Published June 15, 2015
There’s a certain time of night in Reykjavík’s bars when the atmosphere starts to change. The blinds come down, the lights are dimmed, and the volume of the music creeps up as daytime playlists give way to something more propulsive. The after-work drinkers thin out, and a different, hungrier crowd starts to appear from the woodwork. As Icelanders get dressed up and have a few drinks at home, and curious tourists emerge for their big night on the town, Reykjavík’s DJs are beginning their shift.
Yamaho, aka Natalie Gunnarsdóttir, is a familiar face on the downtown scene, with a distinctive shock of black hair sticking up above her headphones. Starting out at the defunct legendary party bar Sirkus around the turn of the millennium, she’s now one of the main DJ faces of Reykjavík’s thriving nightlife. From Sónar and Secret Solstice to Dolly, Palóma or the evergreen Kaffibarinn: Yamaho is everywhere.
We meet in the dark, wooden, maroon-painted back room of Kaffibarinn. “This bar is kind of my home,” says Yamaho. “I started working here when I was 18, and I’ve been coming here ever since.”
Yamaho’s generation has seen the landscape of Reykjavík nightlife change dramatically. Over the last decade, the tourist influx has brought a vast wave of human traffic to the city’s downtown area; at the same time, a seismic shift away from the guitar music of the early noughties has re-tuned the city’s wavelength.
“When I started out, the climate was like rock ‘n’ roll, 70s, 80s, pop and disco,” Yamaho recalls. “When Sirkus appeared, I was just starting to DJ—I’ve always been into dance music, so I’d try to sneak a few in. But if I didn’t think about the crowd, people would go and whisper to Sigga, the owner of the bar: ‘She was playing dance music again, I just thought you should know…’” Yamaho laughs loudly at the memory of the DJ snitches. “I guess that helped me to develop my style, though—to get a range of sounds into a set.”
Like many DJs at the time, Yamaho started out playing on vinyl. “I loved going to record stores and crate digging,” she recalls. “That aspect has completely changed now. We go online now to discover new stuff. Before, it was a whole room full of music. You could look at interesting sleeves and different genres, and it would move you on musically.”
Her love of vinyl stems from her interest in the history of house and techno, and the roots of DJing. “People listen to dance music today and don’t know where it came from,” she says. “But I guess it’s a taste thing. Some people don’t care about vinyl and all that stuff I’m talking about— it’s more about just liking what they’re doing, right now. And I don’t judge that.”
Another DJ that started on vinyl is Addi, aka Introbeats, also a Kaffibarinn regular. He started out playing in the city’s main hip-hop bar, Prikið. “I was playing vinyl then,” says Addi, “but I’ve made the change over to digital. I still use my Technics decks, spinning with timecode vinyl and the computer.”
Addi plays all over town, but he likes that Kaffibarinn has a wide range of high-quality DJ equipment on hand. “They have both turntables and Pioneer CDJs,” says Addi. “You can just show up with headphones and some USB sticks. That’s a real luxury when you’ve been dragging your decks around with you for years.”
In fact, many of Reykjavík’s favourite venues are cafés by day, and morph into a bar/club environment after dark—multipurpose spaces in which playing vinyl can present a logistical challenge. “You often need pillows or some homemade stuff so the needle doesn’t shake,” Addi says. “There’s a great scene here, but the clubs are lacking that standard a bit. But I mean, places like Kaffibarinn—it’s a house music institution, anyway. I’ve known visiting DJs to walk in and see how small the space is, and think it’ll be a smooth disco set… but by the end of the night, they’ll play out the same set they would in Berghain, or maybe even harder stuff. The crowd is right on your back in those small bars. It’s a good vibe. It’s personal.”
Late nights & bright lights
Katla Ásgeirsson (DJ Katla) is a prolific Reykjavík DJ who started almost coincidentally. In 2012, she was working the bar at Bakkus—the oft-rebranded building currently known as Húrra—when she hit upon a winning formula. “It was kind of random,” she smiles. “We’d be two bar staff, working these empty Tuesday nights. It was boring. I had this idea that we should do a theme night—just something funny. So we did a Swedish night—we wore only Swedish clothes, and I put together an all-Swedish playlist. It was really fun—a good group came, and they danced until closing time. Palli, the owner, told me to go and play from the DJ booth. And that was it.”
