We tripped out to Reykjavik to see Icelandic music, sit in geothermal spas and avoid the rotten shark
At the beginning of November we headed out to Reykjavik for Iceland Airwaves, a three day inner city festival. Before we left (we'd never been), people told us a few things about the city - it's really really cold, there is a range of odd "delicacies" and Iceland, for such a small country, boasts an extremely healthy art scene. This is all true.
Over three days we met amazing people, visited natural spas and renovated powerstations and drank a lot of mysterious clear spirit that seemed to "work". Here's what we learned.
WATCHING ICELANDIC BANDS IN ICELAND IS MORE INTERESTING THAN WATCHING ALL THOSE BANDS YOU ALREADY KNOW
While there's undoubtedly a thrill to watching thousands of people lose their shit to "Sun" in a massive city centre venue, it's the Icelandic artists that captivate the most, simply because there's a sense of discovery that's unattainable when you're watching bands you've seen three or four times before. Fresh-out-of-school post-punk band Fufanu were the most arresting of the lot. Part cold-wave, part post-punk, it's ferocious live and exposes their charming naivety. Their songs and in fact, their whole band, sounds unfinished and raw, but in a way that encourages intrigue over anything else, and their boldness and vast reserves of potential are what make them by far and away our favourite Icelandic act of the weekend.
SITTING IN A GEOTHERMAL SPA EATING DOMINOS AND DRINKING BEER IS AS GOOD AS IT SOUNDS
Fail to enjoy sitting in a naturally hot sulphur spa eating Dominos pizza and drinking and you may as well just pack it in. There is nothing left for you on this earth. We did this for a couple of hours, got wrinkly and enjoyed one of the most amazing benefits of visiting Iceland - pools of warm water in an incredibly cold country.
IF YOU'RE PERFORMING WITH LAPTOPS YOU NEED TO WORK OUT HOW TO NOT JUST BE GUYS WITH LAPTOPS
I have no issue with using laptops as vehicles for performance – one of my favourite performances of recent times was watching Nguzunguzu at Airwaves using CDJs and it felt as live as any band I've seen recently. Contrarily, Kiasmos struggled in a big, sober room to serve up the brand of euphoria that their music hints that it should, with our perceptions perhaps clouded by having seen Fufanu tear apart a tiny venue just two hours earlier.
Kiasmos played on Friday night at 12.30am to a full house in Harpa, pretty close to the perfect scheduling for two electronica producers. Despite the favourable stage time, the show didn't really connect. While the music was, you know, fine – well produced, well constructed with tasteful melodic moments, something about the "two guys behind laptops" in such a big venue just didn't work.
While they were messing around with iPads mid-performance, presumably filming themselves performing on their Macbooks, it felt Apple-ad-alienating to the point that you start noticing your feet hurt a bit and wishing smoking wasn't banned. Fidgeting, basically. Compare this to The Knife, who played their last ever show at Airwaves to a backing track and blew our minds, if you're going to "perform" while not really performing, it's worth considering how to make your show more invigorating.
NOBODY IN ICELAND DOES DRUGS
Literally, nobody. Most nights out in London are a dark gallery of droolers and jawswingers, which is not really a good or bad thing, it just is. Compare this with Reykjavik where people don't even seem to be trying to get any drugs, they're happy drinking and possibly sharing a spliff with someone. This means that you aren't likely to get stuck with an English history student at 4am lecturing you about the Tudors in between keys of mephedrone (good thing), but it does make everything seem very sober (slightly bad thing).
PEOPLE SAY ICELAND HAS SOME WEIRD FOOD BECAUSE IT DOES
Icelanders eat smoked puffin, boiled lamb's heads and fermented shark. We didn't try any of them because we're total pussies, instead sticking to run-of-the-mill stuff like pizza and lobster rolls. That said, it's there if you want it and if you've the stomach for the fight, Iceland is a good place to go and sample bizarre delicacies.
NGUZUNGUZU THROW A REALLY GOOD PARTY
The futuristic Fade To Mind producers slash DJs were on in a small bar in the city at 1am and played one of the most powerful DJ sets I've ever seen. I wonder if Kiasmos had been on in a smaller venue they wouldn't have left me so cold. I think it's a myth that electronic music or DJs should be on in enormous warehouses, I'm a 10x10m basement boy.
IT'S SO COLD IN ICELAND THAT IT MAKES YOU DRINK A LOT FOR WARMTH
Make no mistake, Reykyavik at the beginning of November is fucking freezing. This makes rushing from venue to venue essential and drinking a lot compulsory – protip: stay inside watching the bands, tanking up on booze because you're gonna need that miscallaneous, clear Icelandic spirit to help you through the unreasonable temperature that awaits you outside. The unforgiving frost and constantly topping up on drinks is actually no bad thing – it's an accidental design that forces you into watching a lot of music and plus, everybody loves a good stupour in a foreign country, especially when you're convincing yourself that it's for warmth.
THE KNIFE ARE ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT BANDS OF THE 21ST CENTURY
The Knife played their last ever show at Airwaves and the audience celebrated as if a victory was taking place. In many ways it was, irrespective of the fact that everyone there knew it was to be the last time (see here). Their techno-ballet is so much fun, so inclusive and redefines what it means to "perform". Their defection to the avant-garde was bold and beautiful and marked them out at true devotees of progess.
DJ FLUGVEL OG GEIMSKIP IS AN ARTIST BUILT IN BJORK'S IMAGE
As you well know, Bjork is Iceland's most famous export and while there aren't obvious musical similarities, DJ Flugvel og Geimskip (DJ Airplane and Spaceship) is an Icelandic elfish woman clad in multi-coloured neons who commands a stage alone.
Her music sounds indebted to Zolo music and bands like The Oblong Boys or The Zom Zoms but she tells us that she hasn't heard of any of that, instead informing us that most of her influence is derived from "magic, gothic, sci-fi and horror-stories". The assertion that she's mostly inspired by magical, sci-fi literature feels on point given that she dresses like Bucky O'Hare.
Flugvel moonlights in three other bands, with this project her only solo outlet. Despite her small frame and tentative voice, she's a commanding and convincing onstage presence, shrieking in her native tongue over loops of psychedelic electronica. The performance lacks direction, but not really in a negative sense, she's just having a lot of fun and there's always something rewarding about seeing someone do exactly what they want.
"I'm inspired by one important thing which is nonsense," she tells us. "Things that are (or seem to be) just total nonsense – things that have no practical meaning. The things that go beyond being practical and just are there to enjoy or feel. Like some music and art. That is why I am excited to keep on living".
While she doesn't sound like Bjork, there seems an obsession with magic that connects her with the queen of Icelandic pop.
VISIT ANDRI MAGNASON'S RENOVATED POWERSTATION ON THE OUTSKIRTS OF THE CITY
If you ever take a trip out to to Reykjavik, visit the powerstation run by Andri Magnason on the outskirts of the city. Magnason is a celebrated sci-fi author (Dreamland, Lovestar) who looks after the building and stopped it turning derelict. Inside, Toppstodin looks very much like a powerstation except there are fashion designers working there, bands practicing and a man in the basement painting ram's skulls.
See Fufanu, Kiasmos and DJ Flugvel perform at Eurosonic in Groningen in 2015.