Cool heat in rock lab
October 08 2002
The land of fire and ice just keeps producing a lava flow of unique music, reports Chris Johnston.
Iceland's most famous export, Björk, has moved back home, for some of the year at least. She now spends part of the year in Iceland's isolated capital, Reykjavik.
"In Iceland people don't really care about fame," she told Britain's Daily Telegraph. "Reykjavik is such a small town; there's no mystery. You are who you are; you're just a normal sod like everyone else."
On the strength of a barrage of new, inventive music over the last 12 months - the post-Björk new wave - the New York Times has dubbed Reykjavik a "global rock laboratory".
Bands such as Mum (pronounced "Moom") and Sigur Ros (meaning "Victory Rose") are the hottest tickets in alternative music. And a long list of Icelandic contenders wait in the wings - the next Next Big Things. Never mind the revisionism of the Vines and the Strokes; Icelandic new wave types take pride in sounding unlike anything else. Which is why, suddenly, they do so well. Their kind has not been heard - or heard of - before.
When Bjork emerged as part of the Sugarcubes in 1988, it was the start of something big. Her solo albums - Debut, Post, Homogenic and last year's Vespertine , all of which embraced electronica - have bridged the tricky divide between experimental and popular.
But as well as her unique voice, Björk Gudmundsdottir's Icelandic-ness has rendered her exotic. Most reports on her, and her country's music, are peppered with references to Norse gods, Vikings and the inhospitable landscape - the "land of fire and ice".
This has been a big selling point in Bjork's music. For the new wave, the same applies. The Iceland tag has become a seal of approval in alternative and underground music.
It helps, of course, that much of the music has this original and compelling quality to it. Sigur Ros, particularly, is an intense tonal guitar band with a choral, almost operatic, sound. The lyrics, when there are any, are only in Icelandic. The band toured Europe with Radiohead after the album Agaetis Byrjun became a surprise hit.
A new album - with the minimalist title of ( ) - is due at the end of October. Music industry insiders say the tracks are untitled, and the CD comes with a 12-page white booklet that is mysteriously blank.
Mum, meanwhile, is an equally hip, low-fidelity electronic/acoustic outfit, using ancient Casio keyboards, samplers, laptops and sequencers among accordions, cellos, violins, harps, melodica, glockenspiels and clarinets. One member has quit to continue her classical cello studies, but the band, now split between Iceland and Germany, vows to continue, perhaps even with a human drummer.
Mum's newest album, Finally We Are No One , was written and partly recorded in a lighthouse. "Iceland is shaped somewhat like a dragon, and this was on the dragon's forehead," says band member Gunnar Orn Tynes. "There was a town half an hour away by boat. It is an orange lighthouse and a small white house with a red roof. There is a barn. There is a stream. There is a rocky beach and mountains and a valley. It is very nice."
Icelandic musicians agree that the extreme landscapes influence their creativity. But more relevant is the country's isolation and size, says Thor Skulason, the head of Thule Records, Iceland's biggest independent label.
"In the scene, everybody is a friend of each other. Everybody knows Sigur Ros very well and Mum, and therefore you can't copy your friends."
Skulason says Icelandic musicians are reluctant to soak up European or American trends: they are more willing to go out on a limb. Then, he says, there's the weather. It is freakish. It fires up the synapses. "Every 15 minutes we have a different kind of weather. We have the sun, we have snow, we have everything. Icelandic people have a lot of energy because we always expect the unexpected."
Skulason started his record label in 1997 with only one song - a techno track called Strobelight Network by Cold. The song did so well with DJs in Europe that he was able to branch out into other kinds of music. Now he has distribution deals around the world, including Australia.
Thule's most hotly tipped acts at the moment are Trabant, with strange electronic pop music, and The Funerals, made up of members of Trabant, who do country music. Their album Pathetic Me is a surprise hit on American college radio.
"These guys had never played this kind of music before, ever," says Skulason. "They just decided they wanted to, so they wrote eight songs then went to a mountain cabin with no electricity and hired a diesel (generator) then recorded on a two-track tape machine over one weekend. They were extremely drunk."
There is also a lauded Icelandic ambient compile called 42 More Things To Do In Zero Gravity , and an interesting rock-oriented band, Sofandi. But next year, says Skulason, will be big. He is releasing what he predicts will be the biggest name in Icelandic music since Bjork. Her kind will never happen again. But Apparat Organ Quartet, he says, won't go unnoticed.
"They will be a very big underground hit. If you imagine, on stage, Kraftwerk, with three or four really old keyboards and organs and a drummer in the middle. They dress in suits. They have a gothic feel. They play everything live. It's also got a punk element, like a dance-punk element. Someone said `Kraftwerk meets Iron Maiden'."
Gunnar Orn Tynes, from Mum, says his band toured non-stop for three months this year. Everywhere he went - Japan, Europe, America - people wanted to know why Icelandic music was so strange and brilliant. Most of the time, he says, no one cares about Iceland, and it revels in its isolation. But now there's all this hype and expectation.
"It feels like it is not real, all this talk," he says. "It's just make-believe. It's strange to be the subject of it. But we don't care. I try and hold my ground and not be sucked in by it. I just make music, and read, and write, and watch movies, and ride my bicycle."