Stephan Stephensen aka President Bongo – “If It’s Too Loud You’re Too Old” CD (2006)

Stephan Stephensen is better known by his nom de Gusgus President Bongo.  He’s also done some solo stuff, most recently the pretty fantastic electronic album Serengeti in 2015.  His electro-cred is top notch.

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Last weekend I got a box of stuff in the mail from Reykjavik’s Lucky Records, an assortment of CDs, LPs, and 7″ singles that should keep me fairly occupied over the next month or so.  Included was this interesting CD called If It’s Too Loud You’re Too Old, an hour-long recording of a President Bongo live set during Airwaves ’06 at the famed club Sirkus.  Sirkus was on borrowed time at that point, slated to be demolished and replaced by something newer and presumably “better”, at least better in the eyes of those who want to make money off of their real estate, not necessarily for music fans.  The music was intended as the soundtrack of an installation of sorts, an in-the-moment project that probably needed to be experienced in its entirety to truly appreciate.

Musically If It’s Too Loud You’re Too Old is simply a bass beat, and that’s more or less it.  There are subtle changes to it over time, getting a bit more intense or with the addition of slight nuances, but for the most part it’s an hour-long beat track.  It’s intriguing and interesting, but unless you have a club in your basement you might not make it all the way through.  Bongo does throw us the occasional curve ball, like the beat taking on a more bongo-esque (no pun intended) quality at around the 34 minute mark.  The second half has more variety than the first, but for the most part you’re getting something that doesn’t change much over the course of an hour.

If It’s Too Loud You’re Too Old comes in a DVD-style case.  The disc itself is hand-numbered, an edition of 25 copies, and mine is signed by Stephensen on the disc label itself.  Tracking one down will be difficult, I’m sure, and it may be primarily of interest to the Gusgus completist, or potentially to someone looking to pull a sample from it.  Or someone with a club in their basement…

President Bongo – “Serengeti” (2015)

He walked into 12 Tónar wearing a sort of furry-looking black jacket and quickly began setting up a small collection of electronic equipment while the previous band was still tearing down their stuff.  Sitting at a very short bench he fussed about with the the wiring and controls and started making some sounds here in there as a sort of half-moon crowd of maybe 40-50 people stood around chatting.  None of us ever noticed the moment when the set-up ended and the show started, but eventually the voices quieted down and it was apparent that President Bongo had begun taking us on a journey through Serengeti.

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Copyright Life in the Vinyl Lane, 2015

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President Bongo, a.k.a. Stephan Stephensen, is best known for his work as part of the Icelandic electronic music powerhouse Gusgus, and also as part of the duo Gluteus Maximus.  I was bummed earlier this year when Bongo announced his departure from Gusgus in a very concisely worded release, but quickly got over it when I learned he was releasing a solo album called Serengeti.  He was high on our list of performers we wanted to see at Airwaves this year, and we were pleasantly surprised to get a great front-row position to see his set at the 12 Tónar record store.  The setting was perfectly intimate, and watching Bongo work was to watch a man in complete focus… except when he would take a moment to look up and smile at a small child wandering by right in front of him, something you’ll inevitably see at so many Airwaves off-venue shows.  The Icelanders get their kids of to a quick musical start.

An album like Serengeti defies a song-by-song breakdown; it’s a complete work and deserves to be considered as a whole, an electronic musical story.  But a story about what?  Well, Bongo gives us a clue with the title – Serengeti, the massive African ecosystem that is home to the largest mammal migration on the planet, a place that is alternately breathtakingly beautiful and unrelentingly tough.  And this hint gives us a framework upon which to base our listening experience.  What do the rhythms of the Serengeti sound like?  I don’t know… what does a sunrise smell like?  What’s the taste of a rainbow?  Can you touch the sky?

If you’re of a certain age (like right around mine) you grew up in the golden age of nature documentaries, with the pre-cable TV screen filled with shows about Jacques Cousteau and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.  These, along with issues of National Geographic, back when it was just a magazine and not a TV network full of doomsday preppers and shows about Nazis, was how we experienced Africa.  It might as well have been another planet as I watched it on our technicolor cabinet-style television, laying on the floor and enraptured with the exoticness of it all (and hoping that Jim didn’t get eaten by a crocodile).

Serengeti doesn’t fall into all of those old tropes.  There are some classically African sounds in the drumming, but in lieu of birds sounds and the rustling of the wind through the tall grass we have Bongo’s medium, that of electronic music, which he uses to create his own musical landscape, something modern for the current day.  This isn’t the Africa of my childhood dreams, but a more modern version, in high definition.  The drums keep it familiar, but from there Bongo is free to experiment, setting the mood with his palette of sound.

If I was a betting man, I’d wager that Bongo’s Serengeti follows the flow of the seasons.  At least it does to my ears and brain, but that’s the beauty of an album like this – it’s a “whole” performance, but the meaning you ascribe to it is somewhat personal.  Bongo only gives you a title and some cover art as the vaguest of treasure maps, and it’s up to you to find the big black X that marks the spot… or don’t, and just enjoy the journey.

