KEXP Live at Iceland Airwaves 2018, Day 1: Les Aventures de President Bongo (President Bongo & Óttar Sæmundsen)

Iceland Airwaves
Dusty Henry
all photos by Jim Bennett (view set)

Halló from Reykjavik, Iceland! It’s that time of year again where KEXP uproots from our Seattle home and sets up at the renowned KEX Hostel for a week of performances from Icelandic artists and other acts from the Iceland Airwaves lineup. All week we’ll be broadcasting and streaming live video of these performances. If you were watching the stream earlier, you know that we kicked things off in a stunning fashion with a collaborative set between President Bongo and composer Óttar Sæmundsen, billed as Les Aventures de President Bongo.

If President Bongo’s name doesn’t ring a bell right away, you may recognize him by his birth name Stephan Stephensen and from his work with the seminal Icelandic electronic act GusGus, who has also performed on our Airwaves broadcast numerous times over the years. Stephensen left GusGus in 2015 to pursue his solo work under the President Bongo moniker and even performed at KEXP’s broadcast last year in a collaboration in an amorphous and hypnotic set with Tilbury. The expansiveness of his sound is reminiscent of English electronic acts like Simian Mobile Disco and Radiohead vocalist Thom Yorke’s solo material – ruminating on a rhythm and slowly breaking it apart into a meditative sprawl.


This year at KEX hostel, Stephensen brought along Icelandic composer Óttar Sæmundsen to debut material from their upcoming collaboration, Quadrantes, which will get an official release in 2019. The album is actually a part of a much larger project, itself the third installment in a series of 24 LPs Stephensen plans to release across seven years that are made in tribute to the beloved Belgian comics The Adventures of Tintin – a series which Stephensen refers to as defining "what it meant to be an adventurer in the 20th Century." Previous records in the series include collaborations with Tilbury and Högni – another KEXP at KEX alum. Stephensen's knack for prolificity is only matched by his consistency as an artist, as demonstrated in his performance with Sæmundsen alongside vocalist Ester Bibí and guitarist/keyboardist Daniel Friðrik Böðvarsson.



The first set of our 2018 Iceland Airwaves couldn't have been more fitting with an expansive soundtrack that felt like the opening credit scroll to a film. Bodies packed the front of the stage, half of the crowd with beers in hand. The warmth of the room was a contrast to the harsh Icelandic winds barrelling outside across the water. The band's hypnotic crawl mirrored the gusting force. A slow build-up of Stephensen's synthesizer drones and Sæmundsen's low bass guitar hums started the set, with Böðvarsson's guitars adding an eerie, cryptic texture that rattled throughout the mix like lovely, creaky floorboards. It was at both times relentless and glorious, kicking off a continuous build that wouldn't let up until the end of their set. Bibí's vocals would come in bursts, a heady monotone hypnotically spouting monosyllabic words – words like "sad," "sexy," "sick," "lust," and "fucked." Even when she wouldn't utter words for minutes at a time, her stoic presence on the stage was commanding. 



Stephensen would lean over the wires of his synthesizer, intensely focused and immersed in the rhythm. He looked something like a maestro or a mad scientist, pulling out his multi-colored cables with methodical grace. It was the same precision felt from watching Sæmundsen pluck the heavy strings of his bass. Sæmundsen would frequently kneel to the ground, adjusting the tones on his pedals while still holding onto the strings of his instrument, pressing them against the fretboard and wobbling them to ring out every last bit of the notes. His mastery of the lower frequency was a perfect parallel to the arpeggios and crackling loops Stephensen dutifully created. It was a spectacular way to begin our time at KEX, swooning the room into the endless rhythms and experimentations. It was a transportive set, feeling like the whole room had left Reykjavik and entered some other dreamworld of the group's creation.


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