The first time I heard of Iceland, I was probably 7 or 8 years old. ”The vikings,” a teacher explained, “found two islands in the Atlantic Ocean. One was snowy and too cold to live on, and the other was beautiful and warm because it had volcanoes. They decided they would name the cold place Greenland and the beautiful one Iceland. That way, no one would ever discover their secret.” I don’t know how much of that story is true - I never looked into it - but that memory always stuck with me. This October I was lucky enough to be sent all the way to Iceland for the Airwaves Festival, which takes place right in the middle of Reykjavík. Even if I tried, I couldn’t properly summarize all that I experienced in a single blog post, but that is what I’m going to aim for. If my words fail to express anything profound, just know that it was magical. That is the closest word in the English language to how the few days I was there felt.
This video is a collage I made out of different things I saw and was able to film; just little snippets of my time there. The music in the background is a cover of the song Souvenir by OMD, performed by Icelandic band Amiina (who probably played as I boarded my airplane in New York - I was so bummed that I couldn’t see them).
I arrived in Iceland at about 3 in the morning EST, 8 in the morning in Icelandic time. The flight over was a mix of nervous anticipation and disbelief. Towards the tail end of the flight, after a long while of ignoring the window (it had been an extremely cloudy and stormy night, so there wasn’t much to look at), I peered outside to notice the sky had cleared. Centered perfectly in my window was the constellation Orion. I sstared at it, listening to the album Mechanical Gardens by Altar Eagle (no relation to Iceland, but definitely fit the mood perfectly), and - I swear I’m not making this up! - this huge shooting star goes flying across it. That was my, ‘everything is going to be alright’ moment, and I held onto it as I wandered around Keflavík International Airport in a tired daze. The ride to Hotel Loftleiðir, where I stayed, took us through the lava fields at sunrise.
I headed out around 7:00 and started my first night in Reykjavík off right: with a Baconbátar from Hlöllabatár (basically a bacon sub with the most delicious sauce EVER). After that, I headed over to the Reykjavík Art Museum to catch a set from Chateau Marmont (FR) and Feldberg (IS). Chateau Marmont put on a pretty good show; Feldberg was more of a guilty pleasure, but they were really enjoyable and the crowd was really into them. It also helped that I knew almost all of the words to their big songs, because Icelandair has this cool feature where they play Icelandic musicians as you board the plane and find your seats. Both of the sets were by far the poppiest of the bands I saw during the festival.
After Feldberg wrapped up, I walked to Apotekið, a really awesomely cozy little bar-venue. The Icelandic crowd was so different from New York; everyone is constantly greeting the next person to arrive with shouts of happiness and tight hugs. As a couple walking in front of me put it, “in London, people would be getting pissed (as in, drunk) and start beating each other up. Here, everyone just gets drunk and more friendly.” I walked in as Captain Fufanu (IS) started their set - really sparse and chilled out electronic music. I felt like they still had room to grow, but for being so young, they sounded great. Mondkopf (FR) took the stage (which was more like a DJ booth) next, transitioning from Captain Fufanu’s more lax sound into a really energetic electronic set. I think my favourite part of Mondkopf’s set, besides the music itself, was just how into it he was. One of my biggest pet peeves are when musicians, or any other kind of artist, just act completely apathetic towards their own material. You can tell in the video below that he was definitely not taking that approach to his performance.
Speaking of videos, I got an extra long one of the band Walls (UK) who released an awesome self-titled album on Kompakt this past spring. I got the chance to interview Sam and Alessio after their set (and after a fairly flawed meet up - I told them I was wearing a black scarf, not really realizing that in a dark venue in Iceland that description applies to almost every girl. I promise, I am smarter than that usually). Getting the chance to hang out with them was definitely one of the highlights of my trip. They are two incredibly nice and talented people, and I’m really excited to hear their new material. Interview and video are below!
(apologies for darkness, the camera doesn’t fair so well in low light situations)
The next morning I woke up way earlier than I wanted to but with the purpose of doing something I have always dreamt of doing probably since the time of the conversation I mentioned at the beginning of the post: ride a horse. And not only did I get to ride a horse, but I got to ride an Icelandic horse, a breed that has basically been kept pure since they were brought with the first settlers. They are so serious about the purity of the species that you are forbidden from riding them with riding gear that has touched a horse from another country for fear that it will be contaminated with a foreign disease. The horses themselves are stout but elegant, and so full of personality.
