GusGus at Glastonbury

13.7.2007
Words by Ben H. Murray
How do you explain an Icelandic dance band playing Glastonbury’s Jazz Stage? If you’re GusGus’s President, President Bongo to be precise, you simply redefine musical genres to suit, bending a few rules along the way: “Techno is the new jazz and jazz is the new techno.” To which Daníel Ágúst, the black-clad vocalist sipping a gin and tonic in the backstage tent after their mid-afternoon set, adds “I had a pre-judged idea about jazz but I think we broke all the boundaries.”

Few would disagree that GusGus’s performance at the world’s most famous festival, held on a remote but sizeable farm in the West of England, was far removed from the eclectic mix of jazz-influenced artists billed to play the same stage as four dance disciples from Iceland. Amy Winehouse, Corrine Bailey-Rae and other similarly popular brass-voiced warblers all trod the same boards over the weekend, but GusGus made them look like a they were from the 1930s (rather than just being influenced by the distant past) with a display of technical dance music and vocalisation that quite literally made the sun shine and hundreds of people dance in a muddy field just for fun.

After an entertaining stint at the front of the stage, Bongo handed the vocal duties to Earth (Urður Hákonardóttir) and Daníel Ágúst, whilst he retreated to help Biggi Veira make the music towards the back of the stage. After all, Bongo was one of the founding members of GusGus in 1995, so he’s had 12 years of singing at the front of the stage to rabid masses and this mud-splattered crowd probably looked particularly feral from his vantage point. Having played the Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts in 1999 – “We had the honour of opening the Pyramid Stage on Friday, at 11.30 a.m.” reckons Bongo. “No, no, no, no that was another one…we played in a tent at Glastonbury in 1999.” Bongo stands corrected by Biggi – GusGus know what performing at this typically English festival involves. The crowd demands enthusiasm and a performance to buoy their mud-drenched spirits. GusGus certainly provided the sort of mid-afternoon injection of energy that made a lot of the other bands booked to play seem extremely dull and self-important.

The previous day’s journey to the festival site, and all the weird and wonderful sights and sounds contained within, was not an easy mission, with narrow roads leading to the area and 177,500 people converging on the site. Sadly, President Bongo, Earth, Biggi and Daníel Ágúst had a journey that made other marathon pilgrimages to Glastonbury look like a quick stroll to the bar tent. Before they even left Iceland, their England-bound plane ground to a halt at Keflavik Airport, causing them to cancel a London gig the day before Glastonbury. Even when they did arrive in London the next day, their Glastonbury appearance was still in doubt. But a quick dash on a bus (“We travel light so it was OK…” assures Biggi) and a stay in particularly downmarket hotel solved the problem and they made their stage time.

After hearing about their transport issues and debating which festival they opened at 11.30 a.m. in the summer of 1999 (“It was shit anyway…” recollects Bongo), we move onto their attitudes to performing live to a European audience – something GusGus have years of experience of doing to great success. “We recently had what we call a Millennium Makeover so now, when we play live, we only play tracks from our current albums like Forever and our last album before that, Attention. Attention was like a slap in the face – ‘wake up’ – because we had changes, everything was different and we had to create a new direction.”

By that President Bongo refers to the band’s continually evolving line-up. With members joining and departing on a fairly regular basis, their music goes through a regular metamorphosis depending on who’s adding their influence and ideas to the GusGus collective. This, you could speculate, is why they continue to be such a draw across Europe after so many years of playing festivals and gigs – the fans know that every time they see GusGus it will be entirely different to their last gig in that country. Familiarity breeds contempt and something unexpected, such as President Bongo’s fetching white pin strip jodhpurs or Earth’s spectacular green seaweed outfit at Glastonbury, will be memorable rather than forgettable or repetitive.

Add some classy dance music and Bongo’s charisma to the visual mix and you have the reason why they sell out gigs all over Europe, with London, Poland, France and Germany being particularly enthusiastic about the band. Sadly, the band’s second appearance at the festival was cancelled so Glastonbury only got one dose of the foursome at work, much to the disappointment of anyone who saw their first set. GusGus were also disappointed as the event is truly unique to them. “It’s impossible to compare this (Glastonbury) to anything we have in Iceland. We don’t have many people. All of the people in our biggest cities would be able to fit in here.”

After being around for so long and playing almost every major festival in Europe and beyond (they’ve played sold out shows in LA as well), they freely admit they intend to leave a politician-style legacy with their fans. “On our last album we created the concept of Forever, like being an icon, and we’ve touched on other things as well, like religion, sin and all that…purely philosophical but when you wish hard for a thing it’ll come to you – that’s the idea of Forever.” Sadly not many things are forever but GusGus did have the power to summon something with a shelf life even longer than theirs: “My trousers brought the sun out!” declares Bongo, “actually I think it was your behind that did it…” corrects Ágúst. If only they’d stayed all weekend, then maybe GusGus could have repeated the sun trick and saved us all from another very English summer festival soaking.

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