Downtown Reykjavík during Airwaves is something to see. Every shop seems to sprout a sound system, and live music is everywhere. Amongst the happy throng are the musicians making it happen, many playing the festival multiple times, running from venue to venue to make it to their own shows and still trying to catch their friends play, too.
It’s not an unusual sight to see cellists trundling their case up and down Laugavegur in a mad rush, or someone running around with a xylophone tucked under their arm, or a snare bag and drum sticks sticking out of their back pocket. Or for some lunchtime barbershop off-venue to start a few minutes late after one of the players has come sprinting up the stairs straight from their last show.
The stages of Airwaves are brought to life by an army of multi-tasking Icelandic musicians—drummers, bassists, guitarists, horn sections, string players, and sound-makers of pretty much any type one could think of. And because creative exploration and cross-pollination between bands is a big part of Reykjavík’s unique music culture, anyone who pays attention to the players at Airwaves will come to know certain faces particularly well.
This year, festivalgoers might see the faces of our cover stars more than any others. These five people are in a combined twenty-four bands and will play more than fifty shows over the five festival days. They are the busiest musicians of Airwaves 2014: Arnar Þór Gíslason (aka Addi), Silla Gísladóttir, Birkir Rafn Gíslason, Magnús Trygvason Eliassen (aka Maggi) and Hrafnkell Örn Guðjónsson (aka Keli). And we somehow managed to get them all together for a chat.
It seems unique to Iceland, and Airwaves, to have so many bands on the go at once, and so many musicians playing multiple shows. What’s up with that?
Arnar: It’s a tradition that started with the first Airwaves—everyone being in so many bands. It’s that way since it started, pretty much. It comes naturally.
Silla: It’s just a lot of fun playing music with your friends, or family, in some cases [points to Árnar and Birkir, who are married to sisters Lára and Margrét Rúnarsdóttir. They all play together in Rúnar Þórisson (Lára and Margrét’s father’s project)]. It happens naturally. For example, with Low Roar, I sang a song on the album, and then it was so much fun, you just end up joining the band. With Boogie Trouble, they were so much fun I was just like please, please, please! I’ll just do backing vocals! I’ll do whatever!
Is music a full-time job?
Arnar: I have a daytime job working at a music store in Reykjavík, and a family too.
Birkir: I also teach music to kids, on the side.
Maggi: That’s still a musician job!
Birkir: But I’m also a banker. Nei, djók.
Do you have to turn stuff down?
Maggi: I have to turn a lot down, but the bands I play with I really want to be a part of.
Arnar: I had a big dilemma the other day, when I had to turn down a project I really wanted to join. It was just impossible to say yes. I just wouldn’t be here!
Birkir: Why, where would you be?
Arnar: I’d be at home in the foetal position! We had just had a baby, so I had to say no. But it was really difficult! Two of my main bands are not even playing the festival!
Oh, so you guys have other bands that aren’t at Airwaves?
Silla: Yes! That’s a whole other question!
Maggi: If we’re counting all of the bands that aren’t playing Airwaves, it would actually take me quite a while to figure out how many they are. You end up forgetting about people who you’re working with if they’re inactive. I’ll, uhm… fax it to you.
Okay, I’ll buy more paper… so, how do you manage so many practices?
Arnar: By practising way too little!
Maggi: I actually practice quite a lot with all those bands.
Silla: You do?
Maggi: Yeah! Moses Hightower is writing six new songs for the festival, we’ve already done four. We need to start recording in December, we have some label pressure…
Silla: I tend to forget to practice my solo stuff. I go to so many band meetings and meet people, and then I’m like, oh fuck! You have to remember to practice it also. When you’re playing by yourself, you can just do it whenever, so it also gets postponed and postponed…
I guess playing in so many bands is musicianship practice in itself, so it’s more about… rehearsal?
Keli: Yes, when you’re playing a lot on tour, that’s kind of a practice for you—you get into a rhythm of knowing it all so well. But then you have to show up for practice with your other bands, even if you’ve been out playing every day! That becomes a thing—fitting it all in.
Arnar: It’s very important, I think—to keep it up.
On the record for the most Airwaves gigs:
Silla: Did you know that Maggi holds the record?
Maggi: No, I don’t! Ragga Gunnars has the record.
Silla: Is she the one running around with the trumpet?
Maggi: Yeah—I’m a single show behind her!
Everyone: NOOOO WAYYYYYY!
Silla: That’s crazy! Just one show.
