This weekend was without a doubt the best music festival I’ve ever been to. I still haven’t been to the greats like SXSW or Primavera Sound, but All Tomorrow’s Parties Iceland went above and beyond your run-of-the-mill weekend festivals like Coachella, Sasquatch, Outside Lands, and Lollapalooza. Thoughtful curation of music, film, and DJs, and a location unlike any other made it a unique and beautiful experience. Held in an airplane-hangar-turned-film-studio on a former NATO base, the venue hosted two stages, a DJ tent, and a movie theater playing films curated by Portishead. Festival goers could also go to daytime events such as trivia, bingo, and 5-a-side football. Attendees and performers alike were encouraged to take part in these “extra-curricular” activities.
All Tomorrow’s Parties was founded in England in 1999 by Barry Hogan in the hopes of creating an alternative to larger, corporate festivals. Tómas Young of Iceland was involved in a group in 2011 which brainstormed possibilities for reinvigorating the former NATO base, and the idea sprang up to host a festival there based on the style of ATP. Young contacted Hogan to collaborate, and the festival ended up becoming a part of ATP’s official events. To get a sense of the laid back, familiar vibe of the festival, check out the rules page from the pamphlet:
The festival staunchly rejects any sort of VIP hierarchy of ticket prices, let alone VIP treatment for bands. I can’t speak to the backstage setup, but as far as I could tell, bands were encouraged to join the crowd. Some bands I saw amongst the “plebs” were Kurt Vile and the Violators, Liars, Mammút, Eaux, Shellac, and Low, and there were rumored sightings of Björk. At any North American festival, these “VIP” would have been away in some beer garden or watching from side stage, but at ATP, they walk among us. The positive effect on the collective attitude was palpable.
Attendees were down to earth and genuinely appreciative of the performances. I saw far less of the knee-jerk camera-phone photography that you see at concerts stateside, and crowd members seemed relaxed, even apathetic, about whether they were in the front. Even at the height of Interpol or Portishead’s sets, I could walk right up to the front barrier and watch comfortably.
I don’t know how ATP fosters this collective zen, but it’s working. Not once did I witness a fight or even a mosh pit. People were still excited, and there were many happy screams and fists pumping, but people weren’t aggressive. The small scale keeps things intimate, with only about 1300 tickets sold. People didn’t fight for space because it didn’t feel like there was a shortage of it. Compare that to sixty thousand people crammed into the Indio Polo Fields for Coachella, and the two events are worlds apart.
ATP Iceland was in the land of the midnight sun, and people stayed out later and partied harder. Sunset began around 9pm and lasted for the most beautiful three or four hours, and the gorgeous light made people forget how late it was. When the last bands finished each night and people staggered out of the venue, it was just beginning to get light again. At this point, you either went home to sleep, or you moved to the dance tent, which kept the party going until about 4am.
The fickle weather also fostered a sense of community. Rain and hail poured down on the first of three days, forcing people under any available shelter. Most of the crowd stayed inside, but those who braved the rain for food or a smoke were optimistic and friendly, laughing at the ridiculousness of the downpour. A connectedness soon formed, as people crowded together under awnings or squeezed inside the DJ tent to warm up. While I waited in line for a warm waffle to ease the pain, a jolly drunken man rambled something to me in Icelandic, and we exchanged knowing glances about the cold.
These interactions made ATP feel like a music appreciation camp for adults. Attendees formed unexpected friendships and discovered new music and films together, across boundaries of culture and language, all set against the breathtaking backdrop of Iceland’s southwestern lava fields.
Long story short, it was a musical and visual paradise.
My Top Ten Moments:
I had the chance to shoot Low’s in-studio at KEXP in 2011, but I had never seen them live. The Minnesota three-piece has a quiet reverence about them and a respect for the process of playing extremely well together. Their songs feel like southern inspirational music, uplifting and soothing all at once. Singer Alan Sparhawk floated around the stage, cracking like a whip at the waist as he crumbled into his guitar solos. His face twisted with concentration and passion, feeling out the notes with eyes closed. Drummer Mimi Parker is a solid rock, lending a strong backbone and ethereal harmonies to already complexly layered songs. They were a fantastic start to the weekend, the first act in a slew of expertly curated sounds.
