Welcome to iceland – pop music's final frontier!" There is no such sign greeting you as you turn onto the coastal highway leading from the international airport at Keflavik, Iceland. But there should be. Because the vista that hits you as you drive northeast to the capital city of Reykjavik gives brand-new meaning to the words rock and roll.
To the south a jagged checkerboard carpet of new-fallen snow and jet-black lava stretches out to a distant wall of icy mountains and extinct but still quite menacing-looking volcanoes rising up to meet the gray winter morning's sky. Stiff winds blow wispy curtains of snow across the barren plain, while occasional puffs of white steam on the horizon bear witness to the violent level of geothermal activity taking place just beneath the earth's surface, resulting in the hot springs, geysers and mud pools that dot the country's interior. And the highway itself is practically earthquake central: it runs along the edge of the Reykjanes Peninsula, in southwestern Iceland – right on top of the volatile Mid-Atlantic Ridge.
In short, it's hard to believe anything with a beat could grow in a landscape as otherworldly and physically inhospitable as that of Iceland. Mother Nature, in all her harshest majesty, is the headline act here. She is not easily upstaged.
Nevertheless, in a small rehearsal space on a snowy, windblown side street in central Reykjavik, a local band called the Sugarcubes is busy proving that rock & roll is not only alive and well here but mutating into shapes as odd and wondrous as the geologist's paradise outside. Four musicians hunched over their instruments are revving up a powerful beat tornado, whipping fragments of sharp, aggressive bass, angular guitar and hard tribal rhythms into bright, hypnotic melodies. Atop their exotic turbulence, singer Björk Gudmundsdottir, an elfin young beauty with striking almond-shaped eyes and a giddy schoolgirl smile, is casting a powerful spell of her own with an astonishing voice that is unpredictable yet captivating in its wild extremes. In a single line she swings from romantic cooing to an angry snarl, punctuating her chorus with Indian war whoops and breathtaking supershrieks.
There are distinct echoes of the familiar – a little U2, some future-shock Blondie, abstract splashes of Talking Heads, jolts of vintage-"77 punk. When the band's second singer, a young blond man in cracked black leather named Einar Örn, joins the fray, the blend of his predatory growl with Björk's animated wail recalls the male-female dialogue of recent X and classic Jefferson Airplane.
But while you have heard the bits and pieces before, you have never heard it all like this. Because the Sugarcubes make music that is very much like Iceland itself, a collision of extremes that can be at once forbidding and mysteriously compelling.
"We live on a hot spot," Einar says after rehearsal between deep drags on his cigarette, explaining the unique symbiotic relationship between Icelandic geology and the Sugarcubes' electric kick. "Volcanic rock. Glaciers. And we were asked once if we were afraid of living on such a hot spot But" – he grins – "we don't think of it that way. That puts a little fearlessness in our minds, and in our music. We're ready for anything."
That includes stardom. Formed less than two years ago, the Sugarcubes have already hit international pay dirt. "Birthday," their first single, topped the British independent charts last year and was voted Single of the Year by the English music weekly Melody Maker. The follow-up single, "Cold Sweat," a stunning fusion of broiling sensuality and heavy-metal grind, heightened by Einar and Björk's vocal counterpoint, also became a U.K. indie hit. To appreciate fully the wonder of the Sugarcubes' success, you must understand the context Iceland did not come of rock & roll age until 1981, when the British punk phenomenon touched off a youth explosion here that at its highest point led to the creation of more than fifty new bands, playing a heady style of avant-thrash and singing only in Icelandic. Many groups fell by the wayside, but the best of the lot – Theyr, Purrkur Pillnikk, Vonbrigdi – established a vital, continuing underground scene in Reykjavik.
The Sugarcubes are actually an Icelandic-rock supergroup, formed by hardy survivors of the original '81 upheaval. But look over their shoulders and you find a whole pack of killer combos eager for export – bands with colorful handles like S.H. Draumer ("Black and White Dreams") Sogblettir ("the Lovebites"), Bleiku Bastarnir ("Pink Bastards") and Daisy Hill Puppy Farm. Iceland even has its own Springsteen, a left-wing rocker and former fish-factory worker named Bubbi Morthens, whose 1987 LP Dógun outsold The Joshua Tree in Iceland nearly four to one.
