Originally written for Clash in March 2017. Read the original article here.
Considering Kiasmos was never originally intended to become a full-time endeavour, the past few years have seen Ólafur Arnalds and Janus Rasmussen’s experimental side project evolve from a part-time creative outlet in to one of techno’s most exciting duos.
Spawned from a mutual love for the genre, Arnalds and Rasmussen’s work subsequently resulted in one of 2014’s finest electronic LPs and the intervening years have seen the pair dividing their time between their own distinct musical projects and frequent collaborations together.
More recently, while Arnalds has been busy working away on various soundtracks, including the moody score for the final season of Broadchurch, Rasmussen has been busy keeping the Kiasmos name alive, DJing eclectic sets around the globe.
As the duo prepare to head back in to the studio later this year, I caught up with Rasmussen via Skype recently to discuss his time on the road and what 2017 has in store for them.
Where are you at the moment, Janus? Are you back in Iceland?
Yeah, I’m in Reykjavik right now, but tomorrow I’m going to Tel Aviv and then Istanbul and to Australia to do stuff with Kiasmos.
You’re doing solo sets at the moment, right?
In Tel Aviv I’m doing a DJ set and then in Australia we’re doing a live tour.
How’s it all going?
Yeah, it’s going well. It’s different, but it’s also really nice. I’m alone when I do these sets, so it’s a bit different, but I like it. Kiasmos started out as a project that enabled you to do something that’s stylistically different to what you guys might normally do.
What was it initially that drew you to minimal techno as opposed to any other genre?
It all has to start with how me and Ólafur met. We actually became friends over discovering that we liked the techno that was going on in 2007 – kind of hard techno. And it was on a tour with my old band, and he was our sound technician on the tour. In the tour van we just discovered that we wanted to try and write this kind of music, so that’s how it started. We became friends and started making that kind of music.
You’ve previously cited the likes of Steve Reich, Jon Hopkins and Talk Talk as mutual inspirations. How do you go about drawing on those musical touchpoints?
I mean, obviously, you get inspired but that doesn’t mean that we steal their sounds or their ideas, or anything like that. It’s subtle. But we listen to all sorts of music. We’re very open-minded when it comes to music. People would probably be surprised what kind of music we listen to when we’re driving to the airport. [Laughs].
Sometimes we just check out the newest pop, you know? Music that’s currently out. Stuff like that. It’s very normal that we do that, actually – listening to mainstream pop music… It’s the pulse of the whole music industry, so it’s very important for us to be up to date with that.
I take it that doesn’t really factor in to what you’re DJing live though?
No, it’s pretty different music. I never really play any sorts of popular music in that. It’s all kind of in the style of Kiasmos, or people we’re inspired by. I mean, that’s obviously what people kind of expect from a KIasmos DJ set.
How do you two tend to collaborate on a project? Does one person work on one particular piece of instrumentation, or is it a little more fluid than that?
I think it’s always changing. It really depends what kind of song we’re working on, but no, there are no set rules of who does what. Ólafur sometimes does more of the classical instrumentation, but not always. It depends.
Can you talk me through the process of putting together a track like Looped, for example? Who contributes what to the overall makeup of track like that?
Jeez. It’s a long time since we wrote that song. It’s much older than people think. I don’t quite remember how exactly it started. Because actually when we wrote it, we had only really released Thrown – the other song before, so we were still really new to mixing elements of Ólafur and I and making this techno together.
I think it started with the beat and I don’t remember when the piano part came in, but I think it came in kind of early, or we even had the bassline before we had the piano, but everything in the track was recorded in Ólafur’s old room and we recorded all these drum loops, like live drum loops. I think Ólafur is playing some kind of playing bongo and I’m playing some sticks. Everything’s layered with live percussion. It was a fun track to make. I think we were just really… we did that track quite quickly actually.
There’s quite an organic process to what you guys do then?
Yeah. Sometimes, yeah. It really depends. Sometimes nothing happens. Sometimes it’s great, yeah… You try to go to the studio as many times as you can and in the end you have enough songs.
I take it that it’s no longer the case that Kiasmos can be considered a side project now, right?
Yeah, it’s become more focused. It just took on its own life and the interest in booking us has just been so good that it very quickly escalated and today it’s a very big part of what we do. And obviously, since I started doing these DJ sets, it’s become even bigger now. I’m doing only this and some studio work when I’m home.
When you’re in the studio I take it that you’re free to experiment on your own terms?
There’s no one telling you what to do. No. When we work together we always see it as a time where we can experiment because usually there’s a frame around what we have to do, but with Kiasmos we can just kind of reinvent ourselves every time. Every session we do actually. That’s what we want to do. We just try and do exciting stuff that we haven’t tried before, or even try and do stuff that we tried in another project but want to do it again differently, we’ll do it in Kiasmos.
So it’s not even the case that you’d pigeonhole Kiasmos as one particular genre now?
