Æla’s first gig in London was at the Buffalo Bar, situated in the well-to-do North London suburb of Islington. It is a dark pit of a place, typical of the capital’s atmospheric live music venues, with a tiny stage and an interesting collection of London’s music glitterati in attendance on this particular evening. The first band playing were duller than an oldVictoria Line tube train disappearing down a tunnel, something that posed an interesting juxtaposition when Æla came on stage to awaken the bored audience.
Opening with a piratical shouting session worthy of any invading Viking, Æla launched into a set of prog thrash punk which, although mostly sung in wailed Icelandic, was widely understood by the audience to be a mix of energetic humour and surreal prose. “This song is about a banana thatsaved his life” was the explanation behind one song – apparently the product of a nourishment crisis on a golf course being solved by fruit – and some insight into the band’s song-writing technique was gained when they later admitted that they construct songs by each writing a line and passing the sheet round until they have enough for a whole song. Chairs were danced on, more lyrics shouted, Hafþór the drummer sweated a lot, lots of people were smiling and then, after Æla had overrun their allocated time by some margin, they walked off grinning. Some Australian band came on a bit later. We retired to the seats near the back of the bar – the rest of the bands were boring in comparison.
We were just leaving when Halli Valli, Æla’s lead singer, confided: “I really need a new outfit.” Thankfully he’d abandoned the renaissance pirate gear he was sporting on stage earlier in favour of some attire more suited to braving London’s rather unforgiving streets. A new outfit was not a problem as I happened to know of a shop in South London, a short train ride from Victoria, that you could describe as a fancy dress supermarket without misrepresenting its size in any way. Halli, who was clearly a man desperate for some fancy new threads, agreed that this sounded like a good place to visit before their next London-based gig on Friday evening – I already felt sorry for the staff of the Party Superstore in Clapham Junction, South London.
Two days later and after a much-needed intake of Guinness and cider at a drinking hole near the station called The Falcon – a typical South London pub with brass fittings and a massive bar – we straggled through the rain and up the small hill where the emporium of tat, also known as the Party Superstore, awaited. “Like a kid in a candy shop” is how one band member described the moment of entry and, it has to be admitted, the endless possibilities housed within this four walls do fascinate: giant Donnie Darko psycho bunny or a huge yellow chicken? Egyptian stripper or sexy air hostess? Actually, any thoughts of the last option were rather ruined when Halli, having been searching for his fancy dress nirvana for about 20 minutes among the many racks and shelves, located an airhostess outfit that fitted him. He knew this because he tried the outfit on and asked how he looked. Someone commented on the dodgy EU badge on the sleeve but the general opinion was that he looked OK.
“It’s always the quiet ones, isn’t it” said the photographer as Ævar, the slightly retiring but thoroughly pleasant guitar player, showed genuine interest in an outfit described as Virgin Bunny Girl on the packaging. Hafþór, meanwhile, was pursuing the military look but a Crimean War-era British soldier outfit sadly proved to be a bit expensive. Postweight gain Elvis gear, on the other hand, was more reasonably priced but came with a catch: “You’ve got to have the cape, it just looks like a white tracksuit without the cape” explained the knowledgeable shop assistant. I wonder how many little nuggets of valuable knowledge such as this you come across whilst working at the Party Superstore – lots, I reckon.
Outfits purchased and with the shop’s tills better off to the tune of about £200, we celebrated with a swig of liquorice vodka in the drizzle outside before heading for the train station to return home before the gig.
On the train home Halli shows us his tattoo, an intricate rendering of a grouse-like bird standing on a chair on his forearm, and explained the design: “I like Famous Grouse whisky and dancing on chairs…” Sure enough, a bottle of Famous Grouse was at that moment warming Sveinn’s cockles, soon to be finding its way into Halli’s possession.
When they bounded onto the stage that evening at The George, a popular pub in an achingly fashionable district of East London, the outfits they were wearing were very familiar – reminiscent of a rainy afternoon in South London spent discussing music and dressing up, but thankfully the music was of a far greater quality than the tailoring on display that day. A controversial decision, and one in direct contradiction to the expert opinion of Party Superstore’s fancy dress guru, was the Elvis suit being worn for some of that night without the cape, yet Hafþór looked as much like Elvis as a blonde 20- something Icelandic drummer in a rock band can do. The Virgin Bunny Girl also made an appearance that evening as well as a six-foot, five-inches airhostess, one that would never fit down the aisle on an Iceland Express flight. Maybe that’s a good thing; the minibar would be out of Famous Grouse before they even left the terminal.