Bands, fans and ex Sugarcubes come together for I Never Went South festival
March 24th, 2008
While the rest of Europe was still working on its line-ups, Iceland got its music festival season underway over the Easter weekend (March 21-22).
Despite snow, the biting cold and its proximity to the Arctic Circle, coastal fishing town Isafjördur in the island's West Fjords region, staged a two-day, free music event at its harbour area.
Featuring nearly 40 native bands the I Never Went South festival - a reaction to Icelandic musicians' tendency to gravitate to the capital, Reykjavik - is the brainchild of singer-songwriter Mugison, who has achieved recognition outside of Iceland and is supporting Queens Of The Stone Age in Canada next month.
Now in its fifth year the festival, held in a basic tin barn on the town's quay, takes place every Easter despite the chilly conditions. And it's all because of a show its creator once played in London.
"The original idea was from a gig I did at the ICA in London on what was the hottest day in something like 400 years," Mugison told NME.COM. "It was an arty farty thing so my father [Isafjördur's harbour master] and I had this great idea to do it here in the roughest conditions, not having the arty element but focusing on the local scene. At the first festival Sigur Ros did a country set, but the main focus on someone's grandfather who was headlining! We do it at Easter because it's a holiday and people can have a hangover. It's definitely the roughest conditions and the toughest part of Iceland."
While previously the likes of Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys and Blonde Redhead have played the festival, 2008 saw the focus firmly on Icelandic acts, with many travelling from across the country - some braving "the world's second most difficult landing" at the local airstrip - to play. However, Mugison was quick to stress that I Never Went South was not intended as a showcase, but as a celebration of local talent.
"It's not a conventional festival, it's more fun than usual festivals," he explained. "The bands play for 20 minutes each and they just plug in and play, so there's lots of feedback and mistakes - but that's its charm. Bands play different sets then their usual gigs because they're playing for family and friends. It’s not a platform, it’s more a joy that we're all alive. It's non-profit thing, we're doing it as a hobby."
Whittled down from around 130 applications, this year's I Never Went South boasted a vast range of genres, ages and talent.
Among the highlights on the opening night (March 21), were Bob Justman, who came across as a rocked-up Belle & Sebastian, Hjaltalin, who thanks to their multi instrumentalists and euphoric chamber pop have been called Iceland's Arcade Fire, ambient noise experimentalist Ben Frost - who called on the services of former Sugarcubes drummer Sigtryggur Baldursson - and Megas.
A legend on the native music scene and credited as "grandfather of Iceland's intellectual pop", singer-songwriter Megas felt part Mark E Smith and part an aged Pete Doherty as he played a rare set of whimsical, artful songs, that ended with a lone but highly devoted stage invader who initially could not be convinced to step down.
Mugison himself closed the first evening with a selection of his groove driven rock 'n' roll songs that inspired a frantic moshpit and waves of crowd surfers as only a local boy can.
The second day (21) had a longer bill and even more variety.
Young band Retro Stefson shined with a mix of Afrobeat and cowbells that recalled a rustic take on The Rapture, Lara Runars appeared to be Iceland's answer to Kate Nash with a pleasingly cheeky set that climaxed with a deliciously witty song about realising her boyfriend was gay, while Benny Crespo's Gang demonstrated real potential beyond the island's scene.
Combining urgent synths and driving, impassioned rock, their twin boy-girl vocalists saw them swap between moments both Biffy Clyro and Hope Sandoval (Mazzy Star) would be proud of.
Locally formed band Sprengjuhöllin are currently the biggest act in Iceland - though they still retain day jobs - and got a heroes’ welcome for their Beatles-esque pop, although the town's Working Men’s Choir earned a similarly devoted response from the packed barn for playing a surreal performance that was fronted by the singer from Iceland band Dr Spock.
The singer wore a dinner jacket with pink spandex pants while the choir were in formal dress as they played a set that at featured a recent contender for Iceland's entry to the Eurovision Song Contest.
