Ragnar Kjartansson in Conversation

Edek Bartz

EB: Ragnar, first question: what is the earliest pop song you remember, as a teenager?

RK: I remember everybody in school liked pop music and I did not really like it. But then I heard »The Lady in Red« [sings] and I thought that was a really good song.

EB: What did you like before? Did you listen to Icelandic folk music?

RK: My father was kind of a troubadour so he was always playing records of his Icelandic troubadour friends. I mostly listened to folk music at home.

This is one of my favorite songs. It is written by Ennio Morricone and it is one of the few pop songs he wrote. It’s with the Italian singer Mina [Mazzini].

EB: She was a very famous singer in the sixties.

RK: I love this song because it’s just the good part over and over again. There’s no »ananannana« and then the great chorus. It’s just chorus, chorus, chorus [plays »Se Telefonando, » sung by Mina].

EB: Can we make it louder?

RK: Se Telefonando… If you call [listening]. It goes on! It’s never the boring part of the song

[Ragnar rocking out].

EB: I really like Italian music from this period. I think this was one of the best times for Italian popular music. They had these incredible singers, with hit songs like »Il Mio Mondo« by Umberto Bindi and Gino Paoli, and »Non ho l’età,« by Gigliola Cinquetti. They had such a huge music industry and all the hits were popular throughout Europe. It wasn’t just Italy.

RK: And then even Dino went to the US.

EB: It was really big. It’s interesting that Ennio Morricone wrote this. I once met Morricone. I went to see him in Italy with my friend; he was doing a radio program. It was really funny because he didn’t speak any English at this time, not at all. He told us that he immediately recognizes if a movie is good or bad, but he prefers the bad movies because he gets paid more for the bad movies than for the good movies. A good movie doesn’t need such good music, so it’s badly paid. This is how he chose films.

RK: He has written music for so many bad films, but the music is always good.

EB: Was music important to you as a teenager?

RK: Yes. After »The Lady in Red,« the flower opened up. I was a typical teenager. I liked The Cure.

EB: It is depressing, dark pop.

RK: They are one of the best teenage angst bands.

EB: Were they popular in Iceland?

RK: Yes. The Sugarcubes had become big and there was a lot of indie music in Iceland at the time. Iceland had been isolated but in the nineties, there were all of these bands coming – dance music and hip hop – but I was listening to The Cure.

Since we were playing Italo-pop, here’s another incredible song. I was in a record store in Milan and I said to the guy in the store, »I want to buy some great, great music. Some Italian sixties music that will make you cry.« And he said »Yes, this one.« And as you can understand, I did not trust him when I saw this cover. It’s a very untrustworthy cover. It is a Gino Paoli album with a man and a hot chick on the cover.

EB: And do you know anything about him now?

RK: No, not much. I know a little bit about the pop song. It is called »Il cielo in una stanza« and I have been trying to find this version in another format. It is very popular but I’ve never found the version on this strange compilation anywhere else. It is an artist’s song because it’s about the transformation of space. It goes something like, »when I am with you, the walls of this room don’t exist. They become like endless woods, the ceiling is the stars.« It is about how all space and material changes. The backstory is that the songwriter always went to the same prostitute, who he was in love with. The song was written in the late forties, and this is a sixties version of it. He says »When I’m with you, this pink-purplish ceiling doesn’t exist anymore, it’s just stars.« Then you can see it’s a brothel [plays »Il cielo in una stanza« by Gino Paoli].

EB: It sounds modern.

RK: When I first heard it I thought it sounded like Rufus Wainwright.

EB: It doesn’t sound bombastic at all, and Italian music at this time was always very bombastic with big orchestras, and a lot of violins.

RK: It’s amazing because the recorded version of this song is more bombastic, but this is a special version. It is heartbreaking.

EB: We have listened to two Italian songs. Do you have an emotional connection to Italy?

RK: No, but I have enjoyed listening to Italo-pop from the sixties for many years. I once did a performance in the Icelandic Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. I stayed in the city for six months, but I did not like it.

EB: Was Italo-pop known in Iceland?

RK: No, but »Non ho l’età« was a big sixties hit in Iceland.

EB: In Vienna, especially at this time, ninety percent of Austrian people went to Italy for their holidays. That meant that it was really important to have a big summer hit in Italy; this summer hit was then all over Europe because everybody brought it home. Italo-pop was really big in Europe.

RK: And now it’s all gone. [sings Andrea Bocelli]

EB: What would fit after this?

RK: Maybe a little Rufus Wainwright. I really like him. When I first heard the albums Want One and Want Two, I was blown away. They really have this song-writing sound: great songs, simply arranged.

