Not Just the Ticket — #42, The Sugarcubes, April 24, 1992

The Sugarcubes, Wiltern

Then-current album: Stick Around for Joy

Opening act: Cracker

Back of ticket ad: And once again KLSX. I wonder if their programmers were dimly thinking “Wait, SHOULD we play that new Pearl Jam song?” around this time.

The sign of the times about this ticket hit me only after I took a second look at it — ‘A Non-Smoking Venue.’ Eighteen years really is a long time (and as someone who loved it so very, very much when the smoking ban kicked in at bars and clubs a few years later, I had to have highly appreciated that mention at the time, or at least went, “Oh good,” even though I’d already been there before a few times).

In the meantime, Iceland! Or a few people from there.

Talking about the Sugarcubes or Björk actually requires me going back in time a bit, since I’m pretty sure — maybe even entirely sure, the more I think about it — that the Sugarcubes were the first band I bought an album by strictly due to the power of the press, without hearing a note of their music. Until 1987 or 1988 or so, my exposure to music was strictly through the straightforward means of hearing a band or musician on the radio or seeing them perform on TV or seeing their video. So I already had some sort of incentive or means of judgment at hand — I didn’t buy albums willy-nilly, they were expensive, took up a lot of my allowance, though I did pick up twelve inch singles a little more regularly. All of which is tendentiously obvious to note but, again, consider how far along we’ve all now gone.

1988 was the breakthrough year of getting my first CD player and moving into the second phase of getting into music big time, while I started paying more attention the various magazines and things around. I forget exactly which issue of Rolling Stone it was, but there was a feature later in the year — I think shortly before I went to UCLA — on this band called the Sugarcubes, of which I knew nothing. I didn’t follow the UK press at all, I had never heard of them, I didn’t know anything about the connections to bands like Crass, the sonic similarities others had heard via the Fall and the Cocteau Twins (neither of whom I knew at all either). I just read this article and thought, “Huh, well, they’re featured in here, I guess that must mean they’re good, they sound kinda interesting.”

Simple enough, that process.

I remember scratching my head a lot at Life’s Too Good when I first listened to it — I was happy too, mind you, it had a lot of songs on the disc, something like five bonus tracks. (My blissful ignorance of things like compiling B-sides for reissues or overseas releases was also in full effect.) But it did click after a listen or two, songs like “Birthday,” like “Deus,” “Blue Eyed Pop,” more besides. Björk was a key reason — much more than Einar — but the music was good, strange, slippery, at once familiar and strange. It was, in retrospect, a very important peek into where things were going to go with me, but I didn’t treat or sense it as such, I just thought it was this fun album by a new band that had apparently come out of nowhere.

I never caught them on tour then — not unless you count their SNL live performance, which you shouldn’t, but you should count it as amazing TV — and Here Today Tomorrow Next Week honestly passed me by, I kept meaning to get it but I kept finding other new things I wanted to hear more. Meantime, the band kept cropping up in odd places for me — I took a class on Icelandic sagas at UCLA, taught by a great professor, Jesse Byock, who mentioned his frequent visits to the country for his research. A little curious, I mentioned the Sugarcubes to him at one point as this band I’d heard about and liked — his response: “Oh yeah, I know a few folks in the band, they’re friendly people!” Iceland really is that small.

The Sugarcubes then seemed to disappear for a bit in a welter of side-projects and one-offs — Björk notably turning up on vocals for 808 State, perhaps the clear move forward toward where her solo career would begin — but then in late 1991 interviews started happening and a new album was mentioned and Stick Around for Joy came out in early 1992 and I really like “Hit” a lot as well as “Gold” and “Chihuahua” and other songs and hey! I was all into them again. Not that I ever wasn’t but at the same time, I’d gone from just-on-the-verge-of-going-to-college to a-few-months-from-graduation and instant nostalgia or something like that. (Was it? Not sure.)

So ending up at the Wiltern for this show was something that wasn’t merely a good idea, it was a great idea — the word that this was their last album hadn’t been circulated yet (maybe it hadn’t even been decided on) and I was just up to catching show after show. 24 hours after the Wedding Present and the Poster Children I was up in the loge at the Wiltern about to see just what antics Einar would really get up to onstage, if any.

But first, Cracker. Arguably I could have switched out Camper Van Beethoven in a lot of my story and the question of time having passed and it would work just as well; I had first heard of them around the same time as I’d heard of the Sugarcubes thanks to them ending up on a major label with Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, though I ended up reasonably appreciating them more than outright loving them during those years. Then they broke up and that seemed to be that but then, thanks to timing and the accident of history or whatever it was, when David Lowery came back with his new band it was Alternative Nation Time! They were still a year plus away from “Low” being all over the radio but “Teenage Angst,” a well-timed choice of title if ever there was one, got plenty of airplay anyway. So they took the stage and…that’s about all I remember, really. They went over well, they played the hit that they had and there were cheers from various folks throughout. Never saw them again but they were there on tour and in the charts, kicking around for a lot of those years, so hey, more power to ya.

