INTERVIEW: A journey to Infinite Wellness with Ultraflex

Kari Jahnsen (Farao) and Katrín Helga Andrésdóttir (Special-K) make some time in their busy schedules to chat with HighClouds as we celebrate their new album by taking a deep dive into the bewitching world of Ultraflex.

When our Google Meet video chat first connects, one of us is momentarily missing. “Let me give Katrín a call. She’s been so busy editing our new video,” explains Kari. We’d been working on making this conversation happen for some time, dating as far back as the release of debut album Visions of Ultraflex in 2020 when our initial plans for an interview were complicated by a worldwide pandemic. Almost exactly two years later—and after a sickness and a work emergency required us to reschedule a couple of times—we finally manage to make our lives align, despite being in three different countries in three different time zones.

Kari: I am feeling better, yes. Thank you. It was a little stomach bug. I have a son in Kindergarten, and so I’m learning about all the germs.

For the uninitiated, Ultraflex is the divine collaboration between Farao (Kari Jahnsen) and Special-K (Katrín Helga Andrésdóttir), musicians from Norway and Iceland, respectively, with their own individual projects, who found themselves both living in Berlin with mutual “musical crushes” on each other. We’ve written a number of times about them—about their sparkling 80s dance-pop gems, the friendship so apparent in their work, and the self-aware flamboyance of their music videos. But today there are no outrageous outfits, no aerobic choreography, no puzzling persona. Instead, Katrín is curled up in a comfortable chair at her home in Reykjavik, and Kari takes a break from parenting in Berlin, both of them gracious and genuine as we ask to hear more about how these solo artists teamed up to become a duo.

HighClouds: At this point in your career, I particularly enjoy revisiting the “Olympic Sweat” video. It’s like a literal representation of you two joining forces and becoming this new thing: Ultraflex. I’d love to hear more about how you first ended up working together. How did that opportunity come about? Also, at some point I read that the two of you met by being matched on Tinder—I imagine there’s no truth in that?

Kari (with a sly smile): No, we may have made up a couple stories.

Katrín: Extreme Chill [an annual experimental music festival in Reykjavik] contacted me because they wanted to commission a musical collaboration between an Icelandic artist and a Norwegian artist. When they asked me to participate, I said I would but only if I could choose the Norwegian artist. They agreed, and so I asked Kari to join.

Kari: Originally we made just one piece. But it was a lot of fun, so we kept going.

HighClouds: What kind of piece did you create for the festival?

Katrín: It was a raw version of what would become the Visions of Ultraflex album. We wrote it in nine days, but then we ended up fleshing it out at Kari‘s studio in Berlin.

Ultraflex by Jae Tyler

Ultraflex first landed on the HighClouds radar back in May 2020 with the release of their origin-story video to “Olympic Sweat,” a dreamy disco instrumental, save for one brief moment in the back-half where Kari and Katrin‘s heavily processed voices simultaneously announce, “Ultraflex.” Since then, that vocal snippet has become a recognizable “producer tag” of sorts, appearing throughout their expertly curated mixes for, NBHAP, and Refuge Worldwide, all of which are revelatory and should be listened to as soon as possible. The past couple years have also seen the band win the Icelandic Music Award for Best Electronic Album as well as the Kraumur Award for Best Album. Now they’re back with follow-up album Infinite Wellness—eight new tracks of shimmery, atmospheric, electro-disco-pop, overflowing with synth hooks, dance beats, and breathy vocals.

Kari: Second albums are very difficult. Now people expect something from you.

It’s an easily understandable concern; critics have written for years about the dreaded “sophomore slump.” The thought even prompted Kari and Katrín to work with a band therapist/coach who had them write out an actual manifesto, ultimately reminding themselves, “We’re doing this because it’s fun.” And it must have helped: the fun these two undoubtedly have working on this project together is on full display throughout Infinite Wellness. Everything we love about their debut remains intact here—from the phat, arpeggiating bass patches to their self-proclaimed “club rap” vocals that manage to be simultaneously soothing, suggestive, and sometimes a little silly.

