I said “wank” to John Grant! How embarrassing! The Icelandic language is to blame; the Icelandic word for wanking can also be short for a couple of Icelandic names and it just came up when I was explaining the –ng/-nk rule to John. That’s what happens when one language nerd interviews another.
His Icelandic sounds very good and throughout the interview, he throws in Icelandic words and phrases to emphasise what he actually means. And he’s constantly learning. “My favourite word in Icelandic right now is “stríðnispúki” (e. a person who teases a lot), it’s a great word,” he explains to me as we sit down in the beginning to discuss his new album Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, and on a more personal note, his life in Iceland. My first question to John is: how did you initially wind up here?
“I came here from Colorado, where most of my family lives, in January 2012 with the intention of working on my album (Pale Green Ghosts) with Biggi Veira. I had previously met Biggi at Airwaves in 2011, when I first came to the country. I‘d wanted to come here a long time, since the ´80s. Partly because I liked The Sugarcubes and have been a big fan of Björk then after that.
Anyways, me and Biggi did the first tracks for the album, which sounded great, and so we just kept going and I just kept staying here. I found an amazing apartment, which was great, because I didn‘t really have a place to live then, I was going back and forth between a few places, and getting quite worn out from traveling. I started meeting Icelandic musicians, people recommended people to me and we became friends and it just, it was very smooth how it all happened.”
What did your friends and manager think of you moving here? “I think people who know me are just excited whenever I seem happy, you know? Because I struggle with depression so much that I think that people who care about me, they’re just like “Good, if that’s making you happy, then do it!””
But isn’t it ironic to be struggling with depression, yet move to Iceland to be happy; a place where the winters are really dark and big part of the population suffers from winter depression? “It is ironic and I do struggle with the winter here, the last three winters I’ve been horribly depressed. I’ve been making an album twice during that time and just really struggling with the darkness. I just didn’t think it would affect me so deeply, I thought “Oh, it can’t get any worse than it is.” Well, yes it can!” He laughs sarcastically. “I think in the future I’ll try to go somewhere else in January and February!”
“I recorded [it] in April. It’s a really funky album…”
And yet, you’ve managed to write a whole new album, Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, which is coming out in October. Did you work with the same people as on Pale Green Ghosts? “No not really, there’s a couple of Icelandic musicians on it, Pétur Hallgrímsson and then Jakob Smári Magnússon, who played with Björk in Tappi Tíkarass way, way back in the day. And then there are backup singers from Dallas and a really amazing keyboard player in Dallas.
I recorded the whole thing in Dallas in April. It’s a really funky album, I have Budgie from Siouxsie and the Banshees playing drums on the record and he’s gonna tour with me. And right now is the time when we’re starting to figure out how we’re gonna do it on stage.”
Yes, you have a big tour coming up in October, right? “Yes, I’ll be in the States for October and then we come back and do Airwaves before continuing. The new album comes out on October 9th, they just changed it from October 2nd, isn’t that the date you heard it was coming out? Somebody fucked something up and it now has to come out on the 9th.”
You’ve talked about having an Icelandic boyfriend in previous interviews, is that all going well for you? Are you settling down with him? “Yes, we took a year and a half to get to know each other and then moved in together earlier this year. He plays electronic music and he is a wonderful human being, really wonderful, Icelandic fellow. I don’t talk about his name in interviews, he’s different than I am as far as I talk a lot about personal stuff but he’s not that way so I just wanna respect that.”
Do you work together in music? “Not yet, I could imagine doing something with him, I really like what he does. It could be dangerous but he’s a very special human being, we get along really well. And he’s very patient with me which I think you sort of need ‘cause I can be a bit moody sometimes, especially with all the different medication I take. It can be a bit of an up-and-down but he sort of doesn’t judge, just lets me be.
Icelanders in general don’t judge, just let people be. It seems like Icelanders sort of, they look at the way somebody does they might say something but not in a pushy way. I feel it’s sort of people just let each other be. Individuality is celebrated.”
Speaking of individuality being celebrated, have you taken part in The Reykjavík Pride? “Normally, I stay in a lot and read or watch movies and I don’t like big crowds so no, I haven’t been to Reykjavík Pride. I did get a little bit of it this year ‘cause I was out in the city and on my way home, and I heard this marching band play ABBA songs and that made me really happy. (laughs)
But I think that Pride is different here in Iceland. It’s where families come out to support but maybe it’s different in other places too, I’ve never really given it a chance. Because I never really felt like part of the gay community either, you know, I really didn’t feel accepted, because either you were good-looking enough and your body was hot enough or you were just an undesirable. And I was never one of the desired ones, and I never had the style that you’re supposed to have as a gay man, I felt like I wasn’t a good gay.
