Jón Sæmundur is an Icelandic artist and musician perhaps best known for his work with psych rock outfit Dead Skeletons under the moniker Nonni Dead. However, he's also a successful artist in his own right. Having studied at both the Icelandic College of Arts & Crafts and Glasgow School of Art, Sæmundur has spent the past fifteen years establishing himself through his mainly installation based work. As well as music, Sæmundur also conveys his message through mediums such as paintings, sculptures and videos including the Dead TV channel he set up with The Brian Jonestown Massacre's Anton Newcombe.
Nevertheless, it's his band Dead Skeletons that first attracted the attention then captured the imagination of many devotees to Sæmundur's wares. Formed in 2008 initially as an accompaniment to an art installation Sæmundur was performing in Reykjavik. Sæmundur and core members Henrik Björnsson and Ryan Van Kriedt started recording soon after, eventually releasing the band's debut and only long player to date, Dead Magick, in 2011.
Having put out a handful of singles in the ensuing period, the most recent being 'Dead Comet' in 2013, the band went into hiatus at the end of that year after a series of European shows. In January, a recording taken from one of those shows was given an official release by revered independent label Fuzz Club. Entitled Dead Skeletons Live In Berlin, it captures the band at their enthralling best.
Here, in a rare and exclusive interview for Drowned In Sound, Jón Sæmundur talks about art, the future of Dead Skeletons and the HIV virus he's lived with for over twenty years.
DiS: Dead Skeletons Live In Berlin came out in January. Do you think it captures the very essence of what Dead Skeletons were about not to mention the band at their very best?
Jón Sæmundur: Oh yes, this was the second last show of the tour - a magical show with good energy. The 'Dead Comet' tour was our best one so far no question about it.
DiS: How long had you been planning to put out a live album?
Jón Sæmundur: Well, Shaun Mulrooney came up with this idea about recording a whole concert with help from his friends in Berlin but we weren’t thinking about releasing any live stuff at that time. We just decided it would be good to put out that album about two years ago.
DiS: Had other shows been recorded and documented and if so, what persuaded you to choose the Berlin show over any of the others?
Jón Sæmundur: I think the first Berlin show was recorded by ARTE TV. I’m not sure about others but I think there must be some recordings out there. Berlin is nice and we have lots of friends there.
DiS: Many people were quite surprised that Dead Skeletons went on hiatus just as the band was starting to make a big impact internationally. Why did you stop performing at that point?
Jón Sæmundur: We wanted a break from touring at that time. Dead Skeletons was always thought of as an art band, not a touring band. Then Henrik (Björnsson) decided to quit the project for personal reasons and work full time on Singapore Sling. I was even thinking about killing the band at the time but I love making music with my friends and it's impossible to kill something that is dead already. I want to make something weird and new with Dead Skeletons and invite friends to collaborate with me and Ryan (Van Kriedt). We are always working on new material. Recently we did some music and projections for a Czechoslovakian/Icelandic theatre play called 'Skuggabaldur' and we got some great outtakes from that we want to work on and finish. We are not in a hurry. Ryan is touring with Anton and The Brian Jonestown Massacre a lot this year and I’m also making more art and painting a lot.
DiS: At the time you were playing to large audiences at the likes of Primavera Sound in Barcelona and appealing to a much wider audience. Is that something you'd hoped Dead Skeletons would achieve when the project began?
Jón Sæmundur: I never thought of it that way. I loved touring with the band and to be able to visit different countries and experience other cultures. Primavera was just like other gigs we played with a slightly larger stage than usual. I would love to be able to go to South America one day since we where planning to go there before the break.
DiS: You've mentioned some of the core members moving on to work with other bands, most notably Ryan joining the Brian Jonestown Massacre and Henrik concentrating on Singapore Sling. Do you see Dead Skeletons working together again? Would you ever bring the project back involving different people?
