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.

Purrkur Pillnikk – “No Time To Think” 7″ (1982)

We’re finally back home after yet another fantastic Iceland Airwaves, and I brought back a ton of vinyl. So after a marathon cleaning session and a few long days of work, we finally made it to a rainy Saturday morning, and my car is in the shop, so I have nothing at all to do except sit down and spin some records.

I still had some new purchases sitting on my shelves when we left for our trip, and they’re still sitting there looking forlorn and wondering if they’ll ever get played. Don’t fret John Grant and Mad Season and Rick James… you’ll all get your turns. But for now there are a few items I brought back from Iceland that I’m particularly excited about, so you’ll just need to be patient.

Purrkur Pillnikk is the first of the old-school Icelandic punk bands I “discovered” when I made my first foray to Reykjavik’s Lucky Records about four years ago, and they’re still one of my favorites. This year I got the added pleasure of getting to see Ghotigital, the duo that features former Pillnikk singer (and member of The Sugarcubes) Einar Örn, in a very intimate setting at the record store/label he owns, Bad Taste. There might have been about 35 people packed into that store, while more stood outside on the sidewalk and looked in, so no one was more than maybe 15 feet from Einar. Since his partner in crime Curver was a few minutes late in showing up, Einar simply hung out and talked to us about being a punk and politics and all kinds of other stuff, and he was very engaging. Fast forward a couple of days and Norberto and I went out to Einar and Curver’s gallery showing and were the only ones there early on Sunday, so Einar took us around the entire gallery and talked with us about art. It was one of my all-time Airwaves highlights. Takk, Einar.

So what about the No Time To Think 7″? Well, this was the last record I needed to complete my collection of Purrkur Pillnikk releases, and while I’ve bid on a few copies on eBay I never managed to win one. As soon as I saw it at Lucky I knew I had to have it, so I added it to my massive stack of vinyl.

Now, I already have all four of the songs on No Time To Think, as they were all included in the two CD Purrkur Pillnikk compilation Í Augum Úti that was released in 2001, but that wasn’t going to stop me from getting this scarce record. Originally released in 1982 and clocking in at under eight minutes, No Time To Think stands out in the Pillnikk catalog for being done entirely in English (as near as I can tell). It includes probably my favorite song by the band, the 1:01 burst that is “Surprise,” and if you listen closely to “Excuse Me” I firmly believe you can hear the very very beginnings of what would eventually be the signature Einar vocal delivery style that he’s known for today in his work with Ghostigital.

I can’t say enough about the frenetic energy of Purrkur Pillnikk. If you’re a punk fan who is open to stuff that doesn’t fall into the standard punk rock templates, you need to check out their work, and since much of the catalog is available on iTunes via the previously mentioned compilation (which I believe includes all their albums and singles with the exception of 1981s Ehgjl En), you simply don’t have an excuse. Give them a listen and expand your mind.

Purrkur Pillnikk – “Tilf” 7″ (1981) (Sh*t I Play On My Crosley #4)

purkurrtilfPurrkur Pillnikk‘s Tilf may seem like an odd choice for me to play on my Crosley. After all, it’s a desirable early 1980s Icelandic punk 7″, and while far from being one of the most valuable ones, it still sells in the $50+ range. This copy, however, isn’t worth anywhere near that due to some very unfortunate and heavy warping.

My friend Ingvar of Lucky Records fame gave this to me for free a few years ago, figuring maybe I could somehow flatten it out enough to play. So for nearly two full years it’s sat in the middle of a nearly foot-high stack of large format music books on top of my record shelf. I did try using a hairdryer on it at one point without success, and while I considered the old sandwiching it between two panes of glass and putting it in the oven trick, that seemed like a lot of work and almost certain to destroy it completely. It turned out the books worked, sort of. I think it flattened out a bit, though it’s still a mess, and while I wouldn’t want to put it on my Rega, I figured I’d give it a try on the Crosley since one of the knocks on that player is the heavy weight/pressure the tonearm applies to the records. Maybe that weight would keep the stylus in the groove, and even if it puts way more wear on it than a better record player would, it’s not like Tilf is something I’ll be playing a lot, nor do I need to worry about its condition since its already pretty atrocious.

And I’ll be damned if it didn’t play fairly well. The opening song of side B was a bit warbly, but all-in-all it played OK and didn’t sound half bad, even out of the little tiny speakers built into the Crosley. The Crosley doesn’t seem to like how close the grooves run to the inner label, as it’s auto-stop function kicks in prior to the end of the last song on each side, but that can be turned off, so not a problem.

