Last week, from Wednesday until Sunday, Reykjavik, Iceland hosted its annual Airwaves festival. It’s an urban festival and a hell of a party, with the city’s invariably intimate venues acting in concert to present a slew of shows in a fashion akin to CMJ or SXSW. This year, Stereogum partnered with Iceland Airwaves to curate and present a show featuring the majestic Maryland beauties of Beach House, which meant we got to fly in, stay, and cover the duration of the festival. What follows is a sprawling recap of our week seeing bands and walking around the city. I broke it down travel-guide style, so if you decide to make a trip to Reykjavik, which you should, you’ll know where to go, what the rooms are like, where to party, where to eat, and how to feel better about yourself in the face of this unwaveringly attractive country because good god.
Tips and recap, this way:
On your way off the plane, buy some bottles of alcohol at duty free. Either drink these yourself, administering daily portions into the cool, handmade pewter flask you’ll buy at the store on Bankastraœti called Björk (established 28 years ago, a few years before the Sugarcubes indelibly altered that name’s character) — or keep it as a reserve supply to spice up the after-afterparties you’ll attend at the houses of the friendly Icelanders you’ll meet, or fellow music-people in your hotel. (See also: ways to feel better about yourself in the face of these fair and lovely phenotypes.) Beers won’t bankrupt you, but at $9 for a cup of the local grog (Viking is most plentiful), it’s nice to have a cost-efficient alternative for later-hours partying. The exchange rate as of October 2011 is, basically, 100 kroner for $1. So shave two decimal points off everything you see and you’ll be in business. At least I hope that is true. I’ll let you know when I look at my next credit card statement, which is some highly American shit to say.
HOW TO PACK
Everything festival-related in Reykjavik is within a ten-minute walk of the central plaza (we stayed therein, at the Center Hotel). This is convenient, because the weather this year was an unrelenting, spitting rain that only occasionally had the decency to fall vertically; mostly these drops arrive sideways and generally make a mockery of your attempts to mitigate them. Verily, this is Iceland in both name and practice, so temperatures didn’t really pop above 40(ish)º F. An umbrella is a good idea here, but layers, a scarf, gloves, and a change of socks are essential to damper the dampness and keep warm. (See also: that flask.)
BANDS, VENUES, BARS
This was the first year Iceland Airwaves had use of the newly opened complex called Harpa. It’s a beautiful, multi-room structure near the water, with an edifice of floor-to-ceiling window panes that curved into one other like a towering glass honeycomb. This is where Björk performed on our first night. This is also where we basically lost our shit on the first night. Seeing Björk in Iceland meant not understanding the few lines of banter she proffered, which is to say seeing Björk in Icleand is basically like seeing Björk any where in the world: stunning, sensorily overloading, intimate and moving even if you don’t always comprehend what’s happening onstage despite the pre-recorded David Attenborough narration. B turned up in a fashion true to Biophilia’s press billing: huge ginger afro, with an array of custom-built objects (a massive caged Tesla coil spitting lightning as rattling percussion, a group of swinging pendulums, a drummer with electronic sample-pad hand drums) and others more widely available (a pipe organ, an iPad). But Björk didn’t play anything aside from that iPad, and then only one song. Instead she moved her way throughout the loosely (but certainly) choreographed choir of 24 adorable, show-making young women wearing blue and gold outfits, singing all of her new album and a few oldies (“Isobel,” “Hidden Place,” and a performance-ending/energy-racing “Declare Independence”). I told Scott a few minutes in, it’s uncanny how much Björk sounds like Björk. He agreed.
Reykjavik Art Museum is another fine and imperative place to take in a show while at Airwaves. This worked in our favor, since we made the trip to present Beach House in that space, in conjunction with Bella Union, on Thursday night. Beach House, it turns out, is a very popular international act, and their song “Zebra” is the sort of hit in Iceland that instantly makes people either throw fists in the air and whoop or throw arms around their neighbor and make out with them madly. (Another thing you’ll learn on this trip is that Icelanders love making out! Everywhere, but especially at shows. With a populace as terrifyingly good looking as this, though, it’s pretty understandable human behaviour.) The museum, a long rectangle with a 50 foot ceiling and white walls, was packed to the gills all night and dialed in for all of it, including Beach House’s three lush and rousing new songs, and each of the opening acts: Borko (we missed them), Hjaltalín (a sweet and smooth male/female-fronted act who sounded a little like the Magic Numbers and looked a lot like Adele and Thor), and Retro Stefson, who are a massively popular seven-piece pop-rock band with an interest in disco, lite-fusion, and soaring European choruses. These guys are heroes here.
