At Iceland Airwaves 2014, I accidentally saw Fufanu. I had no idea who they were, but followed two English friends to a venue in downtown Reykjavik called Gaukurinn — which is essentially a dive-y metal bar, which is also how you can describe a fair number of the bars in Reykjavik. They didn’t even have an album out, but they were already stunning: a fully-formed band playing a scathing, twisted brand of psych-tinged post-punk. It was an impressive show, and in the two times I’ve returned to Airwaves since, catching every Fufanu gig of the festival is always one of my main priorities.
This year, the group was only playing two shows, but the first proved how much Fufanu has already developed, and how possible it would be for them to become a major name in the indie sphere over once they start touring the States. They played one of the main ballrooms in Harpa, this big, insane building featuring a kind of honeycomb pattern of black-green glass and that sits on the edge of Reykjavik’s harbor. (Harpa is a general conference/tourist center, but also serves as a hub during Airwaves — many of the big-name shows take place in its large rooms, experimental shows take place in its smaller rooms, and Björk played a life-altering show in its big theater this year.) Backed by sparse graphics and highly effective light show, suddenly Fufanu were able to do the whole “big rock show” thing. Frontman Kaktus Einarrson adopts a sort of pissed-swagger onstage, running and dancing and brooding while his main counterpart — guitarist Gulli Einarrson, no relation — stands stone-faced in sunglasses, bathed in moody lighting and directing the distorted squalls of their intensified, heavier live sound. They look and sound like rockstars already, even when the show scales back down — as it did for their second gig of the festival, at a place called Bar Ananas, a somewhat hilarious counterpoint to Harpa (and Reykjavik in general) because it is a tiki bar.
The shows were different in another way, too: they have a new album called Sports coming out in February, and a lot of new material to play live. Sports follows quickly on the heels of their debut LP Few More Days To Go and its accompanying EP Adjust To The Light, both of which were released last year; they’re also already trying to finish up some songs for another EP. It’s a quick pace, but the new music also suggests a young band finding new inspiration and a greater handle on their abilities.
Some of Sports, particularly its excellent lead single/title track, puts heavier emphasis on the propulsive electronic elements of Fufanu’s music, taking precedent over the warped, burnt guitarwork that dominated the best of their earlier tracks. In other moments — like the hypnotic chorus of “White Pebbles” or the gentle build of “Your Fool” — Fufanu takes cues from the more drugged-out, greyscale corners of Britpop. “Your Fool” in particular is a revelation. Paired with closer “Restart,” the songs find Fufanu branching out. They are catchy and downright pretty. If much of Fufanu’s music to this point has sounded like there’s a dense, toxic cloud hanging above, Sports races towards a point where the bleakness parts and lets some kind of strange sunlight in.
While at Airwaves this year, I caught up with Fufanu. I asked them to take me to some places that were important to them during the making of Sports. We spent an afternoon walking around Reykjavik, with Kaktus as my primary tour guide and the band telling me more about the process behind their exciting sophomore outing.
The first stop once we start our tour is, of all places, an Icelandic fast-food restaurant called Aktu Taktu. Kaktus refers to it as “the drive-and-take,” because it’s a hybrid gas station/restaurant type situation. At the counter, beneath big lit-up alternative-universe-McDonald’s menus, there’s a side room with all sorts of other stuff; one of the band members buys a pack of cigarettes with his technicolor tray covered in fries. They eat their fries with a mayo-ketchup mix, which is called kokteilsósa (“cocktail sauce”) in Iceland. “Icelanders are disappointed when they got to McDonald’s in other countries and they don’t have the sauce,” Kaktus explains. “Because when McDonald’s used to be in Iceland, they always had it.”
A few blocks from their studio, this was a recurring spot for the band during the writing/practicing phases of making Sports. “It’s a nice place to get something warm at a decent price,” Kaktus says, which is a fair point because food is mostly crazy expensive in Reykjavik. While at Aktu Taktu, we start talking about how the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Nick Zinner wound up producing Sports. Kaktus had met him a few times, and had a crazy night out with him on a visit to New York back in 2014. “I thought we had to do something interesting when he came to Iceland,” Kaktus says. “I took him to secret places where they’ve been shooting films.” The weird, super-alien Icelandic stuff that tourists don’t go to. Specifically, Kaktus took him to a place “basically under a volcano” where they shot Prometheus — there’s a rocky road leading there, but it isn’t on the map. You need to know how to get there to be able to go.
Zinner’s first professional interaction with Fufanu was when he remixed the Few More Days To Go track “Your Collection.” Later, he joined them for a studio session to work on the radio edit of “Ballerina In The Rain,” another standout from their debut. Working with both an engineer and a producer was a new thing for the band, and they describe it as liberating on some level. “We trusted Nick, the workflow was really fast,” Kaktus says. Working off the demoes they already had, the sessions produced some new songs, too, and the album came together fairly quickly.