Asked to continue with a new idea each week, suddenly Katla was running around Reykjavík to find records that fit the next theme. “I would contact my friends who were into each genre, and run all over town borrowing their records,” she recalls. “They were big nights in the end. We were doing very well on Tuesdays! After Bakkus closed, I just kept playing. DJing became how I paid rent. And if you care about your work, you just evolve. It happens naturally.”
For a young parent, the nocturnal DJ life is not without challenges. “I’d stay at my mom’s place on work nights,” says Katla, “and put my kid to bed, then go out. I’d get home at five in the morning and he’d wake me up early, then my mom would take him and I’d sleep through till twelve. It’s hard work! You’re making this noise, relentlessly, for five, six, seven hours straight. You always have to be on your toes. When I’m playing, I have fun, sure—but I’m constantly working. People don’t see that.”
There’s a certain absurdity to the job that isn’t lost on Katla. “I’ll sometimes catch myself in the moment, standing in front of a lot of people, dancing and playing music,” she smiles, her eyes opening wide. “It’s so weird! I mean, I’m not some showy dude trying to get broads by being a DJ. I’m a mom! I’m a mom playing music in the middle of the night in some dark basement. I’ve had moments where I burst out laughing. But I just really love doing it.”
Óli Dóri is a DJ who feels most at home in the building Bakkus eventually became, the much-loved concert venue and nightclub Húrra. “I like the vibe there,” he says, over a glitchy Facetime connection, from the Primavera festival. “It always feels like it has the potential to turn into a party.”
An open-minded music aficionado who combs the internet in search of new sounds for his radio show, Straumur, Óli’s interest in mixing came early. “I’ve made playlists since I was like ten years old,” he says. “I would listen carefully, and arrange the songs by their sound, always thinking of what fit together in different ways, whether by tempo or just feel. Over time I started to overlap them, and plug different stuff together. At first I used CDs and vinyl. Now, it’s a computer and a controller. It’s so convenient not to have to carry around hundreds of CDs.”
For the millennial generation who’ve grown up in the age of CDs and internet, turntablism doesn’t exude the same magnetic draw. One of the younger DJs on the scene is Logi Pedro, also known from his work with the band Retro Stefson.
“Vinyl is so fragile,” Logi says, “and so are the decks. Maybe the needle gets fucked up, or the tone arm… you never know what it’ll be. But then, computers are fragile too—they might crash or whatever. CDJs are the most stable, but it’s still two decks and a mixer, so it feels natural.”
Logi started DJing at 13 years old, when he played at a school dance. “I played with a pair of big old school iPods the first time,” he smiles. “That was my first concept and experience of DJing. But the first time I did a paid gig, I was maybe 16 or 17. I got paid in a six-pack and 10,000 kronur. Then in the summer of 2009-10 I had access to some CDJs. That was the first time I really got into the equipment.”
Despite his chosen setup, Logi has respect for those who invest their energy in traditional DJ techniques. “I went to see Introbeats one time at his studio, to record some bass on a track,” he remembers. “He was going downtown to DJ, and he took the decks there in flight cases. It was a lot to move around—it took three guys. He was so dedicated to how he was going to play. He didn’t have to bring all that stuff, but he was going to do it just the way he wanted.”
Sunna Ben is another young DJ who cut her teeth playing at Prikið. “Prikið on a busy night is just insane,” she says. “It’s one of my very favourite things to do, playing out hip-hop and R&B on those nights. I also play there with my partner in crime Þura Stína, under our joint DJ name SunSura. Those nights are always awesome.”
The digital setup was a natural fit for Sunna. “I just Googled what was the best DJ software,” she says. “The internet told me Traktor, so I set out to learn how to operate that. Later on I got my tiny Numark Mixtrack Pro 2 controller, and that’s all I use to this day. It’s very compact and light, and does everything I need it to do. I love being able to throw it into a tote bag and head off to play a gig, easy breezy.”
Spreading the love
Two of the newest kids on the block are DJ duo Anna Ásthildur and Kría Daníelsdóttir, known as DJ Myth & Lazybones, respectively.
“I had this controller I’d bought in the States,” says Kría. “But I was shy and too lazy to do something with it. That’s where the name came from. Then Anna said, ‘Let’s just book a gig.’ Sometimes you just need the pressure. So she booked us something, and I was like: ‘Shit! Okay, let’s do this!’”
Their first slot was at the newly opened Palóma bar. “It didn’t have a crowd yet really,” Anna recalls. “We played some really empty Thursday nights, but it was good to have time to feel out how everything worked. Then we started doing these nights called Rafnæs, with guest DJs from different bands like Curver from Ghostigital or DJ flugvel og geimskip, and it just took off.”
