Our friend’s Icelandic !—The secret life of Björk

select, 2 juin 1994

A ‘berserk little Eskimo’, a ‘bit of a boot boy’ with a ‘magpie mentality’ whose lyrics are ‘North Sea gibberish’,
a ‘nature child’ who has been known to, er, take a leak on stage to make a point—some of the many sides
of singing superbabe Björk, recounted by her associates and friends. Just don’t mention ‘elfin’...

Graham Massey

(Founder member of 808 State. Björk recorded two tracks on their ‘Ex:El’ LP, ‘Ooops’ and ‘Q-Mart’. Is currently collaborating with Björk on a new EP, due out in late autumn.) “She rang up out of the blue. She didn’t say who she was : ‘a composer from Iceland’ is the way she put it, although I had an idea. She was listening to our ‘90’ album and was looking for help on the drum programming side. I phoned that night to see if she’d do something for our album. She postponed her flight to Iceland, came up to Manchester the next day, and did two tracks in as many days. It was definitely a case of musical empathy. “Björk in two words ? Strength and timebomb, especially now she’s in the mainstream. Her background has an anarchic streak, and it hasn’t died out yet. It is in a position to kick off, which is one of the most interesting things in pop. I think she’s completely misunderstood : people think she’s just being clever but there is a genuine integrity about her music. Maybe it was a bit glossed over on the album, but look at what happens next. She won’t go for the easy option.”

Justin Robertson

(Remixed The Sugarcubes’ ‘Birthday’ and ‘Motorcrash’, and ‘Big Time Sensuality’.) “I used to run a club in Manchester called Most Excellent, and had seen her dancing about in the club. She used to come down with Graham Massey and 808 State. I remember once she had the crowd captivated : she went into this strange girlish skip around the club with a rucksack on her back. There was lots of gawping and general amazement. She’s inspiring, frightening, amusing.”

Derek Birkett

(Member of Flux Of Pink Indians (now Flux), associates of anarcho-punk collective Crass. Through Crass met Einar of Purrkurr Pillnikk who later joined Kukl alongside Björk. They recorded for Crass’ label, when half of Kukl became The Sugarcubes, Birkett became involved with them through his label, One Little Indian. He is now her manager.) “She’ll only work with people she respects... I was approached by four of the biggest selling artists in the world to sing with her at the Brits but she desperately wanted to sing with Polly Harvey. She’s done business deals on moral accounts, and paid people she didn’t have to, and credited people who didn’t need to be. She’s possibly the worst business person I’ve ever worked with. “We were going to do a major deal for The Sugarcubes with Warners. Just before the signing we were told there’d be an element of compromise and that if we went with the singles Warners wanted, they work harder. But the band said they’d be happier selling a hundred records they wanted to rather than one
million that Warners did. I was devastated but they weren’t. Einar bought me a bottle of brandy and Björk bought me a ceramic model where a snake pops out of a pot. And I was sitting in the park with them, thinking, Fuck, we just walked out on half a million quid and they don’t give a shit. It’s been a bit like that ever since...”

Jon Fugler

(Vocalist of London-based dance progressives Fluke. Remixers of ‘Big Time Sensuality’ and ‘Violently Happy’.) “I think she liked our treatments because of the chunkiness of them, but I could be completely wrong. We didn’t talk about the music when we met, but how shit Iceland is, and London is, and how difficult it is to find good schools for your kids. She’s more concerned about her son’s school than all the crap with being in a band. You can see that she is a professional, that she ‘switches on’ and does her show, but you get the feeling she is really sound. You couldn’t keep that image up anyway : she’d end up blasting her head off with a harpoon. In three words : beserk little Eskimo.”

