Here’s why Iceland Airwaves should be on your to-do list
Iceland Airwaves Music Festival was November 5-9 this year in Reykjavík, Iceland. Tickets for next years show go on sale December 1!!
Our writer Siobhan Henry (pictured below), who relocated to Iceland after her Sonar Reykjavík 2014 assignment. Read her take on this years Iceland Airwaves Music Festival.
Grab a coffee. This was a crazy week.
Where do you even begin with a festival like Iceland Airwaves? Do you start with the lineup? Maybe list the massive local talent first? Or start with the big names? You could begin on the subject of local landscape and the blue lagoon or simply start with a description of one of the trippiest music venues out there: Harpa Concert Hall. I mean, the whole building literally lights up and changes color. It’s fantastic:
Anyway, I really should start by explaining how I came to be in Iceland in the first place. I was lucky enough to attend Iceland Airwaves last year during my second trip to the country. The whole experience was nothing but good vibes and music in this tiny capital city tucked wayyyy up in the north. The quality of the music was ridiculous, the possibilities for parties were endless, and the people were almost abnormally welcoming. This pretty much sealed the deal on my love for the local culture and music scene and I ended up moving to Reykjavik.
This year, I was lucky enough to be able to work for the festival at the Media Center. I was in charge of Iceland Airways flight and ticket packages. This allowed me to meet people from all over the world coming to this obscure sounding country and all of them absolutely delighted to be here, especially for Airwaves. I’ve heard the festival compared to South by SouthWest in Austin, TX, in that the festival envelopes the city in both official events, referred to at Airwaves as “on-venue,” and hundreds of un-official parties known as “off-venue.” With a structure like this there are those that opt for going ticketless and bounce around the off-venue parties all week. This is not a bad strategy if you’ve already seen most of the bands on the lineup (you’re going to have to explain how you managed that, though), but it’s risky since there are SO many acts with many being added close to show time for strictly on-venue shows. The festival also always seems to sell out and has special concerts on the final day that are only accessible if you’ve got yourself a fancy-pants wristband. And as far as festivals go the tickets for Iceland Airwaves are quite affordable clocking it at just over $150 for five days of awesome.
This year I caught a lot more crazy, unexpected shows than last year. I highly recommend bringing as many friends as possible or making as many new friends as possible because the insane variety of music is hard to comprehend. It helps to have lots of weird friends suggesting things you’ve never heard of and pretty soon you find yourself at what you assume is the only punk show happening in Iceland at that time complete with Viking-sized mosh pit and out-of-place tourists taking selfies in the front row (Eh-hem. You’re doing it wrong). This was totally different to one of my highlight performances of my festival experience: the incredible Klangkarussell. These guys delivered nothing but good vibrations, groovy tunes, and that one track that every sings along to. Wonderful! During the set we bumped into a group of friends who were on their way to a club called Dolly, which sounded like a good idea to us, so off we went!
Now, this particular club would typically be playing dance music but was strangely committed to hip-hop all night. Not usually my cup of tea but somehow I knew every song so I bought myself a Viking lager with my 900ISK (~$7) and headed to the dance floor. We ended up staying until we were asked to leave on account of the club closing at half five in the morning. Quickly, we bought our final beers and headed into the streets. ‘CAUSE YOU CAN DO THAT HERE. AMAZING.
In said streets people are pouring out of every bar and club because around here, no one leaves before they are literally locking the doors. Once everywhere willing to sell you alcohol is officially closed, however, you will hear folks calling into the night for an afterparty (any afterparty!) in about a dozen languages. And though we turned down many offers from new friends, the night was still a success, we ended up partying just a little more with people we actually knew (always a good choice) until I realized I had to work back at the festival in T-minus 4 hours. Oops.
Saturday started a bit more slowly on account of the night before but we managed to make it through a full day of work at the Media Center before heading back into the madness. On my schedule for this particular night was The Knife, whose performance was rumored to be their last. Also on my list were whole host of artists I failed to see because that’s the Iceland Airwaves way: plan nothing and let the universe take you. You won’t be able to stop it anyway.
If you wanted to ensure you’d be getting into Harpa for The Knife’s performance you had to queue pretty early. Luckily I was armed with my I-worked-at-the-festival-so-can-I-please-cut-the-line-wristband, which you always feel terrible about using until you see an hour-long queue outside the artist you’re trying to see and then you don’t care so much anymore. Even with this wristband, however, if the venue is at capacity, you are SOL so it’s still important to manage your time according.
Armed with this knowledge, my friend Dassy and I decide to do a little pre-gaming at a place called Slipbarinn for no reason other than we were gifted with yet another lovely wristband that allowed us to get free things, and everyone loves free things. These particular free things were a choice of two alcoholic beverages and two food options. The booze was between a nice cold can of the Icelandic lager Gull or a cocktail using Airwaves sponsor Brennivin made especially for you by the folks at Slipbarinn. This cocktail, according to the Brennivin website, was an “amazing taragon and horseradish infused Brennivin cocktail that comes in a limited run of special 11 oz. bottles we made just for Airwaves.” I initially opted for the cocktail, which was served in the aforementioned bottles with a neon straw, but I couldn’t quite past Brennivin’s incredibly strong liquorice flavor. So I switched to good ol’ Gull (fun fact: Gull is not pronounced like the English “gull.” The double “ll” in Icelandic is supposed to be something like a “tl” but it sort of sounds like a bit of a “k” to me. It’s hard). The food choices were between a meatball noodle dish and a mozzarella pesto Panini. Neither were hot but both were reportedly pretty delicious, especially by free food standards.
