“If these bands sounded more obviously alike, it would probably be a lot easier for them to break internationally. If you had a couple of mini Sigur Róses coming from here, they would probably see great success. Obviously labels are stupid…
You may ask yourself: who is this Paul Brannigan person and why am I reading about him. This bout of self-interrogation will be entirely warranted. However, if you are (or were at some point during the last three years) a spotty, emo-haired British teenager, you will know all too well who Paul Brannigan is, and why people would interview him. For Paul Brannigan is none other than the editor of Kerrang! – “The world’s biggest selling weekly rock magazine!” – an institution in rock if there ever was one.
The almost thirty year-old magazine started off as a “hard rock” supplement to now defunct brit music mag Sounds, with the sole purpose of covering the then-fresh New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Kerrang! quickly found an audience of its own and spent the eighties covering hard rock and heavy metal, the early nineties covering hard rock and grunge and the late nineties covering hard rock and nü-metal before progressing to its current preference of hard rock and emo. The magazine frequently outsells the NME and wields enormous trendsetting powers in the UK, often breaking hopeful rock acts with the sheer strength of their readership.
So, Paul Brannigan is the editor of one of the most influential music publications in the world, and he was recently in Iceland. He was here researching a story on beloved Hafnarfjörður glam-rockers Sign, who’ve built an impressive following in the UK over the last few years. No stranger to Iceland, Brannigan has attended the last few Iceland Airwaves festivals, overseeing special Kerrang! stages and taking in as many concerts as possible. The Grapevine met up with Brannigan during his recent visit and got the expert opinion on the state of Icelandic rock, and the state of rock in general.
No one interferes, ever
“I think our circulation is around 75.000 copies per issue these days. It was 85.000 a year ago, the highest it’s ever been. All the way through the eighties and nineties we were only selling 40.000 per week.” Brannigan is telling me how Kerrang!’s readership has nearly doubled in the space of a decade that’s mostly known for ushering in the deaths of both print media and retail music. I then ask him if he personally likes all of the music he covers, and the need for compromise.
“It’s not my personal fanzine. If it were, it would sell about four copies. I do like a lot of the bands that are in there, I feel we feature a healthy mix of bands that probably no one has never heard, but we adore, of and bands that our readers demand to read about every issue. Usually, with every band we do there’s at least one person in the office that loves them. Are we under pressure from our sponsors as to what we cover? Absolutely not. Otherwise it’d be painful. No, we basically just do whatever we want. No one interferes, ever.
“If someone in the office likes an album, we’ll want to cover it in some way, say with the way we’ve been featuring Mínus or Sign. However, we do have to take into account that those bands belong to a certain niche, even within the Kerrang! quarters, and won’t appeal to everyone, unlike bands like My Chemical Romance or Fallout Boy. So we need to put enough big bands in to be able to sell copies, but enough of the niche bands we believe in to keep it interesting.”
Mínus were ridiculously loud
Brannigan says that Kerrang!’s first exposure to Iceland came at the behest of hard rock legends Mínus. “One of the freelancers scored a copy of Jesus Christ Bobby and gave it a 5K review, calling them one of the best post-hardcore bands since Refused. Then they played London and we all went and saw them… it was the loudest gig I’ve ever been to. Ridiculously loud. So we got interested in the Icelandic scene and then had the chance to do something with Airwaves. That was a great introduction. It’s easy to get jaded about scenes, and they easily get formulaic. The rock scene here seems to possess a freshness and purity about it that seemed lacking in the British and American scenes we spend so much time covering.
“Over there, it’s all about commercial possibilities and marketing – here it seems more organic. People seem to play music because they want to play music, not because they want to be rock stars or make a living out of it. You get none of the hard sell with the Icelandic bands, like “you’ve got to hear our band, it’s the best thing since sliced bread! Put us on your cover!” No one here has that kind of arrogance, it’s more like “Oh, you like our band? Really? That’s cool.” They seem surprised and taken aback that anyone should care. And there’s a lot of good music being made here. Bands like Gavin Portland, We Made God, Vicky Pollard are all favourites, along with Sign and Mínus, of course.”
A couple of mini-Sigur Róses
I ask if the Icelandic rock bands get lumped together as one scene, or one sound, like what happened with Seattle, etc.? When a Brit hears Mínus, does he lump them in a category with Sigur Rós, for instance?
“No, I don’t think people would ever think about them in those terms, or as Icelandic bands. There’s no real connection between Gavin Portland and Sign, for instance. I don’t think people think about an “Icelandic rock scene” in those terms. Our readers have pretty much heard one or two of those bands; it’s not like the Seattle scene where everyone wanted to sound the same. If your fondness for Sign prompts you to buy a Gavin Portland album, you’re in for a surprise. I think it’s one of the Icelandic music scene’s strengths, that everyone can do their own thing. There seems to be a big individualistic streak in terms of sound and sonic approach, even though the musicians seem quite helpful to one another in other respects. In Seattle, Nirvana desperately wanted to sound like the Melvins, and Soundgarden desperately wanted to sound like whoever… I don’t see that happening here, and that’s one of the scenes biggest strengths, but it might also be a weakness in certain regard.
If these bands sounded more obviously alike, it would probably be a lot easier for them to break internationally. If you had a couple of mini Sigur Róses coming from here, they would probably see great success. Obviously labels are stupid, and when they get one band that works they sign anyone who sounds remotely similar. It happened with Seattle and it happened with Detroit. But there don’t seem to be fifteen Sigur Róses kicking around here as far as I can tell. I love Sigur Rós, but that’s probably a good thing.”
Finally, do Brannigan see any of the Icelandic rock bands breaking internationally soon?
“Well we have the bands we like and we try and help them out. We brought Gavin Portland over for a Kerrang! tour recently and hope to do the same with We Made God once their album’s out. We’ve been covering Mínus, and obviously Sign has the biggest profile of any of the Icelandic bands with Kerrang’s readers, like Sigur Rós. Hopefully things will continue to develop for them and they will do well. They’ve got quite a loyal set of fans here, a tight knit little crowd that’s into them. The Sign Army. Their only problem is that they don’t fall into any specific pigeonhole, which makes the metal kids think they’re emo and the emo kids think they’re metal. It happens with a lot of rock ‘n’ roll bands, but those bands usually get the most devoted following. But we’ll see.”
Text by Haukur S. Magnússon