Former editors look back on their time at
The Reykjavík Grapevine
From A Pagan Chief To Bobby Fischer
It seems like a long time ago that a picture of a black woman in the Icelandic national costume would cause a furore. A long time ago it truly was and furore was duly caused. When it became clear who the intended wearer was – Sheba Ojienda, a woman originally from Kenya – prospective lenders of said costume declined to lend. A costume was nevertheless procured and a cover photo was taken. And when the difficulties around procuring the costume became known, it turned out to be a sensation. TV news. Bishop’s speech to parliament. Even threats to both the model and myself – probably sent by those Nazi twins from a small fishing village. Everyone was talking. It was the summer of 2004 and The Grapevine had arrived.
The summer prior we had managed six issues. The second, with a cover interview with the head of the pagan association, felt like the first proper paper. The fourth one, with songwriting legend Megas on the cover, was a personal favourite. We did 48-hour straight shifts but alas for no pay. Poor Jóndi, present publisher but then in charge of selling ads, lost 10 kilos. I would later reclaim them for him.
During that first winter we turned to various pursuits in study and work (this time for pay). It was not at all clear that we would return for another summer. But return we did – and to such stunning success that we nearly approached minimum wage this time.
We did 48-hour straight shifts but alas for no pay. Poor Jóndi, present publisher but then in charge of selling ads, lost 10 kilos. I would later reclaim them for him.
The Reykjavík Grapevine has been coming out non-stop ever since. Considering that every other paper existing in Iceland in 2003 has either gone bankrupt or been refinanced at great cost, this is no small feat. It turns out not paying ourselves paid off.
The issue with Sheba wearing the national costume was certainly the most memorable cover. The article less so, but we were now in a position to make real news. Perhaps the best issue was the last one of that second summer. Kristinn Hrafnsson, now head of WikiLeaks, wrote a report straight from a military base in Afghanistan where he was visiting Icelandic troops. Yes, we are a country without an army. Nevertheless, there were firemen and policemen in combat fatigues, carrying assault rifles and sporting the Icelandic flag on their uniforms. This had never been seen before.
During that second winter we kept on going, dropping down to once a month rather than biweekly. Aðalsteinn Jörundsson had joined on the ad front, whose skills in that department would be key to continuing the whole operation. But the entire thing had been very exhausting and by now I had matched Jóndi’s missing kilos and then some. It was time for me to leave and pursue my writing career, which had been the point all along.
My final cover story, if I recall correctly, was in the spring of 2005 and about the return of Bobby Fischer, the chess-genius and all-round madman fresh out of jail in Japan. He held a memorable press conference, but Fischer would soon become just another strange old man frequently spotted with a plastic bag at the bus stop. He never liked Iceland and died two years after arriving. The paper soldiered on. And still does. My first novel came out in 2007 and my 6th book – my first in English – is out this summer. I will soon be heading to Ukraine to write my 7th.
See you again in the fall. I hope.
Co-founder and editor in chief, 2003-2005
Have you ever ridden in a pink Twingo?
The bulk of my experiences at The Reykjavík Grapevine, of course, didn’t make it to print. I write this well past deadline, as is tradition, and my mind is filled with the stories that didn’t make it in. Or stories that would be cut if they did start to get into layout. I think frequently about a bizarre “pink Twingo.”
I joined the Grapevine staff very early on, 19 years ago, I think. I remember walking down along Sæbraut, on my way home from work at Iceland Review, and the staff collectively calling to me. “Have you ever ridden in a pink Twingo?” was shouted, and shortly later, a Toyota Twingo, light pink in colour, pulled up next to me. It was full with four owners of the magazine, who somehow then squeezed me in to rush me back to the Grapevine office to assist with copy editing. I believe, again, we were behind deadline.
A year later, I left Iceland Review to become the editor of the Grapevine. The vibe of my workplace was always, essentially, a bunch of eager people, lost and late, in a small Renault hoping to get to our destination in time, but always behind deadline and uncomfortable and somewhat unsafe.
I believe the readers understood what we were reaching for – we wanted to build community, we wanted to undercut authority, we wanted people to see and hear things they would usually avoid. I also believe our reach, pretty intentionally, exceeded our grasp.
I believe the readers understood what we were reaching for – we wanted to build community, we wanted to undercut authority, we wanted people to see and hear things they would usually avoid.
