From an island that abuts the Arctic Circle—an incongruous place of volcanoes and glaciers, geysers and fjords, mud pools and lava floes—emerged a band whose sound and approach to pop music is so eclectic and foreign that American critics, trying to understand and pigeonhole the band, have invented for them a diverse range of probable influences: from early Jefferson Airplane and Talking Heads to 10,000 Maniacs and the B-52s. But some observers have deduced that the Sugarcubes, who hail from Reykjavik, Iceland, are informed more by the wild, often violent landscape and rich folkloric tradition of their homeland. “The Sugarcubes make music that is very much like Iceland itself,” David Fricke wrote in Rolling Stone, “a collision of extremes that can be at once forbidding and mysteriously compelling.” What is startling and singular in the Sugarcubes’ world—both in their country and their music—is a tenacious independent spirit. “I think we are mostly trying to entertain ourselves in our music,” lead singer Björk Gudmundsdottir told Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times. “We want to make music we enjoy.”
Members include Sigtryggur Baldursson (Siggi; drums), Thór Eldon (guitar), Björk Gudmundsdottir (vocals), Bragi Olafsson (bass), Einar Örn (vocals, trumpet), and Margret Örnolfsdottir (keyboards; replaced Einar Melax c. 1988).
Members formed theatrical/rock group KUKL, mid-1980s; formed the Sugarcubes and Bad Taste Ltd., a recording label and publishing house, 1986; first single, “Birthday,” released in England on One Little Indian Records, 1987; released album Life’s Too Good, Elektra, and toured U.S., 1988.
Addresses: Record company —Elektra Records, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY, 10019.
The British punk phenomena of the late 1970s finally made an impact in Iceland in the early 1980s, leading to the formation of more than 50 new bands. But as Sugarcubes drummer Sigtryggur Baldursson pointed out to Cream’s Wif Stenger, Icelandic youth “didn’t have the social background for that frustrated urban thing.” Thus many bands perished. A few, nonetheless, survived to develop considerably beyond their roots. In the mid-1980s, along with a cadre of writers and artists, future Sugarcubes Baldursson, Gudmundsdottir, and vocalist/trumpeter Einar Örn—all past members of Icelandic punk bands—formed the theatrical/rock ensemble KUKL (a medieval Icelandic term connoting witchcraft). The group was able to tour England and Europe, but soon its artistic focus became too intense for its members. “We became so serious,” Gudmundsdottir related to Steve Dougherty of People, “we were like dead people.”
In reaction, a group of KUKL refugees formed the Sugarcubes (“Sykurmolarnir” in Icelandic) in the summer of 1986—“just to have fun,” Gudmundsdottir told Dougherty. But with regard to control over their creative destiny, the group remained serious, establishing their own recording and publishing company, Bad Taste Ltd.—the name was inspired by painter Pablo Picasso’s remark “Good taste is the killer of creativity”—and drawing up a company manifesto, “Heimsyfirrád eda Daudi,” in English, “World Domination or Death.”
To commemorate the diplomatic summit between American and Soviet leaders Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev held in Reykjavik later that year, the group printed a kitschy postcard featuring the two against a watercolor sunset with the word “peace” in both English and Russian above them. “It was horrible,” Gudmundsdottir told Bill Wyman in the Chicago Tribune, “something in truly bad taste, and it became a best-seller!” The money raised financed the local release of the Sugarcubes’ first single, “Birthday,” on their own label.
Released on One Little Indian Records in England in 1987, “Birthday” became an immediate sensation, rising to the top of the British independent music charts. Beyond the song’s lyrics, which many reviewers found sexually suggestive, what created a furor were the band’s hypnotic rhythms, Örn’s talk-chants, and particularly what Musician’s J. D. Considine called Gudmundsdottir’s “otherworldly ululations.” Fricke illuminated, “In a single line she swings from romantic cooing to an angry snarl, punctuating her chorus with Indian war whoops and breathtaking supershrieks.”
The sudden success of “Birthday” and the group’s follow-up single, “Cold Sweat,” quickly attracted the attention of major record labels. But the group was wary. “We don’t think much of record companies,” Gudmundsdottir admitted to Tribune contributor Wyman. “We were our own company at that point, and all we knew was that they have ruined Elvis Presley, you know. We thought they were all just criminals.” Instead, the group decided to continue managing themselves, signing with several small independent labels in Europe; Elektra Records, however, was eventually tapped to handle distribution in the U.S.
