"Here in Iceland, the 'nine months of darkness' people talk about is definitely a thing," says Une Misère frontman Jón Már Ásbjörnsson. "And bleakness … we have a lot of that lying around."
At the moment, the mid-January sunshine is streaming radiantly through the windows of his Reykjavik living room, but he assures Revolver it won't be here for long. "It's bright outside now, but it's going to darken again in about an hour or so. The darkness, along with the isolation of living here, it always plays a part in pushing that seasonal affective disorder — that anxiety and depression, you know?"
Anxiety, depression and darkness are all major elements in the bleakly visceral music of Une Misère, the six-piece metallic hardcore outfit Ásbjörnsson co-founded in 2016. They are tightly woven into the tormented roar of their 2017 mixtape 010717, their three singles — "Overlooked/Disregarded," "Damages" and "Wounds" — and the stark and frightening video for "Damages," in which a formidably clawed wraith pursues a young woman to the ends of the earth. And they will presumably infuse the grooves of the band's as-yet-untitled full-length debut, scheduled to be released later this year by Nuclear Blast. "It will be more of the same, more of the different, more of the unheard," says Ásbjörnsson of the album. "I'm not going to say that we're inventing the wheel — we're just six dudes making music. But if people like our current stuff, they're not going to be disappointed."
So far, quite a few people are indeed liking Une Misère's music, a development that has taken Ásbjörnsson and his cohorts — guitarist-vocalist Finnbogi Örn Einarsson, guitarist-vocalist Fannar Már Oddsson, guitarist Gunnar Ingi Jones, bassist Þorsteinn Gunnar Friðriksson and drummer Benjamín Bent Árnason — a little by surprise. Not only has the band won raves for their performances at 2017's Wacken Metal Battle and last year's Roadburn Festival, but Une Misère have also attracted the attention of Iceland's mainstream music business; the band was nominated for Best Newcomer and Best Rock Song by the Icelandic Music Awards, their homeland's version of the Grammys, an unexpected achievement for a group formed with the explicit intention of out-heavying every other act in the country.
"We all knew each other from being in other bands on the scene," Ásbjörnsson explains. "But back in 2016, we had a discussion, like, 'What if we start the heaviest band in Iceland? What if we just went for it?' There were a lot of heavy bands in Iceland, including ones we were already in. But we were like, 'Let's make this one heavier. Let's take it up a notch!' And we kind of did — and it seems that we've hit a vein!"
The name Une Misère, French for "a misery," was chosen because "it sounded cool," Ásbjörnsson admits with a laugh. "Everything in French sounds more intense without it being yelling. It sounds more romantic, and it really captures the bleakness of the word. Like, I feel that the English 'misery' isn't miserable enough. And the word in Icelandic is 'eymd,' and that just looks like another shitty black-metal name." He laughs. "But as soon as you put it into this really romantic, beautiful language that nobody understands but everybody wants to, then you really have something that captures the moment, and the feeling."
Onstage, Ásbjörnsson is the very picture of anguished intensity, the sort of person you'd almost be afraid to make eye contact with, for fear that he just might aim his inner demons in your direction. In his living room today, however, that Ásbjörnsson is nowhere to be found; in his place sits an affable and erudite chap, whose fresh-faced, bespectacled visage makes him appear almost young enough to pass for a high school student. "We all have a very non-metal look in this band," he laughs. "We're regular-ass dudes that wear Star Wars shirts. We blend in quite easily. But then, as we step onto the stage, with the attitude towards our music, we become totally different. I actually don't think that people on the street know that I am the singer of Une Misère, because I wear glasses every day — but before I go onstage I take them off and put on a turtleneck, and people go, 'Wait, is that you?!' So now I know how Clark Kent felt!"
The dichotomy between Ásbjörnsson's onstage and offstage personas is more than a little reminiscent of Corey Taylor, so it's not surprising to learn that the Slipknot/Stone Sour frontman is one of his musical heroes. "Corey Taylor has always been one of my biggest influences, because I feel like he really gets it," he says. "He comes from Des Moines, Iowa, which to him is a very small town. I grew up in Ólafsfjörður, which is a town of nine hundred people, up north in Iceland. The closest town that was big was Akureyri, and that's 17,000. So being from Buttfuck Nowhere, and being the outsider, being the one that's picked on, the one that's being bullied … just being a regular misfit … I mean, I think Corey Taylor can put it best into words what it's like to be left outside."
