The Sugarcubes Reunion: 20 years later
by Padraig Mara
When I was a kid on Saturday mornings I used to turn on the stereo, pick up the phone and call my local college radio station, WSIA out of Staten Island, to request my favorite songs. I'd eat my cheerios or whatever and wait. On one particular morning it was taking too long so I called back and asked when they would be getting to my pick, Last Caress by the Misfits. The d.j. said alright, next, I´ll play it next. So I turned up the stereo, stood in front of the left channel like I used to, finished my breakfast. What actually came next was not the Misfits. The music began subtly, almost sneakily. It was understated, jangly and pleasant but with the unmistakable undertone of menace, this evil horn sound wheezing in the background. The singer began, whispering. I put my ear to the grille. Her voice was little and then big. Raw and pretty. I listened hard to catch the lyrics. They were kinda creepy. I guess this must be some sort of poem, I thought then as a 12-year-old. I listened to the whole thing in a trance. When it finished, Last Caress came on. I called the DJ back and asked what the fuck that just was.
It was the Sugarcubes. Their first U.S. Single, Birthday.
The Sugarcubes were formed from the members of various Reykjavík punk bands. Made up of artists, musicians and poets, this band set out to while away the hours and to generate cash for a record label that supports new Icelandic artists, but they went on to become world famous, much to their collective bemusement. The line-up included Björk as one of the singers. The other singer was Einar Örn Benediktsson, first punk rocker on the island of Iceland. I spoke with him about the old days and the Sugarcubes upcoming reunion show to commemorate 20 years since the release of their first single and 14 years since their last gig together.Chief: How did the Sugarcubes begin?
Einar Örn Benediktsson: We needed a pop band for our record label Smekkleysa, to make money so we could put out records and books. We decided to make a pop band to do so, it became the Sugarcubes.When you were beginning, who were among the bands major influences, musically or otherwise.
None really, we all had been involved in punk, new Icelandic music i.e. Icelandic lyrics, surrealism, books and that was our spirit, which we adopted to play music which would surprise us beyond belief.Was it strange for the band to get as big as you did?
Yes, it was strange as we only set out to entertain ourselves during long summer nights, and indeed long winter nights! What was it like for the band to go from Reykjavík to opening up for U2?
It was not that difficult, as we had done large scale tours previously, as the one we did with PiL and New Order. What was of course exciting was the scope of this one, and just how well U2 treated us. The tour was not that difficult to do as a band, we were just a needle in a haystack.
Do you think the Sugarcubes success at home and internationally had an impact on the Icelandic bands that came after?
We did have a relative non-success here at home. we were not that big, more like notorious for being able to do what we had done, so we set out the example which proved anything was possible.What do you think the Sugarcubes legacy has been for the Icelandic music scene?
The legacy is that anything is possible.What prompted the reunion? Why now?
The same reason we formed. We need to make money for our record company. That is the reason. And to celebrate 20 years of existence.Are there any plans to record new material with the Sugarcubes?
No, we all have projects in our own name, and do not see that as a priority to create new cubes material.The Sugarcubes were born out the Icelandic punk rock movement, what do you think of the state of music here in Iceland now?
It is fairly healthy, I would say. Alot of people being very active and turning out good music like Skátar, JeffWho?, Mínus, Skakkamanage and others.The various members have all gone on to do very different things on their own, how has it been playing the old songs together again?
Fantastic. We are all good friends and we just like being together being silly again.Why did the Sugarcubes stop just as you were “making it”?
Because it looked like that we would stop being friends, and turn into business partners in a way. It was time for us to digest and continue in separate ways and keep our friendship. It looked like the right call.
The night of the Sugarcubes reunion show it was cold in Reykjavík. Bad, dark cold all damn day. By seven o´clock people began streaming in to the concert hall, blowing into their hands and stamping their feet. The crowd was mostly in their late thirties, a few couples dragged their kids with them, befuddled and wrapped up against the arctic blast outside. The opening bands múm and Rass (“ass” in Icelandic) were good, especially Rass kicking out its special brand of rude Viking punk. But it wasn't what the crowd was waiting for.
The Sugarcubes took the stage at ten on the dot and begin. The crowd reacts in a way I've never seen, a few people actually tear up. The jumbo screen would occasionally focus on a band member, zoom in while they sing and dance. When the camera found Björk the crowd would cheer a little bit louder. She's a national hero in Iceland, of course, but tonight she's just a member of the band again, dressed in one of her costumes from the old days, pushing 40 now I guess, but still cute, bouncing on the stage like a kid.
They start with their lesser-known songs, but I notice quite a few foreigners who flew in special for the event still know every word. In Icelandic. The show continues and people are loosing their parkas, making use of what little room there is down on the floor to dance like they danced back in the day.The band is having just as much fun. They end, and say thanks. But it's a feint and and we all know it. They come back out with their old friend and respected writer Sjón to take vocal duties on their song Luftgitar(air guitar), a song every Icelander knows by heart. A couple band members have their kids join the band as well. It was a thing to see, trust me. Now, for the most part I don't hold with nostalgia, long defunct groups reuniting is almost always boring and useless. This however was neither. Like somebody said as we filed back out into the freeze, this was a Family Reunion. A good one.