Counting Steps and Rocking Out at Iceland Airwaves

Heart health
December 3, 2018

Our blogger recently attended Iceland Airwaves for the first time. Can a music festival be a workout? Tune in to see how she did, and enjoy her attempts at finding Icelandic characters on her keyboard.

This year, I decided to kick my bucket list’s butt by finally attending the Iceland Airwaves music festival, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. (It started in 1999 in an airplane hangar!) I was especially excited because 1) Reykjavik! Iceland! Duh! and 2) I love live music, but rarely get to see it where I live near Boston, because the trains stop running at midnight. Luckily, at Airwaves, all the venues were downtown within walking distance of each other.

I thought this might be an especially activity-intensive trip, and I was dying to see how many steps I would get, so I brought along my Steel HR. (Bonus: I didn’t bother packing the charger because of the long battery life). I also prepared by downloading the official Iceland Airwaves app and joining the unofficial Iceland Airwaves 2018—Social Travelers Facebook group, where Airwaves-goers arranged meetups and posted updates.

Ready for four days of adventure? Here’s my Airwaves diary.

Day 1: Arrival, with impromptu haircut

After an overnight flight, I get into Reykjavik around 6 a.m. (argh) and head to the hotel. I hang out in the hotel lobby till they let me check in early, then shower and crash for a few hours.

I get up around 2 p.m. and go to City Hall to pick up my wristband. Along the way, I walk by Reykjavik Pond, where swans, ducks, geese, and tourists hang out. Turns out the Airwaves staff are serious about wristbands—it’s tied tightly so tightly around my wrist that it won’t slip off. In fact, I can’t take it off…at all. This should be interesting.

I find Laugavegur, the main shopping street, which is jam-packed with American tourists and souvenir shops. But also, record shops! And bookstores! I also find Dillon Whiskey Bar—a meetup place for people in the Airwaves social group, and also a festival off-venue—and the famous Lebowski Bar. You can say it’s touristy but that’s just, like, your opinion, man. And I find a very funny Icelandic punk museum at the end of the street. It’s in the old public toilets, and the stalls and some of the toilets are still intact. In one of them, they’re playing concert footage of Björk—who looks about 14. Later, I look it up, and it turns out she started her music career at age 11. Wow.

Finally, it’s time to figure out what I’m going to see that night. There are several official venues—bars, old theaters, even the art museum—all over town, and bands generally start playing around 7 and go till the wee hours. The wristband gets you in everywhere. The problem? I’m not that familiar with Airwaves bands. I like Eivør a lot, and I’ve gone through the official Airwaves Spotify list and made a list of bands that sound interesting, but that’s it.

I head over to the Hard Rock Cafe to see what’s going on, mainly because an interesting-sounding punk band, Austurvígstöðvarnar, is playing. (I am not even kidding with that name. It Google Translates as “the East.”)

But first, I see Korter í flog, who describe themselves as “a garage punk band with krautrock influences from Reykjavik.” All good! Plus, they drum on drums, but also on a red plastic bucket, a frying pan, and a rotary telephone. At some point, a guy sits in the middle of the stage, pulls out a large pair of steel scissors, and starts to cut his hair into the bucket. It’s early, but I’ll call it: I already love this festival.

Austurvígstöðvarnar goes on after, and turn out to be political pop-punk. Yay! “Sólskin og súkkulaði“ is a favorite. I’m not big on dancing usually, but when in Reykjavik…

I get back to the hotel around 12:30 a.m.—early, but it is the first day, after all—and check my steps. Total: 21,246! Not bad.

Day 2: Thunderbread and a whole lot of steps

It’s true what they say: Food in Reykjavik is really, REALLY expensive. I take full advantage of the free hotel breakfast, which includes skyr—an Icelandic soft cheese  often mislabeled as yogurt—and Icelandic rye bread, which can be baked in underground geothermal springs (!) and is nicknamed “thunderbread,” possibly because of the flatulence it’s said to induce. Later, I swing by a Bonus grocery store on Laugavegur and pick up some thunderbread and blackcurrant juice for the hotel room.

I head over to the Icelandic Culture House, which has a pretty nifty mix of Icelandic modern art and artifacts, as well as a library where the museum guest book is a library card catalog. (You fill out your name and date on a card and file it appropriately.)

Walking up the hill on Skólavörðustíg, off Laugavegur, later, I stumble across 12 Tónar, a record store and independent label. It’s also an Airwaves off-venue, so bands play there too. “Do you want a coffee?” the clerk says when I walk in. He makes me an espresso and gestures to the listening room. I pick up a pile of CDs—all from bands I’ve never heard—and spend a really lovely hour with coffee and music.

On the way out, I ask what they’re playing on the store sound system—ethereal, strings-heavy classical that reminds me a bit of Lisa Gerrard’s score for Whale Rider. “Oh, that’s Gyða,” the clerk says. “She’s playing tonight and we’re all going to see her later.” Always trust record-store clerks: I prioritize Gyða for the night.

That night, Gyða is my first stop. She’s playing at IÐNÓ, a restaurant and concert space housed in a wooden building constructed in 1896. She plays the cello and sings, backed by a string section, and it’s magical. Later I find out she co-founded an Iceland experimental electronic group called múm, and vow to check them out.

