Grapevine: (To Egill, whose band Vinyl will perform at Airwaves) Is Destiny destroying your band? When do you have time to play, if you’re doing this full time and you have to look for local bands?
Egill: At night. I rehearse every night from 8 to 9. Usually concerts in Iceland start from 10 to 10:30, so it doesn’t interfere. And usually we only play half hour sets, so it doesn’t interfere.
Grapevine: You were out doing some last minute investigating at Menningarnótt, which may have been a sample of what a local music festival would be if no foreigners were invited.
Egill: Yeah, we did some scoping, but just a little, because it got so crazy and overcrowded. But I saw Dr. Spock and Rass.
Arni: And Lights on the Highway, they were good.
Egill: It was weird, though. Booze and kids. It doesn’t go.
Grapevine: How do you keep Airwaves from having a mood like this, an all family event that crowds the streets?
Steini: The venues. We only sell 3500 tickets, altogether.
Grapevine: That’s a good crowd, and visitors may think Reykjavík is swarming. Compare it to Menningarnót.
Egill: Menningarnót is a family day and that whole concept.
Arni: The first thing I saw on Menningarnót when I went downtown were Santa Clauses.
Egill: Drunk Santa Clauses. I would actually like that at Airwaves. Drunk Santa Clauses.
Steinn: But it’s a totally different concept. There’s no intention for Airwaves to grow to that size. This is the size of the crowd that is interested in what we put on.Egill: Airwaves is just for people who really really enjoy music.
Grapevine: The first year you put this festival on was 1999. How many people attended?
Steini: We ended up with about 1000 people in the hangar, but we only sold about 400 tickets. But it was a good party.
Grapevine: And were all four of you involved from the beginning?
Steini: No. Only me, but Arni was running around. And Egill was working for Sigur Rós.
Eldar: And I organized the drum and bass after party.
Arni: I was involved with the Hljómalind record label, for the Gus Gus This is Normal LP release party, with Sigur Rós supporting.
Steini: Airwaves kind of happened twice the first year. The beginning of Airwaves was that show that we did with Gus Gus and the Fat Cat DJs. Because that was the first time that we had a lot of industry people coming over. From there, Icelandair figured it actually can be done.
Arni: That was with a precursor to Ghostigital, Einar Örn’s band.
Steini: And that was a wicked concert because Sigtryggur was playing online, from London. He was transmitting sounds over the phone. A really weird Einar Örn style show.
Grapevine: And that was at the now infamous hangar.
Steini: Hangar number 4 at the Reykjavík airport. It’s not even that far from downtown Reykjavík. Actually about a kilometre.
Grapevine: Why have you stopped playing at the hangar? It had a lot of character.
Steini: No, we won’t do it again. We did our Airwaves gig in October, and a couple of weeks later, an Icelandic “Sveitaballa” band had a big concert, and somebody got really drunk and ran around on the runway. And after that there was no way another concert could be held there.
Grapevine: That’s absolutely unacceptable. That’s very different from the journalist who got drunk and passed out on the running path only to be identified by police at 6 am last year.
Your first show was in February 1999. Then you did the first official Airwaves in October 1999. You seem to always pick the best months for driving around Iceland, for really seeing the country.
Steini: Not really. Oh, ha ha. But the February gig was planned because of the release. We were lucky because there was a thunderous snow storm. You couldn’t see ten feet in front of you. Anyway, we needed the airline behind it. And Icelandair is just so busy in the summer. And the weather is so windy in September, so October works out.
Arni: October is also a really good time for Icelandic music. It’s the time most local bands put out their big albums for the Christmas season.
Grapevine: It seems that you’ve had an enormous and disturbing effect on the releases. There were no new albums for months, and suddenly I have 25 CDs on my desk that I’ve never heard of.
Steini: October has turned out to be a really good month for this.
Egill: Also, the tourists who travel to these kind of festivals, for us it fits between CMJ and South by Southwest. It’s pure coincidence, but it works out well.
Grapevine: How much of this is luck? Are you saying Airwaves just came up because Gus Gus had a good release gig and you wanted to repeat it?
Steini: No, it was an independent idea. We wanted to do a proper music festival for a while. It was really important that there were young people working at Icelandair, and they really helped push it to where it is today. We could never have succeeded without their support.
Grapevine: In 2000, you had good coverage in America, including a feature on Frontline which discussed how even the local grocery store Bónus was involved.
Steini: Yes, that was Jói from Apparat Organ Quartet. He was involved in the Kitchen Motors art group, and they did an installation at the downtown Bónus.
Grapevine: So the project had caught on away from the airport by then. In fact, in 2000, let’s see, you had the Flaming Lips out at Laugardalshöll, which is pretty spread out. How did things change?
