Icelandic trio Kælan Mikla got an unlikely start trying their hand with moody synths and post-punk at a poetry slam. The results are co-signed by The Cure frontman Robert Smith, who included them on the Meltdown Festival lineup he curated. Jamie Ludwig gets to know the band ahead of their weekender performance.
Roadburn Festival, the internationally celebrated heavy music gathering that takes place in Tilburg, Netherlands each April, has roots in heavy metal and psychedelic rock. But this year one of the most compelling acts was decidedly not metal in any conventional sense of the term. Rather, Kӕlan Mikla, the Icelandic trio of Laufey Soffia, Sólveig Matthildur-Kristjánsdóttir and Margrét Rósa Dóru-Harrysdóttir, trade-in poetry, darkened post-punk, moody synths, and hypnotic bass that would sound as much at home at a warehouse all-nighter as they do in a sweaty rock venue. All three bandmates contribute vocals: lead singer Laufey’s alternately collected, half-spoken punk snarl, and tormented, hair-raising screams mixed with Solveig’s powerful melodies, and an occasional flair from Margrét seems to ignite the dark spells of their music, and though their delivery is a touch theatrical, their rawness and charisma are enough to convert the staunchest non-believer in their direction.
With Kӕlan Mikla’s blistering, yet oddly accessible sound, captivating performances (along with Roadburn, they’ve won over crowds at world-renown Icelandic festivals, Eistnaflug and Iceland Airwaves, and they recently appeared at Moscow’s Festival of Pain), as well as the growing buzz surrounding them, it seems likely that if they wanted to take a more commercial approach to their career, they could have a go of it. But make no mistake, independence is Kӕlan Mikla’s MO, and the band remains very much a DIY operation. “It’s a good feeling to be independent and feeling like you can do this yourself. You just need to work hard,” Margrét says, when I catch up with the trio a few weeks after the festival.
Still, even the most dedicated DIY artists have limits in terms of time and resources. Realizing their workload had become too much for three people to handle alone, Kӕlan Mikla joined forces with a booking agency earlier this year—and not a moment too soon. This spring Robert Smith, legendary frontman of The Cure, wrote them directly to ask if they’d like to play Meltdown Festival 2018, which he’s presenting in London starting this weekend. Perhaps unsurprisingly in an era where internet trolls are common, their first thought was that someone was having fun at their expense. “We were really happy that we had our booking agency, because we just forwarded it to our agent and asked, ‘Is this true or is it not true?’ And it was true,” Sólveig laughs. Though the bandmates have different tastes in music, The Cure is one band they’ve always been able to agree on, and it felt good to be recognized for their music by someone whose own had made an impact on their lives.
All their successes are even more striking in light of the fact that the first time they ever performed, it was for the challenge and fun of creating something together without intention of forming a band. It all started five years ago when the women, who met as high school students, entered a slam poetry contest at their local library. “Sólveig talked me into it,” Margrét says. “She said, ‘I write poetry,’ and I said, “I play bass a little bit—maybe we can make that into some music.’” They recruited Laufey on vocals, though she’d never sung in public before, and Sólveig, a trained flutist, took up drums for the occasion. Though each of them was trying their hand at a something new, the crowd didn’t notice or care — they were too busy being blown away. They took home first prize, and as people encouraged them to make more music together they realized they’d tapped into something interesting.
In their early days, Kӕlan Mikla’s music centered around traditional, if minimalist, punk instrumentation of bass and drums but their penchant for exploration steered them in a different direction: Sólveig was dabbling with an old synthesizer when she stumbled onto a rhythm that struck her fancy. From then on she was hooked, and she soon swapped out her kit for a drum machine and synthesizers.
That musical shift into darker, icier terrain proved to be a perfect match for Kӕlan Mikla’s burgeoning creative vision. Their 2016 self-titled debut for Greek electronic and experimental label Fabrika Records dealt with themes of anger, confusion, sadness, and isolation; the detached beats and morose synths upped the intensity and emotional heft so that each song could strike a nerve and speak to listeners across language barriers. “We try to make the music the meaning, because we always sing in Icelandic, but people tend to understand what the songs are about from the music,” Margrét says.
But those same musical textures have made it easy for some to tag Kӕlan Mikla as goth or darkwave, but the band insists that’s only part of the picture, and their sound is subject to change at their discretion. “We’ve never really identified part of a specific genre, we’re just doing what we like,” Laufey says. “We want to be able to do whatever we want, whenever we want to.”
They’ve brought that mentality to their new, yet-to-be-named album, which they recently recorded with some assistance from their friend Kirpas, a Berlin-based Lithuanian musician, in the studio they built in Margrét’s garage. “We don’t want to make something commercial, we just want to make something honest.” Sólveig says. “For us, it’s more important for us to be together than to be in a fancy studio with three other people telling us what to do. This helps some of the natural feeling [of the music] to come out.” Musically speaking, this time around they’re drawing influences from a wider range of genres and sonic textures than before, and incorporating more ambient and found sounds. “We’re exploring more about how to make an environment for the listener; a whole world,” Laufey says.
Due to their busy tour schedule since the release of their first album, and the realities of living in different cities — Sólveig, who also performs as a solo artist, currently lives in Leipzig and previously shared an apartment with Margrét in Berlin while Laufey remained in Reykjavik — they developed the new material in spurts when they could all be together. Though they’ve enjoyed the chance to perform for and connect with new audiences in various pockets of world, it’s not always easy to be away from home. To that end, Iceland’s rich culture and psychical beauty, as well as a lingering bout of insomnia that’s been mysteriously plaguing every member of the band, has fueled the lyrical poetry of the new album. “Being here on an island, we’re surrounded by nature and crazy weather: sun all night in the summer, and the winter is so dark. I feel that influences our music a lot, and the folklore we’ve all grown up with,” Margrét says. “So our new album is focusing a lot on nightmares and dreams and being in that middle state of consciousness, with some some sadness and fairytales mixed in.”
“The focus on Iceland also has to do with homesickness. We’ve been abroad so much we’re thinking about home, in a way—in a romantic way,” Laufey says.
With the way things are going now, that’s not about to change anytime soon. Following Meltdown, Kӕlan Mikla has a European tour with darkened Americana artist King Dude and festival dates in Hungary, Mexico, and South America slated for later this year. And though they promise nothing, they hint that a U.S. tour could be within the realm of possibilities somewhere down the line.
For now, they’re focused on completing the new album (which they anticipate will come out this fall) and getting ready for the next show while keeping an eye out for more musical adventures to come. And when the next one des present itself, they’ll be ready for it. “We all trust our own intuition really strongly,’ Margrét says. “We’ve always liked being strong and independent—It comes more from the heart when you do anything yourself.”
Jamie Ludwig is an editor and writer who wants to do whatever she wants, whenever she wants, too. Find her on Twitter.