If you’re a regular reader or at all familiar with the Reykjavík scene, you probably know of Haukur S. Magnusson. Reykjavík Grapevine’s editor-in-chief is something of a face about town during Iceland Airwaves, whether playing as the guitarist of Reykjavík! or marshalling his Grapevine writing team, one of whom traditionally covers every single show of the festival. Haukur is also often called upon to give comment on Icelandic music and culture, and has been covering Airwaves in detail for many years, as well as working with the festival on occasion. Here are some of his thoughts on it all.
You’ve been writing about Airwaves, and playing too, for a while. Having led the Grapevine review team for several years, you must be something of an expert by now. Do you still get excited about it?
Yes – always excited. It’s an organised festival that celebrates most of the things I’ve held dearest for a long time; downtown Reykjavík, its musicians, its culture, its artists, its atmosphere. And binge drinking.
However, I should note that when playing at the festival (as I did from 2004-2012 my band Reykjavík! is taking a break this year, but will hopefully be back later if they’ll have us), working for the festival (I did that from 2006-2009) or helping organize Grapevine’s coverage of it (2009-), I don’t really get the same festival experience a lot of you guys do, what with the drinking and the drugs and the partying and the whoring and staying out late and seeing every band you want to see. Even though it’s a party, it’s an extremely organized and efficient party, and this means that if you want to be a part of its back end you have to stay on top of things. Which I’ve usually tried to do. And sometimes failed at.
But yes. I’m a lover.
When was your first ever Airwaves, how old were you, and how was it?
My first one was in 2000 I think (I missed out on Gusgus in the hangar). I was 19 and it was brilliant. A lot smaller than it is now. Perhaps more intimate. But it could never stay that way—such a wonderful thing, people are bound to hear about it and want to partake.
How have you seen the festival evolve over the years?
It’s grown more established, more organized. It’s also way longer, huger. Used to be just two days. Then three. Now it’s up to five—and the off-venues are part of the official programme, so keeping track gets that much harder.
I must admit, I’m getting old and I am painfully aware of how this often gives the past a rosy tint. I’ve had wonderful times at all the Airwaves festivals I’ve attended, and they’ve all been different. Stasis is death, nothing is ever the same, so I like to celebrate the present.
Every year since 2005, Grapevine has reviewed every single show of the festival, initially printing the results in a daily Grapevine Airwaves newspaper, but lately in the form of posts to this fancy website. What’s the big idea here?
The Reykjavík Grapevine has in its ten years of existence been a big proponent of Iceland’s music scene and tried to support it accordingly. One form of support is definitely providing critique (another, for instance, would be listing all the concerts in town and interviewing bands when they have big shows or releases coming up). The extended scene is mostly ignored by the local media – nobody really does live reviews of these bands, and oftentimes their albums won’t even get coverage (it is a large scene and a small media establishment). We take the scene and its musicians seriously enough to engage in conversation with them and talk about more than just the positive aspects of their art, as such complacency is in the end the opposite of respectful.
Airwaves usually features most if not all of Reykjavík’s premier current talent, playing under optimal circumstances, for enthusiastic crowds. The opportunity to play in such a setting is great and most acts do not take it lightly, so they also practice a bunch beforehand, too. Therefore, it is a great opportunity to take the temperature of the local scene, keep tabs on what people are getting up to and recording it for posterity, there is indeed a bit of an archivist mentality at play as well.
As the festival has grown and added venues, covering every single show has gotten increasingly difficult, and entails a lot of work, but we’re still trying (and we haven’t missed a band yet! Well, maybe one or two). Even though this inevitably entails pissing off some of the acts if the writers are honest and blunt, as they should be (I have been plenty sore about some of Reykjavík!’s Grapevine reviews), the end results are always super fun… and I can only imagine how awesome it will be to be able to reread all of that coverage in twenty years time.
I’ve seen you play with your band Reykjavík! a few times. Have you played under other guises or in other projects too?
Me and my fellow Reykjavík!-er Gummi played a few times with Ben Frost at Airwaves. That was mad fun. I also once climbed on the stage while FM Belfast were playing, I think that was Gaukurinn in 2007.
Which international bands on the lineup set your pulse racing?
Oh wow. There’s so many. Always so many. And I know I won’t be able to see half of them. Still, I want to try. Yo La Tengo have been my favourite band since I was like sixteen (that was in 1997) and I would be an asshole to miss their show in Iceland. I always have a very emotional response to Fucked Up, so I will also try to be there for them. Kraftwerk, then, are legends and I would love to pay my respects.
