From Iceland — The Wild, Wild East

The Wild, Wild East

Published July 28, 2006

A circus of a town
As we drove into Seyðisfjörður, our eyes focused on the quaint pool of ocean water stretching from the fjord ahead of us and into the centre of the little town, complete with a cute little bridge and a dog blissfully splashing in the water, we headed straight for the only sign of life we saw: a girl wearing a striped business suit standing on the roof of a lean-to.
From a hundred metres away I could see that she was yelling something, but I couldn’t make out what it was. As we drove closer, now with our windows rolled down and the music turned off, I could just barely make out what she was saying.
“Why didn’t you come to my birthday?” she yelled out, now pretending to cry, smearing the black painted bags under her eyes and white paint covering the rest of her face. “I’m talking to you! Don’t you like me? Look at me!” pathetically, she plopped down on the edge of the roof and stared down.
Following her gaze, I saw that she wasn’t alone; below her in the parking lot of Seyðisfjörður’s community centre was a group of teenagers, all dressed in the same awkwardly formal business attire with their faces void of colour, skulking around and shouting.
Driving through town, every phrase I heard was more ridiculous than the next. One guy, his face smeared with thick globs of grey paint, was selling free time, or rather, selling time… for free. A girl with thick black sunglasses covering most of her face was selling strips of white paper, which she said were “borderlines” while yet another was trying to vend air muffins with the selling point that they were fat-free.
Finally, deciding this scene was well worth a closer look, we parked the car and got out to join a woman and a little kid on a bicycle intently watching a young man standing on the roof of a house across the road. The woman, obviously one of his kind, was singing. “Jump!” she yelled, “jump now!”
The guy, pacing back and forth on the steep roof, kept losing his nerve to jump off, and finally just took to staring up at the sky.
“Life sucks,” he let out with a low whine. The kid below, obviously not getting that this was some sort of street theatre, or perhaps just getting it more than everyone else, stood laughing and pointing up in the air.
“Jump then!” he said, now getting on his red bike to move on to taunt another unhappy artist. “Life doesn’t suck. Life is cool, you’re just an asshole jumping off a roof.”
Turning from the suicidal business-clown-man I passed the woman, now idling in the middle of the road. “Avoid all that; get invisible,” she said, looking straight at me and reaching out her hands holding a stack of birthday hats and a sign that read “invisibility hat 500£.”
The offer was rhetorical, I suppose, as her attention shifted quickly from my bewildered smile to that of my photographer across the street, and slowly, almost comatose, she shuffled her legs towards the sidewalk, to the great relief of the cars now lining up behind her. I headed toward the community centre parking lot. Bathed in the sparkling morning sun, a group of young women sat in the grass, each one looking less pleased than the next and silently reading a different section of the newspaper. Not looking up at me as I passed, they didn’t seem to notice either the young man on a balcony behind them, with iPod headphones in his ears, screaming his lungs out.
Wanting to take in the full effect of the scene and perhaps figure out what the fuck was going on, I made my way over to a swing set, a refreshingly cheerful looking, normal swing set without any dramatic monologues, and sat down, but before I could even finish writing “street theatre satire?” in my notebook, the noise stopped. Just like that, they were all gone. In a matter of seconds, they had managed to get down from their intimidating heights, pick up the sagging corners of their mouths, and bolt.
No one was left but the kid on the red bike, blissfully riding up and down the empty street with an invisibility hat on his head and a fistful of shredded paper. “Borderline!” he said and laughed his evil little snicker, “Borderlines!”
Small talk in Little Lebanon
The emotional teenagers turned out not to be the disaffected youth of Seyðisfjörður, but rather members of L.ung.A’s (art festival of the young people of the east) art workshop. Having trained and performed all week, the instructors and participants in the workshops, all between the ages of 16-25, went out with a bang in a giant circus-like performance, of which their street theatre was only a preview.
The show was spectacular, complete with acrobatics, gymnastics, theatre, song and social commentary. This would, however and unfortunately, be my only glimpse of LungA’s enormous art programme that stretched the entire preceding week. What I got in heavy volumes instead was its musical peak: a “HUGE” six-hour concert event, a dance featuring Todmobile and the drunken balderdash inherent in any Icelandic social gathering.