After I returned from the lava fields, I headed back out into downtown Reykjavík to wander around Laugavegur - basically the Icelandic equivalent of SoHo here in New York. After a devouring a dinner at Hressingarskálinn (did I mention Walls is the nicest band ever? They gave me their meal vouchers that they wouldn’t have time to use), I then saw an early set from Nils Frahm (DE) at Iðnó, a really beautiful old theatre that was the perfect space for the Erased Tapes showcase to be held in. Although his performance had to be cut short in effort of staying on schedule, it was really heartfelt and perfectly executed.
I went to a venue called Faktorý after Nils Frahm’s set finished - the show there was probably the only one that didn’t do it for me out of the whole weekend, but I felt really at home in the upstairs performance space. The minimal separation between performers and audience and the vibe of the place in general was reminiscent of places in New York like Death by Audio or Monster Island Basement. I returned to the Erased Tapes showcase for a stunning set from Ólafur Arnalds (IS), arguably Iceland’s biggest up-and-coming exported artists. I really liked his latest album, but I think his live presence and the added electronic percussion brings his compositions to a totally different (and ultimately, more interesting) level. Also, to lean once again on the word ‘magical,’ just imagine an old theatre filled with music and visuals like below, and every square foot of wood floor is packed with every audience member sitting down like children being read to and only breaking their perfect silence to applaud once totally sure the song had ended. Is there a better word for that than magical? I’m not sure.
I didn’t have much time to revel in the prettyness though, because I had to run over to NASA - one of the larger venues / dance clubs - and caught a show from Apparat Organ Quartet (IS). They have some obvious nods to Kraftwerk… except they are meant for a big dance club in Iceland. And people really love these guys, too. I was surprised at just how accessible they were to the audience.
The last show of the night for me was, you guessed it, Robyn (SE). Judge all you want, but I dare you to pass up the opportunity to see Robyn from the press section. I. Dare. You. Covered in sweat and rain, I got in a taxi and headed back to Loftleiðir, feeling both unfathomably happy and hollow at the same time, knowing it was my last night in Iceland. In my sadness, I shuffled out to the vending machine and bought a pack of Djúpur licorice candies and ate most of the bag in one sitting. I don’t even like licorice, either, but I still have the empty bag like some sad little souvenir of my last night.
Sunday morning I woke up early and ate my cereal with my Icelandic milk (special tip for traveling on a budget: bring a box of cereal, preferably ginger & almond cereal, and buy some milk at the airport, provided you are lucky enough to have a fridge like I did). I took an early bus to downtown Reykjavík to say my goodbyes to all of the streets I had finally learned. I tried to soak as much as I could in; even the air in Iceland smells so pure and crisp. I envied the tourists and locals alike who didn’t have to pack their bags that morning and didn’t have a plane ticket in their purse that would be used in a few hours. Saying goodbye is difficult, even when it’s not to a living being.
Some living beings that did lighten the mood, however, were these ducks in the pond near Iðnó. Why so angry, geese?
Admittedly, I would have felt a lot mopier waiting around for my flight to board at Keflavík but luckily Joe - music director at WRSU, you can also read his post about Airwaves here - ran into me on the bus and was my espresso-drinkin’ duty-free-browsin’ buddy. Speaking of coffee, on the flight from JFK to KEF, the woman next to me ordered a coffee, and it was the best smelling coffee that I have ever smelled. I know by instinct airplanes and coffee are NEVER a good combination, and I was too shy to call over the flight attendant again, so I never got to try it, but I corrected the mistake on the flight back home. Seriously, even if you hate Iceland, buy a plane ticket on Icelandair just for the coffee. I must have had 5 cups of it on the way back, each savored to the last drop. And combined with a Kleinur, an Icelandic doughnut? Amazing.
As I went through customs, I began to fully accept that the adventure was over and it was back to reality. I continue to have dreams where I walk through accurately mapped streets (in my dreams, I remind myself that the last time I was there I never got to try one of their hot dogs). I need to go back. I’m going to do whatever I can to somehow go back next year. Even if I don’t like any of the bands. I mean, the festival both is and isn’t about the music. The music weaves it together, punctuates it, but the spaces in between are all about feelings, moments, people, memories, and sensations. It’s about people clinking your glass happily in the streets. It’s about cab drivers reassuring you when you’re holding back tears despite a limited English vocabulary. It’s about being alone, being brave, and having fun all by yourself. It’s about being in this strange, beautiful, secret place. And even when I leave, it still echoes between my headphones.
Not to make this into an Oscar speech, but I wanted to also give thanks to all who helped me and gave me this opportunity- namely Jenn Pelly, Jamie Gribbon, Brian Pasco, and Bergþóra Laxdal. I know more people were probably involved, and I thank all of you equally again and again.
See you, somehow, in 2011, Airwaves.
Psst: I also host the New Afternoon Show! And I did a radio special on the festival upon my return. You can check out the archive of that show right over here. Takk!