“Stop for Panda!”
It started as a soft murmur from the back of the coach bus as it pulled away from home base at Iceland’s Secret Solstice music festival. Gradually it got louder, building into a full on plea—“STOP FOR PANDA!”—as the hundred or so people who were packed tight on the way to one of the festival's marquee events, a rave inside of a glacier, turned around inquisitively.
Sure enough, there he was: a man dressed in a head-to-toe panda costume running toward the bus and waving his hands, a sweaty tornado of furry stress, desperate not to miss the bus that would transport him to the Langjökull Glacier—and the 500-meter tunnel that will take him to the party held 25 meters beneath the icy surface.
We’re festival people—a woman in a unicorn snow hat, a man passing out whiskey shots and molly to anyone interested, a couple “doing the Kurt and Goldie thing” (her real husband is gay, so she only sees her other partner on trips)—so of course we stop for Panda. What would a pop-up rave in a glacier be without him?
This is the second year that the Secret Solstice festival has held the special event. Whispers of last year’s party—not to mention the insane photos—helped land not just the excursion, but Iceland’s four-day music marathon itself, on the top of the must-attend list in the world’s festival circuit.
“I was in the Dominican Republic for Vision Fest and met a girl who said she was coming here for this and I went back in to Milwaukee and said we're going,” says “Goldie,” waiting in line to the board the bus. “We’re raving on a glacier!” hoots a 20-something American girl in watercolor stretch pants and a red flannel coat as she hoists her 10 a.m. beer to the heavens for a toast.
We're all gathered on the curb, sans Panda, following the instructions we received to get our glacier party tickets: "Find Leon with the neck tattoos. He has your bracelets." Sure enough, there comes Leon. With the neck tattoos. Onto the bus we go.
For the globetrotting music enthusiast, today's music festival boom is a dream, with half a dozen events to choose from around the world each month. Increasingly, too, those festivals are offering, well, more of the same: same acts, same attendees, same muddy landscape and beer sponsors.
"It's all gotten a lot less cool and hip," Irish musician Roísín Murphy, one of the acts who performed at this year's Secret Solstice festival, tells The Daily Beast, speaking about the evolution of music festivals in recent years. "It's gotten a lot more corporate, generally. It's not like it used to be, in a meadow with a load of hippies. Let's face it."
It's led to a bit of an exclusivity rat race—what's at Coachella that's not at Governors Ball, what's Glastonbury offering that's more enticing than Tomorrowland—to set each festival apart and draw destination festival goers. By appealing to them with a unique experience and promising the most epic Instagram ever, buzz and exclusivity have become almost as important as the lineup for these festivals. Turns out, there's nothing that special about another top-shelf liquor tent.Maybe that's what Iceland has figured out: By virtue of just being Iceland, it may have already dominated both categories.More than 15,000 people attended Secret Solstice this year, according to head of festival publicity Ósk Gunnarsdóttir. Though the four-day event made headlines months before it took place as its offer of a million-dollar VIP ticket package went viral, she says no one made the splurge.The festival's location is its own marvel, lit and energized by the never-setting sun, fueling a sleepless weekend of partying to the likes of Murphy, Die Antwoord, Deftones, Of Monsters and Men, and, the big headliner, Radiohead.So Iceland offers the music, as well as the opportunity to jet out to waterfalls or snowmobile tours or the infamous Reykjavik penis museum between sets. You can stop on the side of the road to visit ponies, and maybe take roughly 250 selfies with them. I'm not saying that I did that. But I'm not saying that I didn't.
After last year's party inside of the glacier was such a viral hit, the festival upped the ante this year with a concert literally inside of a volcano, played by the lead singer of the Deftones. Only 20 tickets were available, costing $2000 each. This year's inaugural attendees were gifted the added social media fodder of having to be rescued by the Icelandic Coast Guard from the top of the volcano when the concert was over, as an impassable storm whipped up Dorothy-in-Kansas winds.
I was there. It was the coolest. (Read about it here.)
