POP MUSIC : Warming Up to Iceland’s Sugarcubes
The six members of the Sugarcubes must have gritted their teeth when they drove up to the Bacchanal club here for their Southern California debut.
To welcome the acclaimed new Icelandic rock band, a radio station had arranged for the band’s name to be carved out of a block of ice outside the entrance and for artificial snowflakes to be dropped from the club roof to give the impression of some sort of Arctic Circle blizzard.
You can understand the thinking. It’s not every day a band comes from Iceland. Even Rolling Stone magazine couldn’t resist having fun with the Sugarcubes’ novel homeland. The headline of its recent profile of the group: “The Coolest Band in the World.”
Bjork Gudmundsdottir and Einar Beneditksson, the group’s lead singers, understand the fascination with Iceland, but it’s still a bit tiresome.
“One thing we want to make clear is that we are not the Icelandic Tourist Bureau,” said Einar with a sigh, sipping a beer in the bar at his hotel before the show.
Bjork (both singers prefer to be identified simply by their first names) nodded in agreement.
“The questions are only tiring because people expect Iceland to be so different,” she said, sitting across the table from Einar.
“It is different, but not in the way people think. It’s a different culture and a different landscape, but people here sometimes act as if there must be some different type of oxygen there. It’s like they think people in our country stand on their heads when they eat or something.
“The same is true at the shows sometimes. I get the feeling some people are disappointed because we come out in regular clothes . . . not in some tribal gear or with polar bears. Our country’s not some deep, dark mysterious place.”
Sugarcubes fans can satisfy their curiosity about Iceland by simply looking in a reference book (it is a country of about 250,000 that is 570 miles west of Norway), but they are on their own when it comes to unraveling the mysteries in the band’s songs.
On one level, the group’s music is a highly accessible and seductive blend of Blondie-esque pop bounce, the somewhat arty folk humanism of a group like 10,000 Maniacs and raw, post-punk energy.
Yet there is also another, more complex side to the Sugarcubes’ music: Lyrics that are so open to multiple interpretation that it’s not uncommon for listeners to revise their views of the songs several times.
“Motorcrash,” one of the group’s most appealing numbers, seems on first listening to be a straightforward tale of a traffic accident.
Bjork (pronounced Be- urk ) tells of a young girl happening across the accident while riding her bicycle. The girl helps a woman who had been hurt in the accident to get home, where the woman’s husband screams at her for being late.
But the story is interrupted by Einar’s stern voice, pointing out that the girl on the bicycle “shows great interest in all the motorcrashes in the neighborhood. She looked quite innocent, but, believe you me, I know what innocence looks like and it wasn’t there. . . .”
What’s going on? Why does the girl always seem to be at the scene? A coincidence? Or is there something darker at work? Could it be that she somehow caused the accidents?
Similar questions are raised in other songs, including “Birthday,” which has been interpreted as everything from a carefree party scene to a tale of child abuse.
Some fans, noting that the band writes its lyrics in Icelandic and then translates them into English, have suggested that the mystery in the songs is an accidental by-product of translation. Others, however, see the songs as clever word-games. After all, the title of the band’s excellent debut album--"Life’s Too Good"--suggests a sly, ironic viewpoint.
Einar, whose congenial manner and quick wit in conversation contrast strongly with his Nordic austerity on stage, smiles at the “translation theory,” dismissing the idea that the songs are accidents of language.
Bjork, whose eager, wide-eyed manner off stage doesn’t prepare you for the occasionally volcanic intensity of her performances, was equally quick to downgrade the notion that the mysteries are part of a clever songwriting strategy.
“ Mystery is not the right word for our songs,” she said, somewhat amused by all the critical analysis. “I think we are mostly trying to entertain ourselves in our music. Our goal wasn’t--and still isn’t--to be (superstars) around the world. We want to make music we enjoy. That’s the Sugarcubes’ No. 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 goal.”
Rather than write together like most songwriting teams, Bjork said she or Einar (pronounced Ay -nar) comes up with the idea for a song and then asks the other to add his or her thoughts on top of what was first written.
“If there is a mystery or (contradiction) in the words it is because two people are looking at something and two people see different things,” said Bjork, who has deeply expressive, almond-shaped eyes and who punctuates her singing with dramatic yelps and shrieks.
What about “Birthday,” the Top-10 hit in Britain that helped lead to international attention for the band? Is it about child abuse?
“No, no,” Bjork said with a tinge of frustration. “The whole song is just about a feeling I had. . . . A feeling about friendship. I’m just trying to describe that feeling and feelings are always hard to pin down. If I would stand up and walk over to the counter and buy one cup of coffee, you could describe those actions exactly, but feelings can not be described exactly.”
The mystery of the Sugarcubes doesn’t end with their music. Even those in the Bacchanal audience who were familiar with the album found themselves surprised by the group’s unpredictable show.
Instead of the normal pop game plan of simply showcasing the material from the new album (which has cracked the Top 75 on the Billboard magazine pop chart and the Top 10 on the CMJ college and alternative radio chart), the band devoted half its show to new, unrecorded songs.
In addition, Bjork and Einar often changed the words of the recorded songs or lapsed into Icelandic. “There’s no reason you should stick with the way you sang the song on the record,” Einar said. “You should be free to change the song . . . to let it grow.”
The band--which also includes drummer Siggi Baldursson, guitarist Thor Jonsson, bassist Bragi Olafsson and keyboardist Margaret Orlofsdottir--realizes it is easier to connect with U.S. audiences by singing in English, but they enjoy doing new songs, some of which simply haven’t been translated yet.
Einar and Bjork enjoy the attention the band is getting in this country, but they seem wary of tampering with their sound in hopes of gaining a larger following.
“I listen to a lot of music on radio and television here and I just get the feeling that that’s not the way that the Sugarcubes should sound like,” Einar said. “In fact, we strive not to sound like that because most of the music I hear simply has no feeling.
“The truth is we are very fortunate. There are a lot of greedy bands who are only interested in selling records and they will do anything to accomplish (that goal). But we are (delighted) by the news we are selling 2,000 albums a day now. I mean we have sold 3,600 records--total--in Iceland, and that’s double gold.”