With the release of their first album, Life’s Too Good, in 1988, the Sugarcubes demonstrated that their worldview would not be altered to fit commercial tastes. “The melodies weren’t always melodic, the lyrics didn’t rhyme, and their songs assumed shapes as complex and twisted as a DNA molecule,” Karen Schoemer wrote in Interview. But Rolling Stone’s Fricke contended that the group’s approach, perverse and absurd on the surface, was a distillation of Icelandic literature and pagan superstitions through a punk spirit: “In challenging your fundamental notions of absurdity, the band is really testing pop’s capacity for storytelling and dramatic expression.”
This theory notwithstanding, the Sugarcubes perceived themselves as far less obscure, Örn insisting in Pulse! that their music was simply “about everyday life, but with some new twist you’re not used to.” In the often artifice-laden sphere of popular music, where bands are frequently noteworthy more for their too-cool-for-this-world image than their musical feeling or vision, the Sugarcubes have distinguished themselves by exhibiting in their work the most basic of human expressions. “The professional rock music, what it lacks is vitality, the lust for life,” guitarist Thór Eldon told Fricke. “We have that in abundance. We are in harmony with life itself.”
Throughout 1989 the Sugarcubes toured the U.S. with post-punk dance outfit New Order and Public Image Ltd., the former Johnny Rotten’s Sex Pistols successor, as part of the “Monsters of Synth” tour. The group then performed in various Eastern European venues before releasing their second album late in 1989. Here Today, Tomorrow, Next Week extended the juxtaposition of disparate elements that marked the Sugarcubes first album. The group continued “jazzing up dark impressionist verse with jittery dance-floor maneuvers,” confirmed Fricke, “writing love songs that equate romantic obsession with, among other things, indigestion and drowning.”
But the constant touring, promotional interviews, and some critical detraction—Joe Brown, writing in the Washington Post, deemed Here Today, Tomorrow, Next Week “an obvious rush job”—took a toll on the group; they waited until 1992 before releasing Stick Around for Joy, titled after a soft-drink vending machine the group spotted in Japan. Although most reviews were encouraging—Pulse! called the album “more solid and consistent than its predecessors”—the Sugarcubes decided to limit their support of Joy to only seven U.S. concert dates in 1992. The ostensible reason, as Gudmundsdottir explained to Steve Hochman of the Los Angeles Times, was that the bandmembers had, for the moment, chosen to pursue their artistic impulses primarily through the Bad Taste company. Implying that the group was merely a means to an end, she said, “We were just trying to escape boredom.”
Gudmundsdottir’s own search for ennui relief may ultimately lead to a solo career. Testing the waters for such a venture, she released Debut in 1993, rechristening herself simply Björk. “This time around I’m being selfish,” the puckish singer declared in Rolling Stone of her new direction. “In the last years I’ve been a baby sitter for other people, and now this is my own child.” The Sugarcubes frontwoman even planned a solo tour, which she conceded would be “a bit tricky because the majority of [the music on Debut] was played on drum machines and synthesizers.” Further asserting her autonomy, Gudmundsdottir relocated to London, about which she quipped, “You can’t really be a star in Iceland, since there’s so few people. They’re going to see you scratch your bottom in the bus every other day anyway, you know?”
On Elektra Records
Life’s Too Good (includes “Birthday” and “Cold Sweat”), 1988.
Here Today, Tomorrow, Next Week, 1989.
Stick Around for Joy, 1992.
It’s-lt (dance remixes), 1992.
Billboard, July 17, 1993.
Chicago Tribune, August 4, 1988; February 27, 1990.
Christian Science Monitor, August 5, 1988; March 20, 1990.
Cream, May 1992.
Interview, December 1991.
Los Angeles Times, September 4, 1988; March 22, 1992.
Musician, July 1993.
New York Times, September 17, 1989; April 20, 1992.
People, October 10, 1988.
Pulse!, March 1992.
Rolling Stone, July 14, 1988; November 30, 1989; March 5, 1992; June 10, 1993.
Spin, March 1992.
Washington Post, April 10, 1992.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from an Elektra Records press release, 1992.