ON THE ROCKS - a quick dive into the popular music of Iceland
Nordic Sounds 1998 - 01; pp 23 - 27
Although the Icelandic government relies heavily on classical music, opera and choirs, there are other more independent parts of the soundscape of Iceland that arouse the attention of the outside world.
The Sugarcubes, and in particular the singer Björk, have proved to be immensely important in placing Iceland on the map as an exciting source of exotic music. So it seems quite natural to start this little sightseeing tour of Icelandic popular music in the environment out of which the careers of these artists grew.
Idealism and Bad Taste
In 1986 a small group of young creative artists joined forces and formed the highly 'alternative' independent company Smekkleysa, or Bad Taste, as it is called in the international context. The aim of the company was nothing less than "world domination or death", and its main way of achieving it was to release everything that nobody else considered worth releasing. Smekkleysa thus wanted to make a statement about the cultural life and politics of Iceland, which in their eyes were far too conservative and restrained the modern impulses in Icelandic art.
It would soon prove that the spearhead of the company was the pop group Sykurmolarnir, and the first single they released was actually financed by the income from a postcard made by one of the Bad Taste graphic artists. The postcard was an alternative, rather tasteless portrayal of the summit meeting between Reagan and Gorbachev in Reykjavik in 1986, and it was an unexpected sales success. The single, however, did not do all that well. It was more or less ignored by Icelanders because of its content, which challenged the standard impression of pop music mainly given by the commercial pop charts broadcast by American radio stations.
The few people to get hold of a copy of this single included the small independent record label One Little Indian in England. They contacted the group and asked them to record the songs again in English. The single was successfully re-released in 1987 under the title Birthday - an irresistible indie-pop classic which would pave the way for the career of the group - with its name now translated to The Sugarcubes.
Back to basics
The Sugarcubes released three albums in 1988-92: the worldwide hit debut album Life's too Good, full of pop songs expressing strange moods; the less accessible follow-up Here Today Tomorrow Next Week; and the dark, yet rather poppish last album, entitled Stick Around for Joy. During these years Smekkleysa had dedicated almost all its efforts to following up on The Sugarcubes. In 1992 the Cubes split up and the company returned to doing what it was originally supposed to: producing and distributing bad taste. Initially the concept was meant to cover the members of Smekkleysa and their production of graphic art, poetry, books, films and music.
By 1992 the company had expanded its range of activities by starting an international mail order servieknown of course simply as Bad Taste. At the same time they started distributing independent artists from outside the company, which meant lots of other video and CD tides and an exciting Internet senice aimed at a world-wide audience.
The ex-singer of The Sugarcubes, Björk Gudmundsdottir, has been thoroughly presented in this magazine and in the media all over Europe, and should by this time need no further introduction. The following section will therefore sum up the post-Sugarcubes careers of the other members, since they are almost unknown to the outside world.
The guitarist Thor Eldon, the father of Björk's son Sindri, started another pop group called UNUN along with the singer Heida and a tunesmith who calls himself Dr. Gunni. Unun is the post-Sugarcubes project that is most reminiscent of the Sugarcubes themselves, though it never sounds quite as fresh. Even so, the international debut album Supershiny Dreams should appeal to pop-lovers with its light-hearted content.
The vocalist and trumpeter Einar Örn grew a bit tired of the music scene in Iceland after jumping from band to band after the late seventies. During this period he also played a leading role in the establishment of two record labels for alternative music: Gramm Records and then, as mentioned above, Smekkleysa. After two years of silence he made some brief contributions to records by other artists: first on Landsyn, a record released by the bassist Tomas R. Einarsson - a central figure on the Icelandic jazz scene - then some trumpet work on the track Enjoy on Björk's second album Post.
The bassist Bragi Olafsson put away his bass to concentrate on his family and work, but he is still involved in the administration of Smekkleysa. Along with Eldon and Örn he also supplies a constant flow of Icelandic 'beat poetry', published in limited editions (sometimes as limited as ten copies!).
Margret Örnolfsdottir left The Sugarcubes after their second record, and started making music programmes for children on one of the two TV networks in Iceland. In 1995 she also made the music for the film Einkalif - the soundtrack music was later released on Smekkleysa.
The most exciting and successful post-Sugarcubes career - with the exception of Björk's - is that of drummer Sigtryggur Baldursson. Under the name Bogomil Font he has apparently got hold of a microphone and today performs as both singer and drummer on his records. Bogomil Font has had a reasonable amount of success in the USA and in the Benelux countries, where he has also been doing small club tours. His best-selling record so far is the 1995 release Ut og Sudur, a collection of Kurt Weill standards sung in English and Icelandic.
