Protagonists is a series of interviews about life, identity, and pursuing passions…
Iceland is a place that leaves you frustratingly short of superlatives. You could write a separate ode to every inch of it. The first thing that hits you is the landscape. The second – an altogether different kind of discovery – is that it is home to the most charming and prolific music scene in the world.
Part of that scene is Kristofer Rodriguez Svonuson, currently the drummer for Júníus Meyvant. He is also a former member of Hymnalaya, among others. Incredibly warm-hearted and gracious, he is instantly recognisable with his trademark dreadlocks and dark features among Iceland’s sea of strawberry blonde Viking-types.
When did you start drumming?
I grew up with a lot of different music around me and I started to bang pots and pans at an early age. I had my first encounter with an actual drum set when I was around 10 years old. My cousin got a drum kit and I immediately gravitated towards it.
The next Christmas I received a toy drum kit as a present from my mum. I really enjoyed playing but the kit was more like a toy than an instrument, so it fell apart after a year of rock’n’roll.
I got my first real drum kit when I was 12 years old and took lessons for a year but I quit because I had decided to become a professional basketball player. At 16 I realized I would probably not be a professional basketball player and that’s when I went “all in” on music. I’ve played the drums almost every day since.
You’re currently playing with Junius Meyvant. How would you describe their sound?
I don’t want to analyse too much, but I approach it as soul music and I hope our sound makes people feel good.
The Icelandic music community is renowned for its collaborative nature – people are always working on many projects simultaneously. How do these collaborations develop?
Iceland is such a small country and the music scene is so small and closely knit that you kind of just know and gravitate towards people who are making interesting music. If you want to play with someone, or if someone wants to play with you, you just walk up to them and ask.
Since everyone is playing music with each other the music scene is kind of like a group of friends where everyone is rooting for each other, and there is no competition between musicians or bands, just cooperation.
How do you decide which projects to prioritise?
When choosing which projects I want to put effort and time into I mostly just choose those that I find the most interesting. Sometimes I have prioritize differently and focus on having enough money to pay the rent and buy porridge
Who are your favourite Icelandic artists/bands at the moment?
Hjálmar, KK, Emilíana Torrini, DÓH tríó, Óregla, and many many more.
How did your old band Hymnalaya start up? What are the other members doing now?
Hymnalaya naturally evolved from another band named Mukkaló. I had been friends with many of the core members for a long time and played with them in different projects and somehow Hymnalaya just came about.
We recorded an album Hymns which was received very well and I’m very proud of it. Since then many of the band members have taken on different roles and we are on a hiatus at the moment. But who knows, maybe we’ll make a comeback and book a show at Wembley Stadium.
Hymnalaya’s music had a strong religious underpinning. Was that something you invested in personally? What kind of spirituality do you subscribe to, and how does it shape your world view?
The core members of the band met in church which influenced and connected us. At the beginning there were just 4 of us in the band but the band later grew bigger and our music evolved. Einar, our lead singer, writes all the lyrics and most of them deal with some kind of spiritual or philosophical themes.
As for my personal religious and spiritual views, they are always evolving as I experience new things, as I grow and even when I take a steps backwards in that growing process. I don’t have things figured out and, come to think of it, I actually don’t even want to have all these things figured out. I hope I can listen to people’s world views with an open mind with the intention of understanding them.
Obviously you don’t look like the typical Icelander. Are there challenges growing up in a place that is not very ethnically diverse?
My father is Colombian and my mother is Icelandic. This is a very rare mixture, maybe just 20 specimens in the entire galaxy. When I was growing up there were very few people of colour in Iceland and therefore dark skin became even darker in contrast to everyone else. For example, there were only two students with dark skin in my class, me and my best friend who is half Greenlandic/Inuit.
Even though I was born and raised for most parts in Iceland I have always been identified and therefore identified myself as an immigrant, Latino. This is opposite when I’m in Colombia. There I am identified and identify myself as Icelandic.
