Ice­landic mu­si­cians muse on what makes them unique

What makes Ice­land such a hot­bed of cre­ativ­ity? In the run-up to Ice­land Air­waves Fes­ti­val, cel­e­brat­ing its 20th birth­day, Ice­landic mu­si­cians muse on what makes them unique

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - NEWS - WORDS BY TONY CLAY­TON-LEA

o you want to make your ideas come to life, is that it?”

An in­nocu­ous ques­tion, per­haps, but one that seems rea­son­able when you are walk­ing through a de­com­mis­sioned power plant with a care­taker/ wind tur­bine en­gi­neer who would much rather be a full-time mu­si­cian. Lo­cated sev­eral miles out­side Reyk­javik, Topp­stöðin (trans­lated as “the peak sta­tion”) was built in 1948 as a con­tin­gent en­ergy pro­ducer for when the lo­calised power sys­tem could not meet the de­mand. Moth­balled in 1986, it lay empty, cold and un­used for more than20 years. In 2009, it re­opened its heavy-duty doors, but this time to har­ness and de­liver en­ergy of a dif­fer­ent kind.

When he isn’t care­tak­ing and engi­neer­ing, Daniel Auðun­sson is a mem­ber of har­monic cham­ber pop/folk group Árstíðir. As he guides me around the in­dus­trial in­te­rior, which is now home to nu­mer­ous cre­ative start-up busi­nesses such as de­sign­ers, architects, in­no­va­tors and mu­si­cians, Auðun­sson mulls over my ques­tion, as well as the no­tion of do­ing his job pro­fi­ciently yet want­ing some­thing else. “My main thing is to make it as a mu­si­cian,” he says, “but I have to do other things to make a liv­ing.”

Like ev­ery­one I will meet and talk with over three days in and around Reyk­javik, Auðun­sson seems ge­net­i­cally pre­dis­posed to speak­ing gen­tly – but bub­bling un­der is a pas­sion to cre­ate. In an of­fice lit­tered with engi­neer­ing tools and boxes of Árstíðir CDs and vinyl, Auðun­sson says that his dis­cov­ery of why so many Ice­landers are mu­si­cians, writ­ers or per­form­ers has been gleaned mostly from out­siders.

“None of this is sci­en­tific,” he ac­cepts, “but the first thing my for­eign friends told me is that we Ice­landers are very im­pul­sive. We have a say­ing here that is very pop­u­lar, it goes some­thing like ‘we fix it on the way’. As some­one who over­sees a build­ing that houses start-up busi­nesses, I can see that peo­ple plan and strate­gise. But as a mu­si­cian or cre­ative per­son? If a prob­lem ar­rives I just en­gage with it as and when it oc­curs.

“I have a very cul­tured French friend,” adds Auðun­sson. “The French know their movies, they know who the pro­duc­ers and the cin­e­matog­ra­phers are. He said one thing to me that I had never thought of be­fore: ‘You Ice­landers never talk about cul­ture, you just do it.’”

Sev­eral hours later, in the city-cen­tre bar Skuli, I meet up with Sigur Rós’s bass player Ge­org Hólm. With ap­pre­cia­tive nods when­ever an artist he par­tic­u­larly likes (Leonard Co­hen, Nico, Iggy Pop) pops up on the sound sys­tem, Hólm charts the changes in how Ice­landic mu­sic has fil­tered out from when he and his band­mates be­gan per­form­ing in 1994.

“When we started there were so many un­der­ground bands – we played small venues for noth­ing other than the ex­pe­ri­ence of it and some al­co­hol. Even now, hav­ing oc­ca­sion­ally lived out­side Ice­land, I think there is a bub­ble of cre­ativ­ity that lives un­der­ground un­til it ex­plodes. And if it doesn’t ex­plode, then it fil­ters out more and more.”

There is a ra­tio­nale within mu­si­cians in Ice­land, sug­gests Hólm, “to not ask too many ques­tions when it comes to do­ing some­thing that may or may not work”.

Such logic could be viewed as ei­ther im­petu­ous or ego­tis­ti­cal, but An­dri Snaer Mag­na­son has other thoughts. In­deed, Mag­na­son has thoughts on many things – the au­thor, poet, es­say­ist, play­wright, en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist and pres­i­den­tial can­di­date is a one-per­son think tank.

“It is not the big ego,” he main­tains, “but more the mi­nor­ity com­plex and the frus­tra­tion of peo­ple out­side Ice­land not know­ing any­thing about us, not ex­pect­ing any­thing from us. It is the mi­nor­ity com­plex of be­ing from a cold, crummy ru­ral out­post of the world, the long­ing to be seen as equal to other na­tions, the be­lief that you are bet­ter, to be seen as peo­ple of cul­ture.”

The mi­nor­ity com­plex that Mag­na­son talks of shifted sig­nif­i­cantly with the in­ter­na­tional

com­mer­cial suc­cess of sin­gu­lar artists such as Björk and, later, Sigur Rós.

“An early par­a­digm shift hap­pened with Björk,” he con­tends. “For the first time, some­one and some­thing made in Ice­land was ac­tu­ally in­flu­enc­ing peo­ple in Ja­pan, Ber­lin or Cal­i­for­nia.”

