Ken and I had a great time visiting Iceland in 2003 on an astronomy tour. The 2010 Iceland Airwaves music festival gave us a good reason to go back.
I first heard about Iceland Airwaves on Professor Batty's excellent blog Flippism is the Key. I send him big thanks for his enthusiastic posts about previous years' events.
We flew to Iceland a few days before Airwaves to give us time to drive to Ísafjörður in the northwest corner of the country. Initially, we were trying to avoid southeastern Iceland where Eyjafjallajökull was erupting, but by the time this volcano had settled down, we were already intrigued by this area of fjords.
After we landed at Keflavik, we rented a GPS device with our car but apparently the Garmin was not up-to-date. It sent us over two very scary mountain roads, ignorant of the better highways and bridges that had been recently completed. We were tired and a bit freaked out when we finally arrived in Ísafjörður at 5pm on Sunday 10-10-10.
Ísafjörður is a nice little city and seemingly the only place to find a hotel or a restaurant in the Western Fjords in the fall and winter. I believe summer brings more tourists who come to see the birds, such as puffins. One guy working at a restaurant jokingly asked Ken "are you lost?" - there were very few tourists in the area.
A conference was in progress involving a group of people from all over Europe who were staying at our hotel; I think they were meeting about tourism in the far north. I noticed they would talk to their countrymen in their native language - then switch to English to talk to anyone who spoke a different language. Handy for us Americans, but compared to them, I felt rather uneducated.
Almost all Icelanders speak good English, I suppose because there are so few people on earth who speak Icelandic. We greatly appreciated being able to easily communicate.
We drove around the fjords - spectacularly beautiful! We passed almost no cars, but dozens of waterfalls - so many that we lost count. This video includes travels from our first four days:
There are quite a few tunnels in Iceland that appear to be blasted through solid rock. They give access to remote areas and can save many miles of driving by going through mountains or under fjords. The one in this video has three openings, it goes from Ísafjörður to Flateyri with the option to turn to go to Suðureyri:
We got back to Reykjavik late on Wednesday afternoon (October 13), returned the rental car, and went to our apartment rental - very conveniently located near downtown.
The admittance ticket to the many concerts at Iceland Airwaves is the official wristband. When we picked up our wristbands at a downtown hotel, everyone else in line looked under 30. I asked the Airwaves representative if we were the oldest people in attendance. "Oh, no." he assured us, "Others are far worse!"
We knew very little about the performers so we somewhat randomly decided to check out the Faktorý venue for the Wednesday evening events. I had my Flip camera and took a brief video of each band, thinking that it would help me to remember them later. I was not expecting much from this little point-and-shoot camcorder but it came through like a champ - managing to get an image in low light and producing decent sound. Now I wish I had at least recorded a whole song for each group....
First up was Arnljotur, an Icelandic noise artist. Our daughter is involved with the noise scene - her record label is http://www.niceassindustries.com/. So we have attended a couple of house noise shows in San Francisco and Oakland, and Arnljotur made us feel right at home:
Vindva Mei used electronics to interesting effect and toward the end of their set were joined brilliantly by Selvhenter:
I was amused to see this photo of Iceland native Runar Magnusson attached to the back of the laptop used by Vindva Mei. A year or so ago, I met Runar when he did a live performance at KFJC, the radio station where I volunteer. This little picture is his calling card and they were stuck to walls and mirrors all over the station after his visit.
There was a fellow videotaping the performance so I went over to talk to him. When I told him why I recognized Runar's photo, he just stopped and stared at me. It turned out that the videographer was Runar's twin brother who had accompanied him on his United States tour. He remembered me from the KFJC visit and we had a very cordial chat.
Next were five young women from Denmark in a group called Selvhenter. The sax, violin, trombone, and two drums created the most original act we saw at Airwaves. This video will give you a hint. There is another video of their performance on Saturday below.