Mysterious Marta - who lives just around the corner from the venue - thrilled the crowd with vocals and songs reminiscent of Regina Spektor, while Disa, who is already famous for being ther daughter of two of Iceland's most famous musicians, came across as a more indie-leaning Portishead.
Hraun - possibly familiar to wider audiences after being finalists in a BBC World Service international battle of the bands last year - provided one of I Never Went South's biggest highlights, with a set that started with the band mixing Icelandic atmospherics with West Coast Americana and ended with them stripping down to the waste and screaming about lemon pie.
UMTS, XXX Rottweilerhundar and Sign all pointed to the Icelandic music scene's future.
All provoking violent moshpits and relentless pogoing, the first band's synthcore resembled Enter Shikari both in style and for provoking an insane audience reaction; the second act are the country's first "commercially successful" hip-hop outfit and suitably had to be carried from the stage at the end of their set; while Sign proved why they are already well-regarded by the international heavy metal community.
The festival's closing act, SSSol, fittingly best encapsulated Iceland's idiosyncratic music scene.
One of the country's biggest acts in the mid 90s and seen by many as the definition of Icelandic pop, the band have played few gigs recently and had their guitarist missing due to a hand injury.
Instead they relied on Sign's lead singer on guitar, who earnestly complimented their pop power as the crowd went wild for the reformation - the effect was felt something like The Beautiful South playing a rare gig in Pembroke Docks with Gallows' guitarist.
Speaking after I Never Went South 2008's climax, Mugison declared the event the best yet, hailing the Icelandic music scene.
"It's getting a makeover now," he explained. "There's change happening in scene at the moment. It's ten years since Sigur Ros, Mum were dominant. Now there are lots of scattered scenes that have been around for three or four years and they were all well represented here, plus we had some old greats playing too."
As for 2009, Europe's earliest festival is already making plans.
"Will Oldham has a lifetime, open invitation to play because everyone on the committee loves him," said Mugison. "If some international acts knock on the door they're welcome to play - just tell them to show up - but we have no plans in that direction and I don't care about expanding the festival because it's for the local comnunity. It's ours and it's fun. I had an idea of making a horrible festival next year just to show we're in control!"
"Stand by your man" by Eivör @ Flateyri Party @ Aldrei fór ég suður 2008
Clash Music Review
Written by Matthew Bennett
I Never Went South Festival @ Ísafjörður
Curated by Mugison. And his Dad.
Thanks Goodness for that then. When a festival calls itself ‘I Never Went South’ the implications of northern travel are patently obvious.
Nestling under a blanket of near permanent snow amongst the northern Fjords of Iceland, This event is now in its fifth low-key year and manifests itself as a two day, free music showcase of indigenous talent curated by one of the God-Fathers of the industry – Mugison. And his Dad.
The Bigger Picture:
Akin to the Fence Collective’s ‘Home Game’ in Fife, Scotland where a tiny village is commandeered in the name of folk music – I Never Went South is a local delight deliberately hosted both geographically and ideologically from the exhausted and beaten track of corporate sponsored brand wank fests which appear to be popping up like generic ring fenced mushrooms in increasing propensity.
An intimate and privileged insight
Having been to South by South West the week before (an American breaking band showcase in Austin) Clash’s latest foray was very much North by North North as trains to Glasgow gave way to Planes to Reykjavik and from there a tiny plane across the volcanic sculptured wilderness to the northern most tip of this bizarre country. Landing in an isolated town just shy of the Arctic Circle called – Ísafjörður – home to an ice hardened 4,000 people it was clear that any proceedings would be an intimate and privileged insight into one of the most musical nations on earth.
The rules are simple. Mugison picks the best variety of Icelandic bands with around 35 playing over two evenings in the town’s harbour. No band can play two years in a row, there are no rehearsals nor sound check - and its fucking freezing.
