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.

Tappi Tíkarrass – “Tappi Tíkarrass” (2017)

I think almost every music fan has that one band they would love to see get back together.  Sometimes it’s just because you’d love to hear some new music from one of your favorites, but I suspect that most of the time it’s because you want to see them perform live, whether it’s for the first time or just one more time.  Certainly there are millions of folks who would throw fistfuls of money at any promoter who could convince the three surviving members of Led Zeppelin to do a tour (me included), and those band reunion desires extend all the way from the peak of Mount Zeppelin to the lowliest of bar bands, like that one amazing band that did all those fun shows at that dive you hung out in when you were younger.  It’s all a part of us as humans trying to recapture those amazing feelings we had in the past about a particular artist or band (or our friends, or life in general).

I, of course, have my own list of such bands, and a few of them are punk outfits from Iceland who stopped making music before I ever even knew Iceland was a country.  I’d love to see Purrkur Pillnikk or Þeyr perform again for sure, and alongside them, perhaps even surpassing them, would be Björk’s old band Tappi Tíkarrass.  Fortunately for me the nostalgia wave reached Iceland and last year we learned that Tappi Tíkarrass were releasing their first album in 34 years.  The re-formed band was comprised of original members, though unfortunately lacking Ms. Guðmundsdóttir – but the idea of them putting out a new record was exciting nonetheless.  When I heard they’d be playing Airwaves it was an added bonus – a chance to see them live!  And I’d be lying if I didn’t secretly hope that maybe, just maybe, Björk might step onto the tiny stage at Reykjavik’s Gaukurinn (below) for a song or two.  She didn’t, but it was still a great show and one to check off my musical bucket list.

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Right out of the gate with the opening chords of “Spat” it’s clear that Tappi Tíkarrass are still in touch with their old sound, the guitar work having that certain undefinable (at least to me) flavor that just screams 1980s Icelandic punk.  There are some early new wave elements here as well, like the Big-Country-sounding “Tiltekinn” and the Bowie-esque “Hlusta”.  Don’t be fooled, though; Tappi Tíkarrass is far from derivative.  This is a band that has its own unique flavor, one shaped by the time and place during which the musicians came of age.  My nod for the most intriguing track on the album is “Skanna Stjörnur”, an off-kilter number accentuated by some lyrical modulation towards the end.

The definitive element of the band’s sound is Eyjólfur Jóhannsson’s guitar, which gives direction and pace to each song and differentiates one from another.  Vocalist Eyþór Arnalds definitely puts in some work as well, not trying to overdo it but still providing some flourishes and adding his own sonic touch to the songs.

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My one criticism of Tappi Tíkarrass, at least on vinyl, is the recording sounds a bit flat to me.  I’m not sure if that’s intentional, but I feel like the range is a bit compressed.  It becomes less noticeable as the album progresses, though I’m thinking that’s just the result of my ears compensating.  Regardless, I’m glad we got to experience a new Tappi Tíkarrass record – the guys are still talented and can write some good jams.

Iceland Airwaves 2017 – Day 3

Well, it’s the “hump day” of Iceland Airwaves – Friday.  Day 3.  The tipping point.

We finally stumbled out of bed and got ourselves organized sometime around Noon after a  late one last night and hustled down to KEX Hostel to see Mikko Joensuu.  A few weeks back I was fortunate enough to get to spend a bit of time with KEXP DJ/Program Director Kevin Cole and he was absolutely gushing about Joensuu, so I knew I wanted to check him out at Airwaves.  And Kevin hit the nail on the head with this recommendation. Mikko performed with a fairly large ensemble – somewhere around 9-10 musicians including a string section.  The rich textures of his voice reminded me immediately of my dad’s favorite, Neil Diamond.  But don’t be fooled, because this isn’t your father’s (or grandfather’s) music.  Joensuu brings a spiritual vibe to his lyrics and musically offers a contemporary take on folk and indie rock.  I got a bit reflective during this show, reminding me as it did of Diamond and given my dad’s passing earlier this year; I think dad would have enjoyed Mikko’s music.  One of the things that strikes me about artists, and musicians in particular, is how much they expose themselves in their work, something that is not easy for most people to do and in fact is something we’re encouraged, either directly or indirectly, to suppress.  The words of “Drop Me Down” are so spiritually heavy, and Joensuu’s delivery so authentic, that it was almost painful to listen to, but I’m glad that he was willing to share this experience with us.

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Later in the afternoon we were back at Lucky Records for a pair of performances.  First was the electronica set by the previously reviewed Kuldaboli, who put out one of the best albums of 2016 in Vafasamur Lífsstíll 2015-2016.  After that we got a solid 40 minutes from Epic Rain, mostly material off the recently released Dream Sequences but also with a track from 2014s Somber Air.  They’re always a favorite, and this was their only show at Airwaves in 2017 as they prep for an upcoming French tour.  Good stuff.

The on-venue evening started weakly, and since I don’t like to talk crap about musicians on Life in the Vinyl Lane I’m not going to tell you who we saw.  But we were definitely the oldest people in the room with the exception of some of the performers’ parents, and I wasn’t interested in hearing a bunch of very young dudes telling me how “money comes and money goes” and how they’re “rollin’ kilos” in the mean streets of Reykjavik 101.  I wanted to tell everyone in the room to get off my lawn.  But after that things improved considerably with the sort of soul/hip hop performance by CRYPTOCHROME (below) in front of a small but enthusiastic group and we felt like things were moving in the right direction.

