With just two weeks to go until Secret Solstice 2016, we caught up with Leon Hill, part of the team behind the country's biggest music festival, to talk glacier parties, volcano gigs, midnight sun and a certain band called Radiohead.
- Secret Solstice 2016: Iceland's Stunning Scenery
- Secret Solstice 2016: Into The Glacier, Secret Lagoon & Midnight Sun Boat Party
- Secret Solstice 2016: Festival Announces First Ever Gig Inside a Volcano
How did the festival start?
Our founder Fridrik Olafsson moved to the UK when he was about 10/11 years old, and had been putting on gigs there ever since his late teens. He would still come back to Iceland a couple of times a year though, and one summer when he did, he went out partying and left the party or club he was at at 3am, and it being the middle of summer in Iceland, the sun was still up. And complete pie in the sky thinking, he thought to himself: "why hasn't anyone done a music festival in Iceland during this time of year?" and basically made a decision there on the spot that he was going to start a festival in Iceland, and pretty much instantly the idea of Secret Solstice was born.
It's surprising that no one had taken advantage of Iceland in that way before...
Yeah, I'm not saying Icelanders aren't wowed by the fact that the sun doesn't come up in winter and set in summer, but you know, the locals are kind of used to it and for them it's just how the seasons change. But for foreigners like myself, who first come to Iceland and experience the massive difference in the seasons, it's a really mind-blowing experience, so it's one of things that just makes sense really, to hold a festival at this time of year.
How did you find organising that first edition?
What I find is that it doesn't matter who's behind the music festival, how much money's behind it, how much talent and organisation and everything like that's behind it, the first year is always hard. You've got a location you've never used before, you've got a team who may have never worked together before, you're promoting to an audience that has no idea about the event and may not necessarily have complete faith in it, or has no idea of the vibe of the event, so first year events are always hard regardless. From that point of view, I've been with the festival from the start, and you know, first year was difficult. Every possible thing that could go wrong, did go wrong, but luckily it all goes wrong behind the scenes and even though you're freaking out, you're only freaking out because you see it from that point of view, whereas from the point of the guest, 99% of the time they don't see the things that are going wrong. It's just a big learning curve really.
2016 will be the third year. What do you think has changed since it started three years ago?
The festival site itself has expanded a bit, and we're actually changing the layout of the site this year. We're still using one of the same grounds, but we're expanding across the road into the big national arenas where Radiohead will play and our dance arena will be held. We've also had to grow in terms of capacity too, for example one of the only places where you can escape the midnight sun is Hel, which is our after hours dance arena which runs from 9pm to about 3am, but this previously had a capacity of about 2,000, so we've increased that up to about 4,000 people. So yeah, we're going to be about three times the size this year than we were in our first year, so it's a lot bigger, a lot better and just generally a more incredible experience for people.
We're just amazed by the fact Radiohead are coming to Iceland! How have you managed to get them and how excited are you to be having them touch down?
Look, there's no getting around the fact that Radiohead are one of the biggest bands on the planet, and the truth is, it wasn't easy for us. It's a lot of hard work, especially when you're a third year festival in a country with a population of only 330,000.
Do you think Iceland was a big reason for them choosing to play?
It was to my understanding. You have to pitch pretty hard when you're competing against festivals such as Sonar and Glastonbury. We had to prove to them that we were prepared and ready, and luckily the reviews we were getting in the press and on social media were all great so that helped us a lot. But yeah, the band and the agents really wanted to come and play in Iceland because they've never played here before, and the midnight sun may have convinced them as well.
We think that's going to be one of the sets of the summer...
I think so too. Their production is just insane. They're flying like 48 crew over and sending like 2 or 4 shipping containers full of sound and lighting equipment; their production is just nuts man, I cannot wait to see what it's going to look like!
As well as the main festival, you've also got the offsite parties – the glacier and secret lagoon parties, the midnight sun boat party and of course the world's first volcano gig – what gives you the ideas to host events in such unique locations?
Iceland is just the best inspiration you can get for things like this. To put it in perspective, I've been to over 50 countries before I came to Iceland and never thought I'd find somewhere that I wanted to live, but within a week of landing in Iceland I was like "I don't know what it is about this place. It's the strangest place on earth but I need to stay here." It's just unlike anywhere else.