An hour before the show was scheduled to start, me, my photographer and a fellow journalist decided to start preparing for what would surely be a long night. The three things I had expected to see in fantastic excess this weekend were thus far severely lacking: people, bands, and liquor. After hearing from Palli (Páll Ragnar Pálsson from the band Fræ) that he and his girlfriend had had to flee the campsite the night before since “it was like spending a night in Lebanon”, we decided to start there… at the campsite that is.
Entering one of the almost empty lots, we found neither booze nor bands, but instead two guys and a girl standing around a small portable grill on top of a picnic table. The grill, made essentially out of tin foil, had burned a hole through the centre of the table, and now sat sprawled over three thin strips of charcoaled wood. The three kids were staring at it blankly, from time to time pouring water from a beer bottle, neither amused nor dissatisfied with the outcome of their attempted lunch.
Beside the grill sat a pack of scorched hot dogs. “Has the groundskeeper seen this?” I asked. “Yeah,” one of the guys said and laughed, staring down as if still mesmerised by the long-gone fire. We small-talked, mostly about food and our desire to consume it, and after informing our new friends that the night’s festivities were indeed beginning in an hour, one of them casually replied, “That’s cool… I’ll just have to buy a couple of gallons of alcohol and drink from five to five.”
At the next lot, we found another small group, again two guys and a girl, sitting in lawn chairs, and again, staring off into space. They seemed to have little to say about the upcoming concert, except that last weekend had been “a lot crazier”, and that, all being from the east, none of them had travelled great distances to arrive here. Nonetheless, they all looked tired, dishevelled, and blissfully unaware of what was going on. If I had found any theme in the festivities so far, it was either “laid-back” or “hung-over”.
We drove out from the tent site still empty-handed, but within minutes seemed to be blessed by God’s grinning smile bathing the parking lot of the community centre in a heavenly light because there, shortly off in the distance, was every band member scheduled to play that evening. Miri, The Foreign Monkeys, Tony the Pony, Benny Crespo’s Gang, Sometime, Biggi and the Bigital Orchestra, Ghostigital, Fræ, and Ampop were scheduled to go on in an hour, in that order, but as of now, none of the bands had seen the line-up. Antsy as they must have been, no one looked too stressed, and casually huddled around the coordinator on the steps of the building, they listened quietly to his simple instructions for the evening. In an almost pep-talk-like but in no way desperate voice, the coordinator seemed to be saying “Let’s go now, let’s get this together. Make it professional. Make this good.”
Laid-back to maniac in 12 short hours
The concert drew a surprisingly large crowd right from its start, considering that it wasn’t even dinner time yet, and most of the crowd even looked excited to be there. I could tell because they had all dressed up, all of them. In their best mini skirts and leggings and classic pinstriped button-ups, Seyðisfjörður’s underage population crowded the entrance to the concert.
Miri took the stage first and started the night off with a good tone. Fading in and out of interesting meditations, the band’s heavy and often penetrating bass almost made up for a lack of vocals, and at its best moments, the incredibly tight but laid-back instrumentals became almost transcendental. The crowd was calm but interested, not overly enthusiastic but, dare I say it, laid-back. There was an overwhelming sense of comfort in the entire scene, as if these kids had invited these bands into their little niche, into this quiet and natural world of theirs for a night, and nothing could rush them.
Unassuming and clad in sweater vests, the four boys of The Foreign Monkeys picked up the intensity the second they walked on stage. Their short set was exactly what live shows are made for. With a pure-adrenaline stage performance, they managed, even at the very climax of their intensity, to throw out a few punches; the ground was not just vibrating, it was hopping. Singing into the music, rather than on top of it, Bjarki’s vocals provided the perfect amount of spontaneity to the performance, and when he finally pulled himself out of his rock-induced trance-like state, he looked like he was going to faint.
With the amount of energy the four tiny boys were throwing around on stage, the kids in the audience should have been throwing themselves around and flipping the fuck out of their perfectly groomed scene-hair-dos, but, alas, that intensity was left hanging in the air long after the boys left the stage, and, eventually settling on the dirty gym floor, was trampled on and carried out by someone’s chequered Vans.
The unfortunate task of following up the Monkeys came to Tony the Pony, and the drop in energy was more than noticeable. Pony was good but uninteresting, and the lead singer, in a vain attempt to engage the audience in his music on a superficial level, felt the need to thank the crowd after every song. Pony’s main problem perhaps was their mixing; the musicians all obviously knew what they were doing, but their catchy intros either got lost somewhere in the pile of sound or were simply just taken nowhere. In the last song, however, the band gave a glimpse of its potential, with a strong hook and vocals with some measurable force. In the end, however, the band still barely managed to transcend pointlessness, and the audience was left to wonder just what exactly they were trying to say.