Maggi: Two years ago, including all the KEXP sessions, I played twenty-five shows. And then, I forgot to get a replacement for a weekly jam session afterwards. I got a call at half past eight on Sunday evening, ”Where the fuck are you?” and I was like, “I’m at home!” and they said, “You’re supposed to be playing this three and half hour jam session at Faktorý!”
Silla: I remember that year of 25 gigs. You would run into the venue, white in the face, sweating all over, then run onstage sit down… and then play perfectly.
Maggi: That year had the worst weather ever.
Silla: Oh yeah! My case was like a sail, I have quite a diminutive frame, I thought I would fly off…
Arnar: Those windy Airwaves…
Maggi: That is the reason for me not playing so many off-venues any more!
Are you warming up? What are you doing in advance of the festival?
Maggi: Nothing! [laughs] Watching TV!
Arnar: Nothing. [pause] Which is a mistake I think. The week before the festival everyone will be like, well, we have to rehearse! And they forget we’re in a lot of other things—so it’ll be three or four bands rehearsals a day.
And do you have plans for after?
Birkir: I’m going on tour. On the Sunday.
Arnar: How long?
Birkir: Five weeks!
Everyone: WOOOAH SJÍT MAÐUR!
Do you have favourite venues to play?
Arnar: I’m happy anywhere. Every slot has its own charm. Whether it’s 7 o’clock at Frederiksen, or wherever—I just love it.
Maggi: I used to fucking hate Amsterdam. The PA was absolute shit.
Silla: It was a difficult room… all that glass…
Maggi: Yeah, and the sound was horrendous. The PA was making this sound—not feedback—just a ‘BEEEEEEEEP’. Absolute. Horse. Shit.
Silla: Have they fixed it up? Is it still an on-venue?
Arnar: Yeah. They have fixed it up now, it’s called Frederiksen.
Birkir: That whole area is getting really nice now—Húrra, Gaukurinn, Frederiksen—that might be the cool place to be at Airwaves this year.
Silla: I agree with the first speaker!
Maggi: I like the first speaker!
Keli: For me it’s great to be at as many different venues as possible I think—to experience as many different places across a four-day period as possible.
Silla: Yeah, you see different sides to the music, different rooms, different atmospheres.
When did you play your first Airwaves? How do you feel about how it’s changed over the years?
Arnar: I played the first one, and I think every Airwaves since. One of them wasn’t exactly an… on-venue. In Dr Spock, we played on a flatbed truck, going around the streets, with this fire guy…
Silla: Are you the only one who’s played at every Airwaves?
Arnar: I don’t know, I couldn’t say that for sure… I love it now, I love the smaller venues, not such big hangar spaces and “big names”—I like the way it has turned out. Smaller bands, newer bands, a nice vibe.
Silla: They keep it as festival that’s about discovering new music. So you might as well go and see something, anything—it’s all about running around seeing a bunch of shows, seeing something new, rather than what you already know you like. They have stayed true to that.
Maggi: In the last few years I have played so many shows that I haven’t really seen anything. What I’m looking forward to doing is meeting up and having coffee with all the roadies at Harpa. I’m not kidding! It’s really good fun! They are as stressed as we are, running around being all like, “Who’s next on?” It’s fantastic!
Keli: I can never really see what I’d want to see. So one of the “thrills of the festival” for me is that, given I can’t really pick, between those crazy moments, I just go to a random venue and see a random band. I’ll just point at something and see anything. That’s pretty cool, I look forward to that.
Birkir: The weather is so much worse now—the wind, the cold—since it got later.
People who come here from elsewhere get very taken with Airwaves as a special festival. Why do you think that is?
Arnar: I have a hard time answering that because my experience of it, of any festival, is very different from the people coming to listen. I can imagine it’s unique to come here to Iceland, to all these small venues, these tiny bars…
Maggi: I kind of look at it as a gathering of a lot of my friends and people I know. Musicians. I tend not to go to shows before I play, or even sometimes after—if I’ve played four shows in a day, I don’t really have the attention span left to watch a whole show. So it feels like me sitting backstage, smoking a cigarette or drinking a coffee with people I know and my fellow musicians. I really enjoy that. I do see shows, though, of course, on occasion.
Silla: You can’t really do much more. If you’re constantly giving it out, it’s hard to take it in. I too listen to one or two songs then I have to leave. It can be a little too much stimuli.
There are 41 new Icelandic bands playing this year, and they broke the record of rejected local acts—200. Have any news bands caught your ear? How do you feel about the health of the scene?
