I love Icelandic music forever
Icelandair’s aeroplane Valdís, and not Sugarcubes’ Regina, brought me on Tuesday the 16th of the 10th for the fourteenth time to Iceland. For the third time in a row, I went to Reykjavík to enjoy the 9th Iceland Airwaves Music Festival. Only this time I got a Press Pass: so here’s the report by your “I love Icelandic Music” Reporter.
So much better than your normal life
(Jan Mayen, Gaukurinn)
The first night, after enjoying a pizza at Restaurant Hornið, I went to the nearby Gaukurinn, or full name Gaukur á Stöng. The name means ‘Parrot on a Stick’, and it’s a famous venue in the heart of Iceland’s capital. A bar annex restaurant with a history in breaking the laws, especially the beer ban (until 1989 no beer in Iceland!). Four bands were on stage to kick off my Festival: Sudden Weather Change, Mammút, Who Knew and finally Jan Mayen. Jan Mayen gave us long versions of the song with some nice freaky guitar solos.
My favourite colour is blue
After a good night of sleep in Hótel Frón, situated in Reykjavík’s shopping street Laugavegur, I had my early morning walk to The Nordic House, Nórræna Húsid. For the first time, this house by Finnish architect Alvar Alto and a meeting place for all Scandinavians in Iceland, took part in the Airwaves. Some photographs of the previous gigs by Icelandic and non-Icelandic artists at the festival by Iceland’s best photographers were exposed on the walls. But there was a little bit more to watch: a part of the Pönk eða Diskó exhibition and 2 screens: one with the ‘Rokk í Reykjavík’ movie by Fríðrik Þór Fríðriksson, another with an interview of Icelandic music specialists/artists, e.g. Einar Örn “Sugarcube” Benediktsson.
I had a tasty Grillhúsið Lasagna at Tryggvagata Street, near Reykjavík’s harbour and once the street of Björk Guðmundsdóttir. After a chat with an Icelandic friend, Villi, and a cappuccino at Sólon, I went straight to the Smekkleysa ehf. (Bad Taste) shop. Once more, it had moved! Back again to Laugavegur: first it was situated under the Bónus Supermarket, a year later they were based opposite Sirkus, a famous nightclub/DJ spot and featured in a Björk video. I bought 4 Icelandic albums at Smekkleysa. After that I moved to the other alternative recordshop/label, 12 Tónar, in the artist street, Skólavörðustígur. Also Mr. Destiny, the organiser of the Airwaves Festival, is situated just a few steps away. Rökkurró gave a short gig in a crowdy shop, always providing something to drink for Icelandic music enthusiastics, a strong coffee or something else. Skál guys!
Rafskinna, an Icelandic DVD Magazine, had a Vodka Party sponsored by Finlandia. The press got a preview of the next number: a long drum solo by Bjössi, how to have a tasty and ‘handy’ barbecue with New Yorker Grizzly Bear, and a Gunni and Örvar video of the duo crossing all Reykjavík’s places of múm’s interest in a van. And of course there was music: Seabear and Skakkamanage did both a gig for a small crowd. Just in time after a bite in “two with everything”, Rúnar Þórisson, an Icelandic guitar hero and band performing @ NASA, a big concert place nearby Iceland’s Parliament AlÞing. The Icelandic Blondies with good voices were next: Single Drop’s singer, followed by Elíza (Newman Geirsdóttir), now solo after being in a band (Bellatrix and Skandinavia). Three American young sisters, the band Smoosh, performing in colourful Pippi Longstocking socks on stage stole the show. By that time the ‘Girl Power’ was over: 3 Icelandic bands on a row. Soundspell, “My favourite colour is blue” with a non-blue light on the singer’s face at the start of this song, Lights on the Highway and finally Shadow Parade.
F*** you, I won’t do what you tell me
(FM Belfast & Örvar, Icelandair Party)
After my breakfast I went to the nextdoors Skífan Shop to buy some more Icelandic records. With a Grillhúsið hamburger in my stomach, via the Tjörnin Pond and the University, by feet back to The Nordic House. Boys in a Band, a band from the Faroe Islands were singing a song ‘bout a train, like their homeland Iceland has neither a railway. A surreal song song on islands in the North Atlantic Ocean. Sprengjuhöllin, brought blood, much sweat and no tears into Da House. Had a nice meal, chicken breast with a Viking (the official Festival) Beer and Villi @ Végamót Restaurant, where an Icelandic favourite artist of mine, Barði Jóhannsson (of Bang Gang and Lady and Bird fame), was having a big cup of coffee too.
