By Fateema Sayani
The small island of Reykjavik, Iceland is a thumbnail in a sea of blue on the map of the world, filled with natural wonders from its geysers to its volcanic hot springs. Its endless fields of lava and its rich mineral sources make it a geologist's paradise, but it's the fertile music scene that truly makes this place "rock." It began with Björk, kept its momentum with Gus Gus and now, Iceland's third major export, Sigur Rós is bursting into the North American market with their release "Ágætis Byrjun", meaning "a good beginning". And it's been a good beginning for the band that jumped from the tightly knit Reykjavik music scene onto the world stage after touring with Radiohead. One wonders about the face of music when a band with an album of eight minute art-rock anthems sung in a language indiscernible to most of its buyers can spawn a major label bidding war. Now with Sigur Rós in the spotlight, eyes are on Iceland once again as music lovers look to extract the next big thing from this island that is as intriguing as it is odd.
It's a barren island. The mountainous horizon spans for miles and there are fields upon fields of pure lava rock, where NASA astronauts train, since the shape and texture of the lava rock is so similar to that of the moon. There's little greenery to be found and not many people either. Only 272,000 people live in Iceland, over half of them in Reykjavik, and the interior of Iceland is largely uninhabited. It would appear that the country has remained largely untouched. Skyscrapers don't dominate the sky, and traffic doesn't crawl through the city emanating fumes and noise. The silent, pollution-free atmosphere gives visitors an all-over calm that's both soothing and eerie. So it's no surprise that there is so much music made here to fill in the gaps. That eerie calm and other overpowering forces of nature provide the inspiration for one of the most dynamic, progressive and creative music scenes in the world.
If artists are influenced by their surroundings, then the mystery of Iceland's continuous creative output is explained. Could it be a surprise that a country with only 21 per cent arable land has a need to cultivate? Or that a culture that boasts a 100 percent literacy rate, and an oral and written history preserved in the medieval manuscripts of the Sagas, has a legacy of storytelling? What about a country that lives with the cruel paradox of 20 sunlit hours in summer and two sunlit hours in winter being able to turn the knife on all the peculiarities of everyday life? This is Iceland, like an unpainted picture that needs to bloom into a work of art, and almost every young Icelander has taken it as their personal task to make their stroke.
Music is the chosen brush.
It was the Sugarcubes who led the way for young Icelanders. The pop-rock collective fronted by Björk Gudmundsdóttir was the first to expose Iceland to the world. Even today, most people only know of the country through its most famous ambassador, Björk. The Sugarcubes were strange and that was their biggest draw. Throughout their seven-year reign from 1986 to ‘92, critics raved and complained about the howling Björk and her troupe of mocking minstrels. Critics gave them every tag from the blah "Icelandic punk" to the more clever "B52s from hell". They were a mad six-piece made up of commune remnants: hip poets, budding writers and funky musicians. Their 1988 debut, "Life's Too Good", would sell a million copies world-wide and earn them a spot on tours with New Order and U2, but the Sugarcubes had formed as a joke, as an outlet, as a way to pass the time and make it through Iceland's long and unforgiving winter. And so success came and passed relatively quickly. Two more albums and a few compilation and remix albums allowed the Sugarcubes to pay off debts and fulfil their contract. Then it was back to life in Reykjavik for most of them. Guitarist Bragi Olafsson became an award-winning novelist. Keyboardist Margret (Magga) Ornolfsdóttir finished her training as a classical pianist. Guitarist Thor Eldon, father to Björk's son Sindri, went back to writing and producing. Sigtryggur (Siggi) Baldursson went on to make music. Einar Örn Benediktsson went back to work at the band’s record company, Smekkleysa (meaning Bad Taste) and Björk skyrocketed to international fame. Smekkleysa, the record imprint the Sugarcubes started, is still alive and well in Reykjavik's current music scene, and so is their legacy, but some here would like to forget the fuss that brings thousands of tourists flocking to the country each year. On this particular occasion it's the Iceland Airwaves music festival, a five-day gathering where music lovers can see bands like Suede and the Flaming Lips and industry types can scout top Icelandic talent.
Plenty of curious writers, photographers and media types are here, drawn by the good story, the picturesque views, the party scene and the cut-rate package price. I’m here for all these reasons, plus the thrill of seeking out the next best thing and seeing how the face of music will change in the coming months. The city is filled with European and North American tourists and we are, collectively, sore thumbs in a country where everyone looks so similar and beautiful. And where just mentioning the name Björk sparks both ire and admiration. "We're sick of her," says the bouncer at Spotlight, a mixed gay/straight club where the best of Icelandic talent is expected to be on this night. "We've seen her on TV her entire life. She was a child star here," he chides. Another bouncer pipes in: "She comes back to Iceland and goes to the clubs all coked up." I think he's testing my gullibility.
