Vox

Still crazy after all these beers

With their third album Stick Around For Joy due for release, Icelandic national celebrities the Sugarcubes are set to bounce back. They might even give up their day jobs...


If it’s 4.30 on a Friday afternoon, it must be Reykjavík. Actually, it turns out to be Keflavík, 40 minutes away from Iceland’s capital city but the location of its airport. Travelling down the gritty highway which passes for the country’s M1, Sugarcubes guitarist Þór explains why the airport is so far away from civilisation.

“It was built originally by the Americans as a NATO base. They say there have never heen nuclear weapons there, but it is strategically very important. If there ever was a war Iceland would be target number one or two.” It’s the kind of ever-present death threat that explains why, despite the exorbitant price of drink, the lcelandic people imbibe so much. That and the fact that beer was only legalised in 1989 and they have a lot of catching up to do.

The Sugarcubes have their own kind of catching up to do, too. It’s been over two years since the release of their second album, Here Today Tomorrow Next Week. The title-paraphrasing a line from bass player Bragi’s favourite TV programme, Toad Of Toad Hall—was a statement of intent. Iceland’s most famous celebrities since Magnus Magnusson were going to be around for some time. The single ‘Birthday’ and the 1988 debut album Life’s Too Good had made them press darlings and alternative pop stars ; unfortunately the follow-up LP was panned. The band appeared to have outstayed their welcome and the formula-jarring guitars, tribal beats and cosmic vocals, a kind of B52s from Hell—had been wrung dry. But, just to prove everyone wrong, they have finally returned to reclaim the title of the maddest, funkiest group on twelve legs with their new album, Stick Around For Joy.

Having been dropped off at the hotel, we wait with press officer Gill for the band’s singer/rapper Einar to arrive. If vocalist Björk is the beauty of the band, Einar is the beast, the mad bugger with the trumpet who is as volatile as one of Iceland’s steamy geysers. Resembling a malevolent choirboy in biker boots and short hair, he suddenly appears in our room, swiftly renewing his acquaintance with the hotel mini-bar while arranging our evening’s entertainment.

Since the last album, and an epic tour of America with New Order and Public Image, the band have returned to Iceland and resumed their real jobs. Björk worked in an antique shop, guested on 808 State’s album Ex:el and recorded an MOR jazz record ; Þór and Bragi rekindled their successful careers as writers ; drummer Siggi and keyboard player Magga formed a cabaret duo, Caviare (who turn out to have a gig at our hotel the following night) ; finally Einar, having failed as a night-club bouncer because he was too small, became a media celebrity instead. Every night he hosts a radio show, but gets furious if you call him a DJ. “I don’t play records,” he glares, “I talk to people.” He is also preparing for a television appearance, in which he will make a speech demanding the return of the Icelandic Parliament to its original location.

Having thawed out, Einar announces he is going to take us to some of his favourite bars.

As we arrive at each hostelry, the same ritual takes place. Einar engages someone in conversation and awaits the round of drinks to be bought. This seems somewhat inconsiderate until it is my shout, and I discover that a pint of beer clocks in at a cool 5000 Krona, about £5. It immediately becomes apparent why most Icelandic adults have two jobs. It also explains why Þór calls Iceland ‘Hell’.

There is no doubt that the Sugarcubes are superstars over here. In one pub, known as the Glaumbar, there is even a portrait on the wall of Björk and Einar in a friendly clinch, which Einar is genuinely surprised to see. After a quick snifter of the local spirit, Brennivín (known affectionately as Black Death) we wander up a seedy alley into a postage stamp-sized club called Duus Hus. On the wall, there’s another picture of Björk and Einar, this time in performance. Seated in front of them is a figure looking remarkably like France’s President Mitterand. In fact, it is President Mitterand. The photo was taken in 1990 when the French leader visited Iceland. Einar takes up the story : “The French Minister of Culture, Jacques Lang, had asked to see some Icelandic music, so we were doing a gig for him and the Icelandic President. Apparently, Mitterand was supposed to be having dinner but, when he heard about the show, he said to his diplomats : ‘Fuck you, I’m going to the gig as well’.”

By now, Einar is starting to come out of his shell. There’s an argument with some underage drinkers when he lectures them on the evils of drinking and dressing in a manner which will end up with “old men wanting to have sex with them”. The anarchist is genuinely outraged by their lip gloss, but is equally pissed off by the fact that the 16-year-olds don’t recognise him. It’s an indication of how long the Sugarcubes have been inactive that, while older kids remain in awe, younger ones ignore them.

Eventually, Einar admits that if the band hadn’t had a break, they probably wouldn’t be here now. “We’ve always done other things, and when all this hullabaloo about the Sugarcubes started, we were 85 per cent doing our paid jobs and 15 per cent doing the Sugarcubes for fun. Then we became the Sugarcubes 100 percent for pay.” It has been a sequence of events that has been particularly taxing for Derek Birkett, the long-suffering head of the band’s label, One Little Indian. According to Birkett, the group are “Fucking impossible to deal with. I love what they are doing, but they are the only band I’ve ever worked with for whom the band isn’t the priority. That’s why they all went off and got jobs. We operate a profit-share, but when they made money they’d blow it in ridiculous ways. Like last year, when they brought out a poetry book which cost £8 to buy and £18 to produce.”

