We’ve all heard wild tales of rock bands’ raucous nights with groupies, drugs and wacky behaviour. However, it seems like this destructive culture is dying out. Gone are the nights when TVs were thrown out hotel room windows by deranged rock stars—and gone are many of the rock stars themselves, unfortunately. I wanted to investigate the alleged extinction of rock music by hanging out with the last hope of Icelandic rock ‘n’ roll, Skrattar, who have just released their fourth album, ‘Hellraiser IV’.
It’s obvious that the true essence of these guys won’t be revealed by a plain old interview at a cafe. I want to peek into the reality of Skrattar, so we arrange a pub crawl around their favorite bars in Reykjavík. We set a date for a Wednesday night, which I thought—combined with the tightened pandemic restrictions—was going to be a bit of a bummer. Bars can’t stay open late, and the boys would probably want to take it easy in the middle of the week. However, it turns out I could not have been more wrong.
Starting off with a joke
We start our journey from Kringlukráin, a restaurant located inside Kringlan shopping center. An odd choice, given the fact that it’s located quite far away from the city center, where the rest of the crawl will concentrate. I’m led to a round table in the back, with no sight of Skrattar just yet. I sit down, order myself a beer and wait for them to arrive.
As the waiter brings me a glass of jólabjór, Skrattar arrive. I notice that even though it is cold outside, these guys are all wearing leather jackets. Maybe they truly are the last hope of rock ‘n’ roll.
The band consists of five members: lead singers Karl ‘Kalli’ Torsten Ställborn and Sölvi Magnússon, guitarist Guðlaugur ‘Gulli’ Hörðdal, bassist Kári Guðmundsson and drummer Jón Arnar Kristjánsson. Unfortunately, Jón Arnar, who works as a sailor, was sent out to sea and was thus unable to join us. Be that as it may, the remaining band members slammed a framed picture of him on the table in front of me before taking a seat themselves. “It seems like he has died at sea and we’re commemorating him by bringing his picture here, but really we just thought he should be with us somehow,” the guys laugh.
And this is surely not the last laugh of the night. These characters are all about the banter, and they say that’s also the aim of their music: “If making music stops being fun, the outcome of the product won’t be good,” Kalli explains, while the other members nod in approval. “There’s a lot of humour in our music. Actually, I would say that most of our songs have started with something that we have all found funny,” Sölvi adds.
Even though Skrattar emphasise the role of humour, the band have cultivated a mischievous image of themselves through social and print media. Leather jackets, cigarettes, bare skin and beer are very much the aesthetic. When asked if this really describes how they are as people, the response I get is a jaded laugh from the whole group.
“We didn’t create this image, other people did. We’re just normal guys, but the media is making people believe that we actually are the devil,” Kalli says, gulping his beer. Sölvi agrees and reveals the craziest comparison they have heard of the band: “Somebody described us as the offspring of fentanyl and heroin. And they meant that as a compliment!” he says, shaking his head.
Bringing different genres together
However, Skrattar concur with the claim that they’re the last hope of rock ‘n’ roll in this country. They think that these days Icelandic music is heavily concentrated on hip hop and techno. “There are, of course, indie rock bands and all that. But they don’t play the type of rock that we are known for,” Sölvi explains.
Although the group agrees with the above, they still don’t want to label themselves as a pure rock band. Skrattar used to refer to their music as “cigarette rock”, but they don’t really stand by that anymore. The band members listen to everything from ABBA to deep death metal, and that comes through in their productions.
Kári goes on to describe how these different genres take a new shape in their music. “For example, you could say that the tone of it is punk-ish, but the ‘I don’t give a fuck’ attitude typical of punk music is much more mellow in our songs,” he explains. Gulli nods and clarifies that they are not even trying to make rock music, to which Kári adds that even though they’re using rock instruments, they’re adding electronics and attitude.
Because of all these genres mingling in Skrattar’s music, they have ironically shifted their description of it from “cigarette rock” to “cigarette pop”. “We’d like to make it clear that we are actually a pop group nowadays,” Kalli says jokingly. So, does the future of Icelandic rock ‘n’ roll lie in the hands of a pop band?
By this time, the guys have finished their beverages. My glass is left containing a few sips of beer, but I decide to leave it as is—a decision that truly shocked Sölvi, as he will reveal to me later that night. We head out and hop in a taxi that takes us from Kringlan to the next bar, Mónakó.
Now, those of you who think that this bar—judging by its name—is an elaborate casino in the heart of Reykjavík, I’m here to tell you that this image is far away from the ugly truth. This is a place where lost souls go. As we step inside the bar, we are hit by a pungent smell of cigarettes. At first I think that it’s coming from a smoking area inside the pub, but as we head upstairs we walk past the source. A man hiding in the staircase is inhaling every last bit of his cigarette. Ironically enough, he is sitting right next to a sign that clearly states “No Smoking Inside”.