"Oh no," the Reykjavik.com reporter assures me on our third encounter during club hops. "We love Björk, we are very proud of her." Everyone has their Björk story and is eager to tell it to anyone with a notepad and pen. Icelanders are accustomed to people coming to scope out their country. One person tells me the location of the geo-thermally heated outdoor pool where Björk swims when she's in town. Another says she knows the house where Björk grew up. Others say, "Bragi was just here" and "Einar Örn will likely show up." Even disbanded, the Sugarcubes still carry weight.
Part of the journey is spent trying to track down Einar Örn, the controversialist who rhymed off statements like: "My punctuality is well known. When the revolution takes place, I'll be late and I'll be shot as a traitor" while Björk sang. Some loved his antics while Björk devotees say it "interrupted" her sweet singing. Either way, Einar Örn is a sort of godfather to these young musicians, and is likely to provide me with a substantial quote or two. I stop him at the press conference that opens the festival, and he pawns me off on one of his prodigies expected to sign with Bad Taste within the next week. Egill Sæbjörnsson, as I’ll find out later, is a talented guitarist with sexually explosive lyrics and a cooing, throaty voice. Right now he's too drunk to answer anything.
We’re backstage at the festival's headline show later that week and, remembering me with much chagrin, Einar Örn decides to thaw and grant me three questions between negotiations with Sæbjörnsson and post-set kudos from the Flaming Lips, and Brett Anderson of Suede, all fans and all sweaty from the drench of overwhelming praise from Laugardalshöll stadium’s appreciative crowd. Einar is a crotchety, aged rock star whose focus is on the business side of things. He's dressed in jeans and layered shirts with wire-rimmed spectacles and tousled brown hair. He talks alternately to Sæbjörnsson in Icelandic and in English to me. He seems to be praising his star-to-be while he warns me against delving too far into the past, or asking about his relationship with any of the former 'Cubes. If Icelandic artists are inspired by their surroundings, he's a dormant volcano.
I ask about his iconic status and he modestly claims it to be a non-issue. "I try to leave it alone," he starts. "It's not for me to dwell on the past. I need to move forward. What matters is what I'm doing today."
Today he's pushing Bad Taste forward with the help of co-leader and fellow 'Cubes alum Olafsson. They formed their company on the basis that ‘Good taste and prudence are the bane of creativity,’ hence the name Bad Taste. Their move forward was the sale of a postcard from the 1986 meeting between Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan in Reykjavik, a city that is equidistant from both Moscow and New York. That was the day the world rained down on Iceland and, as the legend goes, every Icelander was interviewed at least three times by foreign media during the historic event. Bad Taste capitalised on the frenzy; it’s just the kind of frenzy that's characteristic of the Icelandic music scene.
"It's a very distracted, disjointed music scene and it's just the music of ten percent," Benediktsson explains while I furrow my brow. "Ninety percent of music is regarded as shit, ten percent of music is good," he clarifies. "The Sugarcubes were always playing to the ten percent type of fans. That's the scene; the focus is on the ten percent. That is the effect of the Sugarcubes and that is why people are here." But not everyone agrees with his take on the Sugarcubes’ legacy.
Móa, along with her band, the Vinylistics, is being hyped as the person to see. The Iceland Airwaves web site and the press package both trumpet her as encompassing the sound of young Iceland. I meet the heiress to the title of Iceland’s "next big thing" in a Laugavegur Street café at midday, a few hours before her big show. She assures me that the future sounds of Reykjavik have no ties to the Sugarcubes’ sound.
"It's been a lot of time and things have changed," she tells me over frothy lattés. "The Sugarcubes opened up the music scene. They were not popular here; people thought they were crazy, they'd play for five people here and thousands in England. It's a weird situation. They showed people that it was possible to be a pop band. They were doing original music and were successful." Móa herself flirted with overseas success — the only success there is, compared to small-market Iceland. She was signed to Tommy Boy for an electronica stint in 1998, but Móa and the record company "didn't agree musically," although the stint was enough to get her college radio play and tour dates with Moby. Now she's one year in with her new band, the Vinylistics, consisting of her twin brothers Gulli and Kiddi on drums and bass respectively along with other locals Talli on keyboards and Arnar on guitars. "It's hard to leave the place that's ultimately your inspiration — you always come back," she confesses grudgingly.
Later Móa and her band will perform at Spotlight to an elbow-to-elbow crowd and a pack of photographers, all cramming to get the best shot of the next big thing. Móa's got a performance style like Björk. She makes dramatic expressions and gestures with every syllable uttered, but her velvety voice is deeper though and she sings without a trace of her Icelandic accent. Her four-boy backup, all decked in black, gives her the perfect backdrop. On stage she is statuesque, but not stiff. She's got characteristic delicate, doll-like features that contrast with her powerful voice and explosive lyrics that layer those melodic pop rock guitar rhythms. She coos the chorus of "Don't Waste My Love" — apparently a hit with the regulars — asserting her indelible stage presence.
