Amidst the noise and chaos of Iceland Airwaves, KEXP’s off-venue—which the Seattle radio station has hosted for the last ten years, mostly at Kex Hostel—has been a staple. Each year the station broadcasts live video sessions by established stars and up-and-coming prospects from Kex’s packed bar, transmitting the atmosphere and artistry of Airwaves to a global audience.
KEXP’s Chief Content Officer, and the host of the station’s afternoon show, is the affable Kevin Cole, who is instantly recognisable for his distinctive mane of silver hair. An easygoing presence with a clear reverence for music, Kevin is a long time Icelandophile who first visited Iceland on holiday in 2005, sowing the seeds for the partnership.
“I wanted to experience the midnight sun and the solstice,” he says. “I was a fan of Icelandic music of the 80s and 90s—Sugarcubes, GusGus and múm—but when I heard Sigur Rós’ second album in 1999, that sealed the deal. I just had to come visit and see where this music was created.”
Bringing the ‘P’
Kevin drove the Ring Road, “met a lot of people, and bought a lot of records.” Back in Seattle, he started playing them out, and kept tabs on the scene. Then, in 2007, he met Hlynur Guðjónsson, Iceland’s U.S. Trade Commissioner, at a music event in New York where KEXP was broadcasting live. “Band of Horses were playing, and there was a lot of excitement, and he turned to me and said ‘we have to do this in Iceland.’ Of course, I said ‘Let’s do it.’”
The partnership started with a small team, Jim Beckmann and Scott Holpainen, filming sessions with handheld cameras at RÚV. Einar Örn hosted the sessions, which were sent to Kevin in Seattle—seven hours behind—who would air them later that day.
The next step was to broadcast live. “I came out to scout locations in the summer of 2011,” says Kevin. “Kex was just being finished. Benedikt Reynisson took me there, and it just felt like a good vibe for us right away. And it was KEX… we could bring the ‘P.’ It was just fortuitous and cool.”
Taking it home
Seven years later, KEXP has made around 1,200 videos from 250 sessions, which have, astoundingly, garnered over 85,000,000 views. “It’s been remarkable,” says Kevin. “We look at these trips as an opportunity for discovery. We get recommendations, try and listen to everything, see what we think our listeners would like, and think about artists that might not make it out to Seattle in the near future. We thought it would be cool to work alongside bands and help make it viable for them to come and play in Seattle.”
Kevin has a clear fondness—and demonstrable geekiness—for the catalogue of sessions. He looks through the list of artists, rapidly reeling off the names of artists like Sudden Weather Change, FM Belfast, Pascal Pinon, sóley, múm, ADHD and Daníel Bjarnason. “If you look at years one and two, it’s incredible,” says Kevin. “MAMMÚT were a baby band, as were Pascal Pinon. It’s been super cool to build relationships with musicians over the years, witness their growth, and play a bit of a role in their evolution.”
When we talk, the KEXP schedule for 2018 is still coming together, but Kevin runs through a couple of the confirmed names—from huge stars to bands playing the festival for the first time—with an equal amount of glee. “There’s just a lot of incredible music being made in Iceland,” he smiles. “We just feel humbled to be involved, to connect music lovers and bands, and to bring their music to the global audience of music lovers that is KEXP.”
From The Archive: Six KEXP Sessions
ADHD, Fríkirkjan í Hafnarfirði (2014)
“I watch this probably once a week when I’m working late at night, and I need something to transport me. 410,000 people have viewed this performance, many of whom had no idea who the band was, only to have their minds blown—like ours were when we were there.”
Sóley, KEX Hostel (2011)
“There’s something incredibly charming, almost unnerving, about the rawness and intimacy of this performance—so many comments on her smile and emotions. It has over 3.6 million views!”
Pascal Pinon, at home (2009)
“They performed in their living room. We’ve since done sessions with Samaris, JFDR and GANGLY.”
Jóhann Jóhannsson, KEXP Studio (2017)
“This was recorded this in Seattle in 2017, after the release of ‘Orphée.’ We talked a lot about ‘Orphée’ as well as his entire body of work. The performance was exceptional and I feel so happy and honoured we were able to capture this performance and be a part of upholding the legacy of this amazing artist.”
Of Monsters and Men, at home (2010)
“The first session we did with them was in their living room shortly after winning Músíktilraunir. At the time they only had a couple songs. The video we shot was an early acoustic version of “Little Talks.” It went viral and played a key role in the band signing a deal with Universal Records.”
Mammút, rehearsal space (2009)
“This is the first year they played—it’s cool to see how their confidence, songs, playing, and stage presence has evolved over the years. We had them back in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2014 and 2016.”