Gusgus on reaching the brink, and coming back stronger
Reykjavík Art Museum’s Hafnarhús is making more noise than usual. Normally a quiet gallery building, today it’s throbbing with bass, the big glass windows rattling in their frames. Through an open service door, the cavernous main hall ripples with light—against the back of the stage, three huge projected figures made of geometric shapes blossom then deteriorate into mazes and matrices of neon lines. Sound techs run around with arms full of coiled leads, and a battalion of lights strafes the stage through thick mist.
The building is warming up for Gusgus to present their latest album ‘Mexico’ in Reykjavík for the first time. In the somewhat stark dressing room, though, the atmosphere cools down. Birgir Þórarinsson (aka Biggi Veira or Veiran), at this point the only constant and ever-present member in the band’s history, sits on a crate with his legs crossed, nonchalantly sipping a Campari as he waits for his bandmates to arrive for rehearsal.
“Hello!” he says, beckoning. “Come in! Welcome!”
It’s been almost two decades since Gusgus first came together, drifting into being in a way that seems preternaturally effortless. Whilst working together on an Icelandic film production that was suffering delays, singer Daníel Ágúst, who was an actor in the production, had been playing with electronic composition, and suggested the eclectic group should work together on some music. After a period of play, gestation and experimentation, the revered UK label 4AD heard some recordings and came calling, and the loosely strung collective snapped into focus as a band.
The label sent out a black and white panorama-postcard of the band’s full lineup to announce the new signing. Biggi remembers it well. “Our manager was in that picture too,” he says. “We were seven onstage, then—three singers, two of us making the music, and then two doing live visuals. And everyone brought something important to the mix. It was kind of just a collection of interesting people—an experiment. Nobody was too stressed about what it was. We were just having fun with music.”
Daníel also remembers the period fondly. “It was a good time, us getting together,” he says. ”It was a very intriguing work environment to have all these talents—ten or twelve creative people, all contributing to the project. We would work on music day and night. I was also in a musical and rehearsing a play—I was sleeping for just two or three hours a day. It was busy, but a lot fun.”
“Polyesterday” became a cult hit, establishing the band outside of Iceland as they toured throughout Europe. The band reconvened in Reykjavík afterwards to write and record the follow-up album, ‘This Is Normal’, but as Gusgus became a more formal entity, internal frictions started to surface.
“Basically, it was in chaos after the recording,” Biggi says. “People had become more aware that this was a band, and that it had become a bigger thing. It came to the surface what each individual wanted to do with music. And there were some clashes when people didn’t totally agree on it. We toured nonetheless, without Hafdís Huld, but basically we realised the band was falling apart.”
After the tour, the lineup was decimated as people went their separate ways. The core unit of Stephan Stephenssen (aka Steppi or President Bongo) and Biggi remained, working on a new album with Daníel as their vocal foil, but before the album had reached fruition, Daníel too left, with his mind set on solo work.
“I felt like I needed to explore more of what music had to offer, and I couldn’t go all the way within the realms of Gusgus,” Daníel says. “I had to do it on my own, but we stayed connected—I wrote a song called “Desire” for the ‘Attention’ album, and a song of mine called “Moss” was reworked on ‘Forever.’ And of course, I came back, having kind of masturbated with my deepest musical desires of the time. Those desires change constantly, anyway—I wouldn’t say I’m easily bored, but I do love regenerating what I’m doing, regenerating the approach, looking at what I can do next. It’s an ever-evolving path.”
For a time, the future seemed uncertain. “When Daníel quit, the album we were planning ground to a halt,” Biggi says. “So we decided to release an album of tracks from T-World, the band Maggi Lego and I had been in before, that was kind of swamped into Gusgus. We had these unreleased songs from ’93 and ’94. If we hadn’t done that album, there’d have been no point in continuing.”
Says Daníel, of the band’s crisis point: “The future has been critical a couple of times, sure. When I left in 2000, it was just Biggi and Stephan. There was a point in time where they were thinking, ‘Shall we make this happen, or call it quits?’ But, we’re still here. Destiny has played a few tricks on us.”
And so, having reached the brink, Gusgus started to gather their strength once more, finding a powerful new singer in Urður Hákonardóttir (aka Earth). Urður added a new voice and a grounding, feminine stage presence. It was around this time that another future member, Högni Egilson, first became acquainted with the band he’d later join.
