It’s one of the largest festivals in Iceland with more than 800 shows happening over a five-day period all across Reykjavík. Most artists are from Iceland, but there are also folks coming in from as far as New Zealand, and as close as the UK.
This year Airwaves’ 7,000 tickets sold out by mid-October. Since it’s a showcase festival—premiering up-and-coming local and international acts, similar to SXSW in Austin, Texas—there are a large number of industry and media folks coming as well. It’s not just a festival for rising talent, though—The Flaming Lips, Caribou, The War on Drugs, Ásgeir and Jungle are also on the line-up. I got an industry pass along with other festival directors, music producers, label owners, media personalities, and managers. I’ll post a re-cap after the festival with a write-up about shows, pictures from the photo pit and videos of performances and adventures around the festival. Suffice to say, I will not be sleeping for five days.
Airwaves has always been known as an extremely fun event that many look forward to. It makes November an insane month for music in Iceland. Although it’s one of the country’s largest festivals, it still keeps an intimate vibe—artists and fans and industry and media converge on dance floors and clink beers with a hearty “Skál!” (Cheers!).
Airwaves is also proof that the booming tourism industry is heavily impacted by music festivals—other large festivals like SONAR, Secret Solstice and All Tomorrow’s Parties, the last which Tómas has managed since 2013 at Ásbrú, the former NATO base in Keflavík. According to a 2011 report by Tómas Young (who previously worked for Iceland Music Export, which works closely with Airwaves, but is now at the Icelandic Museum of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Keflavík), the five-day festival in 2011 had large economic impacts on the country. It brought in 4.1 million Euros of foreign spending in 2011.
Although I’ll do a more extensive recap after the festival, I wanted to take the time now to share the 10 acts I’m really looking forward to hearing at Airwaves. It’s a mixture of well-known names as well as rising artists.
The last thing I’ll mention is that Airwaves has boomed into something bigger than its original intention. People, music organizations and venue spaces have collaborated in the most recent years to produce an “off-venue” showcase. You don’t need to buy an Airwaves ticket, which is priced at 18,500isk ($150USD), to attend these free off-venue shows. This year there are 675 shows at 52 off-venues. Again, I won’t be sleeping at all this week.
10 Icelandic Artists I”m Stoked to See at Airwaves:
Genre: Singer-songwriter, folk, acoustic, soothing, calm
Plays at Harpa Silfurberg at 22:30 on November 5
Why I’m stoked: Ásgeir, who formally went public as Ásgeir Trausti, released his debut album “Dyrd í dauðathogn” at the ripe age of 21 in 2012. He blew up big time; nearly 10 percent of the country owns his CD (yeah, that’s right, Compact Discs). He won a ton of awards and then dropped an English version of his album called “In the Silence” which he performed at this year’s SXSW. Although his new album is great for a rainy day, one of my favorite songs was his Christmas hit he did with Blaz Roca, one of Iceland’s “grandfathers of hip hop,” called Hvítir Skór.
Genre: indie pop-rock with a pinch of electro
Plays at Frederiksen at 20:00 on November 5
Why I’m stoked: bird is not as well known–many of my Icelandic friends still don’t know who he is. He’s got less than 300 fans on Facebook. It’s a shame really because he’s loaded with talent, and the debut of his April single is a testament to how good he is (full album to be released by the end of this year). Although bird is a relatively new Icelandic artist, the man behind bird is not new to the scene at all. Jón Valur Gudmundsson was a drummer for Who Knew, Ásgeir and Króna. Though it was his percussion skills that broke him into the scene, he has a beautiful voice and mixes his tracks with a lot of skill—he was a sound engineer for Hjálmar in recent years. I’ve had my eye on this bird since April, and I’m stoked for the performance!
Name: For a Minor Reflection
Plays at Harpa Silfurberg at 21:00 on November 6
Why I’m stoked: I first saw For a Minor Reflection at a rally for Palestine at KEX Hostel when I just arrived in Iceland. I also met two fans Matti and Benni, who have become close friends here in Iceland, during their set. I’d like to think it was just serendipity, but I think For a Minor Reflection’s music also had something to do with it—it’s very much music that creates a sense of belonging. Their music thrusts listeners into a flow-like state, that feeling you get when you’re working on an art piece and you realize hours has passed. I got lost in the music and their set simultaneously felt like a five-minute splurge and a ten-hour adventure. Although Uncut magazine described the group as a “shiny new version of Sigur Rós,” I think their sound is much more reminiscent of the Texas band Explosions in the Sky. Even then, they definitely have their own flair in many of their tracks.
Name: Boogie Trouble
Genre: Disco, pop, funk
Plays at Iðnó at 01:30 on November 8
Why I’m stoked: They killed it at the Northern Wave Film Festival in Grundarfjörður. They got locals and festival attendees (all 40ish of us) dancing and sweating all over each other. They’re having so much fun on stage—totally apparent by their stage presence and constant smiling—but instrumentally and vocally they are brilliant. It’s the kind of sounds that makes your feet tap and dance all over the floor in an almost uncontrollable vigor. Their vibe is reminiscent of the great 70s European disco that we all love—it’s like the members of Boney M. had beautiful Icelandic children and those children formed a band and called themselves Boogie Trouble.
