Two Bands to Get Metaphysical with: Iceland’s Amiina and Tokyo’s Wacky Shugo Tokumaru
‘The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.’ Albert Einstein
Over the years, from a safe distance, I’ve followed those on the fringes of science: UFO dabblers, conspiracy theorists, pseudo-scientists in search of ancient remnants of extraterrestrial civilisations; in short, anything that stretches the boundaries of textbook facts. Along this yellow brick road, I have chuckled a lot, scratched my head, even gleaned a few insights—many empirically unsubstantiated, but it’s been a hell of a fun ride. There were times when I was almost on the verge of believing some New Age theory—in moments of love lost, or when I was eating baked beans for ten nights in a row in a housesit somewhere in London’s Camden Town. Mostly, something like divine intervention or a solid meal pulled me back in the very nick of time.
Perhaps this interest of mine has something to do with trying to comprehend the creative process itself, for when you try and ascertain what creative panache truly is and what it’s not, you inevitably come up empty-handed. Beyond a certain mastery of the tools of the craft, be it the mathematics of physics, the painter’s brush, the block pointe of the dancer, or the strings of a violin, there is only taste; taste, and what has been coined the divine spark: something that stirs human emotion on any level, sounds that soothe the savage beast. It remains as unravellable as a well-folded origami knot; beauty, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps reality too?
In my previous essay, I rightly or wrongly jumped to the conclusion that there is some kind of in-phase commonality between contemporary Japanese and Icelandic arts—in particular in the world of alternative pop. By talking face-to-face with the Icelandic all-girl group Amiina and their Japanese contemporary Shugo Tokumaru, we all take a shot at getting to the bottom of the Big Bang, divine sparks, the collective unconscious and bad taste, without contemplating alien intervention—well, almost.
Is the Cosmos a Pop Ukelele?
Current science maintains that the very beginning of our Universe was such that everything out there, including that which spreads, breeds and fossilizes on our blue planet, came from something—well, something even smaller than a bit of dust; something so tiny yet so full of mass, that before its great Big Bang Kablam, contained everything we now see up in the night skies on a clear Icelandic night. When you consider this, the majesty of life and the cosmos, you almost can’t help but invoke an almighty creator. More recently, taking boggling theoretical leaps from Einstein and Max Planck, physicists have come up with other Big Ideas: String Theory, Super Gravity and M Theory. It seems we may well just be an infinitesimal part of a multi-dimensional universe (11 and counting—let’s not even go into the concept of the multiverse), where everything is vibration, and on the most quantum / subatomic level all matter is composed of humming strings that are so small you’d need over a thousand zeros after the decimal point just to attempt to quantify them; only, since most of them are in unknown dimensions, is there really any point? You can almost hear the frenzied applause of Icelandic and Japanese alternative pop musicians discovering that everything arises from vibration and harmonics. Are we all just a bit ‘o the fiddle and fife, then?
The ancient Sanskrit Vedas, the Guatemalan Quiché Popol Vuh (based on the Mayan Codex), the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh (also known as ‘He who Saw the Deep’) are possibly all examples of philosophy veiled in myth that illuminate a rather grand cosmic view beyond our accepted reality. Graham Hancock, oft debunked pseudo-scientist, has devolved all sorts of tantalising suggestions: Mankind is millions of years older than our textbooks tell us, Darwinian theory is deeply flawed, and our knowledge—and DNA—had to have come some from some other outside unknown source. Case in point: It appears that in the fossil record to-date there is not only a missing link between Homo Erectus and Homo Sapiens, but they have yet to discover a fossil of the first flowering plant. And, by the way, what came first? The bee or the flower?
Or perhaps the infinite continuum of collective unconscious, which is the universe’s intelligent design, in its continual re-evolution of new creation, was just having a bit of a giggle? The universe made of ukelele strings? Are they having us on?
Unravelling an Origami Flying Saucer
These last ten years or so have seen the most successful growth of a new wave of Icelandic pop music exports. Spurned on by the success of the utterly unstoppable Björk, following her career with the Sugarcubes (UK’s new music icon DJ John Peel rated the Sugarcubes’s song ‘Birthday’ the number one single of 1987), many young Icelandic wannabes grabbed the nearest instrument and started strumming or thumping with complete abandon. None of them considered their genres, and probably decided, following Björk’s lead, that the bizarre and unexpected works. They didn’t seem to give a toss whether their music would be radio-friendly or not. Perhaps it was just what the world had been waiting for: something to break the monotony of Spice Girls, Backstreet Boys and, heaven forbid, Britney Spears.
