As the annual Iceland Airwaves music festival rolls into Reykjavík for another year this November, platforms such as Iceland Music and, more latterly, the striking performance from Hatari at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest are making sure the world is sitting up and taking notice of the wealth of eclectic talent from these shores.
One such product of the quirky Icelandic music scene lurks in the shadows, emerging every so often to deliver their dark sense of intrigue with a mesmerising intensity.
Mammút – led from the front by charismatic vocalist Katrína (Kata) Mogensen, and with guitarists Alex Baldursdóttir and Arnar Pétursson, bassist Ása Dýradóttir and recent addition on the drums, Valgeir Skorri Verharðsson – have been a fixture in the Icelandic scene for over a decade since winning the national Músiktilraunir (Battle of the Bands) competition in 2004. Since then, the mysterious, atmospheric alt-rock band have played every year but one of the country’s showpiece event, Iceland Airwaves, which is a delightful whirlwind of acts from the host country and beyond.
In the rather opulent timber and leather lounge of Hotel Borg in downtown Reykjavík, FMS chatted to Alex, Ása and Kata about singing in the English language and their place in the Icelandic music scene.
“Being on an island and having released three albums in Icelandic, we felt we’d spread our wings as far as we could. We needed to step off the island and see what’s next.”
Mammút’s fourth studio album, Kinder Versions, was released in 2017, when the band took the bold decision to record it in English, departing from their native Icelandic language for the first time.
“Being on an island and having released three albums in Icelandic, we felt we’d spread our wings as far as we could,” says Kata. “We needed to step off the island and see what’s next. It never felt right [to record in English] before now, but now it does; all of a sudden it feels right.”
The result was an album with an arguably wider international appeal, enabling the band to reach a broader audience, and it has enabled Kata, as a lyricist, to explore the nuances of a new vocabulary.
“It’s a beautiful language to go deeper into, with so many words. In Icelandic, we only have a hundred words or so and we just make them into longer words to mean different things. In English, there’s a word for everything!”
However, it’s not been without its challenges. “Some people have called us sellouts,” says Alex, clearly disappointed at the reaction of some of those music fans with more traditional views, although Mammút are firmly of the belief that they won’t leave the Icelandic language behind and that will come back again when they’re ready.
Since releasing Kinder Versions, the band have been busy having babies (Ása and Arnar have separately both extended their families in London, where they both live), working on their new album and touring, which included a fundraiser in the summer with Greenpeace (Protect the Oceans at the Whales of Iceland Museum) and playing in the US and Canada.
“The venues in Reykjavík are closing and the most popular stuff here is Spotify music. You hardly see anyone playing live.”
Although Mammút are clearly very grateful to the places that have enabled them to flourish, they do have some concerns over the direction of the Reykjavík music scene and, in particular, the disparity between some of the venues on offer.
“There’s a real gap between venues,” says Kata, pointing to the differences between the small bars, clubs, a converted theatre and Harpa – the national music centre that ‘feels like an airport.’ The result is that it can be tricky for up-and-coming bands to secure gigs at the right venue with the right crowd, which is important for younger artists to grow and be recognised.
“When we first started out, people didn’t have Netflix, so people actually came out and watched us in venues,” says Alex. “Now, the venues in Reykjavík are closing and the most popular stuff here is Spotify music. You hardly see anyone playing live.”
However, a genre that has really gathered momentum in Iceland in recent years is the rap scene, with local artists such as Elli Grill moving it forward with a style most from outside the country wouldn’t necessarily expect from these shores. But that, too, is not without its particular issues: as Alex points out, rappers from other parts of the world need to be cool and underground, while rappers from Iceland – a very small country with a limited captive audience – need to have somewhat more of a wider appeal, playing at parties and being more family-friendly.
“If you want to succeed here, you need to be a crowd pleaser,” says Ása, “which means you actually need to have so many skills to make it work.”
For Mammút, this can be problematic. “Although we’re popular here, we still struggle,” says Kata. “We’re not an entertainment band – we’re a hardcore intense band.”
Despite this, there is cause for optimism. It’s generally agreed that people in the country are getting excited about old school rock and roll again. “The magic might be coming back,” says Alex. ”I think they’re sick of playback and want more feedback” (a phrase that was agreed could be Mammút’s new slogan).
“We’re not an entertainment band – we’re a hardcore intense band.”
In mid-October, Mammút released their first single – ‘Forever On Your Mind’ – from their upcoming album, which is due to be released early next year. With a wonderful mixture of dark distorted synth, a driving rhythm and repeating vocals fading out into a powerful echo, the single is distinctly Mammút but takes a slightly different direction, embracing a more electronic and rhythmic style. If this taster is anything to go by, the album will be a real treat for the senses.
Before then, of course, there’s this year’s Airwaves, with music aficionados flocking from all over the globe to discover what the Icelandic music scene has to offer. Mammút, of course, will be there for what is a very special occasion for all Icelandic musicians.
Check back for FMS’s review of the festival.
‘Forever On Your Mind’ is out now.