From Iceland — Garage Days Revisited?

Garage Days Revisited?

Published February 9, 2007

Garage Days Revisited?

Tónlistarþróunarmiðstöðin, a rehearsal space and concert venue, hosts fifty bands that operate in the Reykjavík area. It has been a haven for fledgling musicians for close to four years now. Due to a lack of funding, it will likely close down for good sometime over the next few months. The Reykjavík Grapevine paid a visit.

Standing in the corridors of Tónlistarþróunarmiðstöðin (‘The Music Development Centre’ or TÞM) on a given Sunday afternoon can be an unnerving experience. First of all, there’s the relentless banging of many drums. Countless Dave Lombardo disciples kicking the shit out of their hard-earned kits, an aggressive arrhythmia pounding its way through your skin, inducing sweat and anxiety. Then there are guitars, so many guitars, all distorted and muffled, coupled with the steady rumbling of capricious bass players trying their best to bring down houses. And at first it all sounds like so much static, but you manage to make out a tune through the rubble: in one of these rooms, someone’s aptly ploughing through Cindy Lauper’s ‘True Colors’.

It was beautiful.
Founded in March of 2003, TÞM has been going strong for over four years now, hosting a myriad of concerts by nearly every damn band operating in Iceland (and some visiting ones too). It has provided many of them with much needed space to rehearse, grow, turn their hobbies and tinkerings into concrete structures, albums, blissful shows; untold hours of pure, clean fun with friends. It acts as a home to fifty bands of all styles and inclinations (although rock is surely the predominant form), so it can be assessed that well over 200 people, mainly youngsters, employ it to their benefit. Many of the great acts you saw at last year’s Airwaves festival, they’ve been hanging out there a whole lot.
Comfortable and safe practice spaces, a bunch of 40m2 rooms each shared by 2-3 bands, are TÞM’s biggest draw. Bands are unpopular tenants in Reykjavík’s garages, which are commonly over-priced, under heated and vulnerable to burglars wanting to make a quick few thousand króna. Even those places are hard to come by. TÞM’s practice spaces are relatively available and they’re monitored by a security service, so their popularity is understandable. For these amenities, and others, bands will pay 25.000 ISK per month.

Hardly Getting Over It
One of TÞM’s more popular features, especially among the all-ages crowd, is a spacious concert venue, Hellirinn (‘The Cave’), which can play host to up to 300 patrons and offers a slew of professional PA and lighting equipment most garage bands have a hard time gaining access to. “It’s just a real comfortable place to play,” says Birkir Fjalar Viðarsson, frontman of local hardcore legends I Adapt, who’ve played close to a dozen shows there. “It’s the best all-ages venue available in the area. Throwing a show at Hellirinn means you can concentrate on just playing the music. It’s free of all the hassle that comes with playing bars and the like, renting a PA, having your equipment stolen, dealing with shitty sound and annoyed staff.”
Plans are also underway to install a professional recording facility on the premises that would serve as a haven for fledgling musicians making their first forays into committing their sounds to plastic. That might not happen, however, as TÞM could be seeing its last months of operation, as the organization behind it is waist-deep in debt. Repeated calls for added public funding, most recently with a giant all-day concert event at Listasafn Íslands entitled ‘Steel Meets Steel’, have been steadfastly ignored by city and government officials alike. So it’s likely that this valiant effort will come to a close sometime during the next six months and those 50 bands, those 200-plus musicians, will thus soon be on the prowl for garages and basements. Not to mention a kick-ass concert venue.
Although things seem bleak at the moment, TÞM manager Daniel Pollock seems unabashedly optimistic when we meet for a conversation in his very own TÞM practice space. Pollock is a rocker in his own right, making a name for himself playing alongside his brother Michael and pop star Bubbi Morthens, among others, in Iceland’s infamous punk pioneers Utangarðsmenn. He is, as always, working on a multitude of musical endeavours while overseeing TÞM’s day-to-day activities and searching for ways to keep it in operation. He seems more interested in talking about the various projects TÞM has spurred and its ambitious plans for the future, than any problems with running it, although those concerns inevitably get aired.

