- Just introduce yourself.
I’m Grímur Atlason, I run Iceland Airwaves music festival.
- Can you talk a little bit about your youth, your music education?
I grew up here in Reykjavík, Iceland. As long as I can remember, I’ve always been interested in music. It started when I found this LP, a vinyl, probably in 1974 or something like that. I was rather young and on this album there were really beautiful ladies, women on the cover. They had kind of señorita dresses on and the record was ¡Viva España!. I took this LP and you know, I had seen my mum and dad used the gramophone player and I put the band on and it started with the song “She Loves You”, which is a Beatles’ song. For a year, I loved that album, I think the song was from the red compilation of The Beatles, from 62 to 66 or something like that. I always thought The Beatles were beautiful women in señorita dresses. From that, it was just music, music, music… I tried to go to a music school and I studied the flute but I got thrown out of school around 6 or 7 because I was interested in everything and it was really like a discipline stuff so I got thrown out. I made my own guitar with no strings and just played The Beatles and I was singing along all The Beatles’ songs… It just evolved and I listened to more music and I started going to shows when I was 10, it took me and it’s been taking me ever since. I started playing guitar and bass when I was 12 or something like that, I started playing in a band when I was 13 or 14. Then I went to the gymnasium where we started promoted shows, so this is my background, the early, early background.
- How did you turn this passion for music into action?
I’ve always been a doer. When I have an idea, I do it. Sometimes I do too much, especially when I was younger. When we started doing this band, I’ve been to shows abroad, I loved it. I knew some guys who were in some of the famous bands in Iceland and I went to every show I could. When I started playing my band, when we started doing our shows, I was the guy who did some of the promotion. From that, I started working on shows and I was always eager to go into this. Maybe I was a little bit better doing this than being the performer. I kind of found out that I would probably not be a star. It was not my dream to be a star but I wanted to do stuff and I started doing it in my school. We started promoting shows and then we did our first gig with a band from abroad. Then, I became a tour manager and then, I became a manager, then I became all this. I just went into it. In Iceland, there was no knowledge as such, it was knowledge at doing like this traditional hobo community on the Friday night and on the Saturday night where you know, you just rented a room in the countryside, like in social centers. You would sell tickets and people just got drunk and the bands were playing mostly cover songs. It was like the tradition in Iceland but then in the eighties and in the nineties, we started getting really good bands. There was a little bit more of professionalism. I went on a tour with a band and I did all the mistakes that can be done, you know, and I’m still doing mistakes but back then I was doing more mistakes…
- This is how you learn!
(Laugh) Yeah, it’s like learning by doing and by discovering. Of course, you know, it was the only way to learn. There was no music business school here in Iceland. Now you can study project management and they are calling more and more people from the Icelandic music industry and from the culture industry to give some course. It’s getting better in Iceland. We are getting more focused on this than we were.
- How did you become the manager of Iceland Airwaves?
I promoted tons of shows and through the years, I‘ve been going abroad, building my relationships with agents, bands, managers and stuff like that. My contact bank was rather good. After that, I became a mayor, in two municipalities in Iceland so I had like maybe the structure of the government, the local government and the other one. I also had the knowledge of the industry. The festival was changing and the guys who were running the festival before me, you know, their time was kind of up. IMX, Iceland Music Export, took it over and needed a manager for a new company which is the company that runs Iceland Airwaves today. I was one of the people that applied for that. I don’t know why they picked me.
- You were the good one.
Yeah… Or the bad one (laugh).
- What/who helps you a lot in the organization of this big event?
There is a team of people that work with us. Egill has been there for a long time, he is the production manager, Egill Tómasson. He has been working on the festival since 2000 so he has a real knowledge. He is the production guy in Iceland, really valuable if you want to do a music festival. He is also the production of every other festival that is done here in Iceland. Then we have a marketing manager, Kamilla Ingibergsdóttir, she used to be a project manager at IMX. These are our people but of course the managers of the Icelandic bands are also helping. Regarding bookings, we have people we talk to, we go to… It’s a huge organization in a way but the head is only three people.
- Are you motivated by a kind of pride, spirit of competition on tracking down the gem before everyone else?
Of course we love bringing bands that people don’t know and that people may discover but it’s getting harder and harder to discover anything because if everybody is on the look for it. When the festival started, the music blogs did not exist. You know, MySpace was the thing around 2004 and 2005, or even later. In 2002 and 2003, it was easier to discover bands but we have had bands that broke in that sense after playing Iceland Airwaves. We had HAIM playing last year and their year is now, 2013. There is always a band… I love that but it’s not a soul motivator of the festival. We just want to have a great music festival with bands that people like to see, that give good live performance and maybe they discover that.
- Is this the only opportunity for Icelanders to get international artists?
Yeah, in a way. Of course now there are lots of people and lots of artists coming but there are some exceptions like Frank Ocean coming to Iceland and Band of Horses playing in Harpa. Iceland Airwaves has been the platform for new music, for people to come and see the newest. By doing it like we do it there are a lot of people seeing bands they wouldn’t go to see.
- Do you think the people attending the festival look like you?
I think there are many kinds of people coming to the festival. There are people who just buy tickets and they just wanna have good time, they don’t really give a… You know (laugh)! But then you have enthusiastic and crazy people, maybe that is me I don’t know, people who are just looking for something new and living in music. Then you have something between. It’s also important to have some artists that people know. There are some people that don’t agree and say “aah Kraftwerk playing, they are just old and rubbish” but even for Sigur Rós and Björk.
- You can’t satisfy everybody.