EB: And of course there is his background. His father and mother were great singers like your family!

RK: My family was not as great [laughter].

EB: His mother sang in The McGarrigle Sisters duo. It was very, very nice music, two women together. The sister, Martha Wainwright, sings too. The whole family sings.

RK: It’s a musical family, like the Von Trapps [laughter].

EB: Rufus brought something new.

RK: He has been doing opera, and then he did this great Judy Garland album. It was a remake of a Judy Garland concert at Carnegie Hall in the 1960s.

EB: He is also interested in this vision of the past.

RK: Yes, when I heard his music it really struck a chord because I tend to be a bit nostalgic, but nostalgic in a forward-looking way. There is a line I love from a Beck song: »Looking at some dead world that looks so new.« Rufus does this. His music is so contemporary, so now, but it has this nostalgia. Let’s play »Pretty Things.« It is such a simple song, and a simple statement [plays song].

EB: What a beautiful song.

RK: Many of his songs have a lot of wit, but in this one the wit is only in the lines »Pretty lies, so what if I like pretty lies.« That is a great lyric.

EB: Music is always a big part of your work, too.

RK: Yes, because I’ve always played in bands. I was an art school musician. You know, one of those. And then I was in a band called Trabant and we were very ambitious, but it blew up.

EB: Did you want to be a professional musician, an Icelandic rock star?

RK: Yes, and we managed it. It was great. But I always had a problem with making music. I always felt as if I was pretending to do a song, never as though it was from the heart. Somehow honesty works better in the art world, so I’ve been working with music in a much more honest way than when I was a musician.

EB: And now the dishwasher song would follow very well after this.

RK: That would be good, but I only have it on CD.

EB: Was Trabant’s music similar to what you listen to?

RK: It was different. I listen to a lot of country music and music where the lyrics really matter. The music in the band was more electro-clash—the music one should do in 2004. Since we were talking about country, let’s go a little country. I got this record from a great guy called Bob at Hot Wax Records in Calgary. This Townes Van Zandt record, Our Mother the Mountain, is my favorite record.

EB: And you’re still buying records?

RK: It’s complicated for the postmodern man to buy music. Occasionally I buy records to be cool.

EB: But you don’t play them?

RK: I always play them at home; I have a very good record player. That’s the best sound. But then I buy CDs and also buy from iTunes. And Townes…

EB: I think he died a few years ago.

RK: He died in the nineties. Time goes by so quickly.

EB: I don’t want to hear this.

RK: There’s an amazing story about this because he was this total white trash microwave-oven-food-eating guy in Texas, and then he wrote these songs and poems that were so mystical and beautiful and elegant.

EB: He was very respected by other musicians, so he wasn’t unknown.

RK: He wasn’t unknown. Everybody wanted to help him become big, but if he was asked to support somebody, he would just get drunk the night before and not show up. This is a song called »Kathleen« and it’s one of the most mysterious songs I’ve heard [plays song].

EB: It is beautiful. It is a really big production—there are violins and an orchestra. I remember that he was doing independent records, just playing a guitar, really rough. There must have been a time when they started making him a big star.

RK: Yes, I think that was around the time of this record. It’s really mysterious that he didn’t become a big star from this record; it has everything. The critics raved but for some reason it didn’t work.

EB: This happens all the time in the pop world, and in the art world.

RK: In the art world, oh my god! All the songs I’ve been playing are the »It’s 4 o’clock in the morning; it’s time to play a beautiful song;« kind of songs. I mostly listen to this kind of slow music. I don’t listen to upbeat music much. But, you know, sad songs make you happy.

EB: I see. We don’t have any fast songs.

RK: I’m kind of feeling embarrassed about it. Talking about slow, sad songs, I listen to this record a lot in the studio: Frank Sinatra, September of My Years. It’s music to get old to. There are all of these Sinatra concept albums, and this one is just about getting old and being melancholic about it. All of these songs are so good. There’s no mediocrity there.

EB: When did you discover Frank Sinatra?

RK: You’ve always known it, but I re-discovered him when I bought the Sinatra record The Voice. It’s not the [sings jazzy Sinatra style], it has harrowing strings. This is when I got into the older Sinatra stuff. He has made so many slow, melancholic records, but the hits are usually more upbeat brassy versions. Recently I’ve gotten into records like In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning.« And that’s a Riddle one.

EB: Nelson Riddle!

RK: I listen to it so much. I’m getting old, man. I’m just listening to Frank Sinatra all the time.

