CMU Weekly Editor's Letter

Editor’s Letter: Sea, sand and Syðrugøta – Welcome to G! Festival

By | Published on Friday 27 July 2012

Andy Malt

“So, you want me to take you to Benjamin’s place?” The G! Festival steward was leaning over to the passenger side window of her car.

“Yes, if that’s where the gig is”, I replied, assuming that Benjamin’s Place was one of the local live music venues. To be honest, I wasn’t 100% sure where I wanted to go, other than to see a secret show somewhere nearby.

In my defence, I’d been in the village of Syðrugøta on the Faroese island of Eysturoy, where G! Festival takes place, for less than 30 minutes, and hadn’t yet quite realised that its population amounts to just a few hundred people, meaning that bustling live venues were in short supply. So, Benjamin’s place turned out to be a tiny three room bungalow owned by a guy called Benjamin. I might have guessed. But it was where the gig was, I’d got that right.

Crammed into the living room with 20 or so other foreign visitors, I watched a short set by members of Orka and Budam – two of the Faroes’ best bands, who were not on the festival line-up this year. Instead they’d put together a short collaborative set of inventive and highly original material.

And so began my first experience of G! Festival, one of the Faroe Island’s two big outdoor music events (the other being the more mainstream Summarfestivalurin), which could also be described in the same way as that small set at Benjamin’s place – inventive and highly original. The 6000 capacity festival showcases some of the Faroe Islands’ best bands, as well as international acts, from across an eclectic mix of genres (last year’s headliners, for example, were Travis and Meshuggah).

The main stage is situated on the beach, while the second sits just up the hill on what would normally be an astroturfed football pitch, with views straight down a fjord, and of the beautiful landscape surrounding it, all the way out to sea. It’s a pretty stunning place to be.

Benjamin, it turned out, is quite the local celebrity, or so the sizeable crowd that turned out for his 10pm show on the second stage would suggest. His rocked up, singer-songwriter fare certainly had people captivated, and by the end of the weekend had earned him a show at this year’s Iceland Airwaves festival and a record deal in Germany.

I wondered, briefly, if anyone would be impressed if I were to tell them that I’d been in his house earlier. But then I realised that, with the largely local audience, most of them probably bumped into him on a semi-regular basis. Even for those travelling from a bit further afield, in a country with a population of 48,000, it’s not easy to be anonymous.

There is a very local feel about G! Festival, with many of Syðrugøta and its neighbouring village Norðragøta’s residents making up the audience. It’s an incredibly friendly place too – with no hotel or guesthouses nearby, my fellow international delegates and I were put up in the homes of various families in the village.

G! is clearly something this community is very proud of. And even those not especially keen on all the loud music that goes on to 3am each night will, I was told, simply shrug and say: “Well, it’s only three days”. It’s a stark contrast to recent protestations from the residents of Mayfair about shows in Hyde Park. I suspect that the general relaxed attitude to life all Faroese people seem to have helps here.

Either way, it’s just as well they collectively smile on this event, given that, unlike with the Hyde Park festivals, both stages at G! are mere metres away from people’s houses. On Thursday, between 5pm and 9pm, I watched a series of increasingly intense metal bands – Icelandic band Momentum and Faroese quintet Synarchy being particular highlights – and at one point I glanced up from the stage momentarily to see someone doing their washing up.

And just in case that wasn’t weird enough, at 1am I was watching doom metallers Hamferð over at the main stage, which was almost touching one of the nearby houses, and there was someone doing the washing up there too. I guess it’s as good a time as any to get housework done when a doom metal band is playing by your window.

As well as being near houses, the main stage also sits on Syðrugøta’s small, grey-sanded beach, along with hot tubs that people occasionally leap out of in order to run through the crowd and into the freezing cold sea. In fact, this sort of activity begins first thing in the morning before the festival is even properly open and late into the night.

And some didn’t even bother with the hot tub first, such as Haraldur Ari Stefánsson, vocalist with Icelandic pop troupe Retro Stefson. “This is our last song, so I want you all to dance… And take off your clothes”, he announced to the audience, “you’ll find out why at the end of the song”.

No one’s going to fall for that one, I thought. But after a few more prompts – including stripping down to a small pair of shorts himself – a handful of people were stood in just their underwear. His mission accomplished, Stefánsson then leapt off the stage and led his small group of semi-nude followers down into the sea. It was late in the evening and clearly very cold. They didn’t last long, but it still happened and that’s what counts.