Elíza gave a gig at Off-Venue Place, the Smekkleysa Recordshop/Pop, Rokk & Rósir 2nd Hand Shop. After the gig she signed her first solo album “Empire Fall” for me.
Klukkan sex, at six o’clock, I was early at the Icelandair Opening Party with FM Belfast on stage of Kjarval’s Museum. "Jóhannes Kjarval", Iceland’s most famous painter and also song No. 4 track on the 1977 childhood album of Björk Guðmundsdóttir – as you all know auðvitað. After some beers, I ran to be in time at 19:30 for Worm is Green on the Museum stage. After the electropop of W=G, time for some Icelandic (am)popmusic ‘Big in the UK’ Ampop, a trio good looking boys in a band. Quick bite in 2 hot dogs again at 'the best in town', met 4 Danish girls who were having a pylsur with red wine, ‘cause some Icelandair Party booze slipped into their handbags. Smart Danes! Straight to Organ venue, for more Icelandic music by Úlpa duo, crowd surfing by The Telepathetics, Kimono and finally Skátar (Engl. Boy Scouts). Ghostigital’s Curver and Einar Örn were having a meeting in the basement. During the performance of Khonnor from the USA, it was over and out for me and bedtime story time.
If you don’t jump, you’re English
(Gus Gus and friends, NASA)
Friday, fishday for me at Grillhúsið. For the third day, meeting the goose in front of The Nordic House, on my way to Alto’s building to see the female singer-songwriter Lay Low. Lay Low, aka Lovisa, was late (with a delayed flight straight from Akureyri in the north), and the Icelandic radio had to broadcast it life, so the short acoustic gig was running late and didn’t impress me much.
Something radical and new at 17:00: open interviews organised by Grapevine Magazine by music journalists. Árni Matthíasson of Morgunbladið Daily Newspaper, had an interview with rock star, boxing enthusiastic and Idol jury member Bubbi Morthens, maybe Iceland’s most productive artist so far. Bubbi, of Utangardsmenn (Engl. The Outsiders), Das Kapital and Égo fame to name a few, argued that to many albums these days are in English, and artists do not sing in their mother language. Arnar Eggert Thoroddsen of Morgunbladið had a talk with Gunni and Örvar of múm about their latest release and the new musical way. I was there, at Fríkirkjan, to listen to the last tones by troubadour Siggi Ármann, a musical discovery or treasure of Siggi “Sugarcube” Baldursson and Jóhann “Apparat” Jóhannsson. Steintryggur and Australian friend Ben Frost were next on the church program. Holy percussion and an Icelandic “Toots” Thielemans.
The lo-fi of Mr. Silla (a lady!) and Mongoose (a Viking?) kicked-off a long night at NASA. Next were Bloodgroup with a singer with big glasses jumping in a Mickey Mouse t-shirt. Skakkamanage had a “one armed” friend on stage to be the “Toots” here, one again Örvar of múm – a very busy Airwaves schedule he had, just like me ;-). The non-Icelandic intermezzo on Friday was the British band Prinzhorn Dance School. Continued by Motion Boys, a sort of Icelandic Scissor Sisters, and catchy sing-along songs. It took a while until the invasion of the stage by Gus Gus took place. Daníel Ágúst was Jesus Christ, stripping like an untattood (as far as I could notice) Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode. Earth and the backing vocals were in nice colourful outfits and President Bongo with a hat. Mess-up on stage with the Ghostigital duo, Esja’s Krummi, and the Hairdoctor to jump on “If you don’t jump, you’re English”. The 2:00 apotheosis was provided by Hairdoctor, the friends of Gus Gus and Reykjavik!’s Haukur, having a pillow fight and a confetti rain as a prelude for a rainy night unfortunately without northern light.
Give me gold
(Hellvar, Grand Rokk)
After a late breakfast and visiting some bookshops, I walked straight to Kolaportið, the Flea Market of Reykjavik, next to the capital’s harbour downtown. To search for some good music, but today must is put on Ebay by the sellers. Nothing special I wanted. But I found one magazine with an article on the history of Icelandic music (period: 60s - The Sugarcubes/1991), a book about Vikings translated in Icelandic and an Iceland Review book about farry tales of Iceland. Had a pasta lunch in Restaurant Hornið, good food but served by an unfriendly Icelandic waitress. Went back to the Flea Market to buy a desert: a big icecream with chocolate sauce, Ísinn í boxi með súkkulaði sósu.
