From Iceland — Where’s The Party?

Where’s The Party?

Published June 26, 2024

Where’s The Party?
Photo by
Joana Fontinha

Grasping the current state of live music venues in Reykjavík

We’ve all been talking about it: the live venue scene of Reykjavík is in flux. It’s easy to feel pessimistic as you see your favourite places reducing their hours, moving, or shutting down altogether. But, in an effort to inspire some optimism, let’s talk about those who are doing something about it.

Smekkleysa, for one, is stepping up. Their Hjartatorg shopfront wears many hats: record store, coffee house, bar, art gallery and live music venue. Prolific and integral to the Icelandic music scene, the independent record label is ubiquitous in the story of the last 50 years of Icelandic music — long before the shop moved into this new space in 2021. Now, the downstairs record shop area has been transformed into a place that can convert more easily into a venue space. And the Smekkleysa team has been quick to put it to use.

No genres, no limits

“There’s no music genre [that Smekkleysa limits itself to]” explains Smekkleysa employee and musician Örlygur Steinar Arnalds, when asked about the company’s criteria for booking artists. “We just keep it in the same tradition it has always been, a lot of more grassroots stuff, more experimental stuff, but then there’s also whatever. We’re open for whatever.”

I just hope that the city recognises the lack of venues for smaller bands and artists. That they do something about it.

The parallel ethos of releasing genre-spanning music on their label and booking genre-spanning shows bodes well for the music performed at Smekkleysa. In the past few months alone, the space has hosted everything from folksy performances fundraising for this summer’s Hátíðni and a pop-up show from American comedian and musician Reggie Watts, to Skrattar who self-describe as the “most dangerous pop band in Iceland.”

What’re you up to the next full moon?

Another big attraction of Smekkleysa is the Mánakvöld (“Moon Night”) events. Whether be a Snjótungl (“snow moon”), Ormatungl (“worm moon”), or a Úlfatungl (“wolf moon”), most months Björk and a variety of her friends host a night of live performances and DJ sets.

“It’s really amazing. Iceland is really lucky to see these artists for free. It’s kind of ridiculous,” Örlygur says with a laugh, to which I completely agree. In the past year, a smattering of Iceland-based artists and DJs have joined Björk on stage, as have international artists such as sega bodega and Arca.

The attendance is, frankly, always insane. It packs not just the record shop, but concertgoers are also cramming the staircase and the bar, and spilling out onto the street. Not only have I met Björk superfans who have flown into Iceland for these nights, but you can usually find most artists of the young experimental music scene in attendance.

Over the course of its 40-years, a throughline in the history of the label is the continued participation of co-founder Einar Örn Benediktsson (Kukl, Sugarcubes, Purrkur Pillnikk). As Smekkleysa recently made room for a gallery space, the exhibition Örn&Orn opened on May 16; a collaboration between Einar Örn and artist Davíð Örn Halldórsson.

“A lot of the Smekkleysa people are also visual artists, so it just made sense as something to do in the space,” Örlygur says. In a similar style to some of the works in the exhibition, the murals adorning both entrances are also painted by Einar Örn.

Around town

Our conversation shifts from the present to the future as I ask Örlygur how he feels about the current state of Reykjavík venues. “I just hope that the city recognises the lack of venues for smaller bands and artists — that they do something about it because it’s getting to a quite dire situation now,” he remarks.

It shows people want weirder, more exciting music. There is some hope.

Smekkleysa isn’t alone in taking steps to change the situation. As the Grapevine reported recently, Iðnó is also making an effort to book more experimental shows, while LEMMY hosts events to give musicians and bands a platform for their first performances. Both spaces are booked by Agnes Hlynsdóttir. As if underscoring the importance of Iðnó and Smekkleysa’s approach, electronic group ex.girls played two release concerts for their album Verk in April — one at each venue.

Another institution continuing the pattern of record shops offering a lot more is 12 Tónar. With consistent vinyl DJ sets, the store is also moving towards more live music events.

“Since we opened the bar, we have been having live shows on a more regular basis,” explains 12 Tónar’s Einar Þór Kristjánsson. “But the ideology has been the same from the start — to keep on hosting legendary concerts with all kinds of different bands, new and old, and all kinds of music genres. We think it’s not about the genres or where you come from, but about the music.”

Closing time? Already?

A tough limitation for Smekkleysa and others is their hours. On weekends, Smekkleysa isn’t open past 9 p.m., while Iðnó closes around 11 p.m., and 12 Tónar locks up at 1 a.m. Reykjavík — and by extension, the concertgoers — has lost a lot of those spaces that stay open until the early morning hours.

In the space of legendary venues of Reykjavík past is Radar, housed in what used to be Húrra. The electronica-forward club proudly maintains a 5 a.m.-ish closing time. Shortly after Radar opened, their basement branched out as a separate venue booked by DRIF founder and electronic artist Jamesendir.

Though small, the cave-like space is the perfect spot for techno and is reminiscent of spaces outside of Iceland that Jamesendir and the Radar staff hope to emulate. Especially on these nights in the basement, Örlygur notes that they’re packed. “It shows people want weirder, more exciting music,” he ruminates. “There is some hope.”

Björk’s next Moon Night takes place on June 22 at Smekkleysa, with special guest Mica Levi.

Keep informed about what Smekkleysa is up to on, Iðnó on, 12 Tónar @12_tonar, Lemmy @lemmy_rvk, Radar @radar.reykjavik.


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