Yeah, I’m pretty sure the next thing that we’ll record is going to be quite different. I think we move quite fast – our music tastes and what we’re in to. Even the EP that we made after the album – the ‘Swept’ EP – is very different to the album, I feel. So I think it’s going to continue like that.
How do your other projects feed in to what you’re doing with Kiasmos?
I know Ólafur has been busy working on the score for Broadchurch over here, for example. I produce quite different music from what Ólafur does. I’m very varied – everything from mainstream pop to folk music, to disco music, so I have so many things going on that I feel like I have a lot of inspiration to take from together.
What have you been working on recently?
The last album I produced was a folk singer-songwriter with a fifties kind of sound – no electronics whatsoever. Completely strings and piano. He’s called Heidrik. He made an album called Funeral. That was the last big project that I finished and since then I’ve been making some pop music. It’s been good.
How important is it to have variety like that?
Yeah, I think, for me, I have to do all sorts of music, but it can also come back and burn you because people don’t really know what to expect from you. [Laughs]. Obviously, it is good for you musically and for me to use it for my creative outlet, but as a musician and a producer sometimes it’s kind of hard to say, “Yeah, I should do this and this and this…” When people talk about Ólafur’s music, people pretty much know what he does, because it’s kind of in that space, most of the time. So with me it’s a bit different. It’s hard, but I love it though. I love being all over the place.
Let’s talk playing live versus your sound on record. People coming to a Kiasmos set have their expectations based on the record, but for the casual festival listener, what are you guys aiming to deliver?
I think we want a party, really. I think that’s what Ólafur really wants because with his music, he sits down when he plays his live shows, so with this we just want to have a great time. It’s more of a dance party with a bit of emotion in it. I don’t know. There’s not much we can do when we get on stage to… I mean, we try to follow the crowd, but everything’s been planned so much that we’ll see how the crowd feel, whether they like it or not.
Do you ever feel an obligation to kind of subvert the expectations of people who perhaps know your music already when you’re playing your own material?
I think people who haven’t seen us live before are always quite surprised by our live shows because they maybe listened to our albums and use it as study music, or something like that, which is quite popular [Laughs]. And when they see our shows and there are these crazy lights and we’re jumping around on stage, they’re quite surprised. So it’s only people who have seen us before that know that our shows are quite energetic.
The visual aspect of it plays an important part in that too.
Yeah, it does. I mean, we’re just two guys on stage and so we have to think about that. And people also listen with their eyes these days, so you have to take care of that… It’s such a vital part of what the live show is now. Both of you are busy with your various side projects.
Can we expect a new Kiasmos EP or album any time soon?
Yeah, that is the plan. We’re doing the Australia tour now and Ólafur is still on holiday for a little longer after Broadchurch craziness. Once he gets home we’ll hit the studio for a few weeks and work solely on Kiasmos material. So I don’t know what it’ll end up being – an EP or an album, or two albums. We’ll just have to see how groovy we’re feeling in the studio.
I guess it must be quite a nice creative position to be in where there are no time pressures or anyone telling you that you have to put an album out.
Yeah. There are some people telling us now to start working on more, but there’s no pressure, no. There’s really no pressure. We don’t want there to be pressure. We want to want to be in the studio and write Kiasmos music and I think that’s the case now. That’s why we’re going back. I think we’re both kind of ready to give it another go. On the first album we hadn’t even really ever played any live shows, so so much has happened since then that I think that when we go back in to the studio we’re going to have a whole new perspective on what we want to do with the album.
Was that quite a daunting prospect initially – taking the first album out on tour?
I mean, it was when we did the first album but I think this time when we write new music it’s easier because we know what we’re after.
Do you draw on your experiences of playing live and the sort of things audiences respond to?
Yeah, it just happens on its own, actually, when you’re playing. When you’re in the studio it always happens at some point where you go, “Oh, this would be great to try live,” you know? “We could extend this and play this as part of the song.” So yeah, I think that happens on its own.
As an aside, you’ve done composition work yourself too, haven’t you?
Yeah, I’ve done scores for short movies and stuff like that.
Are you interested in pursuing it further?
Yeah, I think so. But it’s very consuming. You have to be at home all the time. You can’t really be touring like I have been doing lately, so I would have to calm down with all the live shows if I wanted to do it properly…
The last time I did it, it was quite intense. You can’t really leave the studio for a few weeks when you’re writing the music, which was the case with Ólafur when he was doing Broachurch. He couldn’t go anywhere, so I was going DJing and trying to keep Kiasmos alive while he was in the studio. [Laughs].
Do you guys communicate a lot while you’re out on the road and he’s in the studio? Does he feed in to what you’re doing?
Yeah. It started with us both finding songs that we liked, finding inspiration and songs that we loved, so the basis of it is us two. At first when we started doing these DJ sets, people didn’t know that we’d started doing that, so it took a few shows before people knew what to expect and what it was, but I feel right now people really appreciate it for what it is.