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Interview with Santa Semeli & The Monks

Photo by Ben Buchanan.

Love, Life and Happy Endings?

Santa Semeli and the Monks are eclectic, impossible to pigeon hole they veer between European avant garde and punk, echoes of Henry Cow, Nick Cave and ‘Cabaret’ sit alongside full on rock! Their lyrics confront and engage with the human condition, the real lived experience that each of us uncomfortably recognizes, dealing with hope, disappointment, love, lust and our own inconsistencies. Full of honesty and warmth their album is like listening to the soundtrack of you life-not your Facebook life your real life-evoking memories that make you smile and wince.
In a pub near Camden Semeli Economou and Haraldur Agustsson agreed to an interview with Tim Forster.

Q: How long have Santa Semeli and the Monks been a musical entity? How did you meet and decide that you wanted to collaborate musically?

S: We got together as a musical entity in September 2013. We studied together at the same drama school, but we are a few generations apart. We actually met in December 2012 when I cast Haraldur in my short film The Burning Bush. Here’s a funny little anecdote: I got hold of Haraldur’s phone number to ask him if he was interested in playing a part in the film. I called a few times and left some messages to no avail. Eventually someone on a bus who sounded like a young kid and drunk picked up the phone. I asked if he had time to act in my film. ‘What’s the part then?’ So I started telling him all about the abstract nature of it…’Do you know Kokoschka?’ ‘Nah what’s that?’ I then asked if he was free to shoot on Saturday ‘Nah I’ve got school.’ ‘What on a Saturday?’ ‘Yeahhh’ We eventually hung up the phone. I thought he was the rudest guy ever. I told some people about it and they couldn’t believe it…Long story short I was given the wrong number. Haraldur could not be more different than the guy I’d spoken to. Thinking about it makes me laugh! Who did that poor kid think I was? A secret admirer? A prankster? Hahaha!!!

H: We had a good connection right from the start even though we knew nothing about each other but I really enjoyed being directed by Semeli, so when she approached me again I was curious to see where it would lead us. And here we are.
S: One single and an album later. All in less than a year. Not bad eh?

Q: How did you settle on Santa Semeli and the Monks as a band name?


H: It came to us one night at the pub after a lot of pondering.


S: It’s a long story but to cut to the chase: Who are the contemporary Saints of today and what do they offer? I think it’s a funny name and it makes everyone work with the right ethics and intentions, i.e to love and serve. Very fitting for music. It makes it better. Plus wouldn’t it be great for religion to serve art as opposed to art serving religion?  If you’re going to be an icon, you might as well go all the way and do some good in this world. Don’t fuck with the monks!

Q: Do either of you have a musical history?

S: My father was a brilliant concert pianist. A virtuoso and a composer so I grew up being exposed around great music and musicians. I had piano lessons too but I hated them, except for one nice teacher that I had when I was ten. I would often improvise with my dad on two pianos which was always fun! He would say to me: ‘You don’t need to play piano to be a pianist, or to prove anything to anyone, but wouldn’t it be nice to be able to play for your friends?’ I totally agree and I think that’s a beautiful thing to be able to do.
H: There is a rich singing culture in Iceland where I grew up. My parents sang in choirs and so did I from a young age as well as learning to play the guitar from the age of 8.
Q: What bands would you place yourself near on the musical spectrum?
S: I have no idea. What do you think? I don’t really consider us a band. We just are, you know? Whatever that means….
H: We just focus on making good music.
Q: Your music makes no attempt to compromise-to be commodity-it is ‘art’. Was that a deliberate decision or the effect of you priorities and personalities?
S: We just do what we love to do. I never think about pleasing, but I do think it’s important to have high standards and to produce good work and offer something beautiful and entertaining. Love what you do, love who you are. That’s all there is to it. That and a few Grammys. 
H: I guess you could say it is deliberate, although not specifically planned. Like you say, it is ‘art’. All we strive to do is make good art and any profit we might gain from that goes into making more good art.S: Just like any good religion. I actually don’t believe that capitalism works in the arts. It makes it bad. But it does work in accounting.

Q: Some artists find their work is more complete live-in the interaction of band and audience-does the live setting bring an extra dimension to your work?H: Performing live is always an intense experience, sometimes you can´t even remember having been on the stage when it´s over. I really enjoy it. Recording is completely different, you become very conscious of what you´re doing, and the best way to counteract the rigidity that could bring to one’s performance is simply imagining you´re playing live. Just going for it and seeing what happens often brings out the best results.

S: It’s always fun to perform live and having instruments support you on stage is a near-orgasmic experience really! It gives you a certain strength and feeling of invincibility. I love it. And I love making people happy. I really get a high from that. It’s like good sex…

Q: Do you aim to hold a mirror up to the world revealing the truth of our lived experiences, or are your songs more autobiographical? They have an authenticity that will resonate with many people, reminding them of past events, relationships.

S: First and foremost I hold a mirror at myself. That is the only way to sanity. In other words, awareness and honesty. At the same time it is my need as an artist to express myself and share my thoughts. I could keep them to myself but I would go insane and I think I have interesting things to say. I put myself forward by voicing my observations and experiences. People might take it personally but only because they’re ‘guilty’. Like me or shoot me…you’ll run out of bullets eventually. I try not to take myself too seriously, after all I’m not so important. Nobody is. At one point or another we all have similar thoughts and/or experiences and that’s the beauty of humanity. I want to highlight that with my work.


Q: Your album reminded me of a film soundtrack! Do you think your music making is informed by your involvements in film and drama?

S: This particular album is inspired by stories of past relationships. All songs have a story to tell and in some instances they are quite dramatic to say the very least. Santa Semeli The Movie. A comedy about a drama queen. I do like happy endings though…I’m an MGM Baby at heart.
H: It´s just storytelling really, and you can tell stories with all art forms.
Q: Who has inspired you musically and more generally?


H: The Beatles, Nirvana and many, many more. One of my favourite bands is Deerhoof, they have a great style which I´ve learned a lot from.


S: My first love was Tchaikovsky since I was in my mother’s womb. Because of him I wanted to be a ballerina and because of him I know that music can make the world a more beautiful place. My father taught me to be fearless and that music should be accessible to everyone to enjoy and not for the elite. He would play Beatles songs and he’d have all these so called ‘intellectuals’ around the piano singing along to ‘Rocky Raccoon’ or whatever. In later years my good friend Tony who used to be a Mod back in the day introduced me to all sorts of music like Nick Drake, Diamanda Galas, Tom Waits, The Rolling Stones, Harry Nilsson, etc. He basically gave me his entire i-Tunes library which was super eclectic and so I studied a lot. My ex husband introduced me to The Velvet Underground, who’s favourite band it is. I really love Lou Reed because he did whatever he felt like doing and I rate him highly as a poet.

Then I fell in love with a pretty brilliant pop icon and because of him, for all sorts of crazy reasons, I was put back onto my intended path which I was previously afraid to follow: Making and performing music.


Q: Do you think the overall sound and ethos of Santa Semeli and the Monks is the result of your diverse cultural backgrounds, a synthesis of your diversity?


S: It’s all the result of loving what we do. Each day is different but we can only bring to the table who we are. 

H: With us there are two very different worlds being united and something massive is going to come out of that collision as a result . What exactly we don´t know yet, but time will soon tell…

Photo by Roger Eaton.


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