Darkwave, shitpunk, and trap-soul: Ahead of Iceland Airwaves 2019, a cross-generational survey of Reykjavik's DIY music melting pot.
It’s difficult to talk about Iceland’s music without words that apply to its multifarious landscapes; bleak metal and warm folk in the Land of Fire and Ice. Icelandic darkwave/post-punk trio Kælan Mikla—made up of vocalist Laufey Soffía, bassist Margrét Rósa Dóru-Harrýsdóttir, and keyboard player Sólveig Matthildur—is named, instead, for the fictional cartoon world of Finnish author Tove Jansson’s Moominvalley. And you’re more likely to find the three musicians in their Reykjavik studio playing around with a trap beat, or having a spontaneous jam session with the black metal and indie folk bands renting rehearsal spaces next door, than standing before a remote glacier waiting for inspiration to strike. (At least one of the girls doesn’t even have a driver’s license.)
When I call Matthildur and Soffía—Margrét Rósa Dóru-Harrýsdóttir was working at her day job as a chef—they’re hanging out in the office of Sigtryggur “Siggi” Baldursson, founding member of groundbreaking Icelandic punk outfit The Sugarcubes, amongst others. (I had recently spent an afternoon with Siggi in Reykjavik, where emblems of the small city’s role in music’s DIY revolution include a subterranean museum in what used to be a public toilet.) Today, the three musicians are singing the praises of Une Misère and Orville Peck, the abrasive hardcore band and the flamboyant outlaw cowboy who make up just two of the acts on the marvelously mind-expanding lineup for Iceland Airwaves in Reykjavik next month. Also slated to perform at Airwaves is legendary Icelandic outfit MAMMÚT—which released its debut self-titled album in 2006 via The Sugarcubes’ label Smekkleysa—plus the anti-capitalist BDSM techno-punk band Hatari, a bisexual vegan ‘shitpunk’ duo called Joe and the Shitboys, and introspective trap-soul breakout Velvet Negroni, who trained as a classical pianist and figure skater before being co-signed by Kanye West.
You might equally call the music festival a performance art showcase. Kælan Mikla’s own roots are in the world of poetry and performance art; the trio’s relentless commitment to ritualistic stage theatrics have the eye of everyone from Europe’s goth community to The Cure’s Robert Smith—who personally booked Kælan Mikla for his Meltdown Festival and Pasadena Daydream, plus The Cure’s 40th Anniversary [1978-2018 Live] in Hyde Park. Document spoke to Matthildur, Soffía, and Baldursson about the multi-dimensional nature of Iceland’s DIY scene, and futility of trying to define it.
Hannah Ongley—Laufey and Sólveig, tell me about playing Robert Smith’s Pasadena Daydream festival.
Sólveig Matthildur—It was the first gig for our US tour. We were called and asked to play, and we of course said yes. It was really good—it was really hot [laughs].
Laufey Soffía—It was The Cure, and The Pixies, there was Deftones, Emma Ruth Rundle…
Sigtryggur Baldursson—So not just old farts.
Sólveig—[Laughs] No! It went super well, it was just perfect. Robert Smith was watching our show the whole time and we were really grateful for that.
Hannah—Do you know how Robert Smith came across your music?
Laufey—No, I don’t know. Probably on the internet [laughs]. Sometimes when you watch our videos, the next video is by The Cure. So maybe he was listening to his own music and then he saw us. He [approached] us one-and-a-half years ago about performing at Meltdown festival…
Hannah—What is it like playing for crowds in the US and UK compared to back home?
Sólveig—In Iceland, everybody we know are artists. You go to concerts, you play concerts, and most of the audience is maybe in another band or something, so it’s more casual and more inspiring for all of us. I feel that way when I go to shows here in Iceland. It’s so much a band playing [to an audience]—it’s family.
Hannah—I think I was telling you, Siggi, how cool it was that all the techno DJs know all the indie folk singers and the indie folk singers know all the punk bands. The crossover between genres also, in the actual music, feels very pronounced.
Sigtryggur—Right. There are developed scenes within the music community. There are well-developed sub-genres. There are tight scenes in their own regard. But they also work quite fluidly together if they want to. Sometimes musicians are quite easily shared between these scenes. There might be a drummer playing with a jazz band but he’s also playing with an indie band and also a folk-y act as well.
