The Sugarcubes 1988 by Mark Mcnulty


Einar Örn Benediktsson’s career faced an enviable and yet daunting dilemma right out of the gate: His early band, formed in Iceland on a lark with some kindred spirits, were an overnight international success. The Sugarcubes, with whom Einar shared vocals with his friend Björk, recorded three successful albums but then amicably disbanded (they’ve done reunion gigs). Since then, Einar has collaborated with Mark E Smith, David Byrne, Alan Vega, Damon Albarn, been an elected official in Reykjavík, earned an art degree, exhibited his drawings and textile prints in galleries. In short, the end of the Sugarcubes was not the end of Einar. Bob Gourley caught up with him for PKM.

In 1986, Einar Örn Benediktsson and a group of friends running a publishing house together in Iceland decided they also needed a pop band to achieve their motto: ”World domination or Death.” They really just wanted to make music they found entertaining and did not actually have lofty goals in mind. That band was The Sugarcubes, with Benediktsson sharing vocal duties with Björk.

Much to their surprise, the following year, they had a #1 hit in the UK Independent Singles Chart with “Birthday.”

Sugarcubes – Birthday:

Their 1988 debut album, Life’s Too Good, brought them success in America as well, where, among other things, they performed on Saturday Night Live and embarked on a tour with New Order and Public Image Ltd.

“Motorcrash” – The Sugarcubes, performance on Saturday Night Live, 1988:

The Sugarcubes released two more albums before the members moved on to other things.  Benediktsson worked on various projects, including opening Iceland’s first internet cafe, before starting a new group, Ghostigital, with artist/musician Curver Thoroddsen. Ghostigital’s electronic-based music has included many collaborators, such as Mark E Smith, Damon Albarn, Alan Vega, and David Byrne. From 2010-2014,  Benediktsson served on the Reykjavík City Council as part of  Icelandic actor/comedian Jón Gnarr’s Best Party.

“Don’t Push Me” – Ghostigital live at KEX Hostel, Reykjavik, 2012:

Getting out of politics, Benediktsson decided to turn his attention to visual arts, including drawings, large-scale murals, and textile prints. He has regularly been exhibiting his work in galleries, and in 2018 earned his Master of Fine Art degree. Benediktsson’s art is not isolated from his work in music; in a recent collaboration, he provided the visuals to accompany Damon Albarn’s compositions.

PKM: You’ve cited British punk and post-punk music as a significant inspiration for your work. Could you discuss how you first got into it?

Einar Örn Benediktsson: Back in, I would say like 1975 or ’76, when I’m 14, and I’m trying to follow my friends in Iceland; in Reykjavik. And they are into things like Emerson, Lake & Palmer. One of my friends had ELP written on his school bag. And then I remember playing sometime outside my house, and I heard about this band, this is probably in 76, whose singer had green teeth and they puked on airplanes, and my interest was aroused. And so I tried to find out what this was. My father lived in London, and I started reading the English music press –  NME, Sounds, Melody Maker. I was trying to find out what was going on.

I asked him to buy me some of these records. I remember getting a Doctors of Madness record. I was just exploring, long distance. I then discovered John Peel’s show, which I could listen to in my mother’s Sunbeam car on a winter night. I could tune into BBC One and listen to John Peel. I started getting records by mail order, and through my father also; I sent him a list, and he got me Buzzcocks Spiral Scratch. And at the same time, he gave me Peter Frampton Comes Alive. That was a double album, but I preferred the four songs on Spiral Scratch much more. I just went into punk; punk music became my music. Then I started listening to The Fall, post-punk music. And then Crass came along with ‘Feeding of the 5,000.’ That was a new eye-opener, and the anarcho-punk scene engulfed me and was a new way of thinking. I was lucky enough in 1977 to go to London and stayed there for two months with my father. I spent the whole summer trying to find punks walking down King’s Road. So it was like a long-distance upbringing into the music.

Einar Örn Benediktsson by Einar Snorri

PKM: Being familiar with what was going on in England, how do you feel the music’s reception and evolution differ in Iceland?