I’m sure a lot of that had to do with my own perceptions. But there are also norms in the gay community and I just never wanted to be part of that. For example we now have these groups of hyper masculine gays who are judging the less masculine gays, and that’s so ironic because that’s what was done to them!
I’ve engaged in that, I’ve felt very judgemental towards men who I thought were too feminine. I was confronted about that by people in New York who said “You’re just doing to them what was done to you, because people told you that you weren’t a man, and people told you that you weren’t masculine enough, so how can you think it’s OK to do it to them? ‘Cause we’re all part of the same community, we should be supporting each other.” And I feel like I learned my lesson from that. ”
“I feel guilty about being here…because it’s a special place and right now it’s a little bit too popular.”
But what about the queer community in Iceland? Do you feel a connection to it, like you belong to it? “No, if I belong to a community then I just belong to a community, I don’t belong to a gay community or a straight community. I have to say I don’t know a ton of gay people here, I don’t seek it out really. And I think it’s good to feel comfortable enough somewhere so that you don’t need to. Because people here are just not interested in whether you’re gay or not, or it seems like that to me.
I mean, there’s still a lot of people who are like “Oh, fucking foreigners, get out,” but it has nothing to do with being gay, it’s just that I’m a foreigner. But once people see that you’re making a real effort to learn the culture and the language, I think that makes a difference. But I would be scared too if I were an Icelander. I feel sort of guilty about being here sometimes, because it’s a very special place and right now it’s a little bit too popular.”
So you’ve started cursing the tourists? “I do, which is pathetic, it’s pathetic! But it just seems a little scary to me, the sheer numbers. When you go to the airport, I just wanna kill somebody. There’s like more people there than are living in Iceland, on any given day right now, of course this is peak-time. But just the other day it took us like half an hour just to get out of the parking lot there, it’s just ridiculous! So yeah, I’m one of those.”
Speaking of big and small places, how does it work for a world-renowned musician to operate from Iceland? Is it not a hindrance? “I don’t think so, because I can always go there or they can come over here or you can do stuff over the internet if you have to. And plus it’s a nice amount of distance from New York and from London, it’s quite easy.
I just wanna live where I feel comfortable and where I’m challenged too. It’s good for me to be challenged and I feel challenged here; it’s exciting for me with the language here, I spend time on it every day.”
So you’re a language nerd? “I love languages, I studied languages in school and I knew that Icelandic was supposed to be very difficult and I wanted to find out why, and I found out very quickly. Well, there’s 16 forms for every word and it’s hard to get used to the article being attached to the end of the word. And also how different the declensions of the different nouns are, or just crazy things like “kona” (e.woman) it’s regular until you get to “eignarfall fleirtölu” (e. plural genitive case) and then it’s “kvenna, kvennanna”. It’s really fascinating. And the pronunciation is the hardest of anything I’ve done, like “Fáskrúðsfjörður”.”
Does Iceland influence you when you’re writing songs? “I can’t imagine that it doesn’t. You get specific moods up here. It might affect me in that I feel quite happy, you know, but I still wanna talk about dark things. I find that even when I’m happy there’s still a good smattering of darkness and difficult subject matter and I definitely deal with the depression ‘cause no matter how happy I get, that doesn’t go away, it’s just always something you have to fight with.
But I’m sure it does affect me, I mean, I wrote my new song “Disappointing” about my boyfriend, and he’s Icelandic so he has affected me very much. And the relationships that I have here affect me very deeply.
But I don’t really know how to answer that yet. Maybe in ten years or something we can look back and say “Ahh!”, I think it’s something we’ll know later.”
Do you consider Iceland your home now? “I feel like I’m very fickle, I feel like I’m very comfortable in lots of different places and I can imagine living in lots of different places. But for now it’s here and also my boyfriend has a very close-knit family here and they’ve been very welcoming here.”
So not only do you have a boyfriend here, you have a family here? “Yeah, it’s weird to think about. I mean, my family is very dysfunctional so when I think of family I think of bad things. So it’s almost strange for me to think about. I’m a little bit scared of having a family, usually it means not good things. But I’ve had great experience with his family here, really good.
I do ask myself sometimes though: “What are you doing here?” But I’ve established myself and I’m interested in being part of a community here, even though that’s difficult for me to say ‘cause I don’t really trust community. Because community has never been a good thing to me, it’s always been about conforming and about having to hide who you are and lie about yourself in order not to be attacked. So community is scary for me but this is the place where I’ve felt the most like I could be part of it, a part of a community.”