My Town: Reykjavik
Bardi Johannsson’s Icelandic Grand Tour
Alisa Gould-Simon, February the 9th, 2007
Perhaps it’s insomnia –– an unfortunate by-product of Iceland’s seemingly endless dark winter days — or the island’s inexhaustible supply of picturesque landscapes. Maybe it’s the elves – rumored to have inhabited Reykjavik, the country’s capital and its surrounding towns for centuries. Whatever the root, it’s safe to assume Reykjavik-based Bardi Johannsson – producer/composer/director – doesn’t sleep much.
In the last seven years, Johannsson has produced two widely acclaimed indie pop albums – via the porthole Bang Gang, a band Johansson founded and in which he sings the lead (think Beach Boys meets another Icelander, Björk). In 2004, he screened his surrealistic short film Red Death at the Centre Pompidou. Not to mention, Johansson has been working on a ‘side-project,’ Lady & Bird, with French female singer-songwriter Keren Ann, and has directed and produced scores of music videos and albums for fellow Icelandic artists.
Johannsson is not only a workhouse, but an artist heavily influenced by his surroundings. So, we figured, what better host to Iceland’s majestic landscapes, and its flourishing contemporary culture? In his own words:
What are you working on right now?
I’m currently promoting Something Wrong, working on songs for the next Bang Gang album [slated for release September 2007]. Also, I am having some exciting musical collaborations… no names dropped. Thinking about the next videos and a short film that will follow my next record.
How has Iceland shaped your work – musically, visually, etc?
We are a very small nation. Only 300,000 people. Therefore… you sometimes become naive and don’t understand very well how big cities work. For example on my first trip to Paris, I was trying to get a bartender’s attention because I was thirsty. The queue was long so I gave my credit card to the next person and asked him to buy me a couple of beers…. he ran away with my card. In Iceland you can forget your card on the bar table and it’s there the day after.
Musically it can be good to be from Iceland, as you are quite isolated and you feel free. Not a lot of people buy indie music so you can feel free to make whatever you want. That helps when you go abroad where people are following trends too much.
Visually it does you bad. We are so used to the beautiful landscapes that it becomes claustrophobic to go to big cities.
Do you think that the island is really inhabited by elves?
Do you believe in Hobbits? Do you believe in Santa Claus? Do you believe that the stork brings the children and your parents never had sex? Do you belief that girls don’t fart… I do.
How would you describe Iceland in five words or less?
Best place on earth.
What is the biggest drawback of living on an island amidst such a small population?
If you have an Icelandic girlfriend… you can be 90% sure that you are related to her at least 5 generations back. Sometimes less. Everybody is your uncle or cousin.
What is the greatest perk of living on an island amidst such a small population?
You are safe. For example, if someone breaks into your house, you can be sure it is your uncle or cousin… so crime is easy to solve.
What is one thing every first timer must do when visiting Iceland?
If you come during a weekend you should drop by the Blue Lagoon on the way from the airport. Then go directly to the next bar. If you come during the week, you should go to the Blue Lagoon, rent a car and drive around the Island. You can go the entire circle in 3 days, if you skip sleeping. Maybe you’ll see elves on the last day (if you don’t sleep).
If you could go anywhere on the island, where would you go?
I would go to Asbyrgi in the North of Iceland. It is indescribable beauty. Forest and lake surrounded by mountains shaped like a horseshoe. There is a nice lake, good echo in the cliffs if you shout; the weather is always still because the shape of the cliffs makes a shelter for wind.
What aspect of Iceland inspires you most?
The darkness all winter and brightness all summer.
Are porramaturs [traditional Icelandic dishes including picked ram’s testicles and singed sheep heads] a common dish? And, where would you recommend going to try a few?
Actually it’s the time of these delicacies now. Yesterday I was eating all these dishes. But don’t forget the Icelandic vodka, Brennivin. Goes well with the testicles.
I like to eat at a place called TAPAS BAR, also I like VEGAMOT. APOTEK is a very nice and “fancy” place and sometimes I go to have a burger at BSÍ (mostly hangover food though). I am not much of a snob. For me, food is just fuel to be able to make it through the day without feeling pain in my stomach.
Best local bands? And where do you go to see them live or buy their latest LP’s?
I would recommend Bang Gang, Singapore Sling and Dikta.
Places to see live music are not many in Reykjavik. The best place is the Reykjavik Museum of Art. It’s an outdoor venue in the middle of the museum. The sound is not always the best, but if the place is packed it is o.k. My favorite place to buy music is in the living room of my studio. There I sit with my laptop and buy from amazon.com. Icelandic record shops do not in 70% of cases have what I am looking for.
Reykjavik is starting to be recognized as a hub for innovative fashion design. Where’s the best place to snag pieces from local designers?
We are starting to have some really good designers here. Finally. 5 years ago it was a mess. Now, yes! There are some nice shops in the center. The designer Steinunn is quite good. Also I am impressed by Sruli Recht. Usually I don’t go shopping that much in Iceland. I stay in my studio and make music when I am there. More time to shop when I go abroad.
Where do all the best looking Icelandic youths go to party until the sun rises?
In Iceland we don’t drink during the week. If you have a beer during lunch, you are alcoholic. But if you are crawling on the bar floor and vomiting on yourself during the weekends… you’re having fun!
I go to Sirkus or Boston. Same owner; same people that hang out there. Nice music most of the time and people with similar interests… music & partying. Can write a book about my experiences from the Icelandic bars. Have no time to spend there anymore but was a local for a while.
Best hotel in town?
Since we are starting promo: 101 Reykjavik – it’s known for quality and good service; I’ve had some nice moments there… and by the way… don’t forget to fly with Icelandair.