When an unknown kid from Iceland named Sölvi first read the name “Quarashi,” –the last name of Mohammed the Prophet, founder of Islam—he thought it would make a cool tag name. The name stuck, and soon came to tag his new band. Well, they’re not Muslim, so they may not have the blessings of Allah (or maybe they do) but someone up there likes them.
Quarashi, for all their tough, angry stage presence, exude nothing but enthusiasm and sheer joy for what they do. They’re young, they’re energetic, and life has led them to one open door after another from their hometown of Reykjavik. Quarashi is enjoying the break-out success of “Stick ‘Em Up,” the first single off their U.S. debut album, Jinx [Time Bomb/Columbia], which is also getting heavy rotation on MTV and alternative radio. Back home in Iceland, they’ve got two gold albums to their credit and would slaughter acts like Kid Rock in a cage match of rap and turntable mastery.
What’s the secret? Well, for starters, Quarashi are an interesting blend of personalities: Drummer, Sampler, Keyboardist, Percussion and Producer Sölvi is sort of the PR-guy for the band. He shakes hands, stands in front (perhaps because on stage he’s always in the back?) and has this comfortable charming way about him that puts everyone at ease. Who would believe this former skateboard champ and graffiti artist once did community service time for public drunkenness? Lead singer Hössi is the frontman on and offstage, jumping in and speaking from the heart, but also interested in what others have to say. Looking more like a Brit-pop icon with his big eyes and shaggy hair, he seems to be always tuned in, always paying attention to the little details in language and life in case he stumbles upon his next inspiration. Stoney is the classic support guy: laughing at everyone’s lines, reinforcing statements and ideas by finishing their sentences, and opening up opportunities for his vicious wit. A lot like what he does onstage. Meanwhile, dark, intriguing Omar lays low—seeming too gentle and wise to really be the seething madman persona he pulls off before an audience. But as diverse a mix as they are, it’s the right recipe.
By far their biggest tour so far, the band will play about 48 American cities and then immediately jumping on the Warped Tour. We caught up with them at city #2, St. Louis, while they were still fresh, energetic, and unjaded.
I see your veggie tray here, your bottles of water…you seem like pretty clean living, nice guys, given the intimidating personas of some of the rappers, punks, and death metal types.
Sölvi: You should have seen us last night!
Stoney: Don’t let that fool you.
Hössi: We ain’t got no tattoos, and we’re totally skinny. It’s because we’re Icelandic.
Omar: In Iceland there are no guns, not even the police carry guns. It’s really a peaceful nation.
Stoney: But there’s a lot of melancholy and anger.
Omar: It’s cold.
Stoney: It’s because it’s always cold and dark.
Hössi: Blame it on the cold.
Stoney: Quarashi’s music is definitely aggressive at times. We tend to be violent in our songs, but we’re wimps in real life. We get into a fight and then we run like hell.
You really appeal to the American musical tastes. Are they listening to the same stuff up there in Iceland?
Sölvi: Some kids are. Usually what breaks through is something that’s Icelandic, because obviously, they relate to that better. That’s probably the reason our music is doing better here. It’s because our music isn’t about Iceland and that scene.
We’ve got influences both from Europe and America, and it’s all mixed together. On the rap side you’ve got Public Enemy, who is by far our biggest rap influence. And then you’ve got Beatles or Led Zeppelin—if you listen to “Mr. Jinx” his vocals almost sound like Robert Plant in the chorus.
Hössi: “Unintentionally! But of course, what you bring to the game is what you come out of. We don’t come out of hip-hop. We don’t even come out of rap metal. Well, except for Omar. He was in a death metal band.
Is the Iceland scene very different?
Sölvi: You probably have more in common with us than you have with some other Americans, like in LA or wherever, with all the Latin influences.
Hössi: There’s not as much difference as you might think. Globalization, baby!
Sölvi: We grew up in Reykjavik, obviously. The spirit is punk rock-rooted. When we were playing in bands it was not about having money or getting signed or anything like that. It was about having fun. Grabbing the Reykjavik energy, the spirit, which is huge.
Hössi: Reykjavik totally has an energetic source, you can hear it in bands like the Sugarcubes and Sigur Rós. We are definitely representing that energy and spirit. You’re hearing aggressive music-- but it’s not negative energy, it’s positive energy.
Sölvi: We’re not the only bands—there are others you should be paying attention to. Silt, Tractor, and Leaves...for example. The scene is flourishing, and it’s flourishing because individuality in Iceland is very strong. No other band wants to be like another band, so they all have their own specific identities.
Stoney: There’s only one rehearsal space in Reykjavik and you’ve got like, 100 bands. No band plays the same kind of music. Everybody wants to stand out. We’ve been big in Iceland for awhile, but no band has approached with a similar style. Like, you have Limp Bizkit here, and then suddenly you have all these Limp Bizkit copies. It’s exactly the opposite there.
Quarashi is really an amalgam of sound: I hear Rage Against The Machine-type stuff, hip-hop, pop, metal…
Stoney: We like to mix it up.
Sölvi: We want to mix it up more! There are lots of bands we’re…we’re not stealing from, but rather, paying homage to.
Stoney: Loads of black rap bands…
Hössi: Like Public Enemy! Not only the white boys of Rage. Thing is, people have been trying to compare us to other bands, they always do. But even Mozart got compared to others when he was doing variations of other’s stuff. Just as long as we’re not compared to evil bands. Evil bands like Chumbawumba! [grimaces]
Sölvi: It’s hard to give rap-metal a good name. The reason you can’t define this as hip-hop is because two of us were in punk bands, and we grew up listening to Zeppelin or the Beatles. Hip-hop is not our song-structure. We structure our songs more like pop songs with verses and choruses. So there you have a traditional element incorporated with rap metal or hip hop, whatever you want to call it.If we can make an effort to get people to like rap metal again, for what it is. If you listen to records like Fear of a Black Planet [Public Enemy], or Anthrax—that’s really good music. I don’t want people to forget that this is cool music.
Fifteen minutes after interview’s end, Quarashi burst out onto the second stage of PointFest 14, with the daunting task of exciting an unfocused, meandering crowd in the mid afternoon sun. Not only did they succeed, but they generated the first fracture-worthy moshpit of the day. The crowd ate ‘em up, and no one will forget Quarashi’s cool music anytime soon.
[Editor’s note: The band asks that you visit them on the message boards at www.Quarashi.net. “We make an effort to read and answer everything,” says Hössi, “after all, the fans are the ones employing us.” The site also has a link to join their street team, if you’re so inclined.]