For better and for worse, Iceland Airwaves is like no other festival you’ll have experienced. Mostly for the better.
We booked our tickets during the early bird period meaning they were cheaper (£100 each) and at this point we didn’t have any line-up or accessibility information. I’ve been eyeing up Airwaves Festival for years and catching up on the highlights from home so I was desperate to go. We decided to take a gamble, and if the line-up wasn’t for us or if it wasn’t accessible we’d just accept the loss and find something else to do – we’d be in Iceland after all!
We did manage the festival though and we saw lots of it.
The first gig we saw, and one of my favourite moments of the entire festival, was Olafur Arnlads recording a live session at Kex Hostel (the living room of your dreams). We arrived early, and despite being a junkyard of long tables, sofas and chairs, there was nowhere available to sit. An audience was forming on the floor, close to the performing corner as if waiting for a story. Jonny and I found a space to sit on a rug behind the sound booth.
Olafur creates a sea of silence when he plays. His piano was delicate, gentle, soothing, warming – you would have heard a pin drop. Everything was calm, a hundred people were hypnotised and I could have sat on the rug and listened to him play for the remainder of the holiday. I’d like to see sitting rug space become the norm for gigs in 2019.
A standard had been set and the bar was maintained throughout the festival.
Our next stop was Hildur and we discovered Reykjavik Art Museum. Prior to her performance we were able to sit in a massive glass window and look out over Reykjavik Harbour – it was perfect.
I’d heard of Hildur the previous year and she pulled a great crowd in the largest venue at the festival. Hildur won an Icelandic Music Award in 2017 and had more fresh material to perform at Airwaves which we were lucky to catch for the first time at the festival. Hildur is dreamy, poppy, hugely likable and basically a heroine through her power and passion which is written all over her stage presence. If you haven’t heard of her, her latest single Picture Perfect is waiting to be your favourite song of 2019.
For the rest of the night we did a bit of wandering, starting in Idno which got too full to stick around, then moved on to the heavy noise and colour of Gaukurinn.
Thursday was another corker starting with some exitotic indie beats produced by the five-piece that is Flamingods (Jonny got me a belting EP for Christmas to follow-up from this gig). In 2017 I discovered a new brand of alternative music and found myself drifting towards happy tribal noises. Flamingods is filling this particular spec very nicely. Contrasting with the icey views out of the windows of Kex Hostel, Flamingods teleport you to a space desert. We stood for most of the performance and we were captivated.
Asgier was one of the acts I was looking forward to the most. He was doing a short live radio performance on Thursday afternoon at Skuli Craft Bar before his main performance on Saturday. Despite getting there early, we had to watch from outside due to the venue being full. I managed to peer in through one of the windows for a short while, but we listened to most of his performance from a gazebo next to the bar, under a heat lamp, in a frosty Icelandic town square where his performance was played through speakers.
It was incredibly Icelandic, and he sounded as charming and idyllic as I’d hoped. We didn’t make it to his main performance (or out to the festival at all on Saturday), but it was great to hear his live radio set and hear him chat away about his music at Skuli.
We headed back to Kex Hostel for the next performance – a fair walk out from the rest of the venues but such a warm and welcoming treat when you arrive. We were there to see Fontaines D.C and they created some of the loudest punk noise of the festival. Fontaines D.C have a sound that was made to sound fresh, raw and loud live. They filled an already full Kex Hostel with an Irish charm that is pretty and rough and tasty all at once.
Our Thursday finale was Superorganism who may have sound tracked our Iceland holiday (as well as my entire 2018 and probably my 2019). They played the entirety of their debut album making us feel happy and hypnotised and pleasantly disorientated. I was so excited for their performance. Towards the end of their performance they played Everybody Wants to Be Famous which is one of my all-time favourite songs. Owing to technical difficulties they announced they would play it twice and I peaked. I wondered how Superorganism would be topped.
Friday was the best day for both of us and Mammut was the highlight of our holiday. We hadn’t been to Gamla Bio yet, so we wanted to make sure we arrived early to get a good view. We had to queue for a while but then we got an amazing spot up on the balcony where we stayed for the following 3 acts. Between Mountains were up first and they serenaded us with Icelandic folk music that was beautiful, eerie and soul-soothing. Between Mountains have incredible talent and control over their music. They’re only 16 and 18 years old but have been performing for a couple of years already. I’m really excited to see where they go in future.
