After a number of years Airwaves becomes a calling rather than a trip. As each year goes by you meet more and more returnees, people on the trail back up for that musical long weekend. Paul from Scotland and his mates, who we met in the pools last year, are back. So too is Rolling Stone’s David Frike, ever a feature of this northern city in November. It feels as though the locals take a step back from the city this weekend and let the incoming have their playground, but there never really has been that great meeting of the Icelanders and the travellers. For those who see Iceland Airwaves as a sort of temporary home, the cosy little city and its temporary inhabitants are two of the most welcoming things in the western world.
We always felt that Airwaves never really found a successful balance since Harpa, the large concert hall that contains four of the official venues, took over most of the bigger shows. In fact, it was these bigger shows (Beach House, The Knife, Jon Hopkins) that sucked people from the smaller venues and may have even taken away budgets that could have brought two or three smaller acts to town. We are initially happy to see a significant drop off in these acts this year and eke out time in advance to listen to the festival playlist so before arrival our ears are primed for some new music. With this, and a few recommendations from friends in the bag, we’re gonna take AW 2016 from the ground up. It would be the making of our festival.
It’s such a warm buzz to land on a Wednesday afternoon, drop the bags at the hotel, throw the scarf on and head uptown to find a local act in a cinema foyer. This is the most satisfying level to plug into and you don’t even need a festival wristband for this stuff (essentially anything from lunchtime til 7pm is free). Our local act of choice, Stafrænn Hákon, are playing in the lobby of a hostel within 20 mins of finishing the first gig. Some Canadians who love what they hear offer to help carry the band’s gear to the next venue and so we all wander through Reykjavik towards the next port of call. We pick up a coffee, our photographer and our Mr Airwaves, Emmett Mullaney, an Irishman who is part of the furniture up there and goes to more gigs than anyone over the weekend. As the people around you snowball and you dip in and out of more small gigs, the aurora of Airwaves wraps around you and you disconnect from the world outside.
Some of the things that will happen to you as you sink into the weekend are: You’ll go into the settlement museum to see a charming Swede play some captivating folky solo songs. You’ll duck up to Iceland’s english language music paper offices (The Grapevine) where you’ll be plied with the tastiest, strongest Icelandic beer (Einstock’s Wee Heavy – 8%!). You’ll pass a crowd outside an old public toilet and realise that it’s John Lydon holding court outside what is now Iceland’s Punk Museum (he would appear nightly in Gaukurinn bar’s smoking area). This is all before dinner on the Wednesday too.
It is only looking back over the list of gigs in hindsight do you realise some of your favourite discoveries were actually playing that first night all over the city, but every act plays so many gigs that word-of-mouth can bring you to them eventually. So you have to trust the arctic winds to bring you there. A festival largely stripped of larger bands you can see during the year at home makes trusting the wind something that can only serve you well. The original mojo from the Airwaves we encountered first in 2004 seems to be slipping back in.
Daytimes are for engagement with Iceland. The outdoor pools that abound are where you’ll always find us before lunch, but there’s day trips to take – car journeys and walks to go on and even if you do seek out music during the day you’ll find it in cafés, in local breweries, in record shops. In a flip of the rest of the world, there seems to be MORE record shops open every year up there. The Icelandic seem not just to be all musicians, but are avid consumers of music too.
Some of the best hours at Airwaves are the moments around dusk when you walk the length of the city passing so much music bleeding out on the streets. We pass a Tourist shop and are drawn in to the lush electronica of Án, we have our most blissful moment as the local choir Kórus, who operate under the Bedroom Community collective, cram into the tiny Kaffinbarin and just melt our hearts with Icelandic choral folk tunes. Still shivering at the sounds from the 30 second phone video we made. Ireland’s Meltybrains? are to be found upstairs in the Loft hostel on one of these dusk walks between buying Christmas decorations in one of their year-round shops, and meeting for dinner. These are the minutes you’ll take with you. Minutes you’ll get in no other city on earth in the same way.
Dinner can be a delicious lamb kebab, or the most expensive, delicious sushi. It can be seafood pizza or you can go to Pablo Discobar which just opened across from our hotel with the best neon sign, and try their moreish Mexican fusion plates – always worth dropping coin on one good meal and a cocktail up there.