Steini: We also had Suede and a few other big bands. The year 2000, we had 1200 foreigners coming in for the show.
Arni: That was the only Suede show of the year.
Steini: Yes, the Suede show was a large draw, performing all their new material for the first time. The Flaming Lips were nowhere, nobody really knew them at the time. But they put on an amazing show—one of the best shows we’ve ever had at Airwaves.
Arni: We were going to do a big finale like this again in 2001.
Steini: In 2001, we went on sale on the 8th of September. We were supposed to have Gorillaz, doing a one-time show. But everybody cancelled. Nobody bought tickets, nobody knew what was going on in the world. On the 15th of September, we had no artists on the bill.
Arni: We were thinking of cancelling. Then we got Chicks on Speed and your boys from Baltimore, Lake Trout. But in 2001, the vibe of the festival formed. It was such a fun festival, and all the media were saying how great it was with small, local bands.
Steini: But let’s not forget one thing: it was free
Grapevine: So you’re reminding me that Airwaves took off when it was free. And that probably won’t happen again. It won’t be free again.
Steini: Making it free showed people we weren’t going to give up.
Arni: And the format of having the festival downtown was brought up then. Before that, there was no focus on the small venues, they were just support for the big night. Then we realized that the atmosphere was in the clubs.
Grapevine: I still like the small clubs. Last year, there were foreign bands at the bigger venues, but I preferred the smaller places.
Egill: You were hanging out and Grand Rokk and Þjóðleikhúskjallarinn? Grand Rokk this year is also going to be a great venue. Metal night is going to be great, and Deep Jimi, Númer Núll and Black Valentine. It will be a local club that visitors will like.
Grapevine: You’re pushing metal, and I agree with you. Iceland has great metal, but festivals appeal to more indie music crowds. It’s hard for me to convince people with iPods to go down and check out Mínus or Reykjavík! Or at least people seem shocked when they do see them.
Steini: The music scene isn’t as segmented as it is in other places. Maybe it has to do with the fact that there’s not that many good bands and good shows. You have to have a taste for variety.
Grapevine: Maybe. I’ve found that in England or places like France and Germany, if something works well, people say “Ah, that’s something I need to do.” Here, if something works, the other Icelandic bands don’t want anything to do with it.
Eldar: (Laughing) That’s true.
Grapevine: So you’ve taken us through 1999, to 2001. 2003 felt like a complete, well-organized downtown festival. Then you have 2004 and Keane. Why Keane?
Steini: Why not?
Grapevine: They’re the ultimate kicking post.
Steini: We signed them in January 2004, when nobody knew who they were and they just had a small release on Fierce Panda. We thought it was really good pop.
Grapevine: So you want one pop band every festival?
Steini: No, we don’t want one, but we’re not going to avoid pop either.
Arni: I had those first two Keane tracks, and I was listening to them for months. Then when the ball started rolling, and then I was embarrassed. But now, thanks to Coldplay, I really like Keane. Because in that kind of music, Keane kicks ass.
Steini: The festival has always been about different music styles. And you can’t blame Keane for being played on commercial radio.
Egill: And they’re not so different from (local band) Maus.
Steini: And it wasn’t like Keane was taking attention away from anyone else. There were more people waiting to see The Shins and The Stills than were waiting to see Keane.
Egill: That’s a good thing about this festival. It’s going to be just as crowded to see Zoot Woman as it will be to see Babyshambles. People are just into the full range of what’s going on.
Steini: Also, the foreign people that come to the festival are looking for something different. Last year, I noticed a lot of people from the UK and the industry were hanging out at Grand Rokk, because they already know Trabant, but they never heard of Skátar or Reykjavík!
Eldar: In the media center, they came and asked for Icelandic music, and we’d say Mugison, and they’d say “No, no. We want something we haven’t heard.” But of course a lot of people saw Mugison.
Steini: The British media are funny. They were like “No I saw Mugison last year.” The Brits, if they’re not the first to buy a record, they’ll never buy it, because they feel intimidated. (Laughing.)
Egill: The thing is, every venue has a selected line-up. If you go on Wednesday, you’ll get an experimental new style. It’s no coincidence that some clubs get more write ups.
Eldar: Also bands play one venue their first time, and they move up to larger venues with each festival.
Grapevine: This year, two-thirds of the local bands that applied weren’t accepted. Are you comfortable with that?
Egill: We have bigger venues, but we can only take about 100 bands, and this year we got 250 applicants.
Steini: There’s just not an infrastructure for the festival to grow to that kind of size. There aren’t enough venues, there aren’t enough sound engineers, there’s not staff at this office to manage a bigger festival at the moment. But we are growing every year. It’s important to grow in small steps, because if you go too quickly, you can lose focus.
Egill: It really surprised me that 250 bands filled out the complete application. It tells you that there are many, many bands that didn’t apply.