Be­fore Björk, he sub­mits, Ice­land was “al­ways a few years be­hind, pick­ing up trends and do­ing them here. Af­ter Björk, we wanted opera singers on Scala, a sym­phony orches­tra that could do Beethoven, pop mu­sic, death metal, hip-hop.” Finely cal­i­brated

Self-worth is bal­anced on a finely cal­i­brated scale. In re­cent years, Mag­na­son hints, when fame and re­spect were pos­si­bly taken for granted, some artists “might have de­vel­oped an ego, but I would ar­gue the roots of this were from an am­bi­tion to be as good as oth­ers, to share the stage with them”. He re­gards his coun­try’s need to be seen to do as much as pos­si­ble across many cre­ative ar­eas as the source of its widely praised cul­tural cross-pol­li­na­tion. For mu­si­cians Ás­geir and Óla­fur Ar­nalds, each of whom I talk with at IDNO, a sun-dap­pled pond-side cafe, there are other con­sid­er­a­tions.

Ar­nalds con­tends that mu­si­cians in Ice­land sim­ply have to col­lab­o­rate “or they don’t sur­vive”. As es­sen­tially a solo mu­si­cian, Ás­geir points out he might not need to col­lab­o­rate as much as oth­ers. Also, a pri­mary mag­net that pulls cre­ativ­ity from both mu­si­cians is a ded­i­cated sense of com­mu­nity. Prior to our meet­ing, Ás­geir had re­cently com­pleted a solo tour of small towns in Ice­land. Some per­for­mances were ex­clu­sively for the el­derly. “Peo­ple over the age of 85 or 90,” he tells me. “One per­son in the au­di­ence at one of the shows was 104.”

“The Ice­landic com­mu­nity is so small,” adds Ar­nalds, “that we have to work with each other.” Singer and song­writer Jófríður Ákadót­tir aka JFDR agrees with Ar­nalds. Chat­ting be­fore re­hears­ing new ma­te­rial with the Reyk­javik Cham­ber Orches­tra, she al­lows that be­cause there are so many ac­com­plished mu­si­cians in Ice­land there is less ri­valry. “I don’t think mu­sic thrives very well when there is a lot of com­pe­ti­tion,” she re­marks. “Ire­land and Ice­land are gen­er­ally very sup­port­ive to mu­si­cians, but you have to be re­source­ful as well be­cause there aren’t that many peo­ple here.”

For some, it is not only the sur­vival of the most re­source­ful. It is also be­ing aware, in­stinc­tively, of mu­sic that isn’t per­ceived as be­ing ar­che­typal. GKR be­longs to a large (and in­creas­ingly praised) hip-hop con­gre­ga­tion that in­cludes Króli, Alvia, Count­ess Malaise, Reyk­javí ku rd aetu rand Lord Puss whip. Ad­mit­ting that he uses his cre­ativ­ity to self-med­i­cate bouts of de­pres­sion, GKR tells me that he got into acts such as Kanye West and Wu Tang Clan be­cause, “sim­i­lar to punk, hip-hop is un­fil­tered, it’s like hav­ing a friend talk to you.”

At his of­fice-cum-stu­dio on the out­skirts of the city, GKR presses a but­ton to play an un­re­leased song that is an ear­worm mix of com­mer­cial pop and hip-hop. The only prob­lem is that I don’t un­der­stand the lyrics. The tune is so patently ra­dio-friendly, I sug­gest it would surely be an in­ter­na­tional hit if they were in English.

“If I start to sing in English,” GKR says, “then it has to be nat­u­ral. I don’t want to force it, be­cause then it might come across as op­por­tunis­tic.” Such is the na­ture of this Ice­landic mu­si­cian: he doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily want suc­cess if it doesn’t match his prin­ci­ples, or (per­haps more sig­nif­i­cantly) his own sense of achieve­ment.

On and off the is­land, notes Mag­na­son, there is an in­stinc­tive ap­pre­ci­a­tion for cre­ative ac­com­plish­ments of Ice­landic mu­si­cians/artists, and what he per­cep­tively de­scribes as “a tol­er­ance for strange­ness”. In some coun­tries, he says, “peo­ple are known for knock­ing you down as soon as you try to stand out. They ask ‘who do you think you are?’ In Ice­land, it is the re­verse.”

Tol­er­ance for odd­ness? Bound­less ex­per­i­men­ta­tion? Reck­less spon­tane­ity? The im­por­tance and im­pact of com­mu­nity? At the bar, Sigur Rós’s Ge­org Hólm nurses a sec­ond beer. “It is ei­ther these or ev­ery sin­gle mu­si­cian in Ice­land is mis­un­der­stand­ing some­thing,” he says. “But, you know, what­ever is lost in trans­la­tion is ab­so­lutely okay.”

Back at the de­com­mis­sioned power plant, Daniel Auðun­sson reck­ons there is some level of artis­tic chem­istry in Ice­land that can only be de­fined “by the mix­ture of bad weather, im­pul­sive­ness, and small com­mu­ni­ties. The lines of com­mu­ni­ca­tion are shorter and there­fore they in­ter­con­nect eas­ier.”

Over at the wa­ter­side café, Óla­fur Ar­nalds points di­rectly to Ice­land’s psy­cho-ge­og­ra­phy, and how his coun­try’s tur­bu­lent and tran­quil ter­rain can sub­lim­i­nally in­flu­ence, well, just about ev­ery­thing.

“Like DNA,” he states, “it is en­graved in us.”

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