Confessions of an Art-Terrorist
Sveinn Birkir Björnsson
Published in Grapevine Issue 14, September 2007 http://www.grapevine.is/
Few Icelandic musicians remain as active as former Þeyr, KUKL and Sugarcubes drummer Sigtryggur Baldursson. Wherever two musicians come together to play music, it seems destined that he will join them soon to bang the drums. Sigtryggur has played with so many different acts that it is nearly impossible to keep track. A Grapevine journalist sat down with this productive musician and discussed his past, leading up to the Sugarcubes. At a later date, we will bring you another instalment, where we find out what happened post-Sugarcubes.
Let’s take it from the top. When did you start playing drums?
That’s a story to tell. From a young age, I was always interested in playing drums. My dad was a wannabe drummer and that interest was very contagious. I was always knocking beats on tables and things, so when I was 10 my dad gave me a snare drum. I didn’t play it much. I never thought there was much you could do with a single snare drum per se. When I was 12-years old, I went to the Faeroe Islands to play football with [football club] Breiðablik, and us kids saw a few bands play there at some local festival. We thought it was really cool and my good friend Birgir Mogensen, who later played bass with me in KUKL and other bands, decides that he is going to form a band. I didn’t really know him well at the time, we first became friends on that trip really, but he says he can play the guitar, and another guy said he could sing and someone else could play bass, and I told them I could play the drums. That impressed them. So, when I came back to Iceland, I either had to put up or shut up, but the problem was I didn’t even own a drum kit. I owned one snare drum. But a friend of the family had an old drum set that I could borrow and I started playing and sort of figured things out. By the time the rest of the guys came over for a visit a week later, I could play a few beats, so I was taken very seriously. Ever since then, I have mostly been faking it.
I guess Þeyr was the first band you were in that people really noticed, what led you there?
I was playing in a band with Birgir Mogensen called Hattimas for a while. But one summer I was working with National Forestry Service when I met Hilmar Agnarson, who later became a bass player for Þeyr, and I started playing with him and his friends and we formed Þeyr. I was 18-years old then, and I was listening to a lot of American music at the time. I had a little jazz bug, listened to some old be-bop, and tried to imitate drummers like Max Roach, although I don’t think I could play jazz to save my life. But there was a certain revolution in the years after 1980, when the British post-punk wave started, Joy Division, Killing Joke and Siouxsie and the Banshees and all those cool British bands. I was never much into punk, but the post-punk hit me right in the heart. Musically, it was so much more interesting. The punk was more raw expression, fast and loud.
Þeyr recorded something with Killing Joke if I remember correctly.
Yes, [singer] Jaz Coleman came to Iceland with [guitarist] Geordie, and they wanted to form a band here and Coleman wanted me to join them. [Reportedly, Killing Joke members were deeply immersed in the works of the occultist Aleister Crowley and relocated to Iceland in 1982 to survive the impending Apocalypse, predicted by Coleman from his reading of Crowley’s work. After a few months, when the Apocalypse failed to materialise, Killing Joke returned to the UK.]
That didn’t happen though?
No, I just didn’t trust him. He was obviously crazy. Although I was young and stupid, I was not that young and stupid. I just could not trust the guy. Not that Þeyr was a particularly trustworthy company either. Þeyr was a very strange band. Very creative, but a wonderfully dysfunctional family.
Þeyr has been rediscovered in a way lately. I’ve recently seen at least two polls I think, where Rúdolf [Þeyr’s biggest hit] was selected as the best Icelandic rock song.
Yes, this band’s original and creative and the songs have aged well. Better than a lot of other stuff from this era. We were experimental and tried new things. We always tried to push the limit. It is the old cliché really, being in the right place at the right time. This was a group of a few individuals who met under the right circumstances. We did not necessarily always get along too well, but creatively, we exploded. We, and people around us, had a lot of expectations for this band. We were going to be world famous in an instant, which was probably unrealistic, and the cooperation soured a bit when those expectations were not met. There was a lot of structure around the band; we created a corporation around the band along with others, called Eskvímó, to publish our music. The corporation took out loans for recording costs and touring costs, and everyone was sure the band would break through with a few shows in the UK. It was a house of cards really. When Þeyr didn’t become famous within one year, the whole house of cards came crumbling down, and all of a sudden we found ourselves in large debt. Mostly, this was just stupidity and inexperience at work. I was just 18 when this happened. Thinking back, we were colossally stupid, but it was also very creative.
