From Iceland — GusGus, The Impossible Band: 25 Years Of Intrigue, Drama And Music

GusGus, The Impossible Band: 25 Years Of Intrigue, Drama And Music

GusGus, The Impossible Band: 25 Years Of Intrigue, Drama And Music

Hannah Jane Cohen
Photo by
Provided By GusGus

Published August 19, 2020

None of this was supposed to happen. GusGus was just supposed to be a short film, not a band. And even when it became a band, and remained a band, it—in some ways—still felt like more than a band. Cycling through catastrophes, last-minute collapses, and terrible drama, the act—one of Iceland’s most beloved—has been down for the count more than once. But intertwined with that has been a string of high-water mark moments, each more improbable than the last.

When they burst onto the scene in 1995, people immediately took notice of GusGus. Sure, their music was strikingly original, but they also possessed an attitude unparalleled within the Icelandic scene. They refused to be called a band, instead opting for the term “fjöllistahópur,” which could be translated as a multi-discipline art collective or circus. To many, this stance felt pretentious, but somehow, the group converted naysayers. It was an apt description.

Now, twenty five years later, the group is revving up again with a new release set to rival the album that many consider their landmark achievement, ‘Arabian Horse,’ as well as a crowd-funded photo book celebrating the entirety of their peculiar history. To mark their quarter-century birthday, the current lineup of the band—Daníel Ágúst Haraldsson and Birgir (“Biggi”) Þórarinsson—sat down to give their version of the story of GusGus, the one you haven’t heard before in interviews, album by album. No former members were interviewed: This is how 2020 GusGus remember it, re-arranged, remixed, and with additional material from the author, a GusGus fan since the early days.

GusGus: Setting the scene

To get to the GusGus studio, I walk past a giant trampoline on a decrepit patio and through an intricately designed garden with a stately two-story tree-house built by Birgir, better known as Biggi Veira, for his children. I then enter a synth-laden paradise, a grown-up funland—it’s the studio of Biggi Veira, GusGus producer since the beginning.

This story starts with an idea. Director duo Árni & Kinski wanted to make a short film entitled ‘Nautn’. (It’s currently on YouTube, if you want to check it out.) In their crew were cinematographer Stephan Stephensen and producer Baldur Stefánsson. The group reached out to a bunch of actors—all also musicians—among them singer Daníel Ágúst.

Everyone knew Daníel. His guitar-rock based band Nýdönsk had been huge since the start of the 90s and before that he was a fresh-faced Eurovision contestant. But ennui was creeping in. Disillusioned with the constraints of the rock band structure, he left Nýdönsk and subsequently produced the second Bubbleflies album, where he got a taste for electronic elements in music. Then he got the call.

0. Soundtrack to ‘Nautn’

So GusGus started out as a soundtrack to a short film. Daníel Ágúst sought a collaborator who shared his fascination with the electronic. A few producers were considered before the team settled on reaching out to T-World, Biggi’s band.

Daníel and Biggi can’t agree on how this happened, and won’t let this article disclose any names.

For long-time fans, it’s interesting  to consider how GusGus might have turned out with other producers at the helm. Biggi—whose sound is so iconic that every musician in Iceland has, at some point, tried and failed to emulate it—might never have joined.

Biggi founded T-World in the 80s, with a guy called Beggi. They were influenced by Depeche Mode, Marc Almond and the like. When Beggi left in the early 90s, Biggi brought Maggi Legó on board, and together they started making techno.

  Maggi Legó’s presence added another level of skill to the team. Part of the first wave of acid house DJs, which pushed DJ culture away from its cheesy 80s roots, Legó has always had an air of legend around him.

T-World had already had one release, ‘An-them’, on Underwater, Darren Emerson of Underworld’s label. But, as Biggi describes, the label staff had a cocaine problem, and when Maggi asked for an allowance to fly back to Iceland, the label boss—presumably in an altered state—fired them on the spot. Their track “Purple,” a hit in the making, was shelved.

I. Gus Gus (The Album)

Back to the main story. While the production of the short film ‘Nautn’ was postponed, the trio decided to rent a room in an old warehouse, which they shared with a gang of bikers, and make some music.

Daníel painted the space blue. He and Maggi hunted for samples to loop and the whole cast of the film dropped by to collaborate on a track or two.

It was all quick and casual. Emiliana Torrini covered Slowblow’s “Is Jesus Your Pal?” over a bass drum beat. Magnús Jónsson brought in soul and disco influences. Ragnheiður Axel orchestrated a rowdy, shouty rave tune. Heiðrún Anna came in, but unfortunately the track didn’t work out. She’d go on to write for the Spice Girls among other things. Others added their own spin on songs.

