Keeping a finger on the pulse

(We) Made (God) in China

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Iceland’s post-metal and post-rock veterans, We Made God, celebrated 15 years in the business last year. The band’s main man and songwriter, Magnús Bjarni Gröndal, and the band’s fresh blood, guitarist Rúnar Sveinsson, discuss their long history in the local music market and their tour in China in December 2018.

I can’t deny that albums released on my birthday are kind of special to me. And Beyond the Pale by We Made God, the band’s third full-length recording that was released in May 2018, is no exception. Although they might not seem to have been very active on the local scene lately, their position in the Icelandic music scene has remained steady. We Made God are notable for infusing picturesque and spacious sonic landscapes with post-hardcore elements, soaring guitars and emotive vocals, as their China tour in December 2018 underlined. If you enjoy the melodic sensibilities of Deftones and the atmospheric weight of Sigur Rós, you can get lost in the music of We Made God.

The start is (not) a finish line

The band kicked off its career in 2004 as a trio: Stúni (Steingrímur Sigurðarson) on bass, Arnór Ármann Jónasson on guitars and Biggi (Birkir Freyr Helgason) on drums. ‘They posted an ad on an old website called rokk.is – ‘Hey, we’re looking for a singer’ – describes Magnús Bjarni over a glass of beer at one of Reykjavík’s downtown bars. ‘I said “yes” and decided to come for a practice. We’ve been a band ever since. We were kids and we just wanted to play! The same as today.’

The force has been strong with We Made God since the beginning. Their performance at the annual Músíktilraunir young talent competition in 2006 unleashed the band’s potential as they reached second place. This helped them record their material and step on the stage of the world’s largest showcase of Icelandic music, Iceland Airwaves.

‘It’s weird. It feels like a part of me’, We Made God’s frontman explains when asked how it has been to be in the band for so long. ‘I don’t even think that it’s been 15 years. That’s something that has already happened. It’s that much a part of me that it feels like an extra hand. Honestly, I still think I’m 18 and we’ve only been in this band for two years.’

Since they formed the band as adolescents, We Made God’s members have become rather like a family. It has been the force that has helped them grow. Although there have been other projects in the making in the past or present, they still feel the need to rock out together as We Made God. Magnús admits that even recruiting the newest soul to the band, Rúnar, was like making an addition to the ‘family’.

We Made God faced the hour of change as Arnór Ármann stepped down as guitarist to pursue other projects in 2018. Plied for hire due to the China tour, Rúnar didn’t have to think twice. The band’s former line-up performed for the last time at the Secret Solstice 2018 in Reykjavík, and the next show short after in September illuminated the band’s path. ‘I was recording for their newest album [Beyond the Pale] when Arnór decided to leave the band’, says Rúnar. ‘We know each other, and I knew the album very well, since I had recorded it, so it seemed logical for me’.

‘We called him – “We have a China tour coming up; wanna join the band?”’ laughs Magnús. ‘How could you say “no” to that?! He just couldn’t.’

It’s getting colder

Before We Made God knew it, they were heading on a tour packed with 13 shows in only 13 days. With no expectations, but prepared for the worst and open to new experiences, the band explored China in its length and breadth. Starting from Zhengzhou in the central part of the country on 4 December, they managed to perform in the north, close to the southern border, in the east as well as the west. The tour closed on 16 December 2018 in Shenyang.

‘When we were in the north, people laughed at us because it was almost −30 degrees and we were so cold. People were looking at us [adopts a voice of full-on disbelief]: “Aren’t you from Iceland?” Yeah, but IT’S NOT THE SAME’, Magnús notes with laughter and adds quietly, ‘This goes into your soul and screws you up’. Regarding the temperatures, they tasted a wide range, from almost −30 to +20, in a few days. What a ride, isn’t it?

