It’s 1am at one of Reykjavik’s busier live venues and Örvar Þóreyjarson Smárason is jerking around onstage in his underpants. This may come as a surprise to followers of múm, his folky, sometimes electronic, always elegant collective; but then Smárason is a member of several other bands as well, as is often the case with Reykjavik’s musical royalty. This one is called FM Belfast, a frenetic dance outfit who do shouty, chant-along anthems, as far removed from múm as you can imagine. Their most popular track is called ‘Underwear’. Hence keks round ankles.
Much earlier in the day and Örvar is feeling a lot less uptempo. “Today has been a bit of a disaster so far,” he groans, as Clash pitches up at a favourite coffee shop. Now back in the Icelandic capital after years living in Copenhagen, Prague and Berlin, he’s just returned from a lengthy touring stint but is having a few problems settling in. “I bought a big piece of furniture, but we can’t get it in the house, it won’t fit through the doors. So I’ve had to call my dad…”
Smárason has a bit of a mixed relationship with this remarkable city. For first-time tourists, Reykjavik reminds you of that old Wizzard song: it really is like Christmas every day. The world’s northernmost capital is far enough removed from mainland Europe to defiantly do its own thing, while still offering a welcome much warmer than the weather. It’s also surprisingly small though, numbering only 200,000 residents, all of whom seem to know each other. For ambitious creative types, that warmth can be a little smothering.
“Claustrophobia, cabin fever – everyone gets it here,” says Smárason. “A lot of people have a love-hate relationship with this town, it can really drive you mad. One of the best things is the tight community, but it’s also the thing that inspired me to move away.”
In a bid to rekindle his love affair with Reykjavik, then, Clash has asked Örvar to take us to a few of his regular haunts, new and old, kicking off with this favoured café, Kaffismidjan. So how did the city shape his future career?
“I really didn’t start going to shows until I went to a school where they had a proper scene,” he recalls, having lowered his lanky frame onto a bench outside the shop. “They don’t do it anymore, but there was a part of the school that was completely student controlled and we had a venue in there where you could smoke and drink and go insane. They would get all these young punk and new-wave bands to come. The first show I saw there was [Scottish punks] The Dog-Faced Hermans, I was sixteen, it was the first show of the semester and they’d packed, like, four hundred people into a room that takes about a hundred, it was just insane. A lot of Icelandic bands have gone through that school: The Sugarcubes, us, and now Hjaltalin, Retro Stefson. Sixty or seventy percent of Iceland’s bands came from there.”
Smárason met fellow stalwart Gunnar Örn Tynes in a garage band a few years later, but the two then snuck off to form múm in Tynes’ basement (“people here quit bands and join bands all the time”). The line-up has varied across their five albums, as has the sound, from full-on experimental glitch to the gentler feel of the new ‘Sing Along To Songs You Don’t Know’ LP, and that fluidity is evident in much of the city’s music. Varies theories abound but Smárason reckons the distance from other markets is a major factor: global domination just isn’t on the agenda.
“I think people are pretty grounded here in what they do,” he says. “It’s a small town. I still think it’s the same way now, the young bands, they have exactly the same approach as we used to have. Iceland is very individual thinking.”
Indeed, and to further support that theory, he takes us to a tattoo parlour next. Kingdom Within has Sinatra on the stereo and a couple of friendly chaps inside: one topless and half-etched, the other waving his needle at us. Örvar had been under it the day before. “That was a guitar with lightning coming out of it,” he says, but shows us a previous effort instead, “a skull with saxophone horns”. We spend the next ten minutes talking about jazz pirates.
Next it’s off to Karamba, a splendidly quirky bar run by another member of FM Belfast, and regularly graced by Örvar’s DJing, if you happen to be passing of an evening. Not that his selections are to everyone’s liking. “I think he was upset that I didn’t play Phil Collins,” explains our guide, as he recounts a recent altercation and points to a big scar above his eye. Weekends in Reykjavik can get pretty lively.
Back onto the main drag – the Laugavegur – and a sudden burst of icy rain blows away the cobwebs before the sun shines again. Nothing here stays still for long. “One of the good things about the city, it keeps changing,” says Örvar. “I’ve been away for a couple of months and there are some new things I want to see…”
And with that we head into Havari, a trendy little shop that’s also a gallery, gig venue and base for gogoyoko, the forward-thinking website-cum-label that first brought us the new múm album. Several bands will play in Havari over the next few days as part of the new Réttir festival – named after Iceland’s sheep-gathering season – watched over by Smarason’s friend Svavar who plays in popular local outfit Skakkamanage when not running the shop. “This was a very famous bar years ago,” he says. “The bums come in here every day and tell me stories about how it was: drinking, smashing the windows.”
