laugardagur, febrúar 17, 2007

The Sugarcubes in Nordic Sounds (1988)

The Sugarcubes

Jan Sneum

Nordic Sounds: 1988 - 03; pp 6-9

A rockband with a human face

In Iceland too, people interested in rock music celebrated the 70th birthday of the black nationalist leader Nelson Mandela on 17 July this year and on the stage in Reykjavik were Megas, Bubbi Morthens and Sykurmolarnir. Later in the same month, Megas and Bubbi Morthens were again on stage for "Atlavik '88" - the annual rock festival which is held in the country in East Iceland. Sykurmolanir were not there. They were on stage in Chicago, USA - as The Sugarcubes, the Icelandic rock band who, like another ugly duckling, rose from a position as a cult group for a minority to a jewel on the rock arenas of the world.

This change was most clearly marked when the British music weekly Melody Maker chose the group's recording of the song "Birthday" as "single of the week" in August 1987. The Sugarcubes had recorded the song themselves and issued it from their own recording company in Iceland. Nobody else would do it - then.

Today The Sugarcubes consist of singer Einar Örn Benediktsson, singer Björk Guðmundsdottir, guitarist Thor Eldon, bass player Bragi Ólafsson, keyboard player Margret Örnolfsdottir and drummer Sigtryggur Baldursson, each of whom has a separate background in music and in local rock history. Because the rock environment in Iceland is so small, it quickly became too restricting and forced everyone involved to become flexible and mobile. These conditions all help to explain the group's complex image and the many facets in its music, which have, for example, caused critics to describe the group's music as "evocative and great psychedelic rock".

As a group, The Sugarcubes are in many ways a wonderful result of the energy bomb which exploded amongst young people in Iceland when punk, after a couple of years of hesitation, finally took root in Reykjavik in the winter of 81/82. There was a great deal of hidden talent around, which at an explosive-rate, developed dynamically within music, painting and poetry, as documented in the film Rokk i Reykjavik, by director Freðrik Thór Freðriksson. Seen with contemporary eyes, in its mixture of staging and documentation, it is a unique document on part of Iceland's cultural history in relation to youth.

At that time, Björk Guðmundsdottir sang in the group Tappi Tikarrass, Pór Eldon was in Fan Houten's Kókó, Sigtryggur Baldursson was in Peyr and Einar Örn Benedikts-son and Bragi Olafsson were both in Purrkur Pillnikk. Einar Örn was also closely connected with Gramm - a newly started, independent record company in Reykjavik, which Einar Örn got off the ground in 1981 together with rock journalist Ásmundur Jónsson, who was then DJ on Icelandic radio's only channel. Here he played all the disturbing and progressive records from the small, new British punk and new rock companies. These records were not imported by the established record companies in Iceland, but were brought back from London by Einar Örn.

Einar Örn had at one time also acted as a kind of manager for troubadour Bubbi Morthens, but had begun to follow a course in media studies at the London Polytechnic and in London, he came into close contact with the new British rock environment and with names like The Fall, Crass, Killing Joe and Flux of Pink Indians. Both directly and indirectly, these names became important in the development of underground rock in Iceland in the 80s, particularly in the question of determination and discipline which are required to break through - and survive - in the world of rock. Cooperation with Flux of Pink Indians was particularly close as this was the dynamic stage personality with whom Einar Örn went on tour later and with whom The Sugar-cubes now work on the record label One Little Indian, which now represents The Sugarcubes in a number of countries. The current cooperation with the producer Ray Shulman who was once the bass player in the group Gentle Giant comes through these connections too.

Even though Rokk i Reykjavik was seen by many people in the cinemas and on Cable TV in Iceland, the new Icelandic rock milieu was not a bestseller locally. Many groups were dissolved, but from the ashes of the punk breakthrough which were still hot, new possibilities appeared. As the conclusion to a series of radio programmes on new rock, Ásmundur Jónsson and a colleague were allowed to set up a band of their own choice for a radio concert. This was in August 1983 and the groups they chose from were Purkurr Pillnikk, Tappi Tikarass and Theyr. This idea from the two broadcasters proved to be viable beyond a single concert and despite varying attitides on both a human and musical plane, the idea became KUKL.

