Starwalker is an international super-duo comprised of Iceland’s Barði Jóhannsson (Bang Gang) and France’s Jean-Benoît Dunckel (Air), and they’ve just released their eponymous first full-length record TODAY! (It’s a fantastic, super-chilled collection of songs, so if you’re in the market for good vibes, I’d highly recommend downloading immediately.) Yesterday I was able to hop on the phone to Barði to talk about his incredible vocal harmonies with JB (which were revealed as a pleasant surprise to both members of the project after working together on a few tracks), as well as about what it’s been like to schedule creative meetups in the midst of different geographical locations and various other projects. (We also talked about the relaxing properties of chainsaws, just for good measure.) Internet-eavesdrop on all of that below, and I repeat, GRAB A COPY OF THE RECORD!!!
So I know you guys had been introduced by a mutual friend over email and that you’d had an initial sort of face-to-face meeting over coffee, so you weren’t COMPLETE strangers, but what was that first session at Atlas like for you in terms of figuring out what exactly you were doing? Did you talk about it first, or did you just kind of start jamming together and navigated from there?
We went out for the coffee and talked about it, and then we decided to meet to try to do something, and then we just started playing around. Then the first song (“Bad Weather”) came out.
And do you both collaborate on the lyrics?
We do it completely together. We talk about what the song is about, and then do it together. Basically everything was done together.
So do you generally have a formula for how a song is going to be built? Do you generally write the lyrics first and then plug a melody, or do you try to establish an overall vibe and/or hammer out the instrumentation first and then work on the lyrical content? Or does it just completely depend on the situation?
Most of the time we don’t have lyrics first; we start playing and then the mood comes. Sometimes we talk about it beforehand if we want to make a downtempo song, or like when we wrote “Come and Stay”, we decided we wanted to make a song that sounded good with piano and voice only. So we wrote that just as a song first, and then we produced it. But sometimes we write in a more ambient way, that takes us little by little to the song.
And did you have any idea beforehand that your voices would work so well together? Because those harmonies are amazing!
We found out by surprise.
So what was that moment like?
[Laughs] It kind of worked nicely at first, and then when we did the second track and the third, we just figured out that it sounds really good together. It almost sounds like one voice sometimes.
It really does! So cool. Now, I know you’re in different geographical locations and are both working on various other projects as well, and I know that you like to be in the same room together to work on Starwalker material, so what has it been like to try to schedule time to meet up and create?
We had to schedule our time quite well, because I live in Iceland and he lives in France; even though it’s just three and a half hours by plane, it still needs scheduling. So we did sessions of a week or ten days together, and maybe a break for two months, and then we’d meet again for ten days, then another break. So it was done little by little until we had all the songs, and then after we’d worked on it a little bit, we worked out the last details separately.
Was it obvious to you after working together on the batch of songs (which was larger than what you ended up with on the finished product) which tracks made sense to turn into a full-length, and which order those would go in? Or did that take some deliberation?
I think the songs were kind of easy to choose. We have a bonus track that you get if you pre-order the album on iTunes, but the tracks on the album 100% work together. There was a little bit of discussion about the order, but that also came quite easily. Basically everything artistic about this record has been quite easy, even though it needs a lot of work. There hasn’t been any conflict. It’s been a happy relationship. [Laughs]
That’s great! And tell me what it was like to work with the Icelandic children’s choir, because I’m assuming you worked directly with them?
JB was in France, but I was in Iceland with them. I love children’s choirs, and it was great; I knew that this one was specifically good, so I spoke to the conductor of the choir and she chose some girls to come, and it was great, they were amazing.
It’s a really nice addition! And even with some of the more downtempo tracks, it’s a very relaxing, good vibes record. Now, I know that you are both very busy people, so what do you personally do to relax?
Actually, last year I got a chainsaw. So that’s something that I really enjoy. I have a little summerhouse with a lot of trees, so I’m making a path to walk with the chainsaw, and I enjoy that a lot.
Where’s your summerhouse? I’ve been to Reykjavik and drove down to Vík, but other than that, my geographical understanding of Iceland is pretty limited.
It’s the other direction. [Laughs] There’s not a lot of trees around Vík. But I like that; in Autumn there’s blueberries, so I like to spend time there cutting trees. I think I like it because my work is kind of feminine. Or, maybe not feminine, but not really masculine. So I think it triggers the boy in me to walk around with a chainsaw. But otherwise, I also like to do gardening there and stuff like that. But I don’t relax that much, to be honest. [Laughs]
I mean, you’re so busy, I imagine there wouldn’t be a whole lot of downtime.
No. Oh, and maybe making love is a good way to relax, too.
True! That’s a really good one! [Laughs]
So I’d say use the chainsaw and make love is the best way to relax.
Note to self! [Laughs] Now, getting back to the grind, I know you guys have played some of these songs live before, but in terms of touring, you’ve said you would be glad to play shows in cities where there’s visible interest and demand, but otherwise have no active plans to hit the road at this point. How will you measure that interest? Through social media, through record sales…?
I think we’ll just feel it when we’re contacted by festivals or something like that. We’re not going to look for it; that’s the main thing we decided.
Well, that kind of fits the overall vibe of the project anyway; everything seems to have fallen into place very naturally where it’s supposed to.
Yeah. And we’re really happy with the songs on the album. We’re a new band, and even though we’ve been around for a while, we love that we have the freedom to do what we want musically. But we also have to build up our following from scratch. (Or almost from scratch.) [Laughs] So we’re not excited to play smaller shows, because we really like the songs; we want to deliver when we play live, like a proper show.
What have you figured out is the best live setup for these songs?
In Iceland we performed with a band; we were five or six people on stage, and it was amazing. I think it was a great setup. We had great players; we had Sarah Jones (drummer of Hot Chip), we had Bjarni (who’s now touring with Of Monsters and Men), and Ása (she’s the bassplayer of Mammút, an Icelandic rock band), so we had a really good, good live band. So we would like to tour with a proper setup.
Right. And obviously the record drops tomorrow, so what’s the plan after that? Have you scheduled any new sessions, or are you taking a bit of a breather?
This summer we have to do stuff. [Laughs] JB is going on tour with Air I think, and I’m working on a project that I have to finish, so we’re planning to meet in the autumn to start again. There’s also always the possibility of playing the album live, too, but we’ve also already begun speaking about the next album.