Iceland Airwaves 2015 – Day 1

If body odor has a home, someplace it resides while waiting to attach itself to your body after a hard workout or just some poor decision making, that address is the basement of Reykjavik’s Bar 11.

But more on that in a bit.

Iceland Airwaves 2015 officially got underway on Wednesday, and that means my record shopping also began.  And given how much stuff I bought, it may have also ended because I have to figure out how to get all of this stuff home, which will be no easy task.

I spent a couple of hours at my favorite shop first thing this morning, flipping through the Icelandic vinyl at Lucky Records and coming away with a number of gems.  Newish releases by Pink Street Boys, Futuregrapher, Fufanu, President Bongo, and more were augmented by some OG classics like Purrkur PillnikkFræbbblarnir, and Rikshaw.  I added a handful of CDs for good measure before heading up to Reykjavik Record Store where I picked up a few more gems, including a vinyl copy of Legend’s Fearless and a personalized signed copy of the new record by Manu Delago, known for his hang playing, at his in-store event.  My record bag was so heavy by time I stumbled back to our apartment that I’m pretty sure I tore my rotator cuff.

As for the music, we showed up at Bar 11 just before 3:30, when Elín Helena we due on stage, but arrived to find a small group of people huddled outside and the front door locked.  It wasn’t until about five minutes after the scheduled start time that someone advised us that we’d have to enter through the back door and go downstairs (because Bar 11), which would have been amazing to know sooner.  Adding to the confusion, the band on stage was not Elín Helena but instead a relatively young, but pretty talented, group called Vára who played a somewhat punkish style in the stinky, stale basement.

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After a break for dinner we walked a few blocks to the 12 Tónar record store to hear Gusgus‘ President Bongo perform his newly released electronic album, Serengeti.  One of the electro geniuses behind Gusgus’ sound, Bongo didn’t disappoint with an intriguing 30+ minutes of non-stop music inside the cramped upstairs of the store.  I’m looking forward to giving the new record a more detailed listening when we return home.

 

From there we headed down to the venerable venue NASA, the first place we ever saw an Airwaves show all the way back in 2009.  NASA has not been part of Airwaves for the last three years, having been closed down with plans on demolishing it to build a hotel.  Thanks at least in part to the local community, who did not want to lose such an outstanding concert hall, NASA was saved, cleaned up, and added to the list of official venues for this years’ Airwaves.  It was so freshly remodeled we could smell the paint inside.

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The first band we heard at NASA on Wednesday was the Icelandic duo Wesen, featuring vocalist Júlía Hermannsdóttir (also of Oyama) and electronics guy/vocalist Loji Höskuldsson (also of Sudden Weather Change), who impressed me with their darker style of electro-pop.  Next up was Halleluwah (above), whose self-titled album came out earlier this year and was reviewed on the blog HERE.  Simply put, they stole the show and won the night with their blend of 1920s/1930s style updated as a more modern electronic sound.  Rakel Mjöll was absolutely and endearingly wonderful on stage, an expressive singer with an unusual voice, one perfectly suited to the music the band is currently playing.  After that was Royal, the project combining Borko (of FM Belfast fame) and Futuregrapher (of Futuregrapher fame), who played a surprising uptempo set featuring some truly quirky songs that quickly won over the audience.

Then it was time to take a move in the hip hop direction.  The feminist collective known as Reykja­vík­ur­dæt­ur burst out onto the stage all wearing what can be best described as flesh-toned undergarments.  Not lingerie – but just practical stuff to wear under your clothes.  Known for their political/feminist presence and songs, much of that was lost on us due to our inability to speak Icelandic.  There was, however, one song sung in English.  And it was about the joys of anal sex.  In detail.  So there’s that.  Next was Gísli Pálmi, who gained international cred recently for knocking out (literally) Bam Margera of Jackass fame at a festival earlier this year.  Gísli and his Glacier Mafia (their term, not mine) put on a fast paced set.  The beats were excellent, and though Pálmi at times appeared to try almost a little to hard to be truly hip hop, I have to credit him for his energy, delivery, and stage-presence – the man knows how to put on a show and he had the crowed bouncing and, after removing his shirt, a few of the ladies standing near us eyeing him like he was a steak and they had just given up being vegetarians.

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That took us to the closing act, Retro Stefson.  Now, I’m not going to be ridiculous enough to imply that Iceland somehow has the market cornered on party bands, but I do know this – two of the funnest party bands in the world are FM Belfast and Retro Stefon, and on the occasions that the two combine as one on stage it’s a total blow-out.  We first saw Retro Stefson when they were still a fairly young band back in 2010, and they’ve grown leaps and bounds since then.  It had been a few years since we’d seen them at Airwaves, though, and frankly they started off seemingly a little slow and uncertain of one another.  But the positive vibes built quickly and by the middle of the set they had the crowd in the palms of their hands, even running a dance contest on the main floor.  They still have it, and it was the perfect way to end the first night of the festival.

If this is how good the rest of the week is going to be, we’re in for some good times and not a lot of sleep.