In 1997, Sigur Rós signed a record deal with Sugarcubes’s label Bad Taste. By 2006, they were headlining their dreamy, nonsensical post-rock at the Hollywood Bowl. For years Sigur Rós’s fans outside of Iceland had no idea that the songs on their albums were not even being sung in a real language. Mostly, the titles were Icelandic, but the lyrics themselves utter gobbledygook, made up off-the-cuff by lead singer Jónsi. The 2002 album ‘( )’ had no track listings. At times, it almost seemed that they were intentionally poking fun at the entire music establishment. The idea, whether conscious or not, rather reminds me of an album that John Cage put out that was grooved on both A and B sides, but actually had absolutely nothing on it. In the 1950s, to the utter disdain of many of his fellow musicians, the oft-misunderstood Cage began to use the mechanism of chance in his music, drawing on the ancient Taoist bibliomancy of the I-Ching. It was almost as if Cage wanted to see what the Universe would create of its own accord. Incidentally, Sigur Rós’s 2008 album, Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust (With a Buzz in our Ears We Play Endlessly), features a track entitled ‘Gobbledigook’, for the first time sung in Icelandic, and was rated number 55 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Best Songs of 2008.
Although, certainly influenced by experimental / ambient music before them (Brian Eno, Kate Bush, David Sylvian’s Japan, or Einstürzende Neubauten come to mind), they appear drawn from a wellspring of creation which has no major parallels in mainstream pop music—at least not since the psychedelic Woodstock years. How, really, could it be that these fairy-tale Icelandic bands have created such international cult success?
There’s a band comprised of four … little women (you could hardly call them anything else): Amiina, who play no traditional pop instruments at all, no words to their music, their releases are titled entirely in Icelandic; and yet, they have still managed to capture the hearts of thousands. Amiina, who started their pop career as the touring string quartet in support of Sigur Rós, went on to play on three of Sigur Rós’s albums and then in 2007 released their own album, Kurr (Icelandic for ‘Coo’, as in the tender purring of a dove or a love pigeon). Amiina, is of course, an anagram of their original incarnation ‘Anima’, after the Latin for ‘spirit’, which they later considered a little too naff. I neglected to ask them why two ‘i’s, but I presume they thought it just looked cool.
I meet up with three of these four ladies two days after their impromptu concert at the Nordic House in Reykjavik with Japanese multi-instrumentalist Shugo Tokumaru. Hildur Ársælsdóttir is expecting her firstborn this October, Maria Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir brings along her newborn in a pram to the interview, and Sólrún Sumarliðadóttir arrives fifteen minutes late. I ring her mobile. By the gravely tone of her boyfriend’s voice, it sounds like they are just crawling out of bed. The fourth, Edda Rún Ólafsdóttir, is conspicuously missing, but we don’t discuss it.
Shades of David Bowie’s Man Who Fell to Earth
Two nights earlier I sat down with Shugo Tokumaru, possibly the Icelandic post-rockers most apt Japanese parallel, after his live impromptu concert with Amiina, and I discuss Iceland, inspiration and the nature of reality with him and his well-groomed A & R Manager, Koki Yahata. The performance itself consists of two half-hour sets. The first, Shugo and his eclectic live band: himself on guitar and vocals; an accomplished jazz-style drummer / percussionist; a toy piano / harmonium / ukulele and sound effects guy; a pigtailed gal on accordion, glockenspiel and random chicken squawks / cow moos; and a dude, almost hidden by the bass drum, kneeling on the floor with an assortment of tin cans, cow bells, castanets and Indian finger-cymbals: yes, quite something to behold. Believe it or not, an incredibly lush, explosive sound reverberates through the building. They are using no electronics whatsoever, unless you count Shugo’s guitar pedals.
The second set sees Amiina join Shugo demurely on stage with celesta, Korean bells, vibraphone, violin and bowed-saw, almost taking Shugo’s music to an extraterrestrial level. (I visualise the so-called Mars Sphinx on Cydonia.) This is followed by a silly interlude—I guess for the sake of the audience—‘Video Killed the Radio Star’. Everyone joins in with the rabblerousing chorus of, ‘Aw-ah!’ The concert ends with a rendition of Shugo’s most recent single ‘Rum Hee’. Despite Amiina’s apparent exhaustion from their just-finished tour of Italy, the crowd is ecstatic, bursting out of the tiny concert hall and out into the foyer.