Luckily, we don’t stay here for long; apparently this place was included on the list of bars to visit as a prank. “We just wanted to take a picture of Jón Arnar next to the slot machines, because he used to play them here,” Kalli explains, adding that this is not a go-to bar for any of the band members.
From total chaos to controlled disorder
We gear up and leave for the next waypoint, PÜNK Restaurant. As the weather seeps into my bones, I clench my teeth to fight the cold. The few minutes’ walk feels like an eternity, but the guys in leather jackets don’t seem to mind.
PÜNK was Sölvi’s choice, and as Kári points out, he fits there like a fist in one’s eye. The place has a tiki bar type of ambiance, and Sölvi—wearing a Hawaiian t-shirt and sunglasses straight out of Miami Vice—blends in like a chameleon. However, the sleeveless Metallica top underneath breaks the image a bit.
We sit down on the corner table and order ourselves another round of beer. The conversation revolves around the development of the band from its early years to present day.
“When Gulli and I started Skrattar we were both inspired by a band called Suicide, and especially their gigs. Their performances were always versatile, the songs were never the same. We wanted to bring that freestyle vibe to our own shows,” Kalli says.
He claims that in the early days they were a bit wilder on stage, but that somehow changed when Sölvi joined the band. “He was baffled by the fact that I wasn’t singing the lyrics as I was supposed to,” Kalli laughs.
According to Sölvi, the thing that he brought to the band was a change of energy at their gigs. “I had been involved in the local metal scene and saw how those bands were able to pull this primal energy out of the crowd. I think that was something I brought to the table when I joined Skrattar,” he recalls.
The others do not object to his assessment. Even though the band feel like they have always been able to create a certain atmosphere at their concerts, that has risen to another level during recent years. Their provocative stage presence has drawn attention, making Skrattar renowned throughout Iceland.
“I remember a gig we had on July 17th. There was a festival going on that same day, but we weren’t a part of it. However, most of the people listening to our music were going to be at the festival, and we were anxious that nobody would attend our concert,” Kalli says, describing the day everyone realised they were on to something. “When we went on stage, the venue was full of people. After that night, I thought we really have something great going on here.”
Shots and cigarettes
The guys have yet again polished off their beers before I have managed to finish mine. Sölvi jokes that his anxiety is taking over because he isn’t drunk enough for this interview. I offer him the remains of my beer, which he gladly tosses back. However, Kalli seems to have a better solution to Sölvi’s problem: “Let’s do shots and get blackout wasted!”
This conversation is, of course, part of their endless banter—but as they say, nothing is that much of a joke that it isn’t at least half true.
We approach the bar and Kalli orders Fernet-Brancas for everyone. After swigging the bitter, brown liquid down my throat, I can’t help but let out a grinning “Oj maður!” I’ve told the guys the only word I know in Icelandic is “kúkalabbi”, so Sölvi gets excited when he hears this idiom coming out of my mouth. “I’ve always said that everyone starts speaking languages when they get drunk!” he cheers.
After downing the shots, it’s time to move on. As we are waiting for Sölvi to join us, the rest of the boys pull out their cigarettes—a habit that repeats each time we step outside. Kári kindly asks if I want one as well, but after seeing that there’s only one smoke left in the carton, I decline. I tell him I don’t want to be that annoying party-smoker who steals everyone’s last cigarettes. Without saying anything, he pulls out another carton from his jacket pocket and urges me to take one. Now, I don’t know about the state of rock ‘n’ roll, but at least we can say that chivalry isn’t dead.
As we are walking towards the next stop, Spánski Barinn, I notice to my delight that it isn’t that cold anymore. Or who knows, maybe it’s the alcohol running through my veins at this point. Either way, it’s a nice surprise.
At Spánski we are greeted by Agustin, the sweetest bartender in the city. He speaks Icelandic with occasional Spanish sentences replenishing his speech. In addition to beer, he brings a bowl of seasoned nuts to the table. I understand why Skrattar like to hang out here, even though the bar is almost empty on this particular Wednesday night.
Together during birthdays and Skrattar shifts
Halfway through our third beers, Skrattar start to reminisce about Sölvi’s 30th birthday party that was held in the beginning of November at Húrra. The other band members had arranged for Dr. Mister & Mr. Handsome—an electronic and dance music band from the early 2000s—to perform at his party. This band had not been active in years, and I’m shown a video of Sölvi’s astonished reaction when he realised what was happening.
“It was the craziest gift I’ve ever gotten. I even got to sing one of their songs with them on the stage,” Sölvi recalls.
Even though the band celebrated Sölvi’s birthday together, Kalli reveals they don’t actually go out together that much. They usually all hang out during their studio sessions, which they refer to as “Skrattar shifts”. During these sessions, the whole band is submerged in music. They pull all-nighters and drink heavily—all for artistic purposes, of course. Yet another sign that Skrattar is keeping rock culture alive in Iceland.
