By Jim Schutze
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Second only to the party island of Ibiza, Iceland's capital Reykjavik has earned a reputation in the last few years as the world's hippest hangout. With 24 hours of daylight from May through July, all-night partying is deeply ingrained in this city, which boasts more artistic types per capita than any other place in the world. Not only is it a fun little vacation spot, it's a place where musicians, artists, actors, dancers, and filmmakers abound -- probably why it's been named this year's International City of Culture.
But no matter how artistically inclined one might be, if you're from anywhere else in the world, would you actually choose Reykjavik as your ultimate destination on the path to cultural greatness? Most of the year it's dark and cold, not to mention outrageously expensive. And with a population of just 260,000, there's little chance of becoming anything more than a big puffin in a small, subzero pond. Wallowing in the hot springs of local success is all very well, but it can get cramped after a while.
It comes as no surprise, then, to hear that Iceland's second-largest musical export after Björk are getting itchy feet. Following in the avant-pop songstress' footsteps (Björk moved to London before she gained true international recognition following her split from the Sugarcubes), techno popsters Gus Gus have come to the conclusion that it's time to move onward and up...well, southward, actually.
"We need to be here to be able to be in the best contact with the people we're working with," Gus Gus founding member Siggi Kjartansson says on a recent trip to Los Angeles, his intended new home.
Siggi, one of the two filmmakers in this audio-visual electronic music collective, has the most clear-cut ambitions of the group, along with those of his half brother Stefán árni (also a filmmaker). Since the last Gus Gus album, 1999's This Is Normal, the pair have been working on a series of commercials for Levi's, in conjunction with the prestigious international ad agency TBWA Chiat/Day. They begin airing stateside this month. Exceptionally conceived and shot, each of the four commercials consists of 10 three-second moments "like a beautiful photo exhibition," created, storyboarded, directed, music-supervised, and mixed by the duo. (Siggi also acts in one of the commercials, "to get some extra money," he deadpans.)
This type of project, and furthering the visual side of Gus Gus, is where Siggi sees the group heading, and because of that, L.A. holds the most appeal. "Working in a little city like Reykjavik, it's almost a nonmarket for people who want to make music and films -- at least, experimental music and experimental films," he says. "Coming here and being appreciated for that is very rewarding. This is the place to be for us, to be able to make it happen. To do all the things we want to achieve."
Although hinting at an eventual winding down of the band ("The plan is to make feature films, after Gus Gus has succeeded in what we set out to do," he says), Siggi reaffirms the collective nature of the group, and it seems for now that everyone's happy with their side projects and the artistic freedom that comes from being Iceland's answer to the Wu-Tang Clan.
But it hasn't always been so. In the last year, Gus Gus has slimmed down from a nine- to a five-piece group. Three of the four deserters left on good terms and are still variously involved with the band. Baldur Stefansson, their idiosyncratic manager and the first to move to L.A., is now taking more of an advisory role, handing over management duties to Bruce Kirkland and John Babbitt's Second Vision so he can focus on an Internet music venture. Singer Magnús Jónsson has formed a new electronic music label in Iceland. And programmer Herb Legowitz has decided to concentrate more on DJ stints and other solo projects. But singer Hafdís Huld was unceremoniously booted out on the eve of last year's This Is Normal U.S. tour, causing something of a disturbance within the ranks.
"We quit with Hafdís basically because it came to a stage where it was very difficult for us to work together," offers Biggi Thorarinsson, the group's main programmer and songwriter. Nineteen-year-old Huld distributed a bitter press release just days after her sacking, but on that subject, the boys remain politely unforthcoming.
"She was not happy about leaving," concedes singer Daníel ágúst. "But we're happy. Everything's easier now we're fewer people. The ego mountain has turned into an ego hill."
During a long winter break following Hafdís' sacking, Siggi and Stefán árni produced the Levi's commercial; ágúst scored a ballet with fellow Icelandic electronic artist Bix; and Thorarinsson and DJ Steph remixed Björk and Depeche Mode, later touring Europe as an instrumental duo. The remaining five are now ready to start work on the third Gus Gus album. Last month, however, they released an interim instrumental album, Gus Gus vs T-World, on 4AD/Beggars Banquet.
"T-World was the band Herb and me were in prior to Gus Gus," explains Thorarinsson. "We were invited to work with Siggi and Stefán árni to provide music for a short film they were producing, and that's originally how Gus Gus came together."