The Benny Crespo’s Gang was a fireball of pensive and high intensity rock. Floating somewhere between a crackling electro pop and a heavy indie-coma, they produced unpretentious and deceivingly simple cogitations that hinged together into a melting pot of ideas and genres. The performance drew the most appreciative audience of the night, that is, appreciative in a sober kind of way, and a few people even felt the “groove” enough to take to sitting on the steps to the stage, smoking their cigarettes and swaying.
Sometime is a band I wish I could hate, yet, blending singer Diva De La Rosa’s high and drifty voice with unbearably catchy sound-mixing by Curver, Danni from Maus, and DJ Dice, they took the techno formula to a new level. The band was good at what they did, and the voice, while in many ways reflecting a techno crispness and sound, brought a human quality to the music. Not pretending to be anything other than it obviously was, shallow techno lounge music, Sometime managed to be impressively enjoyable.
From there the concert travelled a rocky downward slope. Biggi and the Bigital Orchestra did not impress, curling itself into a tighter and tighter ball of blah as their set went on; Birgir Örn’s vocals took over the whole production and left his diverse “orchestra” with little hope of creating anything interesting. Ghostigital redeemed the night a little bit with its usual stunning stream of consciousness awesomeness, and the crowd, now well into “tipsy” and heading for “wasted”, ate it up. Fræ’s performance was easy, but by then the crowd had grown so massive and eager for a good time that the band got the best reception of the night, even drawing a “More! More!” at the end of their set.
Ampop finished off the show with their expected glamour. The only band with lyrics that could stand on their own, they were also the only band that had to compete with the audience for vocal time; at the most sensitive of moments, and believe me, there were many, talking in the crowd overpowered singer Biggi. Despite that, the band performed with impressive professionalism while still managing to warm up to the crowd by removing various articles of clothing.
The sweet scent of bile
With the concert over, and now with a steady ringing in my left ear, I suspected that I was probably the only person who had watched what turned out to be a full seven hours of concert time. Indeed even my travel mates had been unable to stand the full length of the concert, and had wandered in and out and spent a good portion of the night drinking and relaxing with some of the earlier performers. From what I heard about the happenings outside the concert hall, people seemed to be taking things at their own pace, letting the alcohol and fog steadily creeping into the fjord wash over them.
As the night went on, however, the kids, aged everywhere between late teens and late twenties, started to feel unfulfilled. And so, coming out into the parking lot after the show, I found the place transformed. What had once been a fresh breath of unpolluted air in a natural play land, the east’s niche of culture, now looked a lot like Laugavegur on a Friday/Saturday night. This was unmistakably the festival’s tense end.
Sitting on a small wall overlooking the scene, I tried to find in the air a final whiff of the day’s earlier comfort and calm charm. Just below my feet a young kid vomited a steady pool of bile into an oversized flower pot and to my right, almost simultaneously, a pair of wool-sweater-clad guys in their early twenties started a spitting fight, eventually resorting to their beers for added juice.
Driving past the community centre on our way out of town the next morning we saw a trio of old men hosing down the parking lot. Almost unable to stand behind the force of the giant fire-truck hoses, they nonetheless had managed to wash away all the alcohol, bodily fluids, cigarettes and general filth left behind the night before. While the youth slept away the morning, the town had gotten up with the sun, had a cup of coffee and ironed out the wrinkles in its nicest party dress. By anyone’s standards, the concert had been a success, and with L.ung.A, Seyðisfjörður had indeed managed to bring a slice of Reykjavík culture to its isolated post. Even if, by the end of the night, the comfortable tranquillity embracing the town had disappeared, in the morning there were people who understood its value enough to want to bring it back.
As I saw last night’s puke wash into the gutter, I finally caught a whiff of something in the air. Something not related to the digestive process. Reykjavík was a million kilometres away from here, and for a moment, I was smelling the fantasy of Seyðisfjörður.
Car provided by Hertz Car Rental, Fluvallarvegei,
101 Reykjavík, Tel.: 505-0600
Accommodations provided by Hótel Edda, Tel.: 444-4000,

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