No, you can’t satisfy everybody but I think at least we have been successful. To be a good festival, you have to look back, you have to look ahead and you have to stay in the present. Never be too self-assured, never be too arrogant. You have to listen to people.
- You must have seen/meet quite a few crazy people since you’ve started to work in the music industry…
You know, if you have seen the movie 24 Hour Party People, it’s a movie about Factory Records, a lot of crazy good bands from Manchester were signed to that label, and the first show I ever promoted was Happy Mondays in Iceland, in 1990. For everybody that knows Happy Mondays and has seen this movie, this was my first experience at an international scale. I had something to do with Swans when they came here in 1987 but I was just a helper, I was 16 or 17, I was just helping out at the venue, it was not my responsibility or anything. Then, I was one of the guys who promoted Happy Mondays and that was really, really weird. I’ve done bands like The Fall, it was a crazy experience. People who have heard about Mark E. Smith can imagine what that is about. You never know what happens. Then you have bands that you might think that will give you problems but they turn out to be the nicest ones and then you have bands that you think that are well-educated and that you will have no problems with but they are just selfish, arrogant, shits… You know, there are all the aspects.
- Who was the most interesting person you’ve met?
Well, Antony Hegarty. He is a friend of mine, he is just a man that when I promoted his shows here he was not that well-known, even in the world. It was the year he won the Mercury Award. When I started selling tickets to that show, nobody knew who he was and after that he won the Mercury Award. We’ve been talking ever since and he is really a remarkable man. I met another guy that I think is really extraordinary, Jonathan Richman. He is a really nice person. Most of these people are very nice people. Many of them also just do the shows and you don’t even talk to them.
- Iceland Airwaves is exposing itself more and more (stages at The Great Escape, South By Southwest, Air d’Islande…), what’s your purpose in doing this?
It’s the marketing. We’re always sold out but we can’t be too self-assured. We need to be out there, we need to tell people about us and we need to make it look like that this is a bigger festival than it is. I mean attendee wise, we can’t sell more tickets, but it looks like this in the heads of many people. You know don’t tell anyone (laugh). We’re only this size but a lot of people think we have 100 000 people attending the festival. That’s the purpose of it, to push it, to be alive in that market. One of our main goals is to export Icelandic music and it’s really good to brand something like Iceland Airwaves at these events. People will know Iceland Airwaves. Then you have a band, people will see the band, probably a band they would not have come to if it was any other. We try to take advantage of our name and that’s it.
- Did you notice an evolution in the Icelandic music scene these last few years?
Yeah, I would say it’s a different scene that from 10 years ago. I think it’s much more professional. Young people are travelling around the world and they are really organized and focused. They know how to play their instruments, they studied the instruments. They are real musicians and the people around them know what they are doing, more and more.
- You’re also the manager of Retro Stefson. What can you say about this band?
I was not looking for a band when I saw them 4 years ago or something like that. I saw them playing in a record store that doesn’t exist anymore. I noticed and I still believe that they are one of a kind. That is what I can say about Retro Stefson. They are one of a kind and they are most certainly ones of these professional types that are really good for Iceland and really good for the Icelandic music scene.
- What’s the best album you’ve listened to this year (2013)?
Aaaah. What should I say? I liked Yo La Tengo’s new album, Fade. I liked that one… I’m just thinking, I’m not prepared for this question. I like Yo La Tengo, for me it’s their best album. I need to refresh. I don’t want to say anything more, just keep it and leave it at Yo La Tengo.
- Yeah and we have 6 months left in 2013 so…
Yeah there are lots of stuff coming! (laugh)
- Track n°1
I’m not sure. I thought for a while that it could be Melchior, an Icelandic band but it’s probably sooner, this is earlier stuff I would think, out of the harmonies. It sounds similar to stuff that Melchior did but then when it came to harmonies, I didn’t recognize the voice. The man who was singing was not a man that I could pinpoint. The cello was something that maybe had to do something with the arrangement but you know… I never heard this track in my life. I can’t really say. Melchior was my first thought but then I felt like it was probably 1972 more than 1978. That was my thought. I thought the piano at the beginning was not … If I had produced that song, that was something that had nothing to do with the rest of the song. It was nice. I would say 2.5 out of 5.
-> Melchior – Funny Thinking Man
- Track n°2
Aaaah. It sounded like something from the eighties. It could be… I don’t know. I have two guys in my mind, it could have been a solo project by Hjörtur Howser but I don’t know. I think there is a reason why I never heard this song before, it has probably not been played that much anywhere. The two persons that came into my head could have been Guðjón Rudolf who was Andrea Jónsdóttir’s husband but his voice was different. The humor in it was really eighties, early nineties. But it didn’t tell me anything so I can’t really say more… It might have been Hjörtur Howser but I think he is probably better than this. For me, this is one at the most!
-> Skötuselir - Breiða Stóra Kona
- Track n°3
The eighties still. It could have been the beginning of the nineties as well but it came a lot of thoughts in my head. I’ve never heard this song before in my life either. I had Inferno 5 in my head but Inferno 5 were more industrial and really more powerful. It also could have been these bands that were around that period, Jóí á Hakanum or something like that. It’s probably none of these bands. It could have been an outtake or some add to an LP, some joke but there was something in the lyrics and how they were repeating stuff that reminded me of Inferno 5. I remember this sound that a lot of bands were doing with the early drum machines… I mean “early”, not that early but more eighties or early nineties. It was not a good sound. It was 1 out of 5 as well, it was nothing… As I said, it was the first time I’ve ever heard this song as well and I’ll probably never listen to it again.
-> Fleskmangarinn Og Overgatuddinn
Interview & photos by Adeline Le Broc.