At Slipbarinn we ran into some friends Gylfi and Erling (suspiciously enjoying their Brennivin cocktails). We had already seen both of them play twice in one band called Ojba Rasta and another called Sin Fang. Tonight, Gylfi would be playing drums in a band called Retro Stefson, and, inspired by running into Gylfi we decide to add them to the roster that night. Our friend departs to prepare for his performance and the rest of us mosey over to Harpa to catch the end of Samaris before The Knife.
Samaris ends up being really cool. The singer seemed so sweet. She didn’t speak much, and I believe all the lyrics were in Icelandic, but when she did speak English it was adorable and enlightening about everything being an ocean and waves or something. Anyway, I loved it. Too bad it felt a little like everyone was waiting for The Knife.
After Samaris finished their performance, a woman wearing 80’s workout attire appeared on stage. This woman looked both fabulous and insane. She informed us that she would be our preshow warm-up instructor and that we would be doing something called “D.E.E.P. Aerobics.” D.E.E.P. stood for “death electric emo protest.” Seriously. It sounds totally batty, and it is, but it was oddly unifying. The whole thing was about how we would all be dancing together and to get rid of our self-consciousness about our space or our bodies or whatever. We started by doing different chants and movements. One chant was “Self-consciousness is the illusion that this is only happening to me!” I loved that one. It was such an incredible way to start a performance. Another chant was “I am not a man! I am not a woman! I am both! I am neither! If you don’t like it, take a breather!” I knew I had to be in for a treat if this is how The Knife began their set…
…but the room was filled with entirely too many tall, beautiful people and I couldn’t see a damn thing. I also didn’t really understand the whole bit about The Knife. Like, I didn’t know the singers were not part of The Knife, but sometimes the girl from The Knife was singing even though you couldn’t see her? I don’t know. It was totally cool but a little confusing. I felt like I needed a pamphlet to explain it. We stuck it out for about half the set, which really did sound amazing in combination with a rather spectacular light show. I heard Björk even made an appearance because, Iceland. We ended up making our way over to another room at Harpa to see Hozier, an Irish singer with an awesome band and about a thousand guitars. Hozier seemed to command the room in a really particular way. His voice was really effortless and his band equally as talented as he. I’m really satisfied that I let Dassy convince me to see this artist who I would have otherwise overlooked.
Next it was time for Retro Stefson. This performance was collectively their ninth time playing at Airwaves. The first time they played they were between the ages of 13 and 16. I don’t know what I was doing between those ages but it wasn’t creating one of the most well known Icelandic bands in recent times. Their music is really upbeat and clever dance music. You can’t help but dance with a smile on your face when they play, and they play very well. They even have a girl, Þorbjörg Roach Gunnarsdóttir (easy), rocking synthesizer in the form of a kind of keytair?! It’s awesome. These kids are undoubtedly cooler than you and you’ll just have to see it (and hear it) to believe it.
We party well into the night, as expected. We make friends, fall in and out of love, and wander home amongst the piles of trash in the streets that would be mysteriously gone by morning. The fifty-something tourists will have no idea what happened just hours before the start of their Golden Circle tour.
Finally, Sunday evening arrives. This only meant one thing: The Flaming Lips. I really have to confess I knew almost nothing about The Flaming Lips other than they are one of those bands that everyone tells me I would really love. I simply knew this was the show that people had flown in from all over the world specifically for which guaranteed amazing energy, which in turn guaranteed a truly memorable evening. Let me just tell you, before we go any further, that The Flaming Lips did not disappoint. Holy crap. How did I get this far in life without having this experience?! Do yourself a favor and go see The Flaming Lips next time they’re in town. There were insane props, lights, so much glitter, and so many good vibes. I can’t even describe it. I am so happy that I had the opportunity to go see them.
I was also lucky enough to catch the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra perform a piece by composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. The piece scored a film by Bill Morrison on the intense industrial past of North East England. It was a rare treat at a music festival like Airwaves, at which the days can easily blur together.
Other honorable mentions include the always-reliable FM Belfast. Their performance is just one insane dance party. They always bring streamers (yay!), their clothes light up, and they dance the whole time. Their voices are amazing, their music is infectious and the whole band is filled with an endless energy. Never miss a chance to see FM Belfast. I have caught them half a dozen times now and they never disappoint.
Finding Moses Sumney was a happy accident for me. Some friends wanted to check out the singer songwriter from LA so I went along. Moses was incredible. His voice is really beautiful and strong and he plays around with looping and some electronic elements. He received an extended standing ovation to which he had to come out and explain that he would be crying tears of joy in response to the love he received during his performance.
Mugison, Ásgeir, and the always-wonderful Teitur Magnusson were all just incredible. I recommend checking out each of the artists mentioned in this post and have put together a little playlist of some of my favorites for your convenience:
Thank you, Iceland Airwaves 2014, ya did good.
If any of this sounds like a good time to you (and let’s be serious, I couldn’t even get into half of it here), Iceland Airwaves 2015 is November 4th – 8th and tickets are on sale starting DECEMBER 1st over at http://www.icelandairwaves.is.
Maybe I’ll see you there next year!!
All photo credits go to Iceland Airwaves Festival photographers.