Genre: Indie-rock, indie-pop
Plays at Iðnó at 01:30 on November 8
Why I’m stoked: Well, I’m from Hawaii, and I’m pretty sure Kaleo got their name from the Hawaiian word Kaleo—which means voice or sound—that they share their name with (although I have to confirm this). They get bonus points for that. Kaleo premiered at 2012’s Airwaves to an audience who would not have yet known the magic that they’d produce the following year with their self-titled album “Kaleo.” They shot to fame with their hauntingly beautiful and hair-raising cover (first video) of an Icelandic classic song called “Vor í Vaglaskógi” (Spring in Vaglaskógur forest), which was originally written by Jónas Jónasson (music) and Kristján frá Djúpalæk (lyrics). Another “Iceland is a small world” story: My roommate’s sister Saga is the lead actress in the music video. What makes Kaleo really unique though, is their ability to evoke different sounds through their music. Rock ‘n’ Roller (second video) has a much more rough, raw and real rock sound.
Genre: Rock, indie
Plays at Gamla Bíó at 23:20 on November 5
Also plays at Reykjavík Art Museum at 21:00 on November 8
Why I’m stoked: Mammút are veteran performers, gracing Iceland’s stages since 2003 and touring for a good part of the last decade. I’ve seen them a few times and they’ve consistently smashed their performances whether for large audiences at Menningarnótt or at intimate spaces like KEX. The casino band is extremely talented and lead singer Katrína Mogensen has this almost-possessive energy where she locks into the music and pours her heart out on stage. Their third album, “Komdu til mín svarta systir” was received extremely well by press, musicians and fans alike. The album garnered eight nominations at the 2013 Icelandic Music Awards, and they took home three awards including Album of the Year for Pop & Rock.
Name: Kira Kira
Genre: Experimental, electronic
Plays at Harpa Norðurljós at 20:00 on November 7
Why I’m stoked: Kira Kira creates and performs music in a way that engages live audiences in new ways, and often collaborates with other musicians. Her sound combines analog drum machines, live percussions, electronic mixing and the occasional vocals into a whimsical journey that takes you up and down several tempos and pitches sometimes on a single track. Often, she works with a VJ/animator during her live sets, which enhances the experience of her music. I got to sit down with her one-on-one over coffee to share my vision of Saga Fest, the arts & music festival I’m co-producing in May on a farm. What really struck me during our conversation was her genuine commitment to the spirituality and art of music. It is clear that her intention is to not just create music, but to elevate consciousness as well.
Genre: Rock, indie
Plays at Iðnó at 22:30 on November 6
Also plays at Gaukurinn at 00:00 on November 9
Why I’m stoked: I was swooning at Rökkurró’s listening party last week; in fact, I was so inspired that I bought their new album “Innra” (this is important to note because I’ve tried to keep to purchasing just one CD a month to stay in my student budget). Singer Hildur Kristín Stefánsdóttir has an angelic voice with incredible pitch, range and power. Similar to the Icelandic group Asonat that I recently profiled, Rökkurró’s band members have lived in Tokyo, London and Reykjavík in the previous three years—perhaps this influenced the new electronic additions and vibe to their new album. It feels like they took a lot more risks in their newer album compared to Í Annan Heim, their first record which spent 100 weeks in Iceland’s Top 30 chart (although that was a great album as well).
Genre: Indie, electronica, experimental
Plays at Reykjavík Art Museum at 23:10 on November 6
Also plays at Harpa Silfurberg at 20:40 on November 8
Why I’m stoked: Samaris combines electronics, a clarinet and beautiful vocals by Jófríður Ákadóttir (who also creates music with her twin sister Ásthildur for the group Pascal Pinon). The three sounds are blended in an almost experimental way with reverb, hi-hat beats, sporadic percussions and Áslaug’s nice pulls from the clarinet. There’s a very festive, spiritual sound to their music. Samaris won the prestigious Icelandic Music Experiment contest in 2011 (previous winners include Minus, Agent Fresco, Mammút and Of Monsters and Men) and later singed with London-based record One Little Indian Records (their roster includes Icelandic artists Björk and Emilíana Torrini, who has done vocals on Thievery Corporation tracks).
Name: Ojba Rasta
Plays at Húrra at 23:10 on November 6
Why I’m stoked: Hjálmar was the first band to experiment with reggae music in Iceland back in 2004. Now folks like AmabAdamA (whom I’m also excited to see) and Ojba Rasta have added their sounds to the mix. Although Iceland is miles away from Jamaica, Ojba Rasta—similar to artists from my home island Hawaii—has captured the energy of reggae and mixed it with local flavors drawn from funk and soul. Their heavy and lively bass combined with solid reggae vocals creates a jam-band-like atmosphere with a high feeling of belonging.