Extrapolated from the Toronto rag eye, May 1st issue, Vol. 6; No. 28...
NORTHERN EXPOSURES gusGus, pride of Iceland and 4AD by Erin Hawkins
Slush-caked bus windows, furrowed brows, salt stains, petrified doggie doodoo, blah, blah, bleugh! It's one of this winter's last unforgivingly blustery afternoons and the city streets are brimming with about as much joy and color as an Ingmar Bergman film - except without the humor.
I've ventured downtown to crack open the enigmatic urn otherwise known as gusGus, a nine-piece music, film and art collective from Reykjavik, who've just become 4AD's newest, coolest and perhaps only techno/pop outfit (in this decade at least). Baldur Stefansson, the group's "cultural ambassador", is sitting by the window of a Queen Street restaurant , happily slurping away at a milkshake, oblivious to the urban tundra and the glum faces surrounding him both inside and out. For someone who comes from a country built on a volcanic rock with winters even bleaker than ours, it has to be said he's an example for us all.
"It all starts with yourself," he enthuses, launching into freestyle Anthony Robbins jive. "No one's going to pick you up and produce things for you. Most artists in Iceland accept that they're not going to make it, so they just do daytime jobs and push to get their art shown somewhere. Reykjavik is a city of 120,000 people, but the artistic activity is more like that of a European city of a half million people."
For Steph, Daniel, Biggi, Magnus, Herr, Hafdis, Stefan, Siggi and Baldur himself, petty concerns such as dayjobs and landlords would no longer appear to be issues. Polydistortion is the first disc in a five-record deal with 4AD, and Stefansson is of the belief that label chief Ivo Watts-Russell will likely play sugar-daddy to some of their film (ad)ventures too - not a bad deal at all.
Polydistortion (currently available via PolyGram with a limited-edition EP of worthwhile remixes) is a variation of their epoymous debut album. Because of its blatant samples of the likes of Barry White and Kool And The Gang, that album couldn't be released internationally without years of work and thousands of dollars to clear them. It's hard to fathom this crazy gusGus disc Baldur describes. Its follow-up is a conundrum that shifts from cool, angular Euro house to somnambulant trip-hoppy stuff to knowing girly pop - a far cry from the dusky tones of most of their labelmates. "I met Ivo two weeks ago and he was saying, 'Don't bother about the press if they say that 4AD's just trying to cash in on the techno thing.' He said, 'Your music could have been made in the early 80's.' We're doing electronic music, but the sound is very different."
"People are compromising their own creativity to what is accepted at the moment, which is understandable because everyone has to make a living. But that's not our motive. We weren't looking for some gusGus sound when we were making this. We just wanted to see what would happen if the nine of us made an album."
Baldur's 'cultural ambassador' moniker not only suits his duties with gusGus, but his native country as well, which he never tires of talking of. Besides speaking Icelandic and perfect English, he also speaks German, French, Danish and a little bit of Latin. "In Iceland, if you can order yourself a hooker, then you can get by," he says laughing.
Before film and music completely engulfed his life, Stefansson worked as a political strategist for the Social Democrat party in his third year studying political science. He quickly developed a fierce reputation in Reykjavik for his passionate activism. "We're so arrogant," he says. "The nationalism in Iceland is almost stupid. We believe that we're by far the best nation in the world - the purest. the cleanest and the healthiest. It's really funny because we expect to be allowed into each market in the world, without ever paying taxes or tarrifs, but we don't let anyone into our market."
"I do like how tight we are though. gusGus aleady has a 250,000 person fan club, because everyone in Iceland sticks with us. If someone is having a photo exhibit in London, every Icelander in London will be there. It's almost like a huge mafia all over the world, it's really nice.
Like the Laibach/NSK collective of artists and musicians, gusGus too have a philosphy, though litanies for the damned don't seem to interest these actors, singers, DJ's and auteurs. "Our philosophy is that we love telling stories," he says while zipping up his puffy silver ski jacket. "We tell our stories through films, music, even graphic design, photography and visuals during our concerts. We love creating and that's what it's all about."
Jeff Keibel Scarborough, Ontario CANADA