Now, Einar says, the band have been “getting balanced”. The Bad Taste arts offshoot formed to put out bad records and bad books has been temporarily shelved. Like Apple Records, it ploughed lots of money in and got nothing out. The days when the band felt rich—“when we could buy five pieces of toilet paper instead of one,” as a misty-eyed Einar recalls—are long gone.

Eventually I am introduced to Björk, who flits in and out of clubs like a miniature royal, with the rest of us trailing behind her silver jump suit. If the band had a pound for every time some besotted hack had referred to her elfin beauty, Björk would probably have enough money to buy a pint of the local brew by now. Yet there is no doubt her blanched, Eskimo looks make her stand out in a crowd. Björk’s life offstage is every bit as action-packed as her swirling and dramatic live shows. As she exclaims : “Everything must be done with passion. Dancing, fighting, fucking, eating. Yes ! I don’t get into many fights, I usually stop them. I was attacked by a dog, though, but that was self-defence.”

At one point during the evening, Björk insists on dragging me into a corner where she explains : “My heart is as big as this” and opens her arms as wide as possible. Gesturing to the people in front of us, she continues : “All these people are my sisters. I would die for them 25 times.” She doesn’t do that, though. What she does instead is an even more magnanimous gesture. She puts her credit card behind the bar and invites people to have a drink. For some reason, everything after this becomes a blur.

Saturday morning arrives at about noon, and it turns out that Hell has frozen over. Iceland is having its first snowfall of the year and, outside, the world is rapidly turning into picture-postcard land. While there is still some light, photographer Steve Double, myself and the six Cubes squeeze into two cars to take pictures. We cruise around looking for suitably Icelandic monuments to use as backdrops, eventually coming across a statue of Leifur Eiríksson. Contrary to popular belief, it was Eiríksson who discovered America 500 years before Columbus. While the rest of the band take swigs of Pernod for anti-freeze, Magga explains Eiriksson’s significance : “Oscar Wilde said the Icelanders are the most intelligent race in Europe, because they discovered America and kept quiet about it.”

America had its opportunity to discover these Icelanders when the Sugarcubes blazed a new-wave trail across the USA with New Order and Public Image in the summer of 1989. It was partly the problem of being on the road that led to the second album being both underwritten and over-produced. This is a band who like to work things out gradually rather than during the mayhem of touring, when they were too busy having fun to be creative. The US jaunt offered a brief respite from the celebrity overkill in England. Over there, everybody wanted a piece of New Order and John Lydon. “It was a great tour with no responsibility,” says Björk. “We only had to play every other day, and all we had to do was smile at John Lydon when he was puking.”

Despite initial misgivings, the band grew to like America. They even recorded Stick Around For Joy in Bearsville, upstate New York. From there, they mixed the album in Los Angeles. The result is a slick, punchy record that regains the jagged cohesion of the first album. You’ll be relieved to hear that the Sugarcubes haven’t sold their soul to dirty dance music. Ironically, the most jarring aspects of their album are the ones that take a step backwards. There’s scratching and sampling on the current single, ‘Hit’, and bovver-boy soccer chants on the thumpingly catchy ‘Vitamin’, and a track with the working title of ‘Saddam Hussein Playing Football On New Years Eve’.

Perplexed by the meaning of the album title, I look to Siggi for clarification : “When we were in Japan we played poker and we all had nicknames. I was Shark Fin, Björk was Skull Girl, Magga was Funky Squirrel, Þór was Jellyfish, Bragi was TV Personality. The names were taken from what we called Japanese Flu, when they speak English in advertising slogans like ‘have a coke and a smile’. Tokyo is full of drinks- dispensers and one is called ‘Drink Up-Enjoy Refreshing Time’. One night, when we were playing cards, I burped out the slogan ‘Stick around for joy’ when I had a bad hand.” It clearly stuck.

Saturday night in Reykjavík is party night. After eating a little and drinking a lot we trudge through the snow to an old furniture factory where a friend of the band, Óskar Jónasson, is having a house-warming party. Óskar is a convivial chap in rockabilly quiff and slippers who made the early Cubes’ videos and now makes films. Last year he studied with Mike Leigh at the National Film School and he has just finished his first movie about the Icelandic club scene, entitled Sodom, which features music by Björk, who is currently DJ’ing in the corner. This is clearly the place to be tonight. Unfortunately though, we have to move on. Siggi and Magga, alias easy-listening duo Caviare, are about to perform back at the hotel.

At the bar, we realised that everyone else has stayed at the party. The club is deserted except, as Siggi puts it, for “a couple of wayward boys and the people we gave free tickets to.” Like the archetypal drummer who is a frustrated front man, Siggi-decked out in tuxedo and rasping into a gold microphone—gives it some Icelandic welly. He drops to his knees during ‘Treat Me Like A Fool’ from Wild At Heart, partly out of emotion, partly because of the beer, then rallies for ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’, ‘Ain’t Misbehavin” and ‘It’s Now Or Never’. It’s a bizarre end to a bizarre two days. Caviare aren’t about to usurp the Sugarcubes in the popularity stakes, but they’ve earned £300 for an evening’s work. That’s enough to buy a round of beer for the band, and still have some money left for a toilet roll. But only just.

publié dans Vox - 01.02.1992

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