Interview: CeaseTone on Iceland’s changing music scene, Portland’s Sunaana and more

Named for the Greenlandic word meaning “What is it?”, Sunaana is a steady growing music (and craft beer) festival that poses a bunch of questions for the U.S city of Portland, Maine. It’s focused on discovery, but also asks how a small historic city in New England can pretty much become a music festival venue, similar to the relationship between legendary showcase event Iceland Airwaves and Reykjavik. The AU Review were invited over to the second ever addition to see how this festival, which took place in early March, was growing and how it plans to grow in the future.

You can read more about about what happened and our thoughts and feelings on Sunaana HERE.

While in Portland, Maine (no, not that Portland, the colder one) we took the opportunity to catch up with two of bands that most caught our attention, one being from Iceland and one being from Maine. Firstly, here’s our chat with CeaseTone, said indie-electronica Icelandic three-piece fronted by Hafsteinn Þráinsson who remained one of our favourite acts with their hypnotic blend of heady acoustic rock and big, layered electronics.

How long have you guys been around as a three piece?

Hafsteinn: The project itself has been going since 2012, it started out as me on my own with an acoustic guitar. I would do technical folky stuff, but then I started bringing in some electronics and it got really weird for a time, kind of like folk-dubstep. [Laughs] There was a lot of room to experiment but then it started to take shape into something more comprehensible. There came this contrast of acoustic and electronic elements that I’ve always liked, and from that it developed into this kind of indie-electronic with heavy acoustic influences sound. That’s when I got the others into the band as well, around 2014. From there it has also taken on some huge changes; we started out with five, then we were four, and now we’re three. It’s now the clean-cut version that I really like.

It’s been one and a half years as just us three, it’s working out really well. You have to think about these two things: the performance itself, like is it functioning as it should be? And you also have to think about whether it’s practical enough that you can actually do stuff. I think a lot of bands stand with this problem, that there are just too many members to do anything locally or abroad, budget wise and time wise. It’s good to keep it smaller, but not so it doesn’t affect the music – finding that balance is the challenge. But also keep it a bit modular so you can maybe do it on your own if you need too, or you can do it as a band and you can also add layers…sometimes we do shows with string players and all that when we can.

So the band is small but it’s big enough for the soundscapes you like?

Yeah, the thing is with this kind of instrumentation is that you just have to think about the studio thing and live thing as separate entities. You just let yourself go in the studio process and see what happens, and do all this instrumentation. And when you do it live you kind of just start from scratch. Today in the modern music environment it’s sort of acceptable to fill up the blanks with backing tracks. So we do core elements like bass, guitar and drums, and a little synths, and then we fill up the space with some playback.

Icelandic music is very intriguing for those outside looking in. A lot of the bands have in common, I guess, big emotive soundscapes. Would that be an apt depiction?

It’s a big part of it definitely, but there’s also this new breed of music going on in Iceland today that is kind of a rejection of all the landscape context, focusing more on how Icelandic small town society is. It’s really resonating in the local hip hop scene especially, which is the biggest thing going on there right now. That kind of influence is also sinking into other bands, like the indie stuff, they’ve started to look at smaller towns and not just draw on the nature. Of course the nature is connected to the big, soundscape kind of stuff, so it’s interesting to see how that will all develop in the next few years. The society thing is where the character is at; the landscape is kind of a caricature of the Icelandic sound.

So sonically does that mean a more minimal sound in general?

Yeah I guess, more raw maybe. It’ll be interesting to see if the bigger soundscape thing keeps going, and I think it will but I don’t think it’ll dominate as much as it has.

The thing I find with Icelandic music especially is that it’s very visual. You get a real sense of place from listening to it.

That’s absolutely correct with the whole visual thing. For me, visual cues and elements are the main source of inspiration, to try and create some kind of three dimensional soundscape.

What do you picture when you’re writing songs?

It might start with a little tiny idea, like a guitar lick or something, then it starts to swim around that idea. When it gets to a certain point you start to hear what it is representing, and then you see the pictures. That’s when you segue into what you’re seeing, with me at least. Recently I’ve been into a lot of dystopian imagery, and I find that really powerful and inspiring…that whole post-apocalypse, 1984 and Brave New World stuff. Not that I read a tonne but the concepts inspire me, along with a lot of different moves and video games. The kind of stuff that has fully realised worlds. The next album that I’m working on now has a lot of dystopian based concepts all through it, which is fun to work with both in the lyrics and the soundscape because there’s just such strong imagery.

The soundscape comes first for me because you can write the lyrics off that, you can just kind of describe what’s going on in the music. I got a bit conflicted with writing lyrics, how I was always writing lyrics about myself and from my point of view. I got a little tired of that because I didn’t feel I had too many problems to express anymore, so I like the idea of distancing myself as a person from the music and doing more stories.

Today people always write from a first person perspective if it’s something like a love song or a hip hop song or whatever. Back in the day though, and of course this is in general, but I find people wrote more stories.

A lot of the press from last year’s festival associated Sunaana with the spirit of Iceland Airwaves. Is there anything that reminds you of Iceland when walking around the streets of Portland?

It’s a very similar vibe. There’s this laidback kind of vibe, the weather is similar right now too. With the whole thing how it’s inspired by Iceland Airwaves; the first Airwaves was held in this old flight hanger and this second Sunaana is in an old rail yard. The similarities are already there so it’ll be interesting so see how it will spread out.

What’s the vibe of Iceland Airwaves now?

What’s so appealing about the vibe is that the whole downtown of Reykjavik just turns into a ‘big tiny’ music festival. Like it’s big but it’s tiny as well because it’s really personal. It’s so nice. I’ve been going since I was a kid, because you can be a part of the festival just by going to town. I remember seeing Bombay Bicycle Club in this tiny hostel and it was packed, they were sitting on the floor. The off-venues are a big part of the whole experience.

To keep up to date with CeaseTone head on over to their Facebook page HERE, and for more on Sunaana give their official website a visit HERE.