EB: It is also about discovering the quality. You can hear Sinatra as background music, you can hear it if you like the songs, but I like to discover the art in his use of the voice. He did hundreds of thousands of songs, but you always understand every single sentence. You never think something doesn’t work. Everything is clear. Every word is set up. He never screams or over-dramatizes. I listen to a lot of Sinatra too, and I always wonder »Wow, how did he do this?«

RK: He always sounds so effortless. Since it’s September, let’s listen to »The September of My Years.« [Listens.] When I listen to this, I always feel like I have had a big life.

EB: Yes. It is always a little bit behind the rhythm. Oh man. What else can we play after this song?

RK: It’s so melancholic, in a good way! Should we play one more song from this record? Is it illegal?

EB: We can do whatever we want.

RK: I also love »Last Night When We Were Young.« [Plays song.] I changed my mind. I think we should put another Frank Sinatra song on. It’s »How Insensitive,« with Antonio Carlos Jobim

[plays song].

EB: Sinatra made bossa nova famous in the States.

RK: Sinatra did it?

EB: Yes. When he did the album with Jobim, it was the first time the American masses heard bossa nova. I must tell a funny story. I have been in Brazil several times for music reasons, and in Rio, there is a market. I went there with my friend and he told me there was a small booth for beer. He said, »Edek, Antonio Carlos Jobim would sit there every Saturday with five friends and drink hundreds of bottles of beer.« And in Brazil when you drink bottles of beer, you leave the bottles on the floor. At the end they count how many bottles are on the floor, and this was a sea of bottles! I think this is so nice; the old men sitting together all the time, Jobim and his old friends, drinking beer in the market. Not in an elegant restaurant, but in the market. I like this [Turns to audience.] Look at the mood. They’re not asleep but they need something.

RK: We can pump it up! Let’s play something fast. There are so few fast songs on my albums! Here is a fast Prince song. I once saw him in concert and I realized that we men can be godly. He played »Cream.« It’s a very nice song. And he was like, [sings]: »You’re so cooool, everything you do is success! …I wrote that song looking in the mirror.« The sexual energy, the brilliance, the genius; it was all just oozing from him. That was two years ago. It was mind-blowing. We went there with our friends and I’ve never had this experience before in my life; I lost all feeling in my legs.

He’s such an influential artist, even with my friends in the Icelandic band Sigur Rós. Sigur Rós plays this kind of [hits a high note] beautiful music and once we were listening to Prince and one of them said, hey did you know that we created the soundscape of the band from a Prince song? It’s beginning of »Sometimes It Snows in April.« Do you know that song? It starts like [hits a high note]. It’s really like Sigur Rós. And they are like, »Hey, we can make a band out of this.«

EB: This was a very important group in Iceland.

RK: Super important. Our musical experts have been Björk and Sigur Rós, in the pop world.

EB: And the new up-and-coming bands in Iceland?

RK: There’s always an exciting scene, but nothing world famous right now. [Plays song.] It’s blasphemy to play this song so low.

EB: After Prince?

RK: I really like Gillian Welch. She’s an incredible songwriter. She just released a really incredible album, The Harrow & The Harvest. She took eight years to make it. It is not one of those studio albums where it is eight years in the studio, but she spent eight years crafting this. And the songs are super simple but they’re just huge and they’re beautiful, sad and slow. [plays Gillian Welch, »That’s the Way the Whole Thing Ends«].

EB: Beautiful, simple.

RK: So elegant.

EB: She is not very well-known is she?

RK: I think insiders know her. The most famous thing she did was the music for O Brother Where Art Thou?, the Coen brothers movie. But all of her albums are just masterpieces

EB: You like country music?

RK: I really like it.

EB: Do you tell people or do you keep it to yourself?

RK: I tell people! I try to get the message to the people. Someone once said the reason country music is so good is that it’s just three chords and the truth. You can also say that about soul music and blues. It is American music. A friend of mine, who is an avant-garde sound and noise artist, only listens to American music. He says he cannot listen to European music. He says it is arty crap, saying »Because I’m a European I have to make arty crap.« He wishes he could be a true American songwriter. It’s truEB: all American music comes from the soil, but most European bands come from art schools.

EB: Country music is really interesting because nobody admits that they like it and in Europe they hate it. They think it is all right-wing. They are always complaining about something. You don’t hear much country music in Europe. It is very rare. Someone tours maybe once a year, but this is changing now. When I go to artists’ homes, they all have country albums. And I say, »You’re telling me you hate it.« And they say, »But this one is different.« And during my lectures, out of ten artists, seven artists have played a country song—which means nearly everybody has a favourite country song.

