Back in the summer of 2002 I went to Iceland for a vacation. It’s a little off the beaten track, but if you want to get out in wide open spaces where there aren’t many people and the landscapes are completely eye-popping, it’s a pretty great place.
Sitting just below the Arctic Circle on the mid-Atlantic rift, Iceland has one significant city, the capital of Reykjavik. There are about 300,000 people there. The next biggest town I visited, Akureyri, has something like 12,000. Not the sort of environment one expects to breed huge amounts of great rock and roll bands.
So I was a bit skeptical when on the flight there I read an article in the Icelandic Airlines in flight magazine touting an Icelandic band called Singapore Sling. But the description did seem interesting and the author of the article seemed to have some idea about good bands, so I filed this tidbit away for later. On landing, we got our rental car and launched off to wild places, so it would be two weeks before we made it back around to Reykjavik, where I had a couple hours to look into musical doings. By then I’d forgotten the name of the band, but on a chance I asked in a record store if they had anything by that band in the airline magazine. And the clerk produced a copy of The Curse Of Singapore Sling. Which became probably my second favorite disc of the year, right behind the New Christs’ We Got This.
In June of this year I happened to check the web to see if Curse could be bought on line. To my surprise, I found that the Stinky label was about to release it stateside, and what’s more that the band was touring the US and would be in my town of San Diego in a week, opening for the Raveonettes. Big T staffer Greg Sahagian had been bugging me to go see the Raveonettes already, so we arranged an interview.
Singapore Sling’s music is dark brooding stuff, with repetitive and droning riffs overlayed by squalling solos and Henrik Björnsson’s deadpan vocals. Their two tracks “Listen” and “Overdriver” are just stunners, building their simple riffs into huge crescendos. Usually there’s a percussive shaking of rattles adding a sense of tension to each song. In the limited press coverage they’ve received, they’ve been compared to the Jesus and Mary Chain, Swervedriver, My Bloody Valentine and the whole shoegazing scene. I’m no expert on those groups, but to me Singapore Sling has their own unique approach.
“I don’t get that shoe gazing comparison. People always compare us to a band called Swervedriver. But I’ve never heard their stuff”, said Henrik. When Greg affirmed the validity of the pairing, he responds with, “Well I’ve got to hear Swervedriver. They must be a good band.” Nothing if not confident!
But when I suggested that “Overdriver” reminded me more of the Cramps doing “Drug Train” or “Garbageman”, especially with its white noise feedback solos, Henrik became enthusiastic. “I love that Cramps, so that’s good. Yeah, a lot of people talk about Jesus and Mary Chain and stuff like that. And of course, we love those bands.”
Of his band’s American experiences thus far he has this to say: “We came here as a band for the first time last March. We played at South by Southwest. And we also played in New York – four gigs.” The reactions have been mostly pretty good, but Henrik is no fool when it comes to appraising post gig reactions. “The people that don’t like it, they’re not coming up afterwards. The people that hate us stay away.”
Asked for a quick history, he summarizes: “The band was formed probably around 2000. I had these four track recordings that I’d made myself, and I wanted to make a band, so I played the tape to Einar here (guitarist Einar Kristjansson, sitting next to him), and we decided to get some people together and form a band. But for a year we had a lot of line up changes, but this line up has been together for about two years.”
Singapore Sling is Henrik’s first serious band – previously he was in an instrumental surf and rockabilly band that released a 7” single. Einar had more substantial experience. But that still counts for only a little for a band coming to the US from Iceland. Ask Henrik what kind of opportunities there are to play in Iceland, and he has a single syllable for you. “One.” One? “Yeah, there’s like one place we play. There aren’t any other places that a band like us can play. We had never played outside of Reykjavik until we played in Austin. That was the first city outside of Reykjavik! We loved it in Austin.”
I asked about what other bands with similar sympathies existed in Iceland – I’d found good CDs of really adventurous rock and roll by the bands Botnledja and Stjornukisi and wondered if there were others. “We used to share a rehearsal room with Stjornukisi. And there’s two others that we like a lot. One of them is called Apparat Organ Quartet, which is very cool. And I think you reviewed the Trabant album, but you didn’t like that one very much. The Botnledja CD that you reviewed is actually an older record, though. They’ve made quite a few records since that one.”
In response to a question about labels for indie bands, Henrik replied, “Well the situation at the moment is terrible.” And Einar continued, “Yeah, there’s only one steady going indie label, called Bad Taste. That’s been going for a while. And then there’s Thule, but that’s shakey now. And then the label we were on called Edda. They started one and a half years ago, but now they are having trouble. So there’s not much good.”