Expendable Youth
Pollock claims TÞM has had some very positive effects on the Reykjavík music scene and its participants, not least the youngsters who are entering the field and need help realizing their visions and ideas. This is echoed by the kids I speak to while there, and on numerous on-line chat boards. It might be said that aside from the practice spaces and concert venue, TÞM also offers a resource for bands in other respects. Advice from some of the veteran musicians operating there is often invaluable, according to Pollock. He says that a camaraderie and community is formed with the musicians, them bouncing ideas around and finding inspiration from one another, all under the tenet of mutual respect.
“There are no rules, that’s the only rule,” Pollock says. While that’s strictly speaking not completely true (there is, for instance, a total ban on the use of intoxicants on the premises), TÞM seems more about offering these kids a place and the freedom to do their own thing than preaching the values of hard work and clean living. If those get transferred along the way, then that’s all the better. “There are guidelines, but we mainly demand that the bands show each other and themselves some respect. That’s a key factor. There are other places to drink, we play our music here, we do this kinda shit here… if you want to do the other thing, then you’ve got to go somewhere else. This is a place of creation, work, and the kids respect that.
“Everybody needs a place to do what they’re gonna do, and there’s so few places left,” he continues. “This scene has always been so disorganized, but now we have this collective here and we can get things done more easily, pass the information along, exchange ideas and help each other make them a reality. And we’re seeing some results. Bands that work or have worked here run their gambit all around town, Iceland Airwaves, Culture Night, whatever is going on, they come and go. Look at Airwaves, the bands were better prepared this time around than ever.”
And he believes it’s a result of some of their experiences at TÞM. “It’s almost like a rock and roll high school, we get people here who don’t know anything about getting a good live sound, setting up a show, but after practicing here and associating with their peers they get familiar with the tools of the trade. Those with the experience will pass it on, give guidance and answer questions but that’s the extent of it. You still have to do it yourself, with all the freedom that entails. That’s the best way.”

Fight Fire With Fire
Lanky 19-year-old student Benjamin Mark Stacey is quick to agree with Pollock’s sentiment. His band, Sudden Weather Change, have been honing their craft at TÞM for little under a year, and he even took on a part-time job as an attendant there. He says he spends most of his free time at TÞM and that he has witnessed many exciting happenings at the premises since he started going last year. “The metal bands are incredibly diligent at throwing concerts, they do an excellent job at that. And, you know, it’s a nice place to hang out and meet people.” As he tells me this, a tall, longhaired blonde dude passes, a whole three guitars strapped to his torso. A shorter dude deftly follows him, lugging drums. Always something going on.
An hour earlier, Pollock explained TÞM’s current financial plight, and that if governmental and municipal authorities reject their call for support they will have to close down in a matter of months. He tells me they are asking for 12 million ISK in support annually, which is half the yearly cost of running the facilities. “I’ve been working on this project for five years and we keep telling them the same thing year after year, over and over again. We’ve gotten the best responses so far this year, but then come the other complications, ‘cause we are in major debt and we need to sell the house. Then some council members might think that the owners of the house [actually Pollock himself, and a business associate] will make a tremendous amount of money. That’s fucked up, but the owners are businesspeople, we [the TÞM organization] have never owned anything, we’ve always rented. That’s the way it should be done.”
What Pollock is perhaps confusingly referring to is the fact that the area which TÞM is based in, Grandi, has recently been named as a likely candidate for being developed into a residential area, thereby driving property values up considerably. While this means that he and his business associate will likely get a fair amount of money when they sell the house, the partnership is still not connected with TÞM and its operation, and no funding earmarked for TÞM will find its way into the owners’ pockets. The two entities are entirely unconnected. “The house needs to be sold, the owners [sic] are already in minus and the need to sell it to bring the debt to zero. Then we’ll rent it off the new owners while we develop this further and then find a bigger, larger location when the time comes. There are bands waiting for a space here right now.”

