It’s no stretch to say that Iceland Airwaves is one of the most magical music festivals in the world. Last year, we were blown away by exciting acts, and this year’s lineup alone has us filled with an equal level of giddiness. Located in the heart of Reykjavik, the festival utilizes numerous venues across the city — including churches and hip hostels — to flaunt post-punk, noise rock, humble folk, and more. There’s a balance of gender in the acts booked. There are respectful audiences that listen as if each band is their all-time favorite. There’s an embrace of local culture at every turn.
And yet, all of that isn’t even what makes the festival so admirable. Iceland Airwaves’ true feat is its commitment to showcasing the work of Icelandic bands. Whereas American festivals often slot a small number of local acts, Iceland Airwaves focuses the meat of its festival on locals from the country who create work on par with our own acts. Without even planning to, festival-goers will encounter a rising Icelandic act or a staple artist that locals have been jamming to for years. They sing with a spirit on par with Jonsi or as creative as Björk. Who knew a place so small was overflowing with talent? Well, Icelanders certainly know.
Photo by Nina Corcoran
That doesn’t mean an outsider’s point of view is invalid. Warpaint will perform in Iceland for the first time at this year’s festival. As such, they’ve got plenty of expectations and suggestions on their mind. Lior Phillips spoke with the band about what to expect, and they had plenty to share, especially about the importance of Björk in their music and the music world at large.
Then, we talked with three of Iceland’s biggest names — Múm, Of Monsters and Men, and Sin Fang — about local acts on this year’s lineup that they recommend seeing. Each band tackled the bill with heart and energy. If there’s one thing that stands out about the Icelandic community, it’s their support of the scene. All three bands found themselves talking at length — often with plenty of passion — about the 10 bands they couldn’t recommend enough.
So, get excited for this year’s edition of Iceland Airwaves. There’s plenty of music to start tuning in to, and that begins right now.
Back in the late ’90s, a fellow Icelandic band decided to follow in Bjork’s footsteps to pursue experimental pop, but they took it to the next level. Múm’s music embodies everything Iceland’s nature projects. It’s cold and glitchy, but bursting with the warmth of hot springs and the intimacy one finds when sitting in them. There are high falsettos that could come from the country’s folklore fairies. There are unconventional string instruments and moving basslines, the type of work that could soundtrack their breezy grasses and massive waterfalls.
Perhaps that’s what encourages them to keep going. Next year, the band turns 20, and they show no signs of stopping. Múm’s own Orvar Þóreyjarson Smárason hopped on Skype to chat with CoS about local acts he vouches for. —Nina Corcoran
01. DJ Flugvel Og Geimskip
The name means DJ Airplane and Spaceship. She is a really interesting artist that I couldn’t compare to anybody. She’s a young girl doing kooky electronics; really special, it doesn’t sound like anything else I’ve heard. Earlier this year, she did an improvisation with Múm where she joined us in playing music to a German silent film.
I think they’re playing Icelandic Airwaves for the first time, but they played one off-venue show last year I think. They’re like a phantom band, so nobody knows who’s in the band, and everyone wants to know who are the members. Some of them are good friends of mine. Describing music is one of the worst things I do, but it’s electronic music with three vocalists that’s beautiful. I can recommend the song “Fuck With Someone Else”, which is the first thing that they put out last year, and I definitely recommend their show.
The name means synthesizer, I think. He’s a genius electronic producer, and he plays quite upbeat, really amazing-sounding electronic music. Live is really fun. He just plays solo, so he’s playing synths, but he’s very animated and lively when he plays. He also plays with a lot of different bands, like FM Belfast.
04. Hogni Egilsson
He’s the singer and songwriter of Hjaltalin. I’m not exactly sure what he’s going to be doing at the festival because he turns into very spontaneous and different things. He used to play with Múm for awhile as well. Usually he plays piano and sings — like expressive ballads, and he has a very beautiful singing voice — in a very expressive way, but you never know what people are going to be doing.
She’s a young singer, but I saw her play at the festival — we were playing with her earlier this summer — and it’s one of the best shows I’ve seen. Hermigervill actually plays in her band as well. It’s like electronic vocal music. She has a deep voice — not in like a low voice, but her voice has so much texture and tender — and she’s a great performer.
