BJÖRK ON THE WILD SIDE

Interview by Liam Fay


This article is from the ??? issue of Hot Press.

Pages 32-33, 39.


Picture links...

Photography by Jean Baptiste Mondino and Juergen Teller

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FEILE '94
She can't sit still. She has the attention span of a senil goldfish.
And she has got some very strange personal habits. But Björk is still
one of the brightest and the most compelling pop stars the nineties
has produced thus far. LIAM FAY travels to darkest Blackpool for a
close and often strange encounter with the Icelandic imp herself.

BJÖRK ON THE WILD SIDE


THERE'S nothing wrong with Blackpool that a sudden rise in sea level

wouldn't cure.

  At high season, this British holiday Mecca is an especially hellish

place. Amusement arcades, fun palaces, all day cabaret bars, souvenir

shops and other elaborate torture chambers churn away at full capacity.

For the more adventurous and the stronger of stomach, there are the

delights of wet t-shirt contests or cocktail drinking bouts or The Nolans

or Frank Carson or The Grumbleweeds or even Roy Chubby Brown. And then,

there's the fat people. Thousands of them down by the beach, fat men,

fat women and fat children, with their shirts off.

  You've heard of the Blackpool illuminations? Yeah, well that's when

you go to Blackpool and you're suddenly struck by a series of blinding

realisations about the sorry state your life is in that you should wind

up here.

  Today, there is an extra dimension to the black comedy. The Queen and

Prince Philip are in town to help celebrate the resort's centenary year

and to take a ride to the very top of the newly renovated Blackpool

Tower. This means that every single fuckwit DJ on the local station,

Radio Wave, gets to say, "they really are their Royal Highnesses now,"

before melting into a puddle ot uncontrollable mirth.

  It also means that there are cops everywhere and that most of the

streets are clogged up with armies of fatties who have swapped their

buckets and spades for plastic Union Jacks and I Love Liz hats. It's

the charge of the cellulite brigade.

  Björk is also here. Not on the pier or amid the monarchy junkies but

here in the general vicinity, and that's enough. The strangest woman in

pop breathing the same chip-grease tainted air as HRH. It's almost too

surreal to be true.

  "I feel sorry for her," Björk will muse later, even more bizarrely,

while staring at a photograph of Mrs. Windsor in an evening paper. "It's

a hard cross to bear. That sounds an hilarious thing to say but, no

matter what job you do, if you're forced into it from the day you're

born, it has to be a cross. It's the complete opposite of freedom. And

for me, that the only thing that life is about. Freedom."



Backstage at The Empress Ballroom In Blackpool's famed Winter Gardens, at

around 6.30 in the evening, Björk is sloping about and sipping from a

steaming hot honey drink of some sort. "My grandmother's recipe," she

giggles, whenever anyone asks exactly what it is, their nostrils intrigued

by the exotic, sugary and strongly alcoholic aroma wafting from the paper

cup in her hand.

  Björk and a thirty strong group comprising her band, a squad of record

company types and a sizeable battalion of friends from Iceland have spent

eight sweaty hours in a tour bus travelling here from London. Everybody

else appears drained and weary but Björk herself is literally skipping

about the place, standing still only occasionally to stare down from the

side balcony at two roadies who are engaged in a very aggressive game of

Frisbee. When someone blasts out a large gust of dry ice which obscures

both players but not their flying saucer, she shrieks with hysterical

laughter and stamps her foot several times.

  "I'm terrified of getting bored," she tells me later. "I always make

sure that I've got nine things, at feast, to do. I panic if I think I'm

going to have to twiddle my thumbs. I've tried lying around the house

doing nothing but I hate it. It's my worst point but it's a good point

as well 'cause you get a lot ot things done. I like action."

  Today, this perpetual motion mechanism is clad simply in a tight,

lime-coloured mini dress. By what have become accepted Björkian garb

standards, it's a surprisingly conventional outfit. There is, however,

one stylistic sting. Her feet are shod with a pair of football boots,

complete with the full compliment of studs.

  "I got them during the Worid Cup," she explains. "I went out to get

some for my kid and I bought some for myself as well. Both of us got

obsessed with the World Cup. To be honest, I think I tell more for the

whole emotion of the thing, people crying and everything. I was just

watching it as a human experience. I love to see people going mad like

that. They went mad in Ireland too, didn't they? I love that. It's incredible.

