With Mammút, Sykur, Tonik Ensemble and ADHD all set to play Aberdeen's SPECTRA Festival, we chat to the bands to find out more about Iceland's diverse output
Known for its dramatic landscape and subarctic climate, along with its abundance of volcanoes, geysers and hot springs, Iceland isn't necessarily the first Nordic nation that comes to mind when thinking about music. Certainly, with a population of around 330,000, it may be difficult to envision the country having a music scene of particular significance, aside from those few heavy hitters than have crossed over to mainstream territory in more recent years. But despite what the country's small population will have you believe, the Icelandic music scene is not only alive and well, but diverse and ultimately, thriving.
'Iceland is like an incubator for new and experimental stuff' says Halldór Eldjárn of electro outfit Sykur. 'You can always expect to hear something new, something wild, something unusual and this kind of agility is the key to creating successful international acts.'
Sykur / credit: Dýrfinna Benita Well-known for their effervescent synth-pop and dance-centric grooves, the band started as a trio back in 2008, with singer Agnes joining in 2011 to complete the lineup. Since then, they've gained a strong following in their home country and also picked up recognition across the pond for their energetic and dynamic live sets.
'When we started out the most popular acts were typical pop and rock groups,' Eldjárn explains when asked about the early days of Sykur. 'So we started in sort of an underground scene with other electro artists. In recent years, production value has been increasing a lot, most notably in the quality of music videos being made, and also in live performances where artists put a lot of effort into their sound, lights and stage performance which maybe was secondary before. I think people started to grow a bit tired of the 'laptop performer' where the performance simply is 'a guy and his laptop'. Nowadays, the laptop is hidden behind a curtain and there are generally more confetti bombs!'
Things have certainly progressed musically in the past decade but there seems to have always been a shared quality of experimentation and innovation that continues to run through many of the releases coming out of Iceland today. But as these releases also show, there is no singular or discernible 'Icelandic sound'; rather, there are a wide range of genres, ideas and influences being utilised throughout the music community.
Tonik Ensemble, the musical project of Anton Kaldal Ágústsson is just one example of this blurring of styles, with the amalgamation of electronics and live instruments creating an interesting sonic dialogue. 'Early break-out bands definitely put an idea in people's heads of what Icelandic music sounded like.' Ágústsson notes. 'Fortunately, those artists were at the time fairly experimental.'
His 2015 eight-track album Snapshots, which was widely praised at the time for its experimental soundscapes, is a blissed-out blend of house and ambient. But as Ágústsson explains, it was all about contrasts.
'It's a clash between electronics and organic sounds, and a clash and deconstruction of genres. When seeking inspiration, it is almost like research; from 15th century choir pieces, to 2018 singles and albums and SoundCloud accounts. It's all about the joy of listening.'
This concept of inspiration as research is something that instrumental quartet ADHD are highly familiar with, as evident in the range of atmospheres and moods present across their six self-titled releases. With jazz and rock as their main foundation, the band implement a melodic expression that is at times avant-garde but always unyielding. Having won the Icelandic Jazz Album of the Year at the Icelandic Music Awards in 2009 for their debut, and been subsequently nominated for the Nordic Music Prize for their next three albums, the four musicians are highly respected and established faces within the Icelandic jazz scene. But as skilled musicians in their own right with various projects on the go, together, they are not concerned with perceptions or sticking to/breaking away from conventions, as drummer Magnús Trygvason Eliassen tells me.
'Sometimes people tell us that they think our music is scenic and emotional. What that means we don't exactly know. But we haven't really thought about breaking away from anything. We just play our music.'
It's a refreshing take on making music, especially when ADHD's output is so compelling and disparate in its make-up and overall production. Despite the jazz scene generally being smaller in Iceland compared to other genres like pop, ADHD have forged a decent following which Eliassen believes is linked to the overall community vibe within the wider Icelandic music scene.
'The community feel is good here. It is a very tight knit community of people that are very open to new ideas and new music.'
This is something that Ágústsson also finds in his work with Tonik. 'With a population of close to 335,000, there is most definitely a community vibe.' He says. 'In terms of support, it of course it takes time to develop your own artistic identity, but people have always been friendly and open to collaborations. It's all about making interesting music.'
For Reykjavík indie-rock band Mammút, being part of a community has been vital to their overall growth but has also encouraged them to look beyond their immediate circle. 'We were only 13–15 when we started so with the island being so small, the challenge for us was to grow out of being seen as teenagers. The community here is quite tight and the artists try to stick together and help each other out. It is a very creative environment at times, but it also becomes a necessity to get of the island to bring back new or different oxygen.
Mammút The five-piece have enjoyed success both in Iceland and abroad, with their latest album Kinder Versions released in 2017 following a fruitful crowdfunding campaign on Icelandic website Karolina Fund. The new album is their first to be released on UK label Bella Union, signaling a shift for the band in terms of both their focus and overall reach. Another big change with this album lies in the band's decision to write and perform the tracks in English, which came very naturally to them.
'The decision was an easy one.' singer Kata Mogensen says. 'We live in a place where only around 300,000 people speak the language, so we definitely crave more. The lyrics are usually written after we finish writing the songs, so the energy or feel of the song in a way creates the lyrics. Writing in English gave us a different perspective and we felt more free playing around with the vocabulary.'
Though expanding their horizons was one reason behind the choice to sing and write in English, the audience-performer connection is also a constant in Mammút's thinking.
'We felt very strongly that the extra connection that comes with language was now becoming more important to us. Playing to an audience that doesn't understand your words is fine, music in itself does not need explaining. But when your audience understand the words, it is just a different experience being created, and in a way it brings a more mutual connection.'
Sykur, who perform in both Icelandic and English, agree that forging strong connections with an audience is fundamental, regardless of where they're from.
'Agnes, our singer, has a great sense of connecting with the audience, no matter who is listening.' Eldjárn explains. 'If she feels like the audience is detached, she will just join the audience to create the correct vibe. It always works and our concerts usually end in dance mayhem where everybody is invited! We once played at a bar in Reykjavík and after our first song, a person came to us from the audience and told us that everybody in the bar had impaired or no hearing at all, but they said it didn't matter because they felt the bass vibrations through the floor and their chests. So we had an interpreter join us on stage that interpreted Agnes' lyrics to sign language and we've never seen a more thankful audience.'
In February, audiences in Aberdeen will get the opportunity to experience a snippet of the variety and sheer scale of music currently coming out of Iceland as Mammút, Sykur, Tonik Ensemble and ADHD all descend upon the city for SPECTRA. This year's festival will see an enhanced music programme featuring Nordic and UK talent, alongside the main light festival, which will introduce audiences to the music of the region.
As Tonik's Ágústsson says with some confidence, 'Looking at the bands doing SPECTRA, they are all amazing groups that are doing their own things and couldn't be more different. It doesn't matter what style you are into, you will definitely find something you like.'
So what exactly is it about Icelandic music that seems to continually draw people in?
'Most people outside of Iceland talk about the music as if it is made of magic, out of the sublime nature.' Mammút's Mogensen says. 'But to tell you the truth, with every year I'm starting to think that there is something in the water over here, magic maybe.'
SPECTRA: Aberdeen's Festival of Light, Thu 8–Sun 11 Feb.
Public light artworks animate spaces in Aberdeen's city centre at this four-day festival. This year’s festival celebrates Aberdeen's rich coast and waters in recognition of the national 'Year of Coast and Waters'.