Sólveig—I really like to feel like we all stem from the same community in Reykjavik. We have a space in this area and there’s tons of bands there. In the house that we’re in now, there’s a lot of black metal bands, but then there’s also us, and some country, and some indie rock. That only makes the scene closer.
Hannah—A lot of your sounds are atmospheric, brutal, borderline violent. Do you think menacing music has to be created from a place of emotional darkness?
Sólveig—A bit of both, I suppose. When I’m sad or angry I might write more than when I’m happy. When I’m happy, I write songs that are supposed to be happy, but they always end up feeling kind of sad [laughs].
Hannah—How does the geographic isolation of Iceland influence you creatively? The internet sort of collapses distance and allows you to transport yourself all over the world…
Sólveig—In Germany, sometimes I make something and I send it over the internet. And I can’t imagine having to call promoters and call agents…
Sigtryggur—I want to bring the carrier pigeon back.
Hannah—Well, Siggi, when you were promoting the release of “Birthday” with The Sugarcubes, you guys printed postcards of the Reykjavik Summit meeting between [former U.S. President Ronald] Reagan and [former Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev.
Sigtryggur—Yes, we raised money by selling postcards of Reagan and Gorbachev, in 1986. That’s how we financed that first record. But we actually formed the band to be a moneymaker for the label [Bad Taste], because the label was sort of an artist organization, we wanted to be able to release poetry and do all sorts of surrealist exhibits—lots of fun stuff. The music was supposed to be the money-making apparatus. It’s kind of a weird thing, really. In those days you could sell records, you see. Nowadays you have to find other means of making money…
Hannah—Laufey and Sólveig, would you say performance art and poetry have shaped Kælan Mikla more than music itself has?
Laufey—Yeah. Of course we’re inspired by music that we like, but we always started out as a performance group. We want to be making, like, crazy performances.
Sólveig—Our last album was called Nótt Eftir Nótt, or ‘Night After Night.’ We talk a lot about insomnia, and homesickness, and we try to be more inspired by [those things] more than by music.
Hannah—It’s interesting that you talk about those internal emotions in isolation from any external political themes, rather than being caused by them—which is often the case with punk and, to a lesser degree, post-punk, or at least when people talk about them.
Laufey—We are more inwards, I suppose. [It’s] more on the inside of us rather than what’s happening outside. We never decided on being in some genre—we started out in the punk genre, I guess—
Sólveig—We were just making the songs that we thought made sense to [what we] were feeling…instead of being, like, tied to a theme or certain sound. It’s the people that listen to [our music] who decide the genre. Now we are in this goth community in Europe, where the goths really like our music. We never decided to play goth music, but they decided we are goth music.
Laufey—We were just like, ‘Okay, we’ll be goths.’
Sigtryggur—This whole idea of defining art, in general… I think that we, as a society, always have to define things in order to try and understand them. It’s not always beneficial, necessarily. Sometimes definitions limit things.
Sólveig—And just like us, in Iceland, collaborating with each other as artists, and allowing ourselves to be something else—you don’t have to only be the drummer in the black metal metal band, you can also be the key person in the country band that’s rehearsing next door.
Hannah—When you look at the Iceland Airwaves lineup there are some artists doing some really weird stuff in really incredible ways. It’s almost like an experimentation lab more than it is the outcome of trying to fill a quota.
Sólveig—Airwaves does a really good job of booking artists from all sorts of genres. I remember when I was 14 and 15 I went to an off-venue show for Iceland Airwaves, and thought, ‘Okay, so I can also be in a band.’ It was very inspiring.
Hannah—Has that changed since you were playing in the ‘80s, Siggi?
Sigtryggur—Yeah. The scene here is a lot…a lot more, basically. There’s a lot more stuff, there’s a lot more interesting stuff. Back in the days when The Sugarcubes were starting out, it was a lot of cover bands, then a slew of post-punk survivors, like us, who were trying to do their own stuff. The Icelandic scene is a lot livelier and more multi-dimensional [now] than it was back then. We still operate in our little microcosms—it’s quite funny, you don’t really need a manager here to pick up the phone and call the next venue. We were just laughing about this earlier… I remember calling venues all over Europe and asking if we could play. We were doing this shit ourselves back in the day and Kælan Mikla have been doing their shit largely on their own, although they’re now working with a label and branching out and working with others, similar to how we did back in the day. There is a real DIY mentality here, a [desire to] do things the way you want them to be done, not chasing a market or idea of how other people think you should be making stuff.
