From Iceland — The Real Face of Icelandic Music

The Real Face of Icelandic Music

Published November 3, 2006

The Real Face of Icelandic Music

How would you go about explaining Bubbi Morthens to an outsider?

Lets start with a few facts. He is the biggest selling recording artist in Iceland, bar none. His career, stretching roughly 25 years and roughly 50 albums, 30 of them as a solo artist, has been marred by drug addiction and shrouded in controversy.

Emerging on the Icelandic music scene as the punk wave broke out in Iceland around 1980, Bubbi was a spokesperson for the working class. A former migrate fish worker himself, Bubbi became famous for songs about the struggles of small Icelandic fishing villages and the people who inhabit them. Although still outspoken, Bubbi’s image has changed dramatically in the last few years.

While he himself maintains that he has grown up – matured, others will tell you that he has sold out. Whether it is in his role as a judge for the Icelandic Idol competition or in his role as a spokesperson for Land Rover SUVs; whether he is making the news for his groundbreaking lifetime recording deals or selling the publishing rights to his back catalogue to an insurance company, one thing remains clear. The persona of Bubbi Morthens has become increasingly friendlier to the marketing powers that he once held in such spite. At the same time, he has managed to alienate large parts of his former working-class fan base in small Icelandic fishing villages, by speaking out against heavy industry.

His metamorphosis seemed complete last summer when he sold his 50th anniversary concert to be used as a marketing tool for a Glitnir bank. Although universally hailed for his performance during his show, The Grapevine’s music critic, Sindri Eldon, wrote a scathing piece on the spectacle, bashing it for being about Bubbi’s ego and Glitnir’s marketing rather than music.

This Christmas, a new book based on Bubbi’s life will be published. Although not strictly a biography, author Jón Atli Jónasson, draws a refreshing picture of his central character based on his own reflections of the man, as told to by Bubbi Morthens. In a candid interview the Grapevine, Bubbi sits down to defend himself against allegations of being a sell-out and to talk about pain, punk and freedom. >>>

/// So you gave Jón Atli complete artistic freedom to present your story?
– Absolutely. All the way. There is stuff in this book that I am not thrilled about and other stuff that I find skewed. Like the (50th anniversary) concert. I thought the concert was very good, and I think no other Icelandic musician has ever been shown the honour I was shown that day. No matter if a bank sponsored it or not. But I can see now that once again I am blazing new trails in Iceland in certain matters. Now the Sugarcubes are branding their 20th anniversary reunion concert in exactly the same manner, while other musicians, Barði in Bang Gang for example, are creating companies to take care of their business. All this started when I made a publishing deal with (the insurance company) Sjóvá and [got sponsorship for] the anniversary concert. Maybe this is the new renaissance in arts. I don’t see anything wrong with doing things this way. I would, however, draw a clear line if it were a beer company or, say, Alcan, sponsoring me. Over my dead body. I would never let a company like that near me.

But I was very happy with the way Jón Atli wrote it. I understand what he is doing. But this is his point of view, and I don’t agree with it at all. (CEO of Glitnir Bank) Bjarni Ármannsson is a good friend of mine and Jón Atli attacks him in one chapter of the book, I could have stopped it. Told him that he was writing about a friend of mine, and that I wouldn’t be a part of attacking him. But, I made the decision at the beginning that I would give him the freedom to write this as he saw fit, unless there some major factual errors that needed to be corrected.

At the end of the day, the book was uncomfortable, entertaining and ambiguous, probably a lot like myself. But I think I made the right decision, to let him do this, you need certain bravery to give people a carte blanche like that. But I think the Ballad of this Bubbi is pretty well done.

/// You say “this Bubbi.” Is Jón Atli describing a different Bubbi than the one sitting before me?
– No. Not anymore. I realised soon that we change. Over a seven-year period, we renew every cell in our body. Seven years ago, I was a completely different person. From the year 1972, when the story begins, until 1980, that period he captures really well. The character is pretty damn close to what I was like back then. Then the period from 1980 to present, it is divided. From ’80 to ’96 was like an odyssey for me. I was lost and battling all sorts of demons; in me mostly. From ’96, I was a different person. It was the beginning of a new chapter for me when I started focusing on eating right, sleeping right, exercising and thinking about spiritual matters.

I have ascended fully now. The runway is not far away and soon I will be told to put down the landing gear. If I am lucky, I will land. This is life, and I am at a place in my life where I am starting to hear the tower. This is a new chapter in life for me.

/// Has this been one continuous flight, or have you had many layovers and transits?
– It’s been many flights. Some of them I just crashed and burned, man. Sometimes when I look back…

Recently, I reviewed some old interviews with me on the Internet. Reading some of them, I just thought: “Wow! Who is this unhappy, angry and arrogant person?” Amazingly, there is a group of people in this society that doesn’t seem to be able to accept that you grow. They just want you to stay in this box, this category and keep you there. (Former Grapevine editor) Valur Gunnarsson is one example, (former Grapevine journalist) Sindri Eldon is another example, some website I came across the other day – What I read between the lines is that these people are in bad place in their lives, they are unhappy, but at the same time, they have the drive to express their discontent, and then I am a pretty good target. I am probably the biggest target they can imagine. It’s like boxing. Who wouldn’t want to get a shot at the Champ? Who wouldn’t want to take him down?

But I can see in their writing that they are not feeling well, whether that is because of something personal in their lives or if it is alcoholism and drug addiction. Myself, the period in my life where this group of people seems to think I was the most productive, the most powerful, was that time in my life when I drove myself as hard a possible on drugs and hadn’t begun to resolve my personal issues. When you go through shit in childhood, if you are not lucky and if you are not strong, it will ruin you for life. If you get through that, you can get through a lot of shit. I did this, and I understand these people, because I can see myself in them. But all I can do is to shrug, and hope they work their shit out.

/// Is there nothing in their criticism that you take to heart? Do you not see anything from their point of view? Do you understand the criticism when people say that you have sold out to the financial powers?
– Yes. In a way… But what they don’t realise is that from my first record, I sold out to the financial powers. I could not make records without making deals… and in the beginning, I lost a lot of money because people simply hustled me. One day I finally realised this and said: “Hey, I won’t take this anymore. I have let people abuse for this long, but no more. Now I’ll be in control of my destiny.” Another thing is the deal I made with (the insurance company) Sjóvá, people don’t seem to understand that every band and every musician makes a publishing deal, which is what I did. No one can do anything with my songs without my permission. No one can use my songs without my permission. I am still the author of these songs, but they get revenue from the songs and revenue from the music. This is a simple publishing deal. But this is a small society and this deal got a lot of attention. It probably created some envy too. I think it’s very likely that it made some people envious.

But, yes – sure. I understand them. I understand them because I’ve been in that pit where you are driven by fear, and the more frightened I was, the harder I hit, the more ferocious I was, the more I would mouth off, etc.

But I’ve always said, everyone is entitled to their opinion of me. They can say what they want. I don’t give a shit.

/// But the thing that stood out with this publishing deal is not the deal per se. It was the fact that you were dealing your publishing rights to an insurance company, the archetype of a greedy capitalistic company.
– It is all like that. What is a record company other than a machine that tries to milk its artists to the bone, chew them up and spit them out? It is very rare that an artist becomes so big that a record company decides it is in its own interest to keep him signed for life. If I had lived anywhere else than in Iceland, I would not have had to make a deal with an insurance company. I would be a multi-millionaire many times over if I had the same kind of sales numbers behind me proportionally in Denmark for example. In Denmark, I would have sold around 40 million records. I’d be filthy rich.

/// So, the money is something that drives you?
– No. I have never known how to handle money. It doesn’t mean anything to me besides that I have to feed my family, make sure that my kids can get an education and that I can enjoy my golden years. But is that goal per se, to make money? No, then I would do something else than be a musician. I consider myself lucky to have been able to make a living of my music for 26 years. Of those 26 years, I’ve had a steady income the last ten years.

/// Another thing is the New Bubbi vs. the Old Bubbi.
– The Old Bubbi, that is the demand that I make Ísbjarnarblús for the rest of my life. Fuck you! You know, fuck you and your crew! This is a joke and shows how people are completely stuck in their own prejudice. This is like asking Dylan to do The Times They Are A-Changing over and over again. Through my career, very few albums don’t have a political message. I have always been socially conscious and I have written about everything that I have felt that mattered. People don’t see this. They don’t listen to the records; they know the old stuff, but none of the new stuff and have no idea as to what I am doing. I was making the biggest recording deal in the history of Iceland. I mean, an insurance company? I would have made a deal with a funeral parlour for that kind of money.

The thing is, people make up their own assumptions. You read someone’s biography and you find out that this person is not what you though she was like. I mean sure, for a while, I was going to allow this criticism bug me. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t. But, finally I thought to myself, Let Go, Let Go. I can’t hold myself responsible for how others feel; I can only be responsible for how I feel. I made the decision, not to let this bug me. But I understand this criticism to a certain point.

/// What do think Bubbi Morthens 25 years ago would have to say to Bubbi Morthens today?
– It would depend on what drugs I was on at the time. It would depend on the mood I was in. I never criticised Dylan for example. Most of my friends gave up on him, but I always said: ‘You aren’t listening to the music. You are just holding your personal prejudice against Bob Dylan against his music.’ If I am to be honest, knowing what I was back then, I would probably have criticised Bubbi for the music and the lyrics, not whether he had some publishing deal or not. I would have focused on the records. It didn’t change anything for me when Dylan sold his songs to be used in commercials. I think I would probably have focused on the music. The same thing with the Clash, it didn’t matter at all to me what Joe Strummer and the others were doing, as long as I could connect with their music. Maybe I am strange in this way. It is the same with authors. It makes no difference to me if an author has murdered someone, fucked a mule, you name it… If I have a book, and the book is good, that is what I am after, not what he is like as a person. I don’t go into a gallery exhibition and think: ‘Shit man. I wonder how much money Georg Guðni made from that deal with Viggo Mortensen’. I’d probably just be thinking about how he uses the light on the mountainside, or that is a beautiful blue…

/// Today, that is easy for you to say. You are 50 years old now, have all this experience behind you. You are not the same man you were 25 years ago.
– No… Maybe not. You are right. But I can look at myself, you know. The music is something I’ve been consistent with. You know, when Dylan did his religious stuff, I didn’t agree with that direction, but the music was still brilliant and so were the lyrics. I think I would have thought about it that way. If I had idolised Bubbi… If the persona of Bubbi Morthens had been some sort of a pillar in my life, I would probably have said: Fuck you! You fucking capitalist! That goes without saying. But I think I would have focused on the musician Bubbi Morthens.

The reason I attacked (Icelandic country-pop band) Brimklo back in the day [One of Bubbi’s older lyric’s goes: “I am a certified moron, I listen to Brimklo and HLH”], it had nothing to do with them personally. It was because they made pathetic music.

But I can understand this perspective. People always want to climb the highest mountain, so I am glad people are criticising me. It just tells me that I am doing something right.

/// Does the musician Bubbi Morthens have any relevance to young people today?
– You bet. Just come to my concerts. Look at the audience, look at the demography. There are kids so young that they need parental guidance to get into the show, teenagers, middle-aged people and old people. That has been my luck.

Yes. No question. But I might not be singing about the same things that young people emphasise today, but I mean does (Nobel Prize winning Icelandic author Halldór) Laxness have any relevance for young people? (Icelandic author) Gunnar Gunnarsson? People writing memoirs… do they have relevance? I think you always have relevance. The emphasis changes. When I was young, the relevance that I was 23 years old, he is 18 years old, we have something in common. Bubbi says it is cool to smoke dope, let’s fire a pipe.

/// Well, the difference is that you used to be old AND angry. Do you still have something to say to people who are young and angry?
– Many people are young and angry and I can teach them a lot. Five times a week I go to place where there are young and angry people between the ages of 15-20 and they come up to me and say: ‘What should I do?’ I can tell these young people, who are fucked up, ‘There is a solution to your problem. It is not complicated and it is called a 12-step program.’ But for you to be ready to deal with that program you need to experience unending pain and unending humiliation, before you are ready to give up and accept that you have to start from the beginning.

I mean, young and angry? That is just in the nostrils. It is a part of growing up. I think it was Mark Twain who said something to the effect that if you are not radical before you turn 30, then there is something wrong with you. If you are still radical after you turn 30 then there is also something wrong with you. What I am saying is that there are young and angry people, and then there are young and angry, and there is an ocean between them. Young people who say I have no relevance for them, fine, that is a part of growing up. But there are young people who are angry and fucked up and they are experiencing hell.

