Iceland Airwaves 2014: The War On Drugs, The Flaming Lips, & The Knife’s Final Show

While I might be in some kind of minority here, Iceland Airwaves is the kind of thing I prefer to a normal festival. Not that I’d be in a minority because of the Iceland thing — in the past few months of me mentioning I was about to go to this festival, I’ve discovered that a whole lot more Americans are really intrigued by the idea of Iceland than I’d realized. But I was also excited specifically about the notion of going to a festival that was going to be really cold, and one that would be held indoors at various venues. The only other time I’ve done a festival structured in that way was SXSW earlier this year, and even with all that event’s attendant insanities (and, this year, tragedies), the whole experience is more my speed than standing in a field in the sun all afternoon. Reykjavik would more or less be considered a small town in American terms, so the venues are all pretty close, and it becomes easy to jump around between them. You can stick around for a whole bill at one particular venue for the night, or you can jump from band to band without much difficulty; I met people who approached it both ways, and I approached it both ways as well depending on the night.

Wednesday and Thursday were pretty random, the former because people were still kind of arriving and maybe just catching one or two bands, the latter because the weekend was just about to arrive so everyone was just then settling into a kind of groove. On Wednesday I went to a place called Hurra, which is a bar in the front with venue space in a back room, essentially because it was right near where I’d eaten dinner and where my hotel is. Turns out I saw Bjork’s son’s band? Also turns out they sound kind of like a pop-punk band? That sound was never really my thing but they seemed proficient enough at it. And then apparently Bjork was hanging out at the media greeting party I went to on Thursday, which was sort of hilarious — if Girls or something did an episode where everyone went to Iceland, they’d see Bjork. It’s such a signifier of the whole country to an American music fan that it’d read as a stereotype in fiction but, hey, Reykjavik is a small place and apparently it’s really easy to show up and run into Bjork. And Jonsi from Sigur Ros, for that matter, who was hanging around in the back of the room at the same show I was at on Friday.

Though I did see a scattering of artists on Wednesday and Thursday, the first stuff that really left a mark for me occurred on Friday. I started with Ballet School at the Reykjavik Art Museum. Their set was consistent with their show at CMJ, which is to say: I really like seeing this band live. The setup at the art museum was basically in a big passageway off a main hallway, a multi-story room overlooked by narrow walkways and white doors and topped by some sort of tarp ceiling situation, giving the overall feeling like you were in some sort of hangar. Depending on where you stood, sometimes this hindered the sound from the stage a bit, but generally speaking it was a very cool place to see bands perform. Ballet School pulled out a surprising, dream-pop-ified cover of Madonna’s “Justify My Love,” and it all sounded pretty great inside the space.

Afterwards, I crossed the street and went to Gaukarinn, an upstairs bar that’s also right near Hurra. I tagged along because a friend wanted to cover a band called Fufanu, and that was the best random decision I made the whole time I’ve been here — Fufanu turned out to be awesome. They originated as a techno duo (then called Captain Fufanu), but wound up becoming a band and playing some bleak mix of psychedelia and post-punk, which is so well-aligned with my tastes that I suppose I was a pretty easy target here. Anyway, they were easily my favorite Icelandic artist I saw, and the crowd was fervent — the band was unceremoniously informed they needed to get offstage at some point (I guess when their set was supposed to end, to be fair) and people reacted like they’d watch them jam for the entirety of the rest of the night, if it was possible. Given, there were other good things to come as well — I hung around Gaukarinn the rest of the night, and was also really impressed by Girl Band, a wire-y, noisy band from Ireland. It was another of those random decisions that turned into a great surprise; I only stayed because I met Ballet School’s manager after Funafu and he talked me into it. Both Funafu and Girl Band are currently working on material for their debuts albums, and now I’m really psyched for both.