Ultraflex Infinite Welness album review interview

Earlier this year we published write-ups of two tracks from the new album, “Baby” and “Mi Vuoi,” both of which are absolute jams that update the sonic blueprint laid out in Visions. But what really deserves some extra love right now is the final Infinite Wellness single and unexpected highlight, “Melting Away,” one of the more perfect distillations of the Ultraflex brand. Imbuing mildly naughty (but also honest and vulnerable) lyrics with lovely R&B melodies, K&K‘s vocals sit atop an elegant arrangement that tones down the exuberant bass stabs of other tracks, and instead places the focus on the gorgeous synth-chime top line, delicate keyboards, and enough echoey whispers and breaths, they’re practically instruments themselves. Add to that some Spanish-guitar flourishes, marimba-esque padding, and even what sounds like a shakuhachi flute sample (!), and you’ve got a sensual slow jam that alludes to certain 80s and 90s production accents found in hits by Madonna, Enigma, and Enrique Iglesias. Synthesized and processed through Ultraflex‘s particular aesthetic lens, however, the end result transcends pastiche; it’s the emotional climax of the album.

There’s no mistaking the meaning of these lyrics, which bluntly describe the private-yet-universal thoughts of someone feeling sexual hunger for another:

“You can try, but you can’t hide desire / There’s a heatwave between my thighs / You know that I think about you late at night / Fascination and arousal”

However, for all the “dirty talk,” this is also a song about falling for that person hard. Perhaps it’s the angelic harmonies, the way their vocal quality balances sensuality with a sense of innocence, or the awkwardness of admissions like, “You take my hand, I become butter,” but you don’t feel this way about just anyone you’re attracted to. The yearning here is just as much about partnership and true intimacy as it is about sex. With “Melting Away,” Ultraflex has created a mini-masterpiece that locates the exact line separating love and lust and indulges in that feeling.

Ultraflex Infinite Welness album review interview 2

The music K&K make as Ultraflex is, for the most part, quite a departure from their individual Farao and Special-K solo ventures. They collaborate on every aspect of the band, with each claiming their own specific areas of expertise—while Katrín focuses on lyrics, riffs, and the visual component, Kari handles the beats, synthesizers, and bass programming. And by sharing these responsibilities with someone so aesthetically connected with the other, it makes all the work of completing an entire album—and producing music videos to accompany fully three-quarters of it—a much more pleasurable and fulfilling experience.

Katrín: I played some of our songs for my boyfriend, and he described it as “shiny and dirty at the same time.” And I feel like that makes a lot of sense, actually. I can make a dirty song, but I can’t make it shiny.

Kari: And I’m the opposite, so it works very well. We’ve learned a lot from each other.

Ultraflex Infinite Welness album review interview 3

Of course, it’s always been difficult to separate Ultraflex‘s music from the visual element—to the point where it almost feels more appropriate to refer to them as an audiovisual project rather than a band. Make no mistake: their songs still work as pop singles, and their albums still function as organized collections of them. But where Ultraflex really makes a statement—eliciting a surprising range of different, sometimes-conflicting feelings—is when the entire enterprise is considered as a whole. (See the video to Infinite Wellness lead-off track, “Relax,” which felt uncomfortable the first time, hilarious the second, but most certainly never relaxing.) This especially makes sense upon learning that Katrín, an avant-garde visual artist in her own right, wrote her university thesis on the importance of image in popular music. And this sentiment—the notion that music, lyric, and visuals play equally vital roles in the art form of pop—absolutely shows in their work. Please: Block out a half-hour in your schedule and check out their absolutely essential CTM Festival performance from January 2021, which is so well- conceived, staged, and executed, it plays much more like a concert film than a livestream.

If the “Olympic Sweat” video is a manifestation of two artists’ worlds converging (two becoming one), then the CTM performance is the immediate result of what was born from that artistic merger (two as one). Right from the jump, this concept is literalized by way of a visual motif used throughout the concert. For the first two minutes, Kari and Katrín lean back in their matching papasan chairs—surrounded by a lush array of houseplants, cocktail in hand—slowly crossing and uncrossing their legs, repeatedly and completely in-sync. In another portion of the show the two engage in an aerobics routine and other synchronized, exercise-inspired movement. And elsewhere still, they play a tranquil top line together on the same keyboard—their hands an octave apart—gracefully extending their arms outward in unison as the synth-chimes reverberate and fade.

Ultraflex Infinite Welness album review interview 4

It’s a distinctive, idiosyncratic, and oddly satisfying take on choreography—partially inspired by the same 80s Soviet aerobics videos projected onto the screen behind them—and we occasionally see variations on this theme in their music videos as well: Kari and Katrín sensually swinging a single squash racquet together as one body in “Full of Lust,” or completing one-person house-cleaning chores as a two-person unit in “Mi Vuoi.” The imagery is striking and somewhat hypnotic, but also deceptively playful. Although their Ultraflex appearance can often come across as stoic or inscrutable—the duo staring directly at us with a piercing gaze that manages to suggest something between apathy and desire—it’s not too difficult to imagine the two of them cracking up the moment the camera cuts. Specific shots offer fleeting glimpses into what it might be like on set, like the moment toward the end of Infinite Wellness club banger “Rhodos,” K&K silly-dancing outside at night, when Kari suddenly bends over in uncontrollable laughter.