06. Kaelan Mikla
That’s a girl band. I played with FM Belfast with them at a heavy metal festival last year. So I saw them play there; they played this really dark, small venue. Best live show I saw last year. They play heavy music, but not heavy metal music at all. But really emotional performers, I would say.
They are a recently formed choir. Most of these people are musicians and are in other bands and play other stuff. They formed around a gallery music space that opened up a couple of years ago called Mengi, and I think this year at Airwaves is their first performance as just a choir. They’re also going to be performing with Múm, to come and sing with us.
08. Mr. Silla
She has a really amazing voice, one of the best singers in the younger generation. She just released a solo album last year. Honestly, the voice itself is enough to go see her.
09. Prins Polo
Prins Polo is an old friend of ours. I used to play with him in a few bands awhile ago, but this is his solo thing. I think most of his songs are in Icelandic, but he’s releasing one song that was released in the US, and I was actually acting in the video for that. It’s in English, but I’m not sure if you’re going to understand a word of it at all because he mumbles. He runs a farm in the East of Iceland now called Heari. They do vegetarian sausages made out of Icelandic products and snacks, like chips, made out of turnip. This food is very popular, and they just recently opened a venue at the farm.
It’s a band, but it’s based around the singer with the same name. I think he has the most beautiful voice in Iceland, right now. Really amazing, deep, soulful voice. So I recommend people checking that out just to hear the voice. It says here on the Airwaves website that it’s electro deep with its roots in Americana, but I don’t think I would describe them like that. I would just describe it as vocal indie pop. Actually no, that’s terrible. I can’t do it. I refuse.
They are a young Icelandic trio. It’s relaxing, smooth, beautiful stuff. Slow tempos, cool vocals. Spacious, but really nice. They won this Battle of the Bands thing in Iceland that happens every year, and it’s quite the big deal. Most bands that win this competition go on to be an active band, like Of Monsters and Men won the same competition, and it’s a great place for Icelandic bands to start. The competition name translates to English as Music Experiment.
Of Monsters and Men
Photo by Killian Young
When Of Monsters and Men crossed over to American radio stations, they came charging, but with smiles on their faces. The band exploded in popularity on the alt-rock charts with “Little Talks” in 2011, just a year after they formed. Now, they draw massive crowds at our festivals regularly. Back in their hometown of Reykjavik, the five-piece is just another one of the bands, though. Their fame is certainly noted, but each member peels off to work with fellow musicians or kick back at a small club show. Guitarist Brynjar Leifsson took some time to put together a list of his favorite Icelandic bands playing Iceland Airwaves this year, shedding light on what one of the country’s biggest bands checks out when they finally return home from touring. —Nina Corcoran
01. Agent Fresco
What a really good band. I’m not exactly sure what genre they would go under, but they are somewhere between prog rock and experimental rock. If you want to go and see a band where all the members are all ridiculously talented at playing their instruments, then I highly recommend them.
02. Benny Crespos Gang
Synth- and guitar-driven prog rock. One of my favorite rock bands in Iceland. One of the two singers is actually a big solo artist here called Lay Low; she is also someone you should check out!
She is just amazing. No further introduction needed.
They’re good friends of ours from my hometown of Keflavík. These guys are quite amazing. Led by Iceland’s favorite singer, Valdimar Guðmundsson, they’re melancholic and dreamy music that no one should miss.
05. Singapore Sling
My favorite Icelandic band, without a doubt. Velvet Underground psych or shoegaze type of band. Just make sure you wear black to their show to fit in.
06. Sin Fang
With every album he makes, he keeps surprising me. First album was kind of electric folk, and after that he started experimenting more. His new album, Spaceland, has more of an electric feel that I really like. Definitely something everybody should check out.
A solo act from one of the members of the great dance band Sykur. He just recently came out with his solo project, and from the two songs that can be found online, it sounds like we are all in for a treat.
08. Moses Hightower
Iceland’s sexiest band. Good friends of ours and one of their singers is actually our touring piano player.
09. Júníus Meyvant
Folky, funky guy from Vestmannaeyjar. He just released an album this year that I have had on repeat since it came out. I still haven’t had a chance to see him live, but I will fix that at this year’s Airwaves festival!