Shugo’s pop sounds something like a cross between whimsical Raymond Scott cartoon music (he says, in fact, that he has been greatly influenced by the prolific Loony Tunes composer Carl Stalling), the Beatles, Mike Wilson and, imagined landscapes—perhaps the icy lands to the north where giants, elves and dragons pursue their wanderlust. Although a little more refined, Amiina’s tones are just as quirky: something like instrumental Peter Gabriel meets film composer Mark Isham somewhere out in space. It evokes images of an untouched lunar landscape, but the same producer could well have twiddled the knobs miles across oceans, or even—the solar system.
Entirely self-taught, Shugo is something of a minor virtuoso on his guitar—he has the deft fingers of a Robbie Robertson / Eric Clapton, and he plays with both a pick and his last three fingers simultaneously. The guitar is surely where all things first arose in his creation process; only, I get the feeling that more recently the guitar has morphed into an instrument of convenience for live performance. He tells me that in his home studio he begins composing from all sorts of places and lays down all the tracks single-handedly. He approaches the song from wherever he gets his first itch: the tinkle of a toy piano; the clip-clop of any manner of percussion instruments—including coffee mugs and ashtrays; the ukulele (which he has a special fondness for—I’m sure it’s something to do with the cartoon music). Oh, and he likes to play bare-footed. On stage he uses his ambidextrous toes to tweak effect pedals.
Manager Koki tells me that until recently Shugo was not that keen on live performance, preferring to hole himself up in his Tokyo apartment-come-studio, order in pizza or sushi and not look at the sun for days on end; but apparently he’s getting better. He’s actually starting to enjoy it. Shugo, who appears to understand English perfectly well, doesn’t say a word, cracks a weak smile and shrugs his shoulders. Me? I can’t get Tiny Tim’s version of ‘Tiptoe through the Tulips’ out of my head. I seem to see Elmer Fudd dancing through them—naked.
I can swear has something to do with the I-Ching.
While performing, Shugo closes his eyes, lost in rapture. I ask him what he sees.
‘Landscapes,’ he says. ‘Vast landscapes, hidden gardens.’
‘You mean something like Iceland?’
‘I guess,’ he says, ‘although I haven’t seen that much of it. Except the famous Blue Lagoon [Iceland’s most popular tourist destination and with a bathing area formed from geothermal spill off], where we took a bathe yesterday.’
Sozzled Sailors and Somewhere Near the Big Bang
Tomorrow, Shugo and Koki are off to Denmark to the Roskilde Festival, so there’s no chance for him to explore the landscapes of a country that might well inspire more of his wobbly ambient pop. Somehow, it seems to me that Manager Koki is in a mad rush to slog through this European tour. As soon as Shugo arrives back home, he dives straight into a sell-out tour of Japan. Shugo’s newest single, not on the album Exit, ‘Rum Hee’, and has already become quite a sensation. It’s a brilliant eclectic mix of natural sounds, vibrant harmonies, panning bird chirps, a great pop hook—something like Beatles all wrapped up in origami.
Some days earlier I asked a Japanese friend what ‘Rum Hee’ meant. He looked at me quite strangely and said, ‘Are you sure that’s not Korean or Chinese? It certainly isn’t any Japanese I know.’ Well, possibly Shugo isn’t like any Japanese guy most people would know: he makes music entirely out of the box in his box, hidden in a secret garden somewhere in the middle of Tokyo. Koki says, ‘The words have no real meaning.’
Shugo smiles at me, and says, ‘Rum. You know?’
‘You mean the spirit. The alcohol?’ Oh for the love of a drunken sailor and all that. He nods his head. ‘And the ‘Hee’?’ What on Earth is the ‘Hee’?
‘Like Ha Ha. Funny, you know?’
‘Ah, I see…so, it’s a kind of—titter?’ I would never have guessed it in a million years. Something about a drunken sailor giggling his crusty sea-washed socks off.
I ask Manager Koki if he can email me the lyrics in English. Some days later with iconic Japanese efficiency, Koki shoots me an embedded PDF file with the lyrics of ‘Rum Hee’, and possibly the best single off the album Exit, ‘Parachute’, translated into English. Honestly, I can’t make head-nor-tail of it. It’s like something right out of a drunken Alice in Wonderland. I seem to recall a hilarious Star Trek episode where Kirk and Spock are forced to dance like Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee.
Perhaps that’s the point? Only, I’m not so sure.
