Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Sugarcubes - Pt. 3

Siggi & Einar
Iceland, '89-ish

One of the best parts of being in a&r was the traveling, the seeing places I would never have gone to if I’d had a ‘proper’ job. Having hung out with the Sugarcubes for a good portion of their first US tour, I felt compelled to visit the country that could spawn such creative, open-minded and, overall, such splendid people. They were brilliant ambassadors and were keen to have everyone visit their homeland as (although they never said it) I’m sure they felt as far as countries go, theirs was a lot better than most, if not all. I rarely took vacations, since work always seemed like a holiday, but I decided to take a week off and see Iceland for myself.
The flight from JFK to Keflavik takes just over 5 1/2 hours, but soon I was checking into the Hotel Holt, one the band had recommended. I was immediately struck by the smell in my room. A bit like like rotten eggs. I thought of switching rooms, but on my way down to reception, I noticed everything smelled like that. I mentioned this to the girl at the check in desk and she told me “you’ll get used to it, it’s just the sulfur in the geo-thermal heating system”. She smiled, and said “is that all?” Later, Einar explained that Iceland derives its power and hot water via geothermal activity and many rivers and waterfalls are harnessed for hydroelectricity, availing its population to cheap, renewable energy. Fortunately, the smell comes and goes, and after a short while, you hardly notice it. I was surprised to see so many mobile phones, too. Technologically, Iceland seemed far ahead of any other country I’d been to and today, it tops the list of most developed countries in the world, having just overtaken Norway (according to the Human Development Index, which measures life expectancy, literacy, education, standard of living, and GDP per capita for countries, worldwide).
I was there during October, so it was chilly, but not too bad. Unfortunately, the conditions weren’t good for seeing the ‘northern lights’ but the volcanic terrain outside the city made it seem like you were on the moon. During my stay, Siggi and Einar took me on a sightseeing trip (Golden Falls, some hot pools and erupting geysers), showed me their “national forest” (a small clump of ‘trees’ about 30 inches high – I think they were joking) and introduced me to their ‘alchemist’ friend and fellow musician, Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, a fascinating guy with an interest in Alistair Crowley and owns large collection of his original works and memorabilia. Before I left, as a present, he gave me 'Egil’s Saga' and 'Najal’s Saga' both epic stories written in the 13th century, about Icelandic life during the 9th -11th centuries…fantastic stuff about Viking times! Everywhere I went, people gave me presents: Björk gave me a cap with an Icelandic flag on it and a necklace with a snowflake pendant hanging from it, Bragi gave me a published volume of his own poetry, Einar gave me a book about a dark, Icelandic surrealist, Alfred Flóki, I was given albums at the Bad Taste record shop, featuring pre-Sugarcubes works by Bjork, Einar and Magga and other local bands like Ham and Reptile. One night, Thor and Magga invited me to their house for dinner and Magga cooked roast puffin, a seabird which (for a change) tasted like fish, not chicken. Everyone I met was super-friendly and very proud of their heritage. I don’t remember seeing any policemen (apparently there are 700 in the whole country) and the crime rate is so low, they only have 137 prisoners, 4 of whom are women. When I was there, the population was about 245,000 and the band had been booked to play a charity concert, to be broadcast live on the national radio station. Listeners pledged approximately $110,000. I think it says a lot for a band - and a country - where the equivalent of the entire nation donates about 40 cents for a good cause. Evenings were spent drinking Brenavin, a ‘potato moonshine’ (also known as Black Death), in one of the many bars there and, on my last night there, the group decided to throw an Oktoberfest party, so sausages were strung around a room, beer was ordered, Siggi ‘became’ Heidi in another dress and curly, blonde wig and - as always with these guys - much jollity ensued. Björk blew a horn and led the conga line.
I had such a good time, it was a pleasure to take record producer Paul Fox out there a couple of years later. The first thing we did was help look for Einar's brother Arni's horses who'd bolted from their pen having been spooked by some fireworks a couple of days earlier. We drove through the snow-covered countryside for about an hour, 90 minutes maybe, and somehow managed to find them in, corralled in some random farmer's pen. I was amazed. While we were there, a 'Cubes side-project, Konrad B (a variable 10+ piece jazz band consisting of members of the Sugarcubes, Reptile and other local musicians was booked for a concert and Bragi asked if I would like to join the band for the night. The thing about Konrad B is that all the musicians have to play an instrument they don't normally play. They had a euphonium lying about, so, what the hell...why not? That’s how I found myself making my stage debut, in front of approx. 200 Reykjavik locals, sitting next to Björk (clarinet), and across from Siggi (vocals), Magga (accordion), Einar and others. I was asked to take a solo during ‘I’m In The Mood For Love’ on an instrument I’d never I did. It probably wasn't very good, but one look at the front row showed me exactly why it's so great to be a musician. (For Sugarcubes in Iceland slide-show, click here).
In 2006, when The Sugarcubes reformed to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the release of their incredible single, ‘Birthday’, I found myself back there watching them play a one-off to a sold-out crowd in a basketball arena. They were just as great as ever.

Laugardalshöll Arena, Reykjavik, Nov 17 '06

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