THE ARTISTS YOU ALREADY KNOW
So, a quick scorecard on this front: SBTRKT’s “Wildfire” is a huge hit here and decimated the crowd at NASA, which is the most dance-oriented performance club in Reykjavik. It’s clean, has a great soundsystem, and is now the proud owner of the scarf that I lost on Thursday during tUnE-yArDs’ big set. (No surprises, “Bizness” is the song that everyone went wild for straight away.) YACHT, Austra, Liturgy (in Iceland recording), and DJ James Murphy all turned up and performed wildly discussed sets. Sean Lennon was here via his The Ghost Of A Saber Toothed Tiger project, and also via his mom’s Plastic Ono Band. You probably already heard about tUnE-yArDs getting onstage with Yoko during the performance, right? Maybe you hadn’t heard that Sinead O’Connor was here, though. Playing a pretty church (called Fríkirkjan), the irony of which was far from lost on the thoroughly self-aware and still-gorgeously-voiced Sinead. Scott and I were in the pews at Fríkirkjan for this set. She joked a lot about being on the altar, promoted and performed from her new album and, yes, she turned in a reverent rendition of “Nothing Compares 2 U” (until the end, where she started free-styling about bananas, obviously).
Totally Extinct Enormous Dinosaurs is the actual name of a project, and once you get past that, you’ll hear some savvy electronic music produced and sung by T-E-E-D main-mind Orlando. In NASA, where Mr. Enormous Dinosaur intermittently brought out two buxom dancers in wigs and tails to do choreographed routines to his beats, he was a king. It sounded like Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor singing over more aggressively club beats. Also, he wore a stegosaurus outfit. So in a loose sense this son of an Oxford music professor is like Hot Chip x Deadmau5, except neither of the artists in that formula is going Damon Albarn. Totally Extinct Enormous Dinosaurs is on Soundcloud. (And the Hot Chip affiliation is intrinsic: T-E-E-D has released material on Joe Goddard’s Greco-Roman label.)
We checked in with Owen Pallett, too. He’s in Iceland working on a record with his new, three-piece band and performed a couple of Airwaves sets to thoroughly packed rooms. Scott and I caught a song or two of his day show at Kafibarren, where shut-out fans lined the street with ears cupped against the venue windows. It’s a shame they couldn’t get inside — Kaffibarren is a cozy, quaint wooden space that slings coffees and beers and is considered an “off-venue” space for its intimate day parties, and a great hook-up spot for the more lascivious, late-night sort. Another spot that folks recommended for meeting night partners is called Bakkus, which is across the street from the bar/space Amsterdam, and under the rock-club Gaukur Á Ströng. (To underscore the outright proximity of everythign in Reykjavik: That’s three of the most discussed spaces in the city, across the street or literally on top of one another, and themselves 45 seconds from the center plaza in one direction and the Reykjavik Art Museum in another. It’s almost as if the urban planners took drunken festival walks into consideration when laying it out.)
We saw a terrible Icelandic band at Amsterdam that shall go nameless here, though Scott and I had initially likened them to a bad Oasis, and then to a really bad Super Furry Animals, and eventually decided we would agree to comparing them to anything as long as it was prefaced by “a really bad…” Apologies, band who shall go nameless. But really, you’re welcome.
THE ICELANDIC ARTISTS
There are a number of local bands that clearly have worked hard to get polished and strong fan bases, quite a few of whom seem primed to infiltrate other markets. We mentioned those at our Beach House showcase (Retro Stefson, Hjaltalín). Of Monsters And Men are another, whom we caught at Harpa. They are a co-ed group full of accordion and brass, led by a girl with a Win Butler haircut and preceded by essentially accurate references to Edward Sharpe, earlier Arcade Fire, and the like. They are not for you if you like even a modicum of edge to your music, but they will most certainly have some resonance in the American market soon enough — so you can get started listening here if you like. I saw the band Valdimar at Gaukur Á Ströng and they had a similarly polished, large-band vibe, though a bit smoother still. So again: proceed with caution. Ólöf Arnalds remains highly recommended and ‘Gum-beloved. In another vein entirely, I saw some Icleandic hip-hop in the person of EmmSjé Gauti at Gaukur. I obviously didn’t understand a word he said, but it sounded like it rhymed! And it definitely seemed like everyone in the club knew it, which brings me to a practical suggestion: If you ever have an opportunity to go abroad and see a local pop star perform in a language you don’t speak, it’s important you do so. Watching people flip their minds and dance insanely to music you don’t recognize a note of is a surreal experience that snaps into focus the wonderful, absurd aspects of fandom while also reminding you how fragmented world culture can still be, and how big this Earth place is (still!).
