That makes me wonder what styles of music you all were interested in at a young age and what kinds of music you made prior to VAR.

JOB: We have all been in many different bands since we were young, and we were trying to make music similar to what we were listening to at the time, which was everything from Metal to Punk to Emo. We got really excited when we saw that our label, Spartan Records, was releasing albums with bands that included artists that we listened to a lot in our youth, such as Mountain Time with Chris Simpson from Mineral, and Assertion with William Goldsmith from Sunny Day Real Estate. Being on the same label as them is really a dream come true, as they had a big influence on us growing up.

The Never-Ending Year is a little nod back to those roots, and you can even hear some elements from the album in that post on Instagram.

HMS: When you were writing songs for The Never-Ending Year, was this a process of intentionally sitting down and writing songs in a very focused way, or do you usually create songs by working different fragments together and finding ways to combine ideas?

JOB: We usually never sit down with the goal of writing new songs. Our songs kind of happen when the four of us meet up with our instruments. Someone brings up an idea that he has been working on, or he has maybe just a little snippet that sounds good, and we finish them together, assembling the parts like a puzzle.

HMS: Is it ever your intention to combine musical elements in ways that the audience might not be expecting? I noticed that in the songs “Highlands”, it ranges from a gentle opening into an almost Hard Rock style guitar breakdown and has plenty of indie Rock moments, too. Or is it more about creating moods and developments in the song?

JOB: We don’t think much about what people will think of our music, we just make songs we like and we enjoy playing. Coming from different musical backgrounds maybe has a role to play in how our songs come together in the end, with elements of each member shining through. If other people like the songs, we are really happy.

HMS: What are some things that are helpful and what are some things that are challenging for you, as musicians, about what international audiences might expect from an Icelandic band? Are there ways in which you find that empowering or limiting?

JOB: We don’t feel like people are expecting something special from us because we are from Iceland, but people might categorize us to a certain level. Coming from Iceland can be more helpful than not, and it definitely draws some people’s attention, as there are a lot of great bands that come from here and we are proud of all the great music from here.