Like Taylor, Ásbjörnsson from an early age used music as a refuge from the pain of existence — first as a fan, then as a performer. "As soon as I discovered heavy music, and found that I could scream from the rooftops, my life became significantly better," he says. And like Taylor, he also took refuge in alcohol and, for a time, drugs, neither of which worked out particularly well.
"I used to drink because I felt shitty, and I wanted to feel better," he explains. "Which I did, for a short period of time. But then I started feeling again. And that's basically where I turned to a bit harder stuff, and the same thing happened over and over again. But then, when I left that shit behind — the alcohol and drugs, and all that bullshit — I realized that I had to feel every day. I had to feel everything that I was going through, and everything that was going through my mind. Even the things that I didn't want going through my mind, I had to feel those, as well. For the lack of a better word, it hurt, and it hurt that I was making myself go through all these things. But when I was getting past all that shit, I couldn't help but think: At least I went through it. At least I did it!"
Ásbjörnsson was still drinking in 2016, when he got a call from a producer for The Voice Iceland, asking him if he wanted to audition for the televised singing competition. "I was in a jazz-pop band at the time called Four Leaves Left, and they were like, 'Hey, we got a tip about you — do you want to be on The Voice?" After his girlfriend talked him into doing it, Ásbjörnsson showed up to the taping woefully unprepared. "I still had that not-a-care-in-the-world, take-no-prisoners, rock & roll lifestyle all about me, so I didn't practice at all," he laughs. "I showed up hungover, but I still thought, Oh yeah, I'm going through to the next round! Of course, I didn't go through. But it was fun! Of course, every time somebody asks me about it, I wish I would have prepared better, goddammit."
Ásbjörnsson finally stopped drinking and using drugs in the latter part of 2016, encouraged by his girlfriend and the promise of his new band. "At all our early practices, we would bring a case of beer — just like, horns up and party, you know what I'm saying? But then I realized, both me and the other guys, we kind of have something here. And my girlfriend showed me that drinking had become a thing that I relied on far too much, and it was controlling my life and what I did. I was always looking for escape routes from any situation. Like, 'No, I can't take you to the airport — I've had a couple of beers.' But she made me realize that I am far better than that, and that I needed to think about what I was doing."
Still, Ásbjörnsson realizes that the internal darkness he once numbed with alcohol won't be cutting him any slack now that he's sober. "I'm very much aware that this is not a thing you get rid of," he says, quietly. "I always know that I'm feeling fine for a reason. I'm good right now, because I make it so … But the fact of the matter is, it's always there — and it's always going to be there. I just have to be one step ahead, and never let it get the best of me."
The song "Damages," he says, is dedicated to a dear friend of his who wasn't able to stay one step ahead of his demons. "He lost his battle, the one that I took on when I quit drinking. He lost his battle against anxiety, addiction and depression, and ended up taking his own life. That's one of the heavy things that I had to get out, and so we created 'Damages.' The video depicts that struggle, in a way — the dark figure is always going to follow the girl, until it consumes her. I'm very, very happy about that video, because I feel it really captured the essence of the song, and us."
Despite Une Misère's burgeoning popularity in Iceland, Ásbjörnsson — who currently makes his living as a sales rep for Vodafone and also hosts a show on Reykjavík's popular Radio X — knows that he and his bandmates will have to break out of their homeland if they're going to make a living in music. "It is possible to have a career here if you're a hip-hop artist, but not with heavy music," he says. "You can't do it commercially. I mean, you could go around the country on tour, but that's maybe nine destinations. And if we were to play on the other side of the country, which would take only about 13 hours to drive to, that would still bring us, like, only 11 people, if we're lucky. Our biggest crowd in the local club scene is about 200 to 300, really. But when we get to the local festivals, we're in the thousands."
Thus far, there haven't been many Icelandic artists who have achieved significant international success, the Sugarcubes, Björk and Sigur Rós being notable exceptions, and Ásbjörnsson says he's continually inspired by the mark they've made, even if his own band sounds nothing like them. "We're fully aware of the impact that they had on the world, and we're very appreciative of it," he says. "They brought a specialness to the Icelandic music scene, and a very, very high standard of creativity …
"If Americans are asked about Icelandic music, and they can only answer Björk, Sugarcubes and Sigur Rós, I think that's a good thing. Because those are very, very powerful artists. But if they want a fourth band from Iceland," he grins, "maybe we could help!"