Stereo Hypnosis was a handsome father son team. I liked their performance even though it ended rather abruptly.
About this time, Runar Magnusson came up to talk to us. He had good memories of KFJC and especially remembered our huge music library. He told us that he was producing for Selvhenter and was very pleased that we had been so positively impressed by them. He also suggested that we catch their Saturday off venue performance. When I told him that I was not really familiar with most of the Airwaves' musicians, he recommended S.H.Draumur and HAM on Thursday night.
Reptilicus was great fun:
Evil Madness got us all dancing:
We left at midnight after a very satisfying evening at Faktorý.
At 10AM, we headed over to the restaurant Prikið to have breakfast and see Vicky, a great girl band. (There are lots of free "off venue" performances in stores, restaurants, etc. such as this.) My only complaint about Vicky was that they only played for 30 minutes, I would have liked to hear more:
We arrived at Nordic House a bit late to get a good seat to hear Olafur Arnalds' compositions. While we were listening, a school group of beautiful little girls arrived:
We went to have lunch at Dill, the restaurant at Nordic House, so we missed the Norwegian musician Moggi. We did make it back for the Q&A session where the moderator was the author of a favorite blog of mine, Iceland Weather Report. It was a nice surprise to see her in person, but I wasn't able to catch up with her to say hello.
Next up at Nordic House was the very popular Icelandic group Agent Fresco. They performed a very emotional song concerning the death of the singer's father - many of the musicians and audience members were in tears. Here is another song and part of the Q&A:
After dinner, we went to Risið to hear the beautiful young Icelandic twin sisters Pascal Pinon. Very sweet and unaffected, I hope to interview them sometime for radio.
The well known Amiina (the ladies once played with Sigur Ros) were across the street at the Art Museum. This venue was scary crowded and the audience was talking loudly, not very engaged. But I was glad to get a chance to see them:
We headed off to NASA in order to catch Runar's recommendations: S.H. Draumur and HAM and got there in time to hear Ensimi. I thought they were pretty good, but the Icelandic crowd really loved them and sang along:
As an older couple from the United States, Ken and I stood out from the crowd of young Icelanders. People were curious and would approach us in a friendly manner to talk. We were chatting with a couple of young guys; one asked me about my interest in the music - when I told him I was a radio DJ in California, his reaction was a shocked "No shit!!". These fellows set up some shots of whiskey for us but we turned them down, I hope that they were not insulted! About this time, a young woman told Ken "I like your moustache". All of this was fun, but we decided to see if we could find a better spot to see the stage. We got lucky and found a space just behind the soundboard to the left of the stage.
Well, Runar was right - I liked S.H. Draumur a lot - here are a couple of bits from these old punkers:
At midnight, HAM came to the stage. Wow! The very deep rich baritone voice provided a perfect drone. (As I understand it, some of these guys ran for Reykjavik City Council as a joke and then actually got elected!)
It was after 1AM, so we called it a night.
After doing some shopping and walking around, we headed to the record store 12 Tónar in the late afternoon. We got there in time to catch Diamond Rings from Canada who had a fun act:
We were at 12 Tónar to see Selvhenter again. I picked up their 10", also another 10" of an experimental choir group from Denmark, and these recordings are now in the KFJC library. We had a chance to talk to Runar Magnusson again, he was there with his twin daughters who are 15. In this video, watch for the little girl in the cap:
After dinner, we went to a very nice venue called Tjarnarbíó just across the tjörn from our apartment. We were lucky to catch the end of Murder - two folk singers from Denmark with great voices and harmony:
Next up was Utidur - they were a little too cutesy for me, but their instrumentals and voices were very good:
One of my favorites from Airwaves was the French folk/electronic band Gablé. They were funny and talented - crazy witty lyrics and antics, performing as an Elvis imitator, you name it!
Angel Deradoorian was the first act from the United States that we saw. She had a nice voice but I did not find her music interesting at all.
