GusGus's Birgir Þórarinsson on Logic, modular manipulation and befuddling his brain

We talk to the chilled Icelandic collective's engineer

GusGus Birgir rarinsson
The current 2014 GusGus line-up: (left to right) Högni Egilsson, Birgir Þórarinsson and Daníel Ágúst Haraldsson.

Does where you live affect the music you make? It's a question that Birgir Þórarinsson (or Thorarinsson), one of the founding members of Icelandic collective GusGus, has asked himself many times.

"I've always said that nature should not affect what happens in the studio," says Þórarinsson, "but I don't think that's possible. Subconsciously, I guess that everything in your life affects the music you make: your experiences, the people you know, your memories and, yes, the place you live."

Indeed, listening to a GusGus track like Airwaves - its chilled, reverb-heavy grooves sitting somewhere between deep house, trance and a sort of poppy techno - from last year's Mexico album, it's not hard to imagine the ever-shifting aurora borealis floating across the Reykjavík skies.

"People always tell me that our music is perfect for driving across Iceland," he adds, "but please don't ask me to explain why. I'll never know the answer to that question."

When we call GusGus a collective, we do mean 'a collective'. To date, there have been ten different line-ups, with up to 13 members, and Þórarinsson has been the only constant. Alongside nine albums since 1995, they've remixed the likes of Depeche Mode, Björk and Sigur Rós, and you may have also seen Þórarinsson's name on John Grant's acclaimed album Pale Green Ghosts - Grant and Þórarinsson recorded the album in Iceland.

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Grant is just one name in a long list of artists that have soaked up Iceland's otherworldly vibe. Blur, Killing Joke, Jon Hopkins, The xx, Yann Tiersen, Tunng's Mike Lindsay and folky Damien Rice have all recorded there.

"These days, there's a fantastic music scene in Iceland, but it hasn't always been like that. Back in the 70s and 80s, Iceland was always a couple of years behind somewhere like Britain or America. Punk didn't get here until 1979; the rave scene of the 80s was a very small underground movement. Even after the Sugarcubes had their international success, it was still very difficult for musicians in Iceland to make a living.

"I played in bands from when I was a teenager, but I never expected anyone but my friends would ever hear my music. Even after we put the first GusGus album together, I still wasn't dreaming of being a professional musician. I just thought, 'OK, making this record is fun, but as soon as we've finished, I'll go
back to my normal life'. We had no career plan, simply because we didn't think we would have a career.

"One day we got a call from 4AD records in London, and they said they were interested in releasing our album. Wow! We couldn't believe that someone in London had even heard of us."

How easy was it to get hold of decent studio gear in those pre-eBay/Amazon days?

"[Laughs] You know something… I managed to pick up a Juno 2, a TR-505, an SH-101. Then, one of my friends told me about this old composer guy who lived on the other side of the city; apparently, he had some sort of synth that he'd bought in 1972. I didn't know what it was, but I knew it was analogue. When I got there, I said, 'Do you use this?' 'No!' 'Can I try it? If I like it, I'll buy it.' 'Sure.' It was an ARP 2600! This guy didn't get in touch with me for about ten years. He rang up one day and said, 'Hey, are you the one who took my synth? Maybe you should give me some money!' Oh, and I also got an 808, a Yamaha CS-30, an E-MU sampler and, eventually, a Juno-106."

"One of the biggest changes for me was that I eventually had to move to a Mac. I don't know why, but I was very loyal to the PC, and it was a difficult decision to make that switch. I didn't want to lose Logic, though, because I knew it was the program for me."

Bloody hell! Not bad for a starter setup!

"At first, I was sequencing from the 505 - I could mute some of the percussion sounds and send out simple MIDI patterns - then we got the Alesis MMT-8."

No computer?

"Not at first, but then I bought a small PC and was using Master Tracks Pro, running on Windows 3.1. That's what we made the first album on - all synced to tape for the vocals and recorded to tape for the final mix. Recording the vocals to tape became a pain in the ass, so I started to record them to DAT and then put them into the sampler.

"The computer was part of the setup, but it was simply a sequencing tool. The idea of recording something on the computer was just… that was sci-fi dreaming. Looking back today, it seems crazy, but we actually used that setup until 2003, when we moved to Logic."

Did the move to Logic make a big difference in the studio?

"One of the biggest changes for me was that I eventually had to move to a Mac. I don't know why, but I was very loyal to the PC, and it was a difficult decision to make that switch. I didn't want to lose Logic, though, because I knew it was the program for me.

"Maybe because I'd grown up with analogue synths, the move to Logic wasn't so much about opening up the world of software synths and plugins… I saw it as this incredible recording tool. I could record the same chord played by loads of different patches on the Juno-106, process each one separately, add them together and make these huge soundscapes."

You don't use any soft synths at all?

"Yes, of course, but they're often my second choice. I sometimes listen to a new EDM track coming out of America and think, 'That is some crazy, weird stuff they're doing with the synth. It sounds so cool and awesome'. Then, I turn on the ARP or the Juno and smile to myself. It just sounds bigger and… analogue definitely sounds cooler, especially when you start stacking different sounds together.

"I have impOSCar in the studio, but that mostly gets used for demos; I usually replace it in the final track. Hang on… it did make it onto the last album. I've also got the Arturia analogue pack and mainly use the CS-80V and Jupiter-8V. I'm very interested in having a proper listen to more of the stuff from Arturia. Maybe this will be the time I finally move into the future!"

It'll be interesting to hear what you've got to say about the Arturia goodies. Surely, you'll appreciate the added automation?

