From Iceland — Reykjavík's DJ Queen

Reykjavík’s DJ Queen

Published June 10, 2014

Andrea Jónsdóttir says silence is too loud

Reykjavík’s DJ Queen
Atli Bollason
Photo by
Hörður Sveinsson

Andrea Jónsdóttir says silence is too loud

She must be the coolest 65-year-old in Iceland. Long, flowing silver hair. Black coat, black trousers, black ‘With the Beatles’ shirt. George Harrison pin on her left, John Lennon pin on her right. Between the two, a huge ‘peace’ necklace. Now top that off with a Pirate Party pin. Andrea Jónsdóttir is a well-known DJ in town. Every weekend you’ll find her sitting on a shelf at the back of Dillon Whiskey Bar flipping through binders full of CDs and blasting classic rock song after classic rock song. You might also recognise her voice from the National Radio where she’s hosted a number of shows. Consider her the oldest and wisest bar guide ever.

Tell Me About Yourself

I was born in Selfoss in 1949. When it was time to go to high school I didn’t want to live in a dorm so I moved to Reykjavík to attend Menntaskólinn í Reykjavík. I actually just attended my 45-year high school reunion the other day. I lived at Nýlendugata with three other girls. I felt like they were old ladies even though they were only two years older. When they came home from work on Friday they’d bought a half-bottle of vodka to share between the three of them. That wouldn’t be considered much today, I think.

They went to the dances at Hótel Saga and sported bouffants pretty much every weekend. I never joined them; it wasn’t my cup of tea. They liked The Beatles and all, they weren’t particularly old-fashioned, but something changed with my generation. The Beatles belong to us—the class of ‘69. The speeches at my reunion largely revolved around The Beatles. Because they changed everything—music and mentality. It was a liberation.

How did you party back then?

I grew up during the ‘sveitaball’ [country-style dance] era. I started going to those at 14. IDs weren’t introduced in Iceland until I was 16. I don’t mean the old-fashioned sveitaball with accordion. I’m talking about gigs with Hljómar and Mánar and other rock bands.

I’d go by myself and meet up with other girls from the Selfoss area. This was considered brazen, because the reputation of sveitaball attendees wasn’t exactly flattering. But it was completely untrue. Some people were drunk, others not really and some not at all. I learned to drink anything—lukewarm brennivín mixed with coke or preferably brennivín with appelsín [orange soda].

During verslunarmannahelgin [bank holiday, first weekend of August] in 1968 we went to an outdoor festival. The buses were searched for booze so some people would bury their bottles on the festival site a few days early. I was working at the milk factory and the engineers came up with an even smarter scheme. You signed up for vodka or rosé, and then they canned the booze in the middle of the night and labelled it ‘UHT Milk.’ Once you arrived at the campsite you could pick up your ‘milk’ without a problem.

That’s crazy! So you didn’t get plastered in the city?

In those years I preferred going to Selfoss. In Reykjavík, you had to stay indoors. But at a sveitaball you could go outside. And people were generally more free spirited in the country. See, in the sixties and seventies, the clubs in Reykjavík would have dress codes. You couldn’t wear these trousers or those shoes or that jacket. People tried hard to make people wear their parents’ clothes.

But I think Reykjavík is wonderful. Iwouldn’t live anywhere else. I still think it’s a beautiful city—al-though this may be changing. There are too many hotels for my taste. Right now, there’s a beautiful tree on Grettisgata that they’re tearing up. I don’t blame Samfylkingin [The Social Democrats] for those awful towers in Borgartún, but I feel like they’re following that path and I don’t appreciate it.

You don’t like how the city is developing?

I like how the city has developed, but I’m afraid of all these hotels. And now the hotels are even complaining about noise coming from the bars! I find these people stupid…I don’t know who they are; the nouveau-riche maybe, they want to build hotels but it’s like they’ve never experienced anything in the city. I don’t know where they come from. I feel like they’re driving away the forces that make this city attractive. There’s a hole next to Harpa. They can put a hotel there. That should be enough.

They should cancel their plans for NASA. I really miss that place. We haven’t seen the effects of its closure yet, but young bands have fewer opportunities to perform now. Not everyone can afford to play in Harpa, you know. I think the large number of bands from Reykjavík is in part due to the number of great venues we had.

What other places do you miss?

I miss Sirkus. It was to be torn down in a fit of greed, but the house is still standing. I like places that are—I don’t want to say shabby—but cabinesque. Unpretentious. Not to say that I don’t want the toilets to be clean and tidy. But places that don’t pretend. Places that don’t redecorate every few months and think they can blame poor attendance on the décor.

Like Prikið, it’s beautiful. And Rósenberg is a great live venue. But it’s pretty small and no replacement for NASA. I like Kaffibarinn, too. I’ve enjoyed a few concerts at Ellefan. And I mustn’t forget Boston! I used to DJ there and it’s like the sister-bar to Dillon; we borrow ice from there.

