Some 30 years in the making, Agzilla's debut long-player is arguably the most diverse ever to grace the Metalheadz catalogue
A debut album is a paradigm shift moment for any artist. An explosion of ideas, inspiration and emotions built up from the moment they took a deep dive into their craft: that inaugural long player comes loaded with so much history and energy, it’s one reason why the second album is burdened with that ‘difficult’ cliché.
But imagine if that album had taken almost 30 years, the whole of the time since you first became a DJ, and got so inspired by the sounds of UK hardcore and the emergent strains of jungle that you set up the first dedicated record store for it and held the first illegal raves in your country.
Such is the case of Agzilla. A man who was neck deep in the very dawn of rave culture in Iceland, and was the first to invite a whole series of jungle forefathers to his country. His album Cats Can Hear Ultrasound has been building up since those formative days. Decades of influences, ideas, encounters. A whole other life as an architect and carpenter. And, sadly, personal loss, as well as a burglary that nearly brought his entire career to a grinding halt.
As a result, it’s without doubt one of the longest running works-in-progress albums on Metalheadz, which is saying something considering last year’s opus from Blocks & Escher took the best part of half a decade! It’s also one the most diverse albums you’ll find in the 'Headz cannon, which is also saying something given how progressive and open-armed Goldie’s label has always been.
Blasting us off into the cosmos with the rusty rolling breaks of the opener Tripping Over Laces. Bringing us back down softly somewhere in the middle of the Sahara on the mystic magic downtempo carpet ride of closer Powder Keg. All shades and styles in between: the cosy Orbital-esque harmonic nostalgia and bleep-bloop Q&A of Homefront, the abyss-deep Detroit tones of Reneri, the lavish piano stimulation of Spread Out, the list goes on. To describe the album as an explosion of ideas, inspiration and emotions would be an understatement.
We called up Agzilla, real name Agnar Agnarsson, to find out more, and he gave us an exclusive mix for good measure. Listen to it as he tells you how one of Metalheadz' most beguiling albums of recent times came to be…
Over the years I’ve met several people around the world who were effectively the first D&B importers to their country or region. I read that you and Goldie go back to 1991, so I reckon you’re the guy for Iceland! Were you were responsible for switching your country onto D&B?
"Ha ha, thanks! Yeah, I guess that I can sign for that. But I was just a kid who was very excited to share it with everybody in Iceland at the time. When I was 18 or 19 years old, I had opened up my first store and started a streetwear and record business in Reykjavik. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing! But I was excited by what I was discovering in Europe."
Where did you personally find it?
"In 1989, I started DJing hip-hop, instrumental breakbeats, all the Belgian stuff, the R&S material. And then I found Shut Up & Dance records. That was the first whiff of it. I took what I discovered and was hungry for more. I was visiting England three or four times per year: it was like Mecca and I picked up as many records as I could.
"But I wasn’t a very good businessman. All of my store income was spent exploring the culture in the UK and bringing it back. I was throwing illegal raves and just doing whatever I could to support it with my friends."
Who did you bring over to your parties?
"We had Nico from No U Turn, we had J Majik, DJ Lee, Boymerang, Trace, Ed Rush... it was a very vibrant scene at the time. We were throwing parties during weekdays, which was unheard of in Reykjavik. It was small but super energetic.
"After that, I moved to the United States to pursue my career in architecture and passed the torch on to the next crew, Breakbeat.is, who brought a whole load of other people over. The scene remained healthy for a long time."
Was music always bubbling in the background when you moved away and worked as an architect?
"I would say so, since I’ve always been a DJ in some kind of capacity. But after we did Rollin Like Scottie with Biogen(who was in Ajax, who Goldie first made records with), he wasn’t available and I didn´t write anything for a long time.
"I wasn’t much of an engineer at that point and I was consumed with DJing and my retail business. It was also very expensive to get into. But when DAWs and things like Reason came in, I started to get into producing."
The album feels I’m like I’m walking inside your record collection. If you’ve been working on music for all that time, is that why the album feel likes this mad rush of influences?
