Keeping a finger on the pulse

Taking stock of old-time rock

in BLOG by

Words by Andreas Schiffmann

Strictly speaking, bass player Alexander Örn is not a founding member of The Vintage Caravan. He came into the picture in 2012, after frontman Óskar Logi Ágústsson and drummer Guðjón Reynisson had already released their self-titled debut on their own, before domestic label Sena took them under its wing. But he knows very well what happened before he came into the fold and experienced the trio’s quick rise to international renown, with his role in the group’s success being just as significant as those of his two companions. Since a good decade has passed, now is probably a good moment to lean back and assess what has happened so far and predict what the future might have in store for the Álftanes-based classic rockers.

Regarding the suggestion that on the tenth anniversary of the conception of The Vintage Caravan’s rare first effort, it might be time for a re-issue, the twenty-something speaks of ‘a common misconception’:

‘A lot of it was recorded in 2009, yes, but the album was not actually released until 2011. It’s funny how much has changed in the years that have passed since then – everyone kind of growing up a bit and countless shows. It’s been a cool ride! We did indeed discuss re-releasing The Vintage Caravan, but time will tell if we actually do. It would be cool, yet it is something that just has to happen at the right moment.’

Live at Hard Rock Cafe Reykjavík (07.12.2018, photo by Ricardo Araujo)

Talking about ‘growing up a bit’, the members are still very young, but they are graced with supportive parents. Reconciling career and education turned out to be the greatest difficulty when they were picked up by the German label Nuclear Blast Records, one of the big global players in all things metal and beyond, and things got serious for them.

‘It was very hard to balance with Menntaskóli [high school] considering how many gigs we were doing. When we started touring full time, I had freshly graduated from Verzlunarskóli Íslands [a commercial college in Reykjavík]. As we speak, no member of The Vintage Caravan holds a university degree. I cannot imagine balancing that with being on the road. It would be tough to maybe study for one whole semester and then miss the tests because of an obligation to go on tour for a month.’

After a decade of steady gigging, the line-up is stable, and even Stefán Ari, who has been manning the battery since 2015, could hardly be replaced, if we believe Alex: ‘So far, we only have made one album in this constellation, and to be honest, I don’t really want to think about anyone leaving. That process has been hard enough to live through in the past.’

Within the larger frame of the ongoing vintage boom, one of the most interesting factors is the relative youth of its purveyors, which is in contrast to the rather ‘archaic’ chosen subject matter. ‘Influence while growing up has a lot to do with it,’ explains the bassist.

‘You often kind of go for what is familiar to you. Still, we are all big music nerds and constantly seeking stuff, both old and new. We actually do listen to a lot of contemporary rock, pop, hip hop and even R&B. What we like would probably surprise most people.’

One common passion of all members are Icelandic prog veterans Trúbrot. The Vintage Caravan’s own composition ‘Farewell’ is an obvious homage to them:

‘They have been quite influential on our music, especially since we did a whole rendition of their album Lifun with original keyboard player Magnús Kjartansson at Eistnaflug 2015. That was an amazing moment for all of us, so a lot of that inevitably found its way into our own material.’

Ironically, the combo’s influences from the psychedelic and early post-hippie eras make for a ‘sunnier’ sound than one would commonly attribute to music from a predominantly cold and dark geographic region.

‘It is all a matter of perspective. As compared to a lot of stuff from the scene, our songs seem quite gloomy and introverted to my ears. Interpretation depends on what mood you are in while listening. Bands from here are, in contrast to the stoner or retro variety, like Graveyard, Kadavar or Greenleaf, apparently a little bit more introspective and gloomy… maybe a bit heavier as well. Without sounding totally Icelandic, one can beyond any doubt hear a touch of where we come from.’

And as if to underline this statement – or in accordance with the widespread clichés of his countrymen being an eccentric, inscrutable bunch – Alex jokingly remarks that he would have to kill anybody who would make him explain the meaning behind ‘M.A.R.S.W.A.T.T.’, one of the more enigmatic titles in the musicians’ repertoire.

While looking back, stylistically speaking, this four-stringer stands on firm contemporary ground in terms of sound carrier formats and the overall state of the music world.

‘Of course, there is a certain charm to physical copies, and all of us own a lot of records. In a perfect world, that would still be the preferred medium, but we grew up during the rise of digital music marketing and got into the business after its actual ‘fall’. It might have been harder for a band that was founded about seven or six years earlier because it could have seen some of the big money that was still thrown around at that time. Not to say that now there is nothing to gain anymore; it’s just different sources of income that keep you afloat, and I guess also less people get rich from it.’

