Bryan Riebeek is an imposing, bearded American fellow who might look familiar to those who like to paint the town red (or other less appealing colours) during Iceland Airwaves. He has been to Iceland’s biggest annual party every year since 2008, and is of such stature that he’s hard to miss, whether seen snapping away from the photo pit, or diligently attending hangover-hour off-venues come the grey-faced morning.
Bryan popped in to the Grapevine office at the tail end of last year to tell us about an exciting new project. He was still feeling the Airwaves afterglow, arriving at Grapevine HQ singing the praises of local metal band Misþyrming, amongst others. “My top three this year were Dr. Gunni, Reykjavík!, and Misþyrming,” he said. “But it was great that I finally got to see Gangly and Kælan Míkla. I try to see the bands I don’t know — the new stuff.”
This method makes sense: a musically curious festival-goer, Bryan has seen most of the more established Icelandic acts many times since starting his annual festival pilgrimage. A photographer, music blogger and, previously, a record store owner, he decided to take his interest in Iceland’s music scene to the next level in 2014, when he founded a new record label called Theory of Whatever. “It was kind of a put my money where my mouth is thing,” said Bryan, “because I was always talking about how people should support artists, and coming to the festival, and blogging about all the great Icelandic music.”
The label’s maiden release was a 7” of ’Spectres’ by kimono, and the follow-up is more ambitious yet—a compilation called “Iceland Whatever Vol. 1”. It comes as a well-presented gatefold CD illustrated by Lóa Hjálmtýsdóttir of FM Belfast (and this very magazine), and features bands as diverse as Bambaló, Ghostigital, Plúseinn and DJ flugvel og geimskip.
Punk rock ideals and indie spirit
The CD is intended to be a useful glimpse into the grassroots Icelandic scene for the uninitiated, and features many bands that have flown largely under the radar, internationally at least.
“I modelled it after the old punk rock compilations with 15 or 20 bands for five bucks,” said the mild-mannered Bryan. “I wanted to put out a compilation of Icelandic bands I like that aren’t in the US realm, and sell it as cheap as I could. I got 14 bands, and I’m selling it for $5.99 in the US. I’m not selling it in Iceland—the percentage margins are so low that the bands would get, like, two dollars apiece. So I gave them each ten copies to sell instead. Kimono are selling their copies at Lucky Records, so people can buy it there, or they can contact the bands on the CD and pick one up.”
Alongside the punk scene inspiration, Bryan talks in terms that are super-friendly and “indie” in spirit. The compilation, and the label, are for-the-love projects that he hopes will help his favourite Icelandic bands to reach new listeners. “Some of the bands are friends,” he said, “some are just what I like. It’s my favourites that aren’t really on labels or fly under the radar a bit. The point of the label is to make selling these smaller bands in the US easier.”
But he has ambition for it, too. “My day job is kinda demanding,” said Bryan, “so I don’t get to work on it as much as I want—but eventually I want it to be a hub for bands to sell in the US.”
Bryan was like a proud parent as he showed us the CD. I wondered if, having spent a long time compiling the tracks, talking to bands, and working through all the details of putting a CD release together, it all came together like he hoped.
“It’s actually a little more mellow than I initially thought it would be,” he smiled. “Like, we have Bambaló on there—the jazz singer who does a lot of musicals here and stuff. But the biggest surprise was AMFJ—I was expecting a screaming angry thing, but instead he’d made this track with his daughter and wanted to use it. So it’s mellow, but the story behind it is really cool and it works. I really like Plúseinn’s ‘Empire’—it’s a real earworm. And then there’s the Ghostigital mashup. It’s the first time that one’s been on a CD because the Anti-Matter Boutique label who put it out before only release digitally. That was one of the first songs I asked for.”
Ekkert nema ég
There were, inevitably, a couple of bumps in the road. “I made some rookie mistakes,” he laughed, “including one I’d like to make a big apology for. The Kæjlan Mikla song is labelled as ‘Ekkert Nema’, because the file was labelled as that. But it’s missing a word. It’s actually ‘Ekkert nema ég’. I’d used the abbreviated name, and sent it through and gotten a blue Facebook thumbs up… so I’ve learned I need to make better checks. But I enjoyed doing it, and I’d do it again—instead of favourite bands, maybe it would be new bands. New favourites.”
With a kimono full-length in the works, and a possible second compilation further down the line, Bryan’s interest in Iceland’s music culture shows no signs of letting up. So what keeps him coming back? “I really like it out here,” he finished. “Icelandic musicians have a work ethic that’s refreshing — it’s not aimed towards money but figuring things out, experimenting, and succeeding at what they’re doing. It’s not about telling people to buy merch at shows — they just want to play and for you to think they kick ass. It’s not a naive thing, of course—I understand that they’d like to be successful monetarily—but it’s just a really refreshing approach and a refreshing scene. I dig it.”
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