Icelandic reggae? Why not? Icelandic hip hop? You know it’s going to be good. At least, I do now. If there’s anything I’ve learned over four trips to Iceland, it’s not to be surprised by the quality of Icelandic music, no matter what the genre. While there are many reasons I’d like to be visiting Iceland, that’s the one reason that keeps drawing me back.
As an employee of an independent radio station (KEXP in Seattle), I’m exposed to quite a lot of music, but there’s something about the Icelandic music scene that is specifically hard to identify and impossible to ignore. Undoubtedly, there are great bands everywhere, in every continent, in the U.S., in Seattle, in other Nordic countries, but at least at our station we have yet to find anywhere with such a high concentration of talent and diversity. Maybe that’s due to Iceland’s compact size, the higher cultural value Icelanders place on education and the arts in general or, as RÚV Channel 2’s Program Director, Ólafur Páll Gunnarsson, suggested, the weather. In Seattle, we too are overhung with dark winter days, the kind that encourage indoor activities like reading, painting or playing in a band, and that certainly contribute to our relatively high literacy rate as well. But even with Seattle’s own storied musical past and wealth of great bands new and old, we are constantly astonished by the quantity and quality of Iceland’s bands.
And that’s why our Seattle-based radio station has come back to Iceland for the past several years and has just last year conducted our very first broadcast outside of the United States in Reykjavík during the Iceland Airwaves festival last year. When our friends at the KEX Hostel, which hosted our broadcast, and whose name in conveniently similar to our own (though we spell out the letters individually), decided to throw a party in our shared name, we were thrilled. Sporting a marathon line-up of twelve bands in twelve hours, KEXPORT featured many artists that we’ve been fortunate to host, record or film over the years: Agent Fresco and Sudden Weather Change, the two very first bands we recorded back in 2009; Snorri Helgason, one of the few Icelandic artists we’ve been able to host at our station in Seattle; as well as Hjálmar, Sóley, Kiriyama Family, and The Heavy Experience, all bands we heard and recorded for the first time last year. And if there was said to be a headliner, it would have to have been Ghostigital, fronted by the venerable godfather of Icelandic punk, who also happened to be the host of the 2009 sessions we recorded at RÚV… and who kept calling us “kex-pee” (that’s “biscuit-pee” for all of you non-Icelandic speakers). So for us, KEXPORT was the culmination of the times we’ve spent in Iceland, a bringing together of our accumulated friends, just as the party was a gathering of locals and their friends.
For me, though, the true pleasure of coming back to Iceland to represent KEXP at KEXPORT grew out of my anticipation of discovering even more new bands. I wasn’t concerned that I hadn’t yet heard four of the dozen bands scheduled for the party because I knew from experience that they would undoubtedly be good. Tilbury I had listened to repeatedly over the previous week, but was eager to hear how the moody Brit-pop influenced debut, “Exorcise,” would translate live (brilliantly, of course). Human Woman and Dream Central Station were completely new to me and they certainly didn’t disappoint either. Human Woman seemed at first a comedy routine until the electronic duo of Gísli Galdur and Jón Atli Helgason launched into their captivating set of glitchy dance pop. Dream Central Station’s reverbed rock reminded me of The Jesus & Mary Chain backing The Vaselines, it’s a sound I personally prefer, but the biggest surprise for me was Úlfur Úlfur, a hip hop trio whose spot-on gesturing might be considered mere imitation if they hadn’t managed to pour so much heart and energy into their performance. They were perhaps the biggest draw of the day. Why I was surprised, I don’t know. I should have been around Icelandic musicians enough to realise that no matter how improbable the combination—last year for me it was Icelandic reggae—the musicianship, the display of talent, the unique and unquantifiable element that gives any genre performed by Icelanders a uniquely Icelandic twist, would shine through. Just as Hjálmar last year proved to me that Ísland music is island music, Úlfur Úlfur showed everyone at the hostel that hip hop’s soul is universal.
I don’t know what to expect from you next year, Iceland, but do I expect it will be one of the best things I’ve ever heard.