Let us not beat around any bush: Mugison is a golden god, and he is a shining path. So is his father, Muggi, and so, in fact, are all of the magnificent people who have toiled for the past months to make the Aldrei fór ég suður music festival happen for the fourth time since its inception in 2004.
The first band to take the stage at Aldrei fór ég suður (AFS for short) this Easter weekend was a local act, comprised of members from Ísafjörður and the neighbouring communities. A good crowd of families, sailors, hipsters, headbangers and old aunts had gathered to watch their goofy take on PUNK RAWK, which they served up with some well co-ordinated performance gimmicks, beautifully setting the stage for what was to come. If one band embodied the spirit of AFS this year, it was probably Kristina Logos, with their undeniable onstage charm, can-do spirit and chaotic performance. When I approached them after the show I was informed that this was their second show ever, and that they were mostly about “having fun”.
And that’s what so much of the festival seems to be about, and the reason why almost all of Iceland’s notable musicians applied to perform there in some form this year. Good clean fun, peppered with an undeniable community spirit and some excellent parties to boot. It is well publicised that AFS is different from other music festivals in the respect that there is no hierarchy, and every performer gets the same treatment. They all get the same fish stew when they arrive, they all sleep in the same dorms and everybody gets allotted the same 20 minutes to impress the people of Ísafjörður and their visitors. And this seems to be the festival’s appeal for a lot of the attendees, as well as the performers.
Morgunblaðið music scribe Atli Bollason is also a member of Sprengjuhöllin, one of the 37 acts that performed this year. This was the first time he attended, and he seems fairly happy with the experience, while noting surprise at the festival’s hearty family atmosphere, which he felt set it apart from other such shindigs. “I was happy to see how effortlessly the locals and their visitors blended. There was a good vibe, not a threateningly drunken one, just kids and adults, visitors and locals having fun together. The festival is very homely and cosy, something that can probably be attributed to Mugison and Muggi and is very much in their style. We were served delicious meals, and the party on Easter Sunday was a lot of fun. People sometimes speak of Iceland Airwaves as a celebration for Icelandic musicians. After this weekend, I think the title rather belongs to AFS. Airwaves is more about competition and less about community.”
Mugison, who along with his father Muggi fathered the festival, seems kind of beat up when we converse that following Tuesday. He says he thinks AFS was awesome, as always, but adds that hosting nearly forty acts is a bit of a steep mountain to climb. “For my part, I thought it veered on being too big compared to the previous festivals. I missed the farm-smells, the country-style; not being able to greet and get to know everybody personally. But doing it this way was of course a lot of fun in its own way, although maybe too much work to lay on those volunteering. We may have to re-think the organisation, although doing it this way and seeing just how plain big it can get was a beautiful experience.”
Starting off as an excuse to invite friends and colleagues to his hometown of Ísafjörður (the first line-up was comprised almost solely of local acts interspersed with various friends of Mugison), AFS is now so beset with requests to play that there was no alternative to implementing an application process. “ That’s one of the most fun things for myself about how big it’s gotten, dozens of acts applied and I got to sit down with my computer and listen to all the demos they sent me. It’s a priority to be able to sample Iceland’s musical landscape that way,” says Mugison. When asked of his favourite performance this year, he says he could name many. “For instance, I was struck by how cool and workmanlike President Bongo (of GusGus) was when forced to perform behind a pile of rubbish, because Blonde Redhead needed an extra long soundcheck. He pulled it off beautifully and the smile on his face remained even after they had started soundchecking over his set, something that would upset me to no end. A true sailor.”
The Blonde Redhead, the festivals purported superstars, seemed to cause the only disappointment of the weekend. Reporter Jonas Moody, who has attended AFS since the beginning, summed it up nicely when asked. “Saturday was second only to the first year. Friday was miserable. Blonde Redhead put such a damper on the evening. Such a bad way to leave the night.”
It seems that the famed NY indie rockers didn’t know exactly what they were bargaining for when they agreed on playing AFS, or maybe the organisers, in all their punkish spirit, didn’t realise the implications of bringing over a big name band that’s all used to soundchecking to perfection for hours on end before uttering a note. In any case, band and festival didn’t mesh well. At an event where there were usually around five minutes between acts, Blonde Redhead stood on stage for well up to an hour before playing, in front of a drunken and excited mass of people, moving around amplifiers and reconfiguring drum kits. They got booed for making people wait (which was unfortunate and uncalled for), and they in turn exited stage after playing only three songs when they finally did manage to start, claiming that they couldn’t deal with such bad sound conditions. When you manage to think of them as delicate artistes instead of a plain ol’ rock and roll band, you sort of understand where they were coming from.
Anna Hildur Hildibrandsdóttir is managing director of the Icelandic Music Export agency, and is a veteran in both promoting Icelandic music and attending various international festivals. She attended AFS accompanied by ten visiting journalists, who she says were all dazzled by the festival’s communal spirit and beautiful surroundings. “Some of them were even saying, ‘Why don’t they do this sort of thing in Wales?’,” says Hildibrandsdóttir. “I think the festival will fare well in the future. Festivals like this one, which offer up an experience apart from the standard Reading/ Glastonbury fare. This is something you won’t find anywhere else; it offers an invigorating spirit, a small town atmosphere and some beautiful surroundings. It may well end up growing too big for what Ísafjörður has to offer in terms of accommodation. It has a special sort of attraction and is a unique in many, many ways.”
What about all those bands who played, you ask? This reporter saw a good chunk of them, and nearly all of them managed to impress with their enthusiasm about performing, their joy of being in a strange place (or a very familiar one) and giving your all in exchange for accommodation, new experiences, some parties, some fish stew and a whole lotta love. This is true whether you’re speaking of the grinding fury of Mínus and Ham, the playful electro of FM Belfast or indefinable, yet awesome, local acts such as Skriðurnar, Lúðrasveit Tónlistarskólans (the local music school’s brass orchestra) or The Geiri Talent Show. Hell, even the Blonde Redhead tunes were pretty great (all three of them). Aldrei fór ég suður was indeed a celebration of all the good things Icelandic music has to offer, and it represented them well.