The Scene in Iceland
Alternative Ulster # 51
In the first of a new series exploring vibrant music scenes all over the world, we plug into the Northern lights and sounds of Reykjavík, Iceland. From Björk and her Sugarcubes to múm and Sigur Rós, this little piece of volcanic rock in the wild North Atlantic has produced some of the most exhilarating music of the last 20 years. As Eddie Mullan discovers, there’s plenty more where they came from.
In 1982, TV documentary Rokk í Reykjavík was the first introduction for many to the wonders of Icelandic bands. It uncovered early incarnations of the island’s future heroes, a young Einar Örn Benediktsson, the hyper, angst-fuelled vocalist of the punk-inspired Purrkur Pillnikk, and the Björk fronted Tappi Tíkarrass – ‘Cork the Bitch’s Arse’ in Icelandic – producing music that provoked a generation of Reykjavík bands to be proud of their own creative identity. Both went on to find their personalities collide in KUKL and then produce spectacular results with unlikely pop stars The Sugarcubes, the first Icelandic rock band to find international stardom. More contemporary documentaries such as Ari Alexander Ergis Magnússon’s Screaming Masterpiece attempt to capture the current essence of independent music in the country. Small, cold and isolated, you would imagine that Iceland is a difficult place in which to start a band.
Why, then, does it stand out as one of the world's most thriving and innovative music scenes?
Haukur Magnússon, guitarist for Reykjavík! – one of the loudest bands in Iceland – breaks it down for us. “It feels pretty damn vibrant to me at times, especially when I find myself at an awesome show, nodding my head,” he enthuses. “Or when I consider how few of us there are. And I think that is a key
factor. When you’ve only got so many people playing in so many bands, and you add to it the fact that nowadays most people like most kinds of music, then you’ve certainly got grounds to mix it up a bit. And of course alcohol, the great unifier, comes in as well. So, you’re good friends with people who don’t necessarily play the same style of music that you do, and of course you invite them to play along if you’re hosting a show or party. And they invite you back. It is a good thing, and a great time.”
Earlier this year, Reykjavík! were working on a follow up to their Valgeir Sigurðsson-produced debut Glacial Landscapes, Religion, Oppression and Alcohol (their apparent influences), but recently scrapped the half-finished album, deciding instead to “go all out and make the sonic boom of white noise that they had yearned for”, working with Australianborn electronic noise-master Ben Frost. “We spent a weekend at the Greenhouse [Valgeir’s studio] and recorded all of the album live, in the same room, so as to try and capture the energy and sensuality that will sometimes happen when we’re together on stage or in rehearsal. It was fucking great, man, and if you ever have the chance to make an album with Mr Frost, then I suggest you take it.”
Haukur explains the process with glee: “The whole weekend was a blur of sweat and dank experimentation. With Valgeir, we had usually been working on polishing our material, making it more approachable and easier to understand, but with Ben we decided to go in the opposite direction. It was kinda like a game of dare, where we pushed each other into more and more absurd territories. Seriously, we cannot wait to unleash this; people might not like it but it is by far the album that we have all dreamt of making for the duration of our lives.”
Lead singer Bóas recalls what got the Reykjavík! motor fired up in the first place. “Bands start outwith one mission, and that is to have as much fun as they can! We just got together and started making music. A few people might start out thinking about how their music is going to change the world, how
their riffs are going to sound in Guitar Hero or how cool it will be when they start opening up for Coldplay. But most people just start making music, and if it appears to appeal you´re in luck and you take it from there. “To make it simple, a band like Reykjavík! has had the philosophy that making flyers, buying a keg of beer or two and putting it all together with a twist of the unusual is fun. What we do brings fun to our lives. Not thinking about it, rather just doing it, like those friendly shoemakers from Oregon. We all have steady day jobs and this is fun for us, never work!”
Case in point: vintage-synth lovers and rising stars FM Belfast began life as a duo making a song as a Christmas present for friends. The band now consists of up to eight members on stage at any one time, delivering inspiring shows at the likes of South By Southwest and festivals worldwide.