Hannah—Are there any other artists on the Airwaves lineup you’re particularly excited to see?
Laufey—I’m always excited to see Mammút.
Laufey—Ooh, yes, I love aYia.
Sigtryggur—aYia are fantastic.
Laufey—Sykur, they haven’t placed in a while.
Sigtryggur—Orville Peck, he’s cool. There’s a lot that I have no idea what it is. That’s actually one of the things I find exciting, that I don’t know a lot of this stuff. I like to go out and experience new things.
Sólveig—I like Une Misère.
Sigtryggur—Oh, fuck yeah. I saw them at Eurosonic and I had to seek assistance afterwards, I was in shock. They were fantastic!
Hannah—Do you think the music you created with The Sugarcubes and K.U.K.L. would have been different had it been easier for you to connect with larger, more multi-dimensional overseas audiences?
Sigtryggur—That’s a good question… No, I think we were probably able to channel a certain sensibility that I think is still effective here today. People are trying to create something they feel is important and relevant. I think that’s a sentiment that a lot of people are dealing with they’re trying to create music or other kinds of art. You don’t want it to sound like anything else that you can call to mind. I don’t think it has to be completely original, I just think it has to have character. Kælan Mikla, I think their overall sound is quite ‘80s retro, to me, but it still has a lot of character.
Laufey—I remember reading a lot of reviews that were like, ‘Oh, Kælan Mikla sounds like this band, this band, this band’—tons of ’80s bands that I hadn’t even ever listened to. I got really inspired by trap beats. I started making trap beats, and we started experimenting more with samples. We made some really weird music that is inspired by so many things. It’s funny because people come [to our shows] and they immediately go, ‘Ah! Joy Division!’ But maybe we were just listening to some trap and taking inspiration from that.
Sigtryggur—I used to make drum loops from scratch. But I would be playing them, then I’d just record them, and cut them into loops, and sell that. But that’s a little different to making a trap beat.
Sólveig—We don’t really make rap. What I’m trying to say is, when the three of us sit down, we combine our talent, and it somehow always ends up being Kælan Mikla. We might layer a rap sound over it but it still sounds like us.
Hannah—That’s more punk than making music inspired by punk music.
Laufey—If we make something that sounds too much like one thing, we have to go back and make it sound weird again.
Sigtryggur—Do you work together on any visuals?
Sólveig—We have a friend who does live mixing, so we meet together and we make videos, and our friends work on it with us. Kinnat is an amazing designer and visual artist, and her boyfriend is a photographer and a video artist. They were touring with us in February and we had one day off, and we rented an Air BnB and recorded a music video in the basement.
Laufey—We made a DIY music video in the basement. But also, with all the videos we do, we always work on the idea and the artistic direction of it with our own vision.
Hannah—How important was the visual element to you, Siggi?
Sigtryggur—I’m not so involved with making music from scratch now as I used to be. I do more as a guest with friends on their recordings, and stuff like that. So I haven’t been as deeply involved in this creative process are the girls are, evidently.
Sólveig—Do you miss it?
Sigtryggur—Yeah. Yes, to be honest, I do. I miss the whole collaborative aspect and the creative aspect. So now I’m sort of working on a side project with an old friend of mine. We’re recording in our own studio and making new music. But it’s nothing for public hearing—not yet.
Sólveig—It’s also therapy, to make music. If I didn’t have it I would be locked in a hospital somewhere.
Laufey—I love every aspect of creating the music we make. You create the whole world. We’ve created this weird hive mind character that embodies us when we’re performing.
Sólveig—Kælan Mikla is the name of a character in a famous cartoon called the Moomin, it’s ‘the Lady of the Cold.’ She is our god, she is our alter ego. When the three of us are together we have an alter ego and it’s Kælan Mikla, that’s who we present on stage and in our video.
Laufey—And with our costumes and props and things like that. It’s sort of like a big theatre piece sometimes. It’s very therapeutic to work with this.
Iceland Airwaves takes place November 6-9 in Reykavík with travel packages available here. Travel for this article was provided by the festival’s founding sponsor Icelandair.