Einar Örn

(Founder member of Kukl and The Sugarcubes. Björk’s co-vocalist, trumpeter, surrealist poet, Enfants Terrible, Bringer of Chaos, Bane Of Music Journalists, etc. Working on Frostbite’s second LP with Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson.) “My impression of Björk is just Björk. I refuse to talk about my friends because a friendship is not for analysing. You’ll never get me to say I hate her because I regard her as one of my good friends. But I am glad that people have found something, this thing being Björk, after all these years, even though it has been staring them in the eye all this time. It’s incredibly funny that the music industry has suddenly gone, Wow, what a voice. “I think I must be devoid of emotions, or I am too familiar with all her capabilities, because I don’t piss in my pants when I hear her sing. I can only talk about her disability, which is to drive a car. In three words : well, well, well.”

Bragi Ólafsson

(The Sugarcubes’ bassist. Has retired from music to concentrate on writing poetry and prose, funded by the Icelandic government as well as partaking in Bad Taste Ltd business.) “One time in Lithuania she got hilariously drunk. She stormed into the hotel bar where all the rest of were sitting. We couldn’t believe our eyes. She started dancing around the bar, and I remember her taking down the big TV screen which was elevated from the floor, up near the ceiling, and putting it on the floor. The bartenders threw her out... I am very proud of how she operates in the music business, that she hasn’t lost that independent attitude that The Sugarcubes had. I also admire the way, when she is approached by boring old pop stars like David Bowie and Simon Le Bon to sing with her, she just says no. Although she is famous now, she doesn’t get fooled.”

Siggi Baldursson

(Drummer/founder member of Kukl and The Sugarcubes. The man behind the mambo spoof ‘Bogomil Font & The Millionaires’ album. Currently playing percussion in Björk’s band.) “Björk was a refugee from the post-punk revolution in Iceland. She was 15 but always looked much younger. She must have a time machine built in somewhere...
“Towards the end of The Sugarcubes she would often disappear—like in Berlin, she’d be alone in some crazy Turkish bar full of Turkish men, fooling around on her own. But she was always very cool : she was never afraid of getting drugged or mugged or raped, to the point of making you feel uneasy, but she somehow got away with it. No, she’s not much of a herd animal... “In three words : sneaky fucking bitch !”

Jacob Magnusson

(Icelandic cultural attache in London.) “When she was in The Sugarcubes and had a baby, the band were promoting a concert and making their first appearance at it. Björk was walking around with her baby in a pram, handing out posters. I remember meeting her in a shop in the queue, and when it was her turn she said, I want to change this bottle of shampoo. The man asked her what kind of shampoo she wanted and she said, A bottle of milk for my baby. It shows how tough it was being a progressive musician in Iceland. But she was daring to be different.”

Stephane Sednaoui

(Video director whose work includes U2’s ‘Mysterious Ways’, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ ‘Give It Away’ and The Black Crowes’ ‘Sometimes Salvation’. Currently working on Björk’s live video.) “We’ve been trying not to make the live video look like an interview, because she has done so many, but more like abstract, dreamy portraits. It’s not reportage, following her everywhere. She could be on the subway, or talking about waiting at airports or a dream. Different images open other doors... She reminds me of an actress like Anna Magnani, the wife of Roberto Rossilini, where all inside, her emotions, shows on the face. But it’s not tortured, just everything is real, all pure. In three words : emotional, alive, shining.”

Gulli Óttarson

(Aka Godkrist, guitarist, collaborator of Psychic TV, Current 93, founder of Þeyr and founder member of Kukl. Co- wrote an LP with Björk before the ‘Cubes : from which ‘Stígðu Mig’ appears on the B-side of ‘Venus As A Boy’ and ‘Síðasta Ég’ on the B-side of ‘Big Time Sensuality’.) “I remember in the middle of the ’80s, an outdoor festival with a lot of drunk people calling out for her to play a new pop song, or a greatest hit, or a dance song. She was very proud just to play her own music, so to make her statement she jumped offstage, went to the centre of the dancefloor, and went to the toilet on the spot. It demonstrates that she speaks out very frankly.”

