John Grant: Struggling with the darkness

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?

John Grant’s story has become familiar with Icelanders and his fans worldwide. Former frontman of Denver-based rock group, The Czars, he launched his solo career in 2010 with the masterpiece Queen of Denmark, with lyrics that struck your core as he revealed the darkness in his life, depression, drug addiction and HIV diagnosis. Soon after, he popped up in Iceland, with his second album sporting a photo of him sitting in the legendary Kaffi Mokka on Skólavörðustígur. Pale Green Ghosts was co-written by Biggi Veira, an Icelandic electronic musician, and John toured the world with a mostly Icelandic entourage.
John Grant’s story has become familiar with Icelanders and his fans worldwide. Former frontman of Denver-based rock group, The Czars, he launched his solo career in 2010 with the masterpiece Queen of Denmark, with lyrics that struck your core as he revealed the darkness in his life, depression, drug addiction and HIV diagnosis. Soon after, he popped up in Iceland, with his second album sporting a photo of him sitting in the legendary Kaffi Mokka on Skólavörðustígur. Pale Green Ghosts was co-written by Biggi Veira, an Icelandic electronic musician, and John toured the world with a mostly Icelandic entourage.

“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.”

Never felt like part of the gay community

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)

"There's still a lot of homophobia in the big cities, London and New York included, even though they have a huge gay population. Here people seem to sort of leave it alone, it’s more of a curiousity than a homophobia, Icelanders will stare at it and look at it but it’s not because they want to destroy it and kill it. I think it’s really nice that in Iceland I sort of forget about being gay," says John, when asked about adsfadfadsfadsfasf.
John says there’s still a lot of homophobia in the big cities, like London and New York, even though they have a huge gay population. “Here people seem to sort of leave it alone, it’s more of a curiosity than a homophobia, Icelanders will stare at it and look at it but it’s not because they want to destroy it and kill it. I think it’s really nice that in Iceland I sort of forget about being gay.”

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.”

Challenging to live in Iceland

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.

Have you started writing in Icelandic? “I will write stuff in Icelandic as soon as there’s a context for it, soon as it makes sense, but not to do it just to do it, no. I’m also a perfectionist so I need to do it before I think I’m ready.”
“I will write stuff in Icelandic as soon as there’s a context for it, soon as it makes sense, but not to do it just to do it, no,” says John, when the matter is brought up. “I’m also a perfectionist so I need to do it before I think I’m ready.”

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.”

"I can imagine living in lots of different places. But for now it’s here."
“I can imagine living in lots of different places. But for now it’s here.”

All photos by Dagur Gunnarsson.

The Hamburger Factory
- gourmet burgers

Ok. You’re in Iceland. Most likely for the first time.

You will probably bathe in the Blue Lagoon and take a road trip to Gullfoss and
Geysir. That’s all well and good. But neither Geysir’s nor waterfalls are
something you eat. That’s why we have 15 brilliant and creative hamburgers at
The Hamburger Factory. And they are all perfectly square. Don’t miss out on
Iceland’s most beloved hamburgers.

The Hamburger Factory is Iceland’s most innovative gourmet burger chain.
Packed with burger-craving customers since it’s opening in 2010, among the
regulars is Iceland’s best known fisherman, Eric Clapton. In our restaurants we
welcome tourists with our newspaper like menu and smiley service. They are
packed with fun items and memorable connections to Icelandic pop culture.

Locations:

Omnom Chocolate
- award-winning chocolate maker

    Omnom Chocolate is an Icelandic craft chocolate company based in Reykjavík. We produce handcrafted chocolate from organic cacao beans sourced ethically and sustainably. We’ve developed direct relationships to create premium chocolate with fine flavor cacao beans.

    Our creative flavors are carefully crafted by meticulous chocolate makers. The cacao beans are roasted, winnowed, ground, and refined into melty-smooth chocolate.

    Omnom’s process is one of constant exploration, invention, and experimentation. If it doesn’t please us, if something isn’t absolutely delicious, there’s no reason to be doing it. So, we always start with our taste buds and follow our instincts. Our team searches for the finest ingredients in the world and new ways to improve chocolate. This obsession with knowing where our ingredients come from has led us around the corner to dairy farms in the Icelandic countryside and all the way to rainforest cacao farms of Nicaragua.

    In only a few short years, we’ve grown from our 50 sq. m. petrol station space and become an award-winning chocolate maker. Now, with our headquarters in 101 Reykjavík, our chocolate is sent out around Iceland and all over the world.

    At the end of the day, our goal is to make chocolate.

     

    Alfred’s Apartments
    - gay owned an operated

      Alfred’s Apartments and Alfred’s Studios is a gay operated and owned accommodation in the heart of Reykjavik.

      Alfred’s Apartments offers spacious apartments at a good price located just around the corner from Laugavegur shopping street. You can choose the apartment starting from a Small Studio for 2 persons to a large One-bedroom Apartment with balcony for 5 persons.

      Their staff will ensure your comfort during the stay and provide the most updated information about the city, gay and night life in Reykjavik.

