From Iceland — The Rise And Fall Of Kukl

The Rise And Fall Of Kukl

Published August 13, 2010

The Rise And Fall Of Kukl

The Icelandic rock movement associated with the ‘Rokk í Reykjavík’ documentary got yet another kick in the groin when the radio show Áfangar (“Phases”) was forcefully discontinued in the spring of 1983. The show had been on the air since 1975, feeding Icelanders cool new underground sounds not played anywhere else. To finish fashionably, the radio personalities—Ásmundur Jónsson (of Gramm records) and Guðni Rúnar (of Þeyr’s Eskvímó Records)—decided to do the last show with live music. They asked various artists to play, including Megas and Bubbi, and picked what they considered to be the crème de la crème of the scene to form a new band for the occasion.
This is how Einar Örn from Purrkur Pillnikk, Björk from Tappi Tíkarrass, Guðlaugur Óttarsson and Sigtryggur Baldursson from Þeyr, Einar Melax from Fan Houtens Kókó and Birgir Mogensen from Spilafífl got to perform together. The group performed as Gott kvöld (“Good Evening”), but would later use the name Kukl (“Mumbo Jumbo”), after a suggestion from Björk.

The Crass connection

Even though their old bands had played together on various occasions, the Kukl people did not know each other much. They were quick to befriend one another, though, and rapidly interfusing musically. They decided to continue as a band after the radio performance. Soon after, Kukl recorded two songs at a small studio in Selfoss owned by Ólafur “Labbi”. He had played with rock band Mánar in the ‘60s and ‘70s but in the early ‘80s he ran the country-dance group Kaktus. Björk had sang cover songs with this band at various country balls along with her more new wave-ish leanings with Tappi Tíkarrass, so Kukl got the studio time for cheap. Gramm released the two songs as a 7″ single in the autumn of 1983—the A side being the cheerful “Söngull”.
In September 1983, Kukl performed their first big concert in Laugardalshöll at a grand festival called ‘We Demand a Future!’  The headline act was Crass, an English anarcho punk group whose records Gramm had imported and sold for some time. Einar Örn was studying media in London at the time and he strengthened the connections with the Crass people and often visited the band at their countryside commune.
A group of soloists
Crass Records had released all kinds of anarchist punk records—with various forms of Margaret Thatcher dissing—and now offered Kukl a record deal, even though Kukl had no lyrics about how rotten Thatcher was. The first Kukl LP was called ‘The Eye’ and came out in 1984. Now the “Kukl sound” was fully shaped. The bass and drum enlaced in complex rhythms, the keyboard and guitar floated on top or nipped at the beat, and Einar Örn and Björk entered the experimental fray by talking, singing, grunting, croaking and blowing horns and whistles. “We are all big soloists and our sound man tells us that we are very hard to mix,” Björk said apologetically in an interview at the time. Melodies could be heard through the intriguing racket. This was art—”difficult music”—and Kukl was only liked by the most broadminded in Iceland.
The Icelandic demand for such cutting edge stuff was very limited so with contacts not only to the Crass people, but also to Killing Joke and Psychic TV (who had played in Iceland in 1983), Kukl set out to tour Europe as much as possible. Kukl’s circle of friends also included the band Flux of Pink Indians, which released music on Crass too. Kukl and Flux played all over Britain together, including a tour to support mine workers. Flux’s bassist Derek Birkett would later form the One Little Indian record label that released The Sugarcubes, and later Björk’s solo music.

Everything that could happen happened

Kukl’s tours were no luxury sojourns. They hung together in a van, slept together in one room and ate stews at squats that often were their venues. “We lived on hand outs. I remember one tour where I only got bread and Camembert cheese to eat. When we finished in Amsterdam I was so sick that my life was in danger,” said Einar Örn in 2000 and might be exaggerating. In an interview in 1986 Björk said: “It’s very tiring to sit so long in a car. Kukl’s first tour lasted for two months and everything happened that could possibly happen. All kinds of love affairs formed, everybody got fired, etc.”
Some times were sweeter. Kukl played a great gig in Paris that was later released on a cassette entitled 14.9.84 after the date, and Kukl were the first Icelandic band to play the Roskilde festival in Denmark. In the beginning of 1986, Kukl’s second album was released. Entitled ‘Holidays In Europe (The Naughty Nought)’, it was so heavy and difficult that it made ‘The Eye’ almost sound like an ABBA record in comparison.
A provoking belly
In Iceland, Kukl’s activity was limited to Einar’s vacations from his media studies in London. Kukl was one of the “big numbers” at the infamous Viðey Island festival of 1984, where only thirteen paying guests showed up. Einar played in a t-shirt, a football cleat and nothing else, after his pyjama trousers dropped down. He had gotten the trousers on loan after he fell in the sea.
Kukl and (Icelandic legend) Megas teamed up for a concert in 1985, but Kukl’s most infamous Icelandic appearance was on TV, where the band played a thirty-minute set. Not only did the abstruse music get on people nerves—the band had a sexy female model on stage pretending to be a hen—but most provoking was Björk’s big pregnant belly that stood out, nude and defiant.
It was all over for Kukl in early ‘86. Difficulties in communication between members had sometimes ended in fistfights and musically there was not much to prove—the creative tank was empty. Four Kukl members would soon form The Sugarcubes, playing altogether different and more frivolous music.
(Based on his book Eru ekki allir í stuði from 2001)
Dr. Gunni’s history of Icelandic rock music, Part 21

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