A DIY low-fi punk project with a pop heart built on a friendship, Reykjavík duo BSÍ are taking things as they come.
While their name is pronounced bee-ess-eee,Icelandic duo BSÍ have found this to be quite the learning curve for audiences outside of their homeland. But paying it any mind would go against the BSÍ way. Sparkling with beautiful simplicity, the duo aren’t here for any overt seriousness. “We’re not a band, we’re a friendship,” drummer and vocalist Silla Thorarensen laughs.
The pair – completed by bassist (and toe-synthesiser) Julius Pollux Rothlaender – came together after both kicking around the Reykjavik music scene in various guises. Their motivation? Simply, “to start a band and play instruments we didn’t know how to play,” Thorarensen shrugs smiling.
For years prior, the musical landscape in Iceland was crowded by hip-hop and rap but around the same time BSÍ began its journey, it was evolving into something different. Grassroots and DIY venues became a breeding ground for an underground scene. With the first BSí rehearsals taking place in a small venue (R6013), figuring out how to was a communal effort.
No strangers to learning curves themselves, BSÍ’s thrust from newbies to gig-playing reads like so: “I picked up the drums. I’d never played before,” Thorarensen says. “And you picked up the bass,” she nods to Rothlaender, “and then we just started playing simple songs. At some point, we were like, ‘Hey, we have five songs. Oh, let’s have a concert!’ And then we had a concert, and then we had the band.”
Huddled around a Zoom call from a grey and miserable Reykjavík — their words — there’s a divine unity between the pair. And something larger clearly at play that’s made it all come together like the plot to a mid noughties indie film. Their story starts proper with Rothlaender finding himself in Iceland. An act, as he puts it, which was “really random,” after packing up sticks from his native Germany. It’s no wonder that the duo have shrugging shoulders and constant smiles on their faces during our chat. Life’s too short for over thinking, especially when it’s coming together better than they’d hoped.
The fact that they’ve managed to make it work to this degree —their single “Vesturbæjar Beach” even won Best Song at the Reykjavik Grapevine music awards a couple of weeks ago — is a testament to that inimitable ‘thing’ bands have; that connection which winds up making this project vibe with the world differently than any of their past endeavours. Part of this magic comes from their dogged determination. Wrestling her way around her new-found singing/drumming combination, Thorarensen’s early experience, “was a matter of surviving through the beat,” she laughs. “It didn’t come easy to me. It was like okay, now I’m doing this. Now the next part. And then the singing at the same time, it was a matter of surviving!”
“I can only say for myself, I haven’t really practised I mean, I think I’m too lazy to practice an instrument,” Rothlaender adds, smirking. “It’s not as much fun as compared to playing together —why not just do this all the time, rather than sitting at home and you know, doing this finger practice?” He asks, miming a fretboard between his hands.
Sitting around isn’t something they can do – life doesn’t live itself. But there was no natural inclination for diving headfirst into the unknown, at least for Thorarensen: “Starting the band was one of my challenges in that sense. Growing up, I always felt like I had to be perfect, or you couldn’t play concerts unless you had a BA degree in music or something,” she says. “And that’s the mentality I’ve been having for a very long time. I don’t know, I just I was tired of it, and I said fuck it and wanted to kind of break out of that kind of box. Since BSÍ, I think it’s at least made it more easy to do that because I’ve done this before. So what’s the worst that could happen?”
Finding themselves on tour supporting The Vaccines late last year, it would appear that the plan is working. Though not completely infallible, “sometimes the pressure comes on later,” Thorarensen admits. “Like I’m supposed to be better…I don’t know where that pressure comes from — probably from inside myself — but I think that we’re doing is getting rid of [it], although it comes in sometimes.”
She sits pondering for a moment when I ask of any outward inspirations for their care-free musings: “It’s just inspiration from everything really,” she answer. “Our friends, and what’s happening in society and feelings about injustice, and also like feelings from inside, like how we’re feeling…so it’s hard to say.”
Rothlaender adds: “It’s sort of everything that comes into us as persons is also going through the band because I think it’s more like, I feel the bands are close to a very playful side of the two of us. So whatever we pick up in our personal lives also sort of can end up in the band. It isn’t like we like have this like big thing of ‘Oh, we want to be like this or that band or this or that artist’. It’s more like this is a part of us in a way you said this earlier,” he turns to Thorarensen. “What did you say…it was more than just like musical inspiration.”
For a band who are free and easy, their debut album was a decided two-parter. Sometimes Depressed…But Always Anti-Fascist (a title borrowed from a shirt they spotted at a punk festival) consists of two EP’s – the first (Sometimes Depressed) was the more melancholic, subdued music — which Thorarensen also found herself momentarily writing lyrics purposefully for. The other half (But Always Anti-Fascist) is where their pop-heart beats, louder and brasher, it’s the shining sun always welcomed in their country but rarely reflected in its freezing temperatures.
Grey skies and pretty landscapes all make for good pop music fodder. It’s the antithesis to such uniquely perfectly imperfect vistas, but coming back down to earth away from the volcanic ruptures and frozen scenery there’s a bit more at play. “Outwardly, Iceland seems like equality paradise. And then that’s just far from the truth, it has to be said,” Thorarensen says relaxing as if she’s getting something off her chest.
Appearances can indeed be deceiving. Take into account their name –- predominantly aligned with the central bus station in Reykjavik, but also closely associated with an old t-shirt, and a dinner featuring Brussels sprouts (making the initials stand for Brussel Sprouts International). Cobbling these ideas together comes from them feeling disenfranchised, and the depressing nature of the bus station completing their vision. One that saw them wanting to address those issues within Iceland. “There are many direct relations, but I think the more direct [lyrics] on Iceland, the more political ones,” Rothlaender says. “They’re on the louder half of the record, one is dealing with toxic masculinity (“Dónakallalagið”, which translates to “The Rude Song”, and “My Knee Against Kyriarchy”), which is a big problem here as well as it is everywhere else and also—”
“Matters of refugees,” Thorarensen adds.
“––Yeah, we’re both involved in no borders things in Iceland, and there’s a lot of things going on here, which I mean are not as known abroad as the beautiful landscape, but there’s a lot of political problems here and conservative politics and we are concerned about that. I think that’s more what we work through in some of the songs in a way.”
When I ask what the plans are for the pair going forward — particularly now there have been a few cancellations early in the year thanks to the most recent COVID variant — an indecisive air that forms between them. Mostly because the very question itself goes against the BSÍ way of being. Not to mention the further they progress in the fickle industry the more complicated things can become, so it’s all about just enjoying the journey. As Rothlaender says: “I think I’ll be happy to have not many plans and just enjoy it and keep on going.”
“I think also having less planned — and now that we’ve been touring a bit, you get exposed to [the] music industry and it feels a bit not like what I feel is fun about making music,” he continues. “This industry I think people look at their own band as a product or trying during the company I don’t think of it as a company I think it’s just a band — it’s friendship and I think it’s wiser for us to focus on that than thinking about business things. That’s not fun — who wants that, really?”