Some people have said that this group was composed more of immediate chemical reactions than strategy and structure. At any rate, a great deal was left to the inspiration of the moment and the result was variable -from the unique moment in which energy, noise and melodic beauty resolved into a rare unity, to evenings in which the fractured chaos was absolute. But even at that time there were two things which were noticeable every time the group's music was played - the drummer and the voice of the female singer. Behind the drums was Sigtryggur Baldursson, who had once played jazz inspired fusion music with people who later became members of the group Mezzoforte. It is said of him that he was dismayed when he was persuaded at the time by the people in the old Peyr to play new "ugly" music. The female singer in KUKL was Björk Guðmundsdottir who had, in an Icelandic setting, an unusual upbringing in a hippie collective which was very interested in music. She made her first record in 1977, when she was 12 years old. When Björk joined KUKL, she was 18 and she too began to listen to the dynamic and imaginative drummer. Later in interviews, Björk told how she simply began to sing with the drums instead of with the guitar or the keyboard, when she became a member of the group. This personal style has been continued in The Sugarcubes, where Sigtryggur and Björk are still the first to be noticed - and where Sigtryggur now almost feels that it is embarrassing that he cannot hide how much he enjoys playing.

KUKL has been on tour twice in Europe. They played in cities such as Paris, Berlin and London, where Einar Örn - the group's mad adherent to his ideology - now lived. Even though the Icelandic telephone company let Einar Örn sing together with KUKL by satellite from London to the stage at home in Reykjavik, it was an impossible situation for the group to have its primus motor living abroad. It was too difficult to develop new material and after two LPs as KUKL, the group underwent a slow transformation to Sykumolarnir or The Sugacubes. The group's impetuous guitarist disappeared and the bass player later followed suit. Instead, first and foremost, Thór Eldon arrived.

He was a musician and a poet. He was most active in the group of surrealist artists who consorted with the publishing house Medusa in the Reykjavik suburb of Breiðholt. The publisher produced books with surrealistic prose and poetry, but even so, it was Thór Eldon who brought the pop dimension to KUKL. according to the Icelandic rock journalist Árni Matthiasson. who has covered the new rock environment in Iceland throughout the entire period for the country's largest newspaper "Morgunblaðið".

"Thór listened to pop music. He was not a pop fan, but he listened to pop - and that was something the others did not do. When Pór joined KUKL, he took this pop sensibility with him and I think that a great deal of the melodic in The Sugarcubes comes from thór. And The Sugarcubes today are KUKL with melodies".

KUKL had not been a commercial success for Gramm, and when The Sugarcubes had become a reality in the summer of 1986, Gramm had changed to being a limited company with a board of directors. Ásmundur was still director, but he did not have the power to issue records entirely according to his personal taste, and when Einar Örn and The Sugarcubes wanted to record for Gramm, the board said no. They were now concentrating on Megas and Bubbi Mor-thens and did not want to become involved in further recordings of non-commercial music which made a loss.

This was what led to The Sugarcubes starting by themselves and the result was the recording company "Smekkleysa s.m." - tasteless sadomasochists". The name held friendly but ironical overtones for the local media who regarded KUKL and The Sugarcubes as the result of bad taste on the part of mad youths. The first "tasteless production" was a postcard which the group issued in connection with the summit meeting in Reykjavik in October 1986. Later the same year, the group's first single "Ammæli" was issued - the record which became "Birthday" in English in 1987 and the group's first record in the British independent charts. On the surface, it is a pretty, sweet birthday song about a little girl, but it has an undercurrent of perversion and violence towards children, like some of the group's other songs, which oscillate between the "horrible" and the "nice" and between rubbing us up the right or the wrong way.

Now that the group's first LP, Life's too good, is on its way up the American hit lists, the group still stick to their own Smekkleysa in Iceland. Gramm is now only their dealer and distributor, and perhaps the board of directors, who would not offer the 200,000 Icelandic kroner necessary two years ago to secure The Sugarcubes, are thinking their own thoughts now.

But for The Sugarcubes, music has never been a question of money or of being a hit. Their main aim has been an artistic freedom to express themselves as and how they wanted to. When all sorts of record companies appeared in Reykjavik last autumn to get their hands on the golden goose from Iceland, they were greatly surprised when the group decided to remain where they were, with their own company. Even for 650,000 English pounds, which the group was offered by Samantha Fox's British record company Jive, they would not risk seeing The Sugarcubes turned into a backing group for Björk "posing in the nude on the album cover", as Árni Matthiasson put it. A declaration from a programme in the days of KUKL is still valid for The Sugarcubes:

"Our aim is to work for the betterment of humanity through our music. We feel that music is one of the strongest media that you can have access to in the Western world and as money is not our game, we rely on the inherent power of our group".

