From Iceland — The Heart of Rock in Reykjavík Waves Goodbye

The Heart of Rock in Reykjavík Waves Goodbye

Published August 26, 2006

The Heart of Rock in Reykjavík Waves Goodbye

This spring, about 60 middle-aged Nordic phenomenologists convened in Reykjavík to discuss their (very) particular branch of philosophy and its various conundrums. One of the fun-filled events sandwiched between the featured lectures and seminars was a reception at the city’s town hall, where Councilman Stefán Jón Hafstein gave a short speech welcoming them to “[…] enjoy Reykjavík’s lively atmosphere, excellent nightlife and vibrant music scene!”

Yeah, nerdy phenomenologists, go see a smelly bar gig in downtown Reykjavík. A drunken Singapore Sling performance will surely enhance your visit.

Funny thing is, they did. And it did.

In promoting Reykjavík as the metropolitan cultural melting pot we like to brag about it being, music is a commodity. There isn’t a question in anyone’s mind that Björk’s career has brought more tourists to the city than the Icelandic pony ever did. Or the state symphony orchestra, for that matter. Hafstein certainly didn’t lie; Reykjavík does have a vibrant music scene, one that is at its best extremely exciting to witness and participate in.

Many bands now popular in Iceland took their first steps on the tiny stage of the aforementioned bar Grand Rokk. Hjálmar played their first show there. Singapore Sling, Mínus and Brain Police all expanded their following by playing it regularly. In fact, it’s safe to say that for the past five years Grand Rokk has been a resource for bands looking to hone their craft in a semi-professional environment free of downtown’s now happily forgotten ‘pay-to-play’ atmosphere (in the past, musicians would have to pay bars a small sum for hosting a concert. The practise has now been mostly abandoned).

Grand Rokk is, then, the heart of Reykjavík’s music scene. Imagine how it felt, then, to talk to the manager of Grand Rokk this week and hear the following: “We are through with hosting concerts, at least in the form we’ve been doing up until now. The reason is that it simply doesn’t pay well enough – doesn’t pay shit, in fact. Thus, we decided to embark upon several policy changes, one of them being to focus on music favoured by our older patrons.”

This was Grand Rokk’s manager since February, Þorsteinn Þórsteinsson, adding that “an older clientele was more likely to have some money to its name and hence, to spend some.”

I ask him if he is turning Grand Rokk into a sports bar.

“Yes, and no. We are currently installing several flat-screen televisions upstairs for that very purpose. We see an opportunity here, as there aren’t a lot of sports bars in downtown Reykjavík. That will only be for the second floor, however, Grand Rokk is primarily the bar of our steady customers and we will continue to accommodate them to their liking in our downstairs drinking area. The sound system and stage will still remain on the second floor, so there’s always the possibility of hosting concerts. If we indeed decide to do that, they will be few and far between, at most every two weeks and then only by established bands.”

Grand Rokk does not have a particularly long history as the city’s primary music venue. At its old location (in the building that now houses the famous Sirkus), it was mostly known as being easy for underage drinkers to get into, occasionally playing host to rowdy shows by cover bands. It wasn’t until the bar moved to its current Smiðjustígur location that it started making a name for itself as a viable alternative to older venues.

Explains promoter, musician and national state radio personality Freyr Eyjólfsson: “Sometime in 2002 I had grown extremely weary of the whole downtown live music scene and its available venues. Back then, most concerts took place on Wednesday nights and were rather tame affairs – there weren’t even that many, to tell the truth. So I presented some ideas to [Grand Rokk’s former owner] Kalli and he in turn gave me freedom and support to try and realise them.

“We started off by fixing up the stage, buying a decent sound system and booking a couple of weekends. The ball started rolling almost immediately after that. People really caught on to the idea of catching a concert at midnight and pretty soon, we were hosting three concerts per week at the very least, a tradition we kept right until the bar was sold. No matter what week of what month, you could always count on seeing something interesting at Grand Rokk. It was one of the few rules we set ourselves. Another one was to always treat the artists with a minimum of respect; no matter who they were or how big they never had to pay to play and always got access to our sound-guy, drink vouchers and the opportunity to charge admittance.”

I ask if he tried to develop the metal scene, as with Mínus, or if his focus was more pop, like Mugison.

