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.

Purrkur Pillnikk – “Googooplex”

I’ve written about Purrkur Pillnikk before, specifically the 1981 Ehgjl En LP.  Basically they were an early 1980s Icelandic punk band, members of which later spun off into other groups such as KUKL, The Sugarcubes, and Ghostigital.

Their sound was sort of punk/new wave transitional with odd musical structures, and it’s easy to see the roots of KUKL and The Sugarcubes here even though those bands benefitted significantly from Björk’s vocals.  Purrkur Pillnikk consistently used a lot of echo in their vocals, and I think to some extent their music, that in many ways gives their sound a sort of “distant” feel, almost like it’s coming from someplace in the room other than your stereo speakers.  It’s music that’s hard to get a grasp of, slipping through your fingers and ears, lacking recognizable structures and patterns.  This makes it seem disjointed and almost forces you to pay attention to it, because you couldn’t possibly just ignore it in the background, even with the volume low.

Googooplex itself as a physical album is also odd, a double 12″ with 13 songs, which threw me off the first time I tried to play it since I assumed the speed was 33 1/3 (and I was wrong, with music that sounded like the record was melting in slow motion… you should give it a try) instead of the correct 45 rpm.  I found my copy on eBay for a pretty reasonable price, around $25 or so.  In general Googooplex seems a bit less expensive than Ehgjl En and the overall sound quality is really good, aided no doubt by the wider grooves on the 45 rpm 12″ format.  Ehgjl En has the added advantage of being available on CD, though I doubt you’d ever find a copy.  You’d be better served buying what is more or less the band’s entire output via iTunes for $19.99, an album called I Augum Uti, which we also have and I can safely recommend.  It’s a great way to get exposure to the early Icelandic punk/new wave scene, as well as the music that later developed into The Sugarcubes.

“Geyser – Anthology of the Icelandic Independent Music Scene of the Eighties”

If you want to check out the Icelandic punk/new wave scene from the early 1980s, and get exposure to as many bands as possible, you really have two primary choices:  the Northern Lights Playhouse and Geyser compilations.  Of the two, Geyser appears the most available, and has the added bonus of having the greater number of bands featured (11 in all).  Northern Lights Playhouse features more songs, but less bands with only six… though four of these do not appear on Geyser, so in a perfect world you’d have both.  However, with Norther Lights Playhouse costing $60+ on vinyl compared to maybe $10 for Geyser (or cheaper), the later is the overall winner.  Northern Lights Playhouse does get points, however, for being available on the Icelandair music channel on their flights… or at least it was this summer.  Good work Icelandair!  Pretty gutsy for an airline.

I find it ironic that the subtitle of this album indicates it is an anthology of the “Icelandic Independent Music Scene”.  As if there is really a music scene in Iceland that isn’t independent.

Most of the classic Icelandic punk and new wave bands are here.  Theyr, Purrkur Pillnikk, Bubbi & Das Kapital, Vonbrigdi… even the Bjork/Einar Orn project KUKL.  Two of the tracks are previously unreleased elsewhere.  As an added bonus the reverse of the album cover also includes 12 paragraphs on the bands featured.  Geyser was created in 1987 for release outside of Iceland, intended to draw attention to the Icelandic music scene.

Perhaps the most intriguing track on the album is “Edda” by Sveinbjorn Beinteinsson, described as “a farmer and the official head of the heathen sect of Asatru”.  What he does isn’t what we today think of as music.  Instead it’s the Icelandic style of poetry chanting.  It’s haunting and soulful.

Your introduction to Icelandic music awaits!  Get some!