Neither Sweet nor Square, Iceland's Sugarcubes Make a Norse Heard Round the World
Iceland's latest (in a short line of) rock exports, the Sugarcubes—Sykurmolar back home—aren't likely to inspire an Icelandic invasion; the airfare's too steep for the city's many struggling bands. But the surprising success of the neopunk sextet's debut album, Life's Too Good, has definitely put Iceland on the world rock map. Already established in England, where their three singles—"Birthday," "Cold Sweat" and "Deus"—hit big, the Sugarcubes so tantalized a Rolling Stone critic that his PC got stuck in over-praise, raving about "a powerful beat tornado whipping fragments of sharp aggressive bass, angular guitar and hard tribal rhythms into bright hypnotic melodies." Whatever. At the very least, the group has whipped up enough U.S. excitement to sell 250,000 LPs, pack houses on its recent two-month tour—and land an Oct. 15 gig on Saturday Night Live.
Forget glacial cool. Lead singer Björk Gudmundsdottir, 22, is a petite brunet with enormous almond-shaped eyes, and her sensuous stage manner moved a British writer to see "sex on a stick." Sharing the spotlight is Einar Orn, 25, a hyperkinetic vocalist and trumpet player who parodies himself by bleating away on a dime-store horn, takes a pratfall and follows it up with a little California-speak: "Nooo problem." Backing the singers are bassist Bragi Olafsson, 26, guitarist Thor El-don, 25, ex-husband of Björk, keyboard player Magga Orlofsdottir, 20, Thor's current love interest, and drummer Siggi Baldursson, 25.
The names don't exactly roll off American tongues. But back home, the Cubes (Molars) are household icons. "To walk down the main street of Reykjavik takes about 10 minutes," says Björk. "You're bound to run into at least a dozen people you know. People don't hassle us. But the media write about us in the same way they write about Sylvester Stallone. You read it and you die with laughter."
Equally laughable, claim the Cubes, is Iceland's international image. "We didn't originally have reindeer," Einar says with disgust. "They were imported." Far from icebound, the 40,000-square-mile island abutting the Arctic Circle is laced with glaciers, geysers, fissures, steam pits and lava fields—the products of its location atop a geo-thermal hot spot. Since the summer stretch of perpetual daylight is paid for by the winter's endless darkness, local temperaments run to the eccentric. Fifty percent of all Icelanders, says Björk, believe in ghosts. "I've seen a ghost," says Thor. "It was at Björk's house." And just what form did the spirit take? Siggi shrugs. "Like they say in Ghostbusters, these things can take on whatever form they want."
Another thing about Icelanders—they love to assess themselves. "There was a poll done on happiness," says Magga. "It came out that Icelanders are the happiest people in the world. They are so proud that they would never tell anybody if they're miserable." Perhaps they should. "Another survey," adds Thór, "showed we have the highest suicide rate except for Japan." Go figure.
Notoriously trend-conscious—"crazes spread like plagues," Siggi says—Icelanders have put the Cubes right up there with tanning salons and car phones. Still, admits Björk, "our records didn't start selling there until Icelanders were told by foreign media we were brilliant."
The brilliance is both collective and singular. Their company, Bad Taste Ltd., is a record label, home to six local bands, and a publishing house for young Icelandic writers. The name, Einar says, "was inspired by Picasso. He said, 'Good taste is the worst enemy of creativity.' " On their own, Thor and Bragi are published poets; Einar is a college lecturer, a poet and show business entrepreneur; Siggi is an exhibited painter. Björk appeared in an Icelandic TV show as a singer who commits suicide. "It's a very happy play," she says dryly.
Einar, Siggi and Björk are all ex-members of KUKL, a band whose music Einar describes as "an atonal mess." Björk's memories, too, are not rosy: "We became so serious, we were like dead people." To counteract such solemnity, the Sugarcubes were born—"just to have fun," explains Björk. But the group is serious about creative control. Siggi is wary of managers "who order: 'Cut your hair, look like this, sound like that!' " Vows Björk: "We will continue to do it our own bad way—getting Icelandic people to do our videos, and wearing ugly clothes."
With their first U.S. foray over, the Cubes have packed up their unfashionable duds and returned to Reykjavik for a second LP. Siggi, Einar and Bragi go back to their wives. Thor and Magga may continue their romance, begun mid-tour in Chicago. Björk, whose divorce from Thór came through two weeks before the tour began, doesn't seem to mind. She's busy caring for her and Thor's 2-year-old son, Sindri, who accompanies Mom and Dad on the road. Says a spokesman for the band's U.S. label, Elektra: "They do things differently in Iceland."
—By Steve Dougherty, with Lisa Russell in Chicago