My kid is in Iceland now with his dad, on holiday, and I'm sure he's

playing football. He became a football fan this Summer so we watched all

of the World Cup together. He watched the football and I watched the humans."

  Björk's studs are playing havoc with the wooden floor in The Empress

Ballroom, especially when she stamps one of her feet which she seems to

do quile alot when she's amused by something. She really is a quare card.

Very skittish, very whimsical and very, very giddy. Not at all what you'd

expect from a twenty-eight year old pop star.

  "I like being silly," she says. "It's the best way to be for me. I prefer

bad jokes to good ones. I'm obsessed with bad jokes, the badder the better."

  Indeed, the lasting impression of Björk is of a toddler playing at being

an adult. She can be saying something that is, by her own lights, perfectly

mature and sensible but it will be curiously undermined by her demeanour.

Like a lot of nippers, she wears a look of a permanent perplexion that

seems to be only a lip curl away from both tears and laughter.

  She also has the attention span of a senile goldfish. During our

interview in a tiny, unventilated room off The Empress production office,

we are interrupted briefly by the arrival of some herbal tea. In the split

second that it takes for me to turn and accept my cup, Björk seems to

forget that I'm even there. She picks up my note pad from the bench

between us and starts flicking through it. She also begins to tinker with

my tape machine. And then there's her eh, personal habits.

  Björk's hands constantly dart around all over herself like searchlights

around a prison compound after the alarm has been raised. It's as if she's

just been given her body for the first time and is unsure whether or not

it fits. Her nose, knees and shoulders are her chief ports of call but there

isn't a locate on her person that she doesn't visit at least once during

our encounter (or a scratch, a poke, a tug or perhaps even a combination

manoeuvre involving all three.

  At times, her fidgeting gets quite contortive. There was a particular

moment when I thought that her grimace of fierce concentration was a

response to one of my probing queries but then realised that she actually

had both arms twisted behind her back at the time and was straining hard

to massage a particular point on her upper spine.

 Crouched on a Polyprop chair, her left shoulder strap keeps slipping down

her arm and her right hand repeatedly flits across to replace it. Observe

closely, however, and you'll see that the reason this continually happens

is that she is forever twitching her left shoulder so as to force the strap

to slip off.

 I am of the firm belief that if Björk had the wherewithal to play pocket

billiards, she would never leave the house.



Of course, to view Björk as a quirky, flighty Icelendic imp is only to

see part of the story. As she proved beyond doubt with last year's

phenomenal Debut album. she's no daw when it comes to compressing the

masonry of her loose-slates personality into music that is beguiling,

affecting and unique.

  With only the limited firepower of the One Little Indian label behind it,

initially at least, worldwide sales of Debut quickly surpassed the two

million mark and it's still a major mover at the cash desks. More

importantly, in a way that cannot be conveyed through retail figures

alone, Björk is now a STAR, adored by millions, fe^ted by her elders and

envied by most of her more highly-touted contemporaries whose work she

leaves for dead on pop's mezzanine floor. Right now, in career terms, Björk

is swinging from the rafters.

  She has also become one of the few genuine icons of the '90s. Her

striking features supplying the ideal canvas for a series of looks and

images that instantly imprint themselves on your brainstem. She attracts

wannabees in a way that no-one since Madonna has done. At the Blackpool

show, the arena is alive with Björk clones of sundry shapes, sizes and

skin colours. The most impressive being the knee-high, seven or eight

year-old girl assiduously attired in early Björk bring-and-buy chic: fake

fur-sleeved top, velvet mini-skirt, woollen lights and platform shoes,

cones of hair sprouting out of the sides of her head like bangers from

Desperate Dan's plate of mash.

  Characteristically, Björk herself is unfazed by such devotion.

  "The only thing I can do is do what I'm doing as best as I can," she

asserts. "I've been doing things in Iceland for years before this. All

I've got is my instinct, really. There's not a lot of logic in my head.

It's an attitude thing. Yes, there are times when I don't know where to

go but that's life. I wait for a week and then I know.

  "Of course, I'm honoured when people like what I do but I've been

making music long enough to not feed off on it. At the end of the day,

the only person who knows what you're doing is yourself.

  "I follow my instinct and if that supports young girls in any way,

great. But I'd rather they saw it more about a lesson in following their

own instincts rather than imitating somebody."