      Each apartment has a private bathroom with a shower, fully equipped kitchen and free Wi-Fi. Guests can buy groceries at the local grocery store 50 meters from the apartments. Because of their very central location, numerous shops, restaurants and cafés are available in the surrounding area. The Church of Hallgrimur is located 350 m from the apartments, a tourist agency is just 50 m away and the nearest gay bar is less than 5 minutes walking distance.

      Laekur hostel
      In the hostel we have dorms for 4-8 persons with shared kitchen and bathroom facilities. The rooms are furnished with free internet, lockers, and a USB charger by each bed. The beds have linen provided and you can rent a towel in the cafe on the ground floor for 5 EUR.

      All the dorms are mixed with both genders. You can also book a whole room with 4-8 bunker beds.

      Blue Lagoon
      - a world of wonder

      Named by National Geographic as one of the 25 Wonders of the World, the Blue Lagoon is a shimmering expanse of warmth, relaxation, and rejuvenation. Its unique geothermal seawater comes from 2000 meters within the earth where sea and fresh water converge in a tectonic frontier of porous lava and searing heat. Propelled by extreme pressure, the water ascends to the earth’s surface, emerging enriched with silica, algae, and minerals: the elements that endow Blue Lagoon geothermal seawater with its radiant, healing properties.

      From its humble beginnings in the shadows of a geothermal power plant, Blue Lagoon has evolved into a world of wonder, now encompassing a hotel, a restaurant, a luxury lounge, a renowned line of skin care, a research center, in-water massage, and a wealth of spa and refreshment facilities.

      Achieving harmony with the volcanic landscape of Iceland’s Reykjanes lava plain, the lagoon and its surrounding architecture embody the unification of the man-made and the natural, and adhere to the highest principles of sustainability.

      Blue Lagoon. A wonder of the world. A world of wonder.

      Whales of Iceland
      - larger than life

      Whales of Iceland is the largest whale exhibition in Europe (and perhaps even the world), where guests can learn about the giants of the sea in a calm and modern environment. The permanent exhibition features whales like guests have never seen them before. It is truly a giant experience.

      Landsbankinn
      - leading financial institution

      Landsbankinn is a leading Icelandic financial institution. It offers a full range of financial services and is the market leader in the Icelandic financial service sector with the largest branch network.

      The present bank was established on 7 October 2008 but the history of its predecessor dates back to 1886. The bank is owned by the National Treasury of Iceland, which holds 98.2% of its share capital, and other shareholders who own 1.8%.

      Landsbankinn’s strategy is to provide comprehensive financial services that meet customer’s needs. It emphasizes providing exemplary service to customers, developing e-banking for their convenience, increasing the efficiency of support functions, modernizing its technology and ensuring effective utilization of its balance sheet.

      The bank’s vision is to be exemplary and its role is to be a trusted financial partner.

      Special emphasis is placed on promoting a performance-oriented culture in the bank. To follow up on the implementation of this strategy, the bank has defined key goals which are measured regularly to determine progress. These goals include, for example, customer satisfaction and loyalty, profitability, cost efficiency and the correlation between risk appetite and employee satisfaction.

      Landsbankinn wishes to lead the development of a sustainable society in Iceland by integrating economic, social and environmental concerns in its operations. The Bank aims to ensure that both its owners and society at large benefit from its activities.

      It intends to achieve this aim by building solid infrastructure and a strong team of 1.100 employees, by listening to its customers and by respecting and encouraging its employees to actively participate in their community. Landsbankinn was a founding member of Festa, a Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility, and is a member of the UN Global Compact.

      Landsbankinn has been a proud sponsor of the Reykjavik Pride since it was first celebrated in Iceland.

      Dohop
      - get inspired

      Dohop allows people to find the cheapest flights available with just one click. Founded in Reykjavik in 2004, it is the only Icelandic company of its kind and quickly became the go-to tool for finding cheap flights among the locals. Dohop finds the best deals among hundreds of different airlines and online travel agencies, to make sure that the user is getting the cheapest price. Dohop also offers hotel and car rental search engines, so users can make all of their travel bookings from a single website.

      Dohop‘s specialty is finding so-called “self-connect” flight options, which can save travelers money by booking a ticket through two or more different airlines. The ability to look for these self-connect option is what sets Dohop apart from its competition, as it can save people hundreds of dollars on certain routes.

      More recently, Dohop has developed a unique product called Dohop Go!, which allows users to check for the cheapest available flights from their home airport. This tool is perfect for those who are looking for travel inspiration but are not willing to overpay for their flight ticket. Dohop Go! is now available in the Dohop Flights App, both for Android and iOS, along with its traditional flight, hotel, and car search engines. “

      Macland
      - for all your Apple needs

      From starting out as a proper startup with only a good idea and the need to change things, to becoming an established company with 6 employees. Starting from scratch and expanding organically has allowed us to love our expansion and take our customers on the ride with us.

      Macland is located at Laugavegur 23 (101, Downtown Reykjavik)
      For all your Apple needs. We are here.