"But with Logic, you get a sort of automation anyway. If I record the Juno or the ARP in Logic, I can mess around with the audio as much as I want. One effect I used a lot on the John Grant album was taking a mono feed from the 106, feeding it to two Doepfer Wasp filters, adding an LFO to one side and the same LFO inverted to the other side - when the left is rising, the right is falling. I sometimes record two takes - one with the Wasps as low-pass filters and another with the Wasps as band-pass filters. When you listen to it, your brain is confused… you start asking yourself, 'What is that?' For me, that's one of the most important aspects of making music; taking people by surprise and making them think.

"I know that some people have been totally consumed by the modular world. It all gets very nerdy because they shift over to a complete modular setup and even refuse to use a computer - they only use sequences created in Doepfer. I think that's just too nerdy for me.

"Modular has certainly opened up a whole new sound universe; sounds that I can't create with my analogue synths or soft synths. You can start adding really strange overtones and harmonics, so that even the simplest melody becomes much more complex and interesting. There's a track of ours called Thin Ice, and the bassline is very, very basic - just three notes. The Doepfer turns those three notes into a much stronger bassline; one that pulls you along all the way through the song.

"But just because a modular system allows you to do crazy things, it doesn't mean I'm going to forget everything else in the studio. With my system, I get huge, multi-stacked analogue sounds; I get the creativity of modular, and Logic allows me to pull it all together."

You've got a 505 and an 808…

"And a 909."

Can we take it you're a fan of analogue drums, too?

"Most of our drums are analogue, but they don't come from drum machines. A few years ago, we were asked to do a remix of a track by Björk, called Hunter. I'd just bought my first bits of Doepfer, and I made the crazy decision that we would only use sounds from the Doepfer for this project.

"At the time, I thought this would be very cool, but then I realised that I didn't actually have any sounds at all, so I spent several days creating around 200 kicks, hats, snares, FX noises, leads, bleeps and bloops, and loaded them into the EXS sampler. It was hard work, but I was so proud that the remix had its own very special set of sounds.

"The drums sounded great, so I continued to play around with the modular system and, these days, most of our drums come from the samples I've created. Please don't think I'm trying to be an analogue nerd, here - Logic is central to the way GusGus works… we're not anti-digital."

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Is all the production/mixing done in Logic?

"In the past, we did send the albums away for the final mix/master, but I ended up finishing the last album myself. Although I was happy with the results, I cannot say I was happy to do the mastering. Sometimes, you're just too close to the music.

"To be honest, I try not to mess with the music too much at the mixing stage. I prefer to get all the levels, the compression and the EQing done during the recording. Everything goes through the SSL E-Series channel strip with a bit of Distressor, except the vocals; I've got a hardware and a UAD LA-2A, which just seems to work so well as a carpet for the vocals. All I need to do is add a touch of UAD Precision De-Esser.

"Although I do use the UADs a lot, there's something that keeps pulling me back to hardware. Let's take EQ… there's the Harrison and Trident A-Range, but if I was rich enough, I would definitely buy the hardware versions. And I could never stop using my Neumann W495B.

"My main reverb is a Lexicon PCM70, and my main delay is a TC Electronic TC 2290. Sure, they're both incredible-sounding machines, but why do I keep using them when there are great-sounding reverbs and delays inside Logic?"

"If you add a random element to the music, it keeps the brain interested, because the brain can't work out what's going on."

Especially as you seem to play around with reverb and delay so much. Listening to GusGus on headphones, you can hear all sorts of weird, off-kilter reverb/delay rhythms and crazy panning happening.

"Ah, you noticed that. Great. It's all about trying to confuse the brain. Most delay effects involve some sort of stereo crossfade, but it doesn't take the brain long to figure out what's going on. I like to keep the delay in mono and control the panning… let the panning fit with the music, instead of just staying on a set course. If you add a random element to the music, it keeps the brain interested, because the brain can't work out what's going on.

"I try and do something similar with the reverbs, too. Instead of putting reverb on the vocals, why not put a bit of delay on the vocals and put the reverb on the delay, then put distortion on the reverb but not the delay. You have this really weird, messed-up effect, but the vocal is still nice and clean. Your brain starts wondering where the weird reverb tail is actually coming from.

"I love to hear a wonderful clean voice, unaffected by all the stuff going on around it. When I was working on the John Grant album, we were putting together a track called Glacier. It's a very big, powerful, symphonic track, but even though there's a lot of 'music' on there, the most important thing was the vocal - we had to fit everything around the voice because it had the perfect attitude for that song.

"There are a lot of effects on that song - I was experimenting with tremolo delay, feeding echoes into echoes, but treating each side of the stereo in a different way - but the voice was so perfect that I didn't really want to mess with it. The mix was all about getting these different elements to fit together without trying to make them sound the same.

"If I was working completely inside the box, these sorts of effects and experiments would be so much easier. [Laughs] My life would be easier!"

Do you think there's a little bit of your character that likes to make things difficult for yourself in the studio?

"[Laughs] You've discovered my secret! Making music isn't meant to be easy; it's about making life hard for yourself. You have to sweat in the studio. If you have to spend two days looking for the right bass sound, it becomes far more precious to you than something you found on a preset that was designed by somebody you've never met.

"OK, I'll admit that the hard work doesn't always pay off. Sometimes, you can spend hours working on something and, at the end of it all, you listen to the results and say, 'Damn! That's a load of rubbish. I've just lost a whole day for nothing… time that I'll never get back'. But that's fine. It's all part of the joy and the sadness of making music.

"If you're an explorer, you'll have many days where you won't find anything at all, but you still need to keep on exploring. Failure is part of life; if you want to do something creative, you have to confront it. If you're afraid to fail, you'll end up doing nothing."

GusGus' latest album, Mexico, is out now.

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