The beauty of Iceland’s relatively small size—it’s smaller than the 50 largest U.S. cities—is that in most circles everyone knows each other. We were able to connect with Andri Snaer via Twitter (kudos to producer/director Panayioti Yannitsos) and Andri put us in touch with Sigtryggur Baldursson.
Even though the country’s 325,000 population is meager on the scale of so many cities, the country thinks, acts, and performs on the world stage like countries more than ten times its size. It leads in green and sustainable practices, has an internationally recognized performing arts theatre, the Harpa, and world-class symphony, opera, and convention center to go with it.
The day I was set to meet Baldursson couldn’t have been more stressful and chaotic. I was still dealing with motorcycle insurance and customs issues and along with the film crew, we were trying to capture as much of Reykjavik for b-roll and mini-stories. Along the way, I was practicing Icelandic—with little or no avail. it sends my mind into a tail spin with its tongue twisting pronunciations and the odd-looking characters and ‘accent’ marks above many of the letters.
I was also eager to talk music with Baldursson and interview him for our upcoming TV show—but I was nervous about mispronouncing his name. We also kept changing the meeting time and place, so I was worried we would appear unorganized, or worse, unprofessional.
We agreed to meet at a bar in the Hlemmer Hotel Square, just across the Icelandic Philological Museum, or as it’s often referred to, The Penis Museum. Baldursson was sitting at a small table and seemingly in meditation as he stared out the window. The beer in his hand nearly empty, consumed as he waited for my arrival. I sit down next to him, to give the camera and sound crew (Pan & Jamie) room to work in the cramped bar. Most guests might have felt uncomfortable sitting side-by-side for an interview in a bar, but Baldursson, settled comfortably—as comfortable. Donned in a gray cabbie cap, and dark framed glasses, his presence evokes more artist or writer, than rock star. Before I just as I try to spit out his name, he takes the pressure off, “You can call me Siggi—everyone does.” Phew.
We exchange pleasantries, and start chatting as if we were old friends meeting again for the first time in years. The conversation quickly turns to world politic—world music—and visions of the future—the former looking bleak, but the latter full of possibilities and energy. Siggi runs the Iceland Music Export project, a state-funded organization aimed to promote and bring awareness to a diverse range of Icelandic music. Who better than perhaps the first Icelandic rock n’ roll act to bring Iceland and its music to the world stage? While the band was together for a mere six years (1986-1992), it brought the attention of the world to Iceland and its music. Characterized by Bjork’s leading vocals and the bands avant-pop, punk and at times psychedelic sound, The Sugarcubes are sometimes compared to the Talking Heads or B-52’s—yet I find its sound very unique and its own.
Before we dig deeper into his life as a rock star, I realize his beer glass is empty and my throat dry. After I remedy this with a couple pints of Gull, a local pilsner, we dig deeper into Siggi’s musical explorations including his work with the post-punk group KUKL which included eventual Sugarcube vocalist Bjork, Einar Örn and others.
Siggi tells me that out of KUKL he and others created an artists collective called “Bad Taste”. “It was just a joke, in the beginning,” he explains. But out of “Bad Taste” The Sugarcubes were born and Bjork, Siggi and his bandmembers were thrust into fame. As the eclectic music from the bar sound system changes to rhythmic Ethiopian pop, Siggi cant keep his hands still, tapping and drumming on the back of his chair, the side of his beer glass, and the window sill.
Now 53 and still playing, performing, producing, and promoting, I asked him to reflect on life as a young rock star.
“The best time,” he says laughing, “was touring with U2.” The Sugarcubes opened for the iconic Irish rockers during their 1992 “Zoo TV” world tour—playing massive outdoor shows at places like Dodger Stadium and Angel Stadium in California.. “We flew in the U2 jet.” He has fond memories and shares that U2 bandmembes were fun and nice. When I ask him to dig deeper and share a classic rock n’ roll story from the time, he starts to tell a story about Bono, and then stops. “No, I can’t go there—yet.” We never get back to the story, but he tells me that in San Diego a young guy follows them around and somehow ends up in the lobby of the hotel they were staying. The kid approaches one of the other Sugarcubes, a published poet, and the two connected for hours drinking in a local bar talking poetry. It turns out that the “groupie” was a young Eddie Vetter, who at the time was just getting notoriety as the frontman for Pearl Jam.
After we’re kicked out of the bar, we head to Siggi’s office and studio, just around the corner. Here in his modest office he runs Iceland Music Export, and promotes one of Iceland’s largest music festivals, Iceland Airwaves. He leads me to a small loft overlooking the open and creative space below where he sits behind a small drum kit. He pushes drumsticks aside, and begins jamming an infective groove with his hands. Soon I’m nodding my head, tapping my feet and swaying my body to the groove. A quick impromptu solo performance by the drummer of The Sugarcubes, and the guy whose arms, legs and moves were featured in Chris Cunningham’s award-winning Aphex Twin video “Monkey Drummer.”
Before we dig into more stories Siggi pulls a bottle of Brennivín from the refrigerator in his studio. Using the cap of the bottle as a shot glass he starts handing me and the film crew tastes of Iceland’s signature booze —sometimes it’s referred to as Svarti daub—Icelandic for Black Death—it’s made from fermented potatos and flavored with caraway seeds. The caraway flavor is strong and masks the alcohol, we do several more shots.
I look out the tall windows of the studio and then at my iPhone—it’s 2AM, and it’s daylight. It’s easy to lose track of time in the summer in Iceland—the sun hardly sets. The formal and filmed part of our interview is over, so we all agree that a nightcap, perhaps a cold beer, would be the ideal thing to top my first Brennivín experience.
Most bars are closed at this time, but Siggi has a plan, we move briskly as the air has a biting chill. With a line up of beers for me, the crew and Siggi, it’s not long before locals approach and greet Siggi. He’s a magnet, and everyone knows him here. Shortly I’m introduced to Helgi, the drummer of Iceland’s —and I know this will sound odd—number one reggae band, Hjálmar.
After an hour and more rounds of beers, the bartender shows up with a stack of plastic cups. He plants them on the table and tells us we have to leave. Closing time. Helgi, Siggi and others in the bar pour the remains of their beers and cocktails into the cups and head out to the street. This is Iceland, and this is normal. No need to chug or slam your drink when the bar closes, just take it to go.
Siggi and I agree that our conversation and friendship has just started and we promise to connect again in the future.
For now, I’m itching to ride and explore more of Iceland.