Canned peas, margaritas & creeps
We proceed with the bar crawl and head to Röntgen. On the way there, we walk past the office of Rough Cult, the film production company that has directed many of Skrattar’s music videos. After seeing some friends inside, we decide to pop in. I chat for a moment with a girl from the office, and as we are leaving, she offers me a can of Ora green peas—the star of Icelandic Christmas dinners—to take with me. She wants to ensure I don’t get hungry as the night wears on. I thank her and continue the journey with peas in my bag.
As we get to Röntgen, the guys think it’s time to order the most rock ‘n’ roll drink on Earth for everyone—margaritas. At this point, I feel like I need to stick to water for a moment, so I end up taking only a few sips of my cocktail. The drink itself, however, doesn’t go to waste as the guys come to the rescue and gulp it down. I’ve learned it’s clearly unacceptable to leave a drop of booze untouched in their presence.
Next up is a quick stop at renowned bar Prikið. By coincidence, we meet Jón Arnar’s girlfriend there. “We need to take a picture with Jón Arnar and his widow who’s lost her husband at the sea,” the guys laugh as they give her his framed picture, which has miraculously stayed with us through the evening. We down a shot of something and proceed on our pub crawl.
Walking down Laugavegur, we get harassed by a man who claims he hates capitalism. Nobody provokes him, but he follows us, shouting that “these fools in leather jackets think they aren’t slaves of capitalism”. As we reach Lækjartorg, the creep is still behind us. The guys have had enough of him, so they form a semicircle around him. I’m left outside to observe what happens from a distance.
Not one member of the band decides to punch this dude, even though he is clearly begging for a tussle. They just stare at him and say that it’s time for him to fuck off, which he eventually does, and everyone continues their night unharmed. Walking towards the next place, the guys lighten the mood by saying that they will send this man after me if I write a bad article about them. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen.
From bars to an after party
We arrive at our last destination of the night, Skúli Craft Bar. The clock is ticking and we don’t have that much time to spend here before it closes. However, there is enough time for me to learn Kalli’s signature handshake and for the boys to write messages to my notebook. One of them is smudged and there’s a text above it, saying “Don’t read this!” I try my best to make sense of the smudged text, but it remains a mystery.
As the bartenders announce that the bar is closing, a melancholic wave washes over me. It’s sad to end the night so early when graced with such perfect company, so I’m pleasantly surprised when the guys start looking for an after party.
Apparently, Skrattar are not the only people out and about this night, because the guys find another party in no time. We gear up and leave for someone’s friend’s apartment.
When we get there, the first noticeable thing is that the apartment smells heavily of incense. The place is decorated with plants, statues and a lamp that washes the room in a red glow. A swing hangs from the ceiling in the corner of the living room, and it’s accompanied by a couple of couches. Electronic music is playing in the background.
Ghosts, drugs, ballerinas and boardgames
I approach the owner of the apartment, a sweet girl who rolls a blunt as I start talking to her. Apparently the incense isn’t wafting in the air because she likes the smell of it, but rather to cover the scent of pot. When asked if she lives here by herself, she reveals that she’s never completely alone: there’s a 75-year-old ghost who stays in the apartment with her.
The place is packed with people, and countless cans and bottles are laying about. Some people are playing cards, others just chatting. Kalli has found a small guitar, and plays it while sitting on the swing.
As I’m having a conversation about life in general with Kári, Sölvi comes in from the kitchen and offers us drinks, accidentally spilling them all over the floor. It tastes like my teenage years: vodka mixed with a juice that’s designed to disguise the taste of booze, (mango-passion in this case).
After finishing my drink, I leave the members of Skrattar sitting on the sofa and approach the toilet. When I open the door, I see a bunch of people powdering their noses—quite literally. They are nice enough to ask if I’d like to have some as well, but I kindly decline the offer.
It’s 4am and I’m starving. I’m advised to go to the kitchen, as there should be a few pieces of pizza laying around. I find a slice and turn to get back to the living room, but I’m stopped by a ballerina. She wants me to witness her dance and urges me to feel her muscles. I can’t disagree, she’s got some strong thighs.
I return to the living room and notice a chess game has begun between Kalli and the apartment’s owner. As Kalli gets crushed by his opponent, he demands a drink. The owner pours everyone a shot of vodka, after which she asks me and Kári to join her for a game of backgammon. Neither of us have ever played, but an unbelievable amount of double numbers from the dice drive us to victory. You could say it’s beginner’s luck, but I beg to differ.
The party goes on until the owner gets tired of hosting, and we leave the premises at around 5.30am. The guys are keen on continuing the night, but I think that this is my cue to head home.
The night proved much more eventful than I ever expected it to be. As I crawl home, I consider the complex question of the death of rock ‘n’ roll. I might not be able to offer a complete answer to it, but after this night one thing is for sure. Skrattar are very much alive and well.
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