laugardagur, september 29, 2007
Siggi strikes again - The Grapevine Interview Part two
Confessions of an Art-Terrorist, Part II
Sveinn Birkir Björnsson
Published in Grapevine Magazine Issue 15, September 2007
Few Icelandic musicians remain as active as former Þeyr, KUKL and Sugarcubes drummer Sigtryggur Baldursson. Last issue, Sigtryggur talked a Grapevine journalist through his career up to and including the Sugarcubes.
This week, we find out what happened after the Sugarcubes disbanded.
I remember being in Austria as a small kid, probably in 1988, and I saw the cover of the album Birthday by the Sugarcubes in a storefront window in Vienna. For me it was probably the first manifestation that someone from Iceland could actually become world famous, and that you [The Sugarcubes] had probably done it. It was a strange feeling It was for us as well. Very surrealistic. But still, we were such a strong group, and we had our own philosophy, which helped us a lot. We were pretty determined when it came to negotiating with companies; obviously we were working with a very good man in England, Derek Birkett [founder, One Little Indian], who had similar ethics when it came to negotiating with major labels and distribution companies: just take them as far as you can. The tougher you are in negotiations, the more they will respect you. So, we were able to negotiate for creative control over our work, which was uncommon in those days. We could just make music the way we wanted. Obviously, the pressure on us was subliminal, and eventually it all became a game between the record industry and us. There is always the pressure to take it to the next level, that the next record should sell more than the previous one, all that bullshit. Suddenly we found ourselves listening to lectures on marketing in America, which we had no interest in. This was all pretty surreal. But we tried to laugh it up, for a long time. The cleverness of what we decided could probably be debated in some cases, obviously we learned a lot. This industry is based on advances. You get an advance on your publishing; you get an advance from the label to make your next album, and so on. You better not take that money and spend it on houses and cars, cause then you have no money to make the record. But we didn’t necessarily realise that, so when we quit we didn’t have a god damn cent. That was a lesson.
The Sugarcubes disbanded in 1992, shortly after the release of Stick Around For Joy, but since then you have kept quite busy. I would almost go so far to say that two musicians could hardly come together with out you joining them on drums.
Heh, well, it is not that serious. I’ve been a part of many projects. Most notably probably is this crooner, the Bogomil Font character that I have maintained. He is a lounge lizard, and a mambo dude. It started as a joke really. It was a part of the art-terrorism concept surrounding Bad Taste Ltd.. Probably the last art-terrorism project we did was Kormákur B’s Jazz Band, which was intended to be a 14-15 people jazz band that knew nothing about playing jazz. It was made out of rock musicians around our own label [Bad Taste] but it was more like a theatre, so every one dressed up in fine clothing and played their own character and then we went on stage and absolutely slaughtered these famous jazz songs. But it was still sort of charming, beautiful kind of ugly really. This was an idea from [former Sugarcubes bass player] Bragi Ólafsson actually, and it was a lot of fun, probably the last big project we did as a group together. Anyway, the concept was that you gather a lot of interesting people and each one of them gets to create their own character to play, then we rehearse some songs, only not too much, and eventually we would play these large dance halls like Hótel Borg. That’s when Bogomil Font came about He was this crooner, with a huge Bulgarian moustache. Later, after the Sugarcubes disbanded, I was broke and needed money, so I thought I would form a small pub-band with some friends. First, I asked Bragi Ólafsson if we should put together a mini-version of Kormákur B’s Jazz Band so we could afford some food. He told me he had given up on music and had decided to become a writer instead. But he told me to gather some people who knew how to play and create a mambo band, which I did, more as a joke really. But then it became a runaway hit in 1992. I had never intended to be a ball king in Iceland, so when my wife told me she wanted to go study in the US in ’93, I was just pleased to leave this behind. But since then, I have always tried to joke a little with this theatrical character Bogomil, and I revive him every now and then to earn me some money, although it has nothing to do with creative integrity when it comes to music. Obviously, he only sings cover version, jazz and mambo, something that is just fun to croon. But the strange twist is that people always want to pay money to listen to him, but when I try to do something creative, like [percussion duo] Steintryggur, that is an uphill battle all the way. But luckily, I still have a humour for this.
So, again, like the Sugarcubes, this starts out as an art-terrorism project, that becomes hugely successful.