After that I wander around downtown (more steps! I hit 10,000 a long time ago), checking out various bands. I wind up at Gaukerinn, a divey, comfortable bar near the art museum, and check out Danish electronic act ZAAR, and then Descartes a Kant—best described as “if John Waters were an art-punk band from Mexico City.” I love them.

I drag myself back to the hotel and turn in. Total steps: 25,279. My Steel HR congratulates me on a new all-time best.

Day 3: Sore feet and one long show

Big day. The scuttlebutt on Facebook is that a bunch of must-see Icelandic bands are all playing one venue tonight—Gamla Bíó, an old theater downtown. Given their popularity, there’s a pretty good chance it’ll be at capacity. I plan to get there early when it opens at 7, hunker down, and not leave till it’s all over at 1 a.m.

I sleep in as late as possible and head into town. I hear the Reykjavik Art Museum is really good, so I head there first. It’s also an Airwaves venue, so while I wander around looking at the cool modern art, I also listen to Icelandic hip-hop group Logi Pedro rehearse. They’re good, and I think about changing plans. But no—hell or high water, I’m sticking to it.

After the art museum, I have a fairly disgusting but cheap veggie burger, walk around listening to more bands rehearse for a bit, and then head over to Gamla Bíó, where I manage to make it all the way to the front.

First up: Indie-pop band Between Mountains, pictured, fronted by two Icelandic teenagers who came out of nowhere to win Iceland’s Battle of the Bands a couple of years ago. (What is it with supremely talented Icelandic teens? Is there something in the skyr?) “We’re a little nervous,” one of them says. If they are, it doesn’t show. I look around and everyone’s jaw appears to be on the floor along with mine.

I check the Facebook group. Lots of us in the room tonight, waiting for one band or another, and we message a bit. Many of us are sticking around for Hatari, the last band of the night at 12:20.

Next up: Fufanu, Mammút (excellent—I vow to listen to everything I can find at 12 Tónar before I leave), and Agent Fresco. My feet are starting to twinge. I remind myself that (as you’ll see in a future blog post) standing is healthier than sitting. Time to woman up and power through.

I commiserate with the guy next to me (also a first-time Airwaves goer, from Texas), about how great it is that all the Icelandic bands are on time—they play a 40-minute set with a 20-minute break in between—and how un-American that is.

And then the next band—American, of course—proves us right. They start half an hour late, complain about everything, and look utterly bored the entire time. Definitely a low point. Can we have Between Mountains again, please?

Finally, FINALLY, at 12:50, it’s time for Hatari. Facebook’s been buzzing about Hatari for weeks. They’re a bit of a mystery—no one seems to know much about them. And they won best Airwaves performance two years in a row and gave the award back both times.

They turn out to be industrial goth, in full-on bondage gear. I’m not linking to anything here because hey, this is a family blog, but please do search if you’re so inclined.

My feet are KILLING me, but I dance my fool head off anyway. And then stumble the half-mile or so back to the hotel around 1:30 a.m., feet screaming all the way. Worth it, though. WORTH. IT.

Total steps: 11,404. That’s all? No more sleeping in for me.

Day 4: Big drum and a new all-time record

Long day, big steps
Long day, big steps

Last day. This is starting to feel like a marathon. (A fun one, though.) I wake up 10 minutes before the free hotel breakfast ends and scour the Facebook page. “Go see Surma,” someone posts. “Amazing set @ Hard Rock last night. Playing Dillon at 1.”

OK, plan set. I leisurely shower and get ready and then wander through the nifty old cemetery near my hotel and past Reykjavik Pond to Laugavegur.

Dillon turns out to be a whiskey bar in a creaky old house. It feels very homey, as do a lot of the bars in Reykjavik. I head up to the top floor—the attic?—and it’s already crowded, I’m assuming with Facebook members who saw the post.

Surma is a one-woman band—a young Portuguese artist, schooled in jazz (I find out later), who does breathy, ambient electronica. She looks thrilled to be there, and she’s bouncing all over the place, shoeless, playing guitar, even drumming on a suitcase at one point. I look around, and as with Between Mountains the previous night, no one’s moving an inch and everyone seems transfixed. It’s wonderful.

After the set, I say, “That was great! Do you have any CDs for sale?”, and she says, “Thank you! I need to give you a hug! And I’ll give you one!” And just like that: My favorite Airwaves moment. I make an early New Year’s resolution to be less American-band-from-last-night and more Surma.

I spend the rest of the day bopping around record stores, hanging out by the pond, and people-watching till it’s time to head over to Harpa, Reyjavik’s big concert hall, to see Eivør, a singer-songwriter from the Faroe Islands, and the reason I locked this trip down in the first place. It’s an amazing show featuring this amazing drum, and trust me that the video doesn’t do it justice. Then I head over to Gaukerinn to see metal band Dr. Spock, Fun fact: Frontman Óttarr Proppé is a former member of Iceland’s Parliament.

Total steps: 25,707, or 10.7 miles walked. I do believe it’s my new all-time best.

Epilogue: The end…or is it?

I always thought of this as a “bucket list” thing—once, and you’re done—but I loved the whole experience so much that I’ve already snagged early-bird tickets for next year’s Airwaves. See you next year!