What follows now is an account of a weekend of Icelandic musical adventuring with legends playing alongside teenagers and new bands borne magically through impromptu stage sharing and resultant hugs. The sounds were as varied as the landscape with traditional Indie colliding into Ghetto-Tech Tap, ironic Trance Pop, Faroese Fok, Ska, Blues and balls out Rock and Roll.
Few words can convey the warmth, individuality and distinction which is generated when partying under the Northern Lights near the Arctic Circle amongst a close community of music obsessed Viking descendants – but let’s have a little go. . .
Overview of Friday's Proceedings - Friday Evening:
The evening after Bob Justman really got rolling when Hjaltalin, who had previously entertained the evening before in Reykjavik, (both playing in the venue Organ then inviting us back to their lead singer’s Mum’s house for a good old fashioned party) laid down their euphoric compositions. Regarded as one of the most promising acts in the country having won the Iceland Music Awards, Hjaltalin purvey melodic indie rock with a conspicuous bassoon, cello, three part brass section and usual rhythm section allowing them to alternate between full bloodied rock basslines and the soaring appeal of Sufjan Steven’s heraldic approach. Epic promise.
Welcoming and open minded to a massive degree
In a nation where personal entertainment is the key from isolated madness, Mugison’s programming of the evening possessed a lovely level of friction. Third band in Ben Frost opened up with heaving, distorted bass far left of leftfield. Clicks, pops and plunging levels of sub bass swarmed around the packed warehouse populated by walks of life from every tier of this tiny nation of only 300,000.
The population though small is welcoming and open minded to a massive degree – the crowd, heavy with middle aged mothers with many a child in tow, soaked up the disorientating instrumental sounds effortlessly. As the two guitarists duelled through experimentalism Frost manipulated his laptop warping the atmosphere to a point where Pansonic – the arch dukes of noise terror would have been well satisfied. Gut settling sounds.
Rapturously received after 20 minutes it was again clear that the Icelanders, no matter how old will listen and appreciate any creativity though no doubt helped by the fact that they are related in some vague capacity. Next up Vax were dispatched to appease the middle palette as their well meaning power pop surfed a US West Coast accessibility, reinforced with a sunny American accent, occasionally swerving into a Hammond furore capable of jolting the Inspiral Carpets back into their best pop moments.
Any music fan who has dipped a toe into the geothermal waters of Iceland’s music over the last two decades will be aware of the Sugarcubes; the band that spawned Björk’s dominating forces. One of the true legends of the scene, drummer Sigtryggur Baldursson, has never tired of his grass roots activity, back now with a band named Steintryggur peddling an Eastern Dub fusion with live congos, bangra flavours and ephemeral basslines that sound liked like Alex Paterson on holiday in Goa.
More positive friction ensued as the calm was roundly shattered by Mordingjarnir, who rotundly delivered thrashed up punk which exploded into 1,000 pairs of ears simultaneously. Whereas some bands choose to sing in English, some mix and match and occasionally plump for an American inflection - there’s a core of acts that sing vehemently in Icelandic, harmonising their spiky rock with their terse plosives in their native tongue and Morðingjarnir lead the charge on their indigenous funk.
Next up: a spine straightening tad of hype. ‘Iceland’s answer to Aphex Twin’ was muttered throughout the crowd. Queue severe intrigue. Satisfied by the arrival of Biogen. A largely hirsute character who looked and acted like he’d fallen from the back of Hell’s Angel bike and landed in a bag of ketamine with his laptop. Fierce yet funky drill and bass, thundering techno grooves, raging static and plunging breaks whipped the crowd into a mosh. Later described by curator Mugison as his favourite act of the evening it seems this reclusive bedroom bandit has a bright future in hardened dance circles.
