Iceland’s icons of contemporary popular music

Þorvaldur Bjarni Þorvaldsson is one of Iceland’s leading songwriters with over 300 published songs, six musicals and many national hits under his belt. As one of the founders of one of Iceland’s most popular rock group Todmobile, founded 25 years ago, he told WOW magazine the story of a young man’s quest for fame and recognition and of the people who influenced and inspired him. On the 15th of November he will take the stage in Eldborg (Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavík) along with Todmobile and the world famous Jon Anderson the lead singer of legendary band Yes thus creating the most spectacular musical event in Iceland this year.

“It all started when I was 6 years old and my parents sent me to The Children’s Academy of Music in Reykjavík. I liked the sound of the recorder all right (Ok, sorry I really didn’t). I had actually begun to listen to rather complex music by then. My music teacher Áslaug found it interestingly amusing that whenever the students could bring music of their own choice to class I would bring music like “Tarcus” by ELP, while my classmates brought popular Icelandic children’s music. After playing ELP’s “Progsolos” during those “free” music classes there were times when I had to leave the classroom posthaste to avoid being attacked by fed up listeners. I was brought up listening to music by ELP, Roxy Music, King Grimson, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin and Yes, along with classical music by the old masters such as Brahms, Beethoven and Stravinsky. When it came to choosing an instrument the choice was easy: An ELECTRIC GUITAR!” says Þorvaldur.

The big mistake
He was a little out of luck though because at that time such an instrument was not on the curriculum so he had to start with a classical guitar. “Ok, the next best thing! But I really enjoyed it and no wonder, I had a brilliant teacher, none other than Icelandic legend Eyþór Þorláksson, who believed in me and gave me a Gretsch electric guitar and an amplifier. He was an unbelievable character who influenced so many musicians in his time!”
Like many young boys, Þorvaldur longed to go outside and play football rather than stay inside most of the time practicing the guitar so at the age of 11 he quit. “That was a BIG mistake because I found out that summer that it was possible to make your own chord progression and thus your own tunes or songs on the guitar. Wow, what a wonderful discovery that was! By that time all guitar schools were fully booked and with long waiting lists. It took me 3 years to start guitar lessons at a prominent guitar school. In the meantime I taught myself how to play by listening to Yes, Bowie, Genesis and Maestro Andrés Segovia amongst others. Also, it was my lucky day when I met my mentor, the late Einar Kristján Einarsson, who also favored progressive rock ‘n’ roll and found it remarkable to meet a teenager who liked this kind of music when so many were passionately in to Punk music. Under his influence I went all the way and finished my studies as a guitarist and a composer.” During Þorvaldur’s studies he started a few bands such as Exodus (with Björk amongst others) and Pax Vobis with his friends Skúli Sverrisson and Geiri Sæm. Full of ideas, he and his band mates practiced almost 24/7 and dreamed of conquering the world. “The music played by Pax Vobis was a complex one and not in unity with the Icelandic contemporary music at that time; there was Bubbi Morthens and Brimkló on one hand and punk music on the other. The band had faithful fans and its only album, released in 1984, acquired somewhat of a cult status in the musical circles,” says Þorvaldur. Soon after Pax Vobis quit playing (mostly because of musical differences but also because of the member’s educational pursuits) and Þorvaldur decided to say goodbye to pop music and hello to classical music.

The story behind the name
“Although my mind was then set on classical music a few of my earlier pop songs had made the charts, which made me turn back to writing popular music. The thought of starting my own band became strong and a name occurred to me, which I wanted to use for it. A friend of mine, a movie producer, wrote a comic series and named his leading character after me, but he always called me Tod. This hero drove around in his “Todmobile”, like the pope in his Popemobile,” explains Þorvaldur. The band Todmobile was founded in 1988 by Þorvaldur, Eyþór Arnalds and vocalist Andrea Gylfadóttir, “my soul mate and close writing partner,” adds Þorvaldur. This was followed by five years of good and happy days when everything was possible, complimented by six Icelandic Music Awards including “Best songwriter of the year”. “This was definitely one of the highlights of the Todmobile saga,” says Þorvaldur. Todmobile has recorded 10 albums since it was founded and played countless gigs. For a number of years the band has offered one “big” show each year, now held in the Eldborg auditorium at the Harpa Concert Hall.

New era
In 1993 Todmobile went “semi-dormant” for some time and for awhile Todmobile became Tweety. “It was at an era when many Icelandic bands either pushed the pause button, changed their names or simply quit. These were strange times and rather bad ones for the Icelandic music society when bands were rather insecure in their choice of music and basically experimenting. And no wonder, since this was a time of big changes the musical world with rap and techno music dominating the market. But there were also positive things emerging from this chaos such as Björk’s album, Debut, and the rock-rap band Quarashi for instance,” says Þorvaldur. After some time of “experimenting” he started composing music and producing recordings for others. “Since 1997 I have composed 6 musicals, all of which have entered the stages of Icelandic theaters. I have also conducted numerous international musicals by world famous foreign composers, such as Evita, Les Miserables, Little Shop of Horrors and Rocky Horror. Some of my songs have entered the Eurovision Contest; one of them, “All out of luck”, taking second place. During these years I have met and worked with many wonderful and talented people who have influenced and inspired me in so many ways. For instance Selma Björnsdóttir, who sang “All out of luck”. Since 2008 my work has mostly revolved around composing, producing, conducting and Todmobile.”

Happy birthday
“I think that Todmobile inspired the musical society here in Iceland to dare; dare to seek education in music but still play rock ‘n’ roll, dare to hold big concerts and tour around the country and dare to face and conquer different kinds of music. Todmobile represents prog rock, rock, pop music, jazz, electro and orchestral music,” says Þorvaldur and adds that he detects some influence from the band in numerous young and educated Icelandic musicians who have chosen rock music as part of their profession. Now, 25 years have passed since the creation of Todmobile and Þorvaldur is in the midst of creating a new album with the band to celebrate its 25th birthday. “Half of the album holds our first concert in Eldborg (at the Harpa Concert Hall) in 2011, the other half is completely new material,” he says. At Todmobile’s “Grand Concerto” in November, the world famous singer in the also world famous band Yes, Mr. Jon Anderson, will perform with Todmobile’s lead singers, Andrea Gylfadóttir, Eyþór Ingi, the newest Todmobile member, and the other veteran members of the band. “Todmobile is to Iceland what Yes is to England so we really look forward to working with Jon Anderson. This could be the band’s greatest musical event up till now,” says Þorvaldur, “the very best songs of Todmobile and Yes will fill the magnificent concert hall along the Reykjavík harbor.”

Check out Todmobile’s music on www.youtube.com/user/todmobilemusic

Photo: Ingólfur Bjargmundsson