Now with the same pioneer spirit that characterized the '81 revolt, the Sugarcubes – Einar, Björk, bassist Bragi Ólafsson, guitarist Thór Eldon, drummer Siggi Baldursson and keys man Einar Melax – are poised to melt American hearts and strike an international blow for original Icelandic music with their debut Elektra album, Life's Too Good. It runs a delightfully eccentric course, from the bright "Delicious Demon" to the ominous "Deus," a surrealist Björk ballad about God's passionately groping her with "marzipan fingers" and "marble hands." Still, you might well ask what makes the Sugarcubes – or, in Icelandic, Sykur-molarnir – so special in a world full of eccentric pop groups, besides their mailing address?
"The professional rock music," Thór says with a dismissive sniff, "what it lacks is vitality, the lust for life. We have that in abundance. We are in harmony with life itself." Welcome to Iceland – pop's last frontier. For real.
In the beginning there was almost nothing. almost nothing but blatant imitations, however earnest, of American and English rock music. Local music, even the best of it, rarely strayed far from the accepted international models – the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Crosby, Stills and Nash. Until punk completely upset the apple cart, the prevailing wisdom among Icelandic musicians was that to succeed abroad, you had to sound as if you were born abroad.
"They all want to make it in the big world," says Einar Örn, 25, of the Sugarcubes' pop elders. "But they think the world will want them because they do it all the same old way. Like the words of the songs. The Sugarcubes don't write in English. We write all our songs in Icelandic – it is our language – and then we translate them later on if we want to. Other musicians here write in English. It is false and means nothing, because the people who understand English will never hear them."
Until the turn of the decade, it was tough enough getting heard in Iceland. During the last half of the Seventies, concerts and dances were banned at local schools to curb teenage drunkenness and brawling, forcing many musicians to play covers in hotel discos. There was also a media problem – not enough of them. Iceland had only one TV channel and one radio station well into the Eighties, both state operated, with minimal pop coverage. Armed Forces Radio, broadcasting from the NATO base at Keflavik, offered a strict diet of American Top Forty.
The situation has gotten better. There is now a local commercial TV channel, and Icelanders can pick up satellite superstations like Sky Channel. And commercial pop radio finally arrived last year.
The weird thing about the new Icelandic rock scene is that to the untrained foreign eye, it is practically invisible. Cruising the streets of Reykjavik yields few clues. The city itself is charming in its Old World intimacy – the main shopping drag is only wide enough for a single lane of traffic, the smell of freshly caught fish wafts in from the harbor in the late afternoon – but rather nondescript in its simple, functional Scandinavian modernity, especially compared with the awesome mountainscapes visible even from the center of town. Record stores are small (about the size of a Tower Records checkout counter), the window displays often populated by overfamiliar faces, like Madonna's and the Pet Shop Boys'. Local rock vinyl is usually segregated into special Islandmúsik bins.
The club circuit is a makeshift affair, an unstable mix of discos, school auditoriums and otherwise unusable spaces. One major punk venue was an old, closed-down movie theater outside town, located inside a Quonset hut. Today the Sugarcubes can sometimes be seen at Duus, a downtown pizza parlor with a capacity of 150, sardine style, and a tiny dance floor that doubles as a stage. The latest in spot is the disco inside the new Hotel Island. It has a proper P.A. and glitzy décor that looks like your worst Studio 54 nightmare. The rest of the building, though, is still under construction. The only indication that rock & roll is on tap is a sign on the scaffolding out front that reads, ALLT VITLAUST – "Everything Crazy."
Once you get on the inside track, however, the number of working bands in Iceland is astonishing. It is not uncommon to find five bands playing in Reykjavik on a Thursday night Árni Matthiasson, the rock critic for Iceland's major daily newspaper, Morgumbladid, covered a national band competition last year that included two groups from a small town in northwest Iceland called Stykkishólmur.
"One group had seven musicians and one had five," says Arni Matthiasson. "That's twelve musicians, and the population of the place is only around a thousand. It's incredible. If you transfer this into American numbers, you just multiply everything by a thousand. If you have 30 bands in Iceland, that's like 30,000 bands in the U.S."