Anna and Kría have a shared taste in deep house and mellow electronica. “We’ve been holding back our dance set,” laughs Kria, “because we kinda don’t feel like people are ready for it!” But they pumped it up for the final night of Harlem bar’s existence—a potentially quiet Wednesday that became a rowdy farewell party. “Björk was there, she came over and asked us to turn it up,” says Anna. “That was the first time we were like, ‘Wow, people are actually really liking this!’”
The two started playing partially because of their frustration with the city’s existing nightlife. “There was nowhere that had both good music and a vibe that we liked,” says Anna. “We would go to Dolly, which has great music a lot of time, but everyone would be banging into each other… sometimes you just can’t dance there. There’s no love! Instead of coldness and harshness, we wanted to bring more warmth and softness into the electronic sound.” Kría nods in agreement, adding: “I feel like we’re emitting a deep care in the music we play.”
One of the town’s most established DJs is Árni Einar Birgisson, aka Alfons X. Árni is also the booker of Kaffibarinn’s weekround DJ schedule. “My first bar gig was in the summer of ‘92, in the place that was the precursor of Sirkus,” Árni says. “It was owned by the guy that eventually started Kaffibarinn. Sigga Boston was working the bar. It was kind of a formative place for the downtown scene as it is today. Then around the year 2000, a bar and club called Thomsen appeared. It was amongst the first places to pay the DJs. I went suddenly from not really getting paid, to making good money. It became a full-time job.”
Árni mostly plays house, but he’s no purist. “If you can mix a 140bpm dub of a 30-year-old Talking Heads track into a house set, then it’s house music,” he says. “I don’t like it when people play 40 tracks from 2014 or 2015 at all. I like the texture you get from mixing it up. In 2002, I was playing straight-up house, but in 2004, indie and dance were clashing together—stuff like The Rapture and Hot Chip. That was a big year for music. The Rapture played Airwaves around that time— they were queuing for Sirkus, and ‘House of Jealous Lovers’ was playing inside, and they still couldn’t get in…”
Even before the boom, Árni remembers Kaffibarinn having a high profile amongst tourists. “In my first years here, people were reading about Kaffibarinn in magazines,” he says. “There’d be these groups of 17-year-old Germans who really had no place here. We’d start by playing a half hour of really aggressive hip-hop, and call it ‘clearing out the Gore-Tex.’”
Over the years, Árni has realised that having a broad range is a useful trait for a DJ. “There’s a certain skill in DJing for a sitting crowd,” says Árni. “I think it can be immensely satisfying. You need to spend a lot of time listening to music for that. You need to play out something different.”
Margeir Steinar Ingólfsson (DJ Margeir) is Iceland’s best-known DJ. Whether crowd-surfing over the Blue Lagoon, performing with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, or playing show-stopping locations like the summit of Mt. Esja or the Eiffel Tower, Margeir is someone who seems able to continually produce moments of magic.
“I have been fortunate enough to be able to travel around and do what I love,” says Margeir, skyping in from an island in Thailand. “I mean… when I got my first DJ job at 16, my mother said: ‘You will never earn any money from this.’ And maybe I agreed with her. But I didn’t care—this was something I wanted to do.”
Margeir started in the early 90s, when he answered an ad for a DJ in Hotel Borg, honing his craft over the next two years as their resident DJ. “My love was always for electronic music,” he says, “but the people weren’t ready! So I guess I considered my role to be a kind of a mentor to the people on the dance floor. And basically, I still think I am in that role. I was always trying to push electronic music to the people. Sometimes the promoters weren’t happy, so I tried to use my charming smile to convince them it was the next big thing,” he laughs. “And, well… I guess it was.”
Still very much at the top of his game, Margeir remains humble. “I guess I have always been very ambitious,” he says, “and I just don’t have a stopper. I always try to go to the next level. It doesn’t always succeed. But, I’m planning parties this summer in some crazy locations…”
Also a dedicated follower of yoga and meditation, Margeir has also been playing some small events at Dansverkstæðið. “The shows don’t have to be big to be special,” he says. ”I’ve been playing for the yoga crowd, when 40-50 people come and do yoga, then dance like crazy, and finish with some meditation. Conscious clubbing! It’s the next big thing!”
So after over twenty years manning the decks, Margeir still bears a deep love for DJing, and an urge to try out new things. “Really, I’m just happy if I can make people dance,” he finishes, “and I’m even happier if I can join them.”
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