HighClouds: It seems like making Ultraflex music videos doubles as a great excuse for packing a picnic, hitting the thrift store, and spending the day hanging out with friends—whether that involves swimming in a lake, sightseeing and clubbing in Cairo, or hiking coastal hillsides.

Kari: Yes, exactly. We are both crazy hard-working and always super busy. Not like a group project in school where someone ends up doing a majority of the work. But we also like to have fun with creating this world. And incorporating our influences and things we enjoy into that world.

Katrín: Like that Celine Dion song you like.

Kari: Right. There’s this Celine Dion video [“Think Twice” from her 1994 album The Colour of My Love] that has a man in overalls working on an ice sculpture. I love it, and so in our new video we’re going to have a man in overalls working on an ice sculpture, too. We copy things we like, but it’s always filtered through our aesthetic sensibility. Most “original” ideas come about that way.

Katrín: We also like to collaborate with friends whose art we appreciate. Okay Kaya [a Norwegian-American musician from Oslo], for example, has directed a couple of our videos.

Ultraflex Infinite Welness album review interview 5

This love of collaboration was something we especially noticed upon the release of the fifth Infinite Wellness single, “Under the Spell,” which arguably acts as a kind of companion piece or sequel to “Never Forget My Baby” from Visions. Both videos feature and were directed by regular collaborator (Icelandic musician and visual artist) Jóhanna Rakel. The newer song begins, “Sometimes when I’m in my room, I put on a tune and dance by myself,” which, notably, is precisely what Jóhanna‘s character does throughout the older video. However, whereas dancing it out, here, represents a distraction from longing—a way to cope with the tedious ache that forbids forgetting—in “Under the Spell” dancing has now become an empowering tool to help the singer-narrator do just that:

“Sick of feeling tender / Can’t even remember you / All the things you said begin fading when I move / I forget about you”

Ultraflex proves music and dancing to be the versatile, healing balms they are.

By this point I’ve taken up enough of their time, and although I’m very aware that Katrín has a video to continue editing, and that Kari has a kid to put to bed before heading out to a show, they generously stay a bit longer to chat about some of their all-time favorite musical influences:

Kari: For me, it is this Estonian funk legend, Uku Kuut.

Katrín: Yes, Kari has introduced his music to me, he’s great. And I absolutely love Jarvis Cocker from Pulp.

Kari: And there’s always Britney.

Katrín: There’s always BritneyCher. Janet [Jackson].

Kari: Oh, and our friends Easter. They’re a German-Norwegian duo, and they’re really great.

Ultraflex Infinite Welness album review by Julia Lee Goodwin

Katrín wants to know what I hear in their music, so I mention that moments of their “club rap” vocal style sometimes remind me of Neil Tennant from Pet Shop Boys (minus the eroticism), particularly his delivery in 1988’s “Left To My Own Devices.” It’s not quite singing, but it’s more than talking, and his melodic elongations of certain words (“phone up a friend who’s a paaarrty animal”) call to mind hooky moments like “mascaaarra down your cheeks, Bicaaardi in your drinks” from “Rhodos.” They were unfamiliar with the song, and so before saying goodbye, I promise to send them a link.

The Ultraflex project is endlessly fascinating and a world worth getting immersed in—there’s so much to discover in their music, their aesthetic sensibility, and their fandom of other music that, just when you think you’ve got them figured out, you realize that you don’t. Upon revisiting that PSB video myself, I was freshly reminded of the fact that it, too, features some (very different but no less awesome) exercise-inspired choreography, something I now appreciate within an entirely different context. Later that evening, I was enjoying my introduction to the sick 80s synth-boogie of an Estonian funk legend when I realized the album title Visions of Ultraflex must be a loving homage to Uku Kuut‘s collection of home recordings, Vision of Estonia. I couldn’t help thinking that this is what the pop music journey is all about—being influenced by something you love, sharing those influences with others, and perhaps using them to create something new, be it a song, an image, an emotion, or a combination of all three. And if you get the opportunity do that with a close, creatively like-minded partner and regular, admired collaborators… Well, that’s a rare and really beautiful thing. Some folks might even consider that a path to infinite wellness.

Infinite Wellness is out now on Kari‘s own Street Pulse Records. Grab a super-limited physical copy via Bandcamp below before it sells out.

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