Ólafur Arnalds and Janus Rasmussen have been working together as Kiasmos for seven years now, and with just one full-length release, they’ve already solidified a legacy as one of the most impressive minimal electronic acts to have emerged in the past decade
“We walk on, and everybody goes crazy, and I press the button to start the first beat, and some guy just faceplants the stage."
A BAFTA award-winning composer/multi-instrumentalist, and a member of electro-pop set-up Bloodgroup respectively – it’s no surprise that the partnership of Ólafur Arnalds and Janus Rasmussen has created a sound that’s garnered the respect and admiration of a loyal following around the world – especially here in Ireland.
We meet just before Kiasmos take to the stage at Forbidden Fruit, their fourth performance in Ireland in just two years. At last year’s Body&Soul, the duo stole the show in what was said to have been one of the biggest crowd responses of the weekend.
It’s almost surprising to see how well the minimalist nature and subtleties of Kiasmos’ music translate in a live open space. Ólafur explains that there’s a reason and method behind adapting performances for different environments.
“We change the tones of it to fit the festivals more. I think when we started out, we didn’t expect for ourselves to become this headline party band. We always expected to play more chilled out events.
“But it’s developed, and after every show we’re always developing the songs more. Because when we try it in front of people we notice ‘actually – it could be more jumpy in the first half’, and then we add some kicks.”
How do they feel when they play Ireland? “I’m almost like, you know, afraid when I come here!” Janus tells us. “I’ve been feeling it since yesterday…”
“It’s great,” Ólafur says. “People go so crazy, like from the first kick drum, everyone is like aagghh, but also, they like to, they like to drink! Haha.”
He looks amused and makes eye contact with Janus, who’s smirking back, before opening up with a story about their last performance here at District 8 in November.
“We go onstage and it’s pretty late, and we’ve had two DJs before us. And it’s Saturday, and they’ve oversold the club too, so it’s like 1200 people in a 1000 capacity club… and everybody’s like this,” – He rolls his head back and waves his hands in the air…
“We walk on, and everybody goes crazy, and I press the button to start the first beat, and some guy just faceplants the stage. Like in two seconds.”
Ólafur considers the atmosphere of the Irish crowd for a moment before drawing comparison with a city that’s at the very heart of the electronic music scene.
“It’s funny because when you play Germany… Berlin… and you play techno, everyone is so cool, and everything is really sophisticated – but here it’s just madness. I much prefer this. It can be a bit much… but I much prefer this!”
“There’s tension in the air that you kind of raid,” Janus adds…
Ólafur Arnalds takes in the crowd at Forbidden Fruit
There’s something so unique about Kiasmos’ music – in terms of the textures and instrumentation – that make it graceful, enchanting, dark and hypnotic, all at the same time.
Ólafur explains the process behind their sound: “The style is just kind of the combination of our backgrounds. I come from this background of making music with strings and piano and using some electronics and he came from this background of more pure electronic stuff, but also with some acoustic instruments and singing, and I think when we combine the two it happens automatically.
“I think generally Janus has more of a beat and bassline role and I generally have more of a melody role but it’s not in any way a rule and sometimes we switch it up.”
Janus also acknowledges the benefits of working as a duo: “When we’re together we will listen to a sound in a different way than when we’re alone. One of us will pick something up – like ‘no actually, go back, that was good’ and we’ll work from there. It’s sometimes hard when you’re alone. Having two more ears is good.”
Kiasmos are an important cog in the wheel that is Erased Tapes. The label plays host to artists like Rival Consoles, Lubomyr Melnyk and Nils Frahm, all of whom have found their music interweave in the shape of different collaborations and remixes. While each of the artists bring some very different styles and approaches, it seems apparent that this is a community of musicians who’ve built friendships with each other too.
“Me and Nils Frahm especially,” Ólafur says. “We’ve been working together for like five years now, and friends even longer, and yeah I think everyone is at least acquaintances. If not friends at least acquaintances. I mean I don’t think there’s anyone on the label that I don’t know personally, and I know that this is how the label works.
“Robert who owns the label doesn’t just sign them because he likes their music. He needs to also like them as people and want to work with them in the future.”
Neoclassicism in music has seen a huge rise in popularity, over the past two years especially. Around the world, people have become engrossed in the sounds of piano and strings, film scores, ambiance, experimentalism, and filling their playlists with the music of virtuosos like Arnalds, Jóhann Jóhannsson, and Max Richter. But word on the street is that the scene has become over-saturated, and even ‘too commercial’ in ways.
This idea isn’t something new to Arnalds either. “I mean I live and breath in that world so yeah I do think about it. I feel a certain pride in the way that it has developed in the last years because when I started doing this neoclassical stuff it didn’t really exist, so if i can feel like a part of that, that’s like ‘ok – In whatever small way, you’ve actually changed something in music.’”
He continues: “However… at the same time I think as a musician you always strive for being the opposite of whatever is happening – and it’s not about being anti-popularity or anti-establish-whatever, it’s like when everybody is doing something you always want to kind of go against it, so at the same time I love that it’s being popular, but it also makes me wants to do this.”
“At this point in life, I’m so way over this. It’s like Mariah Carey? Love her!”
Maybe Ólafur and Janus are the right people to ask about the next direction that they think musical trends are likely to take.
“I feel like it doesn’t matter how much you can predict, it always just surprises you,” Janus says. “You know, the next thing that comes along you’re like ‘I did not imagine this happening. And sometimes just the weirdest stuff gets big, you know?”
“Like trap hi-hats. The first time I heard that I was like whaaat the…?” Ólafur says, as he taps his fingers on the table.
“Like trap hi-hats, yeah!” Janus continues. “They’re ridiculous. And also, we could do them 20 years ago, we had hats – we could programme them, but just nobody did, cos it’s just stupid… But also, it’s like ‘Yeah, Yeah, ooohh – Let’s make them go super fast and play a tone.’”
Between the pair, there must be some sort of guilty musical pleasures hidden beneath their taste and talent.
“I’m not ashamed of anything”, Ólafur laughs.
“At this point in life, I’m so way over this”, adds Janus. “It’s like Mariah Carey? Love her!”
There’s one question on everybody’s mind. When can we hear some fresh new Kiasmos?
Janus answers: “Now is not the best time to ask us because we’re so busy touring, but at the same time it’s interesting because it’s been a while since we wrote the album and so much has happened so… I feel like we’re full of ideas, but maybe by the time we get to sit down it won’t be there any more, I don’t know at this point.”
“We’ll get new ideas,” affirms Ólafur.
“Yeah, we’ll get new ideas!” Janus agrees.
Before we wrap up the interview and Kiasmos head towards the stage, Ólafur concedes a hint towards more material with a telling look.
“I think we could maybe do something next year, maybe…”