The explosion of electronic music festivals in recent years has seen an overriding emphasis on location. Now that the seemingly countless European names have become the 18-30 holiday for electronic music fans, we almost demand that scenic kick to make it worth our time and money. City festivals like Dekmantel and Sónar provide relief from the madness by lounging in bars and on waterfronts, the near-dozen festivals on the Croatian coastline have their abandoned forts and boat parties, and the holy island Ibiza still reigns supreme, but sea, sand and tourist-thronged mainland cities can be a hardy slog after five days of kick drum masochism. What else is on offer, then?
For its inaugural year, Secret Solstice festival in Iceland seemed a truly unique prospect. Located just outside the capital Reykjavík, Secret Solstice's big sell was not just the serene beauty of Iceland, but that the three day festival ran in tandem with the summer solstice: 72 hours of continuous sunlight. For all that we try to set festivals apart, the one thing they all have in common is that whatever you lose yourself to, you do so in the dark; watching the sunrise with relief that you made it through 10 hours of getting lost, taking drugs and that marathon 3 Chairs set. If there's no darkness, though, how fucked up do you get? Do weirdos still have sex in corners? How do you buy drugs in broad daylight? Where's the madness, the fun – and the shame?
As prepared for a weekend without darkness as we could be (with four 1L bottles of 40% Icelandic vodka, and sunglasses), we drove across the south of the island towards Reykjavík in awe. With around 120,000 in the capital and 320,000 on the entire island, Iceland's population is the equivalent of Coventry—which is remarkable, considering the quiet wonder that the island continues to inspire in the collective imagination.
Esoteric bands like Sigur Rós and múm are their musical exports, the ground is so geothermic in parts that the dead sometimes can't be buried in their home towns, and half the population apparently believe in fairies. Adding to this mystery, we realised on route that we'd never met an Icelandic person—or, more to the point, Icelandic clubber, electronic music fan, festival-goer. The island, the solstice, the people—everything was new and unpredictable.
Reykjavík is a strange, beautiful place. Structures look inconsistently planned; glass-fronted hotels and office blocks tower over detached houses and quaint maritine outposts, and the dominance of corrugated iron and concrete amongst the sparseness of greenery, all runs along an eerie parallel of busy emptiness. When you consider the recent collapse of Iceland's three major banks—one of the most systemic, total collapses in economic history—the ghostliness begins to make sense. Offices, hotels, banks—the buildings are here, but there are no lights on, and the most bodies we see are the groups of young skaters, who find a wonderland in the traffic-free, open expanses. That, and the promised "midnight sun" of the solstice feels oversold. The overcast sky casts a dull, timeless haze over everything. This doesn't feel like a city preparing for a riotous music festival.
Just on the outskirts of the capital, Secret Solstice was held in a outdoor sports centre and adjacent green space, and billed to host a pre-billed 10,000 festival goers. The line-up was a curious mix of legacy electronic artists like Massive Attack, Kerri Chandler and Carl Craig, and established underground names like Jackmaster, Boddika and Paul Woolford, but there was an interesting balance between new UK garage and house DJs like DJ Barely Legal, Jamie Jones, Disciples, Doorly, True Tiger, Ben Pearce and Gorgon City, and an impressive number of Icelandic hip-hop acts.
It's a culture that, though by nature tiny, is evident across the weekend. Blonde skater kids in bucket hats and Suicidal Tendencies jackets smoke weed and scream every word back to acts such as XXX Rottweiler and Gísli Pálmi; allusions to another headline act Schoolboy Q in the former, and Yung Lean and Suicideyear in the latter. With such a diverse line up, it made walking across the site a near constant double-take of sounds and bodies. With the main Valhöll stage commanding the front, leading into a smaller woodland clearing of two smaller outdoor stages, Embla and Gimli, a lengthy, narrow tented stage named Askur and a larger, few-thousand capacity tented stage tucked away behind it all named Hel, the design wasn't dissimilar to the majority of small outdoor, almost hippie festivals in the UK. The prescribed capacity of 10,000 however felt ambitious, as all stages were at best half-full and at worse painfully empty across the 72 hours.
The Askur tent especially suffered. Amped to hit the festival running, we dived into Artwork and Oneman's sets on the Friday evening. The pair sounded as riotous and tight as ever, smashing through UKG, classic house and more experimental strands of new rap, but they were pumped out to only a few dozen people at any one time. With the crowd overwhelmingly Icelandic too, it was interesting to see how natives reacted to sounds championed by the UK underground. The dancing was muted and the gaps between friends especially wide for sounds that, back in the UK, have people bouncing off the walls.
Ducking out of Oneman, My Nu Leng were whipping up the sparse crowd with a playful selection of grime, garage and house, with MC Chunky doing his best to put across a UK flavor. "This is the sounds of Ibiza!" he chanted, over a particularly inspired mix of Wiley's "Morgue" instrumental and Jimmy Edgar's "Hot Raw Sex"—but the mix of location, unsure crowd and an overcast sky made it almost Brentian. For all the uncertainty however, My Nu Leng proved to be one of the most playful acts of the weekend.
Ambling through the sparse crowd through the three days and nights, we were wondering: what do Icelandic kids make of it all? Going to a festival for the first time is a rite of passage, but it must be an alien prospect for an island where bars shut at 1am, you can count the clubs on one hand, and many party sober so they can drive the hour or more home. One of the more animated attendees for My Nu Leng was a man we quickly nicknamed John Lennon: "Iceland is a fucking weird place," he insisted. "I'm half-Thai and half-Icelandic, and I listen to UK music a lot, but Icelandic people just don't get it."
Why? "DJs here just play "Get Lucky" and "Happy," not this music. This stuff is way too hard for us here, that's why no one's really dancing." What about the crowd? "Man, everyone here knows each other. Even on the bill, too. Half the bill is people who have partied and then decided to play together. There's always somebody who's sucked someone else's dick to play a show. It's pretty incestuous. If you like electronic music here, there's maybe 10 people who will like it too. There's no underground here because there's no mainstream either. I don't give a fuck though, I just want to dance." Go for gold, we said, and left him to it.
Chilling out on a podium were three young Icelandic girls, who were far less cynical about the whole affair. "Oh my god, I love it here!" chimed one with a face-splitting grin. "We've never been to anything like this before." Who are you looking forward to seeing? "I don't even know who most of the DJs are," they all admit, but with the same smiles, "We just want to dance." Go see Jackmaster, we say, you'll probably love it. "Cool!" they say in unison, just happy to know where to head to next. It's an attitude that seems pervasive amongst the seemingly low-key crowd. It's all new and kind of strange, but fuck it, we're here to find out. It's a refreshing outlook for us as seasoned clubbers and festival-goers, often spoiled by choice back home.
As the day drew on, the dull yet constant light began to get under our skin. At every other festival, the coming darkness marks the transition between burgers and beer to full-pelt silliness, but when darkness never comes, it leaves an indelible uncertainty over how to act. There were no evident drug casualties or wasted teenagers, in their place a rather well behaved crowd that were happy to take it all as it comes.
Seeing that the further away stages were happily bumping along on this vibe, we hit the Valhöll stage again to see Eats Everything DJ back to back with Artwork, replacing Skream at the last minute. Smashing through classic Chicago house, Detroit techno and big room, hands in the air belters, it was plain to see that the DJs were friends as much as collaborators in the moment; dancing, laughing and making the occasional announcement over the mic about the early alcohol sale cut-off later in the night. A first for a headline DJ slot, surely. Catching up with them later on, the silliness continued.
"Can I put my feet in the foot spa?" asks Artwork. "This how we're living, day-to-day," chimes in Eats Everything, laughing heartily. "We're prehistoric mate, I need the luxury," Artwork hits back. What do you both make of Iceland, then? "I like it!" said Artwork, "It's a beautiful place, and we had a lot of fun, but I don't think that the ravers are quite ready for it all. Not today—maybe tomorrow, or Sunday. I think we hit them with a decent warm-up, though." So the crowds aren't quite your usual fare?
"Not really, but it's cool—I thought I saw Ed Sheeran in the crowd for a second. I got a bit star struck." Do you think there are any Eaters in the crowd, his crazy strand of super fans? "I hope so!" Eats Everything replied, "But that doesn't matter because we had a great time. There's no one pissing in cups and chucking them into the crowd, or doing poo's in plain sight here. Everyone's having a grand time. This is the fourth time we've played back to back as well. Artwork is my favorite DJ to play with. We have really similar skills."
What are your skills, Artwork? "I press the play button really hard. I can honestly say that I've never pressed the play button, and it hasn't played." Eats explodes with laughter, "He's very good at pressing play, totally serious about it too." Just before they lose their breath, they're pulled back on stage to play with Disclosure, who run through an hour of of-the-moment house-pop hits laced with their own takeover efforts, "Latch" and "White Noise." The crowd may only just be warming up, but the friendly calamity of those happy to play this strange island more than compensates for the atmosphere.
For the rest of the weekend, this split between the British and Icelandic attiutdes to dance festivals was on full display. We met a crew of friends from Manchester, who had taken acid and were convinced they'd never see darkness again, and two lanky lads from Belfast who insisted on buying us pints of Viking and walking around draped in the Irish flag; beacons of comparative hedonism amongst the super chilled homebodies. As it got to the Saturday evening, we decided to give the largest of the tents, Hel, a decent run; in part because of a killer line up of Jackmaster, Boddika, Paul Woolford and Jamie Jones, but also because it provided some much needed darkness.
Again, however, the lack of Icelandic experience for dance music festivals meant that Hel was either near-empty or half-full, no matter who was playing. Jackmaster's rapid-fire selections of happy hardcore, house and a smattering of US rap was (much like Oneman) heard by only a few, but that didn't stop Jackmaster. Seeing the small but happy band down in front, he threw beers offstage for them to catch. "I might as well," he joked, "It's like a private party in here!" Next up though was Boddika, whose more brittle, demanding sound created a consistency of groove that carried the fuller crowd into the night, and saw some of the loosest dancing of the weekend. By the time Kerri Chandler closed the Hel stage on the Sunday night, it felt as if Iceland was finally, yet perhaps a bit too late for Secret Solstice, getting into it all.
With the MadTech Records takeover of the Hel stage, including acts such as Mia Dora and Waze & Odyssey, Kerri Chandler's command over the crew and crowd alike was that of a wise and warm legend; willing to commit himself to the benefit of the crowd, and leaving the young artists on his own roster in perpetual, child-like awe of him. It was heartening to see MadTech artists standing onstage with Chandler, studiously watching him play live keys over his DJ set and interacting with the now-packed crowd over the mic. A true entertainer, Chandler's style is always a slave to the groove; deep, souful, gospel at times, his set provided the comparatively unitiated Icelandic crowd with a true lesson in the art of house music. Tracks like Toddy Terry's 'Sunday Morning' see the tension gloriously whipped up, and by the time he finishes with a live piano rendition of Robert Hood's summer techno smash "Never Grow Old," many were leaping onto shoulders and screaming for more.
Humble as ever though, Chandler thanked the crowd and insisted that he would return. That drew the loudest cheer of them all and, after a weekend of partying, observing and talking with the home crowd, understandably so. With a 1am finish, we stumbled out into the sunlight. The clouds had finally broken, and it felt redemptive. The sense of timelessness that had us strung out for so long was starting to wear off, and Secret Solstice finally felt like a festival of soon-to-be regulars, who has just witnessed something special.
Oh, and this kid? You're a true ambassador.
You can follow Lauren Martin on Twitter here: @codeinedrums
All images by Jake Lewis
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