We were hoping to check in with local legend Meghus, the mercurial, apparently perpetually disorganized Icelandic troubadour who was described as this country’s Dylan-meets-Waits-meets-Serge Gainsbourg — but he allegedly called the festival the night he was supposed to perform to say he had no idea what they were talking about and he was chilling in Berlin instead. Which is just as well, because I’m not even sure an entire set of Meghus could be as excellent as that anecodte. Icelanders promised Meghus would entertain during this festival, and they did not lie. GusGus remain huge here, too. Others locals that are constantly namechecked: Mammút, Lay Low, Snorri Helgason. And special mention of the one local whose name actually worked to their advantage and almost (almost!) got me to see them: Ikea Satan.
You’ll hear a lot about Saegreiffin (translation: “The Sea Baron”) and the lobster soup (“humarsupa”) that’s served there. Everything you hear is completely true. A cup of this stuff may be worth the flight alone. The stock is rich and perfectly seasoned, with chunk lobster and bits of celery and the like. While you’re there, also get some fish kebabs — scallop is a popular choice, halibut and shrimp are dope as well. The Baron himself, a small geriatric fisherman named Kjartan Halldorsson, will make the rounds and force feed everyone in the restaurant a toothpicked sample of whale blubber, or shark, or something else that will make you feel queasy on ethical and straight naseau grounds. That’s roughly ten minutes from the central plaza. I’m told meat eaters should have the lamb hot dogs at the famous hot dog stand (which Bourdain allegedly loved and which Bill Clinton alleges gave him food poisoning) and get a hamburger while they’re in town, too; I eat only fish and veg myself, so I can’t attest. (Scott seemed to enjoy his hot dog. (I did -Ed.)) But if you’re in need of a proper vegetarian meal, and after a few days of late nights, you will, go to Á næstu grösum (Laugavegur, 20b), a short walk up Laugevegur and across the street from the famous (and fun) gay bar Barbara. It’s upstairs, and you point out four of the daily veggie dishes you’d like on your plate for about 22 kroner. (Another option everyone recommended but we didn’t make is Garðurinn (Klapparstígur, 37), close to the iconic Hallgrímskirkja church.) Late night dining comes in a few flavors: Wack-ass pizza, a 24 hour store up Laugeveger with the standard bodega fare, and the route I went most often, which is falafel at Ali Baba’s on the central plaza. You can’t miss it (geographically speaking) and its mostly green inside/lightly fried circumference made for one of the more healthy and satisfying late night options, despite the lack of flavor (or availability of extra hot sauce). Put salt on everything.
There are a couple of record stores around town, where you can buy (no joke) a 4700 kroner LP of Fleet Foxes Helplessness Blues. Which is basically a $47 LP of Fleet Foxes Helplessness Blues. Which is so many dollars! Robin Pecknold, you could afford all the humarsupa in the world if you moved here. Which wouldn’t be a bad fate, really. There’s also a great vintage store (called “Second Hand Clothing,” I think) on the main shopping drag, Laugevegur street. And if you happen to like things with ICELAND written on them, this is your lucky street.
Do some! There’s an annual Airwaves party at the popular tourist destination Blue Lagoon, which are geothermically heated outdoor hotsprings, where swim-up bars serve libations, DJs spin trance and Europop, and large buckets contain freely usable silicon mud masks affectionately referred to as “magic mud.” Apparently the stuff works wonders on troubled skin and takes years off the face, or so says their gift shop, but in any event you will walk out of this place with hair that stands straight on end and 75% less hangover than you had upon arrival. Friends visited repeatedly, and said it was much more relaxing without the DJs and the official Airwaves party vibe. This is not surprising. Another trip is the Golden Circle, which takes a full day and is close to the Geysir, which is the actual geyser that gives all geysers their name. We didn’t go, but YACHT did and showed Scott their iPhone video. By the time I was near Jona and Claire their iPhones were running low on battery and so while I didn’t see it myself, they helpfully described it: “Just picture the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen in your life.” So I can only assume it looks exactly like a plastic bag caught in a cross-breeze, flying around in the wind.
So, that’s about it. Thanks to everyone at the festival for being so accommodating and helpful. And thanks for everything, Iceland. To us you will forever be a wind-ensnared plastic bag.