"You go to Coachella and you can experience the same thing every year," says Rachel Yokum, who flew to Iceland by herself to attend the festival, splurging on one of the 20 $2000 tickets to the concert inside the volcano. "That's why I don't go to Coachella. Yes, you'll see great bands, but you'll see great bands you can see anywhere. To me the huge draw of Iceland is, yes, you will have amazing bands. But it's really the place you're in."
Jon Olafsson, co-founder of water company Icelandic Glacial and whose family founded the Secret Solstice Festival three years ago, is hilariously blunt about the appeal of his home country as a festival destination. "The spirit of Iceland is simply very cool right now in the world," he says.(Full disclosure: Icelandic Glacial covered the cost for The Daily Beast's travel to Iceland.)
Olafsson isn't just a water guy, though. He knows music and, as he looks out at the 4,000 people still in line to see Radiohead just minutes before the epic two-hour set is about to start, what people who like music like. Dubbed the "Richard Branson of Iceland," he's been a music executive and media mogul before marrying his water company with rock and roll; in addition to sponsoring the Secret Solstice festival, he traveled with the Rolling Stones to Cuba for their historic first show there this past spring.
"The energy here is unbelievable," he says. "It's in the air, in the water, in the people here. It's a different experience to come to this country. Everything is so different, untouched, and beautiful. Nature is God's nature here."
On this particular day, God's nature is being twerked on.
The girl in the unicorn hat is at it again, living her best life literally inside of a glacier.It truly is unbelievable, the visual conflict between that natural serenity of the ice formations that make up the walls, ceiling, and floor mixed with the garishness of our blowout. Clutching tallboys, two men in horse masks are dancing together to the left, like some nightmare hellscape. The panda is jumping up and down in the corner with a man who has, inexplicably, taken his shirt off in the roughly 25 degree chamber.A survey of the partiers reveals that about two-thirds of them are Americans spending fuck-it money on adventures in Iceland. It's only when you're back in Reykjavík and at the festival that the unique spirit of the locals surrounds you.There's nothing like some real-life Icelandic existential dread to add ambience to a Radiohead concert, let alone the two-hour exhaustive, hit-filled jaunt through A Moon Shaped Pool and a singalong encore that boasted "Paranoid Android," "Karma Police," and "Creep." And there's nothing like the impassioned ambivalence of Icelanders to make it the oddest viewing experience ever.Don't be fooled, this crowd was living for a Radiohead concert in their small country. But there's a politeness to their joy. Arriving five minutes into the set, we were able to walk directly from the back of the audience to the front-row barricade in less than two minutes, with people amiably parting the seas for us to pass—no pushing, no frustration, no worries. It was confusing. And also amazing.There was the same deference for the opening night's headliner, which was oddly Sister Sledge, performing "We Are Family" to a sea of Icelandic teenagers who are apparently big fans of disco wedding music. In the distance a carnival set up is catapulting screaming girls into the sky. It's 11 p.m., and bright as day. It's super weird.The energy ranges from spiritual, as it was when Chino Moreno of the Deftones performed for the 20 people inside Thrinkurgagur Volcano, backdropped by the kaleidoscopic cathedral of lava and rock formations, to completely explosive, as it was during Die Antwoord's blistering set.
Asked if performing here felt different for a festival regular, Roísín Murphy is brutally honest. "I thought we were going to be performing at the bottom of a glacier but it turned out we're in a leisure center," she says. "The show itself wasn't about being in Iceland." But once she was off-stage, "that's when I remembered that I was in Iceland, because I met some elf killers and fairy trappers and stuff like that."
She laughs. "The culture in Iceland, I think my experimental music suits the culture well," she says. "It's a strange place, isn't it? Where magical things happen."
Maybe she's summarized the state of festival culture perfectly. The music? It's the same. Boringly so. But it's the place that's beginning to matter, the things you can do besides watch a carousel of music acts play 30-minute sets that make the trips worthwhile.
Back on the coach bus returning to Reykjavík, "Goldie" turns around briefly and catches another glimpse of Panda, this time fast asleep in his seat. She smiles. "I'm really glad we stopped for Panda."