Liz Naylor

(Press officer for Blast First and then One Little Indian before starting the Catcall label. All-round Riot Grrrl/Queercore agent provocateur.) “My abiding memories of her are being in a strip club in Lisbon, about five in the morning, Björk just being an animal, drunk and dancing lasciviously on the dancefloor. She’s a sex animal and she knows it. “The press have written about her as this fragile, mysterious, waif-like creature but in fact, she’s incredibly down to earth—she has to be to bring up a kid. The picture in Q where she is waving her fist towards the camera, that’s much more like her than any other picture. Just a bit of a boot boy, really. She’s also got one of the dirtiest laughs I’ve ever heard. She’s an incorrigible flirt, with everybody, on whatever level, which is what people find charming about her, but she also doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She’d tell journalists who wanted to always interview her, Fuck off, talk to some of the others. Björk ultimately wants her own way. She could be a complete pain in the arse—you’d tell her there was a photo session in Paris and she’d go off shopping...”


Magga Stína

(A member of the now disbanded Reptile, who were signed to Bad Taste. The band had an EP on One Little Indian before releasing their only LP ‘Fame & Fossils’ on Alternative Tentacles.) “We met when The Sugarcubes were beginning and have been friends since. We played in one band together, The Jazz Band Of Conrad B, which Bragi of The Sugarcubes started in 1990. There were 13 of us, all on instruments that we weren’t used to playing. Björk played clarinet. We were just having fun, with a big ‘F’. “I met her in the swimming pool the other day—it was like a car crash between us. We never talk about music because there are so many other things to discuss, like how many times you swim from one side of the pool to the other. It’s hard to say how she has changed. For good and bad, maybe. Good, because I’m glad people are changing their musical tastes toward her kind of music. Bad because I’ve only seen here three times in a year. She is a total babe.”

Árni Matthíasson

(Music journalist for Morgunblaðið, Iceland’s largest daily newspaper. Was The Sugarcubes’ most vocal supporter in the early days. Wrote a book, The Sugarcubes (published in Icelandic only) in ’92.) “When I wanted to talk to Björk, I’d call her at home, or just drop in, but all of a sudden everything has changed. You have to go through official channels now. But she’s had to detach herself because everyone wants a piece. Some people think she’s arrogant because of that, but at Easter an Icelandic writer did a long interview with her on state television which improved her perceived image—she was down to earth, open and honest. “She is a bit of a hero : when somebody makes it big abroad, which doesn’t happen very often in Iceland, it’s like ‘Our Björk’. Her only defect is that she is too honest. She’s very stubborn too : stubborn, honest and talented.”

Scott Roger

(Tour managed The Sugarcubes from 1988-92.) “She’s not on this planet, or from it, in the nicest possible sense. On tour she would disappear, and you wouldn’t see her again until soundcheck. Then straight after she would disappear again and turn up five minutes before the show... She once bought a pair of Adidas trainers, pre-1970’s, and wanted to get four inches added onto the sole. Trying to explain that in German was tough, but we managed it, and paid £200 just to do it. It was like that all the way. She’d spend a lot of time around NASA in Texas, buying silver jackets and astronaut food. Björk in three words : godlike, inspirational and genius.”

Pat Savage

(Accountant with DJ Kilkenny. Worked with The Sugarcubes and now Björk.) “She is very honest and direct. It brings a smile to my face when she calls me Mr Pat, or sends faxes to that name... The image projected in her videos may suggest she has her head in the clouds but she also has both feet firmly on the ground. She has a good head for figures and is in control of her own destiny, not just in terms of money and property, but her career and life. When The Sugarcubes went through their problems, she was solid. She’s also extremely generous in terms of her time and her finances, and gives credit where it’s due—and even when it might not be due.”

Paul Fox

(Produced XTC’s ‘Oranges and Lemons’, Robyn Hitchcock’s ‘Perspex Island’ then The Sugarcubes’ final album, ‘Stick Around For Joy’.) “I’d call her the epitome of the woman-child. She gives 100 per cent of everything, she’s always searching out for more, for things that are unique. I’ve never seen anyone quite so amazed and wide-eyed by things... There was definitely tension in the studio when The Sugarcubes made the album — the kind of tension that surrounds a family, but family business always gets taken care of. They never formed for the pursuit of becoming famous : it was just another thing they did. “Björk is one of the few pop artists who is very avant garde, or different to traditional pop music, more like a traditional jazz composer. Sum her up in three words ? An amazing talent.”

Franny Fox

(R&B singer/songwriter married to Paul Fox. Wrote ‘Don’t Look Any Further’, covered by The Kane Gang and M- People. Helped Björk with translations of lyrics.) “I love her lyrical approach. I don’t know exactly how she goes about it, but it’s very raw, emotional and honest, and says exactly what’s going on in her head. She did most of the work, she knew what she wanted to say, I made it flow better in English. It’s like a painting, how she feels about a certain situation and her perspective on it, which, if you know Björk, is only how she could see it, which is what makes it unique. She turns everything into a positive, for herself, and to grow from. I really like her, in case you couldn’t tell. She’s brilliant, life-loving and woman-child.”

Jean Baptiste Mondino

(French photographer, responsible for the cover of ‘Debut’ [...] and the ‘Violently Happy’ video.) “The last experience we had together was in LA. We were supposed to do the video for ‘Violently Happy’ the morning of the earthquake, so we postponed it until the next day. She said she was so happy to have experienced the earthquake, and on top of that she didn’t have her son with her so she was freer to experience it without fear... For me she is an iceberg, we only see a little tip of it.”

Guðmundur Steingrímsson

(Drummer on Björk’s Icelandic jazz/swing LP ‘Gling Glo’, on Bad Taste in 1990. After playing for nearly 50 years, is nicknamed ‘Papa Jazz’. Plays in the Bjorn Thoroddsen Trio.) “We met on a radio programme, translated as Good Friends Meeting. I’ve listened to her since she was very young, I was born in 1929, and I immediately thought, This is different. She was unique. People disliked her because she was such a ... nature child. They said she was pretending but there is no pollution there, just pure Björk. I hope she is still the same. “She wanted to sing these old Icelandic tunes that older singers had made famous. The pianist, bassist and I went wild, we did the whole thing live, no double takes. The song she sings with just the piano are in just one take. She is as good as the old singers, but very different. She changed the musical style, with more improvisation. She made it lighter. I’m very fond of her records in England, they’re so different. Even at my age, you can tell what she does and how she sings is from the heart, and that’s what counts.”

Christina Kyriacou

(One Little Indian press officer.) “We were doing a photo shoot in Iceland, around Reykjavík. We went to The Blue Lagoon, a popular attraction, but we went first thing in the morning as it’s mainly Icelanders there, not tourists. There were these old people there, to take in the medicinal benefits, and Björk hadn’t got her bathing costume, so she was running around trying to get one, and these old ladies were clasping her hand, going, Oh Björk, well done, acting like her grandma, but Björk had never met them before. Whenever she goes back to Iceland now, that’s how people are toward her : they all feel they own a part of her, and that Björk is a part of Iceland.”

Ásmundur Jónsson

(Works for Japís, Icelandic importer and distributor. Runs Bad Taste Ltd, The Sugarcubes’ multi-media company.)
“I first met Björk when she was a member of Exodus. She was a very strong personality, singer and performer. She was greater than the music. No, I would never say that she was crazy, she was more a nice human being. She always had a voice that you would recognise. When you see footage from the early period, you really notice that skill of hers, as there are other vocalists to compare her to. She’s always been a part of a group of people that are very creative...”