Einar Örn Benediktsson: It developed in a slightly different way, I would say. I call it new Icelandic music, which was basically rock & roll with an attitude to punk music. It began with Utangarðsmenn [Outsiders], with Micheal Pollock and Danny Pollock. They brought in different types of guitar tuning. So, suddenly, I heard music like foreign rock & roll, but with Icelandic lyrics. And that was sort of the beginning of the Icelandic punk. We formed a Purrkur Pillnikk back in 1981.

And there were also other bands like Fræbblarnir, Þeyr, Tappi Tíkarrass and Q4U to name a few. And we set up our own record labels, like the UK was doing. And so that was sort of the development of Icelandic music, to have to be totally independent. It’s like punk, in my opinion, never came to Iceland. It was just post-punk. And then as fashion, punk came; people dressing like punks. But the attitude is more related to do-it-yourself independent music labels or music. All of us in that scene around 1980, ‘81, ‘82, we were relatively independent. You try to make the most of the scene, which was obviously very small. But we were all very active. Like Purrkur Pillnikk, we existed for 18 months, but we played two concerts every week during our lifespan. So, we were very active. It was a very active period for the whole scene, and we tried everything. We didn’t have many venues. There were no bars or beer. And so we had to invent venues to play, like playing schools, youth centers and things like that.

PKM: In terms of setting up a label, were there particular UK labels that you were influenced by?

Einar Örn Benediktsson: I hooked up with three people Ásmundur Jónsson, Björn Valdimarsson and Dóra Jónsdóttir and we set up Gramm Records, to publish Purrkur Pillnikk music. Ásmundur and Björn worked in a record shop which I frequented as a youth. In hindsight, I would say that what we were doing was very much like early Rough Trade, Step Forward, Fast Product, and then Crass. I think it was a universal way of adapting this model into whatever kind of environment you were involved in. We’re an island, like in between the East and the West. So we get inspiration both from the West and from the East, from Europe versus the U.S.

PKM: Was there anything specific to Iceland that shaped your DIY ventures?

Einar Örn Benediktsson: What made it unique was that that beer was banned in Iceland, until 1989. So in these formative years, there were no bars. There was one venue you could play in Reykjavik. So we didn’t have pubs or bars to play in. We didn’t have a late-night place like CBGB, or Max’s Kansas City or The Marquee in London, or the 100 Club or anything like that. We only had one venue in which we could play. So that was unique. Therefore, we had to go into the youth centers in Reykjavik and play there. The access of the audience to us to play music to them and vice versa was limited. So, I think that’s unique to our developmental situation. But still, we had all of these bands plotting along and trying to play music and be part of a scene.  So that was the biggest difference culturally. It was not until 1989 that we got cafes and bars, which rhymes with the time beer was made legal, where they might have a small stage, which bands could play in.

And even with Sugarcubes, in the early days, like in 1986, ‘87, we made our hangout in a pizza place called Duus Hús which had like an annex where we could fit in 90 people. And we turned that into like our home, our venue.

What made it unique was that that beer was banned in Iceland, until 1989. So in these formative years, there were no bars. There was one venue you could play in Reykjavik.

PKM: Did you feel it was important to get your music to overseas audiences?

Einar Örn Benediktsson: We would just stay in Iceland at that time. With the band Kukl, we connected with our student friends in Europe and got them to tell us which were the best places to play. And from tips and suggestions, we contacted those venues. And then we made a European tour of college student union facilities, squats in Berlin. It was very much just us. We didn’t have an agent or anything like that. We did it all ourselves, and everybody had to have a job,  and with a job, we managed to pay for these trips. That was a big learning process. We never thought like, ‘you know, I need to branch out.’ We just thought, ‘Oh, let’s go and play about. How do you do that?’

We contacted people who we knew and set up our own network. Like with Purrkur Pillnikk and Gramm records, which we formed in 1981, we invited The Fall to come over. They recorded tracks for ‘Hex Enduction Hour’ in Iceland, and we supported them. And then we were invited to support them on a UK tour. We managed to go and play on a foreign soil support The Fall, which was brilliant for me.

