Text: Robin Gibson
Out of anarcho-punk stars Kukl comes THE
SUGARCUBES - the sweet taste of a bitter pop sound.
Robin Gibson is impressed by the Icelandic cool of
Bjork and Einar.
It opens you up and swallows you, as numerous tourists discover to their dismay every year, despite an abundance of warnings about keeping on the right side of the tracks.
In Iceland, nature is as violent as it is beautiful.
Vast areas of land are uninhabited. The entire country is only populated by about 240,000 people and Reykjavik, the capital and home for The Sugarcubes, accounts for about 90,000 of that. Beer is outlawed and long names prevail.
Try Bjork Gudmundsdottir for an elbow test.
Bjork is The Sugarcubes' disarmingly youthful singer and lyricist, a 21 year old "housewife" with a young baby. She sneaks daisies onto her record sleeves and sings in a spellbinding voice that hovers beautifully close to breakdown and has an effect somewhere between Liz Fraser's and Minnie Ripperton's and somewhere outside of both and everything.
Einar Benediktson is less tongue twisting, though still far from an easy toast in last orders. He sings, plays trumpet and taught their drummer to be a car mechanic. He is married to his wife, he says, Siggi and Bragi (drums and bass respectively) are married to twin sisters, and Bjork is married to guitarist Thor Eldon.
"It's a different thing to marry in Iceland," she smiles. "We are not married in a church. You get more rights if you're married. For me and Thor, it just took ten minutes. And then we could get money from the state to buy contact lenses for him. So it's not very..."
"It's not high-flying," says Einar mysteriously.
The three singles are a flight of bewitching and diverse brilliance. Assuming there are no major disasters, the LP should be one of the year's best debuts.
"Today's a birthday - they're sucking cigars, he got a chain of flowers, sows a bird in her knickers, they're sucking cigars, lie in the bathtub..." (`Birthday')
"It's very uncomfortable for me to sing a song unless every word is thought of, and very carefully put down," murmurs Bjork. "I never vary with the words. `Birthday' was first going to be about a man who sells ... food?"
"A grocer," points out Einar, who doubles as a brilliant walking dictionary.
"Yes, a grocer, very close to me, in a little shop. But then I found out it was about some old guy who's living close to me ... it changed very often. Then finally, I just had to write it down, and I sort of collected memories together in my head of ... like, when I was a kid, all old men that influenced me sort of erotically, without doing anything, really. Men at 50 and stuff like that. But, you know, without doing anything ... so that's the feeling."
"For me," says Einar, "because I don't sing on this track, I play trumpet, it is a menace that lurks behind these words. A menace like when Frank Zappa said, If she were my daughter I'd ahhhh...! You remember that?"
"It was only an atmosphere I was trying to describe," says Bjork. "The only thing I was doing consciously, that was mixing together pure innocence and pure ... well, not danger, but something, you know, evil. Evil in an unreal way."
Einar: "Evil innocence."
The Sugarcubes connection is not quite as simple as knowing a good thing when they see it: the relationship dates back to when Flux were Flux Of Pink Indians and the Icelanders were in an outfit called Kukl. Kukl played over here and released massive, harshly potent records on the Crass label. Kukl also suffered from the same sort of crisis of collective personality which many of our native anarcho-punk groups went through (Kukl were, by association it not by music, identified with these).
Bjork and Einar put the demise of Kukl down to the stunting effect of "inner censorship".
Bjork: "In the end we were criticising each other so much that there was nothing left. Instead of putting more into the band, we were sort of ... throwing out. Until there was nothing left except seriousness. So there was an eruption or something like that. And we decided to do something just to have fun."
Einar stumbles around with a definition of "power pop" before jettisoning the idea altogether in favour of telling me about Bad Taste (Ltd), the collective they set up in the wake of Kukl.
With a pool of everything from surrealist poets to carpenters ("Just for ... if we need anything fixed") Bad Taste have made their mark firmly on the Icelandic cultural consciousness: with a series of Sugarcubes records and concerts (one in commemoration of a Spanish bullfighter killed by an heroic bull, which featured a glass coffin full of meat stage centre, much to the audience's confusion), poetry books and even the issue of a "totally tasteless" postcard in watercolours to mark the Reagan/Gorbachev summit in Reykjavik.
"It was the best seller of all the postcards," grins Einar. "There were four others, and this was the most expensive one, and it sold 5,000 plus copies in one week."
Bjork recounts the records and poetry books they published with the profit, a childlike frankness belying a definitely gleeful if anarchic business acumen.
"I think," she says, "the whole idea of this thing is about not taking anything for granted. And also, I think we were always very hooked on shocking ourselves..."
"We question what people would call good taste," comments Einar. "And we try to find out who are the tastemakers. We question why so called bad taste should be called that be the people who think they are in good taste. It's in everything - clothing, furniture, house colours ... toilet paper even."