These hours, minutes and seconds in China

There are some similarities between Chinese and Icelandic concert-goers that We Made God spotted. ‘The audience was cool. They are kind of like Icelandic people, who tend to stand during the concert and just watch. No expression. They don’t give you any feedback when you’re playing’ admits Magnús, and Rúnar immediately declares, ‘But after the shows, they were very enthusiastic’, which came as a surprise to the band. As soon as the show is over, the bar in the venue closes, so there’s only time to visit a merchandise stand and take part in a traditional signing session, where the band leaves a souvenir on your album. You’d better use your opportunity to meet and greet the band. Growing up within the Icelandic bar culture, We Made God found it unusual that concerts in China are strictly focused on enjoying music, not on treating gigs as an opportunity to meet up and grab a beer, chat and hang out with friends before and after the show.

Some events were more memorable than others. ‘We were playing the show, and there was a girl standing right next to the stage. She just started crying full-on tears’, says Magnús. ‘I was midway into the song thinking, “Is she okay?” So, I took off my guitar and went down to the audience and gave her a hug. She was like, “No, it’s fine! I just love this music so much!”’ Magnús literally melts with all the positivity connected to this story.

The China tour allowed We Made God to interact with a totally different music market. The bands that supported them on the tour ‘were very professional and had a lot of cool visuals’, says Rúnar. ‘They were playing before us and we got this feeling of “How we gonna play after that?”’ As we roll into a discussion about music facilities in China, Magnús explains that the venues they played were very cool, and he segues into another story from afar: ‘One time we had to visit a music shop because we needed drumsticks and basic stuff. Our tour manager was like, “Okay, this is gonna be hard”. We went to a small music shop there because he said most of the stores have classical instruments, like pianos, cellos and violins. So, finding things like decent guitars and drumsticks is kind of hard. All the music stores lean towards classical music there. So, most of these kids most likely learn classical instruments, whereas we just pick up a guitar and think, “We’re just gonna do it! Screw it!”’

13 will bring you luck

Thirteen is a lucky number in the Chinese culture. It means ‘definitely vibrant’, so it was possibly a blessing for the We Made God tour: 13 shows in 13 days. But isn’t such intensity a bit hardcore even for musicians?

‘It is, and I thought honestly that there would be those moments: “I wanna go home. I can’t do this anymore; it’s too hard”. But that didn’t happen’, Magnús confesses. ‘We were surprisingly well taken care of. Of course we slept, like, six hours a day and had to catch the trains. We got quality days where we got to sleep till nine in the morning. It went better than I had thought it would be. I had expected that as soon as we’d start, my voice would crack and I wouldn’t be able to scream or sing.’ Rúnar adds calmly, ‘It’s hard to do it when you’re always on the road and you don’t sleep a lot. During gigs 9 and 10, everyone is a bit tired, but afterwards you get a second boost. But I could have done it a little bit longer’.

‘We were expecting it to be hard. The fact is that after 13 days, it kinda gets foggy and it’s your routine, so you’d better get used to it. But I slept for 24 hours when I got home.’ With this, Magnús makes Rúnar laugh, because the latter had to turn up to work the next day, after 15 hours on the night train to Beijing and 15 hours on the flight back.

But what they will remember of China with a smile on their faces is the food experience. ‘Don’t try the brain’, Rúnar warns as they discuss the pros and cons of the brain for a second. Then Magnús continues, ‘We tried a lot of interesting food. Every time we went to a restaurant, our tour manager would order a traditional local food from where we were [at that moment] and just one weird thing to try. Bull’s penis was one of the weird ones – and it was good. There’s one thing that he offers to all the bands he tours with: deep fried frog, which is deep fried alive for, like, five seconds. That was probably the only one thing that we were not up for. And people say Icelandic food is weird…’

Theory of progress

‘There’s probably nothing planned, but it might change tomorrow or it might change the day after that’, Magnús reveals in a quite enigmatic way. So, who knows, maybe some day sooner or later, We Made God will share the stage with their favourites, like Mogwai or Deftones, or end up doing a tour in South America?

Words by Stína Satanía
Photo from We Made God archives

Follow We Made God:
Facebook: wemadegod
Spotify: We Made God
Bandcamp: wemadegod

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