As Björk is still one of the founding members of Smekkleysa, the company gets the income from the sale of her records in Iceland. In 1993 her first solo album Debut was released, and soon it started busting pop charts all over Europe. The unexpectedly high income that followed (from a final breakthrough in Iceland too) was to test the idealism of the administrators of Smekkleysa.
Bragi Olafsson explains: "At the end of 1993 we suddenly woke up and found that earnings from Smekkleysa had turned positive. It was a nightmare, so we immediately started working to get the figures back to normal!"
The following year Smekkleysa released 14 CDs, as opposed to their normal two-to-four. And at the end of 1994 the result was that they were -not surprisingly - in the red again.
As mentioned earlier, Smekkleysa has started distributing other Icelandic bands that operate outside the company. To some extent they are rereleases of semi-legendary punk bands like Purkurr Pillnikk, HAM and Utangardsmenn; but there are also younger, more promising acts. Two such groups are Maus and the one-man-project Curver, both exponents of loud guitar rock. But when it comes to this type of music the most appealing group has turned out to be Bellatrix from Keflavik. Their music is full of out-of-tune guitars and vocals, their rhythm is not all that steady and the sound production is very low budget and raw. Even so, the band gets across a selection of lightweight pop/rock tunes based on beautiful, sometimes hypnotic melodies. Bellatrix have released three records in Icelandic, as well as a sample CD called Stranger Tales - a selection of their songs in both Icelandic and English.
The reader must remember that Iceland only has about 260,000 inhabitants. This means that the record market has its obvious limitations in terms of sales, but on the other hand these limitations lead to some quite charming definitions of what a 'bestseller' is: a record goes gold when sales pass the 5000 mark, and when it goes beyond 10,000 it qualifies for platinum.
The artists who break this limit annually can be counted on the fingers of one hand - or less. Björk and Bogomil Font are two of them. A third artist to go platinum on a regular basis is the veteran rocker Bubbi Morthens, with a past in the Icelandic punk pioneers Utangardsmenn. Bubbi has an appeal for Icelanders very much like that of Ulf Lundell in Sweden and Åge Aleksandersen in Norway, though any further musical comparisons would be unfair. His image is considered a bit rougher, but he has fans of all ages.
Another popular best-seller is the guitarist K.K. His platinum-winning album Gledifolkid (1995) presents classic, down-to-earth guitar rock with hints of folk music. K.K. has also been known to perform on the streets of the capitals of the Nordic countries (look for a pair of glasses like Buddy Holly's!).
Platinum-selling records are often 'sure bets', featuring international hits played by Icelandic artists. Two such artists are Emiliana Torrini and Páll Oskar. Torrini's release Croucie d'où là is an impressive display of a good voice, but the content, standard pop and numbers from musicals, grows rather anonymous with its lack of a unifying personality. Páll Oskar's record Pálli (1995) has far more personality and humour in its treatment of a selection of disco and 'Latin' classics. The repertoire includes heart-felt performances of easy-listening or pop hits from the likes of Burt Bacharach and Kate Bush, as well as an Icelandic version of An Angel is in Love from Roger Vadim's cult movie Barbarella. In other words, a lot of good music for playing in elevators.
Punk has been popular ever since it reached Iceland in 1979 - two years overdue, compared with the rest of Europe. This, combined with the revitalization of the punk genre by the so-called 'grunge' wave of Seattle in 1991, has led to the continued existence of between two and three hundred punk rock bands shouting their rage from the cellars of Reykjavik. The quality of performance varies a lot, and most bands never get to play live, far less to record an album.
Saktmodigur and Botnledja have both released their own CDs, and the latter group in particular has done its best to uphold the unwritten laws of punk with its album, Drullumall (1995). The album features twelve straightforward songs lasting a total of 29 minutes, and all recorded within a period of 25 hours. Their follow-up Fólk er Fífl (1996) has made them the most popular live act in Iceland today.
The two tunesmiths in Slowblow are far quieter, both in their music and public appearances. After releasing the minimalistic lo-fi classic Quicksilver Tuna in 1994, the duo disappeared until they released their next, equally critically-acclaimed CD Sousqui in 1996. Quicksilver Tuna is today one of the best-selling Icelandic records outside Iceland.
The techno/ambient scene is best entitled to the label 'underground': there are only about 20 or 30 people who make this kind of music in Iceland.
