Making Airwaves

Bravely embarking on a trip to Reykjavik's Airwaves Festival in Iceland, Dazed's Sarah Fakray inevitably encountered stuffed puffins and Bjork... records.

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Photography by Rasha Kahil
When I mentioned that I was going to this year’s Airwaves festival in Reykjavik, the suggestions from those who’d been before came thick and fast: “The hotdogs at Bæjarins Beztu are delicious!”; “Go to Damon Albarn’s pub Kaffibarinn; “I stayed in the same hotel as you and they don’t turn the heating on until later in the year.” No heating, in Iceland! And, “We couldn’t afford to take a helicopter ride around the geysers and volcanoes but the prices have probably halved since the crash…” – which raised the question, is it really wise to be holidaying in a country that has recently suffered its worst financial crash since trading began? Hearing that around a third of the 320,000 population had signed an online petition against Gordon Brown and his summoning of 2001’s – frankly embarrassing – anti-terrorist legislation against Iceland to freeze the bankrupt bank Landsbanki’s assets in Britain, and knowing that the country held its first protests last year, I was expecting a to be thrown into the North Atlantic Ocean if I admitted where I’d brought my duty-free vodka from before entering the country.
Naturally, I was mistaken. Almost everyone was friendly and there was, in the end, only one indication of possible pent-up aggression at the 6-7 per cent unemployment rate; and conveniently enough for this introduction, it was vodka-related. For people exiting bars at 5am, regular practice is to bring a drink with you and smash the glass on the street – a haunting sound when heard over the top of the shards that are simultaneously being swept up by the street-cleaners.

Thursday
Airwaves is held across venues in the centre of Reykjavik, and we went to pick up our wristbands from a record shop that really did only have Björk records in the window, passing by a shop that sold stuffed puffins for £50. So far, so clichéd. Slowly, though, the icy land that has existed in my head since watching 101 Reykjavik dripped away, until all that was left was the sound of first band Retro Stefson’s excellent sample-heavy soulful-pop-with-a-brass-section, played on a makeshift stage in clothes shop Naked Ape.
We went for pints of beer – £7 a pint in this particular place, all helicopter rides were off – and flicked through a Bill Plympton book of filthy comics. A fire alarm sounded (had we been caught?) before we noticed clouds of smoke billowing down the street. Gallery i8 a few doors up had hired more smoke machines than is probably legal and were pumping out industrial music from a small, dark room with a flashing blue light positioned towards the rear. Step in and you couldn’t see the person standing right next to you.
To end the evening, we headed like disciples for the lakeside Fríkirkjan church, which is made from corrugated metal much like the rest of Reykjavik’s buildings (there wasn’t much wood to hand in Iceland in 1902), where orchestral pop band Hjaltalín played with a 15-strong chamber orchestra. A glance towards the faces peering through the steamed-up windows confirmed that we were lucky to be inside to hear the fantasy ballads without a pane of glass between us and them.

Friday
Our only trip out of the city was the following morning to the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal pool of steaming, turquoise seawater sitting on a landscape of black volcanic rock stubbled with moss. The seawater comes from 2,000 metres below the surface and travels through porous lava, reaching temperatures of 200 before spilling out at the earth’s surface, allowing the humans to bathe at 37º Celsius. Imagine this moon-like scene invaded by 500 beer-swilling Airwavers and you’ve got the festival’s Hangover Party, which only our photographer was feeling well enough to attend on Saturday.
That afternoon, we pumped more than our fair share of money into the economy, particularly in a shop called Einvera, recently set up by two Icelandic designers who go by the name Kalda and who have picked up a thing or two from Margiela. Never saw myself wearing a cape with clumps of human hair sprouting from the shoulders until I met them. The Dazed photographer kept it biological and bought a dress with a picture of a set of lungs stitched to the front from the also recently-opened Mundi.
Most hyped band of the evening were the whistling, Peter, Bjorn and Johns of the moment, a New York band called The Drums. Basically, everyone else loves their hooky postpunk and surf-pop, so I’m only going to say one thing: I saw the singer wearing sunglasses indoors in the airport. Later, the depressingly young classical composer and scorer of films, Nico Muhly gave the best performance of Airwaves: cradling his piano while finding time to tell New Yorker-style jokes, strip off the black “fucking party dress” he was wearing and flirt with his Icelandic guest singer and trombonist Helgi Hrafn Jónsson. So, so, so good.

Saturday
We checked out Damon Albarn’s Kaffibarinn, which he turned out only to own 1 per cent to 5 per cent of, depending on who you spoke to, and has since sold it off after accomplishing his original aim – to lend the power of his name to the city in order to draw tourists. No disrespect to Damon, the bar’s great, but Reykjavik has plenty more attractive attractions, and an extra 500 tickets had to be added to this year’s Airwaves after the festival sold out, proving that nothing short of nuclear war will stand in the way of an Icelander and a Good Time. Still, it’s a shame that only the foreign bands were paid in hard cash, while their Icelandic counterparts were expected to play just for the love of it.
We were introduced to two of Reykjavik’s instrumental post-rock foursome For A Minor Reflection  by their manager, who apologised that their music contains no lyrics and informed us that guitarist Kjartan (“Curtain” or “Captain” to the linguistically-challenged Americans they met recently while recording their second album in LA) had been locked out of his house by his mother for having noisy sex the night before. We weren’t sure which image the manager was trying to sell, but the band confirmed what we’d known all along: Icelanders are mental. It must be something about being cooped up indoors waiting for their five hours of daylight. On stage they were rocking out seriously beautiful, expansive melodies beneath projections of dropping bombs, but they were more than up for goofing around backstage – taking this to the extreme was guitarist/pianist Guðfinnur, who had nicknamed himself Goofy, and allowed himself to be styled up as Madonna using a corset, red lipstick and various other props found lying around. 19-year-old drummer Jóhannes, who will soon be quitting the band to pursue his career as a novelist, told us all about hams, the Icelandic version of chavs, which he estimates to make up around 40 per cent of the population. We left together to see FM Belfast, an Icelandic electro-pop act that the Icelanders kept talking about. The queue round the block prevented us from getting in – damn those useless press passes – meaning we’ll just have to go back next year.

For A Minor Reflecton are playing at the Lexington, Islington on Monday November 2. Special thanks to Robert Aron Magnusson and Kim Booth. The hotel did have heating.

Photography by Rasha Kahil
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