Beginning at the end might put some perspective on the Iceland Airwaves experience. It is SO hard to get yourself on that flight home. The tractor beam of both the festival experience, and the country itself, pulls at your heartstrings and does not want to let you go. Lost nights, fresh anecdotes and new pals all swim about your head and the one thing that makes it easier is booking your room for next year while still at the airport.
Airwaves, now in its 16th year, is such a perfect nugget of a festival. A decent selection of on-venue acts comprise of a smaller cluster of bigish international acts that serve as the tentpole attractions (Beach House, Hot Chip, Father John Misty) and the rest are bubbling under international acts or Icelandic stalwarts. Sometimes these things meet in one band (Kiasmos). You’re in a city too so you can stay comfortable in a hotel, guesthouse or Air B&B. The venues are all clubs, bars, the converted art gallery and the beautiful Harpa concert hall. During the day the huge off-venue events will keep you very busy, and Airwaves without the very affordable pass is still loaded with these free daytime gigs. Best of all, you are required to go to a spectacular country, and a fairly bonkers city, and fully engaging with Iceland is all part of it. Which is why you end up smelling like a geothermal swimming pool for most of the trip.
An Irish party actually started the week early in Kex hostel – one of the best off-venue haunts. Daithi, Talos, Slow Skies and Nialler9 djing and it put a serious kick into a Monday night. For those in so early in the week the next days are the ideal opportunity to get out of the city and explore. Golden Circle trips, the Blue Lagoon visit or a drive to the black beach at Vík all add to what you might have experienced of Iceland through music, and make sense of it too. As Wednesday arrives the local bands begin to warm up the venues and by Thursday the streets are crackling. There’s a time between 5pm and 7pm when the skies are darkening and music is spilling from off-venue cafés, bookshops, cinemas and there’s something almost Christmassy about the expectation in the air. We jump off a bus just in time to see one of our favourite local bands, Stafrænn Hákon, in the Icewear clothing store on the main street. The staff happily mind our bags, we chat easily to the band afterwards and then we’re out into the fresh night, Airwaves proper in our blood again at last.
The first night brings John Grant in a room with the Icelandic Symphony orchestra (a different local artist seems to do this each year). While choosing to float about on the streets instead, we stumbled upon Mr. Signout’s warm and engaging electronica in the Húrra bar as we passed, and My Bubba’s pitch-perfect folky Americana in a small cinema near our hotel.
The excellent festival app is your digital brain, reminding you of gigs and pointing out all the off-venue gigs if you miss a main stage one, or just want more. There is every opportunity for discovery amongst the acts you know. As we settle into a flamboyant (though extremely loud) Mercury Rev in Harpa we browse to the band Operators and discover that it’s the new four-piece fronted by Wolf Parade’s Dan Boeckner. It also gives us an opportunity to revist one of our favourite venues in the world – the NASA club. Closed and living under a wrecking ball for four years with the lack of enough hotels for the swelling tourist industry, it has yet been spared and this year re-opened to the delight of regular Airwavers. We walk in to a time machine, and Operators are tearing the roof off. Synth heavy rock, warm as summer, and smart and sharp, it was the dream discovery made real. The NASA crowd feeding back everything with an extra 100% on top. As they hit ‘True’, the first single released (only five tracks exist recorded so far), the crowd yell the “One. One. One. One.” refrain back to an elated Boeckner and team.
Back in Harpa the excessive volume has now also added a buzzing left speaker to Father John Misty’s woes. He’s more focussed on the set with a bit less cavorting and it works for us. Still well able to fling a guitar cross-stage to a waiting tech, and lose himself in ‘Honeybear…’ the volume and buzz drives us to the bar where we can listen to it peacefully.
Friday arrives and in keeping with full Icelandic engagement we are straight to the Vesurbaerlaug swimming pool which will become our morning routine every day. It’d cure anything, lolling in the hot pots out in the elements. And sure there’s Olafur Arnalds hanging with pals. Apparently he also owns a chip shop in Reykjavik. Back in town there are postcards to send, toasties to eat in one of the comfortable cafes and some more music to find. Dream Wife are three very shouty odd-pop girls, breaking strings and packing Bravo bar to the hinges. It’s in places like this where you pump into people you might see once a year – the city is so small as to let these occurrences happen regularly and delightfully.
Of course, nowhere is easier for us than the off venue in the lobby of our hotel. We arrive early to catch Dardust – a two piece of piano-lead electronica. Another mini jackpot of a find, they are two Italians in Reykjavik for a week to record their new album. There’s an almost traditional classical feel to a layer of the music, but it’s their cover of ‘Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence’ to close that really wins us over. We enjoy our second taste of Stafrænn Hákor after and steel ourselves for the night ahead. Nothing is leaping out leaving us free to go with whims and persuasion. The weather is unseasonably warm and being kind to wandering.
After dinner we make a trip to the Fríkirkkan church on the water. A guy called William Tyler has played guitar with everyone from Lambchop to Candi Staton and we can’t miss a chance to go to this church again – home of many a sublime Airwaves moment in the past. Within minutes of finding a pew (literally) you can let your mind wander across flatlands and beaches. Tyler’s playing takes a southern American musical accent into a blissful area, too fast to be ambient but with the same effect. Only when it’s truly over to we come to.
Now seriously on for Friday night, we drift to NASA again. Braids are spooning out the good cheer and having an infectious time of it. So much more alive and poppy since we saw them last, they are also proving this NASA room as a place of magic. Locals Fufanu are next – a young man with the steeliest of thousand yard stares to match his alabaster face, they have moved from techno beginnings into a future rock. We worm through the crowd to find State’s Icelandic expert Emmett right up at the barrier and deliver a beer. And we can’t quite bring ourselves to leave.
When we break into the evening, we pass an insanely packed Húrra where FM Belfast are doing what they do every year, and bringing as many locals as possible to a feverish dance reverie. Quite a sight to see in the tiny room. We pass Vérité in the old cinema, though just found a pop of no edge or unique angle. This pinballing around town is such joy – the furthest venues merely five minutes apart. You want to make sure that Weaves aren’t your thing – no problem, pop up to see them in Gakurinn for 10 mins. How about a look at Ariel Pink before sinking into the late bars of the town? An easy trip to Harpa to mellow with a beer in a fun, messy crowd at a fun, messy act. Wander in and out to the bar. Gather the crew, herd the cats, then power up through town by taxi if you’re lazy and get in early to Kaffinbarin and the madness you’ll always find, crammed tight into its four walls.
Operators photographed in NASA for State by Jakob Bekker-Hansen.