From Iceland — Oh Say Can Oh Sees

Oh Say Can Oh Sees

Published July 5, 2013

Oh Say Can Oh Sees
Ragnar Egilsson

ATP has been a trailblazer in many ways. For instance, it paved the way for the festivals targeting thirtysomething music fans that (supposedly) wanted to hear bands from their youth playing milestone LPs in their entirety with comfier accommodations. Coincidentally, this generation is the last generation of music fans to grow up in a world where you had to obsessively scrounge for music and pay for the privilege (unless you could blag a compact disc as a music critic). The aging music geek demographic is now big business, and we are only going to see more events catering to that crowd.
ATP also may have given us the concept of the franchise festival as the original festival has produced new versions around the world. But this has not left us with one main “mother festival” and inferior copies scattered around the globe, but rather a type of binary fission.
The main website hosts a calendar of events around the world that all bear the All Tomorrow’s Parties label and—unlike the Ted Talks conference offshoots—there is no longer anything which can be deemed the “main event.”
Finally, the original UK version was held during the off-season, to take advantage of summer resorts that would otherwise go unused. As the franchise grew, other venues came into use and some of the versions migrated to the traditional summer festival season.
The Icelandic ATP takes place at the NATO base left behind by the American navy when they flew off to occupy new nests and lay explosive eggs. It’s been a bittersweet experience for me to return to the base, as my dad worked there for most of my youth. This was the place where I first got to go trick-or-treating with the army brats. The first time I drank a grape soda. The first time I saw a machine gun.
As a teenager I wound up working for a construction company in Keflavík that was doing work inside the base. Every day we’d get ushered in by the same armed guards from my youth, in the back of a pickup truck driven by our narcoleptic foreman, chewing amphetamine like tic-tacs to avoid passing out on the dashboard and insisting that he had never masturbated in his life. One of the jobs was to lay these massive rubber slabs around the playgrounds, presumably to bounce the kids to safety were they to tumble off the slides (thusly avoiding litigation). We were specifically instructed never to take our shirts off while inside the base to avoid offending the delicate sensibilities of the women and children. Over-protective and lawsuit-prone, a sliver of American morality had followed the navy into the barbed wire enclosure.
Later still, about six years ago, when the area had been completely abandoned, I was working with a local phone company switching out their electrical systems and router connectors to match the Icelandic telecommunication standards (the navy had always insisted on maintaining an American infrastructure—which made sense in terms of electrical outlets but less sense when they started chlorinating the Icelandic water). One day, after work, my friend and I came for a visit, scouting locations for this zombie film we had written. I never came to be, but the way the base looked back then it wouldn’t have needed much set dressing—with filing cabinets and sofas lining the hallways, abandoned gyms overlooking jagged lava fields, security gates pried open and row after row of flaking Eastern-European apartment blocks with the wind whistling through.
All of this was going through my mind as I travelled through the gates to take part in the Icelandic ATP festival. Bittersweet, nostalgic, semi-abandoned. These feelings aren’t a bad fit for the festival. A bunch of old farts like me reliving the past. Joining hands and singing kumbaya around our generation’s cultural beacons.
I’ve managed to resist the pull of the past up until now, maybe because I never really glommed onto the musical zeitgeist of my youth. The grunge never really spoke to me, a lot of the mid-‘90s indie bored me to tears and I didn’t get into hip-hop until much later. In fact, I don’t think music has ever been as interesting as right now, in the days post obsessive scrounging when an endless flow of exciting new music is right at our fingertips. And speaking of the issue of cultural access—I wonder if the, reportedly, disappointing ticket sales for ATP might be due to the Icelanders, now in their 30s and 40s, growing up in a very isolated country where a lot of the hip new bands either passed us by or were picked up after their heyday. Whatever the reason, the ‘90s legends had arrived and it was time for us to get sucked into the past.

