I was invited to write a piece about Iceland and its music. It’s a great opportunity to tell you my personal story and to reflect on music from the past and future.
Belgian going Dutch
Since the age of 14, I was listening to the Dutch radio, while making my homework. They had some good, better than Belgian channels, alternative, indie radio shows on Wednesdays. One day in 1987, I got infected by the Iceland virus: the moment that a song called “Birthday” was aired on the VPRO Radio Station. The Dutch radio DJ Lotje IJzermans went to Reykjavík to meet The Sugarcubes. As a result a Sykurmolarnir “special” was broadcasted, also focussing on the pre-Sugarcubes period (e.g. KUKL). At the same time the VPRO television went to Iceland’s capital and showed a Reykjavík special with Björk & Co. as key figures. After watching this program, I went to the library of my hometown Stekene to learn more about this island in the North. At a Belgian school you don’t learn much about Iceland, and what you see about Iceland on the Flemish television is often outdated or just not true, so you depend on self-education. I started to collect books about Iceland. Soon followed by collecting Icelandic music and related stuff. I got myself a subscription to “Iceland Review” Magazine and “News from Iceland”, a monthly newspaper, to feed my hunger to anything related to Iceland.
In the eighties Iceland was getting “hot”: MTV Special, the World’s strongest man Jón Páll Sigmarsson and two times a Miss World.
In the nineties, I became one of the few Belgian members of the “Vinafélag Íslands of Niðurlanda” (Vereniging IJsland-Nederland) and wrote some articles for their bilangual magazine called “Huginn og Munnin”, published in Dutch/Icelandic. Even wanted to begin with a Belgium-Iceland Association, but few Icelanders live in Belgium and/or have a short stay in Brussels (NATO, European Union).
I had 7 Björk t-shirts, sort of one for every day of the week, to go to University, so soon I was called “the Icelander” or “the Viking” among fellow medical students. Got some close encounters with Icelandic artists in Belgium. Sigtryggur Baldursson gave me a drum stick after the last Belgian concert of The Sugarcubes at Ancienne Belgique (AB) venue in Brussels (1992). After the gig of Björk at Vorst Nationaal venue (1995), my sister, brother-in-law and me followed by car the tour bus to her hotel to get a signature. She was surprised, not expecting a devoted fan to follow her coach, but got my signatures without being beaten up.
I went 3 times to Iceland in the 90s, an expensive destination for a student at that time.
My first stay in Iceland was in the summer of 1991. I went on a 2 week travel around the country with Guðmundur Jónassson Company, whose founder Guðmundur guided Neil Armstrong and colleagues in Iceland. With an international group, one other Belgian living in Africa joined me in the tent, we did a kind of “full circle”, the interior included. Best memory of the first Iceland trip, is getting sunburned while climbing the glacier at Kverkfjöll.
In July 1996 I was a medical exchange student at Landspítalinn Hospital. Highlight of that stay was the punk revival concert at Rosenberg 27. July. On stage were Unun, Q4U and Fræbbblarnir. Sort of my own Rokk í Reykjavík: Ellý í Q4U sitting next to me in fishnet outfit, Heiða í Unun with mohawk, and last but not least Þór Eldon of Unun and Einar Örn reunited to perform “Surprise” song of Purrkur Pillnikk. Some years later, youngsters skating at Austurvöllur and playing together in the band Spitsign, invited me to the HAM tribute concert where they were on stage in the basement of the National Theatre.
Just say A… Akureyri
I searched for a job in Iceland in April 1998, just before graduation that summer. It didn’t work out in the capital, every Icelander wants to work in the capital area. But a Belgian lady working at Hotel Esja told me to apply in the hospital of Akureyri, while being there for a day trip. So I became the first Belgian MD in Iceland; I worked for one year as an assistant doctor in FSA, the hospital of Akureyri, the capital of the north. Every month I stayed one weekend in Reykjavík to enjoy the capital’s nightlife, much more musical choice than up north.
In August 1999 I went back home to Belgium, to start my medical specialization. But I visited Iceland since than almost every year around my birthday (skipped 2001 and 2003), twice a year sometimes. I’ve been six time to the Iceland Airwaves festival (2005-2010). In 2009 I went for the first time to the Aldrei fór ég suður (Never went south) festival, organized by musician Mugison, his father and friends from the West Fjords.
Icelandic music tidal wave
Is Iceland still a cool “hot spot” or hot “cool island” in the Atlantic Ocean: the Ibiza of the North? Indeed the surprise of the earthquake caused by The Sugarcubes is gone. Björk has put Iceland on the musical map. Everybody is waiting for the next big thing, the “new” Björk. In Engeland they hype the new Beatles every week!
