It was mere moments after the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra, directed by acclaimed Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, had finished performing “The Miners’ Hymns”, an ode to Britian’s coal workers. A mostly minimalist and haunting piece, with rousing moments, it sounded tremendous inside the lovely concert hall. I stood up to get my coat and wrap myself in my wool scarf from southern Iceland’s Vik and turned to see a small Icelandic pixie, in a lovely red dress and rainbow-coloured trainers with two-inch thick soles.
In that instance, short of holding a plate of rotted shark and having our names end in …dottir, we couldn’t have been more Icelandic if we’d tried.
So? What makes Icelandic Airwaves? Was it the insane wind or the sulphur smell in our hotel room from the erupting volcano down the way? Was it the day we arrived, exhausted after a bus to Seattle, a flight to Reykjavik, no sleep, and then an 8hr-wait for our hotel room, made slightly better by a pint of Einstök beer? Was it the search for cheap eats (bowls of noodle soup to warm us or copious hotdogs from Bæjarins Bestu)? Or having @Logreglan (Reykjavik’s awesome police Instagram account) tell me to have fun but be safe?
Was it the day trips pre-festival to a black lava sand beach, feeding Icelandic horses or getting soaked next to waterfalls? Was it a soak in the Blue Lagoon where you can drink a beer that stays cold in the icy air, while your body stays warm in a mineral bath of water hot from the earth’s core? Was it the sunrise at the juncture between North American and European continents, standing on the site of the first Viking Parliament?
Was it late-night giant buckets of gin back at the hotel with travelmate Terri (best mate, bassist in Frog Eyes and willing adventurer) as we’d download what we did with our evenings? Or was it the night I went to see and meet up with the DJ KJB, a man I crushed on 13 years ago when I last visited Reykjavik, and whom on THIS night ripped off his headphones to come hug me? Was it hanging and having a smoked cod lunch, alongside great music and KEXP Seattle friends at the KEX Hostel?
It was all of those things. Epic. In the actual sense of the word. And musically speaking, pretty remarkable, too.
Highlights from the locals of Iceland? Seeing the beautiful duo Kiasmos (including Ólafur Arnalds) perform at a KEXP day session. One of my favourite albums of the year, Kiasmos’ self-titled ambient electronica perfectly kicked off the four-day festival at the hostel next to our hotel; Being mesmerised by both the goosebump-creating harmonies and strings of Árstíðir (and their stunning cellist Unnur).
Being introduced to big-time Icelandic rock band Agent Fresco – a sort of Tool Lite, with great charisma and showmanship; Seeing a CRAZY almost crab metal band In the Company of Men at bar Gaukurinn, or “the Pickle Bar” as our friends Matt and Tanya called it, because Gaukurinn sounds like “Gherkin.” Falling for the wild rhythms and compelling weirdness of Mammút, one of my favourites from Airwaves this year. Chilling out at one of the only day shows we were able to get into (think SXSW’s day shows are packed? Try Airwaves. They have no sense of capacity and you have to go two hours early to see a band you want…), to see Sin Fang fiddle his keyboards alongside a drummer. Laughing along with the adorable Hafdis Huld, who’d traded her time as awesome singer in GusGus for light acousticky solo efforts. There was falling in love with the Mogwai/Explosions in the Sky quiet-loud-quiet of For A Minor Reflection. Meeting Mr. Silla, being gobsmacked by the ridiculous disco-dork party party show of FM Belfast, checking out Young Karin, being fascinated by the awful but fun-to-watch Skyur and whatever else I managed to fit in four days. Everyone in Iceland, you learn quickly, is in a band. Some of them are in ALL of the bands.
But there were non-local music adventurers, too. Watching Mammút alongside my pals Samuel and Will from Future Islands (“Hey Mikala! How’s it going?”) and watching Future Islands Dan Snaith (aka Caribou), and Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips, whom I reminded of our time together in Vancouver (“OH YEAH I REMEMBER THAT!!! he ventured, then jumped on me in a giant hug). Seeing Future Islands then Caribou back to back? Ranked pretty high up there. Trapped in the photo pit because the Reykjavik Art Gallery’s long performance hall was packed to overflow, I got to see three astounding sets of performers do their thing for three hours, and blow all the minds around them. Iceland had never met Future Islands before and Reykjavik lost its collective shit for the music and the moves.
Also fun? Hanging with my friends Unknown Mortal Orchestra at a day show AND at the airport on the same flight home, running into Rolling Stone magazine writer David Fricke on the street – we’d last met at SXSW and chatted about Bo Ningen. I checked out the UK’s twee Adult Jazz band, the pop punk of Pins, danced my ARSE off to Denmark’s Tomas Barfod (like Caribou, I love me some DJs-wot-drum), blissed out to War on Drugs per usual (thanks to drummer Charlie for the guest listage!), and, while I am bored to tears of the shtick, I did enjoy snapping the Flaming Lips and their silver balloons, confetti, tentacles and giant creatures, during their festival-closing set. (Also enjoyed running into the Cocteau Twins’ – and Bella Union Records head – Simon Raymonde, also last met at SXSW.)
So would I go back to Airwaves? In a heartbeat. Despite a cold wind that could blow your suitcase across a parking lot, it was worth every second. Enjoy all the photos by clicking on each to embiggen and scroll through. \m/
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