But the band did come close to a break through.
Yes, we could have pursued this further. But there was a falling out between certain members of the organisation and after that, things kind of fell apart. Everyone went off in another direction.
Þeyr was a pretty political band, wasn’t it?
Well, yes, we were shooting our mouths off, each in their own way. Partly, it was just the atmosphere at the time. But many of the lyrics were great. There was a lot of anger. We came out of this post-punk wave where people were angry. But I have always said that I was never an angry young man. I was more into experimenting with music. I regarded myself as an artist. It was not until much later that I became political. But, I can’t say that I ever took this for a political band. We expressed a lot of different shit; it was open season on fascism and Margaret Thatcher, so yes there were some issues that we tried to deal with. But, let’s put it this way; our political consciousness was not very high. We yelled something, but I don’t think any one of us could have discussed our political opinions in a coherent manner. We were just provoking people and felt that it was our role to make people to realise their hypocrisy and numbness. Just like young people do.
When Þeyr broke up, you went on to join KUKL, or what?
Yes, KUKL was formed as a super group really. [The group consisted of Sigtryggur and Þeyr guitarist Guðlaugur Óttarson, Purkurr Pilnikk vocalist Einar Örn, Einar Melax, keyboard player from Medúsa, Singer Björk Guðmundsdóttir, from Tappi Tíkarass, and Sigtryggur’s old friend Birgir Mogensen, then with Spilafífl; Sigtryggur, Einar Örn, Einar Melax and Björk would go on to form the Sugarcubes]. It was actually formed to perform on the last episode of a groundbreaking radio show called Áfangar, which played creative and interesting music. The last episode was performed live and it was a big event. We were asked to collaborate for the show and we performed six songs, or pieces, as we called them. After that, we kept working together. Einar Örn was studying in England, so this was partly a long-distance collaboration, but this allowed him to create contacts in England that would later stretch beyond KUKL, such as Derek Birkett, from the punk band Flux of Pink Indians which KUKL later toured with. He would later established [the Sugarcubes and Björk’s] record label One Little Indian. Most of these people were connected to the label Crass Records. Crass was a very political punk label in the UK, formed by the band Crass, which an anarchist punk band. This was an institution of it self. They published a lot of anarchist reading material, magazines and books. It was a very energetic group. This was very hardcore.
So, there you are again, the artist, surrounded by politics.
Oh yes, But I never viewed KUKL as a political band. We were rather trying to make new music, something that we wanted to hear, but didn’t hear anywhere else. Our politics was more radical on a personal level. We were more of an artistic group than a political band. We wrote manifestos and published some reading material on leaflets, and speeches on science and so on. But I was just more involved with gluing up posters. I was more interested in the music, rather than the message. Of course, everything was about the message at the time. Everybody was on a mission, and we were on a mission to make revolutionary music, which we thought it was. When I listen to it today, it is very hardcore, it was a take no prisoners approach, we just stormed ahead. If we thought something sounded similar to something we had heard before, we would throw it out. We kept this work ethic when we later formed the Sugarcubes. When we formed the Sugarcubes, we were forming a band with a certain concept. The original concept was to make fun of pop music. Make pop music on our terms.
It must have been hell for the band then, when you suddenly became a world famous pop band?
Yes, in a way. We had been touring around the UK with KUKL, and played in Europe, and we managed to create some cult following in certain groups. We had been playing with [influential German industrial band] Einstürzende Neubauten and so on. That collaboration ended in 1986. Then we had been working with the Medúsa group, which was a band/artistic/poetry group, which KUKL’s Einar Melax was a part of, along with Þór Eldon, Sjón and others. People from these two groups met informally at Björk’s [and then partner] Þór Eldon’s house, and we started doing different things. One of the things we did was to form Bad Taste, which was supposed to be an umbrella company for all our other exploits – music and poetry, visual arts and literature, where we wanted to promote tasteless things. Music was by no means a priority for us. But we decided that it would be necessary to form a pop group to make some money to fund other operations of our art-terrorism company, because that is what we considered this to be, art-terrorism, aimed at common sense and tastefulness. But, soon after the Sugarcubes started to draw attention, we had to decide if we wanted to take this all the way as a band, and doing that on our own terms. It was always the main point, that we could do this on our own terms. Björk still runs her career based on that principle. But the ‘Cubes became famous, and that caused a completely new set of problems. I had to stop working and became a professional musician.
Photographs by Wim Van Hooste @ Idno @ Iceland Airwaves 2006