In my humble opinion, Icelandic music scene is unique in the collaboration and interaction of bands (e.g. concerning equipment, rehearsal spaces, even band members), even of different musical styles, and the “Do It Yourself” (DIY) mentality. Icelanders already did it before the punk generation claimed this principle. I think that is based on the fact that Iceland is an island, an island with volcanoes & glaciers, and moreover has a small population. You have to do it yourself and believe in yourself, because on an island with only a few people there’s nearly nobody else who can help you. Moreover because of inflation, eruptions and jökulhlaup risk, Icelanders are obligated to make quick decisions. It’s seems like every Icelander has to write a book, and every Icelander has to record a CD, or a least make some music. Iceland is exporting its music, even supported by the government (Iceland Music Export, IMX), in a more structured manner. Although still surfing on The Sugarcubes’ tidal wave.
My favourite music
I am not stuck in one style. As a teenager I was a new waver, but also had a smiley on my shirt when “new beat” (Belgian house/techno style) was hot.
It’s difficult to pinpoint just one name. Of course The Sugarcubes and related bands as KUKL, Purrkur Pillnikk, Tappi Tíkarass, Þeyr, Grindverk and Ghostigital.
The band Unun, a sort of The Sugarcubes 2.0, made the best album in Icelandic ever: namely “Æ”, released in the USA with lyrics in English as “Super Shiny Dreams” (released on the Bad Taste USA label).
Let me drop some other names: Bang Gang/Barði Jóhannsson (Lady & Bird with Keren Ann Zeidel), Dísa, Dýrðin, Eberg, Elíza, Ensími, FM Belfast, HAM, Hellvar, Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, Inside Bilderberg, Jan Mayen, kimono, Leaves, Pétur Ben, Pornopop, Reykjavik!, ruddinn, Samaris, Singapore Sling, Skakkamanage, Snorri Helgason, Sólstafir, Stereo Hypnosis, Sudden Weather Change, Þórir Georg (and all his projects), Vicky, Worm is green, Æla.
Interesting bands from the past: 200.000 Naglbítar, Bellatrix/Kolrassa Krókríðandi, Bless, Botnleðja, Bubbleflies, Hölt Hóra, Jakobínarína, Jeff Who?, Lada Sport, Maus, Motion Boys, Skátar, Texas Jesús, Trabant, Ultra Mega Technobandið Stefán, Úlpa, Who Knew, Yúkatan.
Here’s my personal TOP 25 of the best Icelandic albums ever made:
1. “Life’s too good” by The Sugarcubes
2. “Debut” by Björk
3. “ae” by Unun
4. “Rokk í Reykjavík”, a compilation
5. “Ágætis byrjun” by Sigur Rós
6. “Polydistortion” by GusGus
7. “You” by Bang Gang
8. “Buffalo Virgin” by HAM
9. “Ehgi en” by Purrkur Pillnikk
10. “The Eye” by KUKL
11. “Mjötviður Mær” by Þeyr
12. “Stop that noise” by Hellvar
13. “Abbababb!” by Dr Gunni og Vinir Hans
14. “Mineur-Aggressif“ by kimono
15. “Life is killing my rock ‘n roll” by Singapore Sling
16. “Automagic” by Worm is green
17. “Kafbátamúsík” by Ensími
18. “Safnar guðum (safnar frímerkjum)” by Yukatan
19. “Pinocchio” by Bubbleflies
20. “So much better than your normal life” by Jan Mayen
21. “Drápa” by Kolrassa Krókríðandi
22. “Empire Fall” by Eliza Newman
23. “Cast a light” by Vicky
24. “Lof Mér Að Falla Að Þínu Eyra” by Maus
25. “The first crusade” by Jakobinarina
May I recommend 2 albums…
The best album to learn Icelandic is the album for children (and parents) by Dr. Gunni and his friends, entitled “Abbababb!”.
The best album to study Icelandic grammatics, “Von” by Sigur Rós, my background music in the winter of 1998-99 in Akureyri.
I want to recommend 2 books:
“Waking up in Iceland” (2003) by Paul Sullivan and Dr Gunni’s “Blue Eyed Pop” (2013), the history of popular music in Iceland.
My Do It Yourself blogs, dedicated to Icelandic music and music made in Iceland, existed 6 years. I started it after enjoying my second Airwaves festival in 2006. The Icelanders, always quick in picking up new trends, Benni from the band Skátar and Elli from the band Jeff Who?, both working for Smekkleysa, were the onces which introduced me to the social media and networking sites.
First of all, I had to found a decent name for my blog. It refers to 2 things: the Flemish “I love Techno” festival and stickers in cars “I love …” (my dog, Mini, etc.). So I decided to name it “I love Icelandic music”, or “I (heart) Icelandic music”, later on in the subtitle the word “4ever”.