There I’ve named three super established acts in a row that I am totally hyped about seeing. This is maybe one of the ways the festival’s changed through the years – you wouldn’t really think you’d see someone like Kraftwerk playing like five years ago, when it was more about new and upcoming stuff.
This might give someone cause to complain, but the festival’s definitely kept its spotlight on amazing newcomers, too. Out of those, I am most excited about Mykki Blanko, Anna von Hausswolff, Fears (they have my cuz Egill on drums – fun fact: my first ever band was with Egill! We were ten and nine years old. We called ourselves Metal Death, an amalgam of our two favourite bands at the time (guess who!) and we were awesome), Savages and Zola Jesus.
Which new Icelandic artist will you definitely not miss this year?
Oh wow. Um. There’s a bit of a disconnect, as I haven’t been living in Iceland lately and thus am in the dark about some of what’s happening. Whenever I come back, I get slapped in the face with AMAZING things that AMAZING artists have been coming up with. The music of DJ Flugvél & Geimskip, Grísalappalísa and Lord Pu$$whip excites me, but I am sure there is lots of great stuff brewing out there. So I totally look forward to wandering between venues, on and off, and catching glimpses of all the new wonderful stuff.
And is there an established veteran Icelandic band you think is in particularly good form in 2013?
I just heard the new Mammút album and it is wonderful. Can’t wait to see their show. But there’s so much more. Probably, given my past experience, I am most excited to see Daníel Bjarnason’s show. But again, anyone who attends Airwaves is spoiled for choice.
What’s your favourite festival venue, and why? Could you share a good memory from there?
People make a big deal about Nasa, and it’s true – it sucks that it’s not there. Can’t really imagine the festival without it. It was a constant. What a bummer. Still, I guess I‘ll miss Grand Rokk (its latest iteration was known as Faktorý) even more, as I have seen some truly wonderful shit go down there.
It was the site of Reykjavík!’s first Airwaves appearance, for instance. We were given a rather shitty slot, playing ahead of a rather shitty band, who shall remain nameless. It was our first time playing, and we didn’t really have an album out or anything (or a following for that matter), so our placement was totally justified. When we showed up, the Shitty Band who were after us (like, major peddlers of suck) were all cocky and intimidating, making fun of new us, like “good luck boys, be sure to warm up the room for THE MEN to take over”. It was thus extremely satisfying that the rather large crowd we drew all left when Shitty Band took the stage.
That gig also got us our first international show, playing at a Drowned in Sound showcase in London. The years after, when I worked for the festival and bands would come in complaining about their placement, I would always make sure to tell them that it didn’t really matter when and where they played, so long as they made the most of it. Speaking from a band perspective, some of our greatest opportunities came from playing some of the strangest venues at the weirdest times.
A lot international guests will be arriving in the city for the festival – let’s give them some advice on…
… A good daytime activity?
Go swimming. Make a goal of visiting a new pool EVERY DAY.
… A recommended place for dinner?
I love eating at SNAPS, Grapevine’s Restaurant Of The Year 2012 and 2013. It’s a French style bistro that’s surprisingly affordable. For more all-in immersion eating, Fiskifélagið hasn’t failed me yet.
… A good breakfast spot for the morning after?
I don’t know… I never really have breakfast out like that. The soup at Noodle Station will definitely give you power for another day.
Could you share some pieces of advice for all the Airwaves first-timers out there?
First: read Grapevine’s Airwaves journal. We’ll try and keep y’all updated on what’s going on – and you can also compare your experiences with those of our esteemed writers rather soon after the shows.
Here are some tips that I already gave to Der Spiegel. I’m sure most of you don’t read Der Spiegel that much, but if you do I apologize for the repeat.
Keep an open mind and an open schedule. Plan, but don’t be too stringent on following your plans, instead remaining ready to drift around in the wind to wherever joy might lead you. While I understand you might really really want to see a particular act, if the queues are too long, staying there will just get you frustrated. Remember that it’s a party and to have fun at parties, you have to be flexible.
Dress in layers. The weather can be rather shitty, so you might get cold getting between the venues, but then when you get in you’ll be super hot and there aren’t always cloakrooms to hang your bulky coat.
Go swimming in one of Reykjavík’s pools, every single day. Try as many as you can. The one in 101 in Reykjavík is great, but so are Laugardalslaug, Vesturbæjarlaug, Neslaug, etc.
Book your day tours in Iceland right here!