Christchurch artists Jed Parsons and Hera recently performed at Iceland’s Airwaves Music Festival. First held in 1999, what was supposed to have been a one-off event was held in an airplane hangar at an airport in Reykjavik. It has since blown up into the behemoth Iceland Airwaves Music Festival that showcases some huge names. Acts like Bjork, Sigur Ros, Dirty Projectors and TV On the Radio have performed at the festival, and this year Aotearoa was unusually well represented. Jed Parsons reports on his own experience for NZM.
I haven’t been far out of New Zealand. I haven’t even spent much time outside of Christchurch – I’m still living in the house that I was born in, like an ultimate cool-dude. I would be lying if I told you it had been a life-long dream of mine to visit Iceland, mostly because I probably wouldn’t have even known humans existed there if it wasn’t for my musical comrade Hera. However, the idea of travelling the world with my music has been a dream since high school, and to play my first international festival in what turned out to be the most beautiful country I’ve visited was a massive bonus.
Staged in early November, Iceland Airwaves Music Festival is “one of the biggest and coolest festivals in the world.” I know this because old-mate-Google said so. The festival is focused on up-and-coming, underground and alternative artists. There are hundreds of bands that play over five days, headlined this year by The Flaming Lips and The War On Drugs, with plenty of other massive acts filling the line-up including Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Hozier, Future Islands and The Knife. Hera and I were one of several NZ acts to get the invite, and some of the bands I was most excited about seeing were among them. Tiny Ruins, Orchestra Of Spheres, Yumi Zouma and Unknown Mortal Orchestra (we can claim them, right?) were all representing.
The 28-or-something-hour journey began in the early hours of November 3, flying from Christchurch to Reykjavík via Brisbane, LA and Seattle. Airports are my least favourite places to hang out at the best of times, so going through American customs on limited sleep with the bonus stress of Hera’s precious guitar was an absolute nightmare. Our fingerprints were taken, along with swabs from our hands to check for bomb residue or drugs or something. We had to take our shoes off while machines beeped and sirens went off, alarming all the authorities to the fact that we were probably a pair of drug-smuggling axe murderers coming to somehow fuck up the “greatest” country on earth while in transit.
Needless to say, arriving in Iceland’s tiny international airport was such a relief, even with one of our bags missing and temperatures of minus one million degrees. Hera and I would spend just over two weeks in Iceland, playing at Airwaves then embarking on a small tour of our own.
Hera was born and spent most of her childhood years in Iceland. She became quite well known there with her music, being named Icelandic Female Artist of the Year in 2003, before releasing a gold-selling album. She hadn’t been back in a number of years however, and because Iceland’s music scene is so progressive and ahead-of-the-trend, we really had no idea if we’d be drawing crowds based on her past success or not. We would later find out she still has a pretty loyal fan base, though most of our crowds were made up of fresh faces – many from overseas, which was cool.
As a rookie explorer, experiencing different cultures and completely new things is the idea that excites me the most about travelling. From day one in Iceland, I was subjected to a number of firsts – some excellent, including the Icelandic hotdogs and various traditional soups; and some horrible, including the cat-biscuit-esque dried fish and the hell-on-earth-esque hákarl or rotten shark, which I compared to “old socks that have been hanging out in vomit” in a radio interview the following day.
Of course, as a musician, the interest in foreign culture extends further than weird food. Iceland has about the same population of Christchurch. It is tiny, yet manages to produce an incredible amount of musical talent. Iceland Airwaves showcases a huge amount of local bands, and one of the highlights of the festival for me was hearing some of those artists for the first time. One of those was an amazing up-and-comer called Ásgeir, who we saw play an off-venue show in a small shop on the main street.
The off-venue shows are an incredible feature of the festival. They take place in many strange places including hotel lobbies and clothing stores, and though they’re not officially part of the festival, they are promoted really well and anyone can go along. I managed to catch Unknown Mortal Orchestra play in the lobby of a movie theatre, which absolutely blew my mind.
Hera and I played at a venue called Frederiksen on the Friday night (the third night of the festival), which was pretty packed. The show went well – the audience who were mostly foreigners seemed to enjoy it. Being late on a weekend night and between two pretty upbeat pop bands, we were always going to have to work hard for any kind of intimate connection with the audience, which is something our live shows often need. That’s one of the great things about the festival from an audience members perspective though – the mix of music is so eclectic that you really get taken for a ride. You could be listening in silence to some delicate folk band one minute and then holding up some half-naked punk rocker on his crowd-surfing journey the next.
We had a few days of down time after the festival to hang out and see a bit of the country before embarking on the tour. Iceland is incredibly beautiful – there are parts of it that reminded me a lot of home, and some parts that just completely blew me away. There are massive icy waterfalls, giant geysers and huge rivers set between tectonic plates. There is also a significantly large volcano that has been simmering away for the past few months, and we could see its glow from time to time. The lava field, which covers an area larger than Reykjavík (Iceland’s capital city) is so bright that it lights up the clouds at night. The natural daylight is a weird buzz on its own as well – the sun doesn’t rise very high at this time of year, so it constantly feels like the end of the day.
The tour kicked off in Hafnarfjörður, which is only 20 minutes out of Reykjavík. The venue was a beautiful old church, in which Hera’s parents had been married in a number of years ago. It was our favourite show of the tour, being completely packed out with a responsive yet silent crowd. We’d had a whisky or two and the banter was on fire – Hera yarned away in Icelandic to the crowds delight, and I shared my usual interesting stories and facts. I’d read somewhere that apparently it is illegal to stare at a moose from the window of an aircraft in Alaska, which I felt I needed to share with everybody. Besides the jibber-jabber, it was an incredibly rewarding show.
You never know what’s round the corner, though. The show on the following night was an hour’s drive away in small town called Akranes. When we arrived we noticed a few things – the giant stage with fancy lights and the nicely set out tables… we also noticed the significant lack of any of our promo material, a lack of patrons… and a lack of staff.
We ended up playing unplugged to a quality crowd of five people – a slight contrast to the audience of 200 from the night before. I think most musicians have experienced these types of gigs before. They can be slightly soul destroying at times, but I remember feeling surprisingly happy and fulfilled at the end of the evening. We’d been able to connect with some awesome people, and it was certainly a show I’ll always remember. The bonus was that one of the five audience members was a bus tour guide by day, and ended up bringing about 20 people to our next gig in Akureyri. Sometimes you’ve got to search pretty hard for the positives in semi-shitty situations, but I think they’re always in there somewhere. Philosoraptor.
The remainder of the tour was fantastic. We played in a few more super intimate venues and met more great people. Another highlight was our show in Oddakirkja (these names are for real). We were signing CDs in the foyer of the venue (another small and beautiful church) post-show, when someone came back inside and announced that the Northern Lights were going off sick. We temporarily ditched the CD sales and followed everyone outside, where we stood in a graveyard in silence and watched the lights dance across the sky for an hour or so.
Leaving Iceland was pretty sad, but I’ll be keeping my promise on going back someday soon. We spent a week in New York on our way home (once again battling with extremely suspicious American airport customs) where we played two awesome gigs – one at Pianos in Lower Manhattan and one at Silvana in Harlem. New York was amazing but it certainly made me appreciate NZ, where you can respond to someone’s friendly “hello” in the street without the fear of then being hustled.
I’m looking forward to continuing my overseas travelling and touring. Hera and I were only gone for a month, but the experience certainly gave me a tickle. There were a few struggles and times of stress, but I guess that’s the reason why people catch the travel-bug – there is so much reward and intense happiness amongst the occasional hard moments. Travelling the world with music, OMFG living the dream, man!