RK: [To audience] Susanna, what was the song you were referring to the other day? [She answers.] Yes. »She’s acting single, he’s drinking double« [Gary Stewart]. It’s not Pink Floyd or something pretentious [laughter]. But you know pretentious is also good.

EB: Let’s play two more. We have Stravinsky, we have Mozart.

RK: Yes, should we do something European now? Maybe it’s refreshing to play a little Stravinsky!

EB: You are interested in classical music?

RK: Yes!

EB: What is going on with you?

RK: My taste is all over the place but it is always very superficial in every genre. It would probably be more honest if we put Mozart on. Also, this record [Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21] has the most beautiful cover.

EB: The cover came after the movie. The original cover was different. [The second movement] was in [the Swedish movie] Elvira Madigan.

RK: My father was always playing this part and I would think, »Oh it’s the Elvira Madigan song!«

EB: Géza Anda, the piano player, was the greatest Mozart player. He played fantastic Mozart and Bartok. He was Hungarian.

RK: I have another version of this with Vladimir Ashkenazy and it’s not as good. I just have to show you Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring cover.

EB: I must say, I have seen almost everything in my life but I’ve never seen this kind of record cover.

RK: It’s so good!

EB: A race car for Stravinsky!

RK: The man has taken his top off and is above the machine and it’s spring! So should we do Mozart or Stravinsky? Stravinsky!

EB: You see this is romantic.

RK: Yes, it’s romantic. When I did the project for the Venice Biennale where I stayed for six months there were always lots of people coming into the space and they would often talk to us. It was an open performance. We had a record player so we would always play music. The guy modeling for my paintings and I had a rulEB: if someone was annoying, we would put on this Stravinsky record. People would always leave. It is old music but it still has this irritating effect. People have to leave. [Plays song, skips to a particular part.] This is the birth of heavy metal, as they say.

EB: Ragnar, did you go to Stravinsky’s grave in Venice?

RK: Yes, we went there and it was great and we were also so grateful to him for his help.

I once heard a program on the BBC about how our ears react to unknown sounds. If we haven’t heard it before, we become alert. There was a whole program explaining that there were scientific and medical reasons why people went crazy when this was first played. The story is that everybody was beating each other up and puking.

EB: Yes, at the first performance [by the Ballets Russes in 1913]. It was a big scandal in Paris. Of course, if you listen to it live with the orchestra, it has another dimension; it has a power. It is not only the loudness, it is the power of the musicians themselves.

RK: In the future, I think it’s going to be like Beethoven’s Ninth symphony. It’s going to be the most popular piece ever. [Listens.]

EB: At least we have ended up with something a little contemporary.

RK: You want something new? But it cannot be funky, because the speakers cannot play funky stuff. If I am honest about what I listen to the most, it is Bob Dylan. I listen to him constantly. We should end with a Dylan song. I don’t think it is actually a Dylan song. It is on the The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991. It is an old Irish song called »Moonshiner«.

EB: Have you heard Dylan’s radio program Theme Time Radio Hour?

RK: Yes!

EB: It’s amazing. When you hear it you understand America. The hillbilly, the country, the blues, all of this connected stuff, and he does it great.

RK: I think it is the best radio program I have ever listened to. I also really like what Woody Guthrie said about Dylan: »He’s a great singer, but I don’t know about his lyrics.« You can hear on this what a fantastic singer he is. He’s just delivering this song about alcoholism; he’s probably 21 at the time. He has history on his back. It’s called »Moonshiner.« Let’s reflect a little bit on alcoholism.

EB: Perfect end. Thank you very much, Ragnar.

September 22, 2011 at Banfff Centre during The Soiree Retreat.

Transcribed and edited at The Banff Centre by Kari Cwynar and Kitty Scott

Edek Bartz is an Austrian musician, DJ, concert promoter, curator, author, and lecturer at the University of Applied Arts Vienna. With over 25 years’ experience in the music industry he has recorded, produced or toured with such artists as Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana, Frank Sinatra, Frank Zappa, and The Rolling Stones, among others. During the 1970s Bartz worked with performance artist Hermann Nitsch, a member of the Viennese Actionists, producing acoustic recording of his »Actions.« He co-founded, with Wolfgang Kos, the avant-garde music festival Töne – Gegentöne (Sounds—Counter-sounds) in Vienna in the 1980s. From 2005 to 2009 Bartz was artistic director of Viennafair, Europe’s only international contemporary art fair focusing on Central and Eastern Europe. He is also co-editor of the publication Secret Passion – Artists and Their Musical Desires (Springer, Vienna, 2010), based on a series of public conversations with renowned artists and architects on their emotional relationship to music.