Skakkamanage - Reykjavíkian heroes were up next, having entertained us in the legendary Kaffibarrin the night before their perfectly angled melodic indie was the perfect sonic After Eight from Biogen. With bohemian Birky, a vulnerable female keyboardist au fait with Belle and Sebastian keeping their tight percussive structures warm, Skakkamanage pummel their crowd with sunshine vibes enlightening towards the much anticipated final trinity of Hjalmar, Megas and Mugison
It was only ever going to go one way.
The former of this triptych tickled with Ska and Reggae jaunts towards angular territories of Mick Jones from the Clash. Fun frolicking and playful Hjalmar came across like a ginger incarnation of the Specials incongruously playing their sunshine skank in one of the most freezing landscapes in the world.
After a quick reshuffle on stage Hjalmar transformed into the backing band for Megas – an absolute living legend and described as Iceland’s answer to Pete Doherty. This association however is derived from Megas’s hard drug abuse and acclaimed poetic acrobatics. Regarded locally as a genius, Megas was a high brow mathematical professor whose high strung personality led to mental collapse only to be re-appropriated through musical salvation and private hedonism. This 70 something figure, haggard and sunken in face deftly delivered an arch lesson in Bluesy, wonky Country which Johnny Cash himself would be merrily tapping his grave foot to.
Rapturously received Mugison then took to his own stage launching fast into throaty balls out Blues, a stark contrast to his electronic work but playing to his home crowd of ages eight to 80 it was only ever going to go one way.
With several stone wall classics under his belt there were tastes of his new album Mugi Boogie, self produced and self released out in mid May. Mugison has commandeered entire northern communities to help hand make his 20,000 albums, from the local geriatrics coffee morning (600 albums made) to the local young football team (1800 made) Mugison’s personality extends far past heartfelt banter as her mainlines into the national economy.
Day two of the festival - Saturday Night:
The afternoon started with a splash. One renowned local lout managed to spin his car into the harbour along with three happy hardcore doting brethren. But once they’d been fished out the music started in earnest with Halfkak whose imitative heavy rock suggests they could lose the first half of their name.
The somewhat teutonically named VilHelm were next up forging a fine line in Calypso inflected bawd. Wonky and fun filled their double bass and congas served up a exotic tone completely incongruous to the freezing backdrop.
One renowned local lout managed to spin his car into the harbour
Rap has it’s moments in Iceland and thus Prinsinn og Rattó timed their 15 minutes of fame to local perfection protruding their heavy lyrical stand off far into the crowd which swelled significantly for the arrival of Benny Crespo's Gang – much lauded indie adventurers who had the tenacity to lug three vintage keyboards through a six hour journey through the icy northern Fjords from Reykjavik.
Mixing searing rock with eerie Portishead palpable lulls under tender female vocalisations, they raised the bar to yet another level and sent a note of promise to their future international careers.
Such a small population diametrically implies that going PLATINUM in Iceland requires less units. In fact a gold disk requires 5,000 sales and the holy grail double that at 10,000.
As such as, after local angst rockers Diagon and Tortoise-esque Sudden Weather Change moving proceedings swiftly on it was the Gold Selling Sprengjuhöllin who dominated the mid evening. Doling out anthems fast caught by the crowd it was a surprising sing along time as the majority joined the lyrical force despite these teenagers only forging their punchy pop for two years. Jaunty Libertine-esque narrative rock peppered the harbour area and sealed these youngsters future on a national level beyond doubt. A spot at Iceland Airwaves, the national festival seems assured for them.
The neighbouring island of the Faroes has perennially forged an alliance with Iceland, often borne through necessity but their musical boundaries are mellifluous too and Eivör, the stunning folk singer from this tiny North Atlantic isle showcased her vocal range with a deft flummox. Aside from acoustic pluckings she hammered out a rhythmic trance on a some crazy indigenous drum akin to a Bodrun before blazing an incredible sonic performance of pseudo tantric beatboxing. Effortlessly tremendous.