9. Mogwai’s Graciousness and Explosive Crescendos
Scotland’s Mogwai closed the night on Thursday. Neighbors and repeat visitors to Iceland, the northerners were extremely gracious to the crowd. They thanked listeners in Icelandic, English, and Scottish, saying, “Takk, Thank You, Cheers,” and the phrase became a staple after each song. Often compared to Explosions in the Sky, their compositions had a more danceable beat running through them. Some are electronic grooves that grow and get more complex, while others are bigger, simpler, with slowly morphing melodies and soundscapes. During one song, they went super quiet and everyone began to clap and scream, and I was sure they were finished. After a few seconds, they burst back to life, shocking everyone out of their skin. They were the perfect end to a dreary, intense day on the island, a reminder of the phenomenal music we were all there to see.
8. Mammút’s Heavy Fairy Rock
This lady-fronted five piece blew me away at the start of the second day. Vocalist Katrína Kata Mogensen can sing and she can scream, blending the soft with the heavy perfectly, like some kind of Icelandic heavy rock fairy goddess. The music was engaging and wondrous, the bass drum rolled and rocked, and even amidst the deep notes I heard some chimes twinkling. During one song, the drums and guitars built up slowly, growing and growing and pausing at the climax for effect, and right as the band were supposed to explode, a guitar cut out. The singer said something Icelandic with the words, “anti-climax,” and the crowd laughed. Mammút started the song over and it was better than ever, washing over the crowd to its full effect.
7. Interpol’s Dude Super-Fans
As the festival drew to a close on Saturday night, attendees were eager to see stylish New Yorkers Interpol. Despite five albums of material to choose from, their setlist was full of oldies and goodies. Highlights included “Evil,” “Not Even Jail,” “Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down,” “Untitled,” “NYC,” and “PDA.” Singer Paul Banks was reserved as ever, but wearing a huge smile, and guitarist Dan Kessler sauntered around with his quintessential dance moves. It felt like an exclusive Interpol show, with far less people than their typical arena shows, and a relaxed atmosphere. Banks thanked everyone for being there, and perhaps alluding to the unique environment, mused “This has been fun!” As I looked out across the crowd, there were three figures on people’s shoulders, singing and waving their hands. I assumed they were women, but did a double take when they were three grown men! The love rained down on Interpol as they wrapped up the headlining set of the weekend.
6. Kría Brekkan’s Tiny but Beautiful Voice
Icelandic Kría Brekkan (birth name Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir), played to a packed Andrews Theater on Saturday. Better known for her collaboration with ex-husband David Portner (Avey Tare of Animal Collective), Brekkan is an extremely talented multi-instrumentalist. She launched into her piano set, blending the seams between the first five or six songs, and the crowd erupted into applause at the first available break. She explained that she thinks she talks too much at her shows, and that she wanted to focus on the songs that evening. She performed “Bee Xlaura,” which gained popularity after it was filmed for a La Blogothèque “take away show” in 2006.
Brekkan had a fun sense of humor, speaking always in her small, squeaky voice. It’s quirky and charming, and she prepped the crowd for her next song, saying, “It’s going to be honky tonky.” The crowd laughed, and she replied, “Wait . . . just you wait.” Towards the end of her set, she covered The Small Faces’ “Itchycoo Park,” repeating the lines “It’s all too beautiful,” and inviting the crowd to sing along. They gladly obliged, and somewhere in the crowd, Björk may have been singing along. She was spotted watching bands multiple times, especially at Brekkan’s set. The latter brought the perfect mix of talented, mysterious, and modest that made for a very moving performance.
5. Shellac Stripping Their Drummer
Shellac, musical project of Steve Albini (who produced Nirvana’s In Utero), was one of the first bands on Thursday’s bill. They performed their saucy punk jangles with attitude and a sense of humor, poised in front of a stark white projector screen. As a bass-heavy three-piece, they immediately reminded me of Primus, but with very stark, talk-y vocals, and a much more jarring and syncopated rather than funky, flowing sound. Bassist Bob Weston asked the crowd to ask him a question, and had a variety of responses, such as, “How would you go about making a half-man, half-monkey?” He thought for a moment and said, “Well, fuck a monkey!” At one point, someone yelled, “Louder motherfuckers!” and he responded, “Take your earplugs out.” This light bickering was more flirtatious than anything, and the band were super thankful to the crowd for braving the weather to see them.
They played “The End of Radio,” off their album Excellent Italian Greyhound, where Albini asks, “Is this thing on? Can you hear me now?” as the song grows in intensity. The drums, bass, and guitar pick up as his voice raises and hardens, until he’s screaming at the listener. At the end of their set, Albini and Weston began to deconstruct drummer Todd Trainer’s kit, taking pieces off stage randomly. He carried on playing, and his phrases became less and less complex as more pieces were removed. They took his throne and left him standing alone, pounding on his snare drum. When they took that too, Trainer raised his sticks into the air, turned around, and smacked them onto the ground so hard they flew backwards into the hands of the eager crowd.
4. Liars’ Short but Sweet Set of Dance Bangers
Liars’ first performance in Iceland was a short but sweet set, chock-full of dance bangers. Rather than playing the predictable hits from each album, they focused on their latest release, Mess, and its attitude of danceable, abrasive electro-punk. Its tracks “Mess on a Mission,” “Vox Tuned D.E.D.,” and “I’m No Gold,” blended perfectly with “Plaster Casts of Everything,” from their self-titled, and “Brats” from 2012’s WIXIW. After an exciting entrance where singer Angus Andrew ran around stage wearing a colorful knit mask for “Mask Maker,” they plowed through songs non-stop. The only pause in momentum came when they played their strange, eerie title track from WIXIW. Always experimenting and always progressing, Liars are as fascinating as ever, and fans of their more punk leanings will be excited to hear Mess’s angst.
3. Portishead’s Live Scratching and Stripped Down “Wandering Star”
Trip-hop legends Portishead of Bristol, England are a band of musicians who continue to reinvent themselves while staying true to their roots. After a ten year hiatus, the band released Third in 2008, just after curating 2007’s ATP in Minehead, England. This was their first live performance since the hiatus, and the album featured newly designed songs which took their signature brooding and sensual sound and pushed it to the limits of modern electronic processes. Moody breakdowns were elongated and enhanced, vocals manipulated, and an exciting update to their process was revealed.
At ATP Iceland 2014, tracks old and new were rendered near-perfect live, with the exception of a few songs where singer Beth Gibbons’ voice was overpowered by booming bass and drum tracks. Despite this, two aspects of the set were phenomenal: Geoff Barrow’s live vinyl scratching to “Mysterons,” from their debut Dummy of 1994, and a fantastic stripped down version of “Wandering Star” from the same album. For the former, live visuals of Barrow’s hands were projected behind the band. In an age where most anything can be produced artificially, it was a joy to see a true disc jockey scratching live behind eerie pianos and Gibbons’ haunting lyrics.
For “Wandering Star,” the reverberating drums of the album version were exchanged for solely guitar, bass, and Gibbons’ naked voice, sitting facing one another on stage. It was an arrestingly delicate rendition of a well known song, leaving the crowd in awe. As the track came to a close, Gibbons’ voice raised higher and higher, building in long notes until the end, as her voice pierced the room.
2. The Food (Meat Soup, Hot Dogs, Kleina, Coffee, Homemade Cake)
If you think all Icelanders eat is fish, you’d be terribly wrong. They beat us at our own game with hot dogs, and their miles of free-roaming sheep mean delicious homegrown lamb. The food may not have been fancy, but it was some of the best festival food I’ve had. I discovered the delicious Kleina, or Icelandic doughnut, on my flight over, and the festival had a table set up in the main hall with great coffee, Kleina, and homemade chocolate cake. This was a godsend on Thursday, when the rain soaked people through and all they wanted was a hot beverage.
Outside there were four or five food trucks, one serving lobster soup and sandwiches, one with hamburgers, and one with waffles and hot chocolate. As I stood scoffing down a skinny, lukewarm dog while the incessant rain poured down, I realized how absolutely delicious they were despite the situation. They were covered in this amazing garlic mayo aioli, and if you wanted, you could have fried onions inside the bun, adding a salty crunch.
The best, most amazing treat, however, was the “Icelandic Spicy Meat Soup.” Most would balk at the vagueness of the phrase “Meat Soup,” but in the cold, I was all about it. I had heard from an Icelandic bus driver that the stew was to die for, so I bought a bowl and soothed my freezing bones before Interpol’s set. It was loaded with the island’s delicious lamb, and gave me the fuel I needed to last until the bright wee hours of the morning.
1. The “Disco” Tent
In addition to the awesome food, attendees kept themselves warm by dancing. The DJ tent was centrally located and kept running all weekend. On Thursday during the downpour, people crowded into the tent for Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaite. Icelanders, or at least Europeans, love to dance and seem much less shy than their North American counterparts. Even during those rare times when the dance floor was slim, those who danced were shamelessly rocking out. Each night, the tent kept going until about 4am, and the last night featured a DJ set by Barry Hogan himself.
It was fantastic to see him in person and hear some of his favorite tracks, and during the entire set, the other administrators of the festival danced and partied with the concert goers. It was the perfect way to end a fantastic weekend, dancing alongside some of the people who had checked my press credentials or attached my wristband. Bravo to Hogan and Young for creating such a unique experience, and let’s hope they can preserve the spirit in years to come.