"Very few can play music here," Móa quips. "It's a small market. If you're selling a record, it's very natural to seek other music. Like the Vikings, they had to go to other places and bring something back."
It's a work hard/play hard attitude that drives the city. The cost of living is obnoxiously high and most Icelanders hold down two jobs, in addition to any contract or casual work. When the weekend comes, it's an all-out festivity. The city is electric until dawn and in summer, thousands of people pour into the main square to continue the party. Beer flows freely at the 180 licensed pubs, night clubs and restaurants and since it only became legal in 1989, it's consumed with appreciation and in large quantities.
The weekend starts on Thursday and there are bands and/or DJs playing almost every night. During this festival, musicians are making every effort to present themselves to the music press. Writers and photographers from Q, the NME, Agence France-Presse and Rolling Stone are all here. The key to making it is getting out, as the Sugarcubes demonstrated.
Within Iceland, there is a supportive atmosphere for the wannabe musician. There are five major labels in Iceland and one gracious press that trumpets every achievement. Becoming famous in a country where you know, or are related to, almost everyone isn't the most challenging feat. Sigur Rós's album spent 50 weeks at the top of the charts here and took home a slew of trophies at the Icelandic Music Awards.
By now, the next generation of young musicians here in Reykjavik has been shown the path. Who will follow it to the level of success that Björk has had is yet to be determined. The members of Sigur Rós are well on their way, as are Gus Gus, another famous Icelandic collective. Their brand of soulful techno took them to the UK and North America with club staples like "Ladyshave" from their 1999 album "This is Normal" release. Their 1995 debut, Polydistortion, made it into the hands of A&R folk at 4AD and allowed Gus Gus to make it out of Reykjavik.
Gus Gus’s main mix-master, DJ Herb Legowitz, is in town for the festival. He’s the likely successor to the title of "scene godfather"; his overseas success has earned him the right. We talk briefly while he exchanges his vinyl from sleeve to turntable and back again.
His solo work is keeping him going while Gus Gus goes through some transformations, Legowitz says. "We're down to five people and we're working on a pop album," he says. "It takes so long because everyone's always getting drunk to keep warm." Still, despite the cold and the free flowing booze, work always gets done around here. Almost every young act has got a well-produced demo CD to push. But after a few listens and numerous nights of celebration and showcases, it's difficult to pin down a definite Icelandic sound. There’s plenty of musical variety to be found in Iceland’s scene stalwarts. Jaguar is a brass outfit who play filthy, funky jazz. Ampop vividly recall Radiohead with their vocal and guitar drones. And Quarashi take American hip-hop and turn it on its head. Gay pop icon Páll Óskar Hjálmtysson, who goes by Paul Oscar, is a disco prince who has been a national star since childhood. He sounds a bit like George Michael in tight pants. There’s also Bellatrix, an all-girl punk band with a vocalist who howls and wails like Björk circa 1989; here's where the Sugarcubes’ effect still lingers. An Icelandic rap band called XXX Rottweiler are a hit with the locals, but can count on a future trapped within the city limits because, unless Sigur Rós’ success is an indication of future trends, the fact that XXX Rottweiler rap mostly in Icelandic will keep them grounded.
"It's easier to sing in English anyway," says Bardi Johannsson, guitarist and composer for Bang Gang, another scenester. "It's hard in Icelandic, we'd be spitting all the time." It’s also difficult to find anything to grovel about. Since Iceland boasts a 100 per cent literacy rate, virtually no crime and an overall high standard of living, rap groups can't mimic their ghetto heroes with much conviction. With most groups, there is a sense of American influence in sound and style. But those whose music invokes images of glaciers and endless landscapes can be said to engulf an Icelandic sound whether it be through dark and dreary melodies or a slow-moving glacial groove.
Sigur Rós hit the nail on the head and stand, for now, as the definition of Icelandic music. Their sound is raw, anthemic and unconventional. They play their guitars with cello bows and choose unusual show settings. At the festival they pick a church. Pews are packed with tourists, clubbers and scene followers. The floors between the two rows are lined with fans sitting cross-legged and from where I'm seated I see feet dangling from the second level. The room is low-lit and the dramatic mood is completely set by the time I arrive, interrupting people in awe of the scene before them.
Their dark and moody music is akin to the long Icelandic winter, I'm told. The wind cuts your face like a pickaxe and there's not much to do beyond drink and read. At the end of the hibernation, the result is this orchestral rock I see being performed before me.
So why is this isolated country, so alive and electric, a hot bed for music? The consensus is that isolation breeds creativity, a chance to understand and study the self while still being forced to look outwardly. Music is the bond between Icelanders and also their form of connection to anything outside of their little island home. The barren landscape encourages expression, but ironically, success is found by leaving that nest. The love/hate relationship of wanting to leave and realising that your success is rooted in your country of origin is the frustrating contradiction most Icelanders face. But with the lines open between Iceland and North America and a steady output, Iceland is bound to be a picking field for the future sound of music for years to come.