The Sugarcubes I remember rather the more clearly. In fact I have a distinct memory of some of the stage lights on the floor lighting up behind some of the musicians, partially because my angle in the loge meant I could see them go off and on pretty easily. Björk was in fine form, Einar was, well, Einar, they kicked it off with “Gold” and they were great. I feel glad to have caught them neither quite in swan song mode nor totally ‘the new thing’ — they were playing the biggest spots they ever would in America (when not opening for U2, admittedly), the crowd was plenty passionate and everything seems celebratory in the mind’s eye, a sense of ‘hey, they’re back and it’s fun! and Einar’s still crazy!’

I don’t recall him completely wigging out or anything, but I have a cryptic memory of some sort of flailing dance or the like while Björk mostly chilled or grooved. This seems appropriate. Besides most of the new album and a slew of the older songs, the one song that I definitely recall was the final one of the encore, something that remains one of my favorite one-off moments on a stage.

I don’t know how he was introduced, but either Björk or Einar said a brief something about him and then lo and behold, the mighty El Vez appeared in all his finery, accompanied by two lovely ladies in equally swank gear. I had never seen the good man perform but I certainly knew who he was and I was amazed — even more so when it came to the song that they did, “Blue Eyed Pop.” Hearing the Sugarcubes do that wonderful, very danceable bit of slithery pop/funk/whatever you want to call it while El Vez did various mariachi vocal yodels felt just superb.

They couldn’t top that, so they didn’t, and that was the end of the show. Never have seen Björk since then all that time back, though I’m an irregular enough follower of her music. It’s a good memory to have, an icon pre-solo icon, having fun on stage with Elvis’s greatest fan and a guy who inspired Michael Myers to create Sprockets. Good times.


EMP 2008 Pop Conference — keynote panel

As it happens — more or less — some thoughts on the opening keynote panel for EMP:

Ritmo and Blues: Hidden Histories Shaking Up “American” Pop

We all know the story: R & B got with country and they named the baby rock and roll. But really, “American” pop has always been a love triangle – profoundly influenced by the instruments, rhythms, and repertoire of Caribbean, Afro-Caribbean, and Mexican-origin communities. This roundtable discussion, featuring a mix of musicians and scholars, is inspired by the exhibition American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music, on display at the EMP|SFM and guest curated by University of Washington faculty. Looking at what scenes in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Antonio, Miami, and New York created within a context of intense anti-immigrant politics and nativist sentiment, the exhibition attempts to shift discussion of national culture by reframing narratives of U.S.-produced rock and roll.

Participants: musicians Louie Perez (Los Lobos), Raul Pacheco (Ozomatli), panel co-organizer Martha Gonzalez (Quetzal), and El Vez; American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music curators Michelle Habell-Pallán, Shannon Dudley, and Marisol Berríos Miranda.

Discussants: Kandia Crazy Horse, Josh Kun, Marie Miranda and Ned Sublette.
Moderated by: Michelle Habell-Pallán

Posted in reverse chronological order:

9:01 pm — last question about politics as well as the industry — good stuff but I’m needing to wrap up. Good start all around for the conference! More later in a new entry!

8:53 pm — a last comment from an older Seattle Chicano activist noting the history of the area and asks if there are modern corridos. He also mentions himself as when he first arrived in Seattle fifty years back as “the loneliest Chicano on the planet,” which Raul loved! He tells the story of a bunch of teens from Juarez who are able to snake a few goods from across the border and who attack some US agents. A kid is arrested but escapes — and Raul asks, who is the hero? Everyone on the stage had to work hard to get those stories out.

8:44 pm — Ann Powers moderates audience questions…a grad/social worker from San Diego working with kids here noting how their identity looks to LA but often embraces division, north-south beefs, gang problems. He asks how arts can be supportive and offers much praise to the artists. Louie ponders the question of communication and the definition of being American. 70 million Latinos in the US is a sign alone of the definition changing. For Los Lobos it was in perfecting the vehicle of expression, not limiting themselves to carrying picket signs.

8:33 pm — Ned doesn’t have a problem with sabor but does with ‘aMerican’ and then goes in a series of great bits I can’t really sum up, but notes Cuban/Mexican differences and more, as well as ‘jingoistic’ summaries of what it is to be American and much more besides. Shannon notes the exhibit tried to be diverse and inclusive. Michelle wittily talks about how “Cuba is so Chicano” and what she really meant while Raul speaks of his Cuban visit as an experience to learn more about music and others, from fundraising to finding six guys in an old church killing it on their instruments.

8:25 pm — Marisol sees change in just their being there and in the reactions of the attendees — she has high hopes. Shannon noted that the NEA was distrustful of a grant request because of industry connections while El Vez notes that the musicians need support in a YouTube world. Michelle adds to the exhibit talk regarding education and “putting our story in the big story,” plus noting as Marisol adds that there is a lack of intercommunication.

8:18 pm — Marