Matt, a self-described glacier climber, is instructing Jordan and I on how to party in Iceland.
“Jaeja,” he says empathetically before spelling out the word. “It’s one of the most important things to know. It can mean yes, it can mean no, it can mean let’s all get another round of beers.
“It can also mean let’s have sex,” he says, shaking his mane of slick blonde hair.
“So how do you avoid any confusion?” asks Jordan.
Matt bellows with laughter. “There is no avoiding confusion.”
Ah life and confusion. Just like banging and inebriation, two things that never seem to make sense side by side, yet somehow joined at the hip. En route to Reykjavik for the Icelandic Airwaves music festival, Jordan and I mention our band name to our seatmate suitor, who improbably reports that he once saw us play in Calgary. Ah chaos and kismet, and other unlikely-yet-obvious bedfellows. He may be fucking with us, but it is entirely plausible that Matt is among the tens of people who witnessed a Slow Down Molasses show at the Palomino. To be fair, Matt looks exactly like someone who would climb a glacier. Chill yet strong, he also seems devoid of bullshit so it’s possible that he’s telling the truth. As he and Jordan continue to chat, my mild fantasies begin placing me in various Icelandic scenarios where I would dare utter “jaeja.”
Spicy side thoughts aside, the remainder of the flight proves to be unremarkable. The aisle lights, which are seemingly designed to replicate the phantasm flicker of the Aurora Borealis, spark the way for the beverage cart.
“Would you like anything?” asks an airline attendant, motioning to a variety of liquors and mixes.
Chaos and kismet. I open my mouth to “jaeja” but at the last second opt for a nonsensical muttering. A cup of coffee is produced, tepid, devoid of cream and sugar.
As it turns out, there has never been a better time to quit drinking.
Icelandic beer and spirits, we discover, are hellishly expensive. Pints run around at least 1,000 Króna (roughly $12 Canadian), and so far the majority of the advice I’ve gotten from friends who have traveled Iceland is to purchase alcohol from the Duty Free shop. “You’ll save a lot of money that way.”
Except it’s been one of those months where I’ve decided to temporarily end the parade of hangovers and regret. For now, no more weekend benders, pre-show alley beers or shots with strangers. Abstaining from all things alcohol, I am vaguely sad I won’t get to use the mysterious “jaeja.” However, still coughing out the lingering remnants of a combination cold and flu picked up from Pop Montreal in September, feeling human has become a priority. So has waking up without boozy brain fog, sore limbs and a vague-yet-urgent sense of sky-is-falling-level disaster.
“It’s not sustainable to be wasted all the time, and why would you be?” says Sadie Dupuis of Speedy Ortiz.
In other words, becoming a functional being capable of operating and executing a series of otherwise unremarkable interactions.
After our band settles into a gorgeous Airbnb apartment – a piece of property far nicer than anything I have ever lived in, we shuffle off through the downtown streets, eventually aiming towards the Harpa.
A geometrical wonder that nits and picks at the OCD of those lovers of all things symmetrical, the eerily beautiful concert hall sits at the edge of the coast, a mystic-like bastion of art, culture and architectural wonders. Also, free stuff. While my band mates hit up the artists’ lounge for complimentary caffeine, I stuff my pockets full of French teabags – economy gifts for friends back home.
Aside from immaculately curated line-ups of the festival, unless you are looking to get properly wasted, spend tonnes of money or find that meaningless tour hook-up, there seems to be little point in staying out late.
I duck into a grocery store and poke around the aisles, more out of interest than anything. Radlers can be purchased at a decent price, but non-alcoholic beer is far cheaper, even decent. The highlights of my big night out, in addition to seeing Toronto’s Beliefs and Minor Victories, a group that features Stuart Braithwaite of Mogwai, is spending 15 minutes in a Reykjavik alleyway alone, sampling several beverages that won’t induce drunkenness but will probably invoke a weird gluten hangover.
I find a food truck and order a medium-sized fries ($9 CAD), and eventually yawn my way back to the apartment and an early bedtime.
A giant nipple adorns the wall.
Like an unblinking eye, the areola photo seemingly surveys the entire room, following every movement like some kind of pink, puffy concierge. On the other side of the room is a table adorned with broken pieces of pottery – several adults are attempting to undo the damage by reconstituting the pointy shards with elastic bands. A child is drawing on the walls with a marker, while someone wearing a tie and a sweater vest is violently pounding an errant, bent nail into a canvas frame.
Welcome to the Reykjavik Museum of Art.
This particular scene of destruction and beauty comes courtesy of Yoko Ono, famed artist and guest curator. Tellingly, one of the most exciting features of the exhibit is the nod to The Simpsons, pop culture and a vague sense of self-deprecation. Jordan and I spend an inordinate amount of time hanging out with a single plum floating in perfume served in a man’s hat.
Along with the plum, the nipples, we are also treated to a set by Bjork. It’s a hell of a day, says Jordan.
Making our way back to the Harpa, Bjork’s performance, complete with a backing symphony, interpretive dance and a mid-set costume change, is otherworldly, ethereal and breathtaking. It’s nearly impossible to describe the feeling of her alien voice sending cascades of noise and improbable melody through your very core – when words fail tears follow.
Later, I watch as Aaron and Tyson down several hotdogs purchased at Baejarins Beztu Pylsur, a reportedly world famous steamed sausage seller. There is no vegetarian option, and, for the second time that day, my heart breaks.
Allie, lead singer of Tófa, is instructing her drummer on how to wear makeup.
Watching her make a series of kissy red pouts with a bemused but slightly blank expression, Jóhannes eventually complies, the layer of rouge disappearing beneath scruff and whisker. Andri, the bassist is next. Underneath a spazzy bob of curly boy mop, he seems slightly more comfortable with the lip layer.
Having recently released their second album, Tófa are about to play to a packed house. Armed with salvos of frenetic punk noise, the Icelandic group do not disappoint.
Amidst a sheer sack of noisy riffs and rhythmic right angles, the five-piece produce an oddly danceable din. Despite the shrieks and shivers, several members of the audience immediately begin to cut a rug – the scene is immediately one of mild chaos and limbs akimbo. A shoeless, sockless man, in defiance of the November arctic blasts of rain that have besieged the venues of Reykjavik, hobbles in several different directions at once. More chaos and beauty. And then the power goes out.
Mid-song, Tófa lurches to a clumsy stop, their collective faces a smear of confusion and annoyance. The audience, however, is nothing less than jubilant. The members of the band instead take turns cracking jokes. Even after the electricity is returned to the stage the levity is not forgotten.
“If I write another song they said they’ll fire me, “ says Andri, following a one-second-song blurp. The audience laughs and roars, demanding an encore, setting the scene for the rest of the show. The venue remains packed, and Slow Down Molasses plays to an appreciative crowd, a collected cadre who are probably wholly unfamiliar with our songs but dance and mouth along the words anyway. It’s the greatest self-esteem boost ever, and I can’t help but grin to the crackle of energy as we play. In 40 short minutes, one of the best moments of my life fades away into delay trails and ebbs of distortion waves. Amidst one last guffaw of appreciation, we pack up our gear and slime offstage, leaving behind puddles of sweat, ooze and broken bits of magic and guitar strings.
Amazingly, the night somehow gets better.
Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät, a Finnish punk rock band, take the stage next, and the audience becomes becomes even more sweaty and shiny, resembling something of a blob of total happiness. A self-described group of ”four middle-aged, mentally handicapped men,” the band rips through three-chord songs that are akin to a broken bottle of the sweetest ice wine.
“Fuck, fuck, up your ass,” growls lead singer Kari. The crowd cheers and roughly half of the audience starts to hug each other jubilantly – the most punk, and magic, thing of the entire evening.
It’s the tenth anniversary of Slow Down Molasses’ first show ever, so why not celebrate in Iceland?
Reykjavik is as charming as you would expect. Amidst a cluster of quaint shops, pubs and houses pushed to the very boundaries of the cobblestone-lined roads, the city is absolutely beautiful, a combination of architectural flourish and some of the most unpronounceable street names I have ever seen, tiny love notes that warm the Arctic air. There has never been a better time for boredom, to just quietly exist while traveling.
Our final show is set in the loft of a whiskey bar. The venue is so jammed that we are completely unable to make our way to the front. Attempting to push our way through, several people laugh at us while others glare. One woman hisses at me. I don’t really know what to say except shrug.
Once the previous band has cleared the way, the situation doesn’t get any better. The floor is a teeming mass of gear and guitar cases, and patch cords slither their way across the entirety of the stage. I set up behind the drums, nearly on top of Jordan. Despite the close quarters, we attempt to bring the roof down, while the packed house of attendees make good on their promise to cave in the floor. Several Canadians are in attendance, as evidenced by the sing-along anthem to our closing song “Why I Didn’t Like August of ‘93” by Elevator to Hell.
It’s the perfect ending to our residency at Iceland Airwaves, but not before getting to watch PJ Harvey rip out a raucous rock set before the close of the festival. At this point, despite the perfect gospel, I’m far too exhausted to do anything except nod along while sitting on the floor, drunk on exhaustion, bubbles and the never-ending beauty of all things Icelandic.
After a nondescript flight home, we arrive in Saskatoon where I sleep for roughly three hours before getting up the next morning for work. After sitting at a desk and scaling to the highest summits of Mount Email, my eyes still filled with a bizarre lucid hangover-like dream of puffy Icelandic hotdogs and the haunting strains of a Bjork song I’m not entirely certain even exists, one of my co-workers wanders by and does a double-take.
“Weren’t you supposed to be in Iceland or something?”