As Yet Another Iceland Airwaves Festival Looms On The Horizon, We Present The Tale Of Its Spiritual Predecessor, Iceland’s First International Music Festival: Uxi ’95
On June 29, 1995, an advertisement appeared in every Icelandic newspaper. It announced a large-scale, international open-air music festival that was to take place five weeks later in Kirkjubæjarklaustur, a small town in the south of Iceland. It would feature big, international artists—artists that young people actually liked. For youthful lovers of electronic music, the first weekend in August, the annual Merchants’ Holiday weekend, was suddenly and surprisingly something to look forward to. This was big news. UXI ’95 was born.
And it sounded good. The initial acts announced were big, exciting ones. More importantly, they were current as fuck, instead of the dried-out, washed-up artists Icelanders had grown used to hosting. Underworld would be there. The Prodigy. Our very own Björk. These were artists that young people were actually listening to and enjoying on a daily basis. International media was interested! And the whole shebang was set to go on in a beautiful valley in the Icelandic countryside, lined by cliffs, waterfalls and green fields.
Fuck the mainstream
“This is a cultural event, not an outdoor drinking festival,” UXI’s promoters stressed in the media (and make no mistake: the festival was big news). Perhaps to that end, the festival’s website stated that fans of certain local mainstream pop groups, like Stjórnin and Vinir Vors og Blóma (typical Merchants’ Holiday drunkfest bands), would be denied entry to the festival grounds, noting this was not to be yet another bout of mindless entertainment for the masses to get wasted to. No sir. This was an ambitious artistic event on an unprecedented scale. In contrast, the popular Merchants’ Weekend festivals at the time all followed the same formula, offering basic camping sites, local pop groups and covers acts and the chance to get wasted on gallons of alcohol (this is, sadly, still the paradigm). Such Bacchanalian events endure to this day, the most popular one remaining the Westmann Islands’ “Þjóðhátíð” festival.
A few weeks before UXI was to commence, issues arose that put the whole endeavour in jeopardy. Perhaps spurred by initial negative publicity (in Iceland, electronic music had already been branded as “drug music”), government agencies put forth demands that the organisers pay a 24.5% VAT on each ticket sold, a much higher percentage than comparable events were usually made to pay. This reeked of discrimination, a lack of acknowledgement for electronic music as a “proper” genre. Such demands were not made of local jazz or classical events. Despite fervent complaints, the Icelandic Tax Director failed to acknowledge UXI’s organisers’ point of view and the matter remained unresolved. No exceptions were made, the festival’s initial budgeting efforts rendered meaningless by the stroke of a pen.
The ox and the rabbit
UXI ’95 was the brainchild of one Kristinn Sæmundsson, most often referred to as Kiddi Kanína (“Kiddi The Rabbit”) due to his speedy decision-making skills. At the time, he ran a successful independent record store (Hljómalind) in 101 Reykjavík, along with promoting various events and concerts, and publishing zines, selflessly working to spread the word on new artists and genres in his still-isolated homeland. UXI was but one of his many projects, a lot of which turned out to be pivotal for Icelandic music in general. For example, he was one of the early champions of a little known art-rock band called Sigur Rós, orchestrating the release of their pivotal LP ‘Ágætis byrjun’ and an accompanying tour around Iceland in 1999. Among other acts he brought to Iceland in the late 90s were The Prodigy, Saint Etienne, Will Oldham, Trans Am, Fugazi, Modest Mouse, Shellac and many more. Creating UXI ‘95, a world-class international festival in Iceland, he was joined by former Sugarcube Einar Örn Benediktsson and a slew of friends and followers.
While the promoters soldiered on despite setbacks, further problems arose just a few days before UXI ’95 was to kick off, as police seized 100 forged tickets from an entrepreneurial young con man. This, doubled with some very vocal public concerns that UXI ‘95 was a drug-fest in the making, worried the parents of potential attendees (this was on the heels of Iceland’s first major drug scare)—indeed, the newly formed youth drug prevention organisation Jafningjafræðslan (“The Peer Educators”) was especially outspoken against the festival. “Some of the foreign artists performing at UXI are considered drug-friendly, especially toward ecstasy,” was a common media talking point. Indeed, 1995 marked the peak of Iceland’s ecstasy frenzy, and local authorities made the most of it, emphasizing the drug’s connection to certain genres of music.
Enter the festival
The weather forecast was decent (15°C, with an occasional drizzle). The organisers were expecting around 10,000 guests. Circumstances were promising for Iceland’s first international music festival to rival Europe’s Readings and Roskildes.
However, in the end only 4,000–5,000 showed up for UXI ’95. The festival’s disappointing attendance numbers might perhaps be blamed on the immensely negative coverage it received from the Icelandic media—which latched on to the idea of “a drug-crazed festival”—and parents’ subsequently understandable concerns.