Strength in numbers, of course, is not enough. The Sugarcubes have succeeded through sheer force of will. They produce their own concerts in Iceland, handling all booking and promotion. To finance the original local release of "Birthday" on their own Bad Taste label, the band printed up a post card for tourists commemorating the 1986 Reagan-Gorbachev summit meeting in Reykjavik. They sold 5000 of them. And when nearly a dozen A&R reps from major English labels, enticed by the success of "Birthday," trucked up to Reykjavik last year to see the group perform, they were stunned to hear the Sugarcubes perform their entire set – including "Birthday" – in Icelandic.
"We have stuck to our guns," Einar Örn declares proudly over coffee one morning in a little Reykjavik cafe. "We refuse to sit back and relax. We've always been doing something. Our situation has been selfmade. It wasn't made for us. And the good things just happened unintentionally. And that's good. That's the way things should happen."
Yet even the Sugarcubes gulped hard when they got their just rewards – a U.K. hit single, a U.S. record deal, an American reporter on the case. Had they bit off more than any Icelandic band could chew? "You talk about hitting the big time," Einar says, laughing. "When I met you at the airport, I thought, 'Fuck, this is big time.' I did. Seeing all the photo-equipment cases and all."
"Icelanders are a strange mix of schizophrenia," explains Björk. "They have a big superiority complex, because they think Iceland is the purest place in the universe. But they also have an inferiority complex. They worry that they're not as good as the big countries."
Local fans, she says, "expected us when all this came up to jump and go for it. But we didn't We let the world come to us. We didn't sell ourselves at the first offer. So many bands in Iceland are just copying what is going on in the rest of the world. The best thing the Sugarcubes could do is show them we don't have to change to get what we want. You can maintain your independence."
That's an old lesson, even in Iceland. Einar Örn and Bragi Olafsson were pioneering examples of success without compromise when their punk band Purrkur Pillnikk hit the Icelandic Top Twenty in 1981 with its debut EP. Siggi Baldursson also charted with his own group, the legendary Icelandic Goth-rock band Theyr, and Björk became a famous face around town when she was featured on a poster advertising the film Rokk i Reykjavik, a raw, exciting 1982 documentary about the city's rock explosion that was seen by more than 20,000 people, nearly 1 in every 10 Icelanders.
Einar was also instrumental in proving the viability of an independent new-music label in Iceland when he and Ásmundur Jónsson, a DJ on state radio, formed Gramm Records to release the first Purrkur Pillnikk EP. Gramm is now the main vinyl pipeline for original Icelandic music, the distributor of the Sugarcubes' records here and the local licensee for hip U.K. and U.S. labels like Enigma, Rough Trade and 4 A.D. (In 1987, Enigma released a Gramm compilation LP, Geyser, featuring tracks by Theyr, Purrkur Pillnikk and nine other Icelandic acts.)
"It was open for any kind of music," says Jónsson, who now runs the label and its sister shop (Einar is still a stockholder). "Also, the idea became more and more to try and open up the country more by doing concerts, having Icelandic musicians working with people from other countries. The Fall brought Purrkur Pillnikk to Britain to tour. Also the Fall recorded some tracks in Iceland. It was like a cultural-exchange program. It was very important for the whole scene in Iceland, because we were so isolated."
Future Sugarcubes Einar Örn, Björk, Siggi and Einar Melax established an early beachhead abroad as part of a mid-Eighties band called KUKL (a medieval Icelandic word for a person engaged in witchcraft), an avant-rock ensemble that toured England and Europe with an aggressively theatrical show. One of Einar Örn's regular stage bits was to hang himself, Björk says, "a few times until he was almost dead." In Iceland, adds Siggi, "we were really thought to be drug abusers and nut cases."
The Sugarcubes, formed in the summer of '86, remain no less obsessive. When they decided to set up the Bad Taste label, the band actually drew up a Bad Taste manifesto outlining procedures and goals. It was titled, only half kiddingly, "Heimsyfirrad eda Daudi" –"World Domination or Death."
"We simply don't live in the mainstream," Einar Örn states flatly. "Thór just bought a radio for the first time a few weeks ago. And he's returning it, because the music on it was so boring."
This is a very special evening for Iceland. Tonight's Sugarcubes show at the Hotel Ísland is the group's first local performance in four months, and anticipation is running high, thanks to rumors of an impending American record deal for the band. Two of Reykjavik's hottest young bands, the Lovebites and Pink Bastards, are on the bill. But this show is one for the Icelandic history books because in memory of the great, recently late transvestite actor Divine, the Sugarcubes are also presenting the first public drag-queen show ever seen in Iceland.
