The Sugarcubes Family Tree – A Punk Rock (His and Her)-story

Back when I was in high school, when things were simpler and we were all more afraid of dying in a nuclear war than from slowly destroying the planet through sheer negligence and indifference, I bought a book called The Harmony Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, which might be the least rock book title of all time. Published in 1986, the year that opened with the Miami Vice Soundtrack topping the Billboard charts and also saw the last album by an experimental weirdo-fest called KUKL (<- this will be relevant later!), this large format book is full of color photos and some surprisingly good band bios and discographies. I read and re-read it constantly, and in that pre-internet era it pointed me towards quite a few artists and albums that I would have never been aware of otherwise. One of the cool things inside is a series of band “family trees” by artist Pete Frame that trace the development of, and often intertwined relationships between, various bands. I found these endlessly interesting, whether they traced the complex inter-minglings of CSNY / The Byrds / The Eagles / Flying Burrito Brothers or Roxy Music / King Crimson. I could follow the threads for hours. Surprisingly I still have the book, thought it seems almost quaint now when I can look up just about anything I’d ever want to know on my phone.

On a seemingly unrelated note, if you read Life in the Vinyl Lane with any frequency you’ll known I’m a fan of the Iceland music scene. What’s strange about that, though, is that I was never into the Sugarcubes or Björk’s solo stuff (or the ultra-popular Sigur Rós for that matter). I doubt I’ve heard all the Sugarcube albums all the way through (though I am listening to Stick Around For Joy as I write this), and I’ve probably only heard three Björk solo records, including the one she did when she was something like 11 years old. So I came to Icelandic music from a weird direction. But I am a big fan of some of Björk’s early work with bands like KUKL and Tappi Tíkarrass, as well as most of the rest of the early Icelandic punk scene. And one thing I found over time is that like those bands in Frame’s family trees, there was a lot of overlap within that scene, much of it eventually converging with the Sugarcubes. So much so that one day I decided I’d try to do a Sugarcubes family tree just to see what it would look like.

Turns out it was a lot of work. And pretty interesting as well, pointing me to some bands like Exem that I’d never heard of before. I probably got some stuff on here wrong too. Sorry about that. I did the best I could with what I had available to me. So if you see something missing or incorrect, hit me up and I’ll try to fix it. Or maybe I won’t. I don’t know. (♣)

We start with five bands at the top level, including what are arguably “The Big 3 Bands In Icelandic Punk” – Purrkur Pillnikk, Tappi Tíkarrass, and Þeyr. The little-known (outside of Iceland, at least) Fan Houtens Kókó also play an important part. The fifth is a bit of an outlier. No one from Spilafífl actually played in the Sugarcubes, but member Birgir Mogensen was in the pre-Sugarcubes outfit KUKL, plus he played bass on the track “Emotional Swing” from the one and only album released by Með Nöktum, a band that included Magnús Guðmundsson, formerly of Þeyr, as one of its core members.

Confused yet? I am a little. Leaving aside all the ancillary bands, let’s just hone in on KUKL, the bands that more or less morphed into the Sugarcubes. Members originally connected as part of a radio broadcast, which led to a 7″ single called Söngull in 1983, right around the same time that Iceland’s first generation of punk bands ended their runs. All five of the bands on the top of the tree contributed at least one member to KUKL:

  • Birgir Mogensen from Spilafífl
  • Einar Melax from Fan Houtens Kókó
  • Einar Örn from Purrkur Pillnikk
  • Björk from Tappi Tíkarrass
  • Siggi Baldursson from Þeyr
  • Guðlaugur Kristinn Óttarsson (credited variously on KUKL releases… including God Krist, Gud Krist, and Guð Krist) from Þeyr

Óttarsson later performed as part of a duo with Björk called Elgar Sisters. Other members of KUKL participated on some of the Elgar Sister recordings, as did other local musicians. The Elgar Sisters recorded 11 tracks, one of which called “Patré” appeared on the label comp tape New Icelandic Music in 1987, while a few others snuck onto various solo releases over the years.

(Taking a breath and switching over to listen to KUKL’s The Eye as I continue to go cross-eyed trying to keep all these pieces together in my mind. It’s disjointedness is fitting for this topic.)

