Hugar ft. Arnór Dan: Ethereal euphonies from the Nordic tundra

Icelandic instrumental two-piece Hugar have released their first in a series of vocal collaborations, Waves, which features Agent Fresco frontman Arnór Dan 

Remfry Dedman@remfrydedman
Tuesday 11 April 2017 10:01
Instrumental duo Hugar
Instrumental duo Hugar

There are few musical pairings blessed with a connection so closely intertwined, it borders on preternatural. Bergur Þórisson and Pétur Jónsson, the multi-instrumental duo behind the ambient, blissed-out Hugar, are one of the lucky few; they have nurtured a musical bond that has grown and blossomed over the course of their entire lives.

Þórisson and Jónsson grew up together in the Icelandic township of Seltjarnarnes, just a few miles north-west of Reykjavík, Iceland. They met in kindergarten and attended the same school, but didn’t become close friends until they were 15. Their bond came through playing music, first in the school marching band and then in a veritable smorgasbord of different groups that spanned the genres of funk, jazz and reggae.

These projects provided a thorough musical schooling during the pair’s formative years, but their harmonious kinship eventually and inevitably led them to start collaborating on a project as a two-piece. In early 2012, lady luck blessed the duo when a mutual friend asked them to look after his recording studio whilst he went away on tour. ‘We figured we had to use it for something so we started writing music to record’ says Þórisson. ‘Somehow those recordings piled up and we felt we needed to release them ... so Hugar was born.’


Those recordings resulted in the band’s 2014 self-titled debut album. An ambient, multi-layered instrumental record that interweaves Þórisson’s forlorn brass with Jónsson’s ethereal guitars, scatterings of gentle piano and an elegant string quartet, Hugar is a bewitching, haunting neo-classical record. It somehow manages to sound like one long transcendent cohesive piece, despite the fact that it was written over several years. ‘Our debut is a collection of songs we’d been working on through the years, some of which were over 10 years old,’ says Þórisson ‘Sometimes we really didn't know what we were doing, so a lot of it was experimental but it worked out really well in the end.’

Whilst working on the 11 compositions that would make up the first album, Þórisson began collaborating with acclaimed multi-instrumentalist and composer Ólafur Arnalds on the soundtrack to the hit ITV scandi-influenced crime drama Broadchurch. There he met Arnór Dan, vocalist for avant-garde, math progenitors Agent Fresco and a regular collaborator with Arnalds (it’s Dan’s voice that is heard over the 3 closing themes of the show, So Close, So Far and Take My Leave of You). ‘I went on tour with Ólafur and Arnór and we became close friends’ says Þórisson. ‘When Arnór started talking about collaborating on some more songs, Pétur and I jumped on the train right away and wrote a song with him in mind.’

That song became Waves, an evocative lugubrious aria that marks the first time Hugar have utilised vocals. The song evokes beauty and melancholy all at once and Dan’s lyrics pull together these seemingly disparate themes poignantly. ‘I’ve always been fascinated by the ocean’ he says. ‘It’s a place of peace and immense beauty, but it’s also a powerful force not to be messed with, especially here in Iceland. The waves have taken a lot of souls, sadly some of them voluntarily. In short, Waves is a song about searching for solace.’

Hugar were keen to bring Dan’s multi-faceted talents and astonishing range to the fore. ‘Most of Arnór's work to date has been with his band Agent Fresco and with Ólafur Arnalds,’ says Þórisson. ‘With Agent Fresco the focus is on powerful singing but still keeping it very beautiful whereas with Ólafur he has been showing a more vulnerable side. We wanted to try to make a song where he could show the full spectrum, starting very vulnerable and going into his amazing powerful falsetto singing.’

Waves is the first in a series of vocal collaborations that Hugar are planning; the second is with Jófríður Ákadóttir, the acclaimed musician who’s already behind a number of projects (Pascal Pinon, Samaris, JFDR, Gangly) and recently name checked by Björk as one of her inspirations. ‘We are an instrumental band’ says Þórisson ‘but writing for vocalists is something that has always been exciting for us. It’s proven very inspiring to work with different singers as they obviously have their own characteristics and strengths that we have to work with and adapt to. It pulls us out of our comfort zone but at the same time we have learned a lot! We’re hoping to work with a wide variety of singers on this project to keep us on our toes and make something special every time.’

Arnór Dan is convinced that he will collaborate with Hugar again (‘Bergur, Pétur and I are DEFINITELY not done working together!’) and work has already begun on Agent Fresco’s as yet untitled third album, with plans to tour Europe before year’s end. Þórisson and Jónsson are working on a second Hugar album which they hope to release in the autumn. This time, they’re no longer having to borrow their friend’s studio though. ‘We have our own studio in Reykjavik now’ says Þórisson ‘The arrangements are bigger and the soundscapes are more complex whilst still keeping the beautiful simplicity of the first album. I’ve been working as a recording engineer with many different artists including Björk, Jóhann Jóhannsson and Ólafur Arnalds so this time we have a lot more know-how and studio time to make it something really special!’

Hugar's debut album is available to download for free. Agent Fresco will release their as yet untitled third album in 2018

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