Even though The Sugarcubes has become a rock group with an international public, it is still anchored in Iceland and in Icelandic culture. Texts are still written in Icelandic, many of which are translated into English for recordings and for concerts abroad, but the group has also given concerts in England, for example, with the Icelandic texts and a commentary from the stage. Here too they keep to their convictions from the days of KUKL, when Einar Örn said: "If we look at the places in which we have played, then we are an international group. But our inspiration comes from Iceland and the fact that we come from Iceland is the most important thing for us to know".

A great deal has changed for The Sugarcubes in Iceland now. In one of the record shops in the shopping mall in Reykjavik - the shop which has the slogan "A country should be built with sound" hanging in its window -The Sugarcubes first LP is placed high up on the local sales list, but only a year ago, the record was not even played on the new commercial radio stations in Iceland. Stjarnan, which is the biggest private radio station today, refused point blank to play any of the group's records until they made their breakthrough in Britain.

"I remember last year - in February '87, when The Sugar-cubes were playing at the Hotel Borg here in Reykjavik", says Árni Matthiasson. There was one reporter and one photographer - and that was me with my photographer. Then in August of the same year when "Birthday" had been chosen as "single of the week", the group were playing at the Hotel Island and then there were 17 photographers and I don't know how many reporters. No, they were not known here until they made their name in Britain. Nobody listened to them and I was often accused of being crazy, because I wrote so much about them in the newspaper. I received a great many letters from readers who could not understand why I wrote about The Sugarcubes. They were only for punks. And this was even after the group had begun to play real tunes".

In the summer of 1988, just before The Sugarcubes began their first tour of the States, a journalist from the American magazine Rolling Stone came to Iceland to track down the environment from which the group had grown. One of his last questions was of course: "What will happen to Icelandic rock music after the success of The Sugarcubes? Would A&R men come from all over the world to "lift" the next band on to the international market?". To that question, Ásmundur Jónsson asked another: "Did anything happen to Icelandic literature on an international scale after Halldor Laxness was awarded the Nobel prize for literatur in 1955? Seen with local eyes, the most important thing right now is that The Sugarcubes have proved that it is possible to make a name for oneself in the international rock world as an Icelandic rock band and without making compromises".

There is no doubt, however, that The Sugarcubes have left a vacuum in the Icelandic rock environment, even though many new groups have started up. None of them has the originality and intensity in their musical makeup that The Sugarcubes has. The group knows this, but they also know that, if the milieu is not to disappear, those who have hard earned experience must help to support those who are on their way. As part of The Sugarcubes artistic, non-commercial attitude, the members of the group have not turned their international success into big cars and houses - neither in London nor in Reykjavik. Instead, they have decided to keep alternative culture in Iceland going - having a crystal clear memory of almost ten years of hard work by themselves in order to reach from a basement in Reykjavik to the front page of Melody Maker.

The group's record company Smekkleysa is developing into an alternative cultural centre, which seriously emphasises the breadth of expression there was in the environment from which the members of The Sugarcubes grew. In addition to records with the group itself, Smekkleysa has issued records with new, young and different local groups such as Ham, Bleiku Bastarnir, Sogblettir and Langi Seli & Skuggarnir. They have plans to open a radio station, too, one which will play noncommercial music, which none of the established, state owned or private stations will play.

They are active in book publishing too. Next year, a small box with the book "Kráarljodin" (Pub poems) was published, consisting of poems by Pór El-don, Bragi Olasson, Einar Örn, Einar Melax and Sjón (alias Johnny Triumph), all of whom are or have been part of KUKL or The Sugarcubes and all of whom, like Björk Guðmunds-dottir have previously published books and poems privately, through Medusa or Smekkleysa. "Life's too good" is the title of the group's first LP - with the clear anti-drug postscript "to be wasted". The Sugarcubes are not wasting time, but as Einar Örn said to Rolling Stone Magazine: "We stick to our guns until the ammunition is over". But this does not mean that they are riding forward on the wave of success without thinking of their hinterland. On the contrary. Their contacts with Iceland, the Icelandic language and culture are the anchor which ensures that The Sugarcubes keep their feet on the ground, even on a tour to the starry heights of the rock world. Einar Örn's remarks from the days with KUKL even begin to ring true: "As to the future we don't have any five year plans - although in a sense, we feel we have been booked for eternity".


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