So the last KUKL album, Holidays In Europe (The Naughty Nought), comes out in 1986, and then no more KUKL. But have no fear, my friends, because now we have the Sugarcubes, who blew up with the song “Birthday”. For the band’s first album, in were former KUKL members Siggi, Einar, and Björk, joined by Þór Eldon, previously of Fan Houtens Kókó (yup, there’s Fan Houtens Kókó again…) and Bragi Ólafsson, who had been part of Íkarus alongside Kormákur Geirharðsson who was best known for being part of the early-1980s punk band Taugadeildin. Out were the other three, though they later re-connected as Exem in the mid-1990s. Keyboard player Margrét Örnólfsdóttir rounded out the Sugarcubes after that first album and remained with them until the end.

So there you have it. The story of the Sugarcubes as the story of five early 1980s punk bands. And that doesn’t even touch on some of the other combos that emerged from that scene. It was all pretty intertwined, really, but given the small size of the musical community at the time, it makes sense.

I know this might have been overly brief, since I didn’t give you a bunch of band histories and such. However, I’ve written about most of them before, so follow the links on this post to get to more info about those bands and dive deeper into the history.

(♣) OK, so when Einar Örn Facebook messages you and tells you that you got something wrong, you fix it! Thanks Einar for clarifying the various iterations of the “God Krist” credit on the KUKL releases.

(♠) Oh, and in case you were wondering, The Harmony Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock doesn’t include a single artist or band from Iceland. The closest it gets is showing a picture from the Echo & The Bunnymen photo shoot at Gullfoss, the shoot that resulted in the cover of their 1983 album Porcupine.

Iceland Airwaves 2016 – Day 4

We didn’t do any off venue stuff on Saturday, instead using it as a chance to do some things around town. Plus we had tickets for Björk’s show at Harpa which started at 5PM, so by time we rolled out of bed and got done having “breakfast” with our friend Leana it was already almost Noon… and only about 3.5 hours until our pre-show dinner.

So about that Björk show…

This was our first time seeing Iceland’s most famous export perform, and going into it I knew she was going to be accompanied by strings from the Icelandic Philharmonic Orchestra and would be playing material from her 2015 release Vulnicura, an album that explored the collapse and dissolution of her marriage to artist Matthew Barney. I’d intentionally avoided the album in advance of the show as I wanted to go into this show with as fresh a perspective as possible.

Based on reviews of the album I expected Björk to bring her pain to the stage, but I was completely unprepared for the magnitude of her emotional exposure. The string arrangements were intentionally disjointed and jarring, upping the unease that already flowed from her lyrics as she described the trauma of the dying relationship. It was like she cut out her heart, put it on a table in front of us, and then poured salt on it and tore at her own wounds. If the purpose of art is to make us feel, then Björk accomplished that with her first 45 minute set, making us feel her pain, making us squirm in our seats at the sheer discomfort of listening to her completely expose herself to us. I’m glad I got to experience it. And I hope to never experience anything like it again.

I was a bit concerned we were going to get more of the same following the intermission, as frankly it would have been almost been too much to bear. But fortunately the strings came to life harmonically and beautifully as we entered a more upbeat second half of the show. Björk’s voice soared throughout the hall designed for orchestras and operas, the sound perfect and the crowd quiet and attentive enough that you could hear a pin drop.

We headed back to our apartment for a post-Björk break, but then it was right back down to Harpa for another full night of shows. The on-venue schedule opened for us with Gunnar Jónsson Collider (left) and his brand of experimental rock accompanied by what were definitely the trippiest and coolest visuals we saw at the festival. At times it bordered on prog, but the electronic elements kept things fresh and interesting.

Tonik Ensemble was next, though truth be told Holly and I were chilling out for most of their set, so much so that I literally forgot to shoot photos. I feel a little bad about that because I enjoyed 2015s Snapshot as well as the entire set they played at Harpa. From there it was onto a more up tempo performance by Hermigervill (right), who we first experienced as the musical backing for Berndsen, then later seeing some of his solo performances. He had some witty and funny banter with the crowd and you could tell he was genuinely excited to be up on stage playing his music, which always makes the entire experience more enjoyable. As an added bonus, the big redhead Berndsen came out and did a couple of his dream-pop songs with his old partner in crime, which was a lot of fun.