  Björk's sense ot defiant confidence has been hard won and stems

from the sacrifices she has had to make to get where she is now. For

a long time, she resisted any suggestion of a permanent move from

Reykjavik to London. But last year she reluctantly decided to bite the

bullet and she bought a house near Little Venice in West London

where she and her son, Sindri, now live.

  "It took a lot for me to swallow my pride and move to London

because I'm as patriotic as people can get," she insists. "Going on my

mission, it didn't make any sense to do it by fax from Iceland. After

thinking about it, I realised that, anyway, I've travelled with my kid

since he was one, and he's still as Icelandic as an Icelandic person

can get but very international at the same time.

"When I first moved here with my kid, I was very aware that he

might hate it. I knew we might have to go back and that I would have

to do other jobs. I was prepared to do that if he didn't like it because I

want him to remain very much an Icelandic person but, fortunately, he

loved it."

  For Björk herselt, however, the transilion was far from easy. She

admits that there were several nights last year when she cried herself

to sleep with homesickness. "Where I come from, it takes years to get

truly intimate with people," she explains. "You don't say you're friends

until you've known them for ten years, delivered their babies, gone to

funerals with them and all that bollocks (laughs). I met a lot of people

in London but I dealt with them not as friends but as mates. Is there a

level of difference there in English? I thought that I would never have

real friends here."

  Sooner than she had ever expected though, she found that she had

developed a deep attachment to those London mates.

  "I went to Iceland at Christmas and surprised myself in that I missed

London," she proclaims. "I had decided in my head that Iceland will

always be the place where all the people I love are and that I would

be on this mission abroad with all the foreigners for a while. A lot of

the people I've met in London are not English, they're foreign too and

I can really relate to them in a lot of ways. They think like me. Coming

back was a really happy feeling."



Like many Irish people who have emigrated to London before

her, Björk was distressed to discover that, by and large, British peo-

ple don't know how to booze properly. When some of them suggest

that you meet for a drink, That's exaclly what they mean. You meet,

have one drink and then go home. What a shower of wussies!

  "Yeah, definilely, some of them are very strange like that," says

Björk, her girlish giggle swelling to a barnyard guffaw. "There's a lot of

similarities between Iceland and Ireland. All the poetry, I guess, and

the literature and the drinking. Do you play chess over there? Chess

is massive in Iceland. There's a lot of chess-playing and telling stories

while you're getting hilariously drunk. Falling asleep on the chess

table is very much part ot Icelandic culture."

  Björk says that she's still prone to embarking on massive skites in

London, often with British friends who share her passion for the grain

and definitely whenever some of her Icelandic buddies are in town.

  "When I get drunk, I get drunk, there's no doubt about it," she

stresses. "Vodka by the bottle. That's the kind of culture I come from.

We don't sip drink, we fucking drink it. You go all the way, otherwise

you're a wimp. It has a lot to do with the weather. You're always

either very sober or very drunk. There's no room for the in-between

stuff.

  "I used to love drinking during the blizzards in Iceland. You'd dress

really well and run between bars getting really pissed on slammers.

Slammers are the best drink when there's blizzards. Then, we'd go

out and roll in the snow. I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss all that."

  By her own definition, Björk is an extremist. She likes to take things

too far. Nowhere moreso than in her personal Ilfe.

  "I don't like in-between stuff," she says, repeating one of her

favourite phrases. "I love really, really sweet stuff like chocolate cakes

and then I love curry, vindaloo, do you know what I mean? I guess

I'm an over emotional person. I'm very, very happy or I'm very, very

this or very, very that. Always two verys."

  But doesn't she find this kind of big dipper existence a bit exhaust-

ing? Are the highs worth the lows?

  "Yeah, because even when I'm miserable it's over in five minutes,"

she replies. "It's like (sticks out her chin, bulges the veins in her neck

and clenches a fist) brraaaaaagh! And, then it's over. I go all the way

to the bottom but then I go (the fist now soars skywards and she

leaps off the chair for added emphasis) whooooooosh! That's a very

Icelandic thing. A Viking, hardcore, don't-feet-sorry-for-yourself atti-

tude. When I laugh, I laugh really loud. You have to hurt yourself

laughing or it's no good."