10. Dr Spock
Lead by a member of the Icelandic parliament, Dr Spock is something you don’t want to miss. I remember my first Airwaves festival standing in line to go see a show when suddenly a truck drives by with them playing to the people passing by.
Photo by Nina Corcoran
One of Iceland’s most beloved acts, and one that teeters on widespread fame in America, is Sin Fang, the solo project of Sindri Már Sigfússon. In the early 2000s, Sigfússon founded Seabear and welcomed other members on board, churning out indie pop and rock-tilted songs that charmed listeners. But come 2008, he took a step back to focus on solo material under a new moniker. His music swims between curious electronics and crescendo-filled sweeps, turning the natural ambiance of the country into a voyage of sorts. It’s the perfect blend of technical nitpickings and emotional overrides. As such, his insights into local acts worth checking out stand out. Sin Fang has a key look into the local music scene that illustrates certain acts that are hard to come across — especially when the only thing you have bridging the gap between the US and Iceland is the internet. —Nina Corcoran
I heard a tiny bit of their live show the other day but missed most of it, so I’m looking forward to seeing them at Airwaves. They are playing at a very exciting art opening on Saturday at Hlemmur square at 3:00 PM (15:00) off venue.
New R&B kid on the Icelandic block. Very sensual performance. He’s only released one song so far, so I’m looking forward to hearing more from him.
My girlfriend heard his new song on the radio yesterday and said, “This is my new favorite song. Is it Roxy Music?” And I recognized the song as a demo I’d heard in Berndsen’s studio when he was working on it. He asked me if I would try singing on it, and he said he would send me the song. He never sent it ,and now I hear Högni singing on it! I’m not sure I want to recommend his live show after that, to be honest.
04. Emmsjé Gauti
His new album is one of my favorite Icelandic albums of the year. I saw his show the other day, and it was insane. He brought his mom on stage and asked her to take his temperature at one point.
His song “Morgunmatur” was a big hit in Iceland this past year. I caught his show at last year’s Sónar, and it was super. His new song “Tala Um” is da bees’ knees.
One-man electronic wizard playing, among other strange instruments, a theremin. Yes please, thank you, sir. I have a large collection of photos of him sleeping; if anyone is interested, DM me.
Jófridur has been and is in many bands and projects, all great. This is her solo project that is also great. I’ve seen her a few times with different lineups in her band. It’s always great. Did I say that already?
I really like their music, but I’ve never gotten a proper chance to see them live. Their profile picture on Facebook looks a bit like óli is smelling Janus’ hair, so I’m excited to see if they do that live, too.
I once jumped over a table and kicked a big ball of wasabi out of Sóley’s mouth in Cologne about 10 years ago. She though it was guacamole. I’m looking forward to hearing her new album. She’s only playing new stuff this Airwaves I think.
10. Snorri Helgason
When we were teenagers, I made a CD with Radiohead, Neutral Milk Hotel, Aphex Twin, and some other good stuff for Snorri. He was going to be a lawyer, but now he’s a struggling musician like me. You’re welcome, Snorri.
11. Sturla Atlas
They’re my favorite Icelandic band. Great live and good music to yell along to when you’re wasted.
In advance of their performance at Iceland Airwaves, Associate Editor Lior Phillips interviewed Warpaint drummer Stella Mozgawa about their first trip to Iceland, the importance of Björk in modern music, and what to expect from their set this weekend.
How is everything on your side, Stella?
We’re good! We’re just in Edinburgh at the moment about to get going with our first headline show of the tour.
I had forgotten for a moment that you were Aussie! I found Aussie audiences incredibly electric, and they weren’t afraid to flash a body part either.
Yes! Definitely. In the US, it really all depends on the state you’re in, the venue, and whether it’s a festival or just a standalone show. There are places that are just naturally livelier, but Houston and Belgium might be very similar types of shows. You can’t predict how an audience is going to act, let alone how you’re going to perform.
You have also extensively toured your albums in the past. Your last album was around 18 months. Did the constant gigging and moving around affect how you wrote this album?
Oh, yes, definitely. It’s always going to affect it. Just time spent together and time playing music together is going to have a huge impact on what happens next in your career and the next move you’re going to make. I think the thing we learned from the last tour was that all of the more energetic songs were going down really well with the crowd, so we found that feeling of exchanging that kind of energy with the crowd really satisfying. For our latest album, I think we were aware of that. We didn’t actually discuss it, but we mutually felt a desire to do something a little more energetic this time around.