The teenage duo Let’s Eat Grandma was next in what was a bit of a challenging set that sometimes seemed like it tried to hard to be avant garde. These ladies have some very obvious talent and there were moments within the set where things came together nicely. I respect them from getting outside of the box, but would have enjoyed it more if they played a bit more to their strengths. That being said, I’m certainly aware of the possibility that this could indeed be Advanced work that is simply beyond my comprehension. SG Lewis followed them and showed us a thing or two about how to be both interesting and different, the multi-instrumentalist wearing many hats throughout his set, one of the interesting features of which were some songs that had all the vocals pre-recorded and not being sung by anyone on stage.

That brought us to the finish line and Iceland’s best party band, FM Belfast. As always the gang from FM Belfast packed them in and the crowd density nearly reached critical mass. Holly and I stayed for about half the set before attempting to make it from the far back corner of the room to the exit doors on the other wall (♠), which took us nearly an entire song to accomplish. Eventually we rode the coattails of a bunch of dudes making a single-file path through the crowd while others filed in behind us, but it was a bit touch-and-go for a bit. So if I stepped on your foot during this, my apologies; if you stepped on mine, no worries.

Four days down… one to go!

(♠) I have yet to fully comprehend how the decisions are made as to which doors are opened and closed, and when, at those upstairs rooms in Harpa. It’s a tough floor to be on – the main walkway the two rooms share is pretty narrow in parts and it can make for some super densely packed crowds that can barely move. I get wanting to control traffic flow… but having exit doors that can’t be used at times just makes it harder to get people out of the rooms. And here’s another idea -stagger the start and end times a bit! I get that having shows in both rooms starting and ending at the same time makes some sense in terms of people being able to catch entire sets, but it’s a foot traffic disaster when you have 1,500 people trying to leave two rooms at the exact same time and spilling out into the same small space.

The Sugarcubes – “Stick Around for Joy” (1991)

I have 170 records by Icelandic artists. And that’s just on vinyl… it doesn’t even include tapes and CDs I’ve picked up. And I’ve only been at it for maybe four years. And yet, until last week, I had never purchased anything by The Sugarcubes.

How is this possible? People joke that Björk is Iceland’s biggest export, yet there’s an element of truth to that, certainly from an American perspective. Outside the Bobby Fischer / Boris Spassky match-up for the 1972 World Chess Championship and the 1986 Reagan / Gorbachev summit, which both took place in Reykjavik, most Americans were (and mostly still are) basically ignorant of Iceland. And then The Sugarcubes happened. And Björk happened. And now there are so many tourists going to Iceland that there are legitimate fears that all those people are actually damaging a surprisingly fragile ecosystem, one that Icelanders feel very connected to.

I like to think we fell in love with Iceland before there was a bandwagon. It was more like a little shuttle bus with bald tires at that point. But any time I mentioned the country, Björk and/or The Sugarcubes were invariably brought into the conversation. So how did I manage to go this long without sitting down to listen to The Sugarcubes? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s an unconscious rebellion… sort of feeling like I couldn’t “discover” music that was already so well known? After all, I’ve never listened to Sigur Rós either (no joke), and they’re probably the most popular Icelandic group among American music fans. Hell, I haven’t even listened to either of Björk’s last two albums.

I suspect there is some truth to this. I’m not intentionally ignoring these bands or albums, I just haven’t made even the remotest effort to listen to them. And it’s not like we don’t have their music in the house, since Holly has had CDs by all of them for some time. Simon Reynolds touches on these topics a bit in his fun book Retromania, and while it’s uncomfortable to feel like some type of ridiculous unconscious weaknesses and/or needs shapes my choices of what music to listen to, I have to be man enough to admit that it could be true.

