As far as most people are concerned, The Sugarcubes story started with ‘Birthday’ in the summer of 1987. The single, released in this country by the independent One Little Indian label, was on the face of it an oddity that no one could expect to catch on. When had Iceland ever produced a pop group that anyone outside had ever heard of?
Except ‘Birthday’ became the most talked-about independent single since The Smiths had announced their presence four years earlier. A superbly accomplished, evocative song, ‘Birthday’ came from a place somewhere between childhood and womanhood, and rent in twain by a scream from singer Bjork that could stop a JCB in its tracks.
After that came two more singles, ‘Cold Sweat’ and ‘Deus’, and an LP, Life’s Too Good, which consolidated the ‘Cubes’ seeming hegemony over shiny new independent pop. People quickly realised that there was something a lot stranger going on than they imagined; sharing centre stage was Einar Orn Benediktsson, the co-vocalist and trumpeter who quickly became known as the group’s most vocal communicator, if not its most adroit diplomat. A Media Studies graduate from the Polytechnic of Central London, and like two other members of the band a published Icelandic poet, Einar carved a niche for himself as the most cynical of interviewees; brash and precocious, his perversely-inclined blank verse none the less provided the essential grit to balance Bjork’s devastating but more conventional singing voice.
The threads of The Sugarcubes really started to knit together in the early 19805, when groups of Icelandic musicians were fired up by the fading embers of the new wave, and visits from The Fall and Killing Joke’s Jaz Coleman. Bjork, Einar and drummer Siggi first came together in a group called KU KL, who even had a record out on anarcho-punk Crass’s Epping-based label. Eventually deciding they would prefer to be the next Abba, they developed The Sugarcubes from there, while simultaneously trying to lift off the ground a multi-media outfit to disseminate their aesthetic. This was Bad Taste Ltd, and The Suaarcubes’ success has drawn extravagant attention to one arm of it.
The way Bjork tells it, that success could almost be an irritating inconvenience.
‘We didn’t trust the music business when we went into it. We didn’t want to go for this in the beginning. We just wanted to play in Iceland. We were putting out books and records and paintings and we were going to start a radio station and everything. Just when it was getting really good, suddenly papers abroad started writing about us — we didn’t even know about it. And then we got all these offers from big record companies, and we just said no, we’re not interested. They asked again and again and we said we’re not interested. The only thing we knew about the rock’n’roll industry
Alastair Mabbott engages B jork Godmundsdottir on the myth and the mystery behind Iceland’s biggest export since Magnus Magnusson, The Sugarcubes.
was the way Elvis Presley was treated — that sort of cliche - and we didn’t want to get into it.’
The band held firm against the chequebooks being waved in their faces, and demanded that those who were really interested, and wanted to work with them on their terms, come over to Iceland and talk there. Eleven of the biggest record companies in the world did. While sticking with One Little Indian in Britain, they’re handled in the States by Elektra and have now sold 450,000 copies of Life’s Too Good there.
So much myth has gathered around the band — the alcohol, Iceland, Einar, Bjork’s elfin appearance, their consumption of puffins, the
treatment of them by the music press as almost extraterrestrial beings — but with the release of their second LP, attention will again focus on the music. Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week is a very different album from its predecessor, and sees them trying on new styles for size. Less coherent than Life ’5 Too Good, it is perhaps even more daring.
Bjork sees it as a compromise between six people with very different tastes, ‘so it wouldn’t even be possible to decide beforehand what it was going to sound like. Then people look at it like it was all organised and planned. Of course we wanted to do something different. I can’t imagine any band that wants to repeat itself. But we’re basically
obsessed with doing exciting things.’
She pre-empts any question about the record — written since their first visit to America last year and recorded in January and February in Iceland — being influenced by their journey through America.
‘Now, more than a year later, I think I can say it had a very big input, because we had all been living in Iceland for 20 years and it’s a very raw and natural country. It’s got so much room and the cities are tiny. They are very modern, you can get everything in them, but the biggest city in Iceland’s got 90,000 people. You think you’re living a very modern life when you live in Iceland because you get the latest American films before England does, and you’ve got all the computer stuff and educational stuff and cultural stuff. Iceland is almost more modern than England.
‘We weren’t interested at all to go to the States. Ifwe had to leave Iceland, we wanted to go to Japan or Honolulu or somewhere, because we thought that Iceland was just the most brilliant place on Earth, and nothing short of the Congo or Katmandu would be greater — going to the States would just be like watching the films.
‘But when we got there we just realised that 1989 is such a pretty thing— well, 1988 at the time. We didn’t expect ever to become admired of skyscrapers and pollution, you’re always told it’s evil, but you just realise it’s the only way mankind could have done things, and why be ashamed of it, you’re part ofit. It’s like, [989: [like you, you’re okay. Something like that.’
This summer, they played twenty concerts with New Order and Public Image Ltd in the States, under the questionable banner of ‘Monsters of Alternative Rock’, and had to overcome the ‘snobbish’ attitude that playing for 100 people in a stuffy club was a ‘proper’ gig.
Not that their challenges are restricted to stagework. One of the new songs— ‘Nail’ — Bjork and Einar engage with the topic of a man who batters people with a plank with a four-inch nail through it, to get their attention. Was it, er, easy to adopt that role?
‘Yeah, I guess so. We usually agree in the beginning what the theme of the song should be. I write my stuff and he writes his stuff, so it’s about sort of the same thing. We decided that this song should be about problems with communicating. Usually when I’ve got problems with communicating I just lock myselfup, and Einar’s problem is the opposite. When he gets problems with communicating with people he just gets really aggressive and he communicates too much with them. It’s not that evil. Once in a while you just don’t know how to communicate with people, and react like it’s the
people’s fault, not your fault, so you want to attack them.’
The Sugarcubes play Barrowland, Glasgow on Sunday 8 and the Usher Hall, Edinburgh on Monday 9. ‘Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week’ is available on One Little Indian from Wednesday 4.
The List 29 September — 12 October 1989 5