I was just wondering about that because some artists find each stage of the process precious: They might only want to think about songwriting when they’re in the studio and tackle touring while they’re on the road. You can feel the strength in Warpaint and how playing together for so long has inspired new sounds, but do you feel like you’re happiest when you’re performing?
I wouldn’t say that necessarily. It really depends on the moment. It’s just difficult to have a broad-stroke statement on whether being in the studio or being on stage is more fun. There are shitty gigs when you’re just not having a good time, and there are shitty days in the studio when you’re just miserable. And then there are other moments where you’re just having an incredible day coming up with a song and tracking something great, something that never existed before you got into the room. Performing is a form of expression that’s affected by your mood, so it’s never ever the same.
Performance in this aspect is immediate, it’s just you and the audience. When you’re on stage, do you portray a character or are you completely vulnerable?
You’ve got a completely different set of tasks and a different job to do on stage. I can spend a week in the studio without actually playing the drums, but there’s not a moment when I’m not playing drums when I’m on stage. Because they’re totally different worlds, every aspect of being an artist comes with a different set of job descriptions. I think one of the most charming qualities of our band is that we’re very much ourselves. I think if you met us, you wouldn’t be surprised by our personalities or characters!
While this ain’t your first rodeo and you’ve been performing for a few years, do you still get nervous at all before big shows or big festivals, especially since you put yourselves out there so honestly?
You know, certain members of the band get more nervous than others. It all depends on who’s in the crowd and how many times you’ve played a particular song that might be new. There are just so many elements to it, but luckily I got over that a few years ago.
The new record feels more open, brighter, more welcoming and energetic, but it still experiments and advances your sound. It sounds comfortable in that experimentation. Do you think you’ll push that experimentation live?
I think even just doing whatever’s on the album is already a huge jump for us. We’re working with samples, too, and overall there’s a lot more thought going into the actual reimagining of the album live. That in and of itself is teaching us new skills that we’ll probably use when we make our next album.
Is there any specific technique that you’re exploring that will shift the way you perform?
Definitely! I think a lot of the new electronic elements do that. We’re trying really hard to keep a sense of spontaneity and malleability to the show by not playing to tracks, but that means we have to get really creative in how we’re going to recreate the sample-based or electronic elements of our record live.
It can be quite daunting when you’ve relied on more traditional instruments in the past, because technology can always crumble on the night.
If we were actually doing what a lot of bands with electronic elements were doing and playing to track, it would be scary, but we’re not doing that. It’s not like, “Oh, the laptop’s shut down so we can’t play this song!” Sure, I’m triggering all of my samples from my drum pad, and if that fails, we get thrown slightly, but we can still do the show. I’ve done it before where a piece of equipment isn’t working, so it’s not like we’d play a song without some of the electronic elements and it would sound anemic or crazy or something drastically different. We use our electronic elements now to enhance the show rather than it being the foundation of what we’re doing live.
It’s a real-life fear to rely solely on something, let alone technology.
I’m always having problems with my laptop, so I’d be freaked out if I was having to rely on that. Even when I’m DJing off my laptop, I’m like, “If for one moment my laptop decides to shit the bed, and all these people are dancing and high on MDMA, and I let them down … I think someone will shoot me.” I think the important lesson is to not be relying on those things, on that technology, but just letting it help you. You can live without it, but you can have intense experiences with them, too.
Let’s talk about natural beauty that will never fail us — Iceland Airwaves coming up this week! Have you been to Iceland before?
We’ve never been before!
In this ADD society where we have so much information in the palms of our hands, what do you think is the first thing that you think of when you think of Iceland?
For me it’s Björk. I grew up listening to Björk. She changed my life. My understanding, the visual information of Iceland, all comes from videos of Björk walking around by the glaciers and the tiny city of Reykjavik and things like that. She had a huge influence on me. She’s an amazing gateway to that culture and understanding the richness of Iceland.
I know you all went to see her perform together, and you had quite an emotional experience. How do you feel about getting to see her in her magical homeland?