Greg wondered if kids in Iceland got more exposure to music from America or Europe, and if there was much access to underground music. “It’s more Europe”, says Einar, who should know since he works in the record shop in Reykjavik where I bought the Singapore Sling CD. “The records from the US are imported – they get distributed to Europe and then brought into Iceland. When we were teenagers we could come across (underground) stuff. And we could order it. I used to order things. Because of the population, the stores can’t have as many different records in stock.”
“It’s easy to get new CDs”, said Henrik, “But if you want to dig for something old, like rockabilly records or sixties garage or something like that, it’s not so easy.”
Greg suggested that a band in that situation would be more likely to come up with a more unique sound because there had to be more from themselves and less from aping other bands, but Einar didn’t think there was a special growth path in his country. “I think we have both”, he said. “It’s probably like that everywhere, but there’s so much more bands here and probably there are just a few bands that are original and doing good stuff.”
One of the coolest songs on The Curse Of Singapore Sling is a total deconstruction of The Standells 1966 hit “Dirty Water”. The Singapore Sling version of it is more than a cover, it’s a complete re-making of the song into a droning, roaring, noisy beast. Says Henrik: “Basically I had wanted to cover one of their songs called “Medication”, but never got around to doing that. And I was playing around with this riff – this guitar riff and a drum machine. And I started singing the “Dirty Water” melody and the words on top of it. And it made sense, so we made a song of it. It’s completely different – I mean the riff is very different, but still the kind of melody and stuff is the same.”
“It was just an idea. Why have covered other songs. We covered “Evil Voodoo” by The Seeds. But it seemed so cool to change the song the way we did – to use a completely different riff but still use the same melody. It seemed like a good idea.”
Considering the odds, Singapore Sling have been incredibly lucky up to now, getting a label deal in the US, getting tour support to come over to the US, and now getting money for a next album. Says Einar: “Basically a guy came to an Iceland festival and he was into the band. And when the CD was out in Iceland he asked us to send him a few copies and he gave them away to people who might like it. And one of them ended up with our label.”
The label, Stinky Records, organized a nationwide US tour for the band running for nearly two months. At the time of our interview, the end of the tour was approaching and though the band had enjoyed it, they were looking forward to its conclusion. Said Henrik: “We can’t wait to travel back to New York. We’re in a tiny van.” A six man band plus tour manager and equipment all in a single van, scheduled to play one last gig in Tucson and then drive straight to New York in four days. Ghastly!
“We drove from Denver to Los Angeles”, said Henrik. “That was a really good drive. I got behind the wheel myself in Utah. It was amazing, like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Weird shaped mountains. Now we drive back, and it’s the same stuff again, but now we are really tired and sick of driving. We’ll try to take a sleeping pill and sleep through it all.”
Favorite place of the tour? “Probably the French Cottage in LA”, says Henrik. “It’s a really sleazy hotel on Sunset Strip. We played two gigs in LA. In a really nice theatre. Before the tour I wasn’t really that interested in LA, but when I got there, it just seemed really, really cool. I was surprised. There was something about LA that I really liked. Hollywood – it was just good.”
“And of course, New York – we loved that. But it’s hard. Chicago seemed like a really nice city, too. But we just drive, get to the venue, soundcheck, stay at the bar, drink, play, and go to the next city. I’d have really liked to see San Francisco. But we’re not on a holiday, so I’m not complaining.”
“It’s funny, when we played the first gig with the Raveonettes, and we saw their tour bus, this giant silver colored thing, and all these people around them tuning their guitars and sound checking for them. Just such a big battery behind them. We felt like, wow! How small we are. It’s funny to watch. They don’t even have to show up to do a sound check.”
“In LA, they sold out, the Raveonettes. So it must be very different between cities for bands. In certain cities the show will be sold out, and you go to some other city and six people will come. It’s a weird country that way.”
As for the future, “We’re planning on recording the next album in the fall or winter. Before the end of the year. We probably will record it in New York. And hopefully the album will be out in early spring.” Given that The Curse Of Singapore Sling was recorded over a year ago and their live show included four new songs, all of which sounded really good, it seems like the band should be primed for another corker.
Says Henrik, “The songs that we are playing live now that are new won’t necessarily wind up on the next record. We always have songs that are on the record that we don’t play live, and we have songs that we play live that won’t get on the record. It’s just that some songs are better live than recorded. And also there are two songs on the album that we never play live because they just don’t work out. One has a piano and two separate organs, and if I take any of those elements away the song isn’t as good.” Talking about possible new directions, Einar adds, “There’s some of the same tendencies, but for us there’s always some development, too.”