Reykjavík is the kind of place where, one day, the neighbour that you never realised spoke English will knock on your door and tell you that the rest of your neighbours are in a band, on TV, right now.
My neighbour’s band, which I saw for the first time this June, is Skakkamanage – a five-person outfit based mostly on the chord constructions of a somewhat owlish self-styled singer and guitarist named Svavar. Truthfully, I’d been curious about Skakkamanage for years, since Svavar opened, as a one-man band, for Sebadoh. Last year’s Skakkamanage 7-inch, one of the few local releases on vinyl in recent memory, had more hype than a Philip Seymour Hoffman performance, and the band’s evolving cast includes a member of múm, and a number of other recognisable local stars, including the drummer of Jeff Who?.
Which all goes to set up the expectations, and possibly disappointment, that drive the buzz on Skakkamanage. The band played at playing about five songs during a thirty-minute opening set for Hairdoctor in front of a first worshipful, then embarrassed, then pleasantly surprised full house.
And how does one report on delicate melodies that are sung away from the microphone at times, that are suddenly broken off for restarts, and that are sometimes drowned out by bass and drums? The crowd nodded, and Svavar would move from song to song, but few lyrics were audible, few chords clear, few melodies allowed to survive for long. On the fourth song, (none of the song intros were clear, nor were the lyrics, fully), a fanatical, dazed fan jumped in front of the band and began to dance maniacally. On cue, the band stopped, not to insult the fan, but just… coincidence.
At that point, Jón Atli, frontman for Hairdoctor, whispered back to me, “I love this band, they are so completely random.”
I couldn’t help but agree. For all the bands I’ve seen in Reykjavík in the last three years, Skakkamanage are the only band I’ve seen who are convincingly in their own world, and who are completely oblivious and impervious to judgement. They play as they want, and they stop when it doesn’t work, not out of spite, but out of an interest solely in the music.
Add to that the fact that, suddenly, for a final song, they ripped out a driving, blues country number in which Svavar found his voice, his ear, and his inspiration, and screamed so that the whole club got goosebumps, at the very same time the múm instrumentalist ripped off a somewhat shocking harmonica solo, and the drummer from Jeff Who? demonstrated that he could drive old Band-inspired beats as well as anyone, and you have some understanding as to how exciting and local a Skakkamanage set feels.
It would make for good continuity to say that after seeing my neighbour tear down the house, I saw the local hairdresser do the same, but that would be a little misleading. Jón Atli is more of a superstar hairdresser, which says a lot about Reykjavík. His band, which we all thought was a two-piece forum for blending contagious acoustic hooks with drum and bass by master mix-man Árni Plúseinn, declared at the onset of the night, “We’ve been to Berlin. We are going to play techno, now. And we’ve brought our girlfriends to sing.”
Dedicating a set to techno while playing for the lo-fi poetry crowd isn’t recommended on too many industry books that I’ve come across. Nor is, of course, singing into a hairdryer. And yet, as much as I wanted to hear the Hairdoctor songs that currently dominate the radio in Iceland, I was impressed to hear a full register techno improv performance. After the band outperformed Reykjavík! by covering the local band’s hit Beautiful Boys, a debate arose among a few of us, flustered by how well Hairdoctor handled their new style – were they just able to play any style they wanted, or was techno the real soul of the band?
The debate faded when people started dancing, smiling, and stopped listening to music. At an early evening show, Hairdoctor got the masses moving, the wool-sweatered masses, no less.