      Aurora Reykjavik
      - northern lights center

        Aurora Reykjavik is a Northern Lights Center situated in downtown Reykjavík at the Old Harbor next to Icelandair Hotel Marina and Vikin Maritime Museum.

        Aurora Reykjavík is Iceland’s first educational and recreational Northern Lights Center where multimedia is used to explain when, why and how the Northern Lights work, with the highlights being large HD projection of the Aurora’s. We also share myths and legends about what our ancestor thought about those mystical lights.

        The Northern Lights Center is for all ages. Children are our favorite guests and we created the exhibition in a way that children can have a look freely and parents don’t have to worry about things being broken.

        Aurora Reykjavik offers a great selection of souvenirs that are designed and made by Icelanders along with nice little coffee corner, where you can enjoy free coffee and tea while browsing through the souvenirs or just planning your next step.

        Contact Aurora

          Your Name (required)

          Your Email (required)

          Subject

          Your Message

          Ísey skyr
          - once tasted never forgotten

          Our Story
          Once upon a time, 1,100 years ago in fact, Nordic settlers began arriving in Iceland. They brought with them the skills and knowledge for producing skyr. As time passed, the know-how and recipe for this nutritious food slowly faded out elsewhere in the Nordic region. Luckily, the Icelandic skyr-making tradition continued.

          For centuries, Icelandic skyr formed a cornerstone of the national diet, helping to keep people strong in living conditions that were often harsh. On family farms countrywide, it was the women who nurtured this dairy and passing on both the recipe and the original Icelandic skyr cultures from mother to daughter.

          Ísey skyr builds on this remarkable legacy. It was some of those very same women, the recipients of their mothers’ expertise, who, around 90 years ago, taught Icelandic dairy scientists the art of skyr-making. The production process is more high-tech these days, and the quality standards more rigorous. However, the basic recipe and the use of original cultures to ferment the skimmed milk remain the same. Protein rich, fat-free, creamy and delicious – Ísey skyr is as relevant to consumers now as it was all those centuries ago.
          This is our secret and you are in on it

          You can read more about Ísey skyr on our website.

          Núðluskálin
          - noodle bar

          Núðluskálin is a small gay owned and operated fusion noodle bar.

          All of our courses are individually made from fresh ingredients and therefore highly customisable.
          We offer fully Vegan versions of all courses.
          Though originally a take-away we now seat over 30 people.

          Núðluskálin is located right in the heart of Reykjavík on Skólavörðustígur 8 (street leading up to the big Church) near the junction with Laugavegur (main street).

          Seatours
          - adventure cruise

          Ferry Baldur – the gate to the West fjords
          and VikingSushi Adventure – Bird & Nature watching Tour for everyone all year around

          The “VikingSushi Adventure” is the right boat tour for travelers who are adventurous and want to experience something new – close up to the nature seafood simply doesn’t come fresher than this! The archipelago area of the Breidafjordur Bay always surprises her visitors during winter or summer with spectacular sights. Where else you get to try delicious fresh scallops and sea urchin roe straight from the ocean served with soy sauce, wasabi and ginger.

          600x400-seatours-tasting

          This old volcanic area, characterized by the typical basalt formations of the islands, is the home of countless birds. Here you will also find the strongest currents in Iceland. The VikingSushi Tour takes roughly two hours and our captain is also the tour guide.

          600x400-seatours

          The VikingSushi Tour is a true adventure through incredible nature which should not be missed by any traveler to West Iceland.

          Birds, possible to spot:
          -puffins (from the middle of April until the middle of August)
          -eider ducks
          -shags
          -kittiwakes
          -fulmars
          -white-tailed eagle

          The car ferry Baldur is the bridge to the West fjords via the island Flatey
          Ferry Baldur crosses Breidafjordur Bay daily from Stykkisholmur on the Snæfellsnes peninsula to Brjanslaekur in the north. A ferry ride considerably shortens the route between the south and mid-west of the country and the West Fjords region. It also gives you the opportunity to experience a floating restaurant.

          Take a stopover at the charming island Flatey when you are crossing the bay or go to a day tour to Flatey and back to Stykkishólmur. At Flatey are no cars allowed and between the houses of the 18th century you get the feeling of a journey back in time.

          Contact Us


          PGlmcmFtZSBzcmM9Imh0dHBzOi8vd3d3Lmdvb2dsZS5jb20vbWFwcy9lbWJlZD9wYj0hMW0xNCExbTEyITFtMyExZDI3ODQyLjM0NzA2NDA3OTU4ITJkLTIxLjkwMDg1MDg1NzkxODQyITNkNjQuMTQxNzA3ODE2NzAyMDEhMm0zITFmMCEyZjAhM2YwITNtMiExaTEwMjQhMmk3NjghNGYxMy4xITVlMCEzbTIhMXNlbiEycyE0djE0MzMzMzc5MTUyMjYiIHdpZHRoPSIxMDAlIiBoZWlnaHQ9IjEwMCUiIGZyYW1lYm9yZGVyPSIwIiBzdHlsZT0iYm9yZGVyOjAiPjwvaWZyYW1lPg==
          Thank You. We will contact you as soon as possible.