INTERVIEW: Dream Wife ‘cut’ out for a bigger platform in the U.S.

Dream Wife, Dream Wife band, Rakel Mjöll, Rakel Mjoll

Dream Wife. Courtesy: Hollie Fernando

“I’m gonna fuck you up, I’m gonna cut you up,” sings Rakel Mjöll of Dream Wife on “F.U.U.,” the closer to the Icelandic-U.K. pop-punk trio’s explosive 2018 debut album.

Dream Wife

7:30 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 9
Cafe du Nord
Tickets: $12-$14.

The song has taken on meaning of positive aggression for Dream Wife, a band whose members, including guitarist Alice Go and bassist Bella Podpadec, have taken a vocal stand for both female and non-binary equality both on and off stage. To many, “F.U.U.” is about saying “enough is enough.”

Not many know the song, one of the first Dream Wife wrote, was originally about a bad haircut that Mjöll got. Later, the song continues: “…I’m gonna cut your hair and I want you to stare.”

Last summer, the band played a family-oriented music festival in northern England, at which point Mjöll and her bandmates switched up the lyrics once again, to “I’m gonna freak you out,” and the refrain, “I spy with my little eye bad bitches,” turned into a line about witches.

“All the kids were singing along! It was the cutest thing,” she said from Iceland, ahead of Dream Wife’s first headlining U.S. tour. “We could see loads of little kids on their parents’ shoulders, rocking out. And I was like, ‘You are the coolest parents!’

“[F.U.U.] was about a bad haircut, and the power the person has, with the scissors,” she said. “But that’s what I love about songs. Their meanings are changing and how you play is changing.”

Canada or bust for Dream Wife

When Rakel Mjöll of Dream Wife was 2, her father moved their family, including her three siblings, to Silicon Valley to pursue an education as a software engineer:

I had the most beautiful childhood. Like, very Brady Bunch. … It was the ‘90s, so it was the place to be if you were doing software engineering. He was quite rebellious because his whole family on his side; they’re all in theatre and the arts and music in Iceland. He was the rebel. He was the black sheep of the family because he wanted to do software engineering, and we moved to California. His parents were quite disappointed because they thought he’d be an actor.

We were in Chico, because my dad went to Chico State, and most of the years, we were in Santa Clara. It was just beautiful. I lived on a street with loads of kids, and we had a car wash and went to Disneyland. It was very cute. … I was very thankful to have my first years be in sunshine, and I really loved it. I was also really thankful to … have my teenage years in Iceland.

[Mjöll’s parents] were realizing that we weren’t speaking Icelandic anymore. He also wanted us to be Icelandic and to get to know our heritage in Iceland and get to know our family better. … That was quite an intense move because we had gotten so used to the sunshine, and Iceland has 10 different types of weather every day, so you have to be prepared for anything—snow and hail and sun and everything in one day.

We actually did a show in Oakland a year-and-a-half ago. We supported The Kills. A few of my childhood friends came, and a few of my neighbors came. It was the first time I performed in close to the proximity of where I was raised, so it was a very special moment.

As a band, Dream Wife itself has morphed from its original aim.

“The band was made with the sole purpose of going to visit Canada, and making a band to finance that trip,” said Mjöll, who was born in Iceland before her parents brought her to the San Francisco Bay Area.

She lived here from age 2 to 10. Her father, a software engineer, moved the family back to Iceland when he saw his three daughters and son start to lose their native language. Mjöll went to Brighton, in England, for her schooling in the theatre. Her father came from a long line of theatre artists, which made the software engineer the black sheep of his family. Needless to say, the family was happy when Mjöll and all her siblings pursued arts studies.

At university, Mjöll lived with Podpadec. One night, the two of them decided they wanted to visit Canada because they had friends living in various cities throughout the North American country.

To pay for the trip, the two decided to form a band and play shows along the way. The next day, they realized they couldn’t have a band by themselves, and asked Go, the best guitarist they knew.

“I was studying performance art in the university, and … this sounded like performance art–making a band with the sole purpose of touring Canada,” Mjöll said.

Her advisors also loved the idea, which meant the band and the tour would also be counted toward her requirements. Their first show was at an art gallery, for which they had only two half-finished songs.

“It was fun,” she said, chuckling.

