Last Saturday, our friends at KEX Hostel, hosts for KEXP’s Iceland Airwaves broadcast over the past two years, threw a party under our shared name… all the way in Reykjavik! KEXPort has become both a welcoming landing spot for KEXP as well as a conduit for Icelandic artists to reach the ears of KEXP listeners. Like the first, this second annual KEXPort lined up 12 bands to perform in 12 hours, a marathon for sure, but a widely varied one so that locals, fans and KEX Hostel guests could wander in and out and always hear something completely new. Despite my own bleary-eyed stupor from having flown from Seattle to Reykjavik just the day before, I managed to catch all 11 bands who ended up performing (the day’s second act, Sísý Ey, unfortunately had to cancel). It was an epic event and, even while leaving out many other excellent Icelandic bands, the day-long mini-festival embodied just how diverse the Icelandic music scene still is today.
The industrious crew at KEX starting setting up for the day while the guests in the rooms around and above the stage were barely stirring from a night’s sleep:
The band I was most excited to see was the first to take the stage. Moses Hightower released one of the best albums of the year in 2012. Önnur Mósebók was at least my second favorite of all last year and certainly my top Icelandic album. Though their lyrics are totally Icelandic, I wouldn’t say I hadn’t a clue what they were singing about… their smooth, lounge-y compositions sound like love letters you wouldn’t want your kids to read. The night before, I had seen them in the cramped, dark, sweltering space of Faktorý, but on the KEX stage their noon-time set seemed to float more easily. Though their words were lost on me, I noticed more people singing along to their lyrics than to any other band for the rest of the day.
Due to the cancellation of Sísý Ey, the longest break between bands came between Moses Hightower and the next act, Kippi Kaninus. While waiting, I ran into Petúr Ben, a longtime friend of KEXP, who’s performed several times on the station, including once in our Seattle studio. As I thanked him for coming by and saying hello, he informed me he was there to perform, this time with Kippi. That’s the way it works in Iceland — everyone has a part in several bands or projects at any given time. Petúr plays with Kippi. Kippi, a.k.a. Guðmundur Vignir Karlsson, plays with instrumental band Amiina, and Maggi, the drummer, seems to play with pretty much everyone. (He was ubiquitous during the KEXP sessions during Airwaves last year.) For this KEXPort set, the band Kippi Kaninus gathered some of Iceland’s best musicians along with Karlsson, Maggi, and Petúr, including bassist Óttar Sæmundsen, percussionist Sigtryggur Baldursson (a founding member of The Sugarcubes) and trombonist Ingi Garðar Erlendsson. While some of Kippi’s earlier recordings are ambient and relatively minimal, the session at KEX grew into a mind-melting intensity while combining electronic experimentation with epic post-rock jams.
One quarter of Sudden Weather Change, guitarist/vocalist Loji Höskuldsson, like many Icelandic band members, also maintains his own solo project, called merely Loji. By himself, Loji remains as experimental as ever, if a bit more down tempo and lower intensity. Songs like “I Was A Rusher” recall at times Animal Collective, Akron/Family and even Seattle’s Feral Children, only because they’re all going after the same elusive game, which resides on the exact border between the familiar and not. Moody, perhaps, but it help bring the sunshine for the next few acts… before the rain.
By comparison to the others, Friðrik Dór is a pop singer and is certainly more likely to be heard on poplar radio in Iceland. He’s regularly credited as being one of Iceland’s first “genuine R&B singers”, and while his set may have turned a few indie hipsters away, he certainly brought a crowd to KEXPort and got them waving their hands in the air. And the kids sure seemed to dig him.
Electronic rock duo Nolo is far too young to really know the many of the inspirations for their sound — Roxy Music, Wire, The Cure and early New Order, for example — but they adeptly combine elements of the late 70’s and 80’s New Wave with a touch of psychedelia and contemporary indie pop, while still adding enough quirks to make you think you’re hearing something brand new. For their session at KEXPort, Nolo performed as a trio, substituting a live drummer for the drum machine they used on their recordings, giving the set more oomph! It was a different set of fans in attendance now, many in bands of their own.