My first intention back in 2006 was to post my photographs of the Airwaves festival. I started to google on Icelandic music, but there were not so many good sites about Icelandic music, especially not in English. No ‘Iceland Music Export’, no ‘Iceblah’, … Second reason to start the blog was that I missed some concerts of Icelandic artists playing in Belgium. By keeping an eye on the bands, I was hoping not to miss any gig in my home country again.
My music collection
The biggest part is Björk items (about 150 CDs, 50 vinyls, 12 books, 20 DVDs) and of course The Sugarcubes stuff (38 CDs, 70 vinyls). But I own more than 400 CDs by other Icelandic artists (e.g. Smekkleysa label), but also 200 items on vinyl, mostly eighties stuff (e.g. Gramm label).
So one day I hope to open a museum about Icelandic music, my blog is already my virtual museum.
Icelandic music lovers of the world unite
Over the years, I met in real life some other Belgians and foreigners very interested in Icelandic music. Even downtown Akureyri I met an Aussie with his mother on a trip around the island who noticed my Björk t-shirt. Some of them moved to Iceland forever or for a while. In the hospital of Akureyri worked a young Danish nurse, who was a huge Sugarcubes fan too. Others never got to Iceland (yet), just waiting for the Icelandic artists to come over and saving the money of the expensive trip(s) to Iceland. For years the government neglected the fact that a lot of tourists, especially youngsters, came to visit Iceland because of the music made by The Sugarcubes and later on Björk solo and Sigur Rós. Or they didn’t want to hear about the success of this strange bunch.
Most people I know are fan of one particular Icelandic band, artist or label, but some of them start to dig for other artists. In my experience the first big wave of interest in Icelandic music was caused The Sugarcubes, shortly followed by the worldwide Björkmania (with Björk as a ‘sort of synonym’ for Iceland). The GusGus collective followed in their footsteps. Third wave was Sigur Rós, by other krútt bands like Múm followed in the slipstream. At that time Iceland Airwaves kicked off and attracked people from abroad. Icelandair and Iceland Express have and had special deals to go to concerts in Iceland (“Iceland-air”waves, The Sugarcubes Reunion Concert in 2006, Björk/ Sigur Rós “Nattúra” in 2008,). These days you can attend lots of Icelandic festivals besides Airwaves fiesta: Sonar, Aldrei for ég suður, Secret Solstice, All Tomorrow’s Parties (ATP), Eistnaflug, Extreme Chill – Under jökli.
The World Wide Web brings people together, especially the people with the same interests, like good and bad taste in music. Things like MySpace, YouTube, Last FM, iLike, Soundcloud, Mixcloud, Facebook, Twitter, Spotify, Deezer, and of course the blogging phenomenon.
The new kids on the block
The best new treasures: the new new wave of Antimony, Kvöl, Legend and Döpur (both feat. nasty boy Krummi), the new punkers of Börn, alternative guitar bands like Fufanu, Pink Street Boys and Knife Fights, noisy shoegazers Oyama, the ‘non-DJ’ DJ Flugvél og Geimskip, just to give you an idea. The ‘Starwalker’ project of Bardi of Bang Gang with Jean-Benoit Dunckel of the French duo Air, is very promising.
Recently The Echo Nest declared Icelandic music as “The Most Wanted Music In The World”. Iceland apparently creates ‚the most wanted music in the world’, according to audio fingerprinting service/’song-picking puppet master’ The Echo Nest!
The Echo Nest’s computers scour the internet checking out what music people are listening to and talking about. Crazy. And if you’re reading this from elsewhere in the Nordic territories, don’t you start a-sulking – the top of Echo Nest’s list is dominated by Scandinavian countries (1° Iceland, 2° Sweden, 3° Finland, 4° Norway).
Some final words
As a country Iceland was changing quick, loosing it’s unique way. Sometimes a sort of little America, sometimes getting the trouble of bigger European towns. Sad more recent things were the choice for the big and quick money of the banks and related friends, as well as the (future) demolitions of the old buildings downtown Reykjavík. The last decade a lot of the venues for live gigs have disappeared in the 101 area, to make place for ho(s)tels, puffin, icebear and “every day is like Christmas” shops and other tourist related businesses.
Iceland as a nation is on a crossroad and has the choice between ecology and economy. “In Cod We Trust”: the clean money of computer related industries (games, 3-D, webdesign, anti-virus software, Microsoft,…) and the tourists who want to enjoy the unspoiled country of the elements (fire, ice, water, air), or the dirty money of the industrialization with unevitable spoiling of the nature.
Iceland only has to change one letter in its name : “IcTland” to become Niceland again.
words by Wim Van Hooste
Wim Van Hooste is a 44 years old Belgian medical doctor, from the Flemish speaking part of the country.