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

harmonyencyclopediaBack 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. (♣)

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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.

Skaði – “Jammið” Cassette (2018)

skadijammidSkaði is Skaði Þórðardóttir, artist, performer, and musician.  Her new release Jammið opens with “Skaði Manifesto”, burning like a long fuse, horns on the occasional bongo blending into the pulsing electro goodness.  That underlying sensuality is a theme throughout, whether on the more uptempo “Jamma”, or the Eastern-influenced “Romance in the Chillroom”, or the Western guitar infused “The Vacuum of the Heart”.  She reaches across genres and geography for the bits and pieces to make each track distinctive, while still maintaining the continuity necessary to define her own particular style.

Jammið is available for streaming on the FALK Bandcamp page HERE, and they still have copies of the limited edition (of 50) cassette.

Sigtryggur Berg Sigmarsson & BJNilsen – “The Found Tapes” (2018)

The creation of music is, for the musician, a personal process.  Whether making the most seemingly vapid sugary pop or the most challenging avant garde, the creator brings at least some elements of his/her personal experience to the process.  And while we as listeners can never fully feel that place, we can hear the result, and what is produced is, at least scientifically speaking, the same for all of us.  Sure, one person’s hearing may be better than another’s, but at the end of the day we can use equipment to show precisely what the sound waves look like.  So while the artist’s personal experience is still unique to them, the rest of us have a framework (the song) through which to try to comprehend it.

Dreams, on the other hand, are a totally different story.  In theory we all dream, though I’ve known a few people over the years who say they never, ever remember their dreams upon waking.  That seems so strange to me, because while I don’t always remember my dreams, I’d say that most mornings immediately upon waking I have at least some recollection of what I dreamed.  These memories are often quite fragmented, sometimes even down to just a snapshot-like image or two, and they’re certainly hard to keep in my mind, fading like an ice cube melting on hot concrete.  I’ve even been fortunate enough to have a few lucid dreams, which is a total trip and can be quite a lot of fun if you can manage to stay asleep.  But have you ever tried explaining your dream to someone else, or listened as they tried to explain theirs to you?  The entire thing often sound so bizarre, and often quite different from your own dream experiences.  Do we all dream the same way?  It doesn’t seem like it.  Some people’s dreams are quite linear, while others are complete chaos.  And what about the emotional connection to your dreams?  We’re talking about something that is a shared human experience, but one which we literally have no way of truly sharing with others.  Maybe I could make a film or a song that captured some dream I had, but the disconnect is at a very deep level.

Listening to The Found Tapes is like intruding into another person’s dream.  It’s like getting inside someone’s head and hearing their unconscious, the sometimes faint, sometimes bold firing of synapses.  There are threads that seems to have a logical flow to them, but at times these are sharply broken by the entirely unexpected.  Sigmarsson (part of Stilluppsteypa) and Nilsen create a universe that feels like it is set inside a hollow cranium, a confined space capable of reflecting and shifting sound in ways that can be both beautiful and unsettling.  Some places are calm and orderly, others dark and primal, superego and id co-existing and sometimes colliding like billiard balls rolling along a rubber mat, so that even when they don’t make physical contact they still change one another’s trajectories due to the curves their masses introduce onto the surface.  It’s the sound of the early days of the universe, a Jungian archetype coded into our DNA by the big bang.

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I believe there are two versions of this release.  The first is a cassette accompanied by a 112 page color art book in a limited edition of 70 copies.  The second, which is the one I have, is also an edition of 70 copies, but is simply a cassette and one signed/numbered photo in a plastic pouch.  Overall the best genre description I can come up with is experimental ambient, but what you really want it for is the dreams… the dreams…

Kælan Mikla – “Nótt Eftir Nótt” (2018)

kaelanmiklanottKælan Mikla has been stacking up the accolades as of late.  There was a lot of great press about their performances at Iceland Airwaves 2018, they made the cover of Distorted Sound Magazine, and their latest album, the recently released Nótt Eftir Nótt, came in at #14 on Revolver‘s “30 Best Albums of 2018”.  And the praise is well-deserved.  The trio have developed from being a band that caught your attention because of their raw emotional power to very talented musicians, all the while still maintaining that air of mystery tinged with an undercurrent of anxiety.  Over the last 10 years of following the Icelandic scene we’ve seen lots of bands start up and develop over time, and Kælan Mikla are right up there with Fufanu in starting strong and  then just continuing to improve release after release.

Initially the most defining characteristic of Kælan Mikla’s sound, what truly separated them from the pack, was Laufey Soffía’s vocals, the insistence of her delivery and her soul-piercing screams.  But as the band matured and their musicianship evolved they no longer needed to rely on that vocal power, giving all of them more room to explore and maneuver – not only is the music denser and more layered, but the vocals don’t have to be so reliant on making that icicle-like stab into your amygdala.  That’s not to say that songs like “Skuggadans” won’t trigger your fight-or-flight responses, because they certainly will; but there’s plenty of dark beauty to be found on Nótt Eftir Nótt too.  The hauntingly beautiful “Næturblóm” could just as easily find a home on the club dance floor, and if you’re more of an old-school Kælan Mikla fan “Andvaka” will take you back to the very first time you heard them, sitting alone in the dark, afraid of what was lurking outside your bedroom window.

You can preview the album on Bandcamp HERE, as well as purchase physical copies.  If you haven’t heard Kælan Mikla before, you owe it to yourself to give them a listen; and if you think you know them from their prior albums, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much they continue to grow and improve as artists.