I remember something that Koki said about Shugo that didn’t quite sink in at the time. In passing I mentioned something about the fact that most of Shugo’s music is in major chords, and thus, the music has this very upbeat, happy merry-go-round sound. I said, ‘Shugo, you must be a happy guy like your music, eh?’ Manager Koki raised his eyebrows and said, ‘Nothing is as it seems.’ A quick gander at the happily drunken ‘Rum Hee’ lyrics reveals another side to Shugo:
In this boring cell, freezing bent lid
burnt smell dissolving in diluted alcohol, running amok
going wild in the jar, voices being interrupted
reading in the shadows, chasing into the darkness
Time Rum Hee Rum Hee Rum Hee
Stands still, outside the leaning window
Puzzle pieces falling on the head
It’s the very antithesis of the music. Certainly it doesn’t do much as poetry. Course, you can psychoanalyse every artist, every musician. Doesn’t anyone who embraces creativity have to battle it out with demons? Yet there is something deeply disturbing about this happy music that invokes gorgeous Mars landscapes populated by cartoon characters that has this undercurrent of self-destruction. On the other hand, if you think about it, Tom and Jerry were always trying to off each other; what about Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, Elmer Fudd and Bugs?
So far Shugo has released three albums: the debut, Night Piece, virtually unknown in the US; the follow-up LST, and Exit, from 2008. He loves to stretch things like a dozen plaited rubber bands, weaving in all kinds of rhythmic syncopation, switching beat and tempo up to three times in a song, taking near out-of-tune riffs and winding them in to something surprisingly harmonious, shimmering. Very clever. It all seems entirely natural—yet, at the same time Shugo is an absolute anomaly. Shugo plays over fifty instruments on ‘Exit’ all by his lonesome. I’m not even sure that even Stevie Winwood could manage all that.
I ask Shugo why he chose to collaborate with Amiina rather than any other of the up-and-coming Icelandic bands. He says he appreciates Amiina’s organic approach, a kind of abandon to the music—letting things just take their natural course. When you speak to the Amiina ladies they talk of their own music in a similar fashion. There appears to be no real rhyme or reason to the methodology. Hildur says, ‘We just sit around a table and get too it.’ What comes out comes out, whether it originated in the Big Bang or not.
So What is Krútt Music? And What Does the Union Jack Have to Do with it?
Fast forward to two days later again: I’m sitting here on a bright, hot Reykjavik summer day, blue skies above on the terrace of Eymundsson’s Book Store Cafe. Behind us some overweight woman (someone tells me she is actually a minister in the Icelandic Parliament) is soaking up a few minutes of sun, her bra strap slips down her shoulder as she glares transfixed into the sky.
Three of the four musketeers who make up Amiina seem utterly unfazed by anything resembling pop-stardom. None of them sport a single dab of make up. Maria leans over her baby and casually changes its diapers while we are talking about their first concert in Japan with Sigur Rós, when Sigur Rós’s manager got so badly bitten by spiders they had to rush him to the local hospital. When asked if they feel that there are similarities between Japanese and Icelandic youth culture, the ladies come up with something that I hadn’t yet considered: the way in which both countries redefined themselves just after the Second World War.
In 1941, British forces occupied Iceland overnight. Every Icelander is adamant that this was an all-out invasion. If you ask the Brits (those few in the know), they’ll say, ‘Course it wasn’t an invasion.’ Well what do you call it if the British Navy arrives en masse and shunts the Union Jack up over City Hall? Apparently, Icelanders can all count themselves lucky; the Nazis were only a day or so behind. Hitler and his cronies were great fans of Iceland, the Sagas, and what Reichsführer Himmler considered the purest Aryan race in the World. Hell, half of the Gestapo icons were pinched from Viking mythology.
Before the WWII, Iceland was the poorest country in Europe. In 2007 Iceland was ranked by the United Nations as the best place in the world to live, and until the end of 2008, the richest per capita; today after the financial crash, amid much insecurity, Iceland has virtually reverted to what it once was. After the war, Japan went from being a mass-production country to the cutting edge of technology in less than thirty years. Both countries completely reinvented themselves. And now, Iceland has to do so, all over again. Has all of this affected the music? You bet your arse it has. The best is yet to come.
Krútt is what the Icelandic media coins this ethereal style of pop music—melodious, yes, but somehow bordering on the twee. Although considered by the members of this musical breed as a diminutive term (it means cutesy or naive), it seems to have taken hold. In 2005, the first Krútt Music Festival was held on the Snæfellsnes peninsula.
