Iceland beguiles and generally spellbinds its visitors with dramatic contrasting landscapes, vigorous people, unfathomable amounts of creative talent and unquestionably curious traditional cuisine. Clash have made no secret over the years of our reciprocated love affair for this small island and the remarkable music that flows out of it, seemingly unhindered by the pessimism or genre restrictive homogeneity so often inherent to larger countries and cities.
Reykjavik produces a steady flow of dynamic, consistently uncompromising talent unseen anywhere else in the Northern hemisphere. There are a multitude of reasons why such a small place should produce such diverse talent. The interdependent spirit that geographic isolation engenders, the opportunity for children to have music lessons at an early age and a confidence in being creatively truthful coalesces to create artists who have something unique to say to the world.
Back in November during Airwaves, Reykjavik’s largest music festival, Clash were introduced to 19 young bands that had been chosen to represent Iceland as the focus country at Eurosonic Noorderslag, an annual industry gathering in Groningen, Holland. We followed the trajectory of the artist’s respective journeys and caught up with five of them amidst the clamour and excitement of the Dutch festival.
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dj. flugvél og geimskip
The ineffable, incomparable dj. flugvél og geimskip (dj. airplane and spaceship) is an enchanting, effervescent presence. Allegedly making music since she was a toddler, first as a rapper, entertaining her parents and school friends, later blossoming into an intrepid, mesmerising musician. Playing in four different bands, as so many do in Reykjavik, means coordinating a brain scrambling timetable of availability, so eventually she just started making her own music making, bold hybrid horror & sci fi influenced electronica, with whatever she could lay her hands on.
Combining a love of DIY culture and an interest in all things Japanese has helped her create an interesting aesthetic. “Everything is so extreme in Japan, it’s like another world; so futuristic. They have robot bands playing in clubs!” She chuckles incredulously. “It feels like anything can happen there. It has influenced me a lot I think, even if I don’t really know what it’s all about.” You only have to witness her Murakami meowing over oriental melodies to hear the clear evidence of this love affair.
She listens, unsurprisingly to “a lot of drum 'n' bass, 60’s garage and old exotic music like Yma Sumac and Martin Denny, Raymond Scott and early electronic musicians.” But her barometer continues to be Joe Meek. “He recorded everything himself in his house and he made this album ‘ I Hear A New World’. It’s my favourite album. I think that has probably influenced me the most, because what’s important in my music is that you can hear new worlds. You can make new worlds in this world, with the music. It was the best thing I’ve ever heard.”
Ultimately she would like to unite these new worlds and art forms. She cites the visual artist Hermann Nitsch for his exhibitions combining live music with crazy antics. “That was better than cinema, it was theatre,” she explains gleefully. Making her own extraordinary videos to accompany her songs was never in question. “I was studying visual art. I like to make things. The thing I want to do in my life is make new things. To add something to the world. It’s fun to do it and if you can live and have a career by doing that then I would love to.”
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Júníus Meyvant are in fact a Nordic soul band headed up by singer-songwriter Unnar Gísli Sigurmundsson, who hails from the tiny Vestmann Islands, located off Iceland’s south coast. Most Reykjavik based artists we’ve know of have been involved in making music in some form or another since they were very young. But not so for Unnar who has only been writing and playing for just over a decade. Now at the age of he’s 32, the father of two young children, he’s begun his musical journey in earnest.
Why didn’t he pursue it sooner? “Ah, because of the wind in my head. All over the place” he shrugs and laughs, a laconic figure with cheekbones like knives. “You know, skateboarding, painting. I was always drawing. All my family play instruments expect me. Then one day I got up and I just started playing the guitar. I just wanted to play.” By his own admission he knew he had a good voice but didn’t think of using it, “I always knew I could sing, I grew up in the church so its quite natural for me to sing but I thought it was odd singing, I was a boy and I was kinda shy.”
Despite his intrinsic shyness he’s matured into a self-confessed people person. “It’s not hard for me to get to know somebody but sometime the artist takes over and you kind of isolate yourself.” But readily admits he’s good under pressure and “controlling the environment. I have ADHD so I can focus on everything at once. I think that’s a good thing for a guy to have that in band. To be able to see the whole picture.”
But isolation doesn’t mean working in a vacuum. “When you have a new musician who can do stuff that you cant do, you start to automatically write for them…nobody does anything by themselves. It’s an illusion. I’m really grateful to have people around me.” He certainly has many collaborators now. “I actually minimsed my band to only five, as its really expensive to travel (to overseas festivals) with ten people or something. We are trying to do something new but we’re still trying to get everything together using samples and synthesizers and stuff”.
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An anomaly on our roundup are Low Roar. Vocalist Ryan Karazija immigrated to Iceland from the Bay Area of California, moving to Reykjavik because he fell in love with a girl and the city simultaneously. Writing his acclaimed self-titled debut whilst he tried his best to acclimatise meant it was predominantly recorded in his kitchen. “Somebody leant me a small interface. I did everything on Garage Band because I had that on my computer. Then my friend Andrew came into the picture, he was the guy who mixed it. I would record the songs, send him the files and he would occasionally co-produce or do four off five takes and we’d pick one.” But other than this, it was a solo effort.