The Sugarcubes are not going to bluntly call themselves subversives, but they do admit that, at best, their fellow countrymen think they are "interfering".
All of this has had major labels biting already, only to pull in their reins when confronted with the band's words - Sugarcubes A-sides are in English.
Heavens, Polydor thought `Motorcrash' was "offensive".
Bjork, radiating bemusement:
"The lyrics are not really offensive, not at
all. They are about a little girl who is out biking, and she sees a motor
crash, and no police has arrived yet, and there is a car with parents in
the front and children in the back and they're all wounded. And she wants
to help them - so it's a really nice song."
"So she takes the mother - cos she likes
mothers the most of people - and
sneaks her back to her home, and nurses her there, sort of puts plastic
stuff on her, and dries off her wounds, and gives her milk and biscuits,
because she likes that herself, and steals a dress from her mother -
nobody knows about this, it's totally secret - and when finally the woman
wakes up, and when she's totally healed, they sneak out, take a taxi to the
home of the woman and the children are there, already healed, and the
husband opens the door and they take the costumes off and say, We're back!
But the husband gets very angry and says, Where have you been all this
time? And then the song is over."
"It's just a little girl and she wants to do something, but she's so
clumsy ... I guess it's because it's called `Motorcrash'. They don't like
songs that are called that..."
"So she takes the mother - cos she likes mothers the most of people - and sneaks her back to her home, and nurses her there, sort of puts plastic stuff on her, and dries off her wounds, and gives her milk and biscuits, because she likes that herself, and steals a dress from her mother - nobody knows about this, it's totally secret - and when finally the woman wakes up, and when she's totally healed, they sneak out, take a taxi to the home of the woman and the children are there, already healed, and the husband opens the door and they take the costumes off and say, We're back! But the husband gets very angry and says, Where have you been all this time? And then the song is over."
"It's just a little girl and she wants to do something, but she's so clumsy ... I guess it's because it's called `Motorcrash'. They don't like songs that are called that..."
One Little Indian supremo Derek opens the door and announces that yet another major has written to him that morning, expressing praise and interest.
"Why don't they send us flowers!?" exclaims Bjork.
"Yes," agrees Einar. "Go and say that we'll sign with them if they give us flowers, candy and cigars..."
Are you romantics?
"Yes. We're total romantics. We are."
So you'd rather be paid in flowers than money?
"Nooo, nooo ... let's-have-the-money! Then we could decide how many flowers we could buy."
"People do have this heavy, mystical, sort of view," sighs Einar tolerantly.
Bjork: "We found out that this ...
occult-ism, that people seem to make a
lot of fuss about here, you know, things like there are elves there, and
ghosts, and the moon and volcanos and all these energy fields, stuff like
"But in Iceland, people admit that all this exists, but it's totally
normal, like having your cup of tea. People just talk about it in cafes:
this has happened to me now, and it's full moon tomorrow, I should take
care of this ... but, you know, it's not only people at our age, it's
people who are about 50, and parents and stuff. My mother is in occultism
up to, um, here."
"But in Iceland, people admit that all this exists, but it's totally normal, like having your cup of tea. People just talk about it in cafes: this has happened to me now, and it's full moon tomorrow, I should take care of this ... but, you know, it's not only people at our age, it's people who are about 50, and parents and stuff. My mother is in occultism up to, um, here."
Einar: "It's very simple, but people talk about it, mystical and everything, then they go to Iceland and they expect to see it!"
At the airport?
"Yeah, you know. We wish a welcome on
behalf of all the ghosts! Ok, it's a
magnificent landscape, very strange at times, the hot springs and things
like that. But you have to respect it. You can't walk in and say, Hey, here
I am, where are you, you old ghosts?"
"Gonna buy this rock and bring it to my home!"
"Gonna buy this rock and bring it to my home!"squeals Bjork in an Icelandic approximation of an American tourist.
It's impossible to assess how much of their native culture and environment comes out in Sugarcubes emissions. I suspect more than they'd admit.
Certainly Einar is aware of the possibility of natural disaster - whether it's Japanese tourists falling into hot springs or fishermen in failing battles against the north Atlantic - so much so that he has short shrift for "stupid" man-made disasters like space shuttles and car ferries. In face, he says, he laughs.
Bjork is distraught at the prospect of science advancing far enough to quell earthquakes before they happen.
"It's just so beautiful that 100,000 people would die in an earthquake. It's something, maybe because I'm distant, but I wouldn't mind dying in an earthquake, it's just so ..."
This is a pretty strong claim to make.
Einar: "Yeah, you know, we probably don't mind until it happens to us. It's a sort of romantic fascination with death."
Bjork: "I would like to be eaten by tigers. Something like that..."
The Sugarcubes aren't making too much clear.
But listen to their music -
tooth-tingling nuggets that gel into a storm of surprise and uncontrived
emotion in the teacup of 1987 pop - and something, or other, will be