Einar Orn: Life's rich pageant

The Sugarcubes and name-giving pagans, Damon Albarn and escaped rabbits... Welcome to the world of Einar Orn
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The Independent Culture

By any standards, it's a weird gig. Packed on to the tiny stage of the Reykjavik nightclub are six people: at the back, a bespectacled Tintin lookalike called Curver crouches over a small mixer and an Apple Cube computer, layering the various beats and sounds; to his left are three guitarists wearing headphones; up front, Einar Orn - best known as the mischievous rapper and disruptive presence in Bjork's old band, The Sugarcubes - blurts out lyrics in his native tongue and occasionally tootles on a trumpet. Alongside Einar is his young son, Kaktus, clad in the teen uniform of basketball shirt and baseball cap, also blowing on a pocket trumpet, with a seriousness that belies his tender years. Damon Albarn, who knows a thing or two about being cool, reckons Kaktus is the coolest person in the world - and certainly, he has something of the young Miles Davis's aloofness about him, if not yet his ability.

"He's only 11, and he's been playing trumpet now for three or four years," says Einar later. "He plays concerts with us, and he's also on the first track of the album. I don't know if he'll be a permanent fixture, because he's got school and everything."

It's a heck of a racket they're making together - not least because the guitarists have never rehearsed with the others, and can only hear their own individual parts through their headphones. "The guitarists don't have amps, they go directly into Curver's mixer," explains Einar later. "They always have to be playing, and when Curver hears something he likes, he lets it be heard; so they always have to be on their toes." At one point, a studious-looking bearded fellow joins them on bass. This is Hilmar, another music producer. He was in Psychic TV for a time, and has just completed the soundtrack for a Jane Campion movie. He also happens to be Iceland's head pagan. According to Einar, Icelanders can be either Catholic, Lutheran, or Asatru, which is the belief in the Iaesir, the old Nordic mythology. Hilmar, explains Einar, has the power to marry, to bury, and to give names, which seems like fun. The naming part, anyway.

With its mottled, ever-shifting textures of electronics, rock guitars, programmed beats, vocals, dub effects and horns, the sound recalls such sonic explorers as jazz-punkers The Pop Group, early Cabaret Voltaire, Pere Ubu, Suicide, and, in the way it teeters on the brink of chaos, pulling back only at the last possible moment, the swirling space-jazz of Sun Ra. To me, it sounds pretty close to godhead, but that might be something to do with the countless rounds of Heinekens and Hot & Sweets (a local anisette liqueur, like a more salty Pernod) that Damon Albarn has been lining up all night. Albarn has been chums with Einar for about a decade. And it was Albarn who suggested that Einar send some demos to the good folk at Honest Jon's, the record label he runs with the west London record shop of the same name.

Honest Jon's has quickly developed a distinctive world music/crossover profile - as well as Albarn's own Mali Music project, it recently released Terry Hall & Mushtaq's The Hour of Two Lights album - and Einar's Ghostigital, which its creator describes as "a sort of psycho-dub electronic Icelandic hip hop record", makes for a suitably idiosyncratic addition to its roster. It is, I tell Einar and Curver, as mad as a bagful of monkeys. They seem quite pleased with the compliment.

"It's very enabling for us to go all the way," explains Curver. "I work as a producer for lots of other bands, and I get these crazy ideas and they usually say, 'No, we don't want to do that'. Working with Einar, he's OK!'. It took a bit of time to find out how extreme we wanted to go; for a month it was, 'Are you sure you want it this noisy?' - because I'm really into noise - and it took some time to realise he wanted us to go really, really extreme."

"He was always trying to find the shock level, where I would freak out," says Einar. "And we never reached it." marvels Curver with a triumphant smile. "One song, we went so far with it that we couldn't tell what song it was supposed to be."

"We never hear a bad mix of any of our songs," claims Einar. "We never say, 'Oh, we would have played better if the sound had been better' - we adapt to what the situation is, and if we need to punk it up to get things going, that's what we'll do."

"We're quite comfortable with the chaos element," says Curver.

Occasionally, though, even these doughty chaos activists found themselves losing focus among the various layers of sound. "Sometimes, when we listen back to a mix, I can't hear certain words," explains Einar. "Like in the song 'Boink', there is the phrase 'come with me': those three words are the song for me, and they didn't appear in one mix, so I had to go back and retrieve them. For me, those three words make the song melodically complete. ."