There are moments that we connected, when we succeeded. For our small paper, the way the band Sigur Ros welcomed me, first as a journalist and then as an editor, just as they were becoming an international sensation, felt phenomenal. The support of Iceland Airwaves, again as they were finding their footing, allowing us to create daily newspapers and capture a living music festival in print. That was a moment where we struck a vein.
In general, though, my experience was tense, exhilarating, bewildering. Truly, again, imagine walking along a busy urban roadway, tired from a long day of work, and being told you will be placed in a pink Twingo, and then hopping into this tiny car packed with equally tired, ambitious locals, and reeling toward side streets to bypass traffic in the hope that somehow this car, that may have some check engine lights running, can go back in time so you can get a paper to the printer. The moments like that lock in my head.
I hope visitors or longtime readers can experience some of the exhilaration we felt, though I know you also will likely experience the discomfort.
Editor in Chief, 2005-2006
You Have Been Served
I served as editor of the Reykjavík Grapevine for three years. I use the word “serve” here, as editing an underfunded alternative street magazine with a cultural slant is more of a public service than a job. Or a sentence, perhaps. In any case, I am pretty sure none of us did it solely for the paycheque.
A lot has changed since I penned my last editorial. All over the world, print publications are dying and the information that alt-weeklies like The Grapevine provide is often readily available in an app. That’s why I am a little amazed to have this opportunity to submit something for the 20th-anniversary edition of The Reykjavík Grapevine. I remember residing over the publication of the 5th-anniversary issue and feeling things were looking bleak.
More than anything, I think this is a testament to The Reykjavíkians fondness for Their Grapevine. Since its inception, The Reykjavík Grapevine has been an influential presence in both culture and politics in Iceland and a powerful voice for the immigrant community. The magazine has always strived for an ambitious and wide-ranging coverage of topics to demystify the somewhat rosy perception of Iceland and offer alternative viewpoints to current issues. And while the writers are different and the opinions vary, the Grapevine has always held a steady local readership. It has always been there (well, for the last 20 years, at least) to tell us what’s new, what’s coming up, what bands to see and which restaurants to try.
A tastemaker. A kingmaker.
Future music historians will greatly appreciate the consistency with which The Grapevine has documented the Icelandic music scene. No publication in Iceland has dedicated as much energy or space to reviewing albums, dissecting live performances, and interviewing musicians in the last 20 years. The Grapevine makes it possible to recount the story of Icelandic music in the 21st century, a story that might otherwise be almost entirely lost to vanished MySpace pages and forgotten WordPress renewals.
No publication in Iceland has dedicated as much energy or space to reviewing albums, dissecting live performances, and interviewing musicians in the last 20 years.
In the last few years, the magazine has attained an even stronger grip on its expertise on what’s good and worthy in this town, with the Best of Reykjavík edition. You’ll see The Grapevine insignia plastered on the doors and display windows of stores and restaurants deemed worthy all over town. For the uninitiated, this is usually a good indicator –The Grapevine’s approval has always been earned.
But this is not adulation for adulation’s sake. The bigger point here is that The Grapevine is an institution that has served Reykjavík for 20 years. We should be grateful for that service. Just as I am grateful for the opportunity I had to serve The Grapevine for three years.
Here’s to another 20 years of The Reykjavík Grapevine.
Sveinn Birkir Björnsson
Editor in Chief, 2006-2008
It’s wonderful to be here
The Reykjavík Grapevine will always have a special place in my heart.
I moved to Reykjavík with plans to stay for six months, but I wound up staying for nearly six years thanks to this magazine, which gave me the dream job of being its editor.
I found my way to the old office at Hafnarstræti 15 in my early twenties, when I was looking for an internship to meet a requirement for a class I was taking. The magazine took me on as an intern and then hired me as their journalist. It was an exciting time to be in journalism, especially in Iceland at a magazine that didn’t pull any punches. We were about a year into the Great Recession, and people were still banging on pots and pans in front of the parliament building. We printed a lot of stories back then about what happened and why, and whether anybody had learned anything after we voted back into office the very same political parties that presided over the big banking boom and bust.