In her natural habitat? It’s incredible. It’s insane. I didn’t even know she was going to be playing at the festival until two or three days before we left for this tour. That was a beautiful surprise. It just feels like crazy full circle to be there at that moment. If we had released our album any sooner or later, we might’ve missed the opportunity to play that festival and to be in Iceland. It’s pretty meaningful for all of us. Her music changed all of our lives in some way.
What did you learn and discover about your own artistry after seeing her live? Did you feel like you could reflect on your own music?
Watching an artist that operates the way that she does makes you realize you have to create your own path. She’s never fit in with the trends; she’s always just gone with her own whim. And all the music she makes with the producers and collaborators that she loves, she includes a lot of those people and characters into her music to make the sounds that she truly wants to hear. I think one of the most important things that you can do as an artist is to make the music that you want to include in the current musical landscape. Björk has done that so successfully. She’s just got so much integrity, good taste, and she’s uncompromising in a way. I think every artist can learn something from that.
She was especially brave during her last record, where she sang about finding clarity amidst loss and chaos. I always wonder, if she’s writing a song about finding clarity, does she find clarity at the end of it? When you work on writing a song about dealing with loneliness, loss, or love, do you feel like it brings you clarity at the end of it? Can the process of writing bring you out of that emotion you may be stuck in?
I think you can exorcise the feeling that you’re trying to express, just in saying it or writing it. Even if you never write a piece of music and you’re just writing it in your journal. In some way, you’re making it real, you’re confronting the reality that this is even something that is coming up. You might not know that you have angry feelings or loving feelings or indifferent feelings toward someone until you start writing, and then you’re like, “Oh shit, this person or this situation has a real effect on me!” Sometimes it can be really scary to release that feeling, but I think ultimately when you’re doing it you’re shining a light on yourself, on something in your day-to-day life you might not have the time to meditate on. And life is affecting you: when you’re asleep, when you’re dreaming, when you’re awake. Even just to expose inner feelings is really, really healthy.
You built up this inspiring collaborative energy when you were in Australia a few years ago. You went into the studio with Jono Ma from Jagwar Ma and Earl Sweatshirt. Do you feel like you’ll be in Iceland long enough to get to know the Icelandic artists you’ll be on the festival with, maybe even to build collaborative relationships?
If it comes up naturally, then definitely. We do have a few days off. We’ll go to see Björk the day after our show, and the next day we’ll probably just be unwinding and maybe doing some of our own stuff, some other business we have to do. I don’t really know a lot of Icelandic musicians. I met one guy at a party in LA a while ago. I’ll probably go and hang out with him or at least see him at the show. The thing we did in Australia wasn’t like our managers all called each other and were like, “Oh, these bands should all hang out at 2 a.m. and make a track together in our friend Jonti’s studio.” Jono is a childhood friend of mine who I’ve known since I was 14 years old. Jonti (Danilewitz, producer and Stones Throw artist) is an amazing producer, and Earl, King Krule, and Jono and I are all fans of Jonti, so we were just hanging out at his studio when that happened. Someone caught wind of that and made it up as if we’d all put together this collaboration or something. It was a very social affair, and I think generally that’s how those things go, unless you’re a pop artist and the record company’s trying to get you on a track with Diplo or something like that. We’re not in that world; that’s not our reality.
The Icelandic music industry is incredibly seamless and social. Artists are in multiple bands, and they play multiple instruments. It’s fascinating.
That sounds like where I grew up in Sydney! I played in seven or eight bands. Everyone I knew was playing bass in one band and then playing guitar and singing in another. Then, the people who were playing in those bands all had their own solo projects. It really stems from being in a small musical community and it’s inspiring.
It’s like musical chairs! I think there’s really something about that kind of musical camaraderie during Iceland Airwaves where you can walk down the street and discover a band playing in the window of a clothing store or at a hostel. Is there anything else you’ve heard about Iceland that you’re interested in?
Oh yeah, we’re already making bookings for the lagoon. I don’t think we have any plans apart from that. I’m hoping to see the Northern Lights, too! Is there anything that you’d recommend seeing or eating?
Well, last year they offered everyone hakarl, which is like fermented shark, and after they make you take a shot of Icelandic vodka.
Well, I’m Polish, so I’m okay with vodka. A little bit of vodka and I’ll definitely be able to handle that!