Björk Gudmundsdottir's Record Collection

Interview by Martin Aston

This article is from the ??? issue of Q.

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Photography by ??

Credits to Gideon Overhead

Björk sitting at her kitchen table with ten of her best CDs. She's holding one up.
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Taoist children's stories from Iceland. Film soundtracks
from the Indian subcontinent. Anarcho-veggie punk from, er,
Southeast London? Martin Aston can have stumbled upon the
private listening pleasure of only one elfin pop siren:
Why, it's. . .

Björk Gudmundsdottir's Record Collection

DOWN THE concrete steps, round the back

and to the left, you'll find Björk Gudmundsdottir's

dinky new residence, on the cusp of London's inner

city border and its leafy Western suburbs. It's here

that the Icelander and her seven-year-old son Siddri

decamped nine months ago, after the dissolution of

the erratically inspired Sugarcubes, to record her

debut solo album, cunningly titled Debut. The deci-

sion has paid off handsomely; the record's attrac-

tive amalgamation of pop, house, jazz and ethnic

spicing -from Arabia to India and beyond -with that

characteristically offbeat Icelandic temperament

and the assistance of studio overseer Nellie Hooper

(of Soul II Soul fame) has already won several long-

player-of-'93 accolades, and the geyser-voiced

singer has become accustomed to being a front-

cover sensation for the second time.

  Inevitably, there is a price to pay. "I'm well aware

of making a sacrifice by leaving Iceland, because I'm

so much from there," she confides over a cup of tea,

"but I've been on a little personal mission, which is my

album. Basically, the money, studio and equipment was all

here, not in Iceland."

  Still, many of Björk's possessions remain in her

Reykjavik home, including her favourite albums, the reason

for this early morning meet. The ubiquitous Filofax

and a coffee-table tome of presumably homesick-

ness-inducing Icelandic landscapes perch on the

kitchen table while a pile of CDs and tapes sit untidily

on a work surface nearby.

  "When I first left home, I carried all sorts of stupid

stuff around with me in boxes, but I gradually learnt

to give that up," she says. "I realised that the best

thing is to have, when you go somewhere, is what

you're wearing. One book and you're laughing.

Especially when you're trying to move from one

country to another. You have to start again."



"This is what Icelandic kids get for a birthday present

when they're young. Egner is this ideologist guy who

made plays for children, on the same tip as Winnie

The Pooh, I'd say: the Taoist tip, if you want. The

songs are full of anarchy, like 'fuck parents, fuck

teachers, fuck policeman, I can bring myself up'.

One song is about the animals who live in the forest

who decide not to eat each other, and become veg-

etarians. It's a bit of a heavy moral message for five-


  "Basically, it's all about these two Icelandic trolls,

Karius and Baktus, who were the first punks, so I

was introduced to punks about 10 years earlier than

you lot. Anyway, they live in your teeth, and if you eat

sweets, they're really hardcore punks, so they like to

puke and spit like punks like to, and then they really

hit your teeth, and shout. There are brilliant sound

effects on this (impersonates tooth decay). It's a bit

like Igor Stravinsky for kids, with brass and string

instruments. There are happy songs and sad songs,

but it's all very dramatic. It definitely made you think

that authority was a bit dodgy. I think it's a bit of the

Bohemian Scandinavian over-socially aware thing,

the idea that kids can sue their parents, which has

gone out of date now. I must admit, I thought twice

before I played it to my son. Fairy tales are cruel,

aren't they? The wolf was eating the grandmother,

after all."



  "I was brought up with all these hippies. Ten of them

and one of me. At the age of seven, I'd really had

enough of all those hippy records, that psychedelic crap,

so I became like a kid who has to listen to different

stuff to her parents. My dad was a bit on the case, and

probably bought this Sparks album, but didn't really like

it, but I played little else for a year, and drove them

all mad. It's really for kids as well, you know, "This

town ain't big enough for the both of us, and it ain't me

who's gonna leave which was a pretty cool statement. They

were a bit theatrical, I guess, more expressive than your

average pop  album, and not just about I-love-you-and-you-

love-me. I loved the way Russell Mael sung like a geisha,

and that they were into wearing geisha clothes, as I was

really into Japanese people."

  "What kids get into is very picturesque music that

is really easy to imagine what's going on. At that

point, I'd got really bored of guitars and rock'n'roll,

and Sparks were more interesting, more like a fairy

tale. I was really into them until I read an interview

with the singer a year later, when he said that the

only two things in the world he didn't like was kids

and animals. That broke my heart.