Purrkur Pillnikk cram 10 songs onto the Tilf 7″, which ain’t easy to do. All the tracks appear on the two CD band compilation called Í Augum Úti that came out back in 2001 (a 44-song monster that you can buy via iTunes for $19.99), so none of these songs are “new” to me, but it was cool to see this record find a new life long after it appeared it had given up the ghost. I certainly wish it was a nicer copy, but it was a gift and I was able to make something out of nothing, which is exactly what Ingvar was hoping would happen.

So a big “Takk” to you if you’re reading this Ingvar, and we’ll be seeing you in Reykjavik in a few weeks for Iceland Airwaves ’15. I’m bringing a pocket full of kronur and an empty record bag…

Ornamental – “No Pain” (1987)

Gee, it’s been maybe six weeks since I’ve written about some type of Einar Örn Benediktsson project and I feel like I’m going through withdrawal. OK, and that’s not even entirely true because I did post about the Rokk í Reykjavík DVD recently, and he’s featured there with his punk band Purrkur Pillnikk. What can I say? The man’s musical resume runs deep and he has been involved in so many Icelandic projects it’s almost harder to find something he hasn’t worked on. Having a Sugarcubes level of success certainly helps… and so does having your own label so you can put out what you want.

So thanks to the amazing interwebs I tracked down another obscure record Einar Örn worked on in conjunction with collaborator Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson (Grindverk, Frostbite, H3ÖH), this one a 12″ called No Pain by the group calling itself Ornamental. Joining them on the project were Rose McDowell (Strawberry Switchblade) and Dave Ball (Soft Cell), making for an eclectic mix of musicians, though all of who had a reputation for being into stuff outside the mainstream.

No Pain certainly fits that description, though there are a lot of familiar sounds in this blend of new wave and industrial (industrial adult contemporary… light industrial… pop industrial…?). The beats are fast new wave… but with enough quick drum machine beats and odd metallic clanks to remind me a bit of Cabaret Voltaire. The horns also scream new wave, as does the funky bass that almost makes me think of Oingo Boingo. McDowell’s vocals are very high and modulated, reminiscent of the Bangles, and Einar’s unique brand of speaking/singing functions almost like a weird hip hop interlude late in the title track “No Pain,” which is a pretty cool dance track.

“No Pain” takes up all of side A, while the flip side has two other versions of that song (“No Pain #2 (Short Mix)” and “No Pain (Get Ready Mix)”), along with “Le Sacré D’Hiver,” a much more straight forward industrial dance track that excludes McDowell and instead is the realm of the bizarreness of Einar and his crazy horn. The pace is much faster than that of the three versions of “No Pain” and it’s a more chaotic number without the familiar pop music pieces of the title track.

One thing I know for sure – if Einar Örn is involved in something, it’s going to be interesting. And usually pretty damn good too.

Purrkur Pillnikk – “Maskínan” (1982)

One of the albums I was most excited about picking up on our recent trip to Reykjavik was the post-breakup live record Maskínan by Icelandic OG punks Purrkur PiIllnikk. Holly generally doesn’t do punk (at all), but the late 70s/early 80s bands out of that musical island paradise appeal to her for some reason. The fact that Einar Örn of Purrkur Pillnikk later went on to play in KUKL, the Sugarcubes, and most recently with Ghostigital speaks volumes for the importance of boys from Purrkur. Hell, he’s even a government minister in charge of culture and tourism! You can’t make this stuff up.

I convinced the guys at Lucky Records to hold a copy of this scarce album for me, and I’m glad I did. It was worth every kronur. Maskínan is a live record, featuring songs from two shows – one in March 1981, the other in August 1982. The sound quality is surprisingly good, and while there is some material here that doesn’t appear on any of their other studio albums… truth be told, you can get the whole thing via digital download on the band’s Í Augum Úti compilation available on iTunes for $19.99, a collection that includes much of their recorded output. <sigh> But my name is Jeff, and I’m a vinyl junkie, so I have both the mp3s and the vinyl. Because that’s how I roll sometimes. Plus I dig the fold out poster jacket. Because I’m a geek.

From a purely musical and economic standpoint… go spend the twenty bucks and get yourself some Í Augum Úti. It totally kicks ass and includes something crazy like 44 songs. But if you’re just a bit crazy and have a record player… hunt this sucker down.