On Saturday night, I wandered around the city a bit and saw two of the big headliners of the night back at the Reykjavik Art Museum, Future Islands and Caribou. Future Islands’ live show is really as good as they say, and Sam Herring’s now famous dance moves were fully employed, and then not as effectively attempted by a bunch of fans riding on an excitement high after the set. Future Islands wound up being well-paired with Caribou, making the whole of Saturday night as infectious as it was cathartic. It was the first time I’ve seen Caribou since Our Love came out, and at first I actually felt like they started out kind of slow. (I later moved and realized this could maybe be attributed to where I was standing in the venue, which seemed to be kind of a dead zone, sound-wise.) Anyway, the second half was basically one of the best things I’ve ever seen when it comes to live music. Dan Snaith has become an absolute master of the build-and-release approach, turning already epics like “Bowls” into even more expansive and gratifying journeys live. For the rest of Saturday, I flitted in and out of DJ sets in various venues, and I was happy it played out that way. The one-two of Future Islands and Caribou was too euphoric to see anything else that night.

In a way, that felt like the end of Airwaves. On Saturday, lines stretched down multiple blocks from various venues, bars overflowed, and the street back to my hotel had so many discarded plastic cups strewn around that it looked like the entire population of Iceland had been partying there and I’d somehow been totally unaware. On Sunday, I watched shuttle after shuttle arrive at my hotel to take various artists and PR and media out to the airport in Keflavik; my friends had left that morning before sunrise. It already felt like the comedown post-festival, which is weird because we still had the War On Drugs and the Flaming Lips closing the whole thing out a few hours later. Even then, though, somehow it felt like a separate chapter to the rest of it all, taking place over in Vodafone Hall, well removed from the center of town where all the action had been the preceding nights.

The War On Drugs are a band that I’m fairly invested in. Lost In The Dream essentially soundtracked the entire arc of my process of moving back to NYC this year, and as of yet there hasn’t been a time where seeing these guys play that stuff live hasn’t been pretty overwhelming. The set leaned heavily on that material, with Wagonwheel Blues standouts “Arms Like Boulders” and “Buenos Aires Beach” thrown in as well. I know there’s still a month and a half left in 2014, but seeing “An Ocean In Between The Waves” live once more essentially felt like a capstone to this whole year. I was reminded that it’s still my favorite song of the year, easily.

Back in January, I saw the Flaming Lips during My Morning Jacket’s One Big Holiday, and while there were plenty of hits and Beatles covers (and an incredible cover of “Heroes”) sprinkled through that show, it also still had the general aesthetic and vibe of The Terror, which is certainly on the darker end of the Flaming Lips’ spectrum. Last night was more of a party, visually — Wayne came out in a green sweatshirt with stegosaurus ridges on the back of it and big multi-colored, shimmery streamers cascading out of his sleeves, vs. the vaguely cyber-punk leather get up he’d had in Mexico earlier this year. The big blow-up characters were back onstage: There were butterflies with crowns, Santa Claus, aliens. Personally, I wouldn’t have minded hearing some of the Embryonic material again, but it was also kind of cool to see the thoroughly fun side of the Flaming Lips mostly on display. It doesn’t really matter how many times I see them, stuff like “She Don’t Use Jelly” and “Race For The Prize” never really get old live. That goes doubly for “The W.A.N.D.,” which came toward the end of the main set and felt like one big stomping victory lap for the entire festival. Silver balloons were thrown through the air by the audience, as they had been throughout the show, but one stood out. Amidst the convulsing strobes of “The W.A.N.D.,” about half a dozen people worked to hold up one giant silver balloon in the form of the words: “FUCK YEAH ICELAND.” Given, the “C” and “K” had been popped, but afterwards as I walked back through a quieter Reykjavik already missing the experience of the past several days, I definitely couldn’t disagree.

Among the many notable performances at Iceland Airwaves 2014, perhaps none was more anticipated than the Knife’s, which would serve as the band’s last-ever performance. You can watch some videos from that set below.