Founding member Árni Rúnar Hlöðversson shares his thoughts on why the world is so interested in Icelandic output right now. “It would be really arrogant to say that artists and bands like Björk, Sigur Rós, múm, Mugison, Bang Gang and others have nothing to do with the attention Iceland is getting music-wise. Maybe the size and population versus the number of bands forces us to be even more creative? Maybe we are egomaniacs that believe we can do anything and perhaps we are too naive to see it the other way. Maybe there´s just too little to do here?”
With around 1000 bands, the need to stand out has never been more of a necessity, as Árni explains. “There are so many bands in Iceland and maybe they don´t want to sound just like the band in the next garage,” he says. Árni is also in agreement with Bóas that it takes a positive outlook to keep going. “It can be tough and it is true that most musicians have other jobs. But nothing is hard if you have the interest and passion for what you are doing.”
One of the best times of the year to experience this passion first-hand is during October when the annual Iceland Airwaves festival comes to town, squeezing bands into every available space – cafés, museums, small shops; last year FM Belfast even rocked up at a book store. “We feel that the bands
get so enthusiastic and full of positivity around the festival,” says Árni. “It´s also wonderful to get so many people that are so interested in music. That together must be good for any band.”
Mark Ollard, enthusiastic blogger at http://iceblah.typepad.com, is making the journey over to his fifth Airwaves. What’s the attraction besides the music? “There’s a lot more to love out there than just the bands themselves,” he explains. “Obviously, after five years, a lot of the locals have become good
friends; the people out there are great. There’s the best record shop in the world, 12 Tónar, where they will sit you down, give you headphones and an espresso and all the time you want to make your choices. The festival itself is enormously well organised, relaxed and easy to get around – the six
or seven venues are all within five minutes on foot, as is the accommodation I stay at every year. And then there’s the hot dogs and waffles.” Mark compares it to the scene on his doorstep. “It is much more compressed, everybody knows everybody. If you look at London gig listings then you’re talking about four or five pages. In Reykjavík there’s probably only two or three things happening most nights, so it is much easier to follow. I’m sure that there are other cities with great music scenes, all I know is that Iceland keeps producing bands that I love. This is a country with under 300,000 people that can host a festival with 150 of its own bands – I’m not sure any UK town of a similar size could do anything close to that.
There is also the unique geographical location of Iceland, halfway between Europe and America. I think they are able to take inf luences from both directions whilst not feeling part of either.” With each passing year, more excitable foreign music fans like Mark join journalists and industry professionals alongside the locals hoping to find their new favourite band or just discover something they haven’t heard before. One of those, writer and photographer Paul Sullivan, is the author of Waking Up In Iceland. He tells us about his time living in the capital. “Reykjavík doesn’t have a massive amount of official venues, but it does have a very canny knack of creating ‘unofficial’ or impromptu venues out of bars, churches, cafés, post offices, warehouses etc. I can’t honestly say I have a favourite gig but [if pushed] I'd perhaps say Sigur Rós at the university cinema Háskólabíó in 2002.”
It is not surprising, then, that the Icelandic approach to genres breaks convention. Paul says, “They exist broadly as a communication tool, to help us define and understand music, although railing powerfully against this is the broader view that all music is simply music – no segregation required. I think many artists in Iceland dislike genres and take the broader view, and this could well be because their music industry is necessarily less developed or at least less dominant than in other, larger countries. It is largely the industry that creates the need for genres and labelling, rather than artists or consumers themselves. Icelanders have a gung-ho spirit towards genres – and many other things – that’s very inspiring and contagious.”
Paul reflects on what other scenes can learn from this rock in the North Atlantic. “Perhaps that music can be spiritual as well as fun. That world-class results can often be achieved even – or especially – when things like money and fame are not the primary goal. That collaboration is often more enjoyable than competition. That remaining as creatively independent as possible might be harder work but is eventually much more satisfying.”
Blogger Mark Ollard sums it up nicely when he describes the secret behind Icelandic originality. “What I think helps to make Reykjavík unique is a combination of the freedom from industry machinery, and also the encouragement that musicians get. I remember being a schoolkid in London – anyone who showed any sort of cultural ambition was usually ridiculed. In Iceland, kids are absolutely encouraged to form bands – equipment and rehearsal space (and drummers!) are shared around and gigs are always well attended. Saying all that, a lot of the musicians I’ve asked do just shrug and tell me there’s not much else to do in winter.”
Source: Alternative Ulster (www.myspace.com/altulster)