Risaeðlan was made up of kids that were keen followers of the great resurrection of Icelandic rock in the early 80s. Magga Stína (vocals/violin) and Dóra Wonder (vocals/saxophone—the sister of drummer Kommi from Taugadeildin and Oxsmá) had been inspired by Grýlurnar, the first all-women rock band in Iceland, to go out and do something. In MH college they met up with Margét Örnólfsdóttir, who played the keyboards, and three boys: bassist Ívar Bongo, drummer Tóti (who also played in Vonbrigði) and guitarist Siggi (formely of a group called Trúðurinn, “The Clown”).
The six-piece started playing in 1984, using names like No. 1 and Júhú-stelpur (“Yoo-hoo-Girls”) before settling on Risaeðlan (it means “The Dinosaur,” but they translated it to “Reptile” when making their moves abroad). This was during the 80s so reptiles were cool, along with space gadgets and colourful dresses—think ‘Pee-wee’s Playhouse’, with a slight punk leaning. The B-52’s were an important influence—the kids would go to the Safarí discoteque (next door to where Kex Hostel is now), where the highlight of the night was dancing to “Planet Claire.”
That sweet indie cash
Nothing much happened with Risaeðlan until 1988, when the band had gotten tight enough to play regularly at the Reykjavík joints at the time: Safarí at Skúlagata (which by then had changed its name to Casablanca), Hressó, the tiny Duus-hús at Fischersund and Tunglið at Lækjargata (Duus-hús was later torn down, and Tunglið burned to the ground). Like other bands at the time, Risaeðlan also performed at schools and recreational centers around the country.
This was the time when the Sugarcubes were becoming international indie darlings. All the attention they got worked like a shot of vitamins for the local alt-bands. The Sugarcubes had their own label, Smekkleysa, and when the indie cash started rolling in from across the seas, Smekkleysa had money to finance releases from various local bands. Along with Risaeðlan, bands like Ham and my own band, Bless, benefitted from the Sugarcubes’ support. The Sugarcubes would invite them to play support slot in their shows abroad, enabling them to finally play for more than the loyal 50-200 local fans that generally made up their crowd. They would often perform together in Iceland at so-called “Smekkleysa Nights,” and were collectively referred to as “the Smekkleysa Bands,” even though none of them sounded at all similar.
Risaeðlan’s first release, a 4-track 12” EP, came out in June of 1989. Shortly after, the band ventured to New York to perform at the New Music Seminar along with fellow Smekkleysa bands Ham and Bless, and a shy poet called Jón Gnarr, who usually got booed off stage when he had appeared before the bands back in Iceland. At the time, Risaeðlan were a five-piece, as Margrét Örnólfsdóttir had left and joined the Sugarcubes. Their first gig was at an East Village bar called Downtown Beirut II. Speaking as someone who also performed that night, I can confirm that the show was kind of a letdown, as the venue was about half the size of the smallest place in Iceland. Nonetheless, we kept our spirits high, pushed the bar’s pool table to the side and tried our best to entertain the few NY-based Icelanders who showed up, while keeping at bay the grumpy regulars who wanted their pool table back. The following stateside gigs were much better, at New York City’s Pyramid Club and upstate in Albany, where the bands and poet travelled in a beat-up van.
The New York sojourn was part of Smekkleysa’s “World Domination or Death” plan to push local artists on cool foreigners in the wake of the Sugarcubes’ popularity. Various deals were made, and Risaeðlan’s debut album ‘Fame and Fossils’ was released on UK indie lable Workers Playtime in May 1990. “Risaeðlan will be the next band to break through after The Sugarcubes”—the Icelandic media claimed. “We have no idea what is going to happen or what we are gonna be doing,” the band said in an interview at the time. “We don’t know what it means to get our photos published in some dead boring English pop magazines. The only thing we know is that we are going to be collecting debts this summer.”
The Icelandic Way
And so, Risaeðlan collected debts. First on the East Coast of the USA, where the band toured for three weeks that July. That tour’s highlight was a concert at NY’s fabled Knitting Factory, where David Byrne was among the audience, along with Swans’ Roli Mosimann, whom Risaeðlan had spotted on the street and dragged in just before the show started. Roli went on to become a friend of the band, doing recording sessions with both Risaeðlan and Ham. Next, Risaeðlan embarked upon a fairly successful European tour—however, that autumn Dóra was forced to quit the band upon commencing studies to be an actor at Reykjavík’s drama school, as students at the school were not allowed to perform publicly while enrolled.
The group soldiered on and got a boy from the East Fjords, Hreinn Stephensen, to play guitar and the accordion. The band started working on a new album with Roli Mosimann, but split before the album was finised, reportedly because Magga Stína got pregnant and took it so seriously that she saw no recourse but to give up on music for the time being. Risaeðlan’s second effort, ‘Efta’, was thus not released until 1996, when it was finished and released on CD with some older songs thrown in for good measure.
Risaeðlan was and is unique on the Icelandic pop landscape, truly a band to remember. Their mix of Western and Middle Eastern grooves and hooks is funky and always fun. There was nothing like them then, and there is nothing like them today.
And here’s the good news: We can all brace ourselves for a comeback! Ó yes! Risaeðlan are reforming, and are set to perform at the Aldrei fór ég suður festival in Ísafjörður during Easter 2016.
Look! It’s The Winners Of Reykjavík Grapevine’s 2016 Music Awards
How often does an event have to be repeated to warrant tradition status? If the number is four, we present to you the on-going tradition of the Reykjavík Grapevine Music Awards! Since its first ever edition, music journalism has always been one of the cornerstones of The Reykjavík Grapevine media empire and the vibrant Icelandic music scene an endless source of inspiration, debate, and drunken dancing among our writers and staff throughout the years.