"He'll spot the one sentence that we have to have, the focus, and take it from there," affirms Curver. "It's like reading a newspaper, you can select what you want to read - 'Ah, this is an interesting piece'."

Interesting, and in the case of Ghostigital, it must be said, sometimes utterly baffling. "Some people have found the record confusing and irritating," admits Einar, "but for us it's not - there is so much in it, but you only need to pick up on one thing that's bound to amuse you. There is an element in every song that will make your day."

While Iceland does have its mainstream pop bands, the country's international music profile has always been somewhat eccentric, from The Sugarcubes and Bjork through to the current oceanic-rock darlings Sigur Ros. Recent releases from solo artists such as Mugison and Eberg confirm this individualist slant - the latter describes his music as "barking electronic sounds on a soft acoustic rug" - though none has gone quite as far out as Ghostigital, an album that will probably infuriate as many listeners as it intoxicates. Could this national proclivity for the idiosyncratic, perhaps, be the result of the island's isolated position?

"We're insular, but not isolated," Einar demurs. "People think Iceland means isolation, but it doesn't. We take from everything and we try to use everything." And although slightly better insulated than Britain from the creeping intrusions of American pop-culture, Einar admits: "We're not that much of a virgin, really. Hollywood turns out some 100 soap operas, and 45 of them can be seen in Iceland. And our radio station formats usually come from the US.

"But we try and resist cultural imperialism. We make up new words for things like the telephone, 'symi'; and for computers we use the term 'tolva', which is based on the old Icelandic word 'volva', a seer. Television is 'sjonvarp', radio is 'utvarp' - we make up new words for new concepts, we don't adopt words into the language. Virtually every other European language uses the word telephone in some form, but we don't."

One of the driving forces behind Iceland's musical individualism has been the record label Smekkleysa ("Bad Taste"), principal outlet for The Sugarcubes, Sigur Ros and hotly tipped newcomers Minus, one of whose guitarists played the Ghostigital show. Originally started with the proceeds earned through sales of a kitsch postcard celebrating Reykjavik's 1986 Reagan/Gorbachev summit, Smekkleysa was recently honoured with a 15th Anniversary exhibition of memorabilia called "Lobster or Fame", at the city's Municipal Museum - not bad going for a shoestring indie label that, according to Einar, has "always run out of somebody's back pocket," and which only got an office two years ago.

"We've always worked differently," he explains. "We once tried to run it like a proper record company, in 1992-93, and that was the year we lost the most money. We don't have employees, it's still run by the same group of friends who started it, people who were involved in making music, and surrealist poets - it's the collusion of punk, surrealism, and production." Following the postcard, Smekkleysa's next release was a book of poetry by the Sugarcubes' bassist Bragi Olafsson (Iceland, I'm told, has a thriving poetry scene), before the group themselves released their first single "Einn Mol'¡ Mann", which died a death until a UK rock journalists hailed its flipside "Birthday", which became the band's breakthrough hit.

Three albums and a remix collection later, the band dissolved, leaving Bjork to pursue world renown while the other members returned to more parochial pursuits. In Einar's case, this meant working as a journalist, bartender and helping run Smekkleysa, while working on various musical projects such as Frostbite, Grindvek (Grindwork), and the soundtrack to the Icelandic rockumentary, 101 Reykjavik.

Now, with Ghostigital, Einar's working with a freer rein than ever, in partnership with someone just as experimentally inclined as himself. Initially, he intended it to be a purely musical project, until Curver insisted he add lyrics, equipping Einar with a dictaphone so he could busk lines while driving his car or out walking.

The results are quirky, semi-comprehensible musings about escaped rabbits, thirsty flies, confused bank customers, pain, lovesickness, strange shapes, and the gulf separating words from feelings - all assembled and assaulted in mischievous, layered narratives that challenge comprehension. "If it sounds confusing, it's because it is confusing," admits Einar. "It's not that we're trying to be confusing, it's because we are confused. But why should musicians be taken seriously? I refuse to take that stance. I am confused!"

It's safe to say he's not the only one.

'Ghostigital' is out on Honest Jon's records on Monday