Juxtaposition was again at a premium as the over 60’s local fish factory choir arrived, adorned as if at a Mafia funeral resplendent in Sunday best only to be fronted by Ottarr Proppé, singer of arch surrealist electro thrash masters Doctor Spock. As living legends from the Volcanic brink go; Proppé didn’t so much take the biscuit as abduct then gang rape all the confectionary they can find.
The trademarked yellow rubber glove came out, sported too by every member of the geriatric choir, Karlakórinn Ernir, as boisterous and violent interjections and fist pummelling alternated with Proppé’s Hunter S Thompson inspired narrative growl.
‘I Never Went South’ is a direct antithesis and complete remedy.
The next three bands all lent careful direction to an event where all the bands contrast so much. Mysterious Martha revelled in great visual and fashion components, Múgsefjun blitzed a lewd line of accordion power pop whilst Skatar were possibly the most distinctively Icelandic act with Beserk naked chests, gold lycra pants, walls of distorted guitar and experimentalism incarnate as they riffed up a zeppelin storm simultaneously presenting a neat distillation of the irrepressible spirit of their unique nation.
Now apologies need to be made here to the next three bands. We missed you. The double edged sword of holding court in an Arctic environ means you are at the vagaries of the surroundings. This includes the cataclysmic ambience of the Northern Lights. As the sky streaked with electric green pulses the bands played on but after a 45 minute display of this fleeting phenomenon it was time to return to the harbour for the last four bands. We’ll just need to return next year to fill in those gaps.
UMTS (meaning Ultra Mega Techno Bandið Stefan) riled the now lairy crowd into Berserker mode with their teenaged pastiche on Trance Pop.. Ripping their tops off in true Viking style they waged war on the crowd in power chords and Euro pop flavours but the place erupted.
Without skipping a beat XXX Rottweilerhundar – a rap trio purveying filthy hip hop beats took the sounds even further into the future and were one of the highlights of the entire weekend. Complex, wonky and seedy their sounds and raps tell drunken tales oof Icelandic life flipping back the folk forms which have helped sustain their wild country for so long.
The final bands, Sign and SSSol were populist options as the former Metal fiends are one of the most bought contemporary act, though those with faint hearts maybe should opt for a quick breath of fresh air before SSSol, a 90’s pop act with many national hits took the event to its official conclusion.
For anyone bored the O2 Wireless styled events where rosters are shared and everything is franchised ‘I Never Went South’ is a direct antithesis and complete remedy.
Virgins to this Volcanic isle are recommended to get there as soon as possible and enjoy their distinctive blend of hedonism and musical nuance. There are few places on earth like Iceland’s Northern Fjords and even less bands willing to rock out under their stars…
The Scotsman Review
Fjord the love of rock
Written by Olaf Furniss
28. March 2008
A LONDON bar on the hottest day of 2003 might seem like an unusual place to conceive a unique music festival on the north west tip of Iceland, six hours by car from the capital Reykjavik. But Icelandic singer-songwriter Mugison has an endearingly unorthodox approach to much of what he does.
Back then he had just performed at a festival hosted by the Institute Of Contemporary Arts and was enjoying a few pints with his father, commonly known as Papa Mugi. The older man had recently returned to the small fishing town of Ísafjörður ("ice fjord", population circa 4,000] to become its harbourmaster.
"We had the idea to do a similar (free] festival, but with nice people," says Mugison, as he recalls enjoying some great bands but experiencing a less than cordial attitude from many of those involved in the London event.
The following day he called his friend Raggi from the Reykjavik band Trabant, and within days some of Iceland's top acts, including Sigur Rós, had agreed to play in return for travel, lodging, food and drink. They also agreed to be equal on the bill with performers from the local community, forfeit soundchecks, and play for only 20 minutes.
Deals were done with an airline, a beer company and a sponsor, whose backing of the event to the tune of ISKr 1 million (£6,600] is so discreet that it is not even clear who it is.
By the Easter weekend of 2004 Ísafjörður was hosting the first Aldrei fór ég suður festival, which translates as "Never went south". Ever since then, the festival has attracted some of Iceland's best-known musicians to play free gigs at a warehouse in the town's harbour.
