A little bit like Liverpool in the ’60s, Reykjavík is a small coastal town that managed to turn local music into a major export, putting a previously distant outpost firmly on the musical map. Finnish journalist Matti Komulainen has kept an eye on things since the ’80s when it all began and has put together the first exhibition of Icelandic music abroad at the prestigious Sibelius Museum in Turku, Finland. The exhibit includes old vinyl records and fridge magnets, scores from classical composers and photos of current bands, as well as performances and screenings of music related films. We paid a visit to the exhibit and grabbed Matti for a chat.
So how did you first get involved with Icelandic music?
The first band I knew to be Icelandic was The Sugarcubes back in the late ’80s. ‘Life´s Too Good’ and ‘Here Today Tomorrow Next Week’ were popular albums in Finland in those days. I must also have heard Mezzoforte’s ‘Garden Party’ very early, but I didn’t know they were Icelanders until later. Before starting to work as a journalist, I used to DJ and was involved with the Turku city festival which brought over acts like Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson [poet and formed head of the pagan society] and Unun.
What are the most famous Icelandic bands in Finland?
It depends on whom you ask. If you poll people at a shopping mall or street corner, everybody will know Björk. Sigur Rós is recognised as is perhaps Emilíana Torrini. For the heavier taste, Sólstafir is the biggest name and Skálmöld and Vintage Caravan are quite famous as well. Hjálmar has been here a few times and recorded with Jimi Tenor, so they also have a niche audience. Of course múm must be mentioned and not only due to the Finnish connection. Serious music lovers also know HAM, Hjaltalín, Ólafur Arnalds and Of Monsters and Men.
What are the differences and similarities between Icelandic and Finnish music and between Iceland and Finland in general?
I´d say the most stunning similarity lies in the evolution of popular culture, as I noted in my and Petri Leppänen’s book ‘The Sun of the Underground Rose in the West’ and in the TV-documentary ‘Ruisrock 1970-2010.’ Both countries have felt the pros and cons of being a small Nordic country with a strange and distinct language. A main difference is how well Icelanders have used their former position as a military base for British and American forces to push their culture all over via these connections. It’s also impressive how Icelanders have been able to turn the picture of isolation upside down: today Iceland is in the middle of everything instead of being a remote rock far from civilization in the northern Atlantic.
Tell us a little bit about what’s on display at the exhibit and where you found this stuff
Most of the items and albums are from my own collection that I’ve accumulated through the years. Margrét Halldórsdóttir and Kari Sammo, music enthusiasts living in Finland, also loaned material, everything from vintage vinyl albums by Bubbi to a fridge magnet with a picture of Megas and Halldór Laxness. Juho Koli shared selected pieces from his vast collection of Sólstafir music and other memorabilia like Icelandic volcanic ash and hand-tuned Lego-Sólstafir.
You will also be screening films, which films did you pick and why?
We´ll have six to seven films, music documentaries like ‘Rokk í Reykjavík,’ ‘Backyard’ and ‘Everything Everywhere All the Time’ plus the connected concert film ‘The Whale Watching Tour.’ In addition, we’re screening feature films with interesting soundtracks, for example ‘Of Horses and Men.’ They give some idea of how Icelandic popular music has made it from the underground to worldwide culture, and how it´s connected to many other art forms. Some of these I’ve known from the past and some I was lucky to see during your wonderful RIFF [Reykjavík International Film Festival] last autumn. A tradition of storytelling lives today in music and movies and I see that as a continuation of ancient oral tradition, the Sagas and Eddas.