Equality in the music industry

Dream Wife’s inaugural Canadian tour wouldn’t have been possible without the band members’ friends. The trio didn’t know what it was doing, Mjöll conceded. The members didn’t know how to produce and manage a tour, so they relied on their friends for everything, even getting from city to city.

They also relied on friends to get introduced to a concert promoter

“A lot of this band has been done in a DIY sense,” she said. “We’ve rather wanted to learn than to expect it from someone else. I think about all that kindness we’ve been given. Now we have a wonderful team around us who are incredibly helpful and understand our vision so we can do more.”

Rakel Mjöll comes from a long line of Icelandic artists. She has been acting since returning to Iceland, when she was 10:
Both my grandparents, and my aunt, and uncle, another uncle–they were all working in different theaters in Iceland. There’s such a really strong theatre culture here. … The standards are so high. It’s such an amazing thing for a country so small to have such a love for theatre and for music and art.
Coming here, I started working with my family. I got to be a child actor at one point, and [got] to know the theater inside and out.

My uncle, Ragnar Kjartansson, [is] one of the most amazing visual artists to come out of this country. It’s been great to be able to have seen his progress. He’s very genuine and very kind, and so it’s great when those types of people get to change art and art history. Me and my sisters moved back when he was still at art university, and he would always get us for all these different performance art pieces. … [One piece that the family performed at Carnegie Music Hall in Pittsburgh, Penn.] is called “Song,” where my sisters and I laid in a bed for three weeks and sang the same song over and over again for six hours a day. And that’s art. [Mjöll laughs].

It was very fun to grow up in that kind of family. All my siblings are doing different types of art forms now. My sister is a poet and playwright, my younger sister is a painter, my brother is a dancer.

RIFF: Your family is probably pretty happy about that.
Well, they think it is normal. [laughs]. Also, I think, I have this life, and we can do so many different things and not just one thing.

The popularity of Dream Wife has grown quickly in the U.K. and in Europe. They’ve gotten to tour and learn from the likes of Garbage last summer.

“In the U.S., we don’t necessarily have a large platform,” Mjöll said. “But if you have a platform, you should give back.”

To meet that goal, on its fall tours, both in the U.K. and the U.S., Dream Wife announced an open call for openers who had at least one member who identified as either female or non-binary. The project was undertaken alongside nonprofits GirlsRock London and the Girls Rock Camp Alliance.

It also reaffirms the band’s goal to face society’s objectification of women head-on. The band name itself was chosen as commentary of this.

The roll call received about 500 submissions, Mjöll said. That’s got the band thinking about hosting their own music festival.

“I’m looking at the U.K. right now, but it’s almost appalling seeing the lack of diversity [at festivals,” she said.“And when you ask about the lack of diversity, you’re often met with  ‘Oh, but there aren’t that many exciting female acts going,’ or something like that. … There are, and that should be showcased rather than people expecting it to be a niche.

Dream Wife will be filming its tour for a documentary, and is excited to speak to all of the bands chosen to open.

“The best part is when you get to meet these bands and you get to learn more about what is happening in the local scene,” she said. “When you come from a different place and you’re only there for a day, it’s so great to have an insight into, like, ‘What is the San Francisco scene like?’”

Audience fuels style

In its own songs, the band often addresses discrimination, consent, societal expectations and self-worth. In the middle of the album, “Love Without Reason” provides a respite from the aggressive nature of the rest of the songs. Mjöll likened its vibe to that of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps.” Like that early-aughts classic, it’s about the acceptance of open vulnerability and the beauty of falling in love—whether that’s with someone else or yourself, she said.

“It’s this idea of letting go, and everything’s fine,” she said.

After Mjöll and her bandmates finished the album, was was largely shaped by their own experiences and that of their friends, they stepped back and realized the central theme was “showing different faces of women.”

“You write what you know and what we are are three women in our 20s,” she said.

Mjöll cites an unlikely writing inspiration: Dolly Parton; particularly her honest-but-cheeky nature.

The band’s rough-around-the-edges style comes from its live shows more than its inspirations. All three members grew up around sugary pop rather than rock. The Strokes are an influence, but so are the Spice Girls.

“The punk elements have to come in when you’re really enjoying the vibe of the audience and you’re getting rowdy together … and Alice breaks all the strings on her guitar and then jumps into the crowd,” Mjöll said. “That reminds me the live show is entertainment. And it’s not just entertainment for the audience; that’s for us to get that kind of level with the audience.”

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