Vök drummer Einer Stef on the ‘Icelandic sound,’ Björk covers, and their first LP

“Really great bands have the ability to do everything they want onstage.”

When one thinks of Iceland, one tends to think of things like the midnight sun and an endlessly beautiful land where fire and ice co-exist. (And no, George RR Martin was not born there — please stay on topic.)

Iceland is also home to one helluva cool music scene, a place where electronic sounds and dreamy pop vocals co-exist in ear-pleasing harmony. And while Björk is undisputedly the island country’s queen of the alt-rock scene, one young Icelandic band has been steadily making its way up the ladder: Namely, the electro-driven foursome known as Vök. Pronounced “Verk,” the moniker translates to English as “hole in the ice” — about as fitting as it gets.

“Vök has broadened their sonic palette thanks to a little push-pull input from producer Brett Cox”

On Figure, the band’s first full-length album following a string of heady, impactful EPs (out now in multiple formats via Nettwerk), Vök has broadened their sonic palette thanks to a little creative-tension push-pull input from producer Brett Cox (Alt-J, Frightened Rabbit). Songs like the breezily crushing Breaking Bones, the stereo-channel-challenging BTO, and the ethereally satisfying Floating all serve that collaborative maxim to the hilt.

But these supremely seductive soundscapes didn’t come easy. “You have to make sacrifices, whether it’s you, the producer, or your bandmates,” Vök drummer Einar Stef revealed to Digital Trends. “We’re all making sacrifices with our tastes and preferences to get something everybody is happy with. And Brett’s goal was to expand our reach to take things out of that sterilized, digital sound.”

Digital Trends called across the not-so-frozen Pond to Iceland, where Stef (full name: Einar Hrafn Stefánsson) freely discussed the fruits of Vök’s collaborative process, why Icelandic bands thrive in the country’s native support system, and which songs would comprise the double-sided single Vök would love to cut with Iceland’s aforementioned and most infamous musical export, Björk.

Digital Trends: After a few, pardon the expression, cool EPs, it’s really nice to hear how you guys can stretch out on a full album like Figure.

Einar Stef: We felt overdue for a full-length album at this point. It’s a good feeling to not only just release a full album, but to be able to do live shows with an album’s length of music out, if that makes any sense.

And the full-length didn’t feature anything from any EP, so it was all unreleased material. It was good to do a homemade piece of work that was made with the same vibe

Your sound has evolved somewhat from the Tension EP to Figure, something I think it’s fair to say producer Brett Cox has helped with. How did you get involved with him?

We approached our manager Gis [von Ice], who lives in London, and we told him we had decided amongst ourselves that the best thing was to have somebody involved who was both an engineer and a producer, so we went on a hunt to find an engineer/producer type.

He came back to us after a couple of weeks. He didn’t mention any names, but he had sent some of our rough demos to a few guys, as a test. They would send back two or three songs so we could hear what kind of vibe they’d put into it, and we ended up going with Brett Cox — kind of blindly. It was purely judging on the work he did, basically.

Or the verk, in this case, you might even say — the work he did on Vök, I mean. (Stef chuckles) You guys had an idea of the sonic template you wanted for the album, and he helped put it together for you.

Yeah. I mean, it was very much a mutual work, in the sense of him acting as a bit of a buffer. He would bring some ideas and we would be like, “No, no; that’s not who we are.” When you’re working with different people who have different opinions and different tastes, you have to meet somewhere where the pieces fit.

As the person in charge of all the percussion, you especially want every detail to come across in the final mixes.  

“Our digital samples are played by a human being, not a computer program.”

Definitely. What we did for most of the tracks was to record everything, including the electronic samples, not on a grid. I would just record them live. You have the digital electronic samples, but they are played by a human being instead of being a computer program.

During the song Don’t Let Me Go, I think I heard Margrét [Rán, Vök’s vocalist/keyboardist] say “Shut up!” about a minute and half into it. What was that for? Was it something she improvised?

Ah, that’s just bloopers! (both laugh). Just bloopers we decided to keep in. The vocal sessions were mainly just Brett and Margrét together. And Brett would be pushing Margrét and slightly annoying her, but in a good way.

