Reykjavik has cultivated and inspired some of the most enduring leftfield artists in modern times. There seems to be some imperceptible charge in the creative air of the Icelandic capital producing familiar artists like Bjørk, Sigur Rós, and Bjarki, but so much more too. Even though the city holds the highest concentration of the country’s population, it’s still merely 334 000 strong, but a sizeable portion of that seems to be engaged in some creative endeavour or another. Even foreign visitors can’t escape it’s allure, and we know Damon Albarn and Ben Frost have called the volcanic landmass home at one critical point of their career, unlocking the mysterious charm of the creativity it inspires.
“Maybe it’s just the landscape” ponders Viktor Birgiss, a House producer from the city. “Everything from the weather to the time of year” might have an effect on his creativity he suggests, and somewhere in there the ingredient exists for one of the most creatively rich environments in the world.
In 1988 Viktor Birgiss was born into this environment. In the year succeeding his arrival into the world, Iceland lifted its ban on the selling and distributing of beer. “We’re still beer-drinking amateurs” jokes Viktor, but I suspect with drinking beer also came a more sociable society, one that engaged more with each other in the context of a bar and usually in the presence of music.
It was a dynamic time in the city’s history and when Viktor came of age, it had created a landscape allowing for electronic music to flourish in all its different shapes and forms. In or around 2007 his “interest in DJing and making music” was first piqued when he got a “DJ gig in elementary school” . It had planted a seed in the burgeoning producer and DJ, but it would remain mostly dormant until after Viktor left school and got his first job.
By the time Viktor’s interest was re-emboldened a colleague had implanted the idea “ that if you wanted to get DJ gigs, you had to produce music.” Viktor took that sentiment “all the way”, taught himself Ableton and in no time he was making his own mirthful House edits of popular songs. “I had no musical background, so it was all trial and error stuff”, remembers Viktor, but after a “long journey” he had become incredibly “comfortable in the digital working space”, gaining the respect of his peers in Reykjavik early on his career through this skill.
At the same time, Viktor had found a job at Kaffibarinn, the venue that lives on in infamy as the popular Icelandic haunt owned by Damon Albarn, depending on which rumours you believe. “He might have put some money into it in the beginning”, suggests Viktor, “ but I’m pretty sure he’s not one of the owners today.” By the time Viktor started working there, no trace of Albarn was left, but that was of little concern to Viktor, who had sought out the position merely to “observe other DJs”. Viktor’s clubbing experiences had been ”minimal” leading up to this point and Kaffibarinn was the perfect place to learn from other DJs and like many of them it would also be the launchpad for the incipient DJ’s own career.
Viktor would “annoy the booker” and resident DJ, Alfons X with requests to play, but the only way Alfons would allow that would be with a back to back set, allowing Alfons to take over if needed. It was not needed, and Viktor’s DJ education became a trial by fire with the patient and open-minded crowd at Kaffibarinn playing an integral role in his evolution.
Viktor: “Growing up as a DJ was really healthy at Kaffibarinn because we were playing really long sets, about 6 hours of music. The crowd that came to hear the DJ really trusted the DJ; there were no song requests and that really boosted my DJ self esteem.”
When Viktor had started in music, he had “no direction” and frequently stepped into new genres, but with the his confidence bolstered at Kaffibarinn, he eventually ”found a place in Deep House and House”. Heavily “influenced by old school 90’s House”, Viktor went into a new golden era of House circa 2011 and became one of Iceland’s leading lights in the genre after one of his edits caught the attention of his downtown peers. Intended “as a joke” Viktor’s edit of Bjartmar Guðlaugson’s eighties yacht rock anthem “Týnda Kynslóðin” gained the DJ some popularity as a producer when “every DJ downtown started playing it in the early evening.“
It all “snowballed” for Viktor from there as he got more comfortable playing at Kaffibarinn. His tastes would also broaden and his tolerances relaxed, affecting his sets and his music as he grew into becoming the esteemed producer he is today. Internet radio stations like Breakbeat, Techno, and Party Zone had already some influence on broadening the producer’s tastes, with Party Zone being “probably the biggest influence”. His became more inclusive than a single genre and during this early evolution, he started to solidify his craft as he went from edits to creating original songs.
With House influences and his expertise in digital work space established, Viktor’s sound was soulful and melodic and showcased a more-than-adept craftsmanship for songwriting. “I never end up doing something that’s just going to be a banger for the dance floor”, says Viktor when I ask him about his songwriting process. “I just loop until I find the middle of a track and then I make something around it.” Melodic passages building on the last, bring a depth to the music as it chugs along the tracks laid by the House rhythm sections. A vocal sample is often around and lends that much needed human dimension to Viktor’s music.
Most of his music can be found on he and Jónbjörn Finnbogason’s Lagaffe Tales label, a label that’s been surreptitiously working away in the underground House scene in Iceland since 2012, providing a platform for new talent resembling Viktor’s to come to the fore through a record. I’m surprised though that Viktor doesn’t play his own music out, even during the label’s bi-monthly label night at Kaffibarinn. “I leave that to others”, he says and if he does feel the need to showcase his musical prowess, he prefers the stage. Using a couple of machines, a midi controller and a laptop, he prefers the role of live performer. With improvised sets based on his own productions, Viktor is always looking for “some element that (he) can change in respect to the dance floor”. Improvising on his machines he approaches it much like his DJ sets, working through the dance floor, and letting it dictate the narrative of the night. Each “live set always turn(s) out different” as a result, much like his DJ sets would.
He is most comfortable on home turf and “playing live at Kaffibarinn is always really special” to Viktor. Like his DJ sets there, where he is more “comfortable playing something that is a little obscure”, and “playing longer sets like that have to jump into Funk and Disco and slower things”, Kaffibarinn is where Viktor finds he is able to fully realise the vast extent of his influences and his tastes.
A new father, he doesn’t “really have the pulse of the scene” anymore however, devoting his time to family, and although music is still a passion, his reserved gigging schedule makes each gig a special event. He lives in the “outskirts of the capital”, working at a local youth centre, where he has used some of his “musical background” to encourage a new generation of music makers. His soundcloud page is still a hive of activity with many jam sessions and one-off recordings lining the feed as well as DJ sets. He often plays abroad, getting gigs through friends he’s made along the way, friends like Vinny Villbass, who stay in touch and create their own musical scene through the connections they’ve made.
Through mutual friend Simon FKNHNDSM, “a Kaffibarinn legend” and “one of the driving forces behind the place”, Viktor and Vinny struck a friendship based on mutual respect and similar musical personalities, and it’s a friendship that has seen Vinny play Iceland and Viktor play Dattera Til Hagen in the past. “It’s all about networking” in a very honest traditional way for Viktor, away from the impersonal business of agents and bookers.
As House music yet again goes through another phase of evolution, people like Viktor Birgiss are the immovable figures that remain true to the spirit of House music, as a DJ avoiding the obvious and the hyped; a producer that feigns the functional; and a performer that looks to the audience for his cues. His extensive career might have been propelled through one of House music’s more popular phases, but his approach both in the booth and in the studio, has cemented the reputation of Viktor Birgiss.
* Viktor Birgiss will be live in our booth this weekend for Vinny Vilbass’ Badabing residency.