I asked Haukur S Magnusson, guitarist for the Icelandic indie rock band Reykjavik! to give me his thoughts on the matter: ‘Krútt became the terminology for a certain style of music of bands who maybe didn’t have that much in common except their mannerisms; you know, initially bands like Sigur Rós and múm, and later Amiina and Seabear. Somehow people need to pigeonhole things in order to speak about them—it’s just a useful tag or conversational tool, so there’s nothing wrong with that. Nirvana and Seattle was ‘Grunge’, now Sigur Rós and Iceland is ‘krútt’.
‘Like recently the US press reviewed Mugison’s new album and they said, “Blues rock? Why would the world need Icelandic blues rock?” They didn’t want music from Iceland to sound like that. They had this preconceived notion. Everyone hails krútt as being an Icelandic phenomenon. But people forget the music coming out of Great Britain in the late eighties and early nineties, all that stuff from Creation Records and 4AD like My Bloody Valentine and the Cocteau Twins. There was a whole wave of mystical sounding pop music long before and it will be here long after.’
Music In-between Babies
Amiina say they are guilty of what they call ‘musical greed’. They all want to live fully as musicians and couldn’t imagine doing anything else with their lives—aside, of course, from raising kids. Sólrún explains that their approach to writing music is so organic and uncompromising that in one series of songs, they only discovered after the fact that they had all been composed in D-Minor. And much like Shugo, in order spice things up a bit, they like to approach the creation process from slightly oblique angles. Although all four of them are classically-trained, played as a serious string quartet while at the Reykjavik School of Music, when they began to compose, they introduced other, less obvious instruments into their musical web: glockenspiel, marimbas, dulcimers, xylophones, Korean bells, the famous glassophone (which is wine glasses with varying levels of water hooked up to a soundboard and mikes). Bar a couple of background voices, Amiina’s music is entirely instrumental. That is to say, the time for lyrics has not quite arisen. I wonder if Shugo heard that? I offer the ladies a quick gander at one of my poems—you never know. On that count, my inbox remains unanswered. Here, it appears, they may hold something in common with the New Yorker.
Despite their years of sold-out ‘hippodrome’ tours with Sigur Rós, Amiina are still most comfortable with more intimate live performances. Sólrún says, ‘The dynamics of the small, give rise to close connection to the audience and within the music.’ More recently they have performed in a number of lighthouses around Iceland, and they plan to do more. ‘People can sit on the stairs, and the music rises upwards, right into the skies,’ says Maria.
‘Perhaps it lures sailors and mermaids across the water?’ I suggest, tongue-in-cheek.
‘That’s what I thought,’ says Sólrún.
As to what the future holds, ‘We’ll just have to wait and see,’ says Maria, folding her legs up onto the chair, glancing in on her napping baby. ‘We have babies, lives to lead. We also have a new album which we have been recording with Kippi Kaninus and Maggi the drummer (Magnús Trygvason Eliassen).’
‘So, from four to six? And what will the new album be called?’ I ask.
‘Not sure,’ says Sólrún. ‘We never decide that until the last minute. Normally we call every album: New, Newer—then, Newest. The name gets decided very late. We’re bad with names.’ Earlier I had been talking to Hildur about this. She and I came up with a tentative, off-the-cuff title: ‘Music In-between Babies’. Let’s see if that’s how it turns out.
There’s one more thing that Shugo and Amiina share in common. They are all not interested in fame. All they want to do is create their music; and if it’s possible to make a living from it, all the better; but for now, life is great.
The question that perhaps needs to be asked to both these bands is this: What drives you to create this obviously non-commercial, organic, ambient yet wacky stuff? You could just as well pose the same question to Björk or Sigur Rós or the whole krútt-anti-krútt movement. The thing is, I have yet to find an Icelandic band that approaches their music with the goal of commercial fame. They go at it, entirely with natural abandon, let it steep and whirl, let it rise from the ether with a good cosmic throw of the I-Ching boomerang. As another reluctant member of Iceland’s krútt club recently said: ‘In Iceland, if ever you feel lacking in inspiration, just go out into our wild tract of country, and I guarantee you, you will come back with at least one song.’
Marc Vincenz was born in Hong Kong. Currently based out of Iceland, he writes a column for the Reykjavik Grapevine, Iceland’s English-language newspaper. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in various journals and magazines including Poor Mojo’s Almanac(k), Prick of the Spindle and Shipwrights.