Details Magazine April 1992
by Jim Shelley
The Sugarcubes have been Iceland's one and only supergroup for five years. It's lonely at the top. And weird.
The Sugarcubes are sweet with hard edges. Irresistable, immediate pop torn up with eccentric chaos, a noisy passionate madness. Highly praised, but stubbornly principled. All the right contridictions. There is no group on earth like them. Sometimes, however, all this seems to get the five-year-old Icelandic sextet (singers Björk and Einar, drummer Siggi, keyboardist Magga, guitarist Thor, and bassist Bragi) is a reputation as freaks.
The Sugarcubes have always been different. Surreal and sexual, as erratic and exotic as every band should be, they are what you might get if Siouxie, Blondie, the B-52s, and the Slits formed a jazz-punk, pop-rap combo. Music baptized in a beatnik stream of consciousness, pop as performance art. The Sugarcubes are best seen as a unique pocket opera focusing on Björk, whose voice is as bewitching as the Cocteau Twins' Liz Fraser, and Einar, a madman who "raps" in a rather deadpan fashion.
Their debut LP, 1988's Life's Too Good, was a healthy mess, bursting with harsh, jangling guitars, Nordic lyrical whimsy, and a contest of strangeness between Björk's childlike wonder and Einar's absurd anarchic sensibility. Together they sounded like a psychotic Sonny & Cher. The next LP, Here Today, Tomorrow, Next Week, sounded like space pop heavily influenced by Abba. It was either too far ahead of, or behind, the times, and the backlash lashed hard.
After a two-year hiatus spent raising families in Reykjavik and recording in L.A., their third LP, Stick Around For Joy (named after a slogan on a Japanese soda machine), shows that the Sugarcubes may have changed, but the songs remain as strange. Guitars chime and scratch around off-kilter rhythms while Björk's voice flies through the scales, tripping up the beat (and the sense) of the group's pop songs with her jazzy phrasing. The New Wave clatter of "Gold" (sort of Madness meets James Bond theme) and the slyly funky "Hit" make the manic "Vitamin" and the freaky "Chihuahua" sound almost normal.
"We're not normal," Björk explains. "But people have started to see us more the way we see ourselves, which makes life a whole lot easier. I wouldn't say that our music is different because we're from Iceland. People think we're odd, even in Iceland."
But then everything is odd in Iceland: the geography, the hours of daylight, the economy, the price of a beer in a pub (nine dollars), the amount of alcoholism, the weather ("It can rain, snow, sleet, and sunshine in one day"). Iceland's president is often seen around Reykjavik. "You just wave and say 'hi' to her" ,Björk says. Björk enthuses about the "raw countryside. Deep valleys, high mountains, very little trees and flowers." She tells jokes about it. "What do you do if you get lost in a forest in Iceland? Stand up." Quite.
The Sugarcubes officially began at 2:50 p.m., the eighth of June, 1986. The date coincides with the birth of Björk's baby. (In a twist worthy of a Russian novel, the baby's father, Björk's ex-husband Thor, the guitarist, is also father to Magga the keyboardist's baby girl.)
Now try this concept: the Sugarcubes are Iceland's first and only supergroup. In the early '80s Iceland was a rather unstimulating place to be. Bands like Wire, Siouxie and the Banshees, and the Slits hit a nerve, and visits by the likes of Psychic TV, Echo & The Bunnymen, and Killing Joke inspired arty Icelanders to form their own groups. Björk, Einar, and Siggi formed Kukl (Icelandic for sorcerer). Einar, a poet who has published a volume called Shitheap, and fellow poet Bragi had also been in Purrkur Pillnikk, who toured with the Fall. Thor was also a poet, author of such tomes as Drink Some Petrol Darling, and performed with a group called Fan Houtens Koko. Magga was a member of Risaedlan (in English: Reptile).
The "six maniacs" had "nothing in common, except nothing was happening in Iceland." As Iceland's only indie label had just gone bankrupt, they fromed Bad Taste Ltd. (taken from Picasso's maxim, "Good taste is the killer of all creativity"). Their goal: to publish poetry, release records, and one day open a cafe, gallery, bookshop (Icelanders buy the most books per capita in the world), and radio station. "Building and empire," as Einar put it, with typical modesty.
