by Alexander Laurence
Singapore Sling is a darkly psychedelic band from Reykjavik, Iceland. They are inexplicable and elusive but remind one of the drugged out soul power bands like Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine. Their debut album, "The Curse Of Singapore Sling", came out in Summer 2003. It has gained fans from all over the globe. Their leader is singer-songwriter-guitarist Henrik Björnsson. In addition to Björnsson, the Sling include Helgi Petursson on guitar and keyboards, Einar Kristjansson on guitar, Toggi "The Tank" Gumundsson on bass, Bjarni Johannsson on drums and Siggi Shaker on maracas and tambourine. They make hypnotizing music that shoots out into space. They made their first tour of America this past summer.
In late 2002, Singapore Sling recently played their first ever US shows. Then in March 2003, they rocked the house with a show at SXSW and also several packed New York shows (including a sold out show opening for Brian Jonestown Massacre). They soon became a favorite among other bands. The 2003 tour will kick off with a headline performance at New York's Central Park Summerstage festival, as part of a special Iceland Day event. Singapore Sling also supported The Raveonettes and the Warlocks on their tour dates on the west coast. I spoke to their mysterious leader, Henrik, right before a gig.
AL: When did you form the band?
Henrik: Probably in 2000. I did ten songs myself on a 4-track recording studio. I started out making music in my apartment by myself. I thought that I had to do something with this because no one was hearing this music except a few friends and me. I played it to a friend who was a guitarist and we decided to form a band together and play the songs live. At the beginning, we didn't have a place to rehearse, so we would play once a month, and the lineup would change every month. It took a while for us to be serious about it. We have had the same lineup for about two years now.
AL: Did you want the songs to be simple?
Henrik: I usually like the instrumentation to be basic. I just like a few things going on. I don't think of myself as a guitar player. I like making songs out of a few instruments. If they are all quite basic, it makes more sense to me. If you have three guitars and they are all doing too much, it doesn't make any sense.
AL: Is the use of feedback and noise important?
Henrik: Yes. All the songs don't need feedback. But songs like "No Soul Man" and "Midnight" the feedback are very smooth and it helps the song glide. The feedback in "Overdriver" is like aggressive feedback and it's one of the most fantastic feedback guitar solos ever. I used an acoustic guitar with pickups and it made this crazy noise. My friend heard the song and he thought I had slain a horse.
AL: What are most of your songs about?
Henrik: There is no special theme. It's not about politics. There is one love song.
AL: One of the best songs is "Roadkill" but it's an instrumental.
Henrik: I recorded it first with a drum machine and it sounded a little different. It sounded more like Suicide. I felt that the guitar riff by itself was enough. I have written more instrumental songs. During the live show we play one more instrumental. I really like surf music.
AL: We are in the hotbed of surf music. Dick Dale and The Ventures are from this area.
Henrik: I went to the beach the other day. It was very refreshing to see the waves. We spent another day walking around Hollywood. We went to the Hustler store. They had all these body parts. They had a mouth and an asshole. Do people come in and say, "Give me an ass and throw in a fist as well." Maybe I'll bring back a few asshole to Iceland.
AL: You live in Reykjavik, Iceland. Is there a cool neighborhood where all the hipsters live?
Henrik: Yes, it's where we all live. We live right smack in the middle of downtown. The area code is 101. That's what it's called. It's a small area where all the bars, clubs and restaurants are. Once four members of the band live on the same street and the rehearsal space was three blocks away.
AL: Have you played a lot in Reykjavik, Iceland?
Henrik: We have played less than twenty shows there. We have played more in America, and never in Europe. Many bands make the mistake of playing too often in Reykjavik. We hardly play there anymore. It's such a small area. It's always the same crowd.
AL: When I look at the cover of the album I am thinking about On The Road by Jack Kerouac. Are you a fan?
Henrik: I was a big Jack Kerouac fan when I was a teenager. A big dream I had was to come to America and do that trip, from Denver to California. Now we have just done that on this tour. I wish that we could have done it with a different vehicle and fewer people. It could have been better with a cooler car than a rented van.
AL: I noticed that you have a lot of girls who follow the band. The screams are so loud that you can't hear the music.
Henrik: We are like the new Beatles.
AL: What is the song "Summer Garden" about? Many of us here in LA like the Phil Spector sound.