Ghostigital’s tribute to Mark E Smith, including the song collaboration with him:

Mark E Smith RIP

And from that tour, we also made connections into the anarcho-punk scene with Flux of Pink Indians and met Derek [Birkett] who is still one of my best friends today. And then it evolves. We invited Crass to play in Iceland in 1983, and from there Crass invited Kukl to release records on Crass Records. All of this was not instigated consciously, it just happened that we made connections and people came along into our atmosphere and we could work with within. And within the anarcho-punk scene, even though we weren’t anarcho-punk,  we fit in logically because we were independent.

And at that time, like in 1982, 83, there were like two or three flights to London every week. Whereas now there are about 10 flights to London everyday, as least before Covid-19 . So you just didn’t jump on a plane on a whim. You had to plan it.

When I interviewed Björk around her Post album, she said that The Sugarcubes started as a group of friends doing it purely for fun, with no notion that it might become as big as it did. What were your thoughts on the beginnings of the group?

Einar Örn Benediktsson: Well, my opinion is basically very similar to Björk’s. We were a small cell of friends, coming together back in 1986. Some of us were returning from studying abroad, and we gathered at a meeting place. Because there were no bars to meet, we met at Björk’s and Thor’s place.

We formed this publishing house called SM/ Bad Taste SM, which is still going today. And we put the poetry books and literature. And we thought that we needed a pop group to achieve our ‘World domination or death,’  which was our slogan. And so with The Sugarcubes, we just wanted to play music we thought was entertaining in our minds. And we had been known for being heavy and avant-garde. So we didn’t forget those roots. We brought it into The Sugarcubes. We were making the music we enjoyed. We had no predefinition that we wanted to get a manager, get a record label.

When I interviewed Björk around her Post album, she said that The Sugarcubes started as a group of friends doing it purely for fun, with no notion that it might become as big as it did. What were your thoughts on the beginnings of the group?

We started off by playing a concert supporting Stuðmenn and we’ve got studio time for it. So that’s how we started Life’s Too Good. And we were engineering ourselves and recorded the whole album. Then I called Derek [Birkett], who had just started One Little Indian as it was known then. Now it’s known as One Little Independent. I said, ‘’you know, we’ve got the final master tapes and asked if he wanted to put it out. That’s the same thing I did with Purrkur Pillnikk was that we approached someone and said, ‘do you want to work with us?’ And so that’s how The Sugarcubes started evolving. It was just us having fun and enjoying life as it could best be.

PKM: What was it like doing the reunion show with The Sugarcubes in 2006?

Einar Örn Benediktsson: Oh, we did that reunion to fund the debts which Smekkleysa SM had got into. And what it felt like doing the show was that it was fun. The hour passed really quickly, and we enjoyed it. And then, we got on with our lives.

PKM: The Sugarcubes had a unique sound, particularly the vocal interplay between you and Björk. What was your creative process like?

Einar Örn Benediktsson: It’s so many years ago. I just remember that we went into rehearsals and somebody was playing something. And then we just picked up from that. It could be a bassline. It could be a rhythm. It could be a vocal line, a lyric, an idea. You have to drop every concept of what people tell you what songwriting is like. That’s how we wrote; there was no formula. And that was the beauty of it. It was freeform, which ended up as a pop song. And for me, pop songs are a wide definition of good music. Pop is not negative in my mind. I tried to make pop music all the time, and people then call me avant-garde. So I think that’s more their problem than mine.

PKM: In 2018, you received a Master of Fine Art degree. What inspired you to pursue that?

Einar Örn Benediktsson: Back in 2000, I did that soundtrack with Damon Albarn for “101 Reykjavik,” the movie. From that work,  I learned how to write music on my own on a computer. I got Curver Thoroddsen to work with me on the record called to be called Einar Goes Digital. And from that, we started working together as Ghostigital. Curver is an artist, a sound artist and a visual artist. So I had since 2000 been working with him in these different spheres of creating art or music. We did things like sound installations, with endurance performances, some of which lasted 12 hours—creating atmosphere. Then I got involved in politics from 2010 to 2014 as a member of The Best Party (Besti Flokkurinn) in Reykjavik, and I wanted to tune out of the politics in 2014. But Curver was not available then.