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From there it was off to Gaukurinn where we saw American performer VAGABON in a stylistically diverse indie set.  That brought us to the band we came to see, the one I had circled on the schedule weeks in advance – Tappi Tíkarrass. (♠) Before Björk became a mega-famous international star, she was in a band called The Sugarcubes.  And before she was in The Sugarcubes, she was in Kukl.  And before she was in Kukl, back when she was still a teenager, she was in Tappi Tíkarrass.  They only left behind an album and an EP in the early 1980s and disbanded in 1983.  As near as I can tell, they reunited once for a show in 1987 and that was the last anyone heard from them until 2017 when the band reunited, sans Björk, and played a show at the Hard Rock in Reykjavik.  Which brings you up to date to last night when we saw them rock the house at a not-quite-packed Gaukurinn (below).  It was a fun, old school punk show, and even without Björk (who we secretly hoped might make an appearance) I’m glad to have checked this off my music bucket list.

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Holly and I called it a night after that, making a quick pit stop at the Waffle Wagon on the way back to our apartment.  Our friends Norberto and J headed over to the Art Museum to catch FM Belfast and partied late into the night with a thousand of their newest best friends, because watching FM Belfast is a family experience.

We’ve passed the half-way point of Iceland Airwaves 2017, which is always a bit of a surprise when it happens… even though you know it’s coming.  Just two more days to go…

(♠) Which roughly translates to “Cork the Bitch’s Ass”.  Really.

Bless – “Gums”

I’m not sure why I never got around to writing about this record before.  I’ve had it for a while – I think it was part of the first batch of records I ever bought from Reykjavik’s Lucky Records, back when they were crammed into their tiny original store.  My guess is I listened to it once and never got back to it.  I’m not sure what prompted me to put it on today, other than that I’d just been playing some Tappi Tíkarrass and so happened to be perusing my Icelandic vinyl shelf.  And much to my surprise, who’s voice did I hear coming out of my speakers on the very first song?  Björk’s.  Which was a surprise, because Bless was not one of her bands.

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In fact the front man of Bless is none other than Dr. Gunni, he of S.H. Draumur and a man who I’ve met and actually bought records from, and a number of his friends appear on Gums.  In addition to Björk contributing vocals to “Worlds Collapse” and “Yonder,” her Sugarcubes bandmate and current Ghostigital frontman Einar Örn playse some trumpet on “You Are My Radiator” and none other than Óttarr Proppé of HAM and Dr. Spock fame appears on “Spidergod” (as the Spidergod himself).  It’s a veritable collection of Icelandic all-stars from the period when it was released (1990).  The lyrical content is all over the place, and certainly a bit odd – song titles include “The Shovel Of Love,” (burying a girl in a sandbox…) “Night Of Cheese,” (eating cheese and a bad relationship) and “The Killfuckman,” (murder, and possibly cannibalism) so you know it’s going to be different.

Musically Gums is an interesting record that’s hard to genre-fy.  It’s rock… but it doesn’t neatly fit into any of the normal subgenres.  Maybe I should just describe it as “indie” and leave it at that.  If there’s one band that Gums reminds me of, it would be Half Japanese, but Bless are much more talented musicians and Gunni, even with his unique delivery, is a better singer than Jad Fair.  But there are some similarities, including the often bizarre lyrics.

I need to give this one a few more spins.  There’s a lot here to like.  Just watch out for the killfuckman, or he’ll get ya.

Tappi Tíkarrass – “Bítið Fast Í Vítið”

Whenever someone hears that I’ve been to Iceland, invariably I get the same two questions immediately.

1.  What possessed you to want to go there?
2.  Have you ever met Björk?

The first one is generally easy to answer with the usual descriptions of the amazing scenery, friendly people, and how safe and easy to navigate Reykjavik is.  Until last fall the answer to the second question was no.  But after Airwaves 2012 it’s now a no with an asterisk.  Since then I’ve been able to say truthfully that I’ve stood next to Björk at a concert, but we’ve never been formally introduced.  That being said, it’s a small city – so running into her somewhere on a future trip is hardly out of the question.

I wrote about Björk’s early band Tappi Tíkarrass in a review of its only LP Mirnada, and also touched on them HERE and HERE.  Suffice it to say that the band was formed when Björk was only around 16 or 17 and had just graduated from music school.  She’d already gained some fame in her homeland, but Tappi Tíkarrass gave her the opportunity to break free of classical and cultural music to move into the evolving world of punk-new wave in the early 1980s.

Tappi Tíkarrass released their five song EP debut Bítið Fast Í Vítið (translated as Bite Hard Into Hell, which seems a bit extreme until you consider that the band’s name actually means “Cork the Bitch’s Ass” (I kid you not)) in 1982.  Clocking in at under 13 minutes, it’s quick and to the point, and the point is punk… though to be fair, I think its a bit closer to the new wave side of the punk-new wave continuum.

 

Björk’s singing on Bítið Fast Í Vítið is actually pretty conventional for the era and genre.  We only catch a few fleeting glimpses of the sound that she later cultivated and made her own.  There isn’t any of the screaming or massive pitch changes that later came to define her style, and in fact I think she tried to keep her voice relatively low here.  And I’ll let you in on a secret:  It works.  She has a beautiful voice, and I have no doubt she could have been massively successful with mainstream pop songs had she chosen that route.  Fortunately for us she didn’t, and her body of work speaks to an artist evolving over time, and I think all of us are the better for it.  There are lots of great female pop voices.  There’s only one Björk.

Bítið Fast Í Vítið is gritty, early new wave, and 30 years later it still sounds great to my ears.  The band is solid and Björk’s voice forces you to pay attention, especially on “London,” the opening track of side B, on which she does a little growling early on to grab you.

I generally don’t talk about the price of the records I write about here, but I will say that Bítið Fast Í Vítið is probably the most valuable one on my shelves… I certainly paid more for it than any of the others.  Does that matter?  Not really.  It’s still just a record.  But a pretty great one, I have to admit.