The idea of Iceland as a music lover’s utopia is a recent one to surface, mostly inspired by an impressive run of internationally successful artists and propagated by the ever-increasing profile of the Iceland Airwaves festival. Perhaps drawn to the nation’s growing reputation, major international festivals like Sónar and, now, All Tomorrow’s Parties are putting Iceland on their map, both staging iterations in 2013.
February’s Sónar festivities at Harpa were apparently successful enough that tickets are already being sold for a 2014 edition, and if the upcoming All Tomorrow’s Parties: Keflavík does well, the event is set to become a regular one. This is, of course, great news! We spoke to ATP founder Barry Hogan and Tómas Young, the festival’s local promoter, to learn more.
Thank u based party
The first ATP was staged in England in 1999, as an alternative to the UK’s more ‘mainstream’ music festivals. It quickly grew into a successful brand, spawning versions in the US and elsewhere, cultivating a reputation for having significant alt. artists curate the line-up. ATP Iceland will take place on June 28 and 29 in an abandoned NATO base right outside Keflavík, called Ásbrú. It features a slew of acclaimed international and local acts very much in the ATP aesthetic—these include The Fall, new Thurston Moore project Chelsea Light Moving, Nick Cave, Thee Oh Sees, múm, Mugison and Dead Skeletons—performing at two venues.
Festival founder Barry Hogan tells us that he’s been working on the project pretty much since 1996, when an early incarnation of ATP took place as the Bowlie Weekender. That first event was curated by twee legends Belle and Sebastian and took place at Pontin’s Holiday Camp in Camber Sands, Sussex, which has acted as venue for the festival ever since.
Just getting started
Barry tells us the festival’s Icelandic expedition has been coming along well so far. “It’s been good, we came here a few days ago to meet with Tómas and check on Ásbrú,” Barry says. “The festival is a lot like the one we have in England, except of course that it’s in Iceland, and the landscape makes it look like ATP has landed on the moon. It’s all coming together at this point, we’re at the crunch time when final schedules are made and everything is coming together.”
The Tómas that Barry refers to is the aforementioned Tómas Young, an Icelandic entrepreneur who has worked for the Iceland Music Export and the Iceland Airwaves festival, and has been Roskilde Festival’s long time Icelandic representative. As the main instigator behind ATP Iceland, he tells us that he came up with the idea two years ago in a think-tank session on the former NATO-base, which was planned by Keflavík airport’s development company, Kadeco.
“Several people, musicians and music industry people with connections to the area were gathered for the session, which had the aim of coming up with music related activities for Ásbrú,” Tómas continues. The base, left behind by US Armed Forces in 2006, is rather large, with housing for more than 6,000 persons. The site, once the workplace and residency of thousands, was abandoned so quickly that it presented a problem for the municipality of Reykjanesbær, mostly in the form of a growing unemployment rate. But, as crisis is wont, it also presented opportunity, which the think tank session was meant to address.
“Many quirky ideas came up at the meeting, like founding an instrument museum, hosting choir-gatherings on site, creating studio-facilities for local and international bands that wanted to get away and record albums in peace, and so on,” he says. “The group I sat with came up with the idea of doing a festival based on All Tomorrow’s Parties, where guests could attend the event but also stay on-site, like at ATP. I can’t remember if it was me or somebody else who brought up the name of ATP but that’s where the idea came from.”
Barry explains to us how the young Icelander approached them with the idea. “We had some affiliation with Icelandic music before, and we were the first to bring Sigur Rós over to England when we booked them for one of our earlier events. So we have always had a healthy interest in Icelandic music. But it was Tómas who started it all, because he really wanted to do some kind of festival at the base. He contacted us and he was VERY persistent in his presentation. He finally got us to the point where we decided to come over here and have a look at everything, and we just thought: ‘this is magical’! We were only in Iceland for about 24 hours on our first visit in August of 2012, but we realised we just had to do this.”
The democratic party
Every international iteration of ATP shares a similarity, faithful to the original ATP idea, Barry says. “We kind of had the same formula as when we did New Zealand or Tokyo, but we try to slightly tailor every event to its particular region. But what I think is the great thing about this base is that it’s a lot like Camber Sands has been moved to Iceland.”
He further describes the original idea behind the festival and its sleep-away camp form: “It references those holiday camps everyone went to as a kid, places you wouldn’t really want to go now, but likely attended if you were young in the ‘70s and maybe feel a sense of nostalgia for. The NATO base also adds something extra to this appeal.”
The festival optionally provides accommodations for its visitors, and the artists are housed on-site as well. This is all a huge part of the ATP experience, as Barry tells us. “We have a very set way of doing things, and we always like to treat everyone like it’s a democracy. We want our fans to feel important—for instance there is no VIP area at this festival. There are no girls in tracksuits going ‘oh no you can’t go in this here area’ or stuff like that. Everyone just comes to see the music and hang out.”
Carving a niche for the alternative
ATP has always had a great reputation for creating alternative events. The festival’s name is a promise that the line-up comprises high quality up and comers along with scene legends. On top of this, Barry tells us ATP is trying to establish a special meaning in Iceland. “I always thought that the music that we were working with at the festival 14 years ago wasn’t very popular, but I thought that eventually it would become what most people listen to. Actually, if you look at what was on then and what is on now, most of these original groups are the biggest bands going on nowadays,” Barry says.
“But we also have something for everyone. For example, Nick Cave, I have seen him around 20 to 25 times over the last 25 years and the band he has right now is the best one he has ever played with—they are on fire. Thee Oh Sees are the best band happening now on the planet. Seriously if people don’t come and see this shit, they are going to regret it—there are some great bands going on here, but these two are worth the entry fee alone. We also have great local bands playing, like kimono, múm and Ghostigital, who have played ATP before. There’s something here for every type of music fan, even the casual listener is going to find some gems in there.”
Meet The Venue
A short history of Ásbrú
In the lava fields just outside of Keflavík, there’s a place that appears at first glance to be yet another extension of the municipality of Reykjanesbær. With a few scattered apartment blocks and the occasional shed, it looks to be completely deserted, and has the ghostlike feel of a derelict factory town or a failed housing project.
That place is called Ásbrú and it is the remains of the old U.S. navy base in Iceland, which the Americans operated after a joint agreement defensive contract was signed in 1951. The story has earlier roots though, as Iceland has had a military presence in the country since the British invasion in 1940.
As Iceland became an increasingly important strategic location during World War II, the allied forces saw no other option but to seize the territory in what was actually a rather peaceful invasion. We surrendered immediately, but managed to maintain neutrality until the end of the war. The British only stayed for the one year and transferred their control of Iceland to the Americans who were more suited for the job since they had yet to enter the conflict.
Thus began Iceland’s blossoming relationship with the Americans, which lasted long after the war ended. The men in uniform, who were 6,000 at peak operation, stayed here until September 2006 when the base was finally decommissioned after nearly 55 years of active duty. Their presence has had a huge influence on our society, bringing us into contact with rock and roll music, basketball and many other American habits. Many people still argue, probably correctly, that the base is responsible for the heavy Western influence that is still very much still present in Iceland today.
The Icelandic Defence Agency assumed control of the base in 2011 and it has since then been put to civilian use. The educational institution Keilir, for instance, is based in and around Ásbrú and rents the former military housing for relatively cheap. It’s also been used for conferences and will now host its first music festival.