Whatever the reason, and despite disappointing ticket sales, the line-up was a real treat for fans of electronic music. The Prodigy, Aphex Twin and Atari Teenage Riot—some of the biggest electro acts of the time—all performed in a tiny, picturesque town with a population of 100. Rumours were even circulating that KLF would stage a major comeback at the festival—however the promoters eventually stated that the legendary band’s demands had just been too much (among them, that the festival import a thirteen-tonne Saracen tank, a six-wheeled armoured personnel carrier normally used by the British army).
Despite some formidable obstacles, the festival went ahead as planned, and the guests enjoyed themselves immensely. Traditional Icelandic binge drinking of course marked the atmosphere, but at UXI ’95 it was elevated by a much higher quality of music for the crowd to enjoy. The morning sun greeted tired 24-hour party people with a beautiful ground mist each morning, and an overall appreciation and excitement for the occasion lifted the crowd’s spirits. We finally had an actual international electronic music festival; remember, this was a first, way before Airwaves and Sónar and all the rest.
Imagine: UXI ’95 is in full swing, and Björk arrives a few hours before her set, having performed in Detroit the night before. She had been transported from the US, along with her opening act, Aphex Twin, to Kirkjubæjarklaustur, on a chartered private jet. Her performance commences right before midnight on the Saturday, the crowd pumping with excitement. And everything that could possibly go wrong, did go wrong. Her evident touring fatigue played a large role, but the main culprit was the computers she relied on in her set. Still, Björk was the only artist who managed to fill the entire venue at UXI, the only other ones coming close being Atari Teenage Riot and The Prodigy.
Before Björk performed, electronic music legend Aphex Twin gave a weird DJ set, with most of those awaiting the queen of Icelandic pop puzzled at how they should react to his distorted polka music (complete with signature screeches). After Björk, a minimal, relatively unknown dub-techno band called Bandulu took the stage. The story was that their agent somehow managed to nag the promoters into giving them the slot after Björk. The venue emptied quite fast when they began playing, although their music and performance was generally well received by the few who stayed.
The Prodigy was popular among Icelandic guests, who were still reeling from the release of their now-legendary sophomore LP, ‘Music For the Jilted Generation,’ the year prior. Upon arrival to Iceland, the band was greeted by Icelandic customs and kept at bay for a few hours, causing a delay in UXI’s schedule. Rumour has it that the band members were initially furious about this interference, refusing to take the stage, and that the organisers had to carefully negotiate them back on the bill. This apparently worked; they did their thing and the crowd loved it.
The festival received mostly positive media coverage. But not entirely. Stöð 2 News notoriously aired a clip of a male festivalgoer receiving, erm, “oral pleasures,” which caused quite the uproar. Public drunkenness was prominent, the drink of choice being homebrewed vodka. Despite the drug scare, only around 30 drug-related cases came up during the festival (one of them involving a very prominent British musician). Most of them involved narcotics intended for private consumption, with one local placed under arrest for dealing packets of Pillsbury flour, which he claimed contained extremely pure cocaine.
Despite all this, local police later remarked that they were quite satisfied with the organisation of the festival and its guests’ behaviour. Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Vímulaus æska (“Drug-free Youth,” a volunteer group campaigning against teen alcohol and drug abuse) expressed deep concerns about the event, as according to him, one of the nights had been given the moniker “Samfaranóttin mikla” (“The Great Night Of Sexual Encounters”). And that troubled him deeply for some reason. The phrase, it was later revealed, had been casually coined by a reporter for a British newspaper, The Evening Standard, who was in attendance, after he witnessed more than he had anticipated.
In the aftermath, rumours about the festival’s purportedly extravagant budget circulated, fuelling talks about unnecessary expenditures. For example, 1.7 million ISK were reportedly spent on the jet that brought Björk and Aphex Twin over from the US.
Whether those rumours are true or not is hard to say, but simple math still reveals that UXI ’95 was run at a huge financial loss—indeed, in the end of 1996, Uxi Ehf, the LLC behind the endeavour, declared bankruptcy. Whether it was due to the setbacks experienced or simple planning and budgeting follies by entry-level festival promoters remains a mystery, but one can’t help wondering what would have been for UXI and the Icelandic electro scene had the festival found its legs and kept going…
UXI ’95 was Icelanders’ first attempt to stage an international music festival, and it was very much of its time. The festival’s stated goal was to promote Iceland—and it worked. An envoy of over 50 international press representatives attetnded, and UXI (and subsequently Iceland) received widespread attention in the international media; for instance, MTV’s Party Zone dedicated an entire episode to it.
Soon after, international popstars started frequenting Iceland, stopping by for a drink on their way across the Atlantic. Though it was an anomaly for 1990s Iceland, still steeped in centuries of isolation, some directly credit UXI for opening up the island and exposing it to global music talent, the results of which still linger.
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Posted November 6, 2014