Our hike round Reykjavik is almost complete, but there’s one odd stop to negotiate. After the cool bars, record shops and coffee spots, we arrive at Bonus, Iceland’s answer to Netto. This is rather apt, says Örvar, because it’s the only store the locals can afford, since the recent crash. “The owner is one of the culprits of the whole mess that we have, so it’s a mess we have to think about every day we shop here,” he says. “We can’t get away from it.”
Smárason, like many of his Icelandic musical contemporaries, isn’t bashful about speaking up when dodgy deeds are afoot. The UK-versus-Iceland debt business is a particularly sore point, but a chap called David Oddsson is currently a more pressing concern. As Iceland’s prime minister Oddsson oversaw the privatisation of several Icelandic banks, and was forced out of his next job as governor of the country’s central bank when thousands took to the streets in protest. So it came as something of a surprise, the day before our meeting with Örvar, that he was appointed co-editor of the country’s only broadsheet, Morgunbladid. Imagine Mrs. Thatcher taking over the BBC – that’s how it feels to the average Icelander.
“It’s just seizing a grip on our newspaper,” sighs Örvar, revealing the underlying reason for his air of melancholy. “I’ve been a subscriber, I’m a newspaper addict, and like everyone, we had to wait half an hour to get in through the lines this morning, because a lot of people are giving up their subscriptions.”
Tour over, we let the múm man meet his dad, but cross paths again later on, and he’s looking a lot chirpier. They’ve had a brainwave regarding the cabinet. “We’re going to tie a rope to it and lift it up to the balcony,” he says, amused at the prospect. Then he heads off to soundcheck for a gig at which he’ll end up trouserless. They’re an interesting breed, your Icelanders.
Drink ’til you drop
“At weekends, there are no rules. On weekdays the bars are supposed to shut at 1am, but they took away the closing rules at weekends because everything used to shut at 3am, so all the people would pour out of the bars at the same times and there would be chaos, fights. I mean, you still get some fights, but you know which areas to keep away from. Also, it’s so bright in the summer, there is no night. It can get very confusing.”
“It’s only when I see how it works in other places that I realise how easy it is here. This is a complete do-it-yourself culture, the bands always put on their own shows, from putting the posters up to hiring the PA, every single thing. That’s also one of the things that’s good for Icelandic bands, because they know the whole process, they’ve seen it from A to Z. It’s very healthy.”
Defying the developers
“The worst thing about Reykjavik is that some people really want to change it, to completely change it into something it isn’t. It’s an old fishing village, but nobody wants to, er, smell like fish, so they want to do the whole thing over, tear everything down. There’s a big fight here to keep the city dynamic. They tore down a legendary bar called Sirkus, but because of the crash there’s nothing there now.”
Clash’s A to Z of Reykjavik
Apparat Organ Quartet
Reykjavik’s answer to Kraftwerk: much hairier, with messed-up keyboards and a drummer. They recently reformed for the Réttir festival and caused some mighty queues.
Uncompromising collective who brought us The Sugarcubes, and thus Bjork, as part of a radical artistic manifesto. “Their way of looking at music, we come from that way of thinking,” says Örvar.
Reykjavik’s biggest sporting export, the ex-Chelsea and Barcelona star is now at Monaco. Hence Icelandic TV bought the French football rights, but only show games he plays in.
Geysers and Hot Pots
Natural volcanic springs supply much of Reykjavik’s power, and recharge the nation’s batteries. “The hot swimming pools are the things I miss most,” says the often on-tour Örvar.
AKA ‘fermented shark’, this Icelandic delicacy is exactly that: cured shark meat that’s been left to rot for several months. Rancid.
Reykjavik has a local airport near the city centre, which tends to freak out visiting New Yorkers.
Ólöf and Ólafur Arnalds
Gifted cousins with confusingly similar names: occasional múm member Ólöf makes quasi-traditional folk-pop, while former metalhead Ólafur is now a piano and laptop maestro.
The influential Icelanders have a studio on the outskirts of Reykjavik, which their redoubtable string section Amiina were utilising when Clash stopped by.
Splendidly-named venue which garnered some useful publicity recently by sticking pictures of prominent bankers and businessmen on each of its urinals. They sure help the aim.
Iceland has just started hunting them again, much to Örvar’s distaste. You can also go whale-watching from Reykjavik harbour… while stocks last.
Words by Si Hawkins
Photos by Helen F Kennedy