Alexander Örn Númason (photo by Arne Cardinals)

There is nothing to be fear either:

‘We never got to know the record industry at its peak. Such as it is now, it looks quite normal to us, and we have grown accustomed to the way things are. Besides, everything changes constantly with technology, so you are never safe. There will always be new ways to explore marketing, touring and so on. Thankfully, we are all still very motivated to play, and it has been steadily getting better over the years, drawing bigger crowds and such.’

Almost as a side effect, getting out of your familiar environment and visiting different countries can be instructive. Alexander Örn agrees:

‘In terms of culture, we have grown particularly used to, or gotten quite familiar with, the German-speaking world. Also, going to South America was a crazy experience – very different from touring in Europe. We still have to return there a few more times to properly grasp it. I think next on our agenda, as far as other continents are concerned, will be Australia. We are making some plans right now. Let’s see what will come out of them.’

After opening for Swedish stadium rock icons Europe and appearing at the 2014 and 2016 editions of the prestigious festival Roadburn in Tilburg, Netherlands, the three musicians are doubtlessly hungry to make more fond memories. ‘That was a very, very different crowd’, Alex remembers:

‘Roadburn is definitely special and one of our favourite festivals for sure – always amazing. Concerning Europe, the biggest difference was that opening for such a big band was more of a challenge because every day, we would have to win over a crowd that had not come to see us. Fortunately, that’s one of our strong suits. On the other hand, at a festival like Roadburn, people have to choose, so most of the time, those who decide to attend your show instead of another band’s, they already know your music and what to expect, which makes it a far easier audience to deal with. In the end, it’s all the same, though. Playing live is what we love to do, and crowds are unique – different every time – so we just do our best.’

The band’s steady development in the lyric department is also undeniable, although some topics are categorically excluded.

‘We might have become more mature from album to album. All of them are quite different, and three years passed between each one since 2012. In your late teens and early twenties, a lot can happen during such a period. Being the sole lyricists, Óskar and me both very much agree that political subjects don’t really have a place in our music. That is not to say they do not matter to us; it just seems inappropriate for The Vintage Caravan.’

The Vintage Caravan at Freak Valley Festival 2019

This also goes for unusual ideas, which may or may not be discarded:

‘We have done that in the past. Lately though, we’ve been trying out different sounds and styles. It has more to do with the energy of things than anything else. It has become a bit more dynamic as far as playing is concerned, and that’s opened some doors for us, doing both some softer and more intricate stuff.’

Having said this, the members would never restrict themselves as instrumentalists:

‘In my experience, a lot of people tend to slightly deteriorate playing-wise when they get into touring mode full-time. One tends to become a bit lazy – practice and play less when at home. I, for my part, try to constantly find inspiration in different projects and styles when we are not travelling. I pick up an instrument even when I don’t really feel like it because I know when I start playing, I will keep on, and it does me good both physically and mentally.’

Likewise, the genre of choice should not be an impediment either:

‘We see many bands consciously limiting themselves. You need the right frame of mind. We actually don’t want to rewrite any specific type of music, and try to keep things quite fresh. If we were called ‘The Modern Caravan’, people would probably look at us in a much different way. Thinking about it, we may be rooted in old-school rock as a group of three, but a lot of the stuff we do nowadays is quite far from all that stereotypical retro fare. I encourage people to listen to it with an open mind, although in the end, it is up to each person how to interpret what we do and find meaning in it.’

So, rigid song-writing formulas don’t apply to the composers, who would not be able to calculate the outcome of what they create anyway, be it compact tracks or epics, such as ‘Voyage’, a classical long track with prog tendencies.

‘We write everything the same way. It comes together easily on its own, to a certain degree, and then takes on a whole new life when all members contribute their respective ideas. Some elements get added, others are taken away, and then the whole thing will be honed for some time. Eventually it feels just right.’

To maintain such an intuitive approach and stay level-headed in the long run, The Vintage Caravan have learned their lessons in reason and responsibility:

‘We have toned down the drinking a bit and try to exercise more. Some of us now practise yoga almost every day. Our earlier tours were a bit more raunchy, as there was way more partying going on. This mostly depends on the bands you travel with. Being accompanied by heavier drinking colleagues tends to make you drink more, too. One has to know the limits, especially as a singer.’

After a string of releases with evocative, seemingly connected titles, it is fair to ponder which Gateways have opened since the boys’ Arrival from their initial release. In which way, if at all, will the next full-length be some kind of Departure? ‘It was actually not my intention to keep this theme going’, Alex stresses.

‘The choice of Gateways was motivated by considerations totally different from trying to keep some theme going. So, next time around, we’ll probably shake it up. Then again, I like things to be consistent, for example, bands that use one word each time they name an album. This conveys a certain direction.

Besides that, or even the possibility of disbanding to find an average job in ‘something meaningless I don’t care about and then go on to live an unfulfilling life,’ it looks as if tomorrow could lead The Vintage Caravan anywhere. ‘I think we are so focused on moving forward that we don’t have time to think about that.’

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