In the afternoon I bought a book about Disco & Punk in a small shop at Laugavegur. The band Sometime without Curver performed at Smekkleysa/Pop, Rokk & Rósir shops in stead of Steintryggur & Frost. 17:00 I arrived early at Fríkirkjan church near the Pond Tjörnin for the performance of Amiina, the first time they’ll have a gig at the Airwaves. The 4 girls and a drummer gave a long intimate concert for a full church of devoted fans. We got few extra songs. Encore! Fleira! Eat the menu: quick bite in a pizza before going for the free beer at the Naked Ape shop just around the corner. The Ghost, 2 boys from the Faroe Islands gave everything for the small audience. FM Belfast again, with the singer’s mom watching, the band was unstoppable like Amiina: one of my revelations of Airwaves ’07. Went to my hotel to prepare myself for a night at Grand Rokk.
More Belgians were watching the gig by Stafrænn Hákon, who just had finished their UK Tour. South Coast Killing Company, or an Irish singer, a female drummer and an Iceland retired punk were playing rockabilly blues. Hellvar’s Heiða Eiríksdóttir gave me a master of the fortcoming album “Bat out of Hellvar”, out on Kimi Records label (Akureyri) soon, and the first single will be “Give me gold”. I got a “I love Icelandic Music” T-shirt for her. Hellvar is 4 guitars on a row today, with the newcomers Sverrir on bass and Alexandra on guitar standing next to Elvar on guitar and behind the computer. I made some shots of Hellvar’s electrorock performance to put on my fansite “Go to Hellvar” and for YouTube. Heiða had been training to improve her podium act, and her female friend from Keflavík, Bíbi of Singapore Sling and Bellatrix fame, was there for some enthousiastic support. While Noise was making some grunge noise on stage, we went outside to take some pictures or to smoke. Dýrðin, with 2 bionic energetic synchronic singers doing punky poptunes, earned my attention again at 0:30. Ég was next, with the guys of Jan Mayen to listen and dance to the Album of the Year (2005) songs and others. Last gig by Hooker Swing, or punky rockabilly about making love. At 3:00 I had to leave the chesshouse annex club Grand Rokk, together with the American band members of Khonnor (without masks and wigs this time).
Abbababb! The Musical
(Dr. Gunni and his friends, Hafnarfjörður Theater)
9:30 - Having breakfast @ Frón while watching MTV on the big screen. Duran Duran’s “A view to a kill” with James Bond goes Iceland (featuring the icebergs of Jökulsárlón glacial lake).
Took the coach to Hafnarfjörður Theatre around noon after bying a lunch in a local bakari. Did a short sideseeing by feet of the Town of the Hidden People - or should I say Viking Town? - had a cappuccino in a café and at 1:15 met The Abbababb! Family. Heiða and Elvar of Hellvar provided my the best seat to watch the musical.
In 1998 Gunnar Lárus Hjálmarsson, aka Dr. Gunni, made with a little help of his musical friends an album for children called “Abbababb! Dr. Gunni og vinir hans syngja og leika fyrir börnin”. Gunnar is one of the central figures of the Icelandic underground music scene since 1980s, and prominent member of S.H. Draumur (or Black & White Dreams) which transformed into the band Bless. Bless made in the album “Gums”, on which Björk Guðmundsdóttir, the singer of The Sugarcubes, did some backing vocals on 2 songs. Dr. Gunni is a very active person who works as a freelance writer, a radiopresenter/DJ, but as well as a TV host of the pop music quiz show called Popppunktur on the Icelandic television. Not to mention Dr. Gunni is world famous in Finland, especially in Oulu. And the book by his hand, “Eru ekki allir í stuði? Rokk á Íslandi á síðustu öld” (translated as ‘Are we having fun yet – Icelandic rock music in the last century’), a sort of anthology or even sort of encyclopaedia of Icelandic (rock) music in the last century, is a milestone in Icelandic music history. The unique part of this book is a list of the 100 best records ever made in Iceland, accordings to various music specialists. The various friends who collaborated with Dr. Gunni for Abbababb! were, among others: Unun’s singer Heiða Eiríksdóttir, Reptile’s singer Magga Stína, Icelandic ‘Beatle’ Rúnar Júlíusson, gay popstar Páll Óskar, Iceland best known catholic and comedian Jón Gnarr, and Didda. Valgeir Sigurðsson, nowadays of Bedroom Community fame, was in charge of recording the album at Groðurhúsid. The Compact Disc, number 76 on the Smekkleysa (Bad Taste) label, became a huge hit. The song “Prumpufólkið” (translated in English as ‘The Farting Song’) is known by heart by everyone who was a kid in Iceland a decade ago.
