From Iceland — Common Ground: Pavement In Iceland

Common Ground: Pavement In Iceland

Published August 4, 2023

Common Ground: Pavement In Iceland
Photo by
Joana Fontinha

The Reykjavik Grapevine attend the show by the trailblazing American indie collective.

It begins with the drums. As Pavement’s percussionist Steve West sets the pace for “Our Singer”, the opening track of the two-hour set at Eldborg, other members, Bob Nastanovich, Stephen Malkmus, Scott Kannberg, Mark Ibold and session keyboard player Rebecca Cole, appear one by one, each greeted by fans with a wave of cheer and applause. The clapping gradually becomes a percussive element. By the time all six are on stage, there is an undeniable sense of communion as if the audience were part of the band.

For Pavement, the show at Harpa is the first-ever live appearance in Iceland. The three-day series of gigs takes place nearly four months after the Icelandic residency of American alternative rockers Wilco, organised by the same team of promoters, Pilgrimage of Sound.

One of the US-based attendees denoted constituent elements of the Pavement culture as […]: “stoned slackers, Byronic Americans, The Simpsons humour”.

Both Pavement and Wilco are emblematic not just of the 90s American alternative sound but also of a certain mindset and lifestyle. One of the US-based attendees denoted constituent elements of the Pavement culture as the following: “stoned slackers, Byronic Americans, The Simpsons humour”. The audience on Saturday night consists mostly of Stateside visitors including celebrities. Actors Charlie Day and Mary Ellis, more famous as Charlie the Janitor and the Waitress from the sitcom It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, pose for selfies and mix with the happy spectators.

Indie-rock in high-brow Eldborg

A by-product of American culture, the phenomenon of Pavement is yet not alien to Icelanders. In contrast to Thursday and Saturday, featuring support acts Skakkamanage and Mammút respectively, the Friday show was well attended by locals, some of whom – including the entire line-up of Dr Gunni – also came to witness the return of indie-rockers Botnleðja. On the final day, some Icelandic fans tell The Reykjavik Grapevine they have seen two previous shows and are happy to come again.

Although seeing such acts as Mammút and Pavement in a seated space of high-brow Eldborg is a somewhat unusual experience, both bands seem comfortable in this sterile environment. Regardless of the setting, Mammút are captivating. The show at Harpa is the first since their previous appearance at Hljómahöll, Keflavík, where they supported Thurston Moore in October 2022. The band’s sensual goth-tinged music and charismatic presence are imbued with a personal experience: lead singer Katrína Mogensen performs while pregnant with her third child.

With Pavement, the venue’s trademark acoustics augment the sound, adding an almost Dolby Atmos effect. In the refined echo chamber of Harpa, their guitar-powered, melody-led songs obtain shoegaze overtones – the impression which is also shared by the band members. “I saw that song on social media last night, we really sounded like My Bloody Valentine,” says Bob Nastanovich, after they finish playing “Perfume-V” from the debut full-length album Slanted and Enchanted. “Nah, they sounded like us,” Stephen Malkmus counters wittily.

A familial event

Humour and fun have been integral to their performance throughout the band’s career. Reviewing their show at CBGB’s for Melody Maker in 1991, Simon Reynolds described Pavement as a collective suffering “from the American disease — a self-deflating fear of appearing to take themselves seriously.” Their banter between numbers and occasional waltzing with the roadies create enough moments to make everyone amused and to be reminded the gig can be treated as a family occasion.

Ultimately, the conventional boundary between the band and the audience dissolves. While many fans travelled here with their families, Pavement also brought their closest ones. Some of them are backstage. Stephen Malkmus’s daughter Sunday is a crew member, helping him and others between the songs when they need to change instruments.

Their banter between numbers and occasional waltzing with the roadies create enough moments to make everyone amused and to be reminded the gig can be treated as a family occasion.  

A day earlier, she, her mother Jessica Hutchins as well as three Pavement members joined the Reykjavik Music Walk hosted by local guide Arnar Eggert Thoroddsen. The tour ended with Bob Nastanovich telling the story of his first encounter with Björk in 1995 at the Tibetan Freedom Concert when he unwittingly stepped on her jacket that she had left on the ground in a photo shoot tent. “I would certainly apologise if we met again,” Nastanovich tells The Grapevine shortly before the Saturday show.

Coming to Reykjavik eighteen years after meeting Björk, Nastanovich says that he was aware of Icelandic music before the commercial breakthrough of The Sugarcubes. “Stephen [Malkmus] and I did college radio from 1985 to 1988 and I remember we got quite a few pretty strange far-out Icelandic punk-rockers. We got some very unusual Icelandic stuff, such as a record by Kukl, which was pretty foreign-sounding to me and I couldn’t really grasp it.”

Despite the seemingly outlandish nature of some Icelandic bands, Steve West agrees that Pavement and the Reykjavik scene share a communal vibe. “This guide was talking about how many musicians are here and they all play in different bands. So when they come together sometimes there is whole like different influences coming together, maybe that has something to do with Iceland being experimental. It’s kind of how we were playing on the [Wowee Zowee] album.”

After their generous two-hour performance, Pavement finish the show with an encore including two songs, “Cut Your Hair” and “Fillmore Jive”, from their Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. Released in 1994, the album entered the Billboard chart and signposted further success. The show at Eldborg proves that the band has chosen an alternative path, doing things for themselves and the audience rather than the industry.

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