Anyway… I found this nice copy of The Sugarcubes’ last LP, 1991s Stick Around for Joy, the other day stuck in the 12″ singles section at a local store. Given the price, my guess is someone mistook it for a 12″, and to be fair it kind of looks like one, including the jacket opening at the top instead of the right side. And you know what? It’s good. It’s really good. The musical sound is like an evolved version of new wave, sort of a “free” new wave, much like free jazz, a poppy new wave sound that wanders around in a very loosely structured way. Of course, we add to that Björk, with her oh so recognizable voice and vocal style that flows like water and won’t allow itself to be constrained by the music. Thrown in a dash of Einar Örn weirdness, and you have a pop band that still sounds fresh today. The only band I can compare them to is the B-52s, and I do hear a some similarities especially on “Vitamin.”

I’m glad I picked up Stick Around for Joy. There’s some enjoyable, fun pop music here, and I can’t believe I wanted this long to check it out. And since there’s still a little bit more space on my Icelandic vinyl shelf…

“Tvær Í Takinu” Compilation (1984)

The Reykjavik flea market, like flea markets everywhere, is a hit-or-miss affair. There are a couple of regular full time used music sellers, but there are also random boxes of CD and vinyl scattered among the stalls. I’ve done well there in the past, but this year only came away with a few mediocre odds and ends. One of which was a $3 copy of Tvær Í Takinu, a 1984 comp of various well known Icelandic performers. Sure it wasn’t in great shape. But hey, I’d heard of most of the artists, so why not.

Turns out this is actually the second record of a two record set. Volume 1 was all non-Icelandic acts like UB-40 and Culture Club, while Volume 2 was all the Icelandic stuff. I’m not sure if the lady had Volume 1 somewhere in that box too… though if she did, I probably wouldn’t have assumed it was part of this and would have passed it by. Doh! Such is life.

Now supposedly this set is kind of rare, something to do with it being pulled due to the failure to secure rights to the Megas song “Fatlað Fól.” I of course have no idea how true this is, or how someone online arrived at the estimate that maybe 500 copies of this exist. But whatever. Still an interesting story.

A lot of bands and artists I’ve previously written about here are among the 12 performers on Tvær Í Takinu:

Bubbi Morthens, Megas, Björk,  Baraflokkurinn, Egó, Grýlurnar, Þú Og Ég… they’re all here, making this a pretty solid compilation. The songs are pretty poppy overall, much of it in that 80s schmaultzy way, but it’s still decent. If nothing else, it’s a nice cross section of the most important popular musicians in Iceland during the period, so if you can find a cheap copy, pick it up. And hey, if you find a copy of Volume 1, let me know!

Bless – “Gums” (1990)

I’m not sure why I never got around to writing about this record before. I’ve had it for a while – I think it was part of the first batch of records I ever bought from Reykjavik’s Lucky Records, back when they were crammed into their tiny original store. My guess is I listened to it once and never got back to it. I’m not sure what prompted me to put it on today, other than that I’d just been playing some Tappi Tíkarrass and so happened to be perusing my Icelandic vinyl shelf. And much to my surprise, who’s voice did I hear coming out of my speakers on the very first song? Björk’s. Which was a surprise, because Bless was not one of her bands.

In fact the front man of Bless is none other than Dr. Gunni, he of S.H. Draumur and a man who I’ve met and actually bought records from, and a number of his friends appear on Gums. In addition to Björk contributing vocals to “Worlds Collapse” and “Yonder,” her Sugarcubes bandmate and current Ghostigital frontman Einar Örn playse some trumpet on “You Are My Radiator” and none other than Óttarr Proppé of HAM and Dr. Spock fame appears on “Spidergod” (as the Spidergod himself). It’s a veritable collection of Icelandic all-stars from the period when it was released (1990). The lyrical content is all over the place, and certainly a bit odd – song titles include “The Shovel Of Love,” (burying a girl in a sandbox…) “Night Of Cheese,” (eating cheese and a bad relationship) and “The Killfuckman,” (murder, and possibly cannibalism) so you know it’s going to be different.

Musically Gums is an interesting record that’s hard to genre-fy. It’s rock… but it doesn’t neatly fit into any of the normal subgenres. Maybe I should just describe it as “indie” and leave it at that. If there’s one band that Gums reminds me of, it would be Half Japanese, but Bless are much more talented musicians and Gunni, even with his unique delivery, is a better singer than Jad Fair. But there are some similarities, including the often bizarre lyrics.

I need to give this one a few more spins. There’s a lot here to like. Just watch out for the killfuckman, or he’ll get ya.