The soundtrack became an album, simply called ‘Gus Gus,’ released late in 1995. They did a few shows around the country. The filmmakers made some visuals and they VJ-ed on stage, mixing together footage shot by Stephan on analog video tape. After that, the project just petered out. It was finished and a modest success, though no one in the group yet identified GusGus as a proper band, rather just a one-time project.

Then they got a fax from 4AD.

II. Polydistortion

4AD was a one of the most respected indie labels in the world, best known at the time for launching the Pixies and Cocteau Twins. After the success of Björk and the Sugarcubes, the label had been keeping an eye on Iceland and wanted to release the ‘Gus Gus’ album worldwide. So a decision had to be made: Was GusGus now a band? And if so, who would join this new band?

Some joined, others did not, and the band eventually signed as a nine piece, featuring Stephan Stephansen, Biggi, Daníel, Maggi Legó, Magnús Jónsson, Hafdís Huld Þrastardóttir, Sigurður Kjartansson, Stefán Árni Þorgeirsson, and Baldur Stefánsson. Interestingly enough, despite having worked in the collective for over a year, it was only now that Stephan Stephansen and Biggi Veira met in person.

The group released ‘Polydistortion’ on 4AD in 1997. Most of the album’s material originated from ‘Gus Gus’ although there were some new tracks. These additions were mostly due to changes regarding the use of sampling. While the 80s and early 90s had been a free-for-all, by ‘97 high profile court cases had bankrupted some of the early sampling pioneers. As a result GusGus removed all but two samples, one of which—the cowbell loop that drives “Believe”—ended up costing the band 70% of the proceeds from the track.

They made short films as videos to each track and hype built around the collective. Then they toured the world.

III. This Is Normal

Touring—with nine members and a gigantic video projector—was hugely expensive. That said, the venues were packed and the media exposure was enormous. Apparently, the world realised, there was more to Iceland than Björk and the Sugarcubes.

Back in Iceland, the group embarked on a new record. ‘Gus Gus’ and ‘Polydistortion’ had happened in such a casual manner, but while recording this new, international album entitled ‘This Is Normal’, the strain of being a band became obvious. Members became more ambitious and tried to push the project in directions that reflected their own personal tastes and image.

“We became a dysfunctional pop band.”

And so, in the record’s production stage things began to unravel. Hafdís Huld was unhappy with the material she got. Biggi and Magnús Jónsson struggled to work together. Maggi Legó didn’t want to tour again. “We became a dysfunctional pop band,” Daníel admits. Biggi, meanwhile, didn’t even believe that GusGus would survive the album—too much politics.

The band subsequently split into camps, separated in two studios. One was Biggi’s, who had been joined by Stephan Stephensen, the other was  Maggi Lego’s studio, he was joined by Þórir Baldurs—best known for his work on Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”—who was working with Legó.

These years saw Biggi and Legó journey in different musical directions. Legó wanted to move closer to his disco and soul roots, while Biggi, in his own words, wanted to explore Depeche Mode-influenced ambient breaks.

Nonetheless, ‘This Is Normal’ was released in April 1999. “Ladyshave” was supposed to be the breakthrough hit, but due to an error in the 4AD label offices, not enough copies were sent out of the single to stores, so it was sold out early in the week. Due to this, the track only hit number 42 on the U.K. charts so they missed Top Of The Pops and BBC Radio 1 playlisting.

It was the band’s first disappointment. While the track did have some success in ads among other things, the cost had been high—jobs had been quit, and sacrifices made for something that never panned out. Magnús Jónsson and Hafdís Huld left the band completely and Legó briefly stepped back from the project. Matters were coming to a head.

IV. Gus Gus vs T-World

The band was in disarray. 4AD went bankrupt, and was subsequently taken over by Beggars Banquet. Reorgansing, GusGus’ advance payments were cut, so the band left the label. In April 2000, just before leaving, they released another very different album.

‘Gus Gus vs T-World’ was a compilation of early T-World tracks, written and produced by Legó and Biggi before the formation of GusGus. The album was pushed by Daníel, who felt that it was a shame not to release these classics. He helped select the tracks for the album, even naming some previously untitled numbers (since the band was called T-World, the blank tracks were named after teas, i.e. “Earl Gray”).

“The future of Gusgus was once more up-in-the-air.”

But with crisis came opportunity. Palm Pictures, a company formed by Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, offered the band, as the duo puts it, a “Million Dollar Deal.” The caveat? Daníel could not do any other work except GusGus. Daníel promptly refused.

Now, the band was in serious debt by this point—in fact, Daníel only made the final payment for the 4AD-era debts last year—so his refusal was not popular with his bandmates. The final straw came when Daníel was putting together a soundtrack for a performance by the Iceland Dance Company. Biggi Veira, who was producing the project, lost interest and so Daníel had to call in another one to help.

In response, Daníel quit GusGus. Biggi, sitting here in 2020, is remarkably honest about his role in the situation and his difficulty working with others at that time. He uses harsh language to describe how stubborn he had been in situations, such as this, where diplomacy would have been more appropriate.

The future of Gusgus was once more up-in-the-air.

Following the ‘Gus Gus vs. T-World’ album, an offer came in to do an instrumental tour. Biggi and Stephan Stephensen, by now the only remaining GusGus members, accepted and played a number of French festivals. On the final night of the tour, all the bands joined GusGus on stage for an improvisational session featuring French rappers and even a horn section. This glorious cacophony rejuvenated the duo. Once again they saw a future for GusGus.

Inspired, they came home and asked Maggi Legó to rejoin. The search was on for a new singer. At the time, Stephan and Legó had been performing as a DJ duo. At a gig in Kaffibarinn, a girl came over and asked if she could MC with them. They said yes. She tore the roof off the house. Her name was Urður Hákonardóttir.

V. Attention

While working on their next album, ‘Attention’, Stephan stepped up as the driving force behind the band. In fact, Biggi gives most of the credit for this release to him. Alone at the studio, Stephan would make beats, with Biggi dropping in to add synths, hooks, and shaping up the mix. The stakes were lower and thus, things were fun again. Around half the tracks on the album would be initiated by Stephan.

Stephen had previously been DJ-ing under the moniker Alfred More, or A.More, but around this time, he adopted a new name, President Bongo. With this new identity, he began to move from behind the machines to the front of the stage, acting as hype man and singer alongside Urður.

Biggi, meanwhile, was still burned out after the excesses of the 4AD era, and was happy to let Stephan take the reins for a bit. Biggi directed the recordings, Stephan had the run of the band outside the studio. “Steph held the act together, he made it happen,” Biggi admits. Daníel goes even further with his praise. “For a period, he kept the band alive,” he says. In a surprise twist, A track from an older session with Daníel also went on the album.

Returning to the Underwater label, the group released ‘Attention’ in 2002. The main single, “David,” became a club hit across Europe, hitting #1 in Germany. GusGus was back.

VI. Forever

Underwater established Germany as the band’s new base of popularity. But the office enthusiasm for cocaine that had thwarted T-World’s relationship with the label was still present, and so the band promptly left the label after ‘Attention’ came out.

It was during this era that GusGus grew as a live act, becoming the most popular band in Iceland and headlining the Iceland Airwaves festival year after year.

“Biggi’s not an alpha dog, he’s a tyrant.”

During this period, Biggi essentially dropped out of the group and started working as a programmer at a bank. Focused on his job, he put off working on the next GusGus album, much to the dismay of Stephan and Urður. Relations between Stephan and Biggi were beginning to deteriorate, and while Daníel describes the duo’s relationship in the studio as, “all love and lotion,” outside it, and especially on tour, territorial tensions were rife. The two would get into heated arguments on the tour bus, usually ending with them hugging and crying.

They could never settle the disputes though. As Biggi had trained Stephan, he struggled to view him as an equal. Daníel refers to this as an “Obi Wan Kenobi situation.” Biggi describes having trouble accepting Stephan’s suggestions to change things that Biggi had created. “Biggi’s not an alpha dog, he’s a tyrant,” Daníel jokes. Biggi laughs. “I compromise, but really unwillingly, and people never hear the end of it”. That said, throughout the interview, you can sense that Biggi has been looking inward and coming to grips with this difficult history. He seems to be growing.

Urður, meanwhile, kept getting stuck in the middle of this tense dynamic and at the start of 2008, she left the band. That said, her voice dominated the album ‘Forever,’ which was released in the midst of all the drama.

VII. 24/7

Daníel re-entered the picture post-’Forever’, which had featured a remix of “Moss,” from his solo album. He started appearing with them onstage again—to uproarious applause from the audience—and eventually decided to rejoin GusGus.

They planned to showcase new tracks on tour during the summer of 2008, with Ásta Sveinsdóttir in place of  Urður, but the deadline came and went and the tracks were nowhere near finished. Without a plan, they decided to work out the album live on stage.

Both Daníel and Biggi remember the terror they felt going onstage for the first time without any map. “It was also thrilling though,” Daníel says. “Doing a great show even though we never knew where the night was going to take us.”

“We realised when we walked off that stage that we were going to do things differently.”

Slowly, the album started taking shape, and by their Airwaves gig in October, the tracks had some form. Daníel recalls Florence from Florence & The Machine throwing herself on her knees after their show in admiration. “We realised when we walked off that stage that we were going to do things differently,” Biggi says. “We were going to record this album in the same way as we did it live”.