Last year during Airwaves, one of the highlights of the 35 bands we recorded in Reykjavik was a band called Boogie Trouble. Though it seems kind of funny coming from an Icelandic band in the Two-Thousand-Teens, but Boogie Trouble are dead serious about making pure and unabashed 70’s disco funk. While their sound is notoriously American, their lyrics are decidedly Icelandic, creating a sort of alternate universe experience that lends a new appreciation to a genre I previously loathed. So not surprisingly, their set at KEXPort was again one of my highlights. In the nearly nine months since we saw them last, the band has grown. Joining them now is Helga Ragnarsdóttir, also a bandmate with kick-ass Boogie Trouble bass player Ingibjörg Elsa Turchi in Rökkurró, and she not only adds more glamour to this already deliciously glammy band, but also wonderfully compliments lead vocalist Klara Arnalds, (sister of Ólöf Arnalds). Together, the band can’t help but take the party from stage to your shoes and hips.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Babies, considering I heard mostly that “they play a lot of covers” and that some of the main guys come from Caterpillarmen, a band I saw a few years ago at Airwaves perform a long musical narrative about a bunch of monkeys fighting with a bunch of humans. Funny, weird, totally punk. At KEXPort, Babies took the stage as a seven-piece, borrowing Boogie Trouble’s Turchi on bass, and opened with a local climate-friendly cover of Roy Ayers’ “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” before proceeding into a list of grooving originals, punctuated by some funny/creepy antics by keyboardist Ingimundur Guðmundsson, who channels the late Lux Interior with his deep throated vocals on “Look Around You” and “Crazy Lady”, both of which drew him from the stage to strut around the audience. Amusing, but also a lot more than I expected. Leave it to Icelandic musicians to make even their jokes artful and awesome.
One of the first bands KEXP ever recorded in Iceland, Hjaltalín is a national treasure. Because of their unique blend of rock, folk, chamber pop, classical, electronica, and at times musical theater, it’s almost impossible to compare them to any band in the U.S., and it’s difficult to judge how listeners here might react. However, KEX Hostel’s back patio was filled with fans of the band who produced one of the most critically lauded albums in Iceland in 2012. And they were hardly deterred when the rain began to break. The moment of the entire day: everyone joining in on “Feels Like Sugar” and at the moment we sing “And it feels like sugar, but tastes like rain”, a pool of water gathered in the tarp overhead pours theatrically onto the stage.
The first thing you notice is their hair, then the sound. As Muck thrashed onstage, the two were inseparable. Muck’s set was a direct counterpoint to Hjaltalín’s sugar sweetness, but as they built a wall of sound from a mix of hardcore, death metal and punk, lines of punchy melody broke through, recalling at times Fugazi or Minutemen, as much as their more similar sore-throated counterparts. Muck made a barrage of noise, but it was a joyful barrage of noise indeed.
If you thought Zola Jesus was darkly theatrical on stage, you haven’t seen Sykur. The synth-loving band, fronted by the white-braided Agnes Björt Andradóttir, finally brought the crowd right up the stage, dancing to the beat and mesmerized by Andradóttir’s vocal acrobatics, matched only by her wildy expressive hand gestures and body movements. A lot of band exuded a lot of energy at KEXPort, but Sykur was electrifying on a whole new level.
How do you headline a lineup as stellar as KEXPorts? Apparently, you bring 13 of your friends, all wearing colorful dashikis, to perform a fired up set of Afrobeat-inspired funk. Samúel J. Samúelsson Big Band would have torn the roof off if we weren’t already outside. By this point, the KEX back patio and the entire driveway space up to the road was filled with people. And finally, by 11PM, the sky started to get a bit dark. The mood was set for a hedonistic dance fest and nobody stopped moving until the last note was blown.
Samúel J. Samúelsson Big Band:
In all, it was an incredible 12 hours of music, hard to explain and relate even in words and photos… just just have to go there, to Iceland, to see and hear what the music scene is all about.
Thanks to our friends at KEX Hostel for making this happen. Forget the elves, the magic is in the clubs, bars and other gathering spaces for musicians and fans to come together.