In Yer Glacier! (808 State and Bjork)
23rd March 1991
I love the smell of God's farts in the morning ... It smells of Reykjavik to me! Deep in the Icelandic countryside, surrounded by vile-smelling sulphur springs, 808 STATE and BJORK are cementing their union as dance music's unlikeliest collaborators. BARBARA ELLEN braves the stench and the Scandinavian boredom. Ice burghers: DEREK RIDGERS
Forgetting its manifestly hostile and deeply frightening surrounding countryside for a moment, Reykjavik, cultural capital of Iceland, scores a mean zero in the tourist action stakes.
Always distrust a town where locals pepper their conversation with phrases like, "It's great in the summer," and, "wake up!" In Reykjavik, a lot – an awful lot – depends on whether you enjoy spending your time in permanently off-season seaside towns. All the architecture appears to have been hastily constructed by gangs of crazed Lego fanatics. Even the Parliament building would have been converted into a branch of Barclays by now had it been relocated anywhere more salubrious than this exact replica of the. outskirts of Bournemouth.
On the plus side it's got a charming, Parisienne-style Café Culture where beatnik types in hopeless berets flick ash into steaming expressos to emphasise points. Other than that, time seems not only to stand still, it somehow manages to do so right in front of you. A brick wall one must climb over if fun is at the top of your agenda.
To the Icelandic community's credit it usually is, but by the time we meet up with 808 State (here at the invitation of their most recent collaborator – Bjork Sugarcube) they've been here for a week. A time spent twiddling their thumbs (and for two memorable evenings their technological knobs at spontaneously arranged gigs in the local Lido club) and listening with patiently clenched teeth to interminable anecdotes about how "funny" it was when the Happy Mondays came over and painted the town a criminal shade of scarlet.
In short, 808 State are bored shitless to the point where no future enemas are necessary.
Today is a 'good' day. We've been driven by our Icelandic hosts – with an enthusiasm bordering on the homicidal – to some sulphur springs in the country so that top TV show Rapido can interview the lads and Bjork on the scenic Icelandic moss. To be fair, the sulphur springs make for an incredible sight, being composed as they are of swirls of fog curling out of odd-looking tubular chimneys. But this doesn't alter the fact that the whole joint smells like God has farted and wafted his bedclothes over 50 acres of countryside.
Gagging, I eventually find it within myself to join the rest of the party right at the centre of the stench, where photo sessions and interviews are being conducted with ashen-faced haste.
Apparently, these springs feed hot water to Reykjavik ("Which is why your bathwater smells of egg," Graham Massey informs me sagely) and after a while, in the true tradition of flatulence, you actually don't notice it any more. To my right, Bjork is grinning indulgently as Martin Price from 808 State throws her child into the air with what she and I both hope is playful abandon.
Andy – the "quiet DJ" has turned unnaturally talkative, kneeling on a hillside to deliver an impromptu version of the Sermon On The Mount.
"Free beer for all," he intones majestically, adding for Bjork's benefit, . . Kill all children". A lacklustre performance showing that, as far as Messiahs go, Andy won't be giving Mr Christ a run for his money just yet.
Meanwhile Darren – the other DJ, who will have to wait for death before he can be described as "Quiet" – is screaming something about wanting to be "burned alive" because Thurston, an Icelandic sophisticate along for the ride, has just informed us all that the experience can be "very trippy".
Earlier, Thurston had relieved the anxiety of our safety-free car ride around cliff-top roads (which saw all outside wheels hanging tantalisingly over very thin air for minutes at a time) by proclaiming that 808 State's gigs had been "SUPERB! ... I wish I had had a big apple for every mouth that fell open with shock at their laser show! ..."
As a matter of interest, the shows – which did go down stunningly well with the gob-smacked Icelandic music lovers–were only a secondary, hastily arranged consideration when 808 State accepted Bjork's invitation to pop over. Ostensibly, they're here to make a video with her director husband Oscar. More of that later.
How Bjork actually inveigeled her way into the 808 State camp has now passed into semi-legend.
"Hey guys, there's this cute Icelandic chick who wants to meet you and give you some tapes ..."
"Cool, lowly minion, if she's fit – send her straight in ... EEEK! It's YOU!"
The two results of this - ';Oops' and 'QMart' can be heard in all their eerie ice and heart-breaking splendour on 808 State's new 'Ex-Cel' album. Apart from another excursion into vocals territory with New Order's Barney, on the tenderly constructed 'Spanish Heart', the remainder of 'ex:el' is 808 State being what they're now famous for–unashamed Techno-tradition-trashers who go wilfully with almost malicious intent where few bands with equal access to effects machinery have gone before.
It's a deliciously varied and brutal affair, trampling with hobnailed abandon over those in the dance camp who think dope clouds and the occasional bellow of "SHAKE THAT GROOVY THANG!" amounts to Something Pretty Special for dance fans. When I ask Bjork what made her decide that her fragile, oft-eulogised vocal style would fit in with all this admirable misbehaviour, she shrugs happily.
"I don't know ... I could just hear it in my head ... I knew it could work. A lot of people don't like dance music. They find it too strange ... but I love it because it's so fresh and new, so strong and so . . . romantic. What I also like is that anyone can have a go. It's very much like the atmosphere around punk.
"With music like this anything can happen ... It's so innocent! . . . Sometimes what comes out sounds like an accident, but with 808 State you know it is no accident. They know what they want to do. They're always working towards some idea. They're a band," she decides passionately, "with a LOT of character."
Later the Band With A Lot Of Character ponder affectionately over the amount of vision, cheek and bravery Bjork displayed in approaching them.
"To be honest," says Graham, "it probably wouldn't have crossed our minds to ask her ... We just wouldn't have assumed she'd be interested."