Day two began with a foggy, slightly damp wait for a bus to take us to the Islands’ capital, Tórshavn, to visit TUTL Records, a company that has been releasing music by Faroese artists for 35 years. Sometimes putting out up to 50 releases a year, the label is a real focal point for the active music scene on the islands.

Founded and still run by musician Kristian Blak, the vast majority of Faroese recording artists will have had some contact with TUTL, and looking through its catalogue you begin to realise what an incredibly high proportion of musicians the country has amongst its population. To match the ratio of releases to consumers, the UK would need to up its recorded output by tens of thousands of releases per year.

Meanwhile, while we were leafing through the racks of TUTL’s shop before taking a tour of the old town, back in Syðrugøta a ‘situation’ was arising. Being based out in the North Atlantic means that it’s not uncommon for planes to be unable to land on the Faroe Islands due to heavy fog over Vágar Airport. On Friday afternoon it was announced that three of the headline acts due to play over the next two nights had been on planes redirected to airports in other countries for exactly this reason. John Grant and Tim Christensen & The Damn Crystals were due to play on Saturday, but Veronica Maggio’s set on Friday would have to be postponed.

In her place, local musician Eivør (who had guested with Hamferð on the main stage the previous night) was moved over from the second stage. It was a great performance, so atmospheric and grand, that it was surprising she hadn’t been on the main stage all along.

However, one of the best discoveries of that night was something more simple, what we termed ‘the singing hut’ (we were later informed that it actually goes by the name of ‘the hay house’). There my companion and I sang along to various Faroese folk songs, or approximations of them from the lyric sheet we were given. God knows what the noises we made actually sounded like, but no one seemed offended in the least, and we slowly amassed a group of locals to spend the rest of the evening with.

Having spent that night becoming fairly well acquainted with the local beer and ‘akvavitt’ spirit, Saturday became more of a subdued affair. We went to the Væl Á Veg award ceremony, where Benjamin was chosen from all the Faroese artists playing to perform at this year’s Iceland Airwaves, and then took in a selection of music videos and short films.

Sitting in a dark room for a couple of hours proved good preparation for the final night of music. By this point, although hope had been held out for as long as possible, it became clear that Veronica Maggio, John Grant and Tim Christensen were not going to be able to land. But there was still much to enjoy, particular highlights being the infectious pop of Sakaris and the more downbeat fare of Frostfelt.

Also, there was the chance to see some bona fide Faroese rock royalty, Frændur. Active since the 80s, they are the islands’ highest selling native act. “Everyone will sing along”, the festival’s website proclaimed. And, oh my, they did. Everyone of every age knew every word of every song (apparently because their songs are regularly sung at parties and therefore handed down through the generations). It was quite amazing to be stood in the middle of a crowd like that having had no idea what to expect beforehand.

But while Frændur have apparently been content with a career focussed entirely on the Faroe Islands, the vast number of artists in the country means a lot of the other talent is increasingly looking for ways to expand their international reach. Many now base themselves in other countries, particularly Denmark and Iceland, with some success. However, it’s surprising that the Faroese music scene isn’t given the same focus as other Nordic nations, because not only is the number of artists coming out of the Faroes very high, the quality is too.

Not everything I saw at the festival was exactly to my taste, but I didn’t see any act that could be described as ‘bad’. At a festival of a similar size in England, I’d probably expect to be disappointed by the standard of at least a few bands each day. But that was never the case here.

This regular discovery of new music to enjoy, the people I met in the few days I spent in the Faroes, and the incredible landscape that I regularly had to stop and remind myself really was there all around me, went together to make one of my favourite festival experiences. I’ll certainly remember it for a long time.

Andy Malt
Editor, CMU

PS – Speaking of festivals, if you happen to be heading up to the Edinburgh Fringe this August, look out for a couple of events that CMU is involved in. More details here.

PPS – After the Editors’ Letter’s brief holiday last week (while I was at that there mentioned G! Festival), this is now the last missive from me until September, as the column goes on its summer break. See you then.

The CMU Weekly Podcast has also shut up shop and gone on its summer holiday, with the last episode in the series going out earlier this month. But don’t sit there sobbing onto your shoes, you can still listen to the archive of all 61 episodes here.