Since there are so few Latinos in Iceland people often think I’m Indian, Arabic, or even part black. As can be expected in a country where most of the population is white and where the culture of coloured people is so young there is some racism. Just last night when I was loading my drums into my car after a gig, a group of random guys walked past me and shouted in English, “you fucking Muslim piece of shit”. I have never allowed comments like that to affect me personally. Iceland is changing and it’s becoming more multi-cultural with every year that passes, but we still have a long way to go.
What are your favourite venues to play in?
In my opinion, there are two venues in Reykjavík that stand out:
The first one is Húrra. A venue for indie/rock/hip hop music. The atmosphere there is great and one of the bands I play with conducts a weekly jazz/funk jam session every Monday at Húrra So if you ever come to Iceland make sure that you go to Húrra on Monday nights!
My other favorite Reykjavik venue is Mengi which is also an art gallery. It specializes in experimental music so you can kind of do what ever you want there.
When playing abroad, I really like outdoor festivals in good weather with good people.
Who are your influences?
My father is Colombian so there was a lot of Afro-Latin music around me when I was young and I am strongly influenced by Latin rhythms. But I found my original musical identity in hip hop. I bought my first two CDs with my own money when I was 7 or 8 years old: Bow Down by Westside Connection, and Ironman by Ghostface Killah. I was completely captivated by the beats, the rhymes and the attitude of hip hop, especially the Wu-Tang Clan.
Do you rap at all?
Oh brother, I have tried so many times and I’m still trying, but every time I listen to myself rap I throw up a tiny bit in my mouth, press delete and take a shower. No one has ever heard me rap, except for my mum maybe. One day I will release a rap tune, just you wait.
Are you drumming full-time now or do you still maintain a day job? I remember you used to be a teacher.
I have a degree in education and I’ve been working with kids and teenagers since I was 18 years old, but for the past 2 years I’ve only been working as a musician. I play with many different bands and artists both live in concerts and as a sessionist in the studio.
Outside of the standard drum kit, do you have a favourite percussion instrument?
In at least half of my projects I play percussion and I really like Afro-Latin rhythms, especially the congas.
When you watch other bands play, are you able to enjoy it as an audience member or do you find yourself unavoidably focused on the percussion?
I think it depends on the music. Most of the time I just try to enjoy what I’m hearing and if I really like how the band is playing I try to learn from the experience. Once I went to a concert with Pedrito Martinez, and it was hard to focus on anything else other than his virtuoso conga chops.
What’s your mindset when you perform? Are you mechanical, or is it more of a trance where it’s all about ‘feel’?
It depends on the music I’m playing. When I’m playing jazz or other improvisational music I normally just zone out and what I play is simply a reaction to what I’m hearing and feeling. When I’m playing more structured pop music I try to be focused, but never mechanical.
The past few years has seen a tourism boom in Iceland. Is it having a noticeable impact on Icelandic culture?
The impact of tourism is both good and bad. The bad thing is that people are tearing down our downtown cultural venues and building hotels and souvenir shops. This is a serious problem.
Another huge problem is the lack of restrooms around our highways. Tourists seem to really like to poop in our nature without collecting their faeces when they’re done. The good thing is that most tourists who come here are interested in our culture, especially our music.
I read something in the Grapevine a while back about a mystery street pooper. I didn’t know it was a country-wide epidemic.
Yeah I think it’s a real problem, at least during the summer time. There has been such a tourist boom the past few years that our infrastructure – roadside restrooms and stuff – are yet to catch up with it.
How does your mood and lifestyle shift between summer and winter?
I find it a bit difficult to live in Iceland because of the extreme changes between summer and winter. Icelandic summers are truly magical, there is a special scent in the air at that time. We have 24-hour sunlight and people get very hyper during that time. We feel like we don’t need any sleep and we play basketball shirtless even though it’s only 10°c just because we can finally see the sun. And then we catch a cold.
The winters are long, wet, dark and cold. A lot of people suffer from seasonal affective disorder. I often find it hard to wake up early during the winter and I need to stay physically active in order to keep my energy levels up. But that’s also the time when a lot of our music is written.
What’s the dumbest question you’ve been asked about Iceland?
If we all lived in igloos…
Kristo is currently playing gigs with Samúel Jón Samúelsson Big Band and Júníus Meyvant. The latter is due to release his debut album on July 8.