Published March 17, 2011
Sigurbjörn Þorgrímsson was an electronic musician best known under the name of Biogen. To many he was simply known as Bjössi Biogen. A pivotal figure in Iceland’s electronic music scene, whether it was during his early forays into electronic music as a member of the legendary hardcore techno band Ajax or through the many collaborations and side projects he was involved with, Biogen had a personal hand in shaping the last two decades of Icelandic music. His influence is felt by his contemporaries and will be gleaned by those who follow.
In 1990, Sigurbjörn Þorgrímsson (Bjössi) and Þórhallur Skúlason, influenced by shifting currents in the UK dance scene, founded Ajax and thrust their lightning fast hardcore sound on an unsuspecting Iceland. With songs stuffed with muted hoover synths and whimsical (and sometimes awkward) samples, the Icelandic music community greeted them with suspicion. Local critics would take another five years to warm to the
idea of electronic music in general.
In ’92 under the moniker Ajax Project, they released the hardcore anthem ‘Ruffige’ in collaboration with a little-known graffiti artist called Goldie. It became the first hardcore record to be released in Iceland and helped usher in the rave culture locally along with prominent local DJs such as Agzilla and Grétar. In addition, following the moderate success of that first record, that graffiti artist they collaborated with would go on to release a few drum & bass records of his own.
In the words of Þórhallur: “We were dealing with music which wasn’t going around in Iceland. I was DJ-ing this music in Frostaskjól [a youth recreation centre in Reykjavík] and a common friend told me that Bjössi had a computer that could make music. It only took me and Bjössi a second to become friends. It was an adventure, playing around with all this equipment, we didn’t know what we were doing and there was no one to guide us. We made the first songs on a Commodore and were asked to play at a [legendary] local club called Tunglið. So we went to the studio a few days before, but turned out to be some sort of Christian recording studio, and the guy who ran it didn’t know what to do with us. The show went well but it was the same, to start with, people didn’t know whether to dance or run away.”
BIOGEN IS BORN
Bjössi first appeared under the name of Biogen on the 1994 compilation album ‘Egg 94’, and the name quickly stuck. As Biogen, he maintained a steady output over the next seventeen years, carving out a place for himself as a bit of an oddball visionary. His style ranged from ambient to jungle but always glitchy and chopped and undercut with echoes of ‘80s noise music.
At the end of the ‘90s, Bjössi was involved in forming the Thule Musik record label, arguably Iceland’s most ambitious undertaking in electronic music publishing to this day. Thule became an indispensable hub for the electronic community and oversaw key releases for artists such as Exos, múm, Sanasol and Thor, as well as Bjössi Biogen himself (such as his excellent double LP chillout album ‘Eternalizer’).
In 1998, Bjössi released the record ‘B-sides The Code of B-haviour’ on the Electrolux label to much acclaim, this time under the name ‘Babel’.
At the start of a new decade, and with shifting tastes, the experimental electronic scene was lulled and would come to mark the end of Thule Musik. Bjössi would shift more of his attention to independent releases and released a string of home releases, the 2003 ‘Stab Stab / b.w.c.u’ ranking high among those.
ENTER THE WEIRD
As electronica came on the rise again in the late ’00s, Bjössi continued where he left off with Thule by establishing the Weirdcore collective/concert series with Tanya Pollock in 2006, with the outspoken aim of showcasing strange or offbeat Icelandic electronica.
This is how Weirdcore collaborator Tanya remembers Biogen: “My first introduction to Bjössi Biogen was when I was living in the U.S. I was about thirteen years old and already experimenting with electronic music. My cousin Marlon sent me the Icerave cassette and it blew me away. That was the first time I heard Ajax I wished I had made their songs, so I sampled them and made my own melodies over their beats and made my first complete songs by copying them. They were my idols.”
Bjössi Biogen moved from the hardcore rave to glitchy ambient (with a regular pit stop in jungle) in a trajectory that wasn’t unlike Aphex Twin’s (whom he has often been compared to). But as small and fragmented as the electronic scene may have been in the UK it was even more so in Iceland.
THE RESULTS SPEAK FOR THEMSELVES
Bjössi fought to carve out a place for electronic music in his community and the results speak for themselves. Pioneers like him helped prepare the soil that bands like múm and Gus Gus grew out of, and directly influenced others. But two decades is a long time in music, let alone a compartment in constant flux, as electronica is bound to be. And as an early adopter, he took on the unenviable role of bridging the gap between two styles of electronic music, with little to moor the bridge on either end.
Yet Bjössi continued to pioneer and mutate electronic music his whole career and proved tireless in helping other musicians gain exposure and collaborating widely. One such collaborator was Pan Thorarensen, half of the duo Stereo Hypnosis: “The peak was the Extreme Chill festival we had in Snæfellsnes last year. We all got along so well. All the friends were back together to play for an entire weekend. Bjössi wouldn’t stop talking about it for months afterwards, saying he had never had this much fun before. Biogen was an absolute trailblazer in Icelandic electronic music history and has influenced numerous artists, not just in his field but all across the music in Iceland. Losing such a good man is a great blow to me as a friend, and a loss to Icelandic music in general.”
WHERE DOES THE VETERAN GO?
Another pioneer of weird electronica, Trish Keenan of Broadcast, passed away in January, a month earlier. The tragic loss of Keenan and Bjössi are timely reminders that electronic music is long past its adolescence. The style is now as old as rock ‘n’ roll was when punk came around.
But where do those who choose to make electronic music for a living turn as they get older? What are the career prospects for a veteran in the Icelandic electronic music scene? Or the Icelandic music scene overall? The speed of change within electronic music has always been staggering and professional musicians are left fighting a constant struggle for relevancy and placement. Bjössi never seemed interested in trying his luck abroad, instead focusing his efforts on building and maintaining the scene within Iceland, sometimes expressing frustration at his ambitions clashing against the size of the market. The dearth of venues and variety in Iceland can leave musicians open to isolation and fears of stagnation, but visionary Bjössi Biogen nonetheless soldiered on in his quest to build up and partake in a vibrant local electronic music scene.
Now gone, Bjössi Biogen has thankfully blessed us with a treasure trove of music, which, like himself, was complex, delicate, playful, bizarre, sombre and sincere.
In the Ajax song ‘Forget’ the refrain commands: “Forget your name”―this may happen to us listeners as we get older, but we will make sure to remember Biogen.