See, I understand and respect the old Independence Party, but I can’t understand nor forgive them for letting libertarians take the reins. Why didn’t they just found their own party? With libertarianism, certain ideas were suddenly presented as unquestionable truths. For example, why can’t the State run anything anymore? So they can pocket profits! They don’t care for the people.

I feel that the people are entitled to at least one State-run bank. The bank shouldn’t speculate or dabble in finance. This should be mandatory in a democracy. Then the others can just do whatever they feel like without us taking responsibility. This is the least they could do.

The State should run the things that matter. Like telecommunications, banking and public transport. If these things are privately owned there is always a group of shareholders who get paid while the staff makes minimum wage. Do we call this ethical?

I think we should take a few steps back. A State should never do speculative business. But we must sit down and decide exactly what we want the government to take care of. And whoever wants to improve on that or develop it is free to do so—on his own terms.

I don’t like it when the hippie generation is blamed for our bankruptcy. I don’t remember [former Prime Minister] Davíð Oddsson being a hippie. I don’t have anything against him; he’s just a funny guy who I went to high school with, but he probably should’ve taken the arts route instead of politics. I think he would have been a popular writer. I was happy to hear that [former city counsellor] Gísli Marteinn had quit politics. I told him: You’re not the type. You’re just a cheerful guy who loves to ride bikes and do good deeds.

Okay, let’s switch gears. When did you start going out in Reykjavík?

Before the eighties, people would mostly attend dances or concerts. We didn’t have many bars. There was a gay café on Laugavegur called Kaffi gestur that I liked. It was sort of like the predecessor of 22 [legendary gay bar at Laugavegur 22]. It wasn’t only attended by gay people, but arty and liberal people in general. 

Did the gay scene help develop the bar scene? Were you involved?

I think so. The gay men in particular. Where you don’t have gays you have less colour because they tend to be very creative and imaginative. Rock’n’roll and queers.

Now, it’s generally acknowledged that people are different. I think that’s great. I was on a radio programme 20 years ago where my sexual orientation was discussed among other things. Once I was off the air I realised I had never talked about it with my parents. So I called my sister and said, “Don’t mom and dad definitely know that I’m a lesbian?” She said she thought so. So I called my mother and told her about the programme and the lesbian thing and she said, “that’s fine.” And I asked her if dad knew and then she called me back and said he had said, “Why is she asking us? It’s her life.” They were both born in 1919, very left wing and liberal.

So I never really came out. I never announced anything. Contrary to what young people are told today, sex isn’t the only thing in the world. Sex is just a part of you. The notion that everything revolves around sex is horseshit. Some people want a lot of it, others less. You’re not obliged to be interested in sex.

So the bar scene didn’t get pumping until we legalised beer in 1989?

When beer was legalised, some people said we’d drink less. But it’s obvious that we drink more. However, our drinking is more relaxed. I don’t know about the rates for alcoholism, but I definitely prefer it this way. I’m lucky because I’ve never liked getting hammered. But drug use has increased. It seems to come in waves. 

When do you remember taking note of drug use for the first time?

There weren’t really any drugs until punk arrived. They existed of course, but I never would have thought that it would become an industry to grow and sell marijuana in Iceland. I went to London in 1970, but only ever fell asleep when I smoked hash so I haven’t developed an interest in that. I’ve never learned to smoke cigarettes either. Some drugs are hard to see or notice. People may have been using ecstasy or mushrooms but you’d only think they were crazy or drunk on vodka.

What’s your drink of choice?

Sometimes I tell people that drinking is my job. And if I’m to be completely honest I don’t think I would bother DJing sober. But you can’t get too drunk. That’s when you stop paying attention to where you put back the CDs and then you won’t find anything at the next gig. I like to have a gin and tonic early in the evening. But I try not to drink a lot of soda because it’s not good for your teeth. I like white wine too or whiskey or an apple schnapps. Or just brennivín. I can be extremely social when I’m playing. But as soon as my shift is over I want to go home and be by myself. I’ll still listen to music, though. For me, the silence gets too loud after a while.

For how long will you keep on DJing?

I said that I’d do it while I could make my way up onto the shelf where I sit and DJ. But they just said, “Don’t worry, we’ll lift you up there!” I don’t know. I enjoy my work. Sometimes I feel like I should’ve become a teacher. See, often there’s a common thread, a musical context or personal connection. Maybe this is bragging, but I feel like I’m teaching rock history. Especially early in the evening. Later on, everyone just wants to hear something like Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”

Andrea was born in 1949, the same year as Iceland joined NATO.

She’s been DJing at Dillon “for over ten years.”

She plays there every Friday and Saturday until 3 AM.

She’ll play “Hit Me Baby One More Time.”

She likes punk for the rockabilly and disco for the arrangements.

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