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The Rock’s Backpages Flashback: Befriending Björk and the Sugarcubes

The return of Björk with her new album Biophilia affords us the chance to revisit her remarkable arrival via the anarchic Icelandic troupe in which she sang in the late '80s. Gerrie Lim talked to her, and to her notorious co-frontperson Einar Örn Benediktsson, for Exposure magazine--Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages

The come from a land of ice and snow, where volcanic peaks and photogenic glaciers surround settlements given to fish factories and sundry cottage industries, where you might least expect to find youthful angst exalting this primal thing dubbed rock 'n' roll. But short days and long nights are the Arctic Circle's miasma of invention and out of left field arises the newest of Nordic invaders.

The Sugarcubes call themselves a "tacky pop band" and, with equally sardonic wit, title their debut album Life's Too Good. After charting three top singles on the British indie scene, they've now come to America, to plunder and sack the airwaves.

Their newly-found recognition, amid critical acclaim over the album, confounds the normative parameters. The sextet from Reykjavik, Iceland's capital, was formed in the summer of 1986, and a major-label contract with Elektra Records now affords them their first-ever tour outside Europe. It's been a very fast two years.

"I actually thought I would never be able to get over here," says singer/trumpeter Einar Örn, looking around New York with new eyes. "It's not a dream. I just thought I would never ever come over here. I don't dream things like that."

Though dreams inform their music, the Sugarcubes play a bastardized neo-psychedelia, with lacerating guitars and sly R&B rhythms girding postpunk despondency. The vocals are a twin set of frenzied pipes - Orn's droll, more spoken than sung dramatics, are complemented by the banshee wails and sensual whimpers of Björk Gudmundsdottir, a young woman whose screams personify idiot savant brilliance.

The rest of the band - guitarist Thor Eldon, bassist Bragi Olafsson, drummer Siggi Baldursson, and new keyboardist Einar Melax - maintains a steadily-paced aggression, the cutting edge everyone refers to, now redefined. For what's most captivating about the Sugarcubes is a certain lack of obviousness, a distinct impression they convey so well. They're not overtly derivative, they've stolen licks and riffs and timbres from nearly-recognizable sources, but one can't quite pinpoint the thievery.

Björk will tell you, if pressed, that she discovered her earliest influence, Joni Mitchell, while living in Reykjavik's only hippie commune when she was very young. But she also loves Maria Callas and Ella Fitzgerald and, in the past year, she's been listening to Sinead O'Connor. There's a veritable smorgasbord but no overriding mentor figures. Örn cites Georges Bataille, the eminent pornographic novelist, as a favorite but doesn't mention any musicians. "Radio," however, "is a great influence on us. Because when we listen to the radio, we know what the Sugarcubes should not sound like."

And so, they eschew the mainstream Top 40 fodder and write songs obliquely documenting anger and lust and violence and pain, all the grand stuff that scares radio programmers. The sense of the erotic is prominent, and in Björk's voice the impact is profoundly surreal; you want to just sit there and pulsate, maybe even levitate. Slow burning grooves, and then some, like in the song 'Deus':

Deus does not exist, but if he does
He'd want to come down from that cloud
First marzipan fingers, then marble hands
More silent than silence and slower than slow
Diving towards me, my collar is
Huge room for two hands
They start at the chest and move
Slowly down.

At 22, Björk is a divorced mother with a two-year-old son. "I left home when I was 15," she recalls, "because my home was so boring. And I've been looking for something. I haven't stayed in one place for a long time since then.

"Now, with all this interest in the Sugarcubes, I feel very cosmopolitan. My situation is now about travelling. So things like taking your clothes off, having a bath, brushing your teeth, going to bed, waking up, are the only things that matter. The simple things, they're so important. You realize that." Life, she once told a British rock paper, "is basic things. You need to eat, drink, sleep, f---, get drunk, be happy, get angry, solve things, and cause a catastrophe once in a while."

Örn confirms this, that the elemental plane is the repository of their music, their bold craft. "There's nothing wrong with being erotic. An apple might turn me on," he says. "Why should a subject like sex be a taboo? What we're commenting on is daily life, how things are used against people as a restrainer. Sex is made dirty, something horrible. Poverty is made something awful. We don't accept that."

What's interesting is that they've been accepted despite their sexual politics and alternative stance. When their first single, 'Birthday', released on their own label, Bad Taste, caught the ears of the English rockcrits, dozens of record companies sent their scouts to Reykjavik.

There, they found the Sugarcubes playing in the local rock venues - usually reconverted pizza parlors and Quonset huts - and singing all their songs in Icelandic! The words, mostly indecipherable without a lyric sheet, are only later translated into English. And the reams of blank verse, as Örn is quick to point out, "don't rhyme even in Icelandic."

"People are always telling us," he sighs, "that we're now the pioneers of independent music, that we've 'saved' independent music. But what they forget is that we're not British. We're Icelandic. We don't see ourselves as part of the British independent scene, same as we don't see us as part of the mainstream. We see us as very much removed from that."

"And people are always saying, 'How much does your landscape affect your music?'" he laughs. "It doesn't one bit, you know. We are an urban band. We come from a big city, the biggest city in Iceland - Reykjavik. We play Reykjabilly."

Björk reacted to the attention stemming from 'Birthday' with surprise. "We didn't expect anything, really," she notes, "so I guess we became confused. Well, at least I did. I got sort of suspicious." She giggles. "I have this problem: I can't understand what 'Birthday' is about. I always write the melodies, then the words come later. I'm not a poet or anything. I just translate feeling into words."

"When I was small," she recalls, "my mother couldn't take a bus because I was always singing on the buses. I would stand up on the seats and shout out my favorite songs. She had to buy a car so she wouldn't make a fool of herself. But I've never learned to sing. I just sang. It's very easy, just like I can talk."

With such unassuming elan, she's winning listeners with her singing, though Örn offers a word of caution: "We ask people not to expect anything from the Sugarcubes. Because if you expect anything, we'll let you down."

"We're a band with a death wish," Örn intones. "We can't foresee how long we'll be together. We could split up tomorrow, if it came to that. We don't care. We are not 'musicians' or a 'professional rock band.' I can go on being a teacher, which is what I used to do, if I want to. This is geared to a certain moment but how long it will be, we do not know."

"There is nothing to grasp. It's natural music." He pauses, and one anticipates something revelatory, some pearl of wisdom. "And yes," he finally says, "we have a message: Don't believe what you hear, it might be all a fake."

 

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