I started drawing. I picked up drawing and just started working on my own, which for me was a revelation. I had always worked in a group. I had always been collaborating with people in bands. And so I was there on my own and creating my own art. And so,  back in 2016,  I thought, ‘okay, I want to tune better into what I am, and why do I do what I do?’ And that was my research question for my thesis. Why do I do what I do? So I started just backtracking and decided to, okay, go into the academic environment. So I started studying for the first time where I came from, why I did what I did, why I do what I do. I discovered that when I backtrack from industrial into punk and from punk, I went into Situationism and Lettrism and Dada. And I discovered, ‘oh, I’m a dada.’

That’s how The Sugarcubes started evolving. It was just us having fun and enjoying life as it could best be.

So that’s sort of my discovery of the way I think, or why I do what I do today. And so I  just started to study and wanted to sort of unplug and pay attention to the selfish thing and just think about myself and me in context with my environment,  with my art. And I think in many ways what I’m doing is in a way just a self portrait. This is basically why I wanted to do this master’s degree, to have that as a framework to concentrate on my own creation.

(To view Einar’s work, visit,

PKM: Has it led to any projects that you’d like to mention?

Einar Örn Benediktsson: I’ve done a few exhibitions here in Iceland. I got involved with Damon Albarn and “The Nearer the Fountain,” where he’s composed music to the Icelandic weather.  I’m drawing the visuals to the music, and also the inspiration of what I see in the weather. That was going to be premiered in May but got postponed until March next year 2021. So that’s my next project. And until then, I’m just sort of constantly drawing.

PKM: You opened the first internet cafe and Iceland. What motivated you to do that, and what was the experience like?

Einar Örn Benediktsson: I opened the first internet cafe in Iceland back in 95. I went to study in 1983 in London, media studies. So I guess I’ve also always been interested in communication and how communication works and what you can communicate. And so I got a Powerbook 150 back in the day. And a modem, and so I just got hooked on trying to see what the interweb was doing. Even back in the day, with the Sugarcubes, some friends who were into computers, we started a mailing list on Usenet. So I knew that you could do electronic communication, like newsletters and things like that. That newsletter was called ‘Blue Eyed Pop.’ I knew of the Internet and this technology, and then I saw that there were internet cafes.

So I just got hooked into this aspect of communication, of putting forward information. And I think part of it was the insularity of being an Iceland; it does not mean you need to be insulated or isolated. I just wanted to reach out and see what was out there and how that could benefit us. And I thought it would be a good idea to put up an internet cafe,  as computer access to the Internet was not that great. I’ve got a friend, Guðlaugur Kristinn Óttarsson, God Krist, we had been working together in Kukl. He’s a brilliant technological wizard, and he helped me set up the Internet cafe. We got connected with two 28.8 baud Hayes modems, and we run the internet shop on that in the cellar of a bar called Bióbarinn. And that took a lot of work from him and from me; many hours, sleepless nights. But, it worked.

PKM: Having been involved with the online world since the early days, what are your thoughts on how it has evolved? Particularly for musicians and fans?

Einar Örn Benediktsson: I think that’s a pity it’s killed the idea of an album. An artist can put together a series of songs, which are like listened to as a whole, as an experience. Now it’s just into a singular experience of the one hit. I think the artist’s statement is gone, and that’s a pity. I think the dependence upon how you present yourself on the Internet –  some people are good at it, some people are not, even though they might be making brilliant music. I think that’s a pity that they can’t cut through. I don’t have any specific sort of major solutions. For me, like with Ghostigital when we’re active,  I find it necessary to know that my audience is singular. I’m always speaking to one person. And so I’m, I’m just speaking to that one person. If that person gets the information they’re looking for then, then I’m happy.  I don’t need to have a mass appeal. If I can just make the music or the art I’m happy with,  I’m not too concerned with popularity. I’ve never been.

PKM: You’ve collaborated with many musicians over the years – do any stand out in your mind?

Einar Örn Benediktsson: Well, I  just feel massive respect that they actually wanted to contribute. Getting Alan Vega made my day for many years; David Byrne, that made my day as well. And Damon. It’s sensational mixing with all of these people. To work with people, who don’t say no; that people wanted to be part of our creation. When Mark E Smith did a track with us, it was for me extraordinary.

“Sick For Toys” – The Sugarcubes, from Life’s Too Good: