Kiasmos: The Best of What’s Next

Music Features

Somewhere along the line, Janus Rasmussen and Ólafur Arnalds got serious. Well, sort of. Rasmussen (of the electronic outfit Bloodgroup) and Arnalds (a classical composer and solo artist in his own right) still punctuate their conversations with jokes and laughter, often finishing each other’s sentences. If you ask them about influences on their partnership, they’re just as likely to cite the power of beer and whiskey as a shared love of electronic music (Heavy, abrasive, early 2000’s electronica to be precise). They even crack a smile when talking about their self-titled debut’s protracted gestation time. (“Seven years from now we’ll talk about the next album,” Arnalds laughs. “And how we got Bono to sing on it.”) Originally conceived as a way to kill time on the tour bus while Arnalds toured with Bloodgroup as a sound engineer, both Reykjavik-based musicians realized that even if the songs never left their hard drives, Kiasmos was a great way to blow off steam.

“Music is never not fun for us,” says Rasmussen. Tired and slightly hung over after playing a slate of Kiasmos shows at Iceland Airwaves, a slight rasp plays around the edges of his voice. “But even though it is fun, it can become stressful. It can become almost a burden, even though it’s fun. But it’s something that you have to do.”

Encouraged by the initial response to their first singles released on Erased Tapes in 2009, the pair decided to continue publicly airing their creations. But Rasmussen and Arnalds quickly discovered that synchronizing their iCals in order to finish their first collection of songs would be a difficult process. With Rasmussen gigging as a producer for other bands when not writing music of his own, and Arnalds working full time as a composer (earlier this year he won a BAFTA for his work on the BBC series Broadchurch) it took a lot of saying no before they could finally start saying yes to their passion project.

“I had this really amazing movie offer and suddenly I just felt like saying ‘fuck it,’” Arnalds recalls. “I felt like I wanted to do Kiasmos. Sure, movies are fun, but I felt like I was more going to do the movie because it was a big career opportunity … I just wanted to hang out with my friend for a while.”

The two got together in April of 2014, holing up in Arnalds’ Mosfellsbær-neighborhood studio to work. Although their informal sessions had resulted in a wealth of material, the duo decided to start fresh, tossing out all but two previously recorded tracks.

“We wanted all the songs to be written in the same time period, so that they would have the same people behind them,” says Rasmussen. “People change and ideas change. We wanted each song to have a common thread. This is reflective of that month in our lives.”

Pointed away from the dance floor throb of their earlier material, Kiasmos’ self-titled debut features a wash of melodic strings over fractured disco beats and ambient synth drones, all mixed together into a hypnotic, post-pop swirl. It certainly isn’t light by any means—the abrasive pulls of “Thrown” and the deep, twisted thump of “Bent” reveal artists looking to make a grander statement than mere background noise.

They laugh at the word “mind-meld,” but the idea of Arnalds and Rasmussen being able to read each other’s thoughts doesn’t seem so far-fetched. The name Kiasmos is a bastardization of the word “chiasmus,” a literary term tying two different meanings together through the use of parallelism. Even Janus’ name fits the theme, being shared with a dual-faced Roman god. Although they come from two very different worlds, both men have worked together for so long that they struggle to articulate just how they differ.

“I think in creation, Janus is maybe more going at it in an experimental angle,” says Arnalds after a long silence. “I’m a little more organized.“

“We discover really fast if something is working or not,” adds Rasmussen, shrugging off the misconception that there was a learning curve that came with working together. Arnalds concurs with his assessment:

“When you make this much music every single day, you get into shape in a way,” he added. “Certain things work, and certain things don’t. It’s not always a matter of taste. Things work or they don’t. We’re both in good enough shape, having made a lot of music that we just know these things very quickly. And we agree on most of them.”

Rasmussen and Arnalds call themselves very organized (“Music is the only place where I go crazy and I don’t feel bad about it,” notes Rasmussen), but both men admit that sometimes when it comes to their work, logic doesn’t always win out. Due to an intense editing process, slow-burner “Dragged” almost didn’t make it onto the album. Arnalds can laugh about it now, but admits that at the time, it was annoying that the track felt like a puzzle they couldn’t solve.

“We threw it off the album and put it back on the album and took it off the album and put it back on the album,” he said. “And changed it. We have many versions of it. But in the end we went back to the first version of it. That’s when we were finally happy with it. We spent so much time changing it for no reason.”

Although their schedules have quickly closed up (Rasmussen talks excitedly about working on the next Bloodgroup album, while Arnalds is prepping for more Broadchurch recording sessions), it seems likely that there will be more Kiasmos to come—even if they can’t say exactly when that will happen. The future, in all its beer and whiskey-drenched possibilities, stretches ahead of them. And even if they don’t release every note recorded, it’ll still be fascinating to see where the music takes them.

“Time is never wasted when we’re being creative,” says Arnalds. Next to him, Rasmussen laughs, as usual, in total agreement.

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