Despite the influx of tourists who picked up the magazine, I continued to try to print articles that appealed to the people who lived here, the Icelanders and expats who appreciated our unique window into Icelandic politics and society and our heavy coverage of music and the arts.
About a year after I arrived, I experienced the first of four eruptions. Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that nobody could pronounce, stranded people all over the world and changed Iceland forever. Fearing that the eruption would have a devastating effect on the economy, the government launched a highly successful PR campaign luring people to the country, where you could dance in our pristine nature to the beat of Emilíana Torrini’s “Jungle Drum.” The budget airline WOW began transporting planeloads of people to the island every day and tourism surpassed fishing as the country’s largest industry. In downtown Reykjavík, we watched as hotels sprouted everywhere and puffin stores, as we called them, took over our main drag.
As editor during the cusp of the tourism boom, I struggled to accept the changing landscape of a country that I had grown up visiting and loved for its raw, untouched qualities. Despite the influx of tourists who picked up the magazine, I continued to try to print articles that appealed to the people who lived here, the Icelanders and expats who appreciated our unique window into Icelandic politics and society and our heavy coverage of music and the arts. It was my belief that tourists and Icelandophiles around the world would enjoy reading us as a result. While this magazine has never taken itself too seriously, it has always had its finger on the pulse, and it’s published some serious journalism through the years. We were loved and sometimes hated, but it always felt like what we were doing mattered.
No day on the job was ever quite the same. The magazine took me to the president’s residence to chat with the incumbent and to the maximum security prison to watch standup comedy with the inmates. I went up into the mountains on horseback to round up sheep and deep down into the chamber of a dormant volcano via one of those lifts that window washers use on skyscrapers. I went rafting down a glacial river, snorkelling between tectonic plates, and surfing in the North Atlantic. I drove all over the country and flew to remote towns in Greenland to take in the breathtaking nature and glimpse another way of life. With each story I worked on, I learned something new and gained experience.
It was tough work, though, to create this magazine. On print day, after several sleepless nights, I would walk up the steps to our office to find our large proofs scattered around the room as writers and interns with fresher eyes than mine looked for typos and layout mistakes. I would sit down and try to write a coherent editor’s letter while our equally sleepless designer worked opposite me on articles that inevitably came in late. Sometimes it couldn’t be helped, such as when a big political or geological event derailed our best laid plans. It was chaos, but we somehow always made it to the printer.
At some point I realised I was measuring the passage of time in the increment of issues, and the issues grew larger in size every year. My life was attuned to our print schedule. With each issue, the pressure mounted until we went to press, and then it would subside for a few days before it would mount again, in a cycle that repeated itself like this for years. As I reflect on the nearly 60 issues I sent to the printer, I know it was only possible because this magazine was surrounded by a large community of smart, creative contributors. I worked with so many amazing writers, designers, photographers and illustrators, and it’s thanks to them that this magazine endured.
It’s hard to fathom that it’s been a decade since we were working on our 10-year anniversary issue, busy tracking down a cover star from each year of the magazine’s existence for a cover shoot together. I’m not sure where the time went, but I’m thrilled to see that The Reykjavík Grapevine is thriving at this milestone and that so many of my old colleagues are still involved or have returned to it after a hiatus. This is a special place where you make lifelong friendships with the most incredible people, and where the work feels meaningful. To the team now putting their hearts into this magazine, thank you for keeping it going.
Although it’s a lot of fun, I’m sure it’s still also largely a labour of love.
Editor in Chief, 2012-2015
The King Of Niche
I was in my early 20s when The Reykjavík Grapevine first caught my attention. It felt like that nerdy friend of yours that has an unhealthy interest in Mogwai and Trabant. But it turns out that this nerdy friend wasn’t as lonely and misunderstood as you thought. The paper hit a nerve and quickly became a home for Icelandic music. Perhaps what’s more important, it became a window into Icelandic culture, which had been locked away from the rest of the world. It also turned out that we had a lot to offer.
When I was hired as an editor in chief in 2017 I was thrilled. I used to work as a journalist and was more than ready to dive into the most dangerous field of journalism: culture.
The magazine was, at that time, in its teens, and like a proper 90s Icelandic teenager, it was out partying all the time, dead-drunk, flipping the finger at random passersby, but lacked some direction. The first feeling as I started my work was how capable the journalists at the magazine were. And how hilarious – something that always spread to the sheets of the magazine in the form of a cheeky joke.