"Oh, wow, I hadn’t thought of it like that. Maybe, yeah.... like it was this mad bubble that got burst. All these sounds and ideas I’ve been storing subconsciously came rushing out. Interesting."
How long exactly have you been working on the album?
"Let’s just say Goldie has been waiting on me for a while! I commend him for that. He asked me for the tunes for a good while…"
Are we talking years or decades here?
"Ah, I wasn’t going to give this up! I guess the oldest track is 14 years old, and he had been waiting on me for almost a decade…"
Wow, that really is a long time!
"Yeah, there were issues along the way… A friend of mine who was assisting me in his studio, Bix, got burgled, and we almost lost everything. I gave up on the project. We did so much work there, and some of the key tracks were gone. I could have gone back to the raw sketches I’d done and worked my way back, but I was deflated and couldn’t bring myself to work on it.
"But when Amit came over to DJ, I was playing him some things I’d done. He wanted to sign it, but I told him that Goldie had first dibs. Then, coincidentally, around that time those lost hard drives found their way back home."
"Let’s just say that the positive energy we’d put into the music came back to us. And so did the drives."
Ha. Now I need to work out which track is the 14-year-old one. Maybe Tripping Over Laces? It’s at the start and has a strong classical vibe…
"I can see why you said that. It’s a very nostalgic track for me. There’s a nostalgic thread running through the whole thing. But the oldest tracks are either Reneri or Spread Out or Homefront – the reason Tripping Over Laces sounds older is because producing contemporary drum & bass is challenging for me.
"There are certain sonic parameters and rules that cannot be swayed too much. It’s a discipline that I admire, but it’s not why I make music. I think that I subconsciously went back to that early sound with Tripping Over Laces. I went back in time: I didn’t want to jump ahead of myself, I started at the foundations and will work my way up.
It’s a steep climb isn’t it? Engineering-wise, drum & bass is at an insane level…
"Oh man, there’s so much crazy talent out there! But I’m doing a lot of different things. I’m not just concentrating on music, so engineering has not been something I can take to that level, just yet. For me, music is much more of a healing thing. It’s like my psychiatrist."
It’s helped you through some dark times?
"It manifested when I was in New York. It was a detrimental time at one point. I lost seven people close to me in one year, and I was struggling mentally: I quit my dream architecture job, I was totally lost.
"But I somehow found refuge in the music. I was able to take that energy and anger and loss and put it into the music. Then as I listened back it, it helped me to work my way through things. That’s what music is about for me, and always will be."
I’m wondering if that’s reflected in the album title Cats Can Hear Ultrasound. Something you alluded to in another interview – “Who are the cats? Does the inaudible represent the emotional realm?” – makes me think it is…
"Well, cats in the album title are the street cats, the jazz cats. The emotional level? That’s more of a mystery… but I’ve been captivated by that phrase since I read it. It just stuck in my head."
You’ve had the title for your debut album in your head all along?
"Absolutely. Years and years. It’s actually been the one constant as the album took different shapes and forms. Mentally, for me, it was becoming a burden. I knew that the album needed to come out. As I sent Goldie new tracks, he’d be like ‘Ah, let’s put this on the album!’ but we continued to change it as I kept coming up with other ideas. There was a huge sense of relief at the final stages."
Like when you submitted it for mastering, or its release?
"Totally. It’s out there now. It’s created room for motivation to finish a lot of my older tracks. Most of them are on a similar experimental tip, but there are also jungle and D&B pieces."
Yes, and I saw you’ve been working with Jeremy Sinistarr recently!
"Yeah. We´ve done some tracks in the past, and we are currently working some new ones. Jeremy is the man! He’s special. He’ll walk into a room and light it up. He´s really good at elevating the vibe wherever he is, which is a rare thing. Musically, he’s super-cool, he really has his own sound."
I think many would say the same for you, too…
"Ha, thanks! I hope so. People keep describing what I make as techno, house, breaks, bass, jungle… but it’s all of that and something more."
Words: Dave Jenkins
Cats Can Hear Ultrasound is out now on Metalheadz
For those who'd like to know more on the early Icelandic rave scene, Agzilla has kindly suggested this video...