5-4 = UNITY
The responsible officials are finally starting to take notice, according to Pollock, although that has yet to bear any fruit. Meetings with government officials are lined up, and Pollock seems hopeful that they will turn in some positive results. “The city council received many, many e-mails from all sorts of people regarding this, somewhere around 3,000. We have 700 union members, aside from all the other artists and foreign bands that have performed here, so we have a group. And there’s power in unity, we have a political force of sorts, with parents, grandparents and concertgoers. I calculate that somewhere around 30,000 people pass through here annually. Responses have been getting better, but they’re still up and down because this is new and they don’t know how to take it. But I think they’re finally getting it through their heads that this is a very important part of the local culture, and will only grow in importance as time progresses.”
Twelve million ISK annually may seem steep for some, but compared to the public funding some other hobbies receive, it’s only a drop in the ocean of, say, the hundreds of millions poured into the heavily disputed symphony hall under construction in downtown Reykjavík. Grapevine’s correspondents from the music scene also consistently point to public funds earmarked for sports activities. But not bitterly, they all just seem to feel that their respective hobby deserves the same amount of support the others seem to warrant. Lest we forget, the City of Reykjavík and the whole of Iceland continually take pride in a vibrant music scene and use it to their benefit, for instance in marketing Iceland to foreigners.

…Still Don’t Get It
Says Birkir Fjalar Viðarsson, not afraid to raise his voice: “I know kids will always find ways to play their rock if they want it bad enough. But if we really want this scene to flourish, I believe some support is in order. There’s more room for creation if you’ve got a decent space to create in and some resources. And I’ve learned through my work with teenagers [Viðarsson works as a counsellor in a Reykjavík youth community centre] that for every kid that’s into sport, there’s a kid who’s into being in a band, going to shows and following his favourite groups around.
“Literally thousands of youths in Iceland prefer this hobby to sports. And the lack of support for their dreams and aspirations makes me feel kinda like officials are ignoring the needs of one of their kids, while pampering the other. Other Scandinavian countries have been providing support for these activities for decades. The idea of TÞM is old-hat there, and has given various results, hell, even stimulated the economy. If the state wants to partake in various recreational activities, that’s fine, I’m all for that, but they can’t be hypocritical and pander to one half and not the other. That’s unfair and unreasonable.”
An assumption one could make at this point is that Reykjavík’s interest in all things rockin’ has finally grown to the level that demands action and support on behalf of the powers that be, not unlike what happened with the sports movement early in the 20th century. There are enough kids with fresh guitars, drums, keyboards and basses out there that want to pursue their passions that an overhead organization such as TÞM is sorely needed. And TÞM is providing steady ground now, with years of experience and know-how, not to mention passion for the work, already there. Pollock concurs: “This is a golden opportunity, and if people look at the big picture over a long term, they will find that something like this is needed, and we have it right here, now. A whole industry can build around this, whether it be with instrument stores, repair shops, sound engineers, studios… there are so many aspects to this if you expand the scope to 10 or 20 years. Even since I started with The Outsiders (Utangarðsmenn) I’ve seen an economy build up around rock.”
And there’s still room for one more comparison to the sports movement: “It takes a tremendous amount of money to run a sports arena, but it’s used consistently. And we use this more than that is used, ‘cause there’s something going on here from noon ‘til midnight, sometimes all night long, constantly. And we’re really only getting 20% of what we need right now. The people in charge need to understand the possibilities, that this is an important thing that needs to be supported. That this is for the future. Otherwise, these groups will end up on the street.”

I Wanna Rock!
When leaving TÞM after a long conversation with Daniel Pollock, I am drawn to the sounds of someone wailing metal on an electric guitar, spewing out riffs and licks that tickle my inner Slayer-fanboy. I cautiously enter and am confronted with a couple of longhaired Spicoli-ish dudes ragging on their Flying-V’s and Dime’ model Deans. They have huge amps. They are shy boys, and comprise the guitar section of two-year-old thrash-metal band Blood Feud. They write lyrics about serial killers, and God. They love it here, and they love playing music, their band practices three times every week, and they hope to get in even more practice time in their new, less-crowded room. Soon, they will record their demo. And they fund their hobbies with their summer-jobs.
“Of course our dream is to get to play music all the time, tour the world. We’re working on that. We’ve played four shows here in Hellirinn, and one at Kaffi Amsterdam. The difference is great; the sound in Hellirinn and all the gear provided is awesome. At Amsterdam, we get beer however, so that’s good.”
I ask them how they would feel if TÞM closed down. “Man, well, that would fucking suck.”

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