The staff was incredibly talented, which made my job a bit too easy. We opened the paper up and offered more variety in culture. Tried to get around the visual arts as well as literature. I hope we did a good job. Iceland has such a vast variety of cultures to offer. At times, we felt like that frantic Mogwai fan; we wanted to convince the whole world that Icelandic culture was incredible.
But then came the goddamn pandemic.
We started experimenting with videos and YouTube, telling the news or just sharing the quirks of Icelanders. Again, what a weird niche. We understand the interest in the culture – but you’d have to be downright weird to be into random news and odd behaviour from a cold island in the middle of nowhere.
But, it turns out that The Reykjavík Grapevine is the king of niche. Of course, the volcano in Fagradalsfjall helped a little bit. But we all know that the true star of the show was an odd little border-collie/dachshund mix. Making this enterprise the ultimate hat trick of niche. Icelandic news, volcanoes with names that are impossible to pronounce, and an enthusiastic dog.
Still, at our best, we had 3 million watching in a month, making our YouTube station by far the most popular show in Iceland at that time.
We understand the interest in the culture – but you’d have to be downright weird to be into random news from a cold island in the middle of nowhere.
Pollý and I became the superstars that nobody in Iceland knew existed, and we became an important part of people’s lives all around the world. Something that the whole magazine benefited from heavily during the pandemic, at a time when it was impossible to rely on the good business model of ads.
I’ll be honest though, I’m a bit glad it’s over. I learned a lot from this. Mostly that with hard work, a bit of luck, a charming sidekick, an incredible photographer, insanely smart and fun staff, and a supportive manager you can make everything work. On top of that, the interns at The Reykjavík Grapevine always exceeded all of our expectations – a wonderful addition to everything we did.
The Reykjavík Grapevine is the most important (and possibly the last) cultural magazine in Iceland. Not only for the obvious reason of being a window for the world to see what’s happening in Iceland, but because it has heart. And that’s something you don’t see often in the media landscape.
Editor in Chief, 2017-2022
It Was 20 Years Ago Today
… well, not today. The Grapevine’s birthday issue hit the streets of Reykjavík on June 16, 2023, but it was actually June 13, 2003, that The Reykjavík Grapevine was first unleashed on an unsuspecting nation.
Iceland was a remarkably different place in 2003. Just 3.5% of Iceland’s 288.471 residents were of foreign origin, while today we make up 16.3% of the 387.758 strong population. A meagre 320.000 visitors crossed the border by air or by sea to vacation in the North Atlantic that year – 166.308 fewer than those who masked up to visit during the pandemic-induced tourism crash of 2020 when Reykjavík felt downright deserted.
What could have compelled a bunch of twenty-somethings to start an English-language alt magazine at that time? You’d have to ask them. But having been working at the Grapevine or trapped within its orbit for 14 of its 20 years, I can venture a guess at what kept it going.
It is intoxicating, inspiring and infuriating to follow the twists and turns of government, the newest creations emerging from Reykjavík’s cultural spheres and the constant changes to society. It’s exhausting, but it’s addictive, scrambling and pushing and chasing and sprinting toward deadlines over and over again.
The Grapevine was here for the before and it’s been here to bear witness to every iteration of the “now.”
I moved to Iceland in April 2009 when everything was in absolute shambles. While I was a couple months late to see besuited bankers walking down the streets in tears as the floor fell out from under them, I was just on time to witness a country asking itself “what now?” The Grapevine was here for the before and it’s been here to bear witness to every iteration of the “now,” platforming what deserves celebration, critiquing when necessary and hanging out the dirty laundry that some Icelanders in more privileged positions would prefer to keep hidden from the world within the confines of the Icelandic language.
Helming the Grapevine in its 20th year is an honour, though a daunting one, and I often find myself asking “what now?” I’ve participated in so many iterations of the magazine that it can be difficult to pin down what, exactly, the Grapevine needs to be in this day and age.
My favourite Grapevine is one that is taking part in ongoing (and sometimes difficult) conversations, asking questions, celebrating, explaining, critiquing and occasionally asking “what the fuck!?” So we’ll keep scrambling and pushing and chasing and sprinting toward deadline again and again to do just that.
Editor in Chief, 2023-
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