So, quelle surprise, Universal’s bid to buy EMI is still big news. And it’s a story that is rapidly progressing as we speak – as the mega-major submitted its divestments proposal to European regulators just this afternoon.

Universal hopes that by proposing to sell off a load of EMI’s European assets, it can overcome concerns expressed by regulators to its deal. And – according to a memo from current EMI boss Roger Faxon to his staff – it’s a hell of a load, especially in the UK, where both the Parlophone and EMI/Chrysalis divisions could go, leaving very little of EMI – the mighty British major – remaining in Britain. With just Virgin Records and some periphary labels left, it seems likely EMI Music UK would be absorbed by Universal’s existing UK divisions.

Of course those prospoals will still have to face the scrutiny of the regulator, who will share them with other stakeholders, including the independent label community. Opinion in the indie sector remains divided, with some backing Universal’s latest plans, but other’s remaining opposed to any further growth of the Universal empire, including AIM’s Alison Wenham, Bella Union’s Simon Raymonde and King Crimson label Panegyric’s Declan Colgan, who all wrote open letters on the issue this week.

Also writing letters (or a letter, at least) were a whole load of pop celebrities, including Andrew Lloyd-Webber, Elton John, Simon Cowell, Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, Brian May, Roger Taylor, Robert Plant, Professor Green and Tinie Tempah. They addressed their letter to David Cameron, telling him that as the Olympics are coming up, he should get three-strikes started and force “search engines” (ie Google) to do more to stop online piracy.

Elsewhere in piracy news, Torrentfreak leaked an IFPI internal report on the global trade body’s current thinking on such things, several of the UK ISPs blocking The Pirate Bay blocked it some more, and the New Zealand record industry claimed that the country’s three-strikes system had reduced piracy there.

Meanwhile, it was reported that Amazon now accounts for a fifth of UK entertainment sales, while the iTunes store saw its revenues slip, and a number of retailers complained to The Independent about labels’ tendency to bunch big releases together at the same time of year.

In slightly unusual digital deal news, HTC sold half of the shares it bought in Beats Electronics just under a year ago back to the Dr Dre-owned company (a move Morgan Stanley described as “puzzling” – not something you generally want a bank to say), and DJ Shadow announced a partnership with BitTorrent Inc, the organisation behind the oft controversial file-sharing technology.

In the courts, concern expressed over the guardianship of Michael Jackson’s children led to custody being taken away from Jackson’s mother Katherine and given to their cousin Tito Jackson Jr (on a temporary basis at this stage), Charlotte Church won libel damages from The People, the man who killed four members of Jennifer Hudson’s family was sentenced to life in jail, Lady Gaga was sued over a deal with the maker of Bratz dolls, and the photographer who allegedly caused Justin Bieber to get a speeding fine recently was charged by police.

Hey, how about some festival news now? Well, Melvin Benn has admitted that the excuse he gave for cancelling this year’s Big Chill – a clash with the Olympics – wasn’t strictly true. He said this week that it was more because of an uncertainty about the creative direction of the festival, and that while “something” would be back at the Big Chill site next year, it could be quite different. Over in Germany, music business convention Popkomm was reported to have shut its doors for good, though in more positive news, Green Man announced that it is sponsoring a cricket team.

And finally, Plan B apologised for accidentally wearing a Skrewdriver t-shirt, the original Sugababes discussed their reunion, Timbaland and Katy Perry both gave ridiculous quotes to announce new brand partnerships, and Justin Bieber’s manager revealed that the singer is not a prick just because he’s famous.

This week’s Beef Of The Week saw the age old war between Hollywood and the internet descend into a stern battle of letter writing. First MegaUpload founder Kim Dotcom wrote in The Hollywood Reporter that he just wanted to help the film industry and was upset that it wouldn’t let him. Director Bruce Ledder responded by asking if he could have some of Dotcom’s cars. Maybe they should all go to a festival together, and here are all the latest line-up additions.

In the Approved column this week we had no less than two artists from the Faroe Islands, electro popper Sakaris and atmospheric rocker Eivør, as well as Estonian Maria Minerva and England’s own Olugbenga.

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Oh, and we had a video of Lars Ulrich from Metallica playing a trombone.