Down-market, frozen-food supermarket aside, when one thinks of Iceland it’s not usually fish or national bankruptcy that spring to mind but ethereal electronic music from the likes of Björk and Sigur Rós. However, that northern volcanic island has far more to offer musically with bands such as Of Monsters and Men, Gus Gus and Retro Stefson making their mark internationally, with relatively new band Sykur about to join the swelling ranks of Icelandic tunesmiths. In fact, music is now the country’s second biggest export, after fish, and there is a whole government department set up to help bands take their music to the world. Icelandic Air even has a scheme that allows bands to carry their equipment without charge.
Four-piece Sykur (minus member Kristján Eldjárn) are part of the Icelandic invasion and recently did a small tour of the UK to promote their debut EP Mesópótamia, which was released on 29 July through Wall of Sound, as well as stir up interest in their forthcoming LP, with some festival dates (Secret Garden Party and Kendal Calling) along with some smaller gigs. We caught up with the band before their show at Hoxton Square Bar and Kitchen in London.
Founding members Halldór Eldjárn and Stefán Finnbogason said they first met when they were in a marching band together and wanted to make new rave music and did their first show in 2008. In 2011, Agnes Björt Andradóttir joined the band. “They figured out I lived next door”, she said. “We heard her singing in the shower”, added Halldór. After seeing the band perform this seemed less surprising.
On record they sound like yet another electronic Europop band, with shades of Moloko, but live Agnes comes into her own, taking over the stage and stirring up the audience. The full power of her voice shines through, like a Nordic Alison Moyet. “When you play live you have other people’s energy to work with, but in the studio you have to work with your own energy”, said Agnes. “We’re working on a new album that is different to the other album, and I’m excited to play it live and let people hear it.”
Icelandic music was traditionally vocal only. Stefán explained, “We had this really old instrument, like a zither, called a langspil, which has two strings; one for the drone and the other a melody. Then they used to sing the Icelandic rímur poems – the original rap music.” Of course, modern music relies on rhythm, especially if you want to dance to it. ” I am actually a percussionist, ” said Halldór. “Percussion is a big part of music. It fills it up with various rhythms on top of each other, to make the whole experience tighter.”
With all the government support and so many musicians – “Everyone is pretty much in a band”, said Agnes – in such a small space you would think it would became very competitive. “The scene is really tight and everyone is friends”, said Halldór. Agnes added, “We work together, we don’t work against each other. We exchange equipment and help out by saying this band should play this concert. It’s great to be part of a community.”
“More bands are going overseas. On the website of the support fund, you can see a list of all the gigs that are being played by Icelandic bands abroad and it’s something like twenty pages, especially in the summer time, in one month there are 300 concerts,” said Halldór.
Touring isn’t just what the bands do, and the recording side of the industry is healthy too. “Of course, the Internet had its impact, both negative and positive, because you get wider distribution,” continued Halldór. “But it’s not as real as having a copy of the album in your hands. Vinyl has been growing recently, and that’s a really good sign. CDs are worthless, because as soon as you get it you put it in your computer and never listen to the CD. With vinyl it’s more of a ceremony.”
However, creativity isn’t limited to music and many of the musicians and bands are working with filmmakers, with Sigur Ros’s music being a particular favourite. “We’ve done some for student projects at the Icelandic Film School, and our music has been used in Icelandic movies,” said Stefán.
There is no doubt that Sykur will be joining that strong roster of established Icelandic bands making a name for themselves in the international arena.