From Iceland — The War Against Frugality

The War Against Frugality

The War Against Frugality

Published June 30, 2006

On June 8, 1986, Bad Taste, Inc. was formally established. Intended to be a creative outlet for those artists and activists who had grown disillusioned with the staleness and prudishness of the Icelandic scene, it was founded by a core of musicians, poets and artists who had come to realise that good taste and frugality were in essence the natural enemies of originality and creativity.
Realising that the already moribund scene would soon perish without their intervention, they created Bad Taste, commissioning its very own ‘pop department’, better known to the world as the Sugarcubes. Bad Taste then grew into something, an intangible force slightly more than a movement and slightly less than a revolution, pushing the explosive products of Iceland’s previously untapped veins of creative insanity to the forefront of the scene, introducing to the scene many pivotal acts of their time, such as Reptile, Ham, Curver, Maus and Bootlegs, as well as kickstarting bands that have become household names in today’s scene, such as Mínus, Ghostigital, Kimono, Ske, Björk, Vinyl, Jeff Who?, Trabant and Sigur Rós. They have also, along the way distributed poetry, held art exhibitions, including a decidedly haphazard collection of artefacts from its own chequered past at Gallery Lobster or Fame on Laugavegur.
To better expose the unsteady nature of the Bad Taste phenomenon, Sindri Eldon spoke to Einar Örn, who has been a core member of the Bad Taste collective since its inception, as well as a member of the Sugarcubes and Ghostigital.
/// Well… 20 years
– Einar Örn: Were you going to speak to somebody else about this as well?
/// No… I figured you’d pretty much have it all down.
– Well, I just have my side of the story.
/// I figured yours would be just as interesting as anyone else’s.
– All right then.
/// So. When Bad Taste was founded, was it more of an experiment, some kind of joke, or was it something that you thought would last for 20 years?
– The way I see it is that there was a certain change in progress. Icelandic music had reached a point where everything was just really boring and monotonous. I came back home after having been in Britain for three years, and there’s a certain rehabilitation process involved, as you try to get connected to what’s going on here, what everybody’s doing. It was at that time that I got to know Þór (Eldon, poet and later Sugarcubes member) in a new way, and I also Björk. Also, Bragi (Ólafsson, poet and member of punk pioneers Purrkur Pilnikk (of which Einar Örn was also a member), and later member of the Sugarcubes; he is now a successful fiction writer) was coming home from Spain – it was a sort of homecoming of various people you had either known personally or worked with before, so when we made the decision to form Bad Taste, it’s really just a group of friends coming together. We were all fighting off the summer boredom; everyone had been in various bands, were graduating from school and were basically just trying to find their calling. We were ready to take the next step, and in order to do that, we needed some kind of organised front. And no, I don’t think it was intended to last, definitely not 20 years.
For example, if you read the original manifesto, you’ll find things like ‘no cheques,’ and ‘no credit cards’. We were only going to deal in cash. The most important thing was not using the tools of consumerist culture. You had to use hard cash to support artistic expression, and to release our own crap, and that was it. We didn’t even think about whether or not it would last, we just wanted to get it done.
/// Could you picture something like Bad Taste coming up again in today’s scene, an establishment for people who are sick of the way things are in Icelandic music today?
– Music is a cyclical thing, it goes through periods and changes, and there’s always new and fresh creativity going on. When people say ‘it’s all been done, and I’ve heard it all before’, that’s exactly the reason Bad Taste was started. But Bad Taste was not purely a musical thing. We dabbled in visual arts, theatre and film – we refused to concentrate on one medium. I don’t want to sound like some kind of all-knowing hierophant on whether or not young people today are doing good things, but I do personally think that there’s a large amount of original creativity going on today, but back in ’86, we simply didn’t have access to the technology there is today, by which I mean the Internet. The effect the Internet has is that everyone is doing their own little thing in their own little corner, but it’s too spread out, too lacking in direction. I mean Bad Taste was, and still is, just 50 to 60 people getting together and making something out of their own personal ideas and projects. We (the Sugarcubes) would get together and perform at Duus-húsið (a local coffeehouse no longer in existence), where we’d be playing for 50, maybe 60 people, who then went out and told other people, and then all of a sudden you have 500 people coming, but sometimes only 30 people came… it was erratic. So in order to get established as an act, you have to put something organised together, a kind of partnership of interest.
/// It definitely seems as if everyone is kind of ‘every-man-for-himself’ now. Rather than forming a musical collective and trying to make something original out of it, everyone just wants to get out of Iceland and get famous, whatever it takes.
– Well, a lot of what’s going on now is illogical thinking, or illogical reasoning. The mistake some people are making is thinking that getting, say, a record contract, means that you’ll be swimming in cash in no time at all. When that has become your driving ambition, well, then you’re in deep shit. What you have to keep in mind is there has to be some sort of creative vacuum that needs to be filled in order for a new band to be accepted and celebrated. When the Sugarcubes first began to attract attention in Britain, there was nothing really going on there musically. The scene was badly in need of something fresh, and there we were. We weren’t a ready-made idea. We were different people from different bands, all trying to make something fresh, to evolve musically. It’s the same thing with Sigur Rós. They were just patiently trying out new things and new ideas, and eventually things start to click. But today, everyone seems to think that they ‘deserve to be famous’ because society has tricked them into thinking that any creative idea is a financially solid one, but it’s really all about hard work. The fact is, that is you put out an album in Iceland, you’re going to sell 100, maybe 150 albums, and then you just have to keep on working, make more, do your own thing.
/// Coming back to Bad Taste; wouldn’t you say that the movement Bad Taste started, to totally disregard all norms and conventional methods in music and art, has resulted in what was once viewed as bad taste has now become acceptable, and has kind of become the norm for bands, musicians and artists nowadays?
– Well, yes, it is the norm now, but it’s still not selling.
/// But it was Bad Taste that had that effect, that pushed the underground to the surface and changed Icelandic music into what it is today.
– Our objective was not so much to push the talent we had to the forefront, but more just to demonstrate to people that there were other things out there than what was considered to be ‘in good taste’, that there was variety in art, and that that variety was staggeringly wide. We were trying to show people that you could do anything, and it didn’t have to fit into anyone’s idea of good taste. The musical climate at the time was very much ‘this is the way it has to be, everything else is just noise’. That’s what Bad Taste was trying to offer. We were trying to show people a new perspective, a new way of listening; we became pioneers simply because we could. We managed to show people that this ‘noise’ people here so despised, was in fact popular, acceptable and bought abroad. That, I think, changed a lot of perspectives here at home.
/// Do you think Bad Taste has achieved everything it set out to do 20 years ago?
– Hmm. I feel Bad Taste has…deviated slightly from its original path, mostly because we’ve started to behave like a record company, which is something I feel we should definitely not have done. People come to us a lot, asking us to release their records, which is perfectly normal I suppose, because that’s what we do, we put out records, but we wanted to put out our own records, we didn’t want other people’s records. We founded Bad Taste to promote our own work, and in our manifesto, it’s stated that we should only release material made by our own members. So when you ask me a question like that, have we achieved everything we were going to, then the only answer I can give you is no, we’ve released far too much, and someone should chew us out for that. We haven’t been true to our own manifesto, and I think that in the next 20 years, we should just help ourselves, promote our own material and see what happens. I’ll just release everything I make myself, and stop behaving like I run a record company, stop thinking about music videos, hit singles… That’s where we went wrong, releasing stuff other people have made.
/// Yeah, I have to admit, some of the artists you’ve been signing recently haven’t been terribly tasteless.
– Yes, well, you have to pay respect to them as individuals, but at the same time, you have to stay true to yourself.

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