In March of this year, Split Works and Sonicbids brought Icelandic artist Olafur Arnalds to China for an 8 city tour as part of the annual JUE art and music festival. Over 3,000 tickets were sold. In Drowned in Sound today, Olafur talks about many things; he pays particular attention to the tour in China.
Check it out:
DiS meets Ólafur Arnalds
By Luke Slater
Listening to Icelandic neo-classical composer Ólafur Arnalds’s current album …and they have escaped the weight of darkness…, it’s hard to imagine that this is a man whose previous predominant musical experiences were centred around drumming in a hardcore band named Fighting Shit – a band he claims were “heavier than Metallica”.
DiS: You’ve said that you want to bridge the gap between different genres, do you find this gives you more freedom as a musician?
ÓA: No, I don’t feel more freedom, but the freedom is on the side of the listener, if there are no lyrics it’s easier for me to reach different cultures and different countries. For example, I recently toured Asia and the people over there said that I was someone who they really wanted to come – I was someone who could easily reach them, because I don’t have lyrics, so there’s no need for it. Obviously in China there’s the problem that if a band is singing in English then most people ignore it because people don’t speak English. But for me it’s totally open to any genre, really and any kind of culture, so there is the freedom there in that aspect.
DiS: How was playing in Asia and specifically China? How did it come about?
ÓA: Actually I was supposed to go over there in 2008 – I had booked a few shows and festivals, and one of the festivals had paid for all of our flights – because that’s the hardest part, being able to afford going over there. Then Björk came and said “free Tibet” at a concert, and after that all outdoor festivals were banned for a couple of years, so my festival was cancelled and we didn’t have any flights so we couldn’t go over there. It was quite disappointing, but at the time I stood up for Björk, thinking it was kind of cool that she did it. I totally randomly applied – there’s this American company that runs this program connecting the Western world with the Eastern world and people can apply and they’ll choose one of the bands and give them a tour of Asia. They’ll book it, organise the flights and take care of all expenses. There were 800 applicants and they chose me! I’d even forgot about it when they called me up. It was great just to be able to get the opportunity to go over there without having to worry about the finances, to go and get a fanbase. They even paid for a PR campaign so I was in all the press. It went really well over there and I eventually worked with the people who organised the Björk concert who told me the real side of it. No-one heard what she said, it had no effect at all, it was just because of a YouTube video and someone said “is she saying Free Tibet?”. Obviously they got really nervous and said “I think she’s saying ‘Too bad’” or something. They almost convinced them. And then Björk wrote on her website saying “No, I’m saying free Tibet!”, and they all got arrested, the company who put on the concert got a huge fine, about 20 people lost their jobs and they couldn’t put on a show for two years.
DiS: How did you find the reaction to it?
ÓA: Basically, even the people who agreed with her thought it was very rude. It’s just a different culture and like I said, at first I stood up for her, and after speaking to all these people – by the way the promoters were Americans living in China, so they were not a part of Chinese culture in that way, but they understand it. After spending some time there you begin to understand it, but doing what she did doesn’t help anyone, it doesn’t help Tibet. It may have helped in the way that it got a lot of international press and it raised awareness about Tibet on that level, but in China, doing stuff like that has no effect, the only thing it does is put people in a lot of trouble. Seriously, it ruined people’s lives. People lost their jobs and got such huge fines that they were in debt for many years to come.
ÓA: I’m totally against the censorship thing, but if you want to start a revolution you have to start it from within – the revolution comes from the culture. It’s always like that – the culture comes first and then things change. China was already starting to open up to help foreign culture into the country and with that it was already chaning, because the foreign culture affects the way people think within the country. What this did was to take that evolution that had been happening for a few years back to point zero because they closed the country completely again for foreign culture. So everything went backwards. I don’t want to shit-talk Björk, she’s great and one of my favourite musicians, but this wasn’t very well thought out. Before you do stuff like that you need to try to understand the country’s culture that you’re in and whether this is the right thing to do or whether you’ll make things worse by doing it.
DiS: How many shows did you play over there?
ÓA: We played six cities in China, Shanghai, Beijing, Qindao, Wuhan, Tianjin and a couple of others. I played both the major cities and what they call small towns, which I call huge fucking cities! Those are the funniest, they are cities of 7 million people where nothing happens. Like you’d speak about Slough or something, where nothing happens but it’s true. If they have a concert there, it’s like “woah!”. Nobody knows what to do with themselves…
DiS: So where the reactions very different there than to places like Beijing?
ÓA: Yeah. People in those towns had never seen anything like this before – and also just the way things work and the way we had to work our way around things. Technically, when it comes to sound, they’re not very advanced. In one place it was so bad that I went to the promoter to ask if there was another sound company that could come and work the show, because the people who were there didn’t know what they were doing! His reply was “I’m sorry, but this is the only sound guy in this town, it’s just a small town!”. And this was a city of 7 million people…
DiS: How did you overcome that? Was it easy to solve?
ÓA: No! I actually know my way around a sound desk so I did it myself. I did my own soundcheck! I had to do it on a couple of shows over there. On every single show I had to at least do something, but this was the worst. I try to avoid this – I also just feel really rude. I don’t want to be the person to tell them they’re bad at their job, I don’t like doing it.
DiS: It must’ve been fantastic all in all, though?
ÓA: Yeah, I think Taiwan was probably the best place we played. It was amazing, that show. They are much more open than normal…well, Western, people.