Arni: I would say at least 50 didn’t apply, with another 100 who knew they weren’t right for it.
Grapevine: We know of a lot of local bands who perform well, who draw big crowds, who didn’t get in.
Steini: Draw big crowds? Like who?
Grapevine: I’m trying to be generous here. Ahem. Well, like poor Trabant and Mugison, they must have applied. Why did you turn them down?
Steini: They were approached, of course, but they didn’t want to play.
Eldar: This festival, I should point out, we put a lot of effort into getting applications from people who maybe aren’t from Reykjavík and don’t know that much about the festival. We got the message out through the media that we were looking for bands from all over, and all forms of music.
Steini: I think we may be flattering ourselves if we say we were listening to all forms.
Grapevine: What are the limitations?
Egill: The most focus is on the scene that is going on in the city. What’s going on at Gaukurinn, at Grand Rokk and NASA.
Steini: It sounds nasty, but if it goes down well at the office, it’s on the bill.
Egill: Also, if we know the festival isn’t going to do any good for a specific artist because the crowd isn’t into that kind of music, then we don’t take them.
Grapevine: How do you do the festival wrong? If you attend, how do you screw up?
Egill: Just don’t get too drunk too early.
Eldar: And go to the website and download MP3s. Just research. And if you’re a journalist, don’t get too drunk too early.
Arni: But they all get very drunk very early and they all seem to enjoy it. What do you have to say about that?
Grapevine: I only get drunk if I’m trying to convince people to say something stupid. Tell me, you’ve been in the “industry” five years. You don’t seem very jaded.
Steini: We’re not in the industry, we’re concert promoters. The people who get their heads twisted are the people in the record business. We just put on shows.
Grapevine: Why haven’t you gotten involved in the industry? You’ve demonstrated that you understand what draws an audience, what makes a complete bill. Don’t you have an obligation, especially if you understand the international audience?
Steini: We’re not interested in that end of it. There are good record labels in Iceland. The only thing that needs to be added to the Icelandic music scene is the management level, people that can manage bands. This is what is missing in the Icelandic scene. If we were to get involved, that is what we’d do.
Grapevine: Why Mr. Destiny? Do you enjoy answering that question?
Steini: The name is Herra Örlygur, actually. There was a guy Snorri Sturluson, like the original guy, who lives in New York. He formed the company in the beginning; and the name was used to promote a night called Heartbeat with Björk and Gus Gus. A series of Sunday night club nights, and it would say Herra Örlygur presents Heartbeat.
Arni: Then the name became Mr. Destiny because nobody could spell Örlygur.
Grapevine: Björk. She’s involved with the origin of your name, right?
Steini: We promoted her show in 2001, and anytime she wants to be involved, she has an open door, but she’s a very busy person.
Steini: Múm have been approached every year. They DJ’d 2001.
Arni: They performed last year with Slowblow, and most of them will be there this year with Nix Noltes.
Steini: We try to keep in contact every year, if they want to play, we can find a venue. But these are international artists. It’s just as hard to get Sigur Rós to play as it is to get Coldplay to play. They’re busy people.
Grapevine: There’s no hard feelings.
Steini: Not on our end. Though we would have liked to have Sigur Rós this year, with their new album.
Grapevine: But then, of course, it would be the Sigur Rós festival.
Steini: That’s correct. Actually, Björk and Sigur Rós have become too big for the festival. That doesn’t mean they couldn’t play NASA if they wanted.
Arni: The point is, if we got them, we would restructure the festival a little. Maybe close down during that show.
Steini: But we are one kind of festival. We won’t do the big sports hall again. We were contacted by Green Day and System of a Down, because they want to play the festival, but it’s just not doable. It’s just not that kind of festival. We have a clear concept. In the first few years, we were confused, but since 2003, we have a good format. We’ll build in quality every year, but there’s not going to be a u-turn.
Egill: Just at the moment, right now, the format and the capacity and the ticket prices, everything is exactly at the frame it should be in.
Grapevine: So now you have the stereotype that I blame Mr Destiny for almost exclusively. Since so many journalists come here only for the festival, everybody believes that everyone in Reykjavík is in a band.
Egill: Well, that’s true, actually.
Arni: I don’t know anybody who is not a DJ or in a band.
Grapevine: What about you four? Egill is in two bands; Arni is a DJ. Steini, were you in a band?
Grapevine: Ah ha, busted. You have lied to me.
Egill: But Eldar is into the whole drum and bass scene.
Eldar: I was a DJ, yes.
Steini: If you are a DJ, then I too have been a DJ.
The seventh Iceland Airwaves Music Festival will take place in downtown Reykjavík from October 19th-October 23rd. For more information, log on to www.icelandairwaves.com.