The official festival bus left Reykjavík at five, which meant that we arrived there a good two hours after the official ATP programme had started. Exiting the bus in front of the Atlantic Studios stage, I was drawn mid-way into the melancholic motorik of Apparat Organ Quartet.
The band was grinding away mid-way through their set. The song selection gave a nice overview of the band’s long but not overly productive career. It was fantastic to hear “10 Rokkstig” from the Dís soundtrack again. Although strictly speaking part of Jóhann Jóhannson’s solo oeuvre, it’s such a perfect showcase for their mix of machine-like precision and heartbreaking synths.
Now, I will definitely catch some flak from my metal friends from saying this, but múm is one of my favourite Icelandic bands. It’s just easy to forget when you haven’t seen them play for years. They were coming fresh off a tour of Asia and were in fighting form (or as close as tender indietronica can get to fighting form). Former front-woman Gyða Valtýsdóttir returned, and I had forgotten how much I miss those twins with their wispy, whispering waif ways. It was a fucking magical set. Mesmerizing. Waves of nostalgia washing over me. The best set of the night—if Thee Oh Sees hadn’t shown up.

A deal with the wrong deity
Nick Cave must have made a deal with the wrong deity, because God only knows how Mark E. Smith of The Fall was able to stay upright the whole set while Cave took a tumble. The Fall were as usual, Mark E. Smith—a roaring, drunken, toothless lion—and whatever group of patient session musicians he was able to fool into the role of babysitter. The first two songs consisted of Mark repeating the words “We are-eugh The Fall-eugh” in lieu of the lyrics he had lost along with his mind. The band was able to jostle him back into gear by playing Strychnine by The Sonics, but it was a brief respite from what must have been the most chaotic Fall gig I’ve seen yet (and that’s saying something). Mark was present for about 60% of the set and conscious for 0% of it. While present, he spent his energies twiddling with the amps and smashing his hand on the keyboard while the band struggled to keep Uncle Dissonance Madfuck from gnawing their faces off.

The recently reformed Botnleðja were a rare treat for the Icelanders and a puzzling addition for the foreigners. Essentially a pop-punk band with some grunge and indie elements—not quite lowbrow enough to be Slayer and not quite highbrow enough to be Deerhoof. But for those of us who grew up listening to them…we couldn’t have been happier. A tight, loud set of sing-along punk that hadn’t aged a day since I saw them win the Icelandic Battle of the Bands in 1995. The only point I saw people really dance during the Friday line-up—unless you count Tilda Swinton at the Apparat gig. A flawless gig except for the circle-jerk in the last song, where a group of former collaborators were brought on stage to sing as a men’s choir for one of their new songs. Aside from feeling forced and sentimental, the new song sounded like some pub rock football chant and left me slightly annoyed.

The band I had been waiting for
Now it was time for the band I had been waiting for, Thee Oh Sees. ATP organizer, Barry Hogan’s, favourite live band currently active. I caught Thee Oh Sees playing at the Mercury Lounge in New York in 2009, urged to go by my friend Luigi. Back then, I came in not expecting much based on what I had streamed online and left with a pile of merch and a blown mind. For ATP Iceland, the singer was wearing his usual nevernude shorts and Alex James’s hair, the bassist in classic old school skinhead gear—both peeking at the crowd, chin-straddling their instruments. I don’t care how good the Nick Cave set is supposed to have been—this was as good as it gets for me. Psychedelic garage rock in all its glory—twitchy, taut, weird, violent, raw and repetitive.
My group and I did a brief 15 minute jog over to the Officer’s Club to catch some DJs but found out that that part of the schedule had been cancelled so we jogged right back to catch Ghostigital .
Ghostigital should be familiar territory to fans of The Fall. A non-stop stream-of-consciousness rant delivered by a domineering “vocal artist” over looping noise and raw beats. The only real difference being that Ghostigital is coming out of the electronic end of the spectrum. A fun gig but hardly exceptional by Ghostigital standards, and after ten solid hours of drunken nostalgia I was about ready to cradle my cheeseburger like a sad indie wreck at the back of the bus. I did. And it was glorious.

See also: Pre-Saturday Night Party Party – All Tomorrow’s Parties Iceland: Saturday

Bus trip to ATP festival provided by Reykjavík Excursions

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