From Iceland — The Mengi Set

The Mengi Set

Published October 17, 2014

In the heart of Reykjavík, an exciting new venue is carving itself a niche

The Mengi Set
Photo by
Axel Sigurðarson

In the heart of Reykjavík, an exciting new venue is carving itself a niche

Amongst the fast-changing merry-go-round of music venues in Reykjavík’s city centre, something unusual sprang up around last Christmas: a small, homely, unassuming performance space on Oðinsgata, called Mengi. It appeared quite suddenly, passed around initially only by word of mouth, but quickly become a well-liked venue hosting three shows a week for an intimate, fifty-strong audience.

One of the people behind Mengi is bassist, guitarist and composer Skúli Sverrisson. Having lived in New York for over two decades, Skúli had recently moved back to Reykjavík when the project began. “I had been living in a very big city for 25 years,” he says. “In New York there were so many venues for music, but there was always one space that would focus on creative music, improvised music, electronic music, contemporary music, and that one space would have an incredible impact on the music of that city. I wanted to replicate that in Reykjavík.”

In typical Reykjavík style, the founding group came together quite naturally. “There were four of us in the beginning—me, Bjarni Gaukur Sigurðsson, his wife Elizabeth, and Ólöf Arnalds. After Bjarni, who had been living in Holland, moved back to Iceland, we became friends and started a small label. That was the beginning of Mengi,” Skúli explains. “A space was just an idea we were talking about, because for this kind of activity, you’d need somewhere very specific, right in the centre of town. And then Ólöf Arnalds, who has an interest in real estate, found the perfect place, and we decided to just go ahead and do it.”

the mengi set

Mengi has a different atmosphere from most of Reykjavík’s bustling music venues. Its light walls have more in common with an art gallery than a bar environment (although a small selection of beer and wine is available to gig-goers at the entrance). The stage is almost bare, but for a couple of armchairs, standing lamps, bric-a-brac and furniture—an intentionally sparse design that creates gives the room its calm “culture-space” feeling.

“We wanted the space to be functional,” Skúli says, “to have the feeling we could have a dance performance, a lecture, or a music performance, or an exhibit of contemporary art. We’ve hosted all of those things, and the design creates the framework for that. We didn’t want to start a bar or a music club, there are many of those in Reykjavík who are doing a great job.”

Nevertheless, Mengi will join the Airwaves party this year by staging a series of off-venue shows in collaboration with Bedroom Community, Morr Music and the artists of the Mengi label. Like everything about this intriguing enterprise, there’s a feeling of natural flow about the collaboration.

“When we began, we sort of wanted the space itself to define the direction,” Skúli says. “We didn’t have a specific direction in mind—we opened the doors, set the tone by booking the first month, and then slowly it evolved into a community that was in some ways directed by us but also, just happened.”

And much like the connection of three indie labels for Mengi’s Airwaves programme, new musical projects and collaborations regularly take place on the room’s diminutive stage.

“There are many spaces and events in Reykjavík that present fully realised projects,” Skúli says. “In some ways we wanted to encourage experiments, and be a space where people can try things out. I have always felt that this is an important part of musical activity—it’s very interesting to see things that are not fully realised, and to see people take chances.”

“I like the idea that artists with ideas sitting on the back burner can bring them out for Mengi.”

It’s an approach that’s paid off, with a vital community of artists forming and often joining forces to perform outside of their usual music practise. And with every show priced at 2,000 ISK, the performers are always paid for their shows—not a given in the current live music climate.

“This payment model was based on the simple fact that it has become increasingly difficult for artists to generate income through new creative music,” says Skúli. “Mengi is our attempt to somehow correct this system, and motivate artists to present original music whilst being well compensated.”

For local and visiting performers alike, Mengi is a unique, artist-friendly space in which to try out new things, whilst for gig-goers, it offers the chance to engage with their favourite musicians in an exploratory, playful mode. “I like the idea that artists with ideas sitting on the back burner can bring them out for Mengi,” says Skúli. “It’s something I consider to be an important part of being a musician, and it’s very satisfying and interesting to watch that grow.”

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