“I’d heard of them in the ’90s, as this crazy art collective,” Högni says, “but I only saw Gusgus for the first time in 2005, during the ‘Attention’ period. It was a ‘Wow!’ moment. Earth was with them, and Steppi Steph was at the front. He was talking to a pineapple, and had this long hair, and these funky clothes with lots of neon, and they played “David,” which was a big hit in Iceland. It was played at our school ball and stuff. I liked their presence, their characters—they had this grandeur about them.”
When Earth dipped out of the band in 2008, Biggi and President Bongo called upon Daníel once again, asking him to help develop a new direction influenced by what was happening in German techno. “It was really melodic, taking it a bit down-tempo,” says Biggi. “Those years were such a beautiful time for techno music.”
But the abiding friendship between the band’s members held things together, remembers Daníel. “We never stopped being friends,” he says. “The threads between us remained. So when Earth decided to leave, it seemed natural for me to take the torch and carry on.”
And indeed, Daníel’s supremely confident, flamboyant stage performances resonated with the deeper techno sound of ‘24/7’, making it feel like something of a rebirth for the band.
“I was just quenching my thirst for the stage,” Daníel says. “I’m very attracted to the stage, I love the stage. And sometimes the stage loves me.”
He laughs, thinking, before continuing. “Generally I’m a shy person, but it’s such a good outlet. I find it really rewarding to express myself through performance. Especially music. When I was two or three years old I nicked the broom and pretended it was an instrument, and was singing in front of my family in the living room. It was a natural thing for me to sing. In my teens I wasn’t that keen on making it a career—I had interests in other fields as well—but music became my passion and my life.”
I feel like dancing
It’s evident watching Daníel now that he is a born performer who has developed into a formidable force on the stage. He wheels around the space with an uninhibited confidence, spinning freely under the lights, and seeming to embody the energy of the music, in a liberated, shamanistic style. His movements channel the music to the crowd through dance, leading by example—and they respond in kind.
“Being on stage is the best state of being,” he smiles. “To be all opened up, to completely lose yourself to the music. You get so much energy back from performance, too. It’s intensely rewarding. Music can be physical—it connects mind and body, and you put some spiritual content to it, as well—it’s a toy for the body, mind and spirit to play with. We cater to curious, exploring minds with our music. There are no rules, basically.”
When Högni joined the band, it was a departure from his previous style of performance with his other project, Hjaltalín. “It was very new to me,” Högni says. “I was like a loose monkey on my first tours with Gusgus. Now I’m asking more about what my movements mean. I’ve grown as a performer, I have to say. As a performer and a vocalist, the slightest movement can mean something. You learn more every time, expressing something through your body. It’s very special. I try to look at it artistically. In my circle of colleagues I have people in dance art. It’s a lively scene here, small but strong, and abstract physique is very interesting—it resembles music and pushes the abstract.”
“It’s a good kick in the butt for him!” smiles Daníel. “To just go out there and dance—losing yourself in music is a great and healthy expansion of mind and body.”
‘Arabian Horse’ saw Gusgus hit a new peak, becoming their biggest album to date and tripling their album sales record, with the three-pronged attack of Daníel, Urður and Högni creating incendiary results. “We employed more song structures and more of a pop sound,” recalls Biggi. “And people are always close by in Iceland, of course, so that was when Högni came into the studio and helped us out on some choruses.”
It was Högni’s friendship with President Bongo that led to his joining the band. “I met Steppi a long time ago, he helped me bounce a Hjaltalín track one time,” he remembers. “I thought he was a cool guy, we kind of clicked. We ended up going for sushi one time with David Þór [Jónsson, composer] and Ragnar Kjartansson [artist], and he said, ‘Hey, I’m going into the studio, wanna come by and maybe do some backing vocals?’ I wrote some demo lines for a few tracks, and a couple of days later, Steppi said, ‘We’re going to the Faroe Islands to record, wanna come?’ And I was like, ‘Yes, of course.’ It was the first time I’d met Daníel, and I remember feeling a bit star-struck. And that’s when we made ‘Arabian Horse.’”
It took time to acclimatise. “When I joined the band I felt a little bit alien,” Högni says, “but now that our set list is almost all songs from ‘Arabian Horse’ and ‘Mexico’, it feels more like it’s mine. Like it’s precious, and more personal.”