Nearly 10 years later, Dr. Gunni decided to make a musical with the CD as a starting-point. With the help of the director María Reyndal Abbababb! The Musical was created. Some totally new songs were written to make a logical play for children, both big (read: parents) and small. February the 11th 2007, the musical had the premier at the City Theater of the town Hafnarfjörður, Hafnarfjarðarleikhúsið, just next door to the famous Norwegian-kitsch Viking Restaurant and Hotel Fjörukráin. By the 15th of June, it already won the Icelandic Theater Award Griman, the Award for the Child’s Play of the year 2007.
While attending the Iceland Airwaves Festival this year for the third time in a row, I was so lucky to get a VIP treatment, sitting in the first row – for the adults – even seeing the rehearsal just before the real show started. So not just a lazy Sunday afternoon! I have to tell you that, while working in the local hospital of Akureyri back in 1998, I used the Abbababb! album to get grip on the difficult Icelandic language. So for me it was like sitting in a time machine straight back to the capital of North-Iceland and singing along with the songs.
A whole bunch of kids and relatives got a terrific show lasting more than 1.5 hours, with a candy and toilet break in between. The music, as performed live by the trio Birgir Baldursson on drums, Elvar Geir Sævarsson on guitar and Dr. Gunni as bass guitarist, fitted exactly with the play. The actors (and the band if functional) were using the whole stage and the visual and sound effects were perfectly integrated in the story.
The musical play tells the story of three young kids, Óli, Halla and Aron Neisti, who discover the world and got involved in a Rock ’n’ Roll adventure of a lifetime. Troubles by the bullying by the big boys (Stóru Strákarnir), the friendship with a female punk pirate Systa Sjóræningi (a Siouxsie Sioux but without Banshees, a character created long before Johnny Depp played hid rock pirate à la Keith Richards), 3 Russians with explosives, and some unavoidable American tourists in the land of fire and ice making a lot of noise by farting. The ‘boy meets girl’ story line, here Disco versus Punk music, making this musical also a sort of Icelandic West Side Story, with finally everybody rocking in a free world (unfortunately a world with schools): “Ástin er Rokk og Ról”. The punk (and rock) symbolism and behaviour were used well, even featuring some spitting and stagediving from a school roof and crowd surfing. The children saw John Travolta look-a-like transforming in Neil Young: “Disko Sökkar”. The musical show featured one of my Icelandic heroes, probably Iceland’s best drummer Sigtryggur (Siggi) Baldursson as Hr. Rokk. As a kind of Bogomil Font put in a rock outfit, he’s table dancing around the clock. But also as baby or dog, he proved that he is ready for Hollywood. I only missed the song about the kitten of the original album, "Ó kisa mín”.
Jæja krakkar, Þa er Þetta bara búid! Over and out. Now it is only waiting for Abbababb! The Movie, coming soon at a theater next to you. I hope that Dr. Gunni finds an actor to impersonate the cat.
See you at ‘Rokkland’ Iceland, and please note that the Hotel Borg of the 21st Century is now being moved to a place near the harbour of Hafnarfjörður.
Dr. Gunni, the man who learned the Icelanders how to rock from a young age. Maybe this is the reason why Iceland has so many great musicians.
Back by bus, had some beers with Villi at Kofi Tómasar Frænda @ Laugavegur and Næstu Bar @ Ingólfsstræti before heading to Gaukurinn. Met Heiða and Alexandra of Hellvar while watching the performance of Who Knew @ Gaukurinn, followed by Sudden Weather Change. A déjà vu from Tuesday night. A Coral snap shot nextdoors, because too many people were inside. The Kiwis of Cuff off your hands were my fine final of the Airwaves ‘07.
Flying back to Amsterdam Schiphol with the Björk songs in my ears.
I hope to see you at the Iceland Airwaves ’08 for the 10th Anniversary edition of this cosy festival. Unfortunately downtown Reykjavík is losing it’s unique atmosphere. Since my first arrival in 1991, a lot has changed, renamed, burned and disappeared.
I hope Reykjavík get rid of the dog shit and all the other troubles you can experience in every big city in mainland Europe:
You are an island
From the song “Island” by Elíza (album Empire Fall, 2007)
© Wim Van Hooste 2007