The Sugarcubes' first single, "Birthday",was funded by the profits of a Bad Taste postcard commemorating the Reagan-Gorbachev 1986 Reykjavik summit. The record was worshipped by the British music press, and particular attention was paid to Björk. As with Blondie, the singer was the star, attracting so much attention that major record labels tried to lure Björk away, flying to Reykjavik with six-figure checks, only towitness showcase gigs sung entirely in Icelandic.
The Sugarcubes have flown over from Iceland to perform "Hit", their new single, on an English TV show. We meet in the bar of their expensive London hotel. As she speaks, Björk hides her arms inside her T-shirt (a Sugarcubes T-shirt with a squirmy sperm on it) and wriggles playfully. Next, her head goes in too, and all that's left is a talking T-shirt with a tuft of hair at the top. She tells me her mountaineering socks are called "Hoppy" and "Hobnob". She wears a pendant: a fine silver sperm. She tells me that an orgasm is "the only minute you're part of the rest of the universe, and you feel ecstatic about it."
With her cubist face, all punched in like a Klee painting, Björk looks like a warrior doll, tough and vulnerable at the same time, and as captivating and disconcerting as she sounds when she sings. Out of the blue, she will stop talking and try to pick up her glass with her teeth. When she says her favorite music at the moment is Maria Callas and Sororicide, an Icelandic death-metal group of thirteen-year-olds, she can't help but perform: "They say [squeaking], 'This one's called "Kill Your Mother". Woaraghghhh.' It's keeky," she giggles. "Really keeky." It's her favorite word.
Björk goes Metal: Sororicide @ www.myspace.com/sororicideice
Einar is pretty "keeky." His reputation for chaos is so bad that journalists labeled him "a mad, bad bastard" who was "vandalizing" the band's sweetest songs. In the early days, record companies offered the band deals...if he left. "We cannot function without Einar," laughs Björk. "We've become addicted. He just makes things dangerous. He could tear in here now and you would end up hitting him several times."
Later Einar does appear, soft and energetic, as sweet as pie, in a purple ruffled shirt and velvet jacket. "I always dress like my hotel," he proclaims. "I'm not young and crazy. I'm senile."
"Einar's become more... human," smiles Björk. "Kinder. He doesn't work as hard at trying to be a bad boy."
Einar and the others have spent part of their time away reviving their company, Bad Taste. Björk recorded a solo jazz LP with "the jazz legends of Iceland", purely to refinance the business. In turn, the other members will probably contribute to her solo LP, Bjork's Affairs, which will include collaborations with 808 State (for whom Björk sang "Ooops" and "Q-mart" on their album Ex:el), the World Saxophone Quartet's Oliver Lake, and a fifty-year-old musician who, Bjork says, "plays hardcore harp."
Björk & 808 State: "Ooops"
Siggi joins us in the bar for a hot chocolate. This comes as a suprise, I say, since the group are almost always portrayed as alcoholic lunatics. "It's a drinking culture," concedes Björk, who favors cognac, Pernod, Drambuie, and absinthe. "It has a lot to do with the Icelandic mentality--slightly eccentric. We drink a lot, I guess. We get hysterically drunk. But then 'either do it or skip it' is a very Icelandic viewpoint as well. Either drink two bottles of vodka or skip it."
Siggi has an air of great wisdom to him, like a gentle grandfather. He tells me that the group has grown weary of the media's preoccupation with their "strangeness" and how the constant references to igloos, puffins, and glaciers amounted to a kind of cultural racism. "They painted us as exotic and weird," shrugs Siggi. "Playing the role of the idiot can be fun, but it got to a stage where we'd had it."
The problem was, the Sugarcubes couldn't help themselves. They still can't. Einar appeared in New York at the New Music Seminar muttering, "Don't drink and drive... if you haven't got a car." Björk described the universe through the eyes of a child: "If the sun had loads of hairs and you could hug it, it would be really nice."
Even Siggi tells me that he is a "multiphrenic," composed of six characters including "Helga the German lady, a Japanese Businessman, Sharkfin the drifter, and an American drag queen." "That's the real Mrs. Balthazar," he says to Björk, who seems to understand him perfectly. "Hehas to get them all into bed at the same time," she explains to me, sympathetically. "It's really very difficult for him."
Siggi leans forward as if to confide a great secret. "We're a little eccentric, of course. But basically," he chuckles, "we're normal to the point of being boring."
Photographs found @ http://thewareaglereader.wordpress.com/2007/10/25/bjork-damn-eagle