Iceland kicks off music festival season despite snow

Bands, fans and ex Sugarcubes come together for I Never Went South festival

While the rest of Europe was still working on its line-ups, Iceland got its music festival season underway over the Easter weekend (March 21-22).

Despite snow, the biting cold and its proximity to the Arctic Circle, coastal fishing town Isafjordur in the island’s West Fjords region, staged a two-day, free music event at its harbour area.

Featuring nearly 40 native bands the I Never Went South festival – a reaction to Icelandic musicians’ tendency to gravitate to the capital, Reykjavik – is the brainchild of singer-songwriter Mugison, who has achieved recognition outside of Iceland and is supporting Queens Of The Stone Age in Canada next month.

Now in its fifth year the festival, held in a basic tin barn on the town’s quay, takes place every Easter despite the chilly conditions. And it’s all because of a show its creator once played in London.

“The original idea was from a gig I did at the ICA in London on what was the hottest day in something like 400 years,” Mugison told NME.COM. “It was an arty farty thing so my father [Isafjordur‘s harbour master] and I had this great idea to do it here in the roughest conditions, not having the arty element but focusing on the local scene. At the first festival Sigur Ros did a country set, but the main focus on someone’s grandfather who was headlining! We do it at Easter because it’s a holiday and people can have a hangover. It’s definitely the roughest conditions and the toughest part of Iceland.”

While previously the likes of Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys and Blonde Redhead have played the festival, 2008 saw the focus firmly on Icelandic acts, with many travelling from across the country – some braving “the world’s second most difficult landing” at the local airstrip – to play. However, Mugison was quick to stress that I Never Went South was not intended as a showcase, but as a celebration of local talent.

“It’s not a conventional festival, it’s more fun than usual festivals,” he explained. “The bands play for 20 minutes each and they just plug in and play, so there’s lots of feedback and mistakes – but that’s its charm. Bands play different sets then their usual gigs because they’re playing for family and friends. It’s not a platform, it’s more a joy that we’re all alive. It’s non-profit thing, we’re doing it as a hobby.”

Whittled down from around 130 applications, this year’s I Never Went South boasted a vast range of genres, ages and talent.

Among the highlights on the opening night (March 21), were Bob Justman, who came across as a rocked-up Belle & Sebastian, Hjaltalin, who thanks to their multi instrumentalists and euphoric chamber pop have been called Iceland’s Arcade Fire, ambient noise experimentalist Ben Frost – who called on the services of former Sugarcubes drummer Sigtryggur Baldursson – and Megas.

A legend on the native music scene and credited as “grandfather of Iceland’s intellectual pop”, singer-songwriter Megas felt part Mark E Smith and part an aged Pete Doherty as he played a rare set of whimsical, artful songs, that ended with a lone but highly devoted stage invader who initially could not be convinced to step down.

Mugison himself closed the first evening with a selection of his groove driven rock ‘n’ roll songs that inspired a frantic moshpit and waves of crowd surfers as only a local boy can.

The second day (21) had a longer bill and even more variety.

Young band Retro Stefson shined with a mix of Afrobeat and cowbells that recalled a rustic take on The Rapture, Lara Runars appeared to be Iceland’s answer to Kate Nash with a pleasingly cheeky set that climaxed with a deliciously witty song about realising her boyfriend was gay, while Benny Crespo’s Gang demonstrated real potential beyond the island’s scene.

Combining urgent synths and driving, impassioned rock, their twin boy-girl vocalists saw them swap between moments both Biffy Clyro and Hope Sandoval (Mazzy Star) would be proud of.

Locally formed band Sprengjuhollin are currently the biggest act in Iceland – though they still retain day jobs – and got a heroes’ welcome for their Beatles-esque pop, although the town’s Working Men’s Choir earned a similarly devoted response from the packed barn for playing a surreal performance that was fronted by the singer from Iceland band Dr Spock.

The singer wore a dinner jacket with pink spandex pants while the choir were in formal dress as they played a set that at featured a recent contender for Iceland’s entry to the Eurovision Song Contest.

Mysterious Marta – who lives just around the corner from the venue – thrilled the crowd with vocals and songs reminiscent of Regina Spektor, while Disa, who is already famous for being ther daughter of two of Iceland’s most famous musicians, came across as a more indie-leaning Portishead.

Hraun – possibly familiar to wider audiences after being finalists in a BBC World Service international battle of the bands last year – provided one of I Never Went South‘s biggest highlights, with a set that started with the band mixing Icelandic atmospherics with West Coast Americana and ended with them stripping down to the waste and screaming about lemon pie.

UMTS, XXX Rottweilerhundar and Sign all pointed to the Icelandic music scene’s future.

All provoking violent moshpits and relentless pogoing, the first band’s synthcore resembled Enter Shikari both in style and for provoking an insane audience reaction; the second act are the country’s first “commercially successful” hip-hop outfit and suitably had to be carried from the stage at the end of their set; while Sign proved why they are already well-regarded by the international heavy metal community.

The festival’s closing act, SSSol, fittingly best encapsulated Iceland’s idiosyncratic music scene.

One of the country’s biggest acts in the mid 90s and seen by many as the definition of Icelandic pop, the band have played few gigs recently and had their guitarist missing due to a hand injury.

Instead they relied on Sign‘s lead singer on guitar, who earnestly complimented their pop power as the crowd went wild for the reformation – the effect was felt something like The Beautiful South playing a rare gig in Pembroke Docks with Gallows‘ guitarist.

Speaking after I Never Went South 2008’s climax, Mugison declared the event the best yet, hailing the Icelandic music scene.

“It’s getting a makeover now,” he explained. “There’s change happening in scene at the moment. It’s ten years since Sigur Ros, Mum were dominant. Now there are lots of scattered scenes that have been around for three or four years and they were all well represented here, plus we had some old greats playing too.”

As for 2009, Europe’s earliest festival is already making plans.

Will Oldham has a lifetime, open invitation to play because everyone on the committee loves him,” said Mugison. “If some international acts knock on the door they’re welcome to play – just tell them to show up – but we have no plans in that direction and I don’t care about expanding the festival because it’s for the local comnunity. It’s ours and it’s fun. I had an idea of making a horrible festival next year just to show we’re in control!”

You can see video clips and performances from this year’s I Never Went South Festival, courtesy of, online now.