  "I left home first, actually, at 14. I got the feeling

that time was running out, and there were all these

exciting things happening out there, and you're

missing them. You wanted to rent a flat and cook

really bad meals, that sort of thing. I came back a

year later when I was broke."



  "When I was about 10, I was listening a lot with my

dad, to what he was getting into, like Frank Zappa,

who I used to think was a dirty old man, but then got

to appreciate a couple of years later, stuff like Don't

You Eat That Yellow Snow (from Apostrophe) which

I found hilarious, that someone peed in the snow

and that someone else was meant to eat it."

  "When I was 13, though, I got into Joni Mitchell

with my dad, and played it to pieces. I loved Don

Juan's Reckless Daughter but Hejira was the one. It

was more acoustic. I've always found guitars a bit

difficult because my dad played since I was very lit-

tle, and he was a bit of a Clapton and Hendrix kind of

guitarist, and I've always been critical of that, but I

loved her guitar sound very much, although it's very

hard to say why. With hindsight, she was one of the

first women I heard who weren't completely stupid.

She had her own air of style and independence,

whereas a lot of women just wanted to play men's

music. I wasn't so much into her voice, more that

she had her own world, with her own elements. You

definitely knew that it was Joni the second you

heard her. It was very strong, but very feminine, you

know? It was natural and earthy but modern as


  "She was never my role model, though: I don't

think any singer was, to be honest. Instruments

influenced me more than singers, like brass and

stuff. You might start puking when I say it but I never

had the ambition to be a singer, I always wanted to

make good music. It's like learning shorthand writ-

ing. It's not so much that you're into it, but it makes

it easier to write anything. That's why I sing."



  "At the same time as Joni, I got into Debussy at my

grandparents' house, especially his dramatic little

piano pieces, and I got into jazz. I love the way Ella

and Louis work together: they were opposites in

how they sung, but were still completely functional

together, and respectful of each other. My favourite

bit of Ella is from the Jazz At The Hollywood Bowl

album, the one where she forgets the lyrics. She

goes, 'I forgot the lyrics to this song, be bop be

bop, I forgot the lyrics to this song, be bop be bop',

which I thought was great."

  "I've always liked Ella because she's really

happy. I've never been into all these suffering

artists, I think it's a bit pathetic. You have your

problems, but you have to go one step further, and

see the funny side of it. Everybody has problems,

not only Morrissey. That's why I've always pre-

ferred Ella to Billie, even though Billie is the singer of

the century and all that shit, but I think it's much

braver to be happy than to be suffering, taking

heroin and all that. Ella was strong enough not to

bore the audience with her own difficult life. I saw

her sing at the Montreux Jazz Festival when I was

15: she was 60, with white hair, but exactly the

same greatest sense of humour. She's always

teasing people. I guess her singing was an influ-

ence on me but not in a direct sense, more in the

sense that you shouldn't take melodies too literally.

It's a bit irrelevant what a melody is like in a song:

the point is more the mood, and the emotions, and

it doesn't matter if you forget the lyrics. You can still

sing the song. You can do whatever you want to."



  "I was in a muso band at 15, playing seven-ninth

rhythms, being complicated and diffcult. Then I got

into punk. I started by forming this punk band,

called Spit And Snot, believe it or not. I was the

drummer, with no hair. That was a big scene in

Reykjavik: I think we hold the world record of how

many people lived in Iceland, and how many punk

bands there were. But it was very difficult to get

English punk records: you'd get one, like a Gang Of

Four record, and everyone would go to that one

person's house. So all these bands started to play,

and we definitely got over the problem of not know-

ing how to play - that was mind over matter."

  "The one classic album from that time was

Never Again (a double 12-inch album featuring 10

one-minute songs), though I had three or four of

theirs. They had such hardcore energy. I've always

thought this line between complete energy and

getting muso should be kept very thick. I wasn't

into the new wave scene when they started to put

chords to punk. What do you call the Teenage

Turtles? Mutants. It was a bit like that, not pure any

more. That's why I liked Discharge, and really

respected Crass too. We'd met Crass at the time

we were running this organisation in Iceland called

Bad Taste, before we formed The Sugarcubes,

when lots of people came over to play, including

Crass. They heard our band, KUKL, play and

offered us a deal. I was 18 at this point and had

never been to England, so I couldn't relate to

Margaret Thatcher. It was very hard for Icelandic

people who were still a bit in the middle ages."



  "Roland Kirk and Sun Ra are what I've been most

into in the last five years. Both aren't academic jazz

people, they're totally earthy and natural, like

ancient, somehow, but very modern at the same

time. The sound is muddy. If I had to pick one per-

son as my hero, I'd have to say Kirk: He plays brass,

for one, which has always been a soft spot for me,

and he plays in a very intuitive way as opposed to

with brains. He plays songs that are like pop songs,

they're so simple, but at the same time, are mind-

expanding experiences. It's not too much of any-

thing but has got all the extremes. He plays freejazz

that a five-year-old kid would understand, that any-

one could get into, which is something I always like."

  "Pick five Roland Kirk and five Sun Ra albums

and you'll probably have my favourite record. But if

you're forcing me to pick one, it's Kirk's The

Inflated Tear. It's at the brilliant stage in his life,

before he got too much into fusion, which I don't

like, when he was getting really basic, back to

roots. The title track is about when he was two

years old, and had some eye disease, and was liv-

ing in this black ghetto. He had this white nurse who

didn't really have time to take good care of him, and

gave him the wrong medicine for his eyes, which

blinded him for life. The song is based on memory:

he could remember the last minute he saw and the

first minute he couldn't."



  "I'm completely fascinated by Indian string sec-

tions, and have been for a while. The music is com-

pletely sensual, and very pretty, and again, more to

do with instincts than brains. I think my love of it has

a lot to do with having to deal with England. I'm

eventually falling in love with England, of course,

but like all flirting periods, it's a lot to do with being

hard to get. When I tried to get into English culture,

I always ended up going out and buying Indian

music. I'm a visitor here: I call myself an immigrant

housewife. I hang out with the Indians in Southall

and go to Thai takeaways. Indian culture is beauti-

ful, more so than the English. I felt some sort of sup-

port, or sympathy there. I felt like I belonged there."

  "I don't know much about Bappi Lahriri. I just

know that if I buy 10 Indian albums, and one is by

Bappi, I'm safe. Snake Dance is a film soundtrack

which me and Nellie really got into when we were

making my album, and ended up sending two of my

songs to Bombay where Indian strings were

recorded. Indian soundtracks have this incredibly

pure sound. They've tried to record string sections

in England, top quality microphones, top quality

Indian musicians, the lot, but it's just not the same.

Tarvin Singh, who plays with my band and who

works a lot in Bombay, told me that the sound engi-

neers there are so used to working under poor con-

ditions that their ears are incredible, and they can

get that particularly earthy sound. Apparently tabla

players all surround one microphone, and they can

tell exactly who it is who is playing out of tune."



  "I can get lost in this. It's pure joy, this music. It's a

bit of an escapism, from all the intellectual conver-

sations and arguments you have in your life, and

just being silly and happy and stupid, but it's pure,

as pure as pure can get. You just want to dance on

the table. The Sugarcubes wanted Benny and

Björn to produce our second album, but they didn't

want to. We were naturally upset."



  "Around 1987, when The Sugarcubes started, I got

heavily into hip hop. I was listening to Public Enemy

every day, which meant a bit of a fight on the tour

bus as I was trying to play it all the time and the oth-

ers hated it. After Public Enemy, everything else is

just like... woofty. I mean, wimpish. Yo Bum Rush

The Show was the one that opened your mind but

Fear Of A Black Planet is the one that, musically, is

a masterpiece. They've been so misunderstood.

They've mostly been taken for their politics, which

is great, but if you just look at the other worlds, and

there are a lot of worlds in this world, one being

music, which is the leader of them all because it's

pure instinct - well, musically, they just did it. No-

one in hip hop, house, techno, whatever, opened

up as much ground as they did. The music is so

modern and so... abstract. It's just like, fuck the

rules. I would put them in a group with people like

Stockhausen and Schoenberg. Forget about

rock'n'roll chords, we've all been suffering from

them all our lives, and they just rescued us from that




  "We argued about all music on the tour bus but the

two things we could all agree on was Abba and

Chet Baker. I'd say Baker is my favourite vocalist of

the century. There were two albums, both with the

same title, ridiculously, which were released with

Bruce Weber's film of his life, Let's Get Lost. One

was recorded when the film was being made, when

he was older, and the other with all the stuff he sung

when he was young, which I prefer."

  "I wouldn't say he's an influence as I didn't hear

him until much later in my life, but he's the only

singer I've ever been able to identify with. I love the

fact he's so expressive, so over-emotional. It's

classic stuff; it makes me soft in my knees. He was

a bit of a heroin casualty, silly guy, but you couldn't

tell he had a habit when he was younger. He was so

into it, like, 'fuck those notes I'm singing, and fuck

those songs I'm singing, what I want is the emotion'.

That's how I feel about it too."

Typed in by Bert Ocrone
Converted to HTML by Matts Henning (April 7th 1995)
Last changed : March 21th 1996