By: Will HermesDo you suffer from skammdegispunglyndi? For manyIcelanders, the cure for this brand of wintertime depression--inaddition to drinking--is making weird pop music. And with theunlikely success of majestic drone-rockers, Sigur Rós, theworld is looking to the tiny island for the sounds of tomorrow
It's early Sunday at Reykjavík's den-size Grand Rokk club. The Czech Budweiser is flowing, and, as usual, the local music-scene aristocracy is holding court. Georg Holm, bassist for Icelandic-rock ambassadors Sigur Rós, gives tour tips to his cousin Bjarni Grimsson, drummer for dream-rock up-and-comers Leaves. They're waiting for Sigur drummer Orri Páll Dýrason, who is en route with Hössi Olafsson, the MC for local rap-rock punks Quarashi. Singer/songwriter Hafdis Huld, ex-frontchick of Icelandic avant-house group GusGus and one of the small nation's biggest film stars, is in from London with her soccer-hero boyfriend. And Thor Skulason, head cheese forhometown indie label Thule Musik, is showing off his new pencil mustache--"I am hoping it will get the girls. I will let you know."
Onstage, the beefy lead vox of local synth-rockers Trabant stands shirtless, roaring through a cover of D.A.F.'s 1981 antifascist boogie "Der Mussolini." When he shakes his furry pectorals, the mosh pit goes bonkers. For a finale, the band surrender their instruments to theaudience, and the room joins in a group-hugging round of football anthems.
It's easy to feel patriotic in Reykjavík these days. Credit Sigur Rós, a quartet of classically influenced rockers who somehow landed asix-figure record deal with Universal/MCA, scored the best scene in Cameron Crowe's Vanilla Sky, and have sold nearly a million records worldwide. Following in Björk's wake, they have people wondering what's in the water in the tiny capital city. Whatever it is, it's helped spawn an oddball pop-rock scene defined by a peculiar nationalism--one that values independent thought over success. It's an attitude from which America could learn a lot.
"People who copy someone else are not respected here," says Sigur Rós singer Jónsi Birgisson the next morning at a Reykjavík cafe. "It is viewed as too cheap." His group's latest album, which expands on the cosmic, bowed-guitar/organ jams of 2001's Ágaetis Byrjun, is cryptically titled (), and it copies no one. The songs are untitled, and their incantatory vocals are again sung in Birgisson's invented language, Hopelandic. The CD package has no words except for a Web address that fans can visit to offer personal interpretations of the band's Rorschach lyrics. The album was recorded in the band's new studio, a converted indoor swimming pool surrounded by odd sculptures, grazing sheep, and verdant fields known to harbor psilocybin mushrooms.
The geography of this tiny island nation set just beneath the Arctic Circle would seem to breed the unconventional: Iceland's landscape of live volcanoes, glaciers, tundra, fjords, and lava deserts is so otherworldly, NASA used it as a training ground for astronauts in the 1960s. It's about the size of Virginia, but because the country is only 20 percent habitable, its population is only approximately 290,000. Given Iceland's northern latitude, night never quite falls between May and August; in winter, the sun comes up for just two to three hours a day. Volcanic activity and earthquakes are common, and the landscape burbles with lava flows, geysers, fumaroles, and hot springs.
"Every ten years we have an eruption and with it a new mountain to name," says Hallgrímur Helgason, author of 101 Reykjavík, a novel (and subsequent film) about a dysfunctional pop-culture addict who hangs out in the local scene. "The landscape itself is creative. That sort of keeps us creative, too." Endless winters are also a factor. "There's a word, skammdegispunglyndi--I don't know how to translate it, but it has to do with the way people feel during the dark solstice," says Birgisson. "People make art to relieve the boredom."
Iceland also has a healthy economy, lots of restless middle-class kids, the highest literacy rate in the world, and a government that believes in generous arts funding. But what distinguishes Iceland's music scene from other hot Northern-pop gene pools is its willful weirdness. Where Sweden has the recycled Anglo/American rock of the Hives, Sahara Hotnights, and the Soundtrack of Our Lives, Iceland has Sigur Rós' abstract glacial drift, Múm's glitch-folk laptronica, Trabant's disco space rock, and Apparat Organ Quartet's cyborg cocktail boogie.
"Swedes make really catchy melodies--even their folk songs are catchy," says Skulason, whose label is home to Trabant, Apparat, and others. "Iceland has this 1,000-year-old song tradition that's very strange." A veteran house DJ whose musical influence has been credited with spurring Björk to abandon her late-'80s group the Sugarcubes, Skulason credits his former employer (he used to baby-sit Björk's son Sindri) with setting the tone. "Her music is always cutting-edge. Now people come to Icelandic music expecting something fresh and new."
That's not to say there aren't familiar-sounding bands on the scene--Leaves have already been dubbed "the new Radiohead" in the U.K., and Quarashi were obviously weaned on the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Beasties' Check Your Head. There's also the predictable raft ofEuro-pop-style cheeseballs. But Reykjavík sometimes feels as snooty as an Ivy League-college radio station. That said, the high standards are refreshing. Sigur Rós have turned down hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of commercial soundtrack offers, as well as a chance to appear on Late Show With David Letterman because Dave wouldn't give them enough time to play an entire song (their average is about seven minutes). "There was a lot of pressure to do [Letterman]," says guitarist/keyboardist Kjarri Sveinsson. "But I don't give a shit--I don't watch it. I think it's garbage--pointless and stupid."
Though the scene is insular, it's hardly self-sufficient. There are only two small rock clubs--Grand Rokk and Gauker á Stöng (Bird on a Wire)--and with such a small population, selling records just at home doesn't put whale meat on the table. Most bands court their audiences abroad. "When I was in Gus Gus, we only sold 5,000 copies of our first record here, and we were one of the country's biggest acts," says Hafdis Huld.
The global appetite whetted by Björk and Sigur Rós--whose CDs are sold in every tourist shop--has opened the doors for a flood of artistic exports beyond music, including books (the recently translated 101 Reykjavík) and movies (The Sea by young auteur Baltasar Kormákur, who co-owns Reykjavík hipster haven Kaffibarinn with Blur's Damon Albarn). Meanwhile, hungry A&R types continue to flock to the annual Airwaves music festival in October. This year's buzz was Apparat and avant-garage rockers Singapore Sling. But the next band to make seismic waves over here will probably be Leaves, whose 2002 LP Breathe is due for a high-profile U.S. release this spring on DreamWorks. ("These guys are songwriters like Verve, Coldplay, or Radiohead," says smitten A&R exec Luke Wood.) Sigur Rós, meanwhile, will keep getting their highbrow on.
And the next generation of Icelandic rock may already be upon us. Word is that while Björk has been taking care of her new daughter (Isadora,born last year), Sindri is getting into the game himself. And not with Mom's chattering laptop computers, but with a crunching heavy-guitarband. Even the world's weirdest pop-music culture occasionally needs to kick out the jams.