Every summer in Iceland, about 1,000 countrymen and a few foreigners pile into the Idno, Reykjavik's oldest theater, to participate in an anti-music-festival music festival called Innipúkinn. The name translates to "Indoor Devil," a pejorative aimed at the mischievous, idle Icelandic kids who, when the summer months and their 24-hour days of sunlight come, can't shake off the darkness of the long North Atlantic winter.
A few years back at Innipúkinn 2004, a bleary-eyed librarian stepped onstage with a six-piece brass band. The festival was his idea, and he had some folk-pop songs to deliver. "I can love you in a wheelchair, baby," he sang to a packed, stunned house. He delivered a range of other sardonic mantras backed by a cheery, up-tempo horn section and raucous drummer. The set closed out with a healthy downpour of balloons.
With that auspicious beginning, Benedik H. Hermannsson—better known as Benni Hemm Hemm—became the newest darling of Icelandic music.
The momentum's only increased. In 2005, his self-produced first album won the Icelandic Grammy for album of the year. Shortly later, Rolling Stone wrote of a live performance that Benni Hemm Hemm "evoked the sunshine prospect of Brian Wilson conducting a troupe of Salvation Army horns at a 1967 Smile session." Soon Hermannsson found himself in a modest bidding war for international distribution.
The result of three years of constant hype in the Icelandic scene? A few months ago, he gave up his day job in the library.
"Everybody's far too cool to say they're impressed," Hermannsson says of his hometown fans. "They might ask, 'Who do you know to get to do that?' But they play it cool."
Cool, but not too cool—Benni Hemm Hemm is one of the most popular bands in Iceland. When you sell 30,000 records in a country of 300,000, you're reaching a hell of a lot of your people. You must be at the top of the pops. Or not.
"Best-selling doesn't do you that much good in Iceland," Hermannsson says. "There was a singer in a really popular but horrible local band and he got chosen to compete in an American reality television show called Rockstar: Supernova. Well, before he flew to America, when he was the third biggest band in Iceland, he was working all day in a glass factory."
Hermannsson's first, self-titled album was written half in English half in Icelandic, usually a sign that a band is preparing to leave the island. His second album, Kajak, produced with the help of acclaimed German label Morr Music, is entirely in Icelandic, with arrangements based strongly in Icelandic pop of the 1930s and '40s. If he once channeled Brian Wilson, Kajak, with complex countermelodies and a dedication to the minor keys, creates its own genre: full-orchestra baritone folk.
"I was working on this album, and I wanted to write in English, but I just was more comfortable in my native tongue," he says almost as an apology, acknowledging how the choice could hurt album sales.
Defying expectations has long been Hermannsson's MO. Before playing the antifestival he created, his only musical venture had been to drum with the comically vulgar, Iceland-mocking hiphop act Mothafuckers in the House. After he won the Icelandic Grammy, he invited the most controversial playwright in the country, Hugleikur Dagsson, to rap explicit lyrics over a mellow, fully orchestrated pop song.
Throughout his brief career, Hermannsson hasn't made a single decision that makes commercial sense. The antifestival he started became a nationwide success and he promptly dropped out. His band gained a reputation as the best live show in Iceland, so he hired more members. He got great reviews abroad, then released an album in a language spoken by 300,000 people. Now, in the height of European festival season, a touring circuit most Icelandic bands covet, he is hitting the American highways with an 11-piece band.
Only two other Icelandic acts in the last few decades have acted with so little consideration for publicity and commercial interest: Sigur Rós and Björk.