Moments like that just lend a more “real” feel to the recording and, like you said, how human beings are making this record rather than just someone punching buttons. So are you guys fans of vinyl? Is there a vinyl version of Figure besides the CD and download?

Yeah, there is, and I’m quite happy with that print. It’s a little more dynamic than the digital version. It really works on vinyl.

What Figure track is the one that sounds best to you on vinyl?

I think BTO sounds really good on vinyl. I made a bunch of layers for that track. One of the snares in the second verse comes across like a “clap” kind of thing, and I think that was because Brett recorded one of us flipping the switch on and off for one of the compressors we were using. He captured that sound, and then just layered it on top of the snare to get that interesting kind of clap.

What other percussion elements on the record stand out to your ear?

It’s been a fair while since we released the first single, Show Me, but at the time we did, I actually had a really difficult time with its sound. I don’t know, I had to get used to it. We had been performing it live for a little over a year, and I had grown accustomed to hearing it in a certain way. I really enjoyed that version, but Brett went all out in his production of it, and gave it everything that he had.

It took me a while to appreciate that version of the song, especially when it comes to the percussion. The percussion builds up in a really nice way in that track — especially when it comes to the last chorus. It has almost like a jungle feel.

I can see that, totally. Portishead seems to be an obvious influence on you guys, but I also feel there’s a little bit of Beatles in your songwriting. What other artists have influenced you?

Massive Attack, and Little Dragon, from Sweden. Who else? (pauses) Glass Animals from the UK; we used them a lot as a reference. Air has also been a group favorite.

If you had to describe “the Icelandic sound,” how would you define it?

Oooh, that’s a tough question! (chuckles) There are so many sides to the Icelandic sound, because everybody’s doing their thing, somewhat. I was actually raised abroad in Switzerland and Belgium, and I started playing concerts as a teenager in Belgium, so what I’ve noticed over the past 5 years on the Icelandic music scene is that the people are not in any competition. I saw this in Belgium a lot, where there was quite a bit of aggression between bands.

That sounds like a classic downtown kind of scene where bands size each other up, and maybe even try to show each other up. It sounds to me like you’re saying the Icelandic scene is much more supportive in nature.

It is a lot like that. it’s almost like a big family kind of thing. Everybody’s willing to help each other out. Bands are often lending musicians to each other. You might have a drummer playing in six bands, so there’s no point in having any kind of rivalry. Everybody seems to get along, for the most part.

Do you perform differently knowing people have your back like that, instead of trying to tear you down?

You might have a drummer playing in six bands, so there’s no point in rivalry.

Yeah. When it comes to any sort of artform, when somebody’s making something of their own, I don’t see the point of having some bad beef with other musicians. That always seemed absurd, to me.

There are few artists in Iceland who live off their art, which maybe gives it that other dimension. You have people who aren’t so dependent on selling their music, or making some sort of profit; it feels more like something people really enjoy doing. I’m not saying people don’t actually make money off their music … (chuckles)

If Vök were to cover Björk, what songs would you do from her catalog?

Ohhhh, let me think. All Is Full of Love [from 1997’s Homogenic] has always been one of my favorites, yeah.

That’s a great choice! It would also be interesting to go back to her Sugarcubes days and see you guys put a spin on a song like Birthday [from 1988’s Life’s Too Good].

Oh, that could be a cool one to do. Also, Human Behavior [from 1993’s Debut] and Army of Me [from 1995’s Post].

Oh yeah — the percussion alone on Army of Me would be a field day for you to tackle. Now let’s flip that around — if Björk were to cover a song from the Vök catalog, what song would you like to see her do?

Oooh, interesting! I think I’d like to see her do Floating [from Figure]. I think that could work.

Let’s get that in front of her people! This sounds like it could be one of those two-sided singles with different artists covering the other one on each side. In this case, Björk does Floating on one side, and you guys do Army of Me on the other. What do you say?

Yeah, exactly, let’s do that! Let them know! (both chuckle)

You can listen to Vök’s new album Figure on Spotify and Apple Music.