Q Magazine

“World domination or die !”

“World domination or die !”—Such is the manifesto of Iceland’s Sykurmolarnir, internationally more familiar as The Sugarcubes. And to this end they have invested funds from their rapidly increasing record sales to support Reykjavík’s Bohemian community. Their plush and prosperous headquarters, Bad Taste Ltd, runs an art gallery, poetry bookshop, record label, radio station and publishing imprint. “Good taste is the enemy of creativity,” they remind Mat Snow.

Six excited people crane over a desk in a pose familiar to those privy to rock’n’roll’s inner workings. They are “checking the artwork” to their forthcoming album whose release is just weeks away. On the walls of their still dishevelled new HQ beam down the framed front covers bestowed on them these last two years by the British weekly music press. And overhead dangles another trophy of their short yet much- trumpeted career—a model aeroplane painted bright yellow with the legend “Regina” emblazoned on the fuselage. Look again, though, and one is struck by an oddity. This ‘plane sports a toothsome grin—and where one would expect propellors to whir from its twin engines, a pair of pink and very perky nipples thrust provocatively at just above eye level.

Suspicions aroused, one redoubles one’s attention and scans the scene outside the window. A tell-tale absence of skyscrapers or palm trees will alert the gimlet-eyed observer of the rock scene that we are not in either of the USA’s entertainment hot spots. Further investigation reveals that it is extremely unlikely we are in Chicago, London, Manchester, Glasgow, Dublin or in any other recognised centre of today’s big beat. We are, as it happens, in Reykjavík, the 90,000-strong capital city—if that is the word—of Iceland, a nation which boasts a total of 249,000 inhabitants to herd its 400,000 sheep and populate an area significantly greater than that of the British Isles.

Known to most of us for its participation in the Cod War and East-West summitry—the Fischer-Spassky chess championship, the Reagan-Gorbachev entente—Iceland can now add another name to its roll-call of international stardom (consisting hitherto of just Magnus Magnusson) ; that name is Sykurmolarnir. Or, if you will, The Sugarcubes.

That aeroplane has its own little story to tell. The “Regina” on its side is the title of The Sugarcubes’ forthcoming single which trails the album—their second, called Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week ! (a quote from Kenneth Grahame’s Wind In The Willows, to whose Mr Toad—“eccentric, selfish, crazy, a vain creature”—the band will liken themselves). And Regina’s promotional video is where we will see the ‘plane in use, in a piece of hilarious whimsy directed by one Oskar Jonasson, a graduate of the UK’s National Film And Television School. He also happens to be the boyfriend of The Sugarcubes’ lead singer and resident sex symbol, Björk Guðmundsdóttir, 23-year- old mother of Sindri, from whose birth at 2.50 pm on June 8, 1986, the band also date their official foundation.

As is the recent law in Iceland, Sindri will take as his surname his patronymic—thus Sindri Þórsson. For he is the son not of Oskar but of the band’s guitarist Þór Eldon, who was briefly married to Björk (and sired the baby under the government’s incentive scheme to boost the population which enabled him to buy a pair of contact lenses—true !). Þór has just celebrated another happy event—the birth of his daughter, Sunna, to his new wife. She is Magga Örnólfsdóttir (transl. “Örnólf’s daughter”)—who just happens to be The Sugarcubes’ keyboards player. Confused ?

The Sugarcubes, we gather, may be rather less than a well-regulated family but they are clearly a good deal more than a conventional rock band. Their first single Birthday—a little girl’s erotic rhapsody to cigar-smoking middle-aged gents !—united both Rolling Stone and Smash Hits in fulsome praise. They are signed to One Little Indian, the label founded by the anarcho-punk group Flux Of Pink Indians, yet their debut LP, Life’s Too Good, has notched up 106,000 sales in the UK and 450,000 in America. Half the band are published poets—yet their own publishing company, Bad Taste Ltd, also releases records by a group called Ham, described as “fun Goth, comedy-horror-metal”. The paradoxes are legion.

My stepfather played in a rock’n’roll band,” recalls Björk, a vivacious, elf-child creature so much given to squealing laughter that her interludes of adult mental clarity come as a shock. “He liked Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, and influenced my mother to like Deep Purple. I can say I’m one of the few people in Iceland to be brought up in a hippy commune. There were about 10 people but I was the only child. Sometimes he played in the countryside so we’d do a lot of camping. I started learning when I was about eight or nine to go on stage with the band and sing a couple of songs, and different people from all over Iceland. After this introduction to working in the studio I wanted to do something with people the same age as me, so about a year later I joined a band, and I’ve been in bands ever since.”

Hitherto dominated by showbands playing covers of US Top 40 tunes broadcast to the NATO base in Keflavík, Iceland’s homegrown rock scene only got going in 1981, heavily influenced by such British New Wavers as the Banshees, Wire, The Passions, The Slits and Joy Division. Another inspiration were The Fall, who recorded in Iceland in 1981 and returned to the UK with a local band called Purrkur Pillnikk. Their number included Sugarcube bassist Bragi Ólafsson—and the man who today is the nearest the band have as a leader : a singer and trumpet-player of no fixed key, Einar Örn Benediktsson is the author of a slim volume entitled Shitheap, and proud owner of a BA (Hons) degree in Media Studies from the Polytechnic of Central London (he lived for four years in Stoke Newington, whence derives his idiomatic grasp of the Anglo lingo). He too is a young divorce, his current girlfriend being attached to the Bonn Opera. (In Iceland it is customary to start serious relationships when you’re 18, be married at 20 and have two kids at 25. “And the divorce rate is very high,” comments Þór with feeling. “The thing is, the winter is very dark and boring.”)

Purrkur Pillnikk was just one of the bands that blossomed in Iceland in ’81-’82, another being Þeyr with Björk and drummer Siggi Baldursson (previously they were in Tappi Tíkarrass) : they benefited from the visit of another cultural ambassador from the British rock scene, namely Jaz Coleman, singer with vicious punk-goth types Killing Joke. He turned up with his guitarist Geordie in March 1982, having mysteriously decamped from the band just after a gig in Brighton, muttering darkly about the imminent apocalypse and so forth. A keen student of the occult and commonly believed to be just a few coupons short of a toaster, Coleman “followed the ley lines” to Reykjavík, where he found in Þeyr fellow spirits ; among their projects, so it was alleged, was the contruction of a device which operated outside the range of human hearing to establish “psychic links” with the audience. In the event, the world did not end, as had been widely predicted, and Jaz slunk back to Britain to resume belabouring Killing Joke’s audience for several years to come.

“We actually worked with him a bit,” reveals Siggi. “Nobody found him easy to deal with.”

“People were so angry with him they’re still talking about it,” adds Björk. “It’s unbelievable how one man can upset so many people.”

Describing Þeyr as an “avant-garde, arty punk band,” Björk points out how out of step they were in a country whose most popular homegrown talent was a former fish-factory worker called Bubbi Morthens—the so-called “Icelandic Bruce Springsteen”—whose most recent album was bought by one in 12 of the entire citizenry. “We were only getting 100 people along to our gigs, so we all established contact with people abroad just to know that we weren’t insane. We knew we were doing something precious because we liked it, and it didn’t really matter if the rest of Iceland didn’t. We’d get people on our backs when we went to discos, saying, You must be heavily into drugs, you seem so weird. Why don’t you grow up ?”

They weren’t quite ready to “grow up”, as it happened. Björk, Einar and Siggi combined in an act called KUKL—medieval Icelandic for a practitioner of witchcraft—which toured Europe and featured Einar engaged in Alice Cooper-style “hanging” pranks. They also put out two albums on Crass Records, the Epping-based label of the anarcho-band of the same name. But stretching, as it did, the envelope of user- friendliness, KUKL neither paid the rent nor funded the grander ambitions nursed by Einar (then a lecturer in Media Studies) and the others. What they wanted to set up was a structure for Reykjavík’s young Bohemian set : an art gallery, a poetry bookshop, a record label, a radio station and a cafe wherein the country’s most vigorous young minds might go through their paces over a cup of coffee (as drunk in great quantities in Iceland) or a foaming stein of the only recently legalised beer (though spirits have never been prohibited, oddly—yet typically—enough).

Thus in the summer of ’86 they founded an umbrella organisation for all these projects, titled Bad Taste Ltd (Smekkleysa SM SF), taking as its inspiration Picasso’s aphorism that “Good taste is the enemy of creativity” and proclaiming as its manifesto “World domination or die”. The first logical step for these seasoned musicians in achieving the aforementioned “world domination” was to form a pop group—and a pop group, moreover, in the most questionable taste.

“We had all played before, but with The Sugarcubes we decided to play pop music and totally disgust ourselves,” jests Einar. “We looked at each other and said, Can we play this—it’s such a cliché ? And we said, Fuck it, we can, because we’re The Sugarcubes. We’re a pop band, a living cliché.”

And so to Birthday. It was recorded on the proceeds of the first Bad Taste product, a postcard of willfully naff design commemorating the Reagan- Gorbachev Reykjavík summit of which outsold its competitors to the tune of 5,000 copies. Within days of Birthday’s UK release, the British music press and recording industry went, in Einar’s words, “apeshit about us—we didn’t know what the hell was happening.”

Þór : “We had Derek (Birkett, head of One Little Indian) phoning from England saying, You’re playing a concert next Friday. We said, No, we’re not. He said, You have to because there are all these journalists coming over. Then we had to play again because all these record companies came over. They made us a lot of silly offers ; the whole process was silly.”

“We had people flying in from international corporations saying, We are very interested, and waving cheques with tens of thousands of pounds made out to us already,” recalls Einar (this was despite The Sugarcubes rather naughtily performing their showcase for the international record industry entirely in Icelandic). “We kept being told that this was the best deal we were ever going to get. But being a bit lazy and disorganised, we never answered.”

The Sugarcubes believe the major labels behaved “like total idiots.” “They forget,” says Einar, “that The Sugarcubes may be daft, but we’re not idiots. And we’re not young—we’ve survived for eight years in Iceland without a major deal. We now notch up the number of record companies we’ve seduced.”

As for the band’s—and Bad Taste’s—day to day running, The Sugarcubes typically keep it in the family by employing Einar’s younger brother. “We don’t have a manager or a worldwide exclusive deal, so we have to have Ami monitoring the whole spectrum for us. He’s just on wages,” explains Einar. “He filters out things that he knows we’re interested in knowing about. At the same time, we read all the faxes, but he has the decision at that level. He talks to us about both big and petty problems.”

Starting with the presentation of Bad Taste “diploma” to Icelandic TV’s commissioning editor for arts programmes (he was apparently, thrilled), The Sugarcubes set about fulfilling Bad Taste’s articles of intent.

“We don’t want Bad Taste books distributed into record shops as a side-project of The Sugarcubes,” Einar asserts. “We want books to go into bookshops as legitimate poetry, not like Pete Townshend getting an editorial place at Faber & Faber. We want them to be just another load of poetry books that nobody buys !” he jests (I think). “What we put out we believe in. We’re not philantropists, but godfathers.”

(In fact, so far Bad Taste’s poetry books have successfully sold their 3,500 print runs, thus covering the costs of publishing.)

“But we don’t do it from the dominating independent mind,” Einar continues. “If you’re an independent band in England, what do you sound like ? Crass or Discharge, who say, Fuck it. But where are they now ? We have a big-time mentality on a small time level. We’re mainstream—it’s Rick Astley, Tiffany and Bros who are offbeat ! Bad Taste puts out things we regard as in good taste. We’re just trying to alter people’s perceptions of who is calling the shots on what is good taste.”

“Our hope for Bad Taste is to get the company running independent of The Sugarcubes,” adds Þór more temperately, “and also without our comments and ideas.”

“We want it to be a living culture—like yoghurt !” Einar blurts. “Bad Taste should have its own bookshop, art gallery and cafe by now—except that we’re so bloody busy abroad.” An exhibition by American “neon artist” Don Jacobson is nonetheless in the pipeline.

And it was in America, where the virtues of The Sugarcubes’ debut LP Life’s Too Good had been as enthusiastically proclaimed as in the UK, that the band’s cool was most severely tested.