/// You seem to be in a place in your life where you seem to be happy.
– Totally.

/// Do you regret anything along the way?
– No, there is nothing in my life I wish I had done differently right now. Considering how things turned out, this is how it was meant to be. I’ve had to do a lot of apologising through the years, we should never forget that words have effects, and once you have said something it is out there, you can’t really take it back.

I don’t spend a lot of time wondering about things though. I’ve gone through life, and I’ve had to apologise to for a lot of things, and similarly, I’ve had to forgive a lot of people. As a young kid, I experienced things that people agree children should never experience and all that, things that could easily have ruined me for life. But somehow, I was strong enough to ask others for forgiveness and to be able to forgive people myself. At some point in my life, I realised I was not the person I wanted to be and that I really needed to change. That’s not a nice experience to go through, when you realise that: ‘Wow, I’m not just an asshole, I am a monster.’ I did some really intense introspection and I’ve managed to work out most of my faults. Some of them are genetic and I try to keep them in check. It wasn’t easy, but at the end of it all, I experienced freedom. I was a free man.

/// One of the things that Sindri Eldon criticised you for during your anniversary concert was the presentation. The whole thing came off as a PR spectacle for Glitnir bank rather than a celebration of your birthday.
– Of course they were using this as a PR moment. They would be stupid if they didn’t after sponsoring the whole event. It would be bad business on their behalf. That was totally their business. The only thing that mattered to me was to get on stage and perform. It didn’t make any difference to me when I saw the Volkswagen logo beside the Rolling Stones when I saw them. I just came to see the Stones. I will go see the Sugarcubes for sure, although the FL Group logo will be plastered everywhere.

But of course, this was a massive marketing circus. I mean, it was probably the biggest marketing campaign for a concert in Iceland. The set-ups were one of the best ever in Iceland as far as lighting and sound goes. There was one thing I could have done without: (The night’s presenters) Simmi and Jói. I left them off the live DVD.

/// The rock musician Bubbi Morthens, is he still alive?
– Yes. You won’t find a more powerful stage performer than me. I am 50 years old, if you can take anyone of these cats out here, take away his drugs, put him on stage for three hours like I did that night, I’ll take my hat off. I am the most powerful performer in the Icelandic Rock n’ Roll history. End of discussion.
I am a big rocker. But I find it just as exciting to be alone with my guitar. It is harder than being in a rock band. With the guitar, you are the whole show. In a band, you are just a member.

But maybe I needed a few years away from rock music while the poison was leaving my body. Being a rock musician is a very tough lifestyle. Drugs and rock n’ roll are so intertwined. I just needed a few years away from that scene to get another perspective. Today I am okay with that. I’ll rock again for sure. My next record will most likely be a rock album. I have already come up with the title: Fear is the Move. I want to crank the amplifier up to 11 and play three-chord rock music in the spirit of (on of Bubbi’s many former bands) Das Kapital. That was always one of my favourite bands. I think it was the best stuff I played during the anniversary concert. It made me so glad to hear how wonderful raw punk rock can sound. But, what do I know. I could be dead tomorrow.

/// There is a biographical novel about your life coming out now, two years ago there was a documentary on your life, 18 years ago there was another biography, there have been countless media interviews… When will we have enough of Bubbi Morthens?
– You have yet to see a movie based on my life, and probably a play based on my life, you are that much younger than me. But kidding aside, this book coming out now is a sort a Manga version of my life. You can always find new sides to the phenomenon that is Bubbi Morthens, and take note, I say the phenomenon Bubbi Morthens because it leads a separate life. I don’t know. Often I think it is enough but what can I say… I sell out all my shows, I am here, and can’t do much else, but I try to be more humble than I was at the beginning of my career. People can’t forget that primarily I am a musician. That often gets lost when people talk about Bubbi Morthens. I have written over 500 songs on so many different subjects. There are so many different versions of me. I can’t do anything else than be who I am. Today, I try to protect my freedom above all. I made a lot of sacrifices to attain that. I am at this point in my life, a point where I think most people should consider if the would not want to be in their life. To be free. It cost me a lot of pain to get to this point, but in this case, that pain was a blessing. At the end of the day, I can honestly say that looking back, I can see that my biggest losses were really my biggest victories.

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