Take the ice cave for the glacier party, it only opened three weeks before we held the first glacier party, and as soon as we found out it was open, we were like we have to hold a party there. Luckily they said yes, and we were able to host the first event inside a glacier.
This year I was thinking how could we do something better, and equally incredible, and we decided to see if we could do a gig inside a volcano. As soon as I pitched the idea the festival directors were like "we don't think they're going to let you do that", but I went ahead and tried, and within two months we had approval, and now we're doing the world's first ever gig inside the dormant magma chamber of a volcano. There are gigs on top of volcanos but the difference with ours is that you are literally being lowered down into its open mouth, meaning you're in a huge cave 400 feet underground, so yeah, it's pretty incredible.
Tell us what it's like during the summer solstice – does it mess with you?
It does, I mean even now, 2 weeks before the festival, it's been 24 hour daylight. It's really strange. You'll be working in the office and out the corner of your eye you'll see daylight outside and your brain goes "oh yeah it's 5/6pm" and then you look at the clock and it's 11:30 at night, and it's still completely light.
The lineup of the festival is really varied – would you say that's reflective of the team behind it and something you really wanted to go for?
Yeah it is. Of course every year we want a bigger and better lineup than before and we've achieved that every year, but the thing about being in a country that's so small is that you really need to have something on the lineup for everyone, otherwise it's hard to do a festival this big.
To put it in perspective, the biggest festival in the entire country is called Þjóðhátíð, and it pulls in about 15,000 ticket holders. In any other country a festival of that size isn't a big deal, but in Iceland it's the biggest. This year we will be bigger than that, but to continue to grow we have to be putting on a perfect production every year, as well as getting in a load of foreigners and ensuring that every single local who's going to buy a ticket does does buy one.
Who are you most excited about seeing at this year's edition?
Personally, Deftones. They're probably my favourite band on the planet, I've been listening to them since I was 15 years old, and I've been suggesting we book them since day one, not just because of personal opinion but they also have a huge following here in Iceland. I never ever thought I'd be putting on an event where Deftones would be one of the headline acts, so for me Deftones, but of course Radiohead as well and I've always wanted to see Die Antwoord live.
Which artists do you think we should see that we may not have heard of before? Are there any small Icelandic bands that we should check out?
Definitely. There are a tonne. One is Agent Fresco who are opening for Deftones on Saturday. They're an alt-rock, math-rock back from Iceland who are starting to get a big global following. Högni, who is the lead singer of a couple of bands in Iceland like GusGus, but he's touring his solo show this year. He's a phenomenal artist and possibly the most Viking looking guy you can ever imagine – long blonde flowing hair, long blonde beard – a vice journalist once called him the most beautiful man he'd ever seen. That aside, he's a brilliant musician, his voice is incredible and he's got some pretty big people behind his upcoming album.
Icelandic hip-hop is another people should definitely check out. It's not something I ever expected to associate with this country, but it's really impressive: Gisli Palmi, Emmsjé Gauti and Úlfur Úlfur are probably three of the main ones. GKR is another who's recently been written up by Vice. I definitely recommend checking all those guys out.
How should festival-goers be spending their free time away from the festival?
Experiencing Iceland. It is the most phenomenal country in the world, and there is a reason why half of the Hollywood movies are being shot here now. Its landscape is like nothing else on the face of the planet and looks like you're on a moon orbiting another planet. There's nothing like it: volcanoes, glaciers, black sand beaches, more waterfalls than anywhere I've ever known. I just recommend people rent a car and just drive. You don't need to have a destination, just drive and you will find some of the most amazing stuff you've ever seen.
What about in Reykjavík – any bars or places to eat we should check out?
Prikid is always the number one choice tourists find out about. It's the oldest cafe and restaurant in the country and turns into a hip-hop bar at night. Another of the main things I always recommend is the food: you can have Icelandic hotdogs, lobster soup, whale puffin, horse and fermented shark... if you're into those kind of things. In general, Icelandic food is incredible, and in particular their fish, which in my opinion, is the best on the planet. So if you're into fish, definitely check that out.