Two of the essential figures worked together under the name T-World until they teamed up with a short-film crew and made 76 minutes of music for the 15-minute short Nautn. The group, film and album were all given the name GusGus when released in 1995, but a shorter version of the album was re-issued in April 1997 under the title Polydistortion. This time it was ensured world-wide distribution through the independent English record label 4AD.
Before the Sugarcubes burst on the scene in 1988 the fusion band Mezzoforte was the best known musical export from Iceland, yet they are not typical of the Icelandic jazz scene. In general the jazz field has attracted very few musicians. The only institution to offer jazz courses, the music school F. I. H in Reykjavík, has estimated the number at approximately 70. There are of course also amateurs, but Icelandic jazz is still limited in quantity if not in quality.
American standard-based jazz is quite popular, and the bassist Tomas R. Einarsson is one of the veterans in this area. He has released a lot of albums, both in his own name and as part of other configurations. The 1994 release Landsyn is a musical and lyrical ode to Iceland, where he gathers a selection of Iceland's finest musicians and poets. It is quite good, but a bit harmless.
The young guitarist Hilmar Jensson is far more progressive in his approach on his promising debut album Dofinn, released in 1995. It was recorded in the USA by Icelandic and American musicians, and consists of seven explorations of free jazz, with hints of ambient music - obviously the kind of music that has a hard time in Iceland.
There have been some attempts to establish jazz clubs in Reykjavík, unfortunately with little success. Live jazz fares better when presented in combination with other genres like blues and rock, or as easy-listening piano pieces in restaurants.
Other jazz personalities worth checking out are the drummer Papa Jazz and the pioneering sax player Gunnar Ormslev.
If you want to experience quality live music when visiting Iceland, you are better off if you prefer classical or choral music. Pop music has the highest quantitative exposure, but the quality is greatly influenced by the shortage of suitable live venues for pop and rock. This is one of the reasons why 'troubadours' are quite common: they do not need much space, and they are always prepared to present plenty of popular songs for party-happy Icelanders.
One venue particularly well known for presenting live music almost every night is the pub Gaukur á Stöng in the centre of Reykjavík. The bands that play there vary greatly in repertoire: you can listen to loud rock one night and Swedish dance music the next. Other more alternative but still popular venues in Reykjavík are Rósínbergskjallkarín and Tetriz - the former most visited by promising guitar bands, and the latter presenting up-to-date dance music, rap and DJs.
Importing live aas is a rather expensive activity and tempts very few Icelanders because of the financial risks. As a solution they get DJs from Europe, especially from Britain, instead. The costs are low because most DJs travel alone, and they do not need much equipment. Bands are usually only imported for bigger events like festivals. The Reykjavík Arts Festival is the one that has been best at getting famous names, for instance Led Zeppelin, to perform in Iceland.
A group of young men surrounding the small record shop Hljomalind in Reykjavík have spent their spare time getting various Nordic bands like 22 Pistepirkko from Finland and The Cardigans from Sweden to do concerts or small tours in the Reykjavík area. They have also been pioneers in getting a stream of British DJs to perform in various clubs. A top act that has performed in Iceland several times is The Prodigy. They were once actually able to gather 6000 Icelanders for a giant party. But according to Kari Sturlusson, one of the Hljomalind impresarios, their biggest kick was to get the pop aesthetes Saint Etienne to perform in Reykjavík in 1994:
"We sent an invitation, not really expecting to get an answer at all - it's far too expensive to come here, not to mention to tour the country. They answered yes just fourteen days in advance, and suddenly we were in the position of arranging an expensive concert at short notice. We didn't even have a proper venue, and Saint Etienne isn't exactly the most popular band in Iceland. So we hired a hangar in the dock area of Reykjavík, and then started drumming up absurd amounts of publicity on the radio, making sure Iceland would know about the existence of Saint Etienne, and that they were coming here. 3000 people showed up. Not a lot by European standards, but in Iceland that's actually one per cent of the population!"
Life's too Good (One Little Indian tplp5)
Stick Around for Joy (One Little Indian tplp30CD)
Debut (One Little Indian)
Ut og Sudur - Bogomil Font Syngur Tonlist Kurts Weill (Smekkleysa 60)
Stranger Tales (Smekkleysa BT002CD)
Quicksilver Tuna (Smekkleysa)
Pállii (JAPIS pop.001)
GusGus (Skifan Gus001)
Polydistortion (4AD DAD 7005CD)
Fólk er Fífl (1996)
Sousqui (Bad Taste -1996)