“You get told certain things but you don’t expect them to happen to you,” Þór smiles. “Americans are crazy about you if they think you’re a star—if you’re on TV, you’re a star, so be prepared.”

“When we were on Saturday Night Live, me and Siggi were going back to our hotel after the rehearsal, and this guy came running towards our car and asked for our autograph,” recalls Einar. “Siggi said, quite rightly, Do you know who we are ?

Yes, yes, he replied, you’re that famous band, The Sugarkings ... Half the time people don’t know who you are and don’t listen to the music, but they’re star-struck because you’re walking out of the NBC building in New York into a limo, and being driven about 500 yards to the hotel just around the corner !”

More trying still was the prodigious glad-handing required of bands trying to flog themselves and their album round the American rock circuit.

“There was supposed to be a big party for us after the Chicago gig to meet some local record company representatives,” sighs Einar. “They said it would be in a very nice pizza place. We walked in and there was not one menu or table, just 60 or 70 people listening to The Sugarcubes, which they turned on when we turned up. Everybody had posters to sign. So we said, Sod it. We got so pissed off we just left.”

Björk brought Sindri along that sweltering American summer of ’88, and catering to his needs kept the band sane. When The Sugarcubes returned this year in a bill with New Order and PiL—the so-called Monsters Of Alternative Rock Tour, rechristened by John Lydon the Hamsters Of Rock Tour—they found themselves, if anything, bored as they played to the biggest crowds of their career.

“We’re away from home so what can we do ?” complains Einar. “Picking our noses is boring, and eating and watching television becomes boring when you’re playing every second day. Not being able to work is a strain.”

“We got paid $95,000 for the whole tour. The expenses were $94,450, so we got $550 from the whole tour. But our T-shirt did quite well, so we got an extra $50,000. We felt we were wasting our time yet we knew it was supposed to be a very good career move,” Þór summarises their compromise with the rock machine. By contrast, they relish the memory of the greatest gig they never played, when, with 105,000 tickets sold for three nights, the Leningrad authorities cancelled the shows at the last minute for fear of riot and insurrection in the wake of popular hero Boris Yeltsin failing to gain entry to the Politburo.

Along the way, of course, The Sugarcubes have picked up a few notable fans.

“Since KUKL, we’d always put Iggy Pop and David Bowie on our guest list, even when we were playing in Reykjavík,” vouchsafes Einar. “And then they actually did turn up to The Sugarcubes’ gig in New York.”

But their most devoted, not to say extreme, fan resides in a psychiatric institution in Moose Lake, Minnesota.

“He sent us a cat skin,” shudders Þór. “And a cassette of himself grunting. He also sent $50 towards his air fare, and we were to pay the rest for him to come to Iceland.”

“And $70 to Björk so she wouldn’t starve”, adds Einar. “We were very shocked by the cassette. I froze : if I ever heard Mark Chapman, this was it.”

So far, then, what appears to be a sort of inspired amateurism has served The Sugarcubes well in their dealings with the “professionalised” rock industry. Recently, for example, they were offered $20,000 for a four-second segment of their tune Fucking In Rhythm And Sorrow for a US TV commercial promoting a new line in clothes. They have replied by demanding twice that fee. “So far the haven’t responded !” laughs Einar.

“If The Sugarcubes continue getting mega-enormous, I’m going to buy the house next to Bono’s in Ireland,” he continues. “They have such good tax relief—we don’t have to go to Monaco. It’s like Ingmar Bergman ; he had to flee Sweden to Monaco because of taxes. But now he’s returned because he misses home ... but missing Sweden ?!?”

And their gameplan ? Competing in the sharkpool, they must surely seek heavyweight help soon.

“Basically nobody gives us advice,” protests Einar. “We just take it by logical steps.”

To what end ?

“To play to more people and sell more records but still at the same time, maintain our space, our freedom from not doing record signings or whatever, and doing gigs that we like. We don’t even have a manager yet. He was born on June 8, 1986—and when Sindri is 20 he’ll have seen everything and he’ll know how to do it. Meanwhile, we’ll be 45, just like The Rolling Stones ...”

publié dans Q Magazine - 01.11.1989

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