So, is it entirely possible for you to be a successful art-terrorist?
No, you just have to keep the teeth sharp. It helped me a lot when the band Flís approached Bogomil to do a calypso record with them. That allowed me to revive this concept with him, to do a calypso record with sharp, straight cutting lyrics. I was getting a little tired of being stuck in this family entertainer role. Even if I had humour for it, and it created money, it still needs a blood transfusion every now and then to stay fun. The record Bogomil made with Flís is a cross-over. I am not singing Fly Me To The Moon anymore. We wrote our own lyrics, and that changed the whole concept. It became a bit political, calypso music is so much fun, it is very jolly music, but it always has this political undercurrent and very sharp lyrics. That’s where I found a new path for Bogomil, and was able to do something that I felt mattered. I was able to reconnect him with myself when I started writing lyrics for him.
So are you more willing to be accepted as a political musician then you were before?
Yes, I am doing this consciously now. When I was in KUKL, I never expressed myself much politically. My politics was more on a personal level. I was trying to create revolutionary music. That was my politics back then. Now I am not trying to create political music, with [Bogomil Font], but I regard Steintryggur, Parabola, and these other projects as an extension of what I was doing in KUKL. I am trying to create music that I don’t hear anywhere else. Something that is unique to me, which is something I believe every creative artist tries to do, to create something they think matters, something that is an original creation. This sounds very formal, but I think that it is still true. But you’ve been a part of many different projects lately, apart from Bogomil, Parabola, and Steintryggur? Yes, I enjoy playing with young musicians. I have been playing with Sammi’s Big Band; Ben Frost, a very avant-garde musician; and Pétur Ben. These are all different things, but I have such a wide musical palette, I enjoy the variation, I need to stay busy with many different things.
Do young musicians seek advice from your experience?
I try not to give much advice. I am not sure I am the right person for that. But I enjoy working with young musicians and I am very happy to have had that opportunity. Usually they have come to me, but if you are open and seek out new things in what you are doing, that will happen. I’ve been lucky in that aspect. But I have no grand master plan at work. I just try to stay open to new things and to keep busy. I am very happy with my career, and I think it has been very colourful and varied. I read somewhere that you were a part of a project with [Type O Negative frontman] Peter Steele, something called Icelandic Ancestry?
Did you see this on Wikipedia?
I have seen this on Wikipedia also, and I have no idea what this is. I found some guy on Wikipedia called Peter Steele and I have no idea who he is. I have been associated with many projects on the web that I have no idea what it is. But I have a likely explanation. When I lived in the US, when my wife was studying there, I was working in some studios there. One of the things I did was to release three CDs with beats. I know that people have used the beats from these CDs in their music, but this was sold as copyrighted material and used with loop programs like Acid. I have found people that have credited me as a drummer in their projects when they have used these CDs. Maybe they knew who I was, or enjoyed the Sugarcubes or something. But even if they use my beats, that is not the same thing. I was also working as a session player in a studio called Smart, which is owned by Butch Vig. I recorded albums with many musicians there. That’s how I think I became associated with these different projects.
Since we are on US turf, it is probably best to ask you about a consistent rumour that you were offered a position as a drummer in Pearl Jam.
I knew Eddie Vedder before he was a rock star (Eddie Vedder roadied for the Sugarcubes), and I met him again after he became a rock star when we played a festival with them. He had changed a bit; he became a very artsy reclusive type, instead of the happy bouncy kid he used to be. This is just when they are becoming famous, back in ’92. He was already into that part he plays with Pearl Jam, the serious worried type, a character that he has cultivated very well. But they had some problems with drummers in the beginning. Dave Abbruzzese played with them on the first album, but quit the band in ’94 or ’95. At that point, they were looking for a drummer, and I get a call from their agent’s office and some woman tells me that Eddie had mentioned me as a possible replacement and asked if I was interested in auditioning. But I knew Eddie, and I thought this was just so much bullshit, so I told her I was ready to audition and said she could tell Eddie to call me himself if he wanted me to come in. But he was very sheltered, and kind of paranoid, so I never expected him to call me. Which he never did, this was just hyperbole. This is probably just as good. I am not sure I would have fit into that group, I mean, they were playing grunge music, I would have had to get an all-new wardrobe.