Silla: It’s in great shape! It’s a healthy beast!
Maggi: There’s a band Keli is in that caught my eye—Young Karin. I’ve only heard you online, I haven’t seen you play yet…
Keli: Come to Gaukurinn!
Arnar: This new band Himbrimi that Birkir is in has caught my eye…
Silla: Hmmm, do they have to be playing the festival? I really like this band Cryptochrome—a husband and wife, twisted hip-hop… super good. And Soffía Björg also, a singer-songwriter—she’s really, really good. Great songs, and a great voice.
How does it go with the scheduling? Figuring out your own trajectory through the festival?
Arnar: Egill Tómasson sent me an email asking what bands I was in. He does a really good job of it, I don’t know how he does it.
Keli: Nobody knows!
Silla: I’m never playing twice on the same day, too, except off-venues.
Maggi: Two years ago he called me, an emergency call. I forgot to tell him about one band I was in, and it was crazy, action stations—he called me up and was very nice, and said, “Can you come into the office?” So we had a two-hour meeting like, just scheduling my schedule. Well—an hour of talking about sports, and then an hour of talking about schedule.
Arnar: I have an idea for next year, for when Keli is playing another 50-something gigs, there should be an app where people can just follow him around.
Silla, to Arnar: No, to follow YOOOOU!
Maggi, to Silla: No, to follow YOOOOOU!
Arnar: Maybe Grapevine should do a booklet with Keli’s face on the cover?
Arnar: You know, the five of us have formed a band out of this.
Silla: There are three actual drummers here… so I’m gonna be the drummer.
Maggi: I’m going to do the desk and the PA. Front of house guy.
Birkir: I’m the manager.
Keli: I’ll be the roadie.
Arnar: I’m the… dancer.
Silla: So it’s just me drumming, and you guys… around. And Arnar dancing.
Arnar: We’re called Front Cover. Watch out for us. It’s gonna be the craziest off-venue of the festival…
Who They Are
Airwaves Bands: Mr. Silla, Snorri Helgason, Low Roar, Boogie Trouble
Total active bands: 6
Birkir Rafn Gíslason
Airwaves Bands: Himbrimi, Klassart, Lay Low, Lára Rúnars, Rúnar Þórisson
Total Active Bands: 8
Hrafnkell Örn Guðjónsson (aka Keli)
Airwaves Bands: Agent Fresco, Young Karin, Steinar, Emmsjé Gauti, Úlfur Úlfur
Total Active Bands: 11
Magnús Tryggvason Elíassen
Airwaves Bands: Cell7, Geislar, Moses Hightower, Snorri Helgason, Kippi Kanínus
Total Active Bands: 11
Arnar Þór Gíslason
Airwaves Bands: Pétur Ben, Íkorni, Mugison, Lára Rúnars, Rúnar Þórisson
Total active bands: 10
Where To See Them
20:50 Silla: Mr Silla, Harpa Silfurberg
21:40 Birkir & Arnar: Lára Rúnars, Harpa Norðurljós
21:40 Keli: Agent Fresco, Gamla Bío
21:40 Maggi: Kippi Kaninus, Harpa Silfurberg
22:30 Keli: Steinar, Frederiksen
23:20 Birkir: Lay Low, Harpa Norðurljós
00:30 Maggi: Moses Hightower, Harpa Silfurberg
20:00 Maggi: Geislar, Harpa Norðurljós
22:30 Birkir & Arnar: Rúnar Þórisson, Frederiksen
00:20 Arnar: Pétur Ben, Harpa Kaldalón
00:20 Birkir: Himbrimi, Frederiksen
20:00 Maggi & Silla: Snorri Helgason, Fríkirkjan
21:00 Arnar: Mugison, Harpa Silfurberg
21:50 Maggi: Moses Hightower, Reykjavík Art Museum
22:00 Keli: Young Karin, Gamla Bío
00:20 Birkir: Klassart, Frederiksen
01:20 Keli: Úlfur Úlfur, Húrra
01:30 Silla: Boogie Trouble, Iðnó
02:20 Keli: Agent Fresco, Gaukurinn
20:00 Arnar: Íkorni, Iðnó
21:00 Silla: Low Roar, Gamla Bío
01:10 Keli: Young Karin, Þjóðleikhúskjallarinn
01:10 Maggi: Cell7, Húrra
02:00 Keli: Emsjeé Gauti, Þjóðleikhúskjallarinn
23:00 Birkir & Arnar: Lára Rúnars, Gaukurinn
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