Well known DJ Margeir and his Symphony Orchestra were up next. This was a DJ, five string players and a conductor. I loved the concept - it didn't work 100% of the time, but overall was good fun:
We walked over to Amsterdam to catch the 1:00AM show of the Icelandic surf band Bárujárn - it certainly was a touch of home to us Californians. Like many other surf bands, they had go-go girls and lots of reverb - one unique touch was their addition of theremin. I really enjoyed Bárujárn and noticed the singer from Agent Fresco was in the front row!
It was well after 2:00AM when we left for the night.
We did some more shopping and walking around on Saturday and had soup for lunch at a downtown café. I just set the Flip camera on the table, catching some accordion playing and other interesting goings on:
In the evening, we went to NASA. This time we found a good spot to the right of the stage. JJ from Sweden was the first act we saw, my reaction and that of the audience was barely lukewarm:
Mount Kimbie was next - pretty good electronics from this UK duo:
The very popular Apparat Organ Quartet was next - people in the audience were making triangles with their hands, we found out that this means "A for Apparat". Fun, fun!
After that came Hercules and Love Affair, a house techno group from the United States. It was made up of two very lively DJs putting down the beats, with three incredibly energetic singer/dancers. This is not my usual taste in music, but I could not sit down so I got up and started dancing. What a blast!
A number of young Icelandic groups are large ensembles producing very bouncy, pop dance music. I thought Retro Stetson was the best one that we saw:
There were two more acts coming up at NASA, but it was after 2:00AM so we called it a night.
In the afternoon, we went to the Nordic House to see a couple of documentary films. There was a delay so we had another excellent meal at Dill. Between films, we went back for coffee and dessert and happened to meet Wim Van Hooste who has a blog or two about Icelandic music that I read.
The first film was "Higher You and I" about an Icelandic reggae group that goes to one of the legendary studios in Jamaica to record. I liked this film a lot. As you might imagine from the situation, there was a lot of humor.
The second film was "Where is the Snow?" which was a review of music from Iceland Airwaves 2009. Since I was not there, I found it interesting but not particularly profound.
By Sunday, the number of active venues and audience members was dwindling. We went to NASA for the evening.
First we saw Orphic Oxtra, an Icelandic band that has a gypsy klezmer sound. Ken and I both really enjoyed them:
Next up was the Samúel Jón Samúelsson Big Band - one of the best big jazz/funk bands that I have ever seen. They were really tight! Ken and I had the same thought - that it would be great to see them at the Monterey Jazz Festival one of these years.
After that, Dan Deacon from the United States performed from the middle of the floor. Since we were in the corner behind people who were standing, we could not see him at all. I just didn't get it, but the crowd went wild and I heard people at the airport the next day who were still talking about him. Huh? Here's my perspective:
The last act of the night was the very popular FM Belfast. I think a lot of the young crowd was there specifically to see them. I recognized the singer Ditka who was standing near us in the audience. I thought they were just okay, but most people were super enthusiastic:
We got up and packed, then went to have lunch at a Danish open sandwich restaurant. This was the first day in Reykjavik that had not been cold and rainy, so I took some photos. We took a cab to the Keflavik airport which is about 40 minutes away. This video will give you an idea of what that area looks like:
At 5pm, our flight to Seattle left and we were chasing the sunset the whole way. This video shows some views of the flight, including Greenland.
I am so happy that we took this trip.
- We met lots of kind, friendly people.
- We ate lots of good food.
- Things like restaurant meals, car rental, and gasoline seemed very expensive; the Icelandic kronur may have fallen, but prices and the value of the US dollar made up for it.
- Given the small population of Iceland (about 319,000), I cannot figure out how they get so much done, including all the music and art. But I am glad that they do!
- Clean geothermal energy means luxurious amounts of hot water and heat. It is hard to get used to setting the thermostat low and using a low-flow shower again. And the cold water from the tap tasted SO good.