For anybody used to the meticulous planning that goes into a music event in Scotland, the preparations at Aldrei can seem somewhat last-minute. Two hours before the performances are due to begin, volunteers are still attaching fairy lights to a fishing net which will serve as the stage decoration. A tractor stands in the middle of the venue, and the food and beer has yet to be delivered to the bar area.
But incredibly, nobody seems remotely concerned. There are no irate tour managers, nervous bands or stressed organisers, and as soon as the performances get underway, it is clear why – Icelandic musicians seem to have an innate ability to get on with playing without any fuss.
"There is a certain Icelandic mentality which adheres to the DIY spirit," explains Siggi Baldursson, the country's most famous drummer, who achieved acclaim in the Sugarcubes along with Björk. "It's a bit of an honour to come and play here," he adds.
Like many artists, Baldursson performs in several bands at the festival, most notably with Steintryggur, who offer a gripping fusion of Indian samples, excellent drumming and a singer who plucks a jaw harp. As they play to a packed warehouse, a group of children no older than seven watch rapt at the front of the stage, proving that, given the chance, the young are more than happy to embrace alternatives to the saccharine dross usually targeted at them.
Baldursson later appears fronting a calypso group in a local nightclub and also plays with the punk band Gavin Portland, underlining the broad-minded tastes of many musicians in Iceland.
In a country with a population of 300,000, few artists can live from music alone, meaning they are untroubled by commercial considerations and are free to experiment. This is evident with Hjaltalín, one of the first bands on the bill. Comprising ten members, including one of only 20 bassoon players in the country, they play joyous singalong songs with a distinctly quirky twist.
This diversity and openness to different genres is reflected in Aldrei's line-up. Punk band Morðingjarnir perform an adrenaline-fuelled set, which is cut short when the drunk bassist is carried off the stage for exhorting the audience to throw things at him.
They are soon followed by local legend Megas, an Icelandic Bob Dylan famed for lyrics that confront the less salubrious aspects of his society. At one point a ten-year-old child invades the stage, in a bid to get closer to an idol who is a good 50 years his senior. It is the equivalent of a primary school pupil trying to hug Mark E Smith from The Fall.
The Friday night is rounded off with Mugison's band playing a 1970s-style rock set, which has earned him a Canadian tour supporting Queens Of The Stone Age. Although the audience responds with fanatical enthusiasm, he keeps the performance to 20 minutes like everybody else, and is soon to be seen milling around the crowd unmolested. In a country as small as Iceland, heroes are very much part of the community.
By Saturday evening it seems that the entire area has decided to attend the festival. Many are eager to see the local male choir led by the hospital's head surgeon, Þorsteinn Johannesson. Aptly enough, the singers perform with Óttarr, the mild-mannered vocalist of surreal rock stalwarts Dr Spock.
"The idea was for them to be a typical choir but they really wanted to start shouting," he says. "Old guys in Iceland also follow the rock'n'roll scene!"
This is borne out on the night, as pensioners stand close to the stage while some of Iceland's hip
pest new acts perform. The impressive voice of 18-year-old Disa was unlikely to disturb the septuagenarians. But many of the seniors also stay to watch the semi-clad antics of excellent teenage keyboard punks Ultra Mega Teknóbandið Stefán, as well as the fantastic Icelandic rapping of hip-hop band XXX Rottweiler.
On Sunday night, almost 200 musicians and crew decamp to the nearby village of Flateyri, where Papa Mugi prepares them an Easter dinner before a colossal open mic session gets underway.
Outside, the temperature has dropped well below zero, but nobody seems to mind. Everybody is warmed by the unique experience they have shared over the past few days, and with the large quantity of beer available, maybe it is not so different to where Mugison and his father first had the idea to hold a festival.
Except, of course, their gathering is full of altogether nicer people.