Iceland's musical scene is legendary, and for such a tiny country, the island sure manages to produce an enormous amount of talented artists and bands -- not to mention the occasional superstar. How do they manage it? According to the Kimono guitarist I chatted with in my most recent visit to Reykjavik: "The scene here is so small that musicians have nothing to gain, and nothing to lose. People end up doing whatever they want to do." So Icelanders don't go seeking fame, I get that -- but oddly they receive it, on the international stage no less. Lately I have been wondering: is it not the originality of the Icelandic musician that is critical here, but rather the exoticness of the Icelandic sound? In other words, Icelanders don't mean to sound so quirky, that is just the way they are. The strange thing is that even when Icelanders try to emulate something mainstream (say, Foo Fighters), it nonetheless ends up sounding alternative (like Whool). This is the process by which the B52's is transmuted to the Ice Cubes, and Radiohead is transformed to Sigur Rós...
Much as they would like to be Anglo-American clones, eating pizza and hamburgers, playing drums in the garage, Icelanders are simply not fated to be so mundane. They have something in their background which might be boring to them, but is fascinating to the outside world. Some kind of idiosyncrasy, some singularity is crystallized in their DNA and that is refracted in their literature, their music and their fashion sense, and obviously their art. Where does it spring from, though, this mutation, this mysterious X Factor? The geography? geology? The Sagas and the mythology? I am not quite sure, but I know that it is there.
PLACES TO SHOP
There are basicaly three main record shops (plötubúðir) in Reykjavik -- wait, four if you count the big book store (Mál og Menning) who have CDs and DVDs and stuff on the first floor (self published Icelandic poetry and mystery novels on the second floor.) There may be more than this, but in my opinion there are only good three record stores (þrjár góðar plötubúðir) in Reykjavik worth going to. At one, you can relish the knowledge that you are walking on Björk's sacred space. Or something like that.
12 Tónar: Skólavörðustígur 15 | 101 Reykjavík | Sími: 511 5656 | Web: http://www.12tonar.is/.
Tone means "music" in Icelandic, and 12 Tónar refers to the 12 tones of the musical alphabet, from Aflat to Gsharp. Whenever I am in Iceland, 12 Tónar is one of the first places I head to, to update my knowledge of Icelandic rokk. To get there you must climb the mild incline of Skólavörðustígur from the groovy underground Kofi Tómosar cafe, up towards the big Viking statue and church, and stop off when you see the yellow and blue sign. The first time I visited Iceland, I walked straight past 12 Tónar without thinking it was anything more than a used knickknacks outlet. What a fool I was! On my latest trip, I did my homework, and earmarked this store for the first full day of explorations. Though it may be small, this is the best place to shop for local tunes. The staff are incredibly friendly. Head downstairs, and you can peruse the racks bathed in footlevel sun. Staff serve you coffee, you can listen to the latest Icelandic releases on headphones on a a comfy old couch while browsing art magazines from Japan (that is what I did the last time I was there, anyway.) The staff are no doubt musicians themselves and there are plenty of in-house events, such as free concerts held every Friday at five. While I didn't make it to the concert, I did manage to pick up some CDs here on my last visit, each costing around 1000 Kronurs a disk. One was Anarchists Are Hopeless Romantics, by My Summer As A Salvation Soldier (otherwise known as Þórir ). That record really resonated with me in the humid, horrid Tokyo summer of 2006, as I lamented the breakup with C, and the general collapse of my life. A rather depressing album, to be sure, but Þórir has also put out some more upbeat numbers, for example the euphoric Canada Oh Canada (Land of the Free), and he is also apparently the lead singer of a folk/punk band called Deathmetal Supersquad. A most versatile chap, all in all...
Bad Taste Record Store: Laugavegur 35 | 101 Reykjavík | Sími: 511 5656 | Web: http://smekkleysa.net/.
More than just a record store, Bad Taste (Smekkleysa) is a museum dedicated to the history of Icelandic music and art. It is also the shopfront of a music label, Bad Taste Records, which started as an arts collective in 1986. It became famous as the label which launched Bjork and her former band, The Sugar Cubes. Since that time many Icelandic greats have been signed by this label including Quarashi, Singapore Sling, and of course Sigur Rós. Given the history of the place, I was surprised by the limited selection of music here. You can, for example, order Bad Taste's entire back catalogue on their website. Why they don't have the music on sale at the record store as well is beyond me. Anyway, there are supposed to be performances put on here sometimes. Smekkleya isn't the only record label in Iceland: there is also the Bedroom Community. Just letting you know!
Geisladiskabúð Valda: Laugavegur 64 | 101 Reykjavík | Sími: 562 9002.
If the window display is anything to go by, this store seems to be devoted to the hard stuff: Heavy Metal, Death Metal, and hard rock. I must confess I have never stepped inside this place, as Metal is not really my thing. It is a genre that seems popular in the North, however, and has worked its influence into the indigenous sound. Jónsi claims to have liked Iron Maiden as a teenager. Listen to the climax of Glósóli, and the fruits of this infatuation are clearly audible. Albeit, obviously, channelled through a thick Icelandic filter. Which is, incidentally, just the way I like it! Geisladiskabúð Valda apparently stocks games and DVDs too.
THE GREAT UNSIGNED
As with anywhere, those bands with labels are just the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the ocean lies a great vault of untapped talent. How about these unsigned bands in Iceland, where do you find them? There are a number of websites to facilitate your search. Here are some of my favourites:
Hugi (Íslensk tónlist)