“Diversity was a point of pride in our booking policy; we tried not to limit ourselves to the standard indie-rock fare and thus had experimental electronic musicians, country balladeers and metalheads playing consecutively. And we went against common conceptions as to what you could and couldn’t do as a club – some of our most successful nights featured acts that other venues wouldn’t allow within ten feet of their premises. We were really into the idea of providing up-and-coming artists with the opportunity to play in a professional environment of sorts and I can honestly say that we’d give anyone a chance, no matter how inexperienced.”

Just as amusing as the local bands, though, were the foreign acts that played the tiny club. From Alabama Thunderpussy to Wedding Present to Bob Log III, the club constantly brought in bizarre and respected bands, from wide-ranging genres, constantly. Eyjólfsson credits liquor for the foreign bands. “We’d try our best to act on every drunken idea we got, and some of them were even rather good. We booked [cult favourite] Stereolab after a night on the binge; somehow, the idea seemed really plausible at 4 a.m. And sure enough, they came and played an extremely sold-out show to an ecstatic audience. This compelled us to occasionally call our favourite bands and see if they were willing to pay us a visit. Sometimes it would even work. We were this close to having the White Stripes perform here a couple of years ago. It isn’t even that crazy if you think about it, as many of the world’s most famous rock clubs are very similar in size to Grand Rokk. New York’s CBGB and London’s Marquee really aren’t any larger.”

Like many in the scene, Eyjólfsson, who partook in building Reykjavík’s music reputation, sees the end of Grand Rokk as the end of an era. “Now, we must confront the fact that Reykjavík is getting limited in some respects, at least if we want to maintain the stigma of culture and art that has slowly crept around it. There’s no gay club and hasn’t been for years. And now we are lacking a proper rock venue. Seriously, when I got wind of this, my main thoughts were that this was a sad day for Icelandic music and culture in general. I actually thought there were quite enough hamburger joints here to keep dumb sports idiots occupied. Apparently, I was wrong.”

He can’t help but point out that the closing of the live music venue seems peculiar:

“Mainly, I’m surprised. The venture never lost money – in fact it was rather the opposite – and there are still opportunities to expand. We get a lot of tourists here that have heard great things about our music and nightlife and are interested in catching a gig. And I now find myself dumbstruck when they stop me on Laugavegur and ask where they can go for that purpose. There really isn’t anything now, although Amsterdam shows some promise. Hopefully, someone will spot the opportunity and get something going again. Our city’s honour depends on it.”

The same month Grand Rokk decided its fate as a sports bar/dive, another key venue in the Reykjavík music scene closed down – one that has in many respects been as important as Grand Rokk in hosting and developing new talent, its larger capacity making it serve as a sort of ‘next stop’ for bands after they’d conquered Grand Rokk.

In July, Airwaves favourite Gaukur á Stöng filed for bankruptcy after a long struggle with creditors. In an interview with Blaðið last week, Gaukurinn’s proprietor Sigurður Hólm Jóhannsson stated that the club’s downfall could in part be explained by the public’s hesitance to pay to attend concerts, as well as frequent visits from Reykjavík’s health inspector that were usually accompanied by fines for exceeding the legal decibel limit.

Thus, Reykjavík is lacking an appropriately sized venue for modestly popular local bands and the effects are already being felt. Benedikt Reynisson manages the Smekkleysa record store and is also a local musician and DJ. He has also been known to book gigs for visiting punk and rock bands. Reynisson tells the Grapevine that he has had some trouble booking shows after the demise of Grand Rokk and Gaukurinn and was forced to cancel what was to be a sort of farewell gig for some of his band members due to the lack of an appropriate venue: “Grand Rokk’s policy change has really left a huge gap as far as I’m concerned. For a long time, it was the place you relied on when everything else fell through. And with it and Gaukurinn gone, it’s much harder to play shows in Reykjavík, especially if you want to charge admission and maintain some level of professionalism, not settling for a shit sound-system for instance. Grand Rokk was a great resource in that regard.”

Speaking about the old venue, he seems to suffer from a bout of nostalgia: “It was sort of like a community centre for musicians and music-lovers in the regard that you could always count on there being something happening. It certainly wasn’t as big and fancy as, say, Gaukurinn or NASA, but it had a real comfortable feel to it and the fact that you could walk in most nights to check out what local bands had to offer marked it as a vital stop when going out. You’d inevitably meet colleagues, and not just from your neck of the woods – it wasn’t segregated in the way that Sirkus and Kaffibarinn are and no one group claimed it as its own. Grand Rokk was a good place to get exposed to new things. With it gone, it’s harder to properly follow things.”