The reunited trio—Biggi, Stephan and Daníel—set up a studio in Flateyri for two weeks. They stayed in a summer cabin and spent more time on meal preparations and dressing up than on music. Seriously, every day they would put on suits.

They rented a giant, if somewhat vintage sound system and recreated the show in its entirety four times during in just one week, afterwards editing the recordings together into the album ‘24/7.’

The album, which was released by Kompakt in September, 2009, was John Grant’s favorite. He later got in touch with Biggi, and this relationship snowballed into Biggi producing John’s second album ‘Pale Green Ghosts.’ And just like that—big things were once again on the horizon for GusGus.

VII. Arabian Horse

The ball that started with ‘24/7’, continued rolling into ‘Arabian Horse.’ The band started recording in a countryside cottage. After that, they once again geographically split into two, divided between Biggi’s studio and Stephan’s new studio in Grandi. Stephan brought in Högni Egilsson, the Hjaltalín composer and singer, as a band member and also a roster of rotating live musicians—one of the main reasons behind the richness of the album.

‘Arabian Horse’ came out in 2011 and is by far their most critically acclaimed release. Biggi was sad that Kompakt only released two singles off the album—”Over” and “Deep Inside.” In Iceland, “Within You” became a surprise hit, and the title track, “Arabian Horse” was an underground sensation in Eastern Europe. The album found success in new places. When they toured Russia for the first time, they were surprised to find that the whole crowd knew the lyrics to most of the songs on the album.

In comparison to their last few albums, it was a relatively drama-free period for the band.

IX. Mexico

But the peace didn’t last long. Stephan, now in his solo studio, began veering off in his own direction. In the middle of making GusGus’s next effort ‘Mexico,’ he decamped for a three-month sailing trip around the Caribbean. When he came back, much of the album was close to finished by Biggi, Högni and Daníel. It was instantly clear that a rift had formed between Stephan and Biggi regarding the sound of the album, and it ran so deep that the fight ended in Stephan’s departure. Biggi speaks of the split in a sombre tone.

Högni, meanwhile, also departed the group in the midst of the Mexico tour, citing health reasons.

X. Lies Are More Flexible

Daníel likens himself at the end of the Stephan era to the child of divorcing parents. Starting a new album as a duo with Biggi was sort of a relief for him—it seemed simple even.

That said, the album took a long time. “There was a big gap after Stephan left,” Daníel explains. “And maybe there still is.” Musically, the album dove deeper into Biggi’s new-wave influences—a journey that had started with ‘Mexico’’s “Sustain,” a track which had been one of the final points of contention between Stephan and Biggi.

‘Lies Are More Flexible,’ released in 2018, was the result of this new lineup, and while the duo does admit it was a strange, short effort, the album was coherent, featuring strong tracks and an even stronger sonic direction—a melange of new-wave and italo disco.

And so, the GusGus—stripped back to its initial duo line-up—was back in business.

GusGus: The future

Upon first listen, there’s no doubt that the forthcoming album exists in the same sonic universe as the last one. That said, it’s clearly the climax of the story, to which ‘Lies Are More Flexible’ was merely the crescendo. The as-of-yet-unnamed album is full of hits, joy, and inventive ideas. For GusGus it’s a return to form.

Biggi describes their new sound as being, in part, electronic country. Daníel objects, suggesting that it’s more like electronic suburbia. Perhaps it’s in between, they posit. An industrial area surrounded by cows? A big factory with grass on one end and meat on the other? Is it a distant town like Skagafjörður or Raufarhöfn? What kind of country is it?

They end up agreeing that perhaps Sauðarkrókur is the best choice. This devolves into a quibble about the merits of the proposed final track on the album. Daníel wants it gone. Biggi is having none of it so Daníel suggests naming it “Sauðárkrókur.” Biggi counters with “Grass In Meat Out.”

Apart from the album, the duo is also excited about their upcoming 25th anniversary photo book, compiled by Réza Kalfane, Dominique Lameule, and Florence Larbey, which is currently being crowdfunded on Karolina Fund.

And so you’ve made it to the end of the GusGus Saga. Of course, there’s no way to do everyone justice in a mere two pages and many important people could not be included. All we can say is congrats to what is perhaps the most dramatic band in Iceland for surviving a quarter of a century. Let’s hope for another 25 years of good stories.   

Check out GusGus on their website and check out their crowdfunding campaign for their new photo book (who graciously let us use these photos) here

Get Reykjavík Grapevine print issue of GusGus on the cover sent to your home with Arabian Horse album, Mexico album or 24/7 album.

 

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