Fufanu were up next. They were lively as hell and so much fun! This was my first experience of Fufanu and I was very much on board. Fufanu are an alternative techno band who use huge beats to create an enormous sound. The drumming was a force of possession (Erling Bang) and their front man (Kaktus Einarsson) had more energy than a child on blue smarties. They were an absolute treat to watch. Jonny has really enjoyed listening to Fufanu since returning so I bought him a pile of goodies for Christmas.
Mammut followed Fufanu and our Iceland experience peaked. I have been a fan of Mammut for at least 2 years now and I was beyond excited to be catching them in their homeland. Gamla Bio was such a wonderful venue to hear them in with its grandeur matching their massive sound. To me, Mammut are the heart and soul of Icelandic music. Simultaneously eerie and highly addictive. Mammut are more of an experience than a band. They have elements that are poetic and heavy and soft and fierce and visual. I heard they’ve been playing together since they were pretty young and whilst they’ve had some changes this year after losing their drummer, they still sound polished to perfection. Mammut are powerful enough to make your skin tingle and your brain vibrate. They were savoured whilst onstage and mourned the minute they left. Not only the most memorable moment in Iceland but one of the most memorable live performances I’ve ever seen. I’m pining to see them again, but I can’t imagine ever seeing them in a venue so well suited as Gamla Bio.
We wandered around for the rest of the night, catching Sorry at Gaukurrin and then catching part of The Voidz back at Gamla Bio (sat on the floor by the door this time). Friday was the last day of the festival for us as we (well, I) was too exhausted to go out on Saturday, so I said goodbye to the festival and gave my body a night to recover.
Not long after purchasing our tickets, we decided to upgrade to VIP. The VIP package offered separate viewing areas and queue jumping (capacity permitting) and so we thought this was probably a useful access tool if all else failed. The upgrades were £70 but included a bag full of goodies including an Airwaves tote bag, a t-shirt, a thermal hat, chocolate, moisturiser and a festival programme. The VIP package proved worth every penny both as a disabled person and a gig-goer.
If I hadn’t purchased a VIP upgrade, I’m not sure I would have been able to see much of the festival. One of the VIP areas was one of the only areas in the festival with seating and whilst we still took part in an awful lot of queuing it was considerably less than it would have been otherwise. The seating area at Reykjavik Art Museum was our go to venue when we needed a rest. A venue like this is a godsend at a multi-venue festival and allowed me to stay out for longer and enjoy the festival.
Being in the VIP queue at Gamla Bio meant that we were first in the venue and got the only seat in the house. If I went back to Airwaves again (and I must!) I wouldn’t hesitate to upgrade to VIP. In fact, I wouldn’t go otherwise. If you’re thinking of trying out Iceland Airwaves, whether disabled or not, I highly recommend the upgrade. It’s an extremely busy festival (like nothing you’ve ever seen before) and venues are at capacity very quickly. If you want to enjoy the festival, see as much music as possible and cut down the amount of time stood in a queue, get an upgrade. £170 for a 4-day festival is not unreasonable.
Soon after booking tickets, I found an email address to contact about disabled access. We exchanged many detailed and friendly emails with Will, head of marketing and ops at Iceland Airwaves who had such a lot of patience and did his best to pull together some useful information for us. He arranged for us to pick up disabled access bands which, he said would allow us priority as long as the venue had capacity. This was extra reassurance with our VIP wristbands, but we didn’t really need to use them as we didn’t feel it could offer any more than the VIP bands. The VIP bands alone made the festival about as accessible as it could be.
The festival certainly had limitations. In many ways it was highly inaccessible. I really struggled in the queues even though we were given priority. We often had to arrive half an hour early for venues to open so we could get in before they reached capacity. The festival itself didn’t seem to have a capacity limit meaning there were more people than they could fit in venues. The crowd tracker was a really useful tool as it told you how busy venues were and sent out a notification when venues were nearing capacity and then again at full capacity.
Many of the venues didn’t have any crowd control. We stood at the back of Idno crowd and kept moving backwards as it got busier until it was so full we were stood outside. For performances at other venues, we didn’t make it inside at all and were stood outside watching through the windows as the crowds spilled out onto the streets. For many performances, it didn’t matter whether a venue was accessible or not because you couldn’t get inside anyway.
If you’re going as a disabled gig-goer my advice would be to get in touch before-hand and let them know your specific requirements, so they can advise the best course of action. They were really helpful. They also offer PA tickets, so utilise that if you need to. Use the app and the crowd tracker, upgrade to VIP, plan meticulously and get to all your performances early. Lastly – explore! Whilst Airwaves is an incredibly busy festival, its also nice and relaxed with a great atmosphere and lots of fun people to bump into and chat to. Everyone will have a recommendation for you!