Morgunblaðið music critic Arnar Eggert Thoroddsen shares some of Reynisson’s sentiments regarding Grand Rokk, and has some fond memories of the place. “When The Fall played Grand Rokk I was ecstatic. I was a fairly recent Fall-convert and was very excited about the show, which in hindsight epitomised much of what the whole Grand Rokk experience was about. The show was rowdy and chaotic, as Fall shows tend to be, and after they finished, I led Mark E. Smith backstage, where we talked and shared some drinks. At one point, I opened him a beer bottle with my teeth, to which he replied by pointing at his toothless grin and telling me I should be careful. A wild night that was.”

Although Thoroddsen associates many good memories with the bar and grants it a certain place in the history of Icelandic rock, he isn’t worried about the future: “First off, this is something I really don’t understand and seems to happen a lot here in Iceland – it’s like people are actually trying to shoot themselves in the foot over and over. There’s recently been plenty of talk about the excellent shape of Reykjavík’s grassroots musicians and these concerts have for the most part been a great success. And now they’re through. In the long run, however, I think we are going to be fine. Someone’s bound to see an opportunity there and seek to fill the void left by Grand Rokk and Gaukurinn.

Throughout my years following Icelandic music, there’s always been one main place that takes the heat of the city’s concert activities and that slot is available now. Amsterdam seems to be trying something like it, which might work out fine. As I recall it, Grand Rokk was rather similar to Amsterdam when they started emphasising live music. If Grand Rokk was indeed losing money from all of this, maybe the state or the city should have been decent enough to support it in some way.”

I feel obliged to ask, given the possibility that Reykjavík will not have a good venue for the next few years, shouldn’t the City of Reykjavík, which profits immensely from the scene, contribute to bars that are the scene?

“It’s still interesting to put into perspective with the way Reykjavík has been advertising itself and the amount of hyperbole the music scene gets. They’re always bragging about ‘Reykjavík, the culture city’, music this and music that – when it finally starts paying off and we get tourists that are interested in checking out the scene, there’s nowhere for them to go. And at the same time they’re building a ridiculously expensive enormo-dome for the ‘higher’ forms of music right in the city centre, a symphony hall that’ll probably wind up hosting poorly attended flute concerts most of the time. If you’re going to go in that direction, you have to ensure that pop and rock get equal access, which is something they’ve completely ignored.”

Continuing on the theme of righteous indignation at the monstrosity that will be Reykjavík’s symphony hall (built in the same spot as the Grapevine’s old offices), Thoroddsen offers a legitimate suggestion: “It would have been incredibly easy to design the building so that there’d be a small Grand Rokk-like venue in one of its corners. Now, that would have been forward thinking.”

When confronted with these arguments, the city councilman who took so much pride in the local scene, Stefán Jón Hafstein, points out that at least the environment is right for rock. “You’re telling me some news here. It’s sad to see Grand Rokk and Gaukurinn go, although I am convinced that there isn’t going to be a problem in the long run. I am proud of Reykjavík’s music scene, and it is still thriving. And the city’s current economic and social environment is of the kind that really benefit a prosperous rock scene.”

The Social Democratic Councilman offers some laissez-faire advice: “Even if places like Grand Rokk and Gaukurinn bow out, there’s always someone willing to pick up where they left off. You know, we’ve already started seeing places like Amsterdam take over. One of Reykjavík’s better aspects, like Airwaves has shown us in the past, is that if no one else is willing to, you can just do things yourself.”

A neat suggestion. The city will ignore the local needs, but will take pride that musicians, like poor people, can find their own solutions.

I ask about how the rock scene can last in a downtown that is pricing rock clubs out of the market.

“That’s a good point, those places can’t really operate in an expensive or ‘fancy’ environment; it doesn’t fit. We probably stand to see them move away from Laugavegur and the city centre to the edges of downtown, Hverfisgata and Hlemmur. Only a small fraction of the area is being renovated anyway. There’s still a lot of cheap housing available for these purposes. Our music scene isn’t going anywhere.”

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