Darren: "But when we first started working on the album we were looking at certain tracks, thinking; should we use vocals or shouldn't we? And we were thinking of a certain kind of vocalist, a dreamy kind of vocalist, like that girl from The Sundays ..."
Martin: "We're sick Of that hard soul vocal you always find on dance tracks. That's become formula now. We needed somebody to put something in rather than for us to have to drag something out of somebody. And that's exactly what we got with Bjork. It's like she's so unique ... she's got such a talent. Whenever she's on a record she always leaves her stamp on it."
What about the track you did with Barney Sumner, 'Spanish Heart'?
Martin wrinkles his eyebrows at me in an expression that could read either "What do you think?" or "Somebody should have told me where the toilet was ten minutes ago." Thankfully, it turns out to be the latter.
"I was in awe," he says, "TOTAL AWE ... Just the way he walked around the studio inspired so much confidence. When he did his vocal he sent us out. He said 'Go home' so we did. We just went home and left him alone with the track. We trusted him to do a good job and he did. What Bernard gave the track was what I'd describe as.. . . warmth ..."
Warmth, comfort, safety and all those other commodities us 'softies' take for granted in life came under the heading 'Unobtainable Perks' for 808 State when they placed themselves at the none-too-tender mercy of Mr Bjork for the video shoot. Desperate to get a decent, "different-looking" aural display for their 'Oops' track with the girl they call "Berzerk", 808 State were plunged into a scenario they last witnessed from the luxury of their armchairs watching Under-TheCounter "Nasties" of The Thing Meets The Shining Meets The Icelandic Snow Plough Massacre.
Martin shudders at the memory: "It was like being in hell. We were supposed to be filming in this cave, but we got outside the ski-hut about 60 yards and this guy who was the Expert Caver, who everybody was trying to keep close to, fucked off and left us. From the lodge to the cave opening it was about 150 yards but we were LOST.
"There was this swirling blizzard. If you'd taken two steps away from the group that would have been IT. At one point I went across some grass and there were these sheets of ice with water over the top. The wind just blew me right across it. I was SCREAMING.
"We were told to bring snowsuits but before yesterday I wouldn't have known a snowsuit from a cave. I'm your typical fashion victim. All I had on was my new jacket and jeans. I was expecting some tourist mine with lifts, brass lamps, and a little tea bar to one side ... Not this horrible dark hole leading into hell.
All of 808 State agree that sterling chap though Oscar undoubtedly is, he is hardly prime material for a lollipop man.
"SAFETY," roars Darren, almost in tears, "a little bit of safety. That's all we wanted. But safety doesn't come into it in this country."
Why go through all this to make a pop video, surely there's talent galore in Manchester?
That 808 State are not your average 'Thank God We're Based Here' Manchester band is keenly evident from their supreme dearth of Uriah Heep style posturing when questioned about the fair city's bigwigs. Mind you, if we're talking Lack Of Respect, 808 State have got barrowloads of that for almost everything and everybody.
An opinionated and lively bunch, during the course of our conversation, they: TRASH the attitudes of record companies towards bands who, like themselves, prefer making evocative, fang-baring instrumentals to weak, pedestrian soul crap; certain singers in bands – "Just there for the sake of having a front person, it's fucking embarrassing," glowers the irrepressible but strangely likeable Darren; themselves – "We wanted to get the right deal so much we almost left it too long," reveals Graham wonderingly. "'Pacific State' was like this chunk of meat in the fridge with a 'Sell-By' date on it, going off more and more every day ..."; bands who ponce around in expensive gear when it's obvious they have no readies in the bank – "Even a hit single makes fuck all really," reveals Martin, who's had a few of his own; and Tony Wilson, albeit in a gentle, almost affectionate way:
"Factory ignored us in the early days," says Martin, "I can't blame them but the fact is they couldn't see it. They just couldn't see the potential. They only came in with an offer like ZTT did after we'd had a hit with 'Pacific State'. I remember that around that time we did this gig in Blackburn and it was awful. Total chaos!
"We had 900 people onstage at one point. And Tony Wilson was there because we were talking to Factory at that point. We'd heard he was ready to offer us loads of money, stuff like that, and we did this gig and it was the most pathetic debacle you've every seen.
"Afterwards our manager met Tony Wilson and Wilson was saying 'Great! That's the most chaotic, anarchic gig I've seen for ages ...' He was going for The Mekons tip–The Audience Are The Band –all that bollocks ... And we were just a shambles. One of us had a synth on the window sill."
Strangely, they support bootlegs. I say strangely because this indicates that they are a band who would rather be heard than be rich and no such monster exists. Darren makes his point thus:
The next day we visit The Blue Lagoon, where many of our number brave another blast of Fart Fog to bathe in rejuvenating waters countless invalids with infectious skin diseases have used before them. Bjork is not so stupid, preferring to stay behind and chat non-fart with me about how satisfying and liberating it is to work with bands like 808 State.
"Being tied to one group, one way of making music is such a drag to me. There's always that fear you will start to repeat yourself. People in Britain just think about me in connection with The Sugarcubes but I've been doing music for many years now with many different people and sometimes I've found myself getting stale.
"Doing things like this with 808 State keeps me going. I really love their music and it was totally delightful when they thought I could fit in. This is my first time doing this type of music but they were just as excited as I was, which is brilliant. It's always good when people can meet and understand each other but this was special ... There's something about 808 State I just love ... I think it's because they've got the right attitude."
This 'attitude' – as opposed to attitude problem – comes through when I ask 808 State about fame and its accompanying horrors and perks. Perhaps it is fitting that Darren, the staunchest Mouth Almighty I have ever encountered in my pop travels, is able to sum the whole thing up succinctly:
Nice guys, great musicians, and restless innovators that they are, from now on 808 State could be travelling First Class all the way.