When working for 24:7 in London, I was lucky enough to spend an hour or so in a pub with Baldur Stefansson from Icelandic collective Gus Gus. Every band has their own story to tell about their rise to fame, however the transformation of GusGus from an accidental art collective to an American Billboard chart conquering electronic band (‘Ladyshave’ 1999) is a curious one. Given their haphazard genesis, and the general lack of desire ‘to be a band’, it’s no real surprise that the momentum of GusGus could not be sustained. Although they still release records today, they’ve shed six members (from nine to three) and their output is sadly not quite as thrilling as it once was. That said, when you count Hafdus Huld, Daniel Agust and Emilliani Torrini amongst your founding members, it’s hard to sustain that level of quality after they depart. The following article is an extended ‘Directors Cut’ version of the original piece, developed from the source transcript.
CHILLED TO THE BONE: AN INTERVIEW WITH GUSGUS
Originally published in 24:7 London, 1998
Imagine a politically active, blue-eyed lover of neck warmers with the voice of Benny from Top Cat. Disengaging himself from his lorry driver parents, he becomes the owner of Iceland’s largest collection of vinyl, only to wind up being ceremonially massacred in a Viking B-Movie. Let your florid imagination chew over that one and you might be half way towards understanding Gus Gus.
Hailing from the world’s Northern-most island republic, Gus Gus have no frontman, no pop stars, no picture postcard icons. They are instead the living embodiment of the working, democratic collective – a group of friends and comrades, making an ice-cool blend of trip-hop and techno, smarting with good old-fashioned pop sensibilities. And there’s a growing suspicion that they might just conquer the world.
Baldur Stefansson is today’s ambassador for the band, operating not only as manager but also as one-ninth of the decision making process. Downing the Jaegermeisters in a Wandsworth hostelry, Baldur prattles with an exuberance untainted by their recent romp across America. “We’ve sold four times as many albums in America as we have here,” he pronounces, “and the difference is that there is no pre-set electronic scene in America. There are no indicators so they respond right away to what you bring to them. Here you have to go through so many different stages of awareness because there is so much competition around.”
With such a flock of disorientatingly disparate personalities, it’s unsurprising to learn that the genesis of Gus Gus was a characteristically curious affair. “We all came together in 1995 when we were supposed to making a film,” rambles Baldur, effortlessly tripping through a mind bulging with detailed anecdotes. “The directors, Sigg and Stefan, had been working in Iceland for five years, so they used their contacts to bring people in as actors, and suddenly we had all the biggest rock and pop stars in Iceland in one place. We had to postpone the shooting for financial reasons and so everybody we had a little gap. We knew that we had an ambitious musical team, so we thought ‘why don’t we go and make an album?'”
All of the songs for what would become the Polyesterday album were originally written on guitar and piano, and in their early demo form, sounded “like traditional melodic rock and pop songs”. It was only after the electronic components were introduced did things start to get interesting. “It all changed shape. It became very diverse, because different members had different ambitions for different songs, and everybody was throwing different things into the mix. Nobody moulded it together into a certain pattern, but at the same time, of course, we were all driven by quality.”
So convinced was Baldur that Gus Gus were such a delicious prospect that he sold his car to pay for a spell of recording in one of Iceland’s most exquisite studios. “I honestly believed when I heard the album that it had some kind of potential, but the reason I didn’t push it too hard originally was because I had no idea that the members of the band wanted to go all the way – or if there was any big ambition to go down this route.”
When all was said and done and tidied away, they cautiously self-released the album in Iceland and sent out a batch of promos to friends and family. Five weeks later, a call came through from London’s 4AD – the label famed for such musical maestros as The Cocteau Twins and the Pixies. “I came into London and met the guys from 4AD and sat down and listened to what they said. We just liked the philosophy and working relationship that 4AD was talking about – and the fact that they wanted to sign the whole nine-piece collective and not try to slimline it down to simply just the musicians. After a couple of days of friendly chat (I wouldn’t say negotiation) they handed me a piece of paper with an offer. There we were, sitting with a good firm offer from a really enthusiastic record label and we didn’t even know what we were – were we a band or a collective or whatever? Did we want to do this? We spent a week sipping tea and coffee, chatting away and formalising the relationship between ourselves and with 4AD and the rest of the world, working out how we wanted to do this. It’s been two years of interesting and maturing experiences.”
There is a general truism that most bands work well with a benevolent dictator – one person (usually the singer) who makes, and then forces, the creative decisions on everyone else. Most great bands have worked with a variation of this model – not so with Gus Gus. “The beauty is that there is a space for everybody. Every time there is a project, for example someone wants us to do a song for their film or to direct a video commercial or whatever, we bring it to a brainstorm meeting. And, if nobody is interested or it doesn’t make sense to do it, we don’t do it – but if someone is interested then that person takes it on as a project manager. They become responsible for making it happen.They make a production plan and keep it all together, they work on it and then bring it back when it’s ready. There is a certain veto in that if someone really doesn’t like it, we work it out, but it’s not like anyone is anal about those sort of things. That is basically the quality control that takes place within the band.”
A good example of this is the way in which they selected songs for their next album. “We decided that we would have a D-Day for demos. We had 18 demos and Daniel become the project manager for collecting those together, making demo CDs and throwing a little listening party. Six of the members turned in songs. Daniel invited us over to his place, we had a dress code, everybody brought a bottle of red wine. We sat down and put the demo CD on and listened to all 18 songs with the lyrics in front of us. He made tapes for every member, we took them away and met a month later to choose which songs to use. We complied the points and saw that there were ten obvious winners. Now we are going into the process of recording the songs, working on loops, samples, layers, finding the groove, finding the heart and soul of the idea.”
Back on British soil for a London date, Gus Gus are releasing a remix package from their delicious debut, Polyesterday. Mixes come not only from luminaries such as Carl Craig and DJ Vadim, but also from the legendary Sasha, tweaked out of self-imposed exile to remake the album’s parting shot, Purple. “Sasha called us and said that he hadn’t been doing remixes for over a year,” says Baldur, clearly delighted at being in such singular company, “but he was really taken by the song and wanted to do something with it. Since he was so enthusiastic about doing it and he is so inspirational, we decided to go for it.”
Baldur seems misty-eyed about the future of the project, knowing full well that the band’s working methods will keep them safe from harm. “Being nine people, working together should be complex,” he asserts. ” but because we are so aware of it, we have been trying to come up with ideas of how to really make it work. It’s an effective system and we’re well organised in terms of deadlines and budgeting, so this has become a combination of artistic creation and the most fun job you could ever ask for. At the end of the day, if we hadn’t recorded that first album, we would all be doing something else right now. I might have been down in Brazil being a driving instructor, as was my plan. When the dream is over in ten years, maybe I’ll be there.”