The Atlantic Ocean
There’s a highway that wraps around the end of Reykjavik — to one side is town, to the other is the Atlantic Ocean, and mountains off in the distance. It’s a surreal sight, on the days where it’s actually clear enough to see those mountains. Aktu Taktu is on that highway, so after everyone finishes their burgers and fries we walk across the road to the path overlooking the water. There’s a wall of black rocks leading down to the water, and Kaktus quickly starts climbing down them. This became an important spot for the band. They’d come hang out on the rocks looking out at the water. Gulli mentions the time he was “really fucked up on MDMA” sitting there in total darkness, listening to the wind and water.
Though he grew up in the suburbs of Reykjavik, the spot is a relatively recent discovery for Kaktus. One day he climbed down there and realized that the sound of the highway behind him, of the whole city, didn’t reach just ten feet down the rock wall. The lights and noise of Reykjavik couldn’t penetrate that spot. “You went into absolute black and silence from the city,” he says.
Kaktus’ meditative trips by the ocean were a major inspiration for Sports. Much of Few More Days To Go dealt with being away from home, of passing through cities with no connection to nature. (Its title comes from the litany they’d have to adopt as friends and family continuously asked them when they’d finally be back: “A few more days to go, a few more days to go.”) In contrast, Kaktus seems to have found some kind of peace in this seaside walks during Sports. He would walk in silence with the new songs playing in his head, and lyrics and melodies would start coming to him.
Back across the highway and up a small hill from Aktu Taktu, Fufanu’s studio is in a non-descript, industrial-ish building near a retirement home. Graffiti covers the entrance, and it decorates the elevator and the restroom. The studio/practice space itself is a decently sizable room, with some small couches and tables littered with empty beer cans and the depleted remains of cigarettes. We walk in and the band scatters, some sitting on a drumstool, some lounging on a couch; Gulli promptly starts rolling himself a cigarette. This is the room where Fufanu recorded many of the basic tracks for the record, before moving to a studio outside of town when it came time to work with Zinner.
Though there are plenty of other bands renting space in this building, Fufanu tells me that most young people in the Icelandic music scene are more interested in making rap music. They almost always rap in Icelandic, too. “I tried to sing in Icelandic and it just doesn’t suit the music, nor my vocals,” Kaktus says. “My voice just sounds ridiculous in Icelandic.”
The name Sports came about simply enough: they had the song, and they liked the idea of having a title track on this one. From there, they thought of everything they could do with visuals off of the concept of “sports.” Thematically, however, Sports is a continuation from Few More Days To Go in that Kaktus is writing lyrics influenced by his own life. (“I’m not a fictional writer,” he explains.) By his estimation, Few More Days To Go was about “loss, thoughts on whether you should regret something, missing something.” It was also his first time writing lyrics, considering that Fufanu began as an experimental electronic duo (just him and Gulli) called Captain Fufanu. Sports is the result of having some more years behind them, of growing up a bit more. “Sports is a way happier album,” Kaktus says. “There are more positive lyrics on it. It’s just a new vision of life.” And while that might not be as evident on songs like “Tokyo” — which is strung-out and haunted the same as much of Few More Days To Go — it makes a lot of sense when you consider stuff like “Your Fool” and “Restart.” That’s where the uplift, the resolution, happens on the album, and it suggests whole new avenues the band can explore in the future.
The Liquor Store
“You asked us to take you to a place we go a lot,” Kaktus says, “So we are taking you to a liquor store.” It’s a joke, but it also leads to something revealing about Icelandic culture. As much as people love to drink here (or maybe because of how much people love to drink here) Iceland too had a prohibition last century. The difference was that they maintained a ban on beer until 1989. On a previous trip to Iceland, a friend told me about how her mother used to go to a bar in the ’80s that would serve a cocktail that was non-alcoholic beer with a shot of Icelandic liquor in it as a political statement. Remnants of that era have stuck around — you can buy weak beer in grocery stores, but you have to go to a proper liquor store to get most beer and anything else. And these stores are few and far between, with limited hours. It is somewhat understandable that this would be a major location for the band to plan around while recording Sports.
Anyway, we walk around the liquor store for a few minutes. There are all the Icelandic-brand beers, and some very, very over-priced American liquor options. Gulli grabs a big pack of Iceland’s own Viking beer, and we walk outside so I can take a photo of them outside the shop. This particular street has a bunch of drunk guys always hanging out. (Again, liquor stores are few and far between in Iceland.) They take it upon themselves to join the band for the photo. “Did you guys just graduate or some bullshit?” one of them asks.