Experience Reykjavik through musical eyes
Ahead of us in the line at the hot dog stand is a dark-haired young woman ordering the house special. When it is our turn, the hot dog guy nods in her direction and lowers his voice to a conspiratorial whisper.
“Do you know who the brunette was? She’s the singer from Of Monsters and Men,” he says.
Rubbing shoulders with a member of one of the world’s most hyped new bands on a remote island with just over 300,000 inhabitants would seem unlikely. But the fact is that Iceland’s tiny population has managed to produce more than its fair share of internationally renowned acts. And it is because of the small size of the community that it is all the more likely that your waiter or taxi driver will be picking up a guitar when his or her shift is over.
A close-knit music community
“In such a small place, we all have multiple roles; it is a sociological phenomenon,” Sigtryggur (“Siggi”) Baldursson says. “Many people play in more than one band, so it really is a close-knit community. People help each other out here, which is part of our success. Almost everyone knows someone with the right contacts – they can just pick up the phone and call.”
If you want to experience Reykjavik through musical eyes (and ears), there is no better guide than Siggi. The director of Iceland Music Export holds one of the most important positions in the Icelandic music world, but above all he is a singer and drummer – and no ordinary one at that. The countless genres he has explored include everything from mambo to punk. But the most famous of them all is The Sugarcubes, the band that brought the attention of the world to the small island in the North Atlantic, putting the name of its singer, Björk, on everyone’s lips.
The legacy of Björk
“We started out as an artist’s collective, but we decided that we needed money so we could afford to devote ourselves to our art,” Siggi says. “So we started a pop band, a little tongue-in-cheek, and all of a sudden we were famous.”
As is so often the case in Iceland, the rain is falling from a gray sky, so we begin our journey on four wheels. Siggi drives us down to the harbor, past a series of low turquoise buildings, where fishermen once kept their nets, but which are today home to restaurants and shops.
“That building is where we wrote the song ‘Birthday,’ The Sugarcubes’ breakthrough hit,” he points out. “It was convenient, because Björk had an apartment right opposite.”
‘Icelandic music is less about sound and more about a particular attitude’
Whenever anyone talks about Icelandic music, it is, understandably, almost impossible not to mention the superstar’s name. Even a close friend and band member such as Siggi is moved by the singer’s magic.
“Björk’s voice is simply stunning,” he says. “It messes with your brain cells! She swooped in and took over as Iceland’s cultural icon and colored our whole image. Iceland has built a very successful trademark on that ever since.”
Harpa Concert Hall
We drive on toward the center, passing one of the city’s most important landmarks, the Harpa Concert Hall, with its glistening geometrical glass panels that cover the building on all sides.
“You just have to visit Harpa,” Siggi proclaims. “They have a really great, diverse program.”
He says music has been a crucial factor in the radically altered demographics among tourists visiting Iceland. It has lowered the average age, extended the season, and increased the number of visitors, which now exceeds the population many times over.
“Younger people in particular are coming here because of the music,” Siggi says. “The music scene has grown over the past four years and become even more international. There has been a huge change. Our bands definitely act as ambassadors for Iceland.”
Siggi turns into the city center and parks in a run-down back yard. There’s one thing you notice pretty quickly as you walk along Reykjavik’s main street, Laugavegur, with Siggi – you don’t get too far without bumping into someone he knows.
“That guy makes incredible xylophones out of stones,” Siggi explains after one such encounter. “I’m playing with him tonight at Harpa.”
It's an attitude
At Smekkleysa, a record store that was opened by The Sugarcubes, Siggi points out some of his favorites among the rows of Icelandic CDs. One colorful artist he holds in high regard is dj flugvél og geimskip.
“Icelandic music is less about a sound and more about a particular attitude,” he explains, as illustrated by another, completely different act he says has great potential, a new folk band called Ylja.
One place that Siggi recommends we visit during our stay is the hip hostel Kex. As if to prove our theory about the musical double life of Icelanders, we find Gigja Skjaldardottir in the bar, which has magnificent views of the mountain and fjord. She is a singer and guitarist in Ylja, and she also works behind the bar at Kex.
“We hold a lot of events with all kinds of music,” she says. “Kex is an important meeting place with a great atmosphere. Lots of musicians hang out here, and they usually know the bartenders because they are musicians, too.” She nods at a colleague, whose sister we have just learned is a judge on the Icelandic version of the TV program “The Voice”. Naturally, her colleague is also in a band.
When Ylja held its first release concert, there was an obvious choice of venue, Skjaldardottir says,
“Here at Kex, of course. The place was packed!”
Text: Eva Paulsen
Published: January 18, 2016