**Jón Sæmundur: Yes it will be nice to take the project further now. I'm also into making more art and music installations for museums and galleries similar to the 'Dead Mantra' installation back in 2008 and 'ódauðleg Orð' in 2012 in Akureyri. That's where everything started in the beginning for the band. Now I’m working on a new Dead Ritual ceremony with the Monks of the Dead Temple for August here in my gallery in Reykjavik. The Monks of the Dead Temple include live members of Dead Skeletons and music friends here in Iceland. We did it for the first time in August last year and people enjoyed it very much. The gallery was packed full of guests and the ceremony lasted for 3 hours. The vibe is similar to the Dead Skeletons shows except nothing is planned. Almost all the music is made on the spot except for some already made beats to follow. It has this spiritual vibe to it which gave me the most energy and pleasure while doing the Dead Skeletons shows, some unexplained energy which occurs through my meditation visualization while performing on stage.
DiS: Your album Dead Magick is now cited as one of this generation's great psychedelic rock albums. Do you feel it encapsulates everything Dead Skeletons stand for?
**Jón Sæmundur: Yes it sure does and much more. It's also very much alive, full of energy and very healthy like a 4 year old turning five. I'm very proud of that one.
DiS: The last new material you released was the 'Dead Comet' single three years ago. Are there any more songs in the archive which you plan to release?
Jón Sæmundur: Yes we are putting a new single out this summer or fall on Fuzz Club Records. Then I also want to put out a five year special edition of the Dead Magick album on vinyl in November.
DiS: Are there any plans for a second Dead Skeletons album?
Jón Sæmundur: I´m still working on a very special album that is also a sound installation machine for people to enter. This is the second album. I have been planning and working on it for years and I will finish it before I leave. In the meantime we made a lot of singles that will fill a whole new album plus some new ones. So there is always something going on with Dead Skeletons.
DiS: Will there be any more live shows from Dead Skeletons in the future?
Jón Sæmundur: Yes I sure hope so in some way. I don't know where or when.
DiS: The song 'Dead Mantra' revolves around the refrain, "He who fears death can not enjoy life", which ultimately became the band's ethos. What initiated that?
Jón Sæmundur: In 2008 I was doing an art installation in the Reykjavik Art Museums based on the Dead concept slogan, "He who fears death can not enjoy life." I was using the English, Icelandic and German versions of the logo and I needed a song for the installation and Henrik and Ryan helped me out with the 'Dead Mantra'. It became the band's most popular song and the logo which I did for the show got stuck to that song and the band.
DiS: You've lived with the HIV virus for a number of years. Has that affected and influenced the way you write and work? How instrumental was that in starting Dead Skeletons?
Jón Sæmundur: Yes for a long time. In 1994 I was diagnosed with HIV. At that time the prognosis was not good and I was kinda lost in fear for many years until I started the Dead concept in 2003. It was a way for me to use my creativity to face death and celebrate life and to find an outlet for all kinds of art for myself and my expanding family. For example printing t-shirts and making paintings. Today the concept grows like a tree it has many branches which includes print-making, videos, music, paintings and art installations. I love to work with my friends on projects like the Dead Skeletons or for example Dead TV which me and Anton Newcombe have been doing together for many years.
DiS: What else have you been up to in the ensuing years? Is your art work still quite prolific?
Jón Sæmundur: Being with the family and all my children (I have 6) and making art, selling art, painting more. Having fun and doing experiments with paints, installations and music. I´m making art every day.
DiS: The last time I saw you on a live stage would be at Eindhoven Psych Lab with Sonic Jesus in 2014. Are there any other collaborations in the pipeline, either live or in the studio?
Jón Sæmundur: I would love to sing on other people's songs if they touch me. I´m always open for new weird ideas and having fun. I'm planning to do the Dead Ritual in Berlin soon and even take it to some of the festivals in a large tent. We will see what the future brings.
DiS: Do you think much about what the future holds, and if so, have you made any plans about what you might be up to next?
Jón Sæmundur: No not really. I don’t care what happens. I just take it as it comes and make more art.
The album Dead Skeletons Live In Berlin is out now on Fuzz Club Records.
For more information on Jón Sæmundur and Dead Skeletons visit his official website.