The nights take you traversing across the town. The last of the off-venue gigs give way to the main entertainment, there’s still plenty that feels like it’s fringe in the later hours. But for the big slice of the evening the main entertainment is a wondrous mixed bag. The best hip hop you can’t understand is Rekjavíkurdætur, an en masse girl rap collective who tear strips out of Harpa’s Silfurberg. Dark wintery rock from Sólstafir, gives way to Warpaint, who lead to Santigold – all side by side in Harpa too.
The wall of beautiful noise from Minor Victories fills the art museum back downtown. On a given night you can go to the old cinema and see Germany’s Warm Graves power through another wall of sound (while you have one eye on your phone as Ireland play New Zealand in Chicago) and in the same venue see the touching Stafrænn Hákon cut through you with some perfectly placed brass. And in all these places you meet Scottish Paul and John, Irish Emmett, Boston MC and Rich and the sense of immediate community goes with you everywhere.
Late night and the smaller venues light up again. Both Doomhound and Go Dark in downtown’s rock bar Gaukurin would be highlights of the festival. We’d follow Doomhound around to every other of their off-venue gigs for the weekend and we’d hug it out with Go Dark as we checked out at the same time. Doomsquad (no relation) would just tear the small bar Húrra apart late in the night too.
Reykjavik’s best venue, Nasa (to be turned into a hotel the day after Airwaves 2016, though it must maintain a venue on site) yeilds some unusual gigs in the Efterklang vs percussionist group Liima. Alt alt-pop, a little self-satisfied but innovative, and you could forget about getting into Of Monsters and Men there. A Nasa farewell show, this is a huge local draw.
Gigs go til 3.30 am and you either take it to the end that way or take to Kaffinbarin where in a venue way too small for the quality of tunes, DJ Sexy Laser defied the worst name in club life to slam a perfect set out of the night.
Days roll into days and nights blur. It seems endless yet all over too soon. Before we know it we are out in the Vodafone Hall on the Sunday night, and in a very hot room we get close enough to be mesmerised by PJ Harvey and her ridiculously talented band, walk us through her more political work. Such music to behold after all we’ve come through. Almost perfect.
And still, we don’t want it to end. We use our rental car to make a stop by the pool en route to the airport the next morning. This year we have wisely bought a pool season ticket. We soak and chat and look back over this great weekend. We book the hotel again before we laeve. This is in the blood now. A drab town on the exterior and fairly grey skies all cloak a magical place, its pores full of music and your own life now full with more friends, new bands, discoveries and the fading taste of Icelandic beer. You can only leave peacefully when you know you’re coming back. Maybe in Summer, you say. But whatever twists and turns the year throws at you, we know where we’ll be the first weekend of November 2017 and much like the very first feverish years of discovery up here, we’ll count it down from the moment we step on the flight home. The space between seems like filler when you’re so close to it. An unmissable part of any festival life.
The highlights were myriad, but here’s five that come to mind.
All photos by Jakob Becker Hansen for State.
1. Doomhound. All three gigs.
A Leipsig three-piece with a stunning energy and only one track published. Brooding synths sit with idiosyncratic drums and they build and build and bring you right up.
2. Samaris in the Art Museum.
One of the best of the local electronic scene, they had a jaw-dropping motion sensor aurora background that tracked movements on the stage and exploded them in real time. It may have broken down after a few tracks but 10/10 for ideas and effort.
3. Milkywhale in Vesturbaer Kaffihaus.
A coffee shop out of town near our favourite pool was wedged to the hinges for this local pop duo. Him, concocting a punchy electro pop bedrock, and her, strong pop singing and her magnetic dancing on chairs, tables, customers – anything but the floor. Most rousing event of the weekend.
4. Kórus in Kaffinbarin.
Irish man Colm O’Herlihy working with the Bedroom Community collective in Reykjavik, brought an Icelandic choir into a tiny pub. A varied mix of traditional choral work and accompaniment for soloists on folk songs – but almost all were heart-melting magic. Could have listened to them for DAYS.
(This bad home video gives just a taste)
5. PJ Harvey.
A very hot hall, but mesmerising from the off. Political, sure, but all done as you sit in the palm of Polly’s hand. A majestical band of pros – each one was inch perfect. A masterclass.