Nellee Hooper

(Producer of Soul II Soul’s first two LPs, Massive Attack’s ‘Blue Lines’ and Sinead O’Connor’s ‘Nothing Compares To You’. Producer and part co-writer of ‘Debut’.) “Her boyfriend Dom T was working as a DJ in LA. He said we should get together, so we hooked up in London. The initial plan was to do a couple of tracks ... but things went so well we ended up doing the whole album. She’d come up with an original idea, with an overall picture of the song. She liked the way I didn’t take her too literally. She’d say, I want this track to sound like Stockhausen, and I’d play a Quincy Jones loop from an old film score, and she’d say, That’s exactly what I meant. “Björk’s never written a lyric that actually rhymes. Björk works in a language that isn’t Icelandic or English but more of a North Sea gibberish. It’s a specific language with a certain melodic sound she only uses when she writes. It sounds like words, but if you ask her it doesn’t mean anything, and then later she translates it into either Icelandic or English. It’s an original approach to songwriting, just working from melody. “She would arrive, really buzzing from an idea, and we’d literally dive into it, and in a couple of hours, would have something resembling the final product. Of course there were tears and arguments, from both sides, but that’s how you make a good record. But every night we’d go out after recording to a different club, so every morning was a hangover and every evening was a party... She can be quite rude to people who ask her about her music when she’s out. “On holiday in Thailand, in this restaurant with a cocktail bar and piano, someone told the owner she was a singer, and he asked her to sing, so she sang a few standards. The place was full of people who’d never heard of her, mostly older people, American and European, and everyone just stood up and applauded. She just stood there, in a silvery dress, and sang, and won them all over. It was free champagne for the rest of the night. It was like Picasso, who’d walk into a restaurant, sign the napkin and get free food and drink.”

Speedy J

(Aka Jochem Paap, Dutch wizaard op de teckno. Remixed ‘Human Behaviour’.) “One Little Indian asked me to remix ‘Human Behaviour’, Björk then asked me to play as the support act as a show in Wolverhampton. My first impressions were that she travels with a lot of people and she wants everybody to be happy, and she tried very hard, which I liked about her. As an artist, she seemed to be very open-minded to other kinds of music. She likes to look for the least obvious thing... With ‘Human Behaviour’, rather than do a house mix with a 125 beats-per-minute under it, I kept the song intact, with more vocals than were on the original and a more electronic sound, something closer to Kraftwerk. She said she liked it very much but not particularly what she liked about it...”

Nettie Walker

(Björk’s co-manager with Derek Birkett. Ex-A&R co-ordinator at One Little Indian.) “When she did the video for ‘Violently Happy’ in LA, she was there in the middle of the earthquake. She described it like, A huge rumbling, deep in your stomach, which is exactly Björk, that she found it a brilliant rather than frightening experience. Everyone was trying to get hold of her to see if she was OK, but she had gone to the video shoot, dead on time, ready to start. That’s how Björk is, committed to doing something... She’s into this magpie mentality. She’s always looking at playing with new people, putting new material into the set, and finding new ways of playing her songs and places to play them, like the Florence Museum Of Modern Art in July. She even did a shop opening in London for Sign Of The Times. She just liked the clothes and the work ethic. In three words : so many facets.”

Gary Barnacle

(Session saxophonist, played on ‘Tidal Wave’, from The Sugarcubes’ ‘Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week’ and ‘Anchor Song’ from ‘Debut’.) “She’s very much how she comes across onstage, a livewire character with lots of spontaneous ideas. On ‘Tidal Wave’ she collaborated with this Icelandic avant garde arranger on the brass arrangement which we thought was in the wrong key because it sounded so odd, but when we played it back with the track, it sounded great. The band were an interesting bunch to work with — maybe it’s the months of darkness but they have an other-worldly feel to them. Björk’s quite elf-like in a way.” (Aaargh !)

publié dans select


  • Arni Matthiasson
  • Graham Massey
  • Jean-Baptiste Mondino
  • Justin Robertson
  • Nellee Hooper
  • Speedy J.
  • Stéphane Sednaoui