One morning in Reykjavik: drinking coffee, talking Icelandic music

‘Are you looking for anything specifically?’

‘Thank you, no. I’m just looking around. But thank you.’

‘No problem. Would you like an espresso while you look?

‘Um, actually, that would be lovely. Thanks.’

‘OK. Our recommendations are on this table. Some are new releases, some are older. Take a look while I get you your coffee.’

The 12 Tonar shop in ReykjavikI had booked the guesthouse in part because it was around the corner from my favourite bar in Reykjavik, in part because it was just up the hill from Mal og Menning. But mainly because it was across the road from the mighty 12 Tonar record shop. I was only passing through, on my way back from walking in Hornstrandir, and would only have an evening and a morning in the city before my flight left Keflavik. I had wanted to make the most of my time.

After breakfast at Kaffibrennslan on the main drag, I had taken a brief loop about the city. I have been to Reykjavik a few times now, but not for three years, and despite the compact familiarity, I still found charm gilding every street and building. I had planned to end my morning at 12 Tonar, before picking up my bags from Thor’s. I had allowed myself half an hour.

Before my look of bemused wonder had attracted the attention of the guy behind the counter, I had already done a couple of turns around both floors. I had listened to a few unknown tracks on the sofa-side players and lingered over a Rökkurró t-shirt before reminding myself I was here for records, not clothing.

I don’t know exactly when Icelandic music became such a thing in my life. I suppose it crept up on me in stages, like the midnight sun on a long summer’s evening. I remember swooning over the Sugarcubes in the 1980s like everyone else, but was more drawn to the clashing, barking voice of Einar than to Bjork’s elfish range: if the more famous Sugarcube sounded on the verge of madness, Einar seemed well past the line. After that? Sigur Ros in the 90s, of course, but not so much.

Then in 2012, driving around the West Fjords in a hire care without any records, we stopped at a cafe. They sold a handful of records on the counter next to the cakes. We bought an album each by Bjork and Sigur Ros and, on the recommendation of the woman making the coffee, a copy of Í Annan Heim by Rökkurró. My current obsession, if it can be dated at all, started in the next two or three days of driving, listening to that on loop.

Back in the UK, while filling in other Rökkurró records, I stumbled across Sudden Elevation by Ólöf Arnalds, opening up a whole new set of possibilities; a half-remembered hankering for a band called Mammút led me back to 2008’s Karkari, and then to Oyama. Fortunately, 12 Tonar deliver to the UK, but what I really craved was another recommendation over coffee.

By the time the guy with coffee and a calm reassuring beard returned, I’d already picked up an unknown EP of covers by Ólöf Arnalds (to satisfy the completist in me). He pointed me straight to the new-ish Mammút record, Komdu Til Mín Svarta Systir. Then, without being asked, and based on just my few minutes of me gushing about Icelandic bands I liked, he picked up a record from the recommendations table, a record by a band I had never heard of, let alone heard, and simply said, ‘This is a great record.’

Now, I’ve worked in record shops. I know how the ‘recommendations’ rack works. The staff, generally speaking, do not have strong feelings either way about the greatness or otherwise of its contents; it is merely a promotional tool to shift new or stubborn product to unfocused punters like me. But something about the shop, about the guy, about that recommendation in a cafe in the West Fjords, made me believe. So when he led me, my records and my empty coffee cup to the counter, I followed willingly. He was already removing the outer sleeve from the nameless record I had yet to say I wanted; he rang it and the other two through the till and I paid, full of the most glorious glow of retail happiness.

The next morning, back in London, while I tipped dirty waking gear into the washing machine and tried to adjust to an additional 20 degrees of heat, I put on the record. I eventually worked out that it was 0, the second record by Low Roar. I played it again, and I am still playing it while I type this. It is a great record. And he’s not even Icelandic.

12 Tonar deliver: buy records from them. And if you’re ever in Reykjavik (seriously, why aren’t you?) then stop by for a coffee and some seriously good recommendations.

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