Högni’s fingerprints seem more apparent on the sound of ‘Mexico’, which features string and brass arrangements. ““Obnoxiously Sexual” is the first time a Gusgus song has had a brass arrangement,” he says. “I had to bang my fist on the table to get those brass chops in. But that’s why I’m there—to bring in something new. Of course, there are some disputes in the production of the album—it’s very common—but it naturally grew in some direction, and people are very realistic—there are no empty shirts, nobody is just there for decoration.”
The relative critical and commercial success of ‘Arabian Horse’ felt like it lightened the load for work on their newest album, the magnificent ‘Mexico’. “Everybody came to us after ‘Arabian Horse’ and said it was the best Gusgus album,” laughs Biggi, “and I thought, ‘Okay, I’ve done that, I don’t have to do it again. I felt like we could do whatever we wanted afterwards. ‘Mexico’ is more free—we’re just doing whatever, trying out different styles in the different tracks. You can hear more of our history, and everybody gets to do a bit of what they want, instead of having to agree on everything. I feel like my responsibility is to make everyone sound like it can fit on the same album.”
And what next? “I feel like we could do whatever—experiment a bit more with this pop sound, or maybe do something a bit more experimental,” Biggi says. “Who knows!”
The future is bright, says Daníel: “We’re the most popular we’ve been, I think; and the quality standard is high. We’ve come a long way and shoveled through the difficult times, but we’re also surfing the wave of electronic music’s popularity. We’re lucky to be still at it while it’s happening. All the things are working together,” he smiles. “Like clockwork.”
As Gusgus come out for their encore at a sold-out Hafnarhús show, the crowd almost raise the roof with their whooping and cheering. Gusgus are about to spread their wings once again, and tour ‘Mexico’ until Christmas in Russia and the Baltic states. They’ll go to Mexico, too, of course. Where this enduringly free-spirited troupe will race from there, nobody knows. But it’ll be a pleasure to watch them do it.
Gusgus In Numbers
- 1 pink moustache
- 1 mouse named Gus Gus in Disney’s Cinderella
- 1 member (no pun intended) also known as President Penis
- 2 members at Gusgus’ smallest membership
- 4 labels who have released Gusgus albums: ‘4AD,’ ‘Underwater,’ ‘Pineapple,’ ‘Kompakt’
- 5 active members (profiled below)
- 8 pseudonyms belonging to Magnús Guðmundsson (Maggi Lego)
- 9 studio albums
- 12 members at Gusgus’ largest membership
- 14 total members ever
- 20 years the band has been running
- 52 is the highest number a single has reached in the UK charts
Gusgus Current Member Profiles
Words by Melissa Coci
More commonly known by his moniker President Bongo, though he has been known to be fond of the pseudonyms President Penis and Alfred More. President Bongo is one of the founding members of Gusgus, and one of only two permanent members. He is, however, currently “on holiday” from the live show and living in Berlin. President Penis is the production mainstay of the band and one of its boldest personalities. He is a popular DJ in his own right.
Daníel Ágúst Haraldsson
The (beautiful) face of Gusgus, Daníel is a vocal mainstay for the band and one of the founding members. He took a break from the band in 2000 to pursue solo projects, formally rejoining in 2009. Daníel represented Iceland for the Eurovision Song Contest in 1989, where he received zero points. He is also the lead singer for the Icelandic bands Nýdönsk and Esja.
Also goes by the names Maggi Lego, Herb Legowitz, Herr Legowitz, Hunk of a Man, Buckmaster De La Cruz, Fuckmaster or The Fox. One of the early members of the band, he is currently enjoying being on-again, off-again with Gusgus. Reemerged for the Hafnarhúsið album release show to replace President Bongo in his absence. Has been described by Daníel Ágúst as “an eccentric genius.”
Birgir is a founding father of Gusgus and as of now, the only 100% full-time member. He also goes by Biggi Veira, Veiran and Biggo. He is responsible for the production and programming side. He was in the band T-World with Maggi Lego before forming Gusgus.
New blood for Gusgus, Högni came on board starting with their last album ‘Arabian Horse’. He is well known as a vocalist for the band Hjaltalín. Högni has now become a fully integrated Gusgus member, with his arrangements and touches found all over ‘Mexico.’ Has a lot of blonde hair.