  There are, nevertheless, reports that sometimes Björk hits rock bot-

tom with such force that she finds it almost impossible to escape from

the wreckage. When she split last Christmas with her DJ friend. Dom,

the man who along with Sindri is offered "chunks of love and thanks

for inspiration, endless suggestions and understanding" on the sleeve

of Debut, she is said to have gone off the rails, emotionally, to a point

that seriously worried those closest to her.

  Björk herself is reluctant to elaborate on the details. She merely

offers the information that she's "got a lover going on at the moment"

and then breaks into a fit of giggles and a ferocious bout of knee

scratching. She also firmly rejects the suggestion that she is, in any

way, addicted to the drama of emotional crises.

  "I'm not a drama person," she insists. "I very, very rarely argue with

people. Once every five years or so, I think (laughs). Well, it used to

be once every five years. This year has been very drastic. There's

been a lot of people trying to force down my throat things they think

they know all about. They don't realise that I'm doing something for

the first time and I want it to be done different from before."

  Neat change of subject there, I think you'll agree. Björk is very

pointedly vague about who these "people" are but, given the success

of Debut, there is inevitably pressure from the vast organisation that

now surrounds her to replicate it next time 'round.

  "It's nothing mean," she says. "It's just that I've got a lot of people

around me. A lot of older people just want to do it one more time the

same so I've got to push them. There's been arguments this year but,

in general, I don't really argue. People will only force you into things if

you let them. I'm not going to let them."

  On the face of it, Björk Gudmundsdottir had a very unusual child-

hood. She grew up in a sort of Icelandic hippie commune that com-

prised eight adults turning on and tuning in beneath the eaves of one

modestly-sized apartment. They did not, however, drop out. These

were hippies who worked for a living.

  "It wasn't as bohemian as it sounds," Björk insists. "They all had

proper jobs. There was never any unemployment in Iceland until

about two years ago. My mother made furniture at one point but she

also worked in an office doing computers. My father was a full time

blues musician. Everybody worked. Everybody got up early. In

Iceland, even the hippies are workaholics."

  Nevertheless, there are some things common to hippies the whole

world over, and Björk remembers her cohabitants smoking their fair

share of dope during her formative years. It's an activity which she

now personally despises.

  "Different things suit different people," she says. "I personally can't

deal with hash. I'm claustrophobic and I'm obsessed with oxygen. I

can't deal with smoke or pollution of any kind. I'm not very big into

drugs. I like my drinking too much."

  Equally, Björk grew up to hate the music which was constantly

being pumped into her head by her parents and their friends.

  "It was the early '70s and they were listening to this psychedelic

crap all the time," she recalls. "There was always lots ot blues around

too. Jimi Hendrix, Cream, all this stuff. They gave me a love of music

because all these people really loved this music but by the time I was

seven I was completely bored with guitar and drums. I then got into

jazz and classical and choral music, and folk music. My grandparents

used to go see an Irish band called The Dubliners? Do you know

them? My grandmother loved all these kinds of music that were differ-

ent from the hippie stuff. I was very lucky to have all this stuff going

on around me."

  With the help of her mother, Hilda, Björk recorded her first album in

1976 when she was only eleven years of age. Entitled simply Björk

Gudmundsdottir, the record featured Björk's interpretations in a vari-

ety of styles of songs written by some well known Icelandic com-

posers (well-known in Iceland, that is). It went double platinum in

Iceland and is now a much coveted collector's item.

  Björk says that she didn't much care for all the attention which her

recording accomplishment brought her but she had already grown to

love the process of making music. She played in dozens of bands

during her teenage years (including an all girl punk combo with the

charming moniker of Spit And Snot!) and began writing her own

material, some of the earliest snippets of which were eventually to

surface, many years later, on Debut.



When she was fifteen, Björk left home, determined to carve out

an independent life for herself. Music was still her abiding passion but

she had to find some way to put chocolate cake on the table so she

took a succession of jobs that included stints in a fish factory, a Coca

Cola bottling plant and a record shop. In her late teens, she joined an

ahem, "hardcore existentialist jazz punk" band called Kukl.

  Having toured extensively in Europe all Summer. she and the rest

ot the Kukl crew returned to Reykjavik in the Winter of 1986 and

immediately fell in with Bad Taste, a radical arts collective which ran

a record store cum bookshop. It was very soon afterwards that Björk

was arrested for the first time. She spent a night in a cell, having

smashed the windows of a local disco "because it was full of boring

people."