The packed house, 700 strong (an amazing turnout in a country where 200 is considered a good night), isn't quite sure what to make of it at first. People clap politely, and there are occasional hoots of laughter as a succession of rather butch-looking specimens in ill-fitting sequined dresses mime to Donna Summer and Patsy Cline records. The hit of the show, in fact, is the Sugarcubes' muscular six-foot-plus drummer, Siggi, who bumps and grinds in blue spangles and a blond wig to the campy oompah sound of a popular Icelandic song that, translated, goes, "You are my chocolate ice cream, my gingerbread man, my candy pig."
But no one hesitates to romp along with the opening bands. A motley crew of punks, drunks and young blond Nordic beauties shimmies and pogos on the parquet dance floor as Pink Bastards kick up a serious Cramps-style garage-rock fuss in their allotted twenty minutes. The Bastards don't look as mean as they sound: they are all in their midteens, and the lead guitarist, with his rosy cheeks and shy, handsome features, seems about as menacing as the choirboy next door. Still, Pink Bastards are being seriously touted around town as a potential Next Big Thing. They have already released a well-reviewed EP on the Bad Taste label.
Ditto the Lovebites, who include Björk's younger brother Arnar on guitar. They open with a steamroller instrumental that sounds like the Chocolate Watch Band meets Hüsker Dü and then proceed to fire off three-minute blasts of clenched-fist fuzz and teen angst that are the equal of anything rebounding off American garage walls these days. When it comes to this kind of thrash with wallop, language is definitely no barrier.
The Sugarcubes finally appear at the stroke of midnight While Thör, Siggi, Bragi and Einar Melax fire up the dark, ominous rumble of "Traitor," Björk and Einar Örn rise up from under the floor on an elevator platform at center stage amid sunshine clouds of dry ice and bright-yellow light, a deliberate sendup of rock-arena bombast with an extra touch of Las Vegas jive – a cheesy golden statue that looks like K Mart's idea of a Roman goddess. The music almost seems subtle in comparison. The songs are short yet packed with intricate interlocking musical ideas, like "Birthday," with its "Walk on the Wild Side"-style bass riff and Björk's wordless but electrifying vocal chorus.
One song title in the set, "Fucking in Rhythm and Sorrow," neatly sums up the group aesthetic. At their best, the Sugarcubes combine the sweet and the sour, the hard and the soft, with a sensitivity that belies the music's tough, punky core. It is a sound alive with contradiction, but what do you expect in a country where until very recently beer was illegal but hard spirits were not? The Sugarcubes stand firm in their allegiance to Iceland (its language, its rich literary tradition, the old pagan beliefs in sorcery, all of which are reflected in the group's lyrics), yet they refuse to be prisoners of the old ways. The release of Life's Too Good, the presence of an American journalist at tonight's show – these are the rewards for everything the Sugarcubes have worked for, and against, at home. The group is now keen to see how its special brand of magic and defiance works in America.
Not surprisingly, so is the rest of Iceland. It's too early to tell if a Sugarcubes American hit will inspire A&R scouts to go poking into Reykjavik garages looking for their own piece of the Icelandic rock pie. But Gramm's Ásmundur Jónsson likens the Sugarcubes' situation to 1955, when the Icelandic author Halldór Laxness won the Nobel Prize for literature. "Everyone knew about it here, and they were really proud," says Jónsson. "The Sugarcubes have been something like that. The future will tell us how important their success will be for the scene here. But it is important now because it shows it is possible."
And if America just goes ho-hum? "I won't say such a corny thing as 'We gave it our best,'" says Einar Örn. "It doesn't matter because we're not professional musicians in the sense that we change bands a lot to find ways to be big. We stick to our guns until the ammunition is over."
Icelanders, you see, have always been a stubborn breed. You have to be pretty hardheaded to survive here. Being a bit crazy helps, too. Einar points out that in the Icelandic sagas – the great tenth- and eleventh-century tales of Iceland's early settlement – there was a man on a horse who was riding along one day when he spotted another man sitting on a tree stump. "This first guy got off his horse, took his ax and – whomp! – beheaded the other guy. Took the head clean off.
"The people asked him, 'Why did you do that?' And the guy answered, 'The angle was perfect for the job.' No other reason. Just that 'the angle was perfect'. "That's us," Einar adds with a mad little grin. "If the angle is perfect, we'll go in."