Henrik: Yeah. It's probably the song on the album that sounds the most like the 1960s. I was just playing around on the keyboard. I wrote this melody right there on the organ. I wrote a lyric about this girl who is not my girlfriend.
AL: Are there any films that you like?
Henrik: No. I haven't been to the films in a long time. I used to go a lot. I am a big fan of road films.
AL: Have you read any books recently?
Henrik: I have been reading a few books actually. One called Black Vinyl, White Powder. It's about rock music. This English guy who used to manage the Yardbirds wrote it. It's very interesting. I also read this book about Steve McQueen.
AL: Is it very easy to buy Fender amps and guitars in Reykjavik?
Henrik: It's not hard to get. We don't have Fender amps. We usually buy them in America and bring them back over. To buy anything in Iceland it is twice as expensive. Prior to the first shows in New York, we spent a few days looking for instruments. So we all got new gear.
AL: I heard that you played with an American drummer for the first show.
Henrik: It was Bob Bert. He was in Sonic Youth and Pussy Galore. After the show in SXSW, we had four shows in the New York area. We had to play a radio show and I was going to just use a drum machine. We called up a van company to take us back to Manhattan. We loaded the gear in the van. After about ten minutes on the road someone in the band mentioned Sonic Youth. The driver said "I was in that band during the 1980s." I saw his eyes in the rearview mirror and I recognized him from pictures of Pussy Galore. It was Bob Bert. We ended up giving him a CD and our record company arranged it that he would join us for the radio show gig. We played about four songs. It's funny. I wouldn't know who any drummers are. I don't know any of their names. I know Nick Knox of The Cramps. I know about the Pussy Galore records.
AL: Are there any bands that you like?
Henrik: I like Velvet Underground and Suicide and The Stooges and The Cramps. There's this band Dead Meadow who are like psychedelic and stoner rock. It's fun to play with bands you never heard of. There are probably many bands who are big here whom no one has heard of in Europe. It's fun to swap CDs.
AL: Do you have any hobbies?
Henrik: A little Kung Fu and Yoga. I work at a bar. I write articles for an Icelandic magazine. I do a lot of interviews with bands. If I like a band I will write something about them.
AL: Did you go to a University?
Henrik: Some of us did. I went to one for a year and I found it quite boring. Our bass player, Toggi, spent some time studying film in New York. We do have some education.
AL: What is the best part about making music?
Henrik: When all the girls throw their underwear at us.
AL: What's the most difficult part of doing music?
Henrik: It has to do with loading in the equipment from the van. I hate that. Sometimes we have some female fans doing the work for us, but they are unreliable.
AL: When I listen to your music I think of using drugs?
Henrik: The drugs are more available and cheaper over here. So that was a big factor in us coming over for this tour. Iceland is more of a drinking culture. It's not a drug culture. Alcohol is expensive, but drugs are more expensive, so people stick with alcohol. People try to drink themselves into a stupor with hard alcohol. You have everything here in America. We realize that people in America smoke a lot of pot. Two years ago I saw Lee Scratch Perry in New York. The reggae music starts and everyone besides us there started to light up a joint.
AL: What is your set like?
Henrik: There are two songs on the record that we don't play live. They are just songs that I recorded by myself on an eight-track recorder. They are mostly myself playing keyboards and vocals. Nobody in the band knows how to play keyboards very well. We do four new songs and eight songs from the album.
AL: What about "Dirty Water?" How did you decide to do that song?
Henrik: I was just playing this riff. Our version is different from the original version. I started singing this melody and lyrics over this new riff and thought that this is going to sound cool because it's so different. It sounds like a totally different song. I only like cover songs that sound totally different from the original.
AL: Do you record everything live?
Henrik: None are done completely live. We record the drums, guitar and bass as a foundation. Then we add layers. Some songs have a drum machine.
AL: Are you going to tour again in the fall or record a new album?
Henrik: When I get back to Iceland in August, I am going to finish this album I am doing with Toggi, our bass player. We have a side project, which is totally different. It's slower and sleazy music. We are going to release a full album. After that I am going to start working on the next Singapore Sling album. I have some demos and some new songs on a Dictaphone. I will probably write some new material. I will probably record that in November and December. We will probably do that in New York.