Lock up your Guðmundsdóttirs

NME , 25 décembre 1993

Santa Claus is coming to town... all 13 of the pervy bastards —at least in Iceland. Which along with sex, travel, weird churches, oh, and the coolest, all-conquering record of the past 12 months that was ‘Debut’, is all part of BJÖRK’s brilliant year. STUART BAILIE finds the singer in reflective mood, taking [sic] about her fans, the backlash, her inspirations and her bizarre Christmas.

When she was asked to be an agony aunt for a day, Björk thought, yeah, that sounds like a giggle. You can go to the radio station, take the calls from the saddoes out there and then throw loads of abuse back—tell them all to get a life.

So Björk and Leila from her band stormed over there to the KROQ studio in Los Angeles with this fun idea. They’d advise all the girls to tell their problem-causing boyfriends to shag off, and if that didn’t work, well, why don’t they just get an Uzi each and kill the bastards instead ? They’d both say these outrageous things. It would be like a party.

The two resident hosts of The Love Line reckoned it would be a special show, since most of the celebrity guests in the past have been male, and many girl listeners were desperate to get advice from their own sex. But of course, there might be some dodgy calls, too...

One boy rang up to say that he had sexual difficulties, that he would come in his pants as soon as his girlfriend took her bra off. Björk and Leila said, yeah, ha, ha, ha. A Beverly Hills airhead called to say that her teenage boyfriend told her he loved her, but now he doesn’t want to know. Get a life, they chorused.

But then this guy got through, and he could hardly talk, he was so choked with nerves. His problem was that he was only five foot, two inches tall. So what, said Björk, isn’t Prince that size, and he hasn’t got problems with women, has he ? But the boy said that he thought he was narcissistic as well. How weird, they thought, until the boy confessed under pressure that he had a twin brother, an inch taller, and that he was obsessed with him, in love with him, desirous of him, even. Heaviosity...

“I got completely emotional,” Björk remembers, still flushing at the memory of it. “I’m really bad ; if someone’s sick, I’m crying all the time. And this boy was just at the edge of a nervous breakdown. My heart was just beating. After the two hour show, I went back to my hotel room and just felt so fucking helpless.”

But wasn’t it meant to be a light-hearted show ?

“That’s exactly what I’m saying. I’ve gotta learn ! Lots of girls rang in. One had been in a relationship for five years and had never had an orgasm. The way she said it wasn’t dramatic, it was like, what should I do ?

I found it really, really sad. It’s 1993 and these girls can behave in a feminist manner in their jobs and daily lives, and then when it comes to bed, it’s still the same. You can be a feminist with your brain, but when it comes to instinct, you’re fucked.

“I started to tell the women off ; don’t you understand that you’re supposed to be up for the pride of women ? Go and masturbate ! Get loads of kinky books and masturbate every day ! And they’d say, no, I couldn’t. I’d say, you’re joking ! They do it from the age of nine !”

Maybe people expect smart advice from Björk because her music and her thoughts this year have been so purposeful, so fantastically sorted. While Pearl Jam and Nirvana sulked and snarled, ‘Debut’ was a ride on a joy-rocket. Björk was gasping with wonder—hear the was she sings the word “astound” on ‘Like Someone In Love’—whereas listening to the sadcore boys (happy Christmas, Eitzel and Kozelek !) was like being frozen alive. She was going steady when Polly Harvey, Kate Bush and Billy Corgan were falling apart. And if the techno acts still got a bang out of staying anonymous, then Björk presented herself as this big time personality ; complex, excitable, involved.

So we all loved ‘Debut’ like mad. Alongside the Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Very’—the other classic nerves-akimbo, life-saluting record of the year—Björk was taking all these wired-up feelings, artful swerves, pop tunes and batty humour high into the charts. Vogue photographers began calling her up, saying they’d do all these glam-slam photo sessions for free, just so they could meet her. Film scripts were piling up too, and the begrudgers were already taking a swing ; people like James’ Tim Booth, who said that her career was getting this great boost because she looked good (“an amazing pixie”) in photos. Bitter old Tim, eh ?

But Björk expected that backlash : “We had all the attention with The Sugarcubes for a year,” she remembers, “and then we had the opposite. So I’m here waiting, saying, OK, when will it start ?”

Does the idea of superstardom excite you ?

“I definitely haven’t got the ambition to be bigger than everyone. I don’t want to sound like I’m arty, like I didn’t pick to be here, because I think that’s a pathetic attitude as well, but I’ve actually started to think a bit about it all. It’s just so... untrendy.

“I would very happily live without it. I’m not moaning, but as far as I’m concerned, all that bullshit comes with the job, and if you want to make a big record, you’ve got to take part in all that. I’ve come a long way. Most of it’s the same game, only a hundred times bigger.

“I’ve been through a period where I’ve been very anti all that, and I wouldn’t do autographs. We were very politically correct, and passionate rebels. Somebody would ask for an autograph and we would be willing to discuss his life and what was wrong with it, like how come you’re humiliating yourself in front of me ?”

Do you still act as a confidante to fans ?

“I think that most people with a microphone get people that identify with them and tell them personal things just because they’ve got some freedom of speech. At the end of the day it’s got nothing to do with me, ‘cos this is the job I’ve got.”

Isn’t it hard, though, singing the ‘Debut’ songs when you’re not in the mood ? Does ‘Violently Happy’ come out differently when you’re grouchy ?

“Yes, but because I’m a live singer, I’m very aware of the fact that a song is not going to sound the same twice and it shouldn’t. So you just take advantage of what you’re feeling at the moment. It’s even better if you sing a cliched, happy tune when you’re really upset. It brings a lot of edge to it. When I was in the punk band Kukl with Einar though, that was fucking therapy ; every gig was like cutting your chest open and tearing out your heart. It just became ridiculous after a while.”

We had our spiky moments this year—the junior class of ragers, rioters, issue rockers and collision pop heroes gave us that. But soon as you went overground, the drift became impotent, clueless, the worst in years. One of the most symptomatic songs from the lost-it school of ’93 was U2’s ‘The Wanderer’.

Here was Bono and Johnny Cash—normally sparky characters, performing a song that went from despair to... nowhere. You could hear these famous Christian boys declaring that The Bible and religion was getting worse, they said. Walking the post-modern line just got you lost. ‘The Wanderer’ was creative in the bleakest way ; it fingered the depressing zeitgeist that NME was trying so hard to detonate.

That’s why Björk’s ‘The Anchor Song’ was so precious. Here she was, signing off her album—a ten-year diary of thrills ‘n’ chills that started off with the assumption that there was definitely no map to human behaviour—now closing with the swooning line, “This is my home”.

‘Debut’ was about jumping on boats and planes, bopping in clubs, watching fireworks, getting sad, falling in love, leaping off rooftops, and at the end of this giddy trip, Björk finds herself becalmed by the sea, blissfully centered. Happy endings—aren’t they the best ?

“I’ll turn around and make a really sulky record next year...” Björk says with an enormous smile, “just to keep things exciting”.

‘Anchor Song’ was written in summer 1990, when Björk left her boy Sindri with a child-minder for a while and set out across Iceland on a “freedom thing”. She rode her bicycle around the island with the express purpose of visiting all the hundreds of churches she’d heard about.

Since Iceland’s Christianity is based on a crafty get-out clause (the Viking Assembly said they’d pretend to worship Jesus if they could remain Pagans on the quiet), the religious places Björk found were the wildest.

“Lots of farmers had these little churches, like just one wooden room the size of a bedroom, and they’re really over-decorated. The farmers would make these naive paintings of the baby Jesus, really smiling, and they’ve got his beard all wrong, and there are all these stars in the ceiling. Completely beautiful churches, and they’ve all got harmoniums.

“So I used to bike between them, and have my little Walkman and go and ask the farmer if I could play his organ. I expected a no from everyone, but they all said yeah, why not. I’d play for two hours and then aim for the next church. I wrote a lot of tunes, and ‘Anchor Song’ is one of the ones I finished. I’d recommend it as a holiday.”

If you care to accept the old notion that travel is basically a search for the soul, then you can also get a mythic buzz from the end of ‘Debut’. Taking a ritual trip to somewhere weird is an impulse that’s traditionally been strong with island people—like the Australian Aboriginals and their Walkabouts, like the Irish priests in the Dark Ages who’d get in a little boat and do their peregrinato—steering thousands of miles in a rickety boat to some far-away, rocky place.

Sometimes you catch that rite-of-passage flavour in pop music. Like the way REM’s ‘Find The River’ becomes a quest for deliverance. Like the awe-struck finale of The Waterboys’ ‘This Is The Sea’. You definitely find it on another epic closing song, Van Morrison’s ‘Almost Independence Day’, which has the singer wowing over the view of San Fransisco Bay and the journey that’s brought him there. I try to explain to Björk how ‘The Anchor Song’ has the power to make you feel that way too.

“All those things are probably true,” she answers, “but it’s something that I don’t realise. I can look back in ten years’ time and say that but I’m just too involved at the moment. But I know that I made a conscious effort this time. I had to stand up and make a lot of sacrifices to go all the way. That was very conscious. For the first time in my life I wouldn’t compromise.”

Had you guessed at how well it would turn out ?

“Well I don’t believe in astrology, but if it works, it was probably written in my map that ’93 was going to be a good year. The whole thing has been so effortless for me. At the same time, I realise that it was something I’ve been preparing for unconsciously for ten years, so it’s not just come out like that. But it’s been ten times better than I ever thought.”

Were you hoarding up the ‘Debut’ songs, keeping them away from The Sugarcubes ?

“No, in The Sugarcubes it was never like that. It was a joke band. Braggi would never have brought a three page poem for us to use, it would just be ridiculous. It’s like, you wouldn’t go to your grandma’s and discuss your sex life—it wasn’t the place for it. We would never discuss music, that was like the bottom of the pit. Now with my band we’re all pretty much musos. We can discuss drum breaks for an hour—if you’d done that with The Sugarcubes, people would just have walked out of the room !”

And Björk’s working plans for ’94 ?

“I think I might put a record out next year, and the title might be, ‘All The Remixes Of Björk’s ‘Debut’ LP For People Who Don’t Buy While Labels’, just to keep it very down to earth. Obviously I could tour America for a whole year, but you know, there’s more to life than that...”

Over in Reykjavík, a bunch of mad, mythical characters will be rolling into town for Björk’s Christmas homecoming. The stiff-legged sheep chaser, the sausage-stealer and the meat-hooker—locals call them the Jólasveinar (“the Christmas men”), 13 hell-raisers out to make the mid-winter a bit lively. And while the Icelanders tuck into their smoked lamb and rice pudding, and make the best out of their three hours of daylight, they also get their chance to laugh at the silly old British and their crap winter Christmas (how quaint !) and making out like there’s just this one Father Christmas, and he’s a lovely old bloke, really...

“We’ve got 13 Santa Clauses,” Björk laughs. “They start coming to town, one by one, 13 days before Christmas. One slams doors, one is a peek-a-boo—a bit of a pervert, really. One of the Santas steals your food. They basically all do different things, and they’re all naughty. We just laugh at the idea that Santa is this big cuddly, friendly chap. It’s like, uh-uh, don’t trust him. They’re all pretty mean, but they’ve got a sense of humour. They’re not vicious.

“And Santa’s mum, she’s called Gryla and she’s basically a witch. She really wants you to misbehave, and she does a lot of things to tempt you. And there’s a big black cat, the same size as human beings, and he eats you if you don’t get anything new for Christmas. You have to have at least one pair of mittens or new shoes...”

Isn’t that a bit scary if you’re a poor kid ?

“I think it’s kind of good, ‘cos in the old days when everyone was really poor, it meant that at least you knew you were going to get one new thing for Christmas, even if it was woollen socks or whatever.

“And obviously, it’s 24 hour darkness for Christmas in Iceland and you’ve got northern lights and snow. It’s very Christmassy—you can’t really get any more Christmassy.”

And the New Year party, how’s that ?

“Well, that’s a bit like Guy Fawkes night—fireworks and bonfires. Actually, people in Iceland have a world record for fireworks—they buy more per person than any other country. Everything just goes mad, and they all shoot it off at midnight. Iceland people are known to drink a lot and so the whole country gets drunk together for 24 hours.”

Hey Björk, Gledileg Jól ! Have a cool Yule ! Cheers for a gigantic year ! And of course, Farsaelt Komandi År !

par Stuart Bailie publié dans NME