  "We were on a bit of a mission, trying to change the world, I guess,"

she recalls. "We spent a lot of time in the police station actually. We'd

have these long conversations with the policemen, trying to open

their eyes. In the end of the day, it was just a laugh. We liked to

annoy them."

  Björk's boyfriend during these days was a guitarist called Thor

Eldon. In 1987, with him and a few like-minded Bad Taste poets, Kukl

grew into The Sugarcubes. That same year, Björk and Thor also had

a son, whom they named Sindri.

  The Sugarcubes was never really much more than a lark for all con-

cerned and nobody was more surprised than themselves at the

impact they had not only in Europe but in the States too. "It was a

hobby really," Björk insists. "We'd all get drunk at weekends and write

these weirdo pop songs and then when we had enough we could go

on holiday as The Sugarcubes. It was just a group of friends travelling

all over the world and thinking, 'this is crazy'. Nobody expected to last

even as long as it did."

  Since the official Sugarcubes split in 1992, Björk has remained in

regular contact not only with Thor but with virtually all the former

members of the band who, she says, are still very active in Bad

Taste, "writing, recording and laughing a lot." None of them resent her

success, she says, because they would be even more loathe to leave

Iceland than she herself was.

  "I was over there five times last year but mostly only for two or three

days," she states. "The last thing people are going to say to me is

fuck off. The only people I meet are my real, true good friends and we

just talk about everything like we used to, silly things."

  Similarly, she is adamant that having a lot of money, as she now

most certainly does, has not caused any tensions in her relationships

with her family and friends.

  "Money just saves time," she avers. "It means I can do more of the

things I love to do and less ot the things I hate to do. All my family are

very hard working people. They're electricians, carpenters, bricklay-

ers. My mother always worked. Now, that I have some money, she

doesn't have to work but she does. She's actually studying homeopa-

thy, making her lifelong dream come true after all these years. We

don't have the class system in Iceland but we were a working class

type of family. Our money came from work. That's what I'm used to,

work.

  "If I didn't have a job or any money tomorrow morning, I'd go down

to the market and sell junk or whatever. Self-sufficiency. I make fun of

myself becauce it's pathetic being such a workaholic but it's what I

was brought up with. You have to learn how to manage. And if you

have money, you can manage. But it doesn't mean that you stop

working or that you change as a person. Not for Icelandic people."



In the teeth of all the Blackpool odds, the Björk show is a

stunner. Live, her songs are transformed into something much more

sinuous and muscular than on the album. And, there is the added

feature of Björk's own curiously compelling stage presence.

  After her appearance at Feile next weekend, she starts concentrat-

ing on the second album, the recording of which is set to begin in

early October. Most of the songs on Debut were composed on a

Casio keyboard and she continues to work that way. She insists that

there are still "hundreds" of songs in her cellar, awaiting their moment

in the sun, but she is determined to write completely new material for

the next collection.

  "The last album was like pieces from my diary or my photo album,"

she attests. "They were all about the past and now I want to show

you things from my new diary, my diary of the last two years. There'll

be the same mix of emotions, happy, sad, confused, all that bollocks,

but they'll be new."

  At this point, the plan is that Björk will co-produce this time with

Nellee Hooper, the dance guru who gave Debut its hefty rhythmic

edge. Nellee is one of the people that Björk admires most, alongside

such notables as David Attenborough and Albert Einstein.

  "I've always been a bit soft on scientists and men who can work

miracles with their brains," she laughs. "And, oh yeah, my grand-

mother. She's sixty eight and she goes camping and paints and just

lives life large. I want to be like her. I'm in a situation now that I'll

probably never be in again, I can go into a studio and I don't have to

worry about the bill. I bought myself a compuler the other day that I

can draw pictures on to suit the music. I don't have to fight so hard

for things now but I might again. And, when I do I pray that I'll be as

self-sufficient as my grandmother."

  Who does Björk pray to?

  "I've got my own religion," she concludes, giving her nose a final

scratch, poke and tug before heading off for a soundcheck. "Iceland

set a world record. The United Nations asked people from all over the

world a series ot questions. Iceland stuck out on one thing. When we

were asked what do we believe, 90 % said, 'ourselves'. I think I'm in

that group. If I get into trouble, there's no God or Allah to sort me out.

I have to do it myself."




Typed in by Bert Ocrone
Converted to HTML by Matts Henning (April 7th 1995)
Last changed : April 15th 1995