For Low Roar’s second album, released in the summer of 2014 he enlisted the help of his friends, drummer Logi Guðmundsson and keyboardist Leifur Björnsson and for shows, the string section of Sigur Rós collaborators amiina. He agrees it’s easier to integrate and meet likeminded musicians in Reykjavik. “You’re in the middle of no-where on his island and everyone is bunched together so it is really easy. In between the first and second albums Logi and me started playing together kind of randomly and then there were people we’d met along the way. It’s such a small place everyone knows what you’re up to and there’s people you’ve maybe never met before but we still say hi to each other because we’re all conscious of each other and what each other does.”
It sounds veritably bucolic but it also means things can take a while to coalesce. “The second album came out six months ago. Everything with this project has taken a lot of time. The first album came out Oct 11 and no one started to notice it for about a year and now people are just discovering that and there’s already another one out. Maybe we’ll make an EP next.”
Amidst festivals, touring and promotion they’re already thinking ahead but are also taking time to relish the present. “One of the things I like about touring is playing different rooms every night and the sounds of different rooms. It makes sound checks really fun.” There are certainly few musicians that would concede such a thing but it underlines the endemic positivity that’s consistently witnessed on the Reykjavik music scene.
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A multi talented three piece, Vök assembled, entered a prestigious battle of the bands (Músíktilraunir) took a month or so to write some songs and proceeded to win the competition in spectacular style. This set of circumstances could lead just about anyone to arrogance but they’re refreshingly (& genuinely) modest about their origins, shrugging off, yet still quietly owning, their early success with that relaxed vibe only islanders seem to possess.
Guitarist Ólafur Alexander explains that they feel blessed. “There are not many bands formed in Iceland with a sole purpose to ‘make it’. You just start playing, maybe get a song up on the Internet, you participate. But getting attention and the opportunity to play abroad is a bonus. That’s when you realise you have something good in your hands.” Such a statement may help explain the diversity and uniqueness of so many musicians from this part of the world. They make music because they feel compelled to and ultimately they do it because they enjoy it.
In between live shows they’ve recorded an EP for the American market and are deep in the workings of their debut album, clearly excited at the prospect of release. “There’s already a lot of ideas floating round” agrees saxophonist Andri Enoksson. “We’ve recorded many bases for songs and there’s a lot left to do but we’ll get there. We’ll have more info when we’ve finished mixing the first tracks but we hope to release in the Spring.”
They name check fellow Icelanders Ásgeir', Emiliana Torrini and Bloodgroup as inspirations but their influences, to our ears, lie in another coastal city, Bristol. Vocalist Margrét Rán is quick to agree. “Massive Attack and Portishead, all that trip hop stuff from the 90’s, that’s definitely inspiring”. Andri cuts in with “Bombay Bicycle Club, & Air”. All of which is a clear indicator of their swooningly atmospheric, cinematic sound, which they hope engenders an emotional response in listeners. They want audiences “to feel deeply when they hear it.” As Margrét admits, “It’s our own soundtrack.”
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Formed in 2008 by guitarists/singers Gígja Skjaldardóttir and Bjartey Sveinsdóttir, Ylja weave wonderfully, woozy Americana influenced harmonies into the sound of the newly expanded five piece band Ylja. It’s no surprise that the girls (who sound like sisters but aren’t) first met in a choir. “It all started there and from then on we’ve been playing together,” Bjartey admits. “We were only there for one semester together but things just connected. We have the same taste and we grew up listening to the same music.”
Although they don’t consciously channel their greatest influences any ear can easily pick them up. “We love Simon and Garfunkel, Cat Stevens, everything our parents were listening to. Tracy Chapman, people like that”. They write closely together, all the melodies and harmonies but decided to shake things up with their new release. As Gígja explains “We now come up with ideas individually but then we practice together and it’s then everything happens, the guys come with their own ideas. It’s perfect.”
So why did they decide to expand the line up to include percussion? Gígja explains. “We were thinking of recording an album so we got in a friend to help us, he’s a slide guitar player (no longer with the band). But now we have gone in another direction with an electric guitar, a bass player and a drummer. At first we didn’t want any drums, we were scared to go that way but now we just love it” they enthuse. “It expands our sound.”
At the moment they’re content to be publicising their last release and playing live, taking each step in their bohemian stride. “We’re no plans to tour this year” but Bjartey admits, clearly relishing the idea “I think our manager has something in mind!” At the moment they are still studying and working in conjunction with making music but they hope that one day, like so many of the musicians we’ve spoken to, that this can eventually be their full time job. “It’s a dream and we want to fulfill the dream one day”.
Words: Anna Wilson
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