Isle of Eternal Despair – Chapter 7
And then everything went back to disappointment again. The only confirmed interview for the day – with one of Iceland’s English newspapers, the Reykjavik Grapevine – was postponed, which resulted in a frantic hail of emails from the Sonic Iceland-headquarter. After a frustrating hour and liters of coffee, we admitted defeat and went out to town.
It is not so much the fact that Icelanders willingly ignore us; it’s more that we are so used to our own ways of communication that it’s hard to adapt or change. So, to give change a chance, we decided to talk to people straight away, without introductory emails and calls. Our first stop was at Havarí, a small store on Austurstraeti that we had noticed before, mostly because of the hip looking people and loud music inside. It’s a longish store with paintings and other pieces of art on the wall, loads of CD’s and vinyl on shelves and in crates – we found the musical goods of many important Icelandic labels such as Kimi Records, Brak Records, Gogoyoko and Skakkapopp – as well as posters, books and clothing. Over purchasing a poster by local cartoonist Hugleikur Dagsson, I talked to Pétur, a little bearded man working in the store, who turned out to be the main man behind Brak records, and who kindly agreed to an interview the day after and also invited us to an in-store show of one of his bands, Markús & The Diversion Sessions.
Stoked up by all this music and art we trotted on through the rainy Icelandic afternoon, walking up Skólavörðustígur to another store on our list, established Icelandic record store and label 12 Tónar. This time, we audaciously started the conversation with the bald man behind the counter straight away, and were again surprised to find that all questions were answered without reservation by Lárus, one of the two owners of 12 Tónar. As it turned out, 12 Tónar have basically stopped working as a label, and rely more on the shop than mail-order or setting up live shows. Their back catalogue nevertheless remains impressive. We spent an hour in the dimly lit basement, where we browsed through almost all important Icelandic releases of the last 20 years: Sugarcubes, Björk, Sigur Rós, Mugison; all neatly stacked on shelves around an old sofa, an armchair and three CD-players, allowing you to sample whatever album you plan to purchase. They also offered a hellish espresso.
To have even more coffee, we then took a break at Nýlenduvöruverzlun Hemma og Valda, a café in a former general store on Laugavegur. Not that the name would indicate this for anyone outside of Iceland. They serve their Cappuccinos in chipped mugs, and we whiled away an hour or so here, chatting, taking notes and eyeing the good looking waitresses. As one of the institutions of Icelandic music is just up the road, our next steps took us to Bad Taste Records (or Smekkleysa), the label and record store of former Sugarcube and recent-day politician Einar Örn Benediktsson. Situated in a green building on Laugavegur, it is as well-sorted as the other places, and I finally was able to lay my hands on the soundtrack for “Screaming Masterpiece”, the only record known to man to contain an excerpt of “Odin’s Raven Magic” by Sigur Rós and Steindór Andersen, which I had been searching for ages. This time our charm did not work though, and the nevertheless friendly man behind the counter remained as tight-lipped as many Icelanders we met before.
One thing that surprised me again was the fact that Icelandic labels sell their stuff from small, individual shops – and no big chain like HMV was to be seen anywhere. I wonder if this is representative for Iceland, or if it just the fact that there is no market for big chains with only 300.000 potential customers living on the island. Icelandic labels are only active in Iceland though, and do most of their distribution through distributers and bigger labels worldwide, and Icelandic musicians often have two separate record deals, one with an Icelandic label for local distribution and one with a bigger label for worldwide representation.
On the way back from Bad Taste we paid a visit to what I mistook for the former store of the Dead label – but by now it has been changed into a gallery, where owner Jón Sæmundur Auðarson and his associate Árni Valur Axfjörð are exhibiting their artworks and prints. We had a lengthy chat with Árni about his art, and they way things have changed for Icelandic artists since the economic collapse. He had been laid off work recently and has been urged by Jón to focus more on his work as an artist, and the exhibition is his first ever. His artworks are hybrids of old furniture pieces, splashes of color and toy parts, and definitively something you do not want to collect dust in some backyard shed. Not that the Dead Gallery is a shiny example of modern architecture, though. It’s a backyard shed, but a good one. You can still get custom-made T-Shirts, though, and while we were chatting with Arni a bunch of giggling teenagers came in and bought some – it seems the former clothing label and customers like Quentin Tarantino still carry some weight for fashionable youngsters in Reykjavík.
Iceland surprised us today. Once we’ve made the decision to leave the apartment and head to town, we met loads of people and even scheduled some interviews, just by being open and starting a conversation. We are still too German to do this without a proper introduction, it seems. But the longer we are in Iceland, I hope it improves.
And once we opened up the laptops at headquarters, we found two more emails confirming interviews for the next day. Just saying.
If you want to shop some music in Reykjavik, go here:
Travel: Music shopping in Reykjavík
12 Tonar on Skólavörðustígur, which is the street leading up to Halgrimskirkja, the rocket-thrower-shaped church dominating the Reykjavik “skyline”. On two floors, they have every single Icelandic release of the last 20 years and more, plus a very impressive classical music collection. As with most Icelandic stores, you’ll get free coffee.
Smekkleysa or Bad Taste Records is right on Laugavegur, and has the complete backcatalogue of label artists like Bjork and the Sugarcubes, plus some fine rarities. We did not get a coffee here.
Havarí has unfortunately closed down at the time of writing – it had planned as a temporary store right from the beginning anyway, and the place were the store was located will be occupied by a hotel. However, there are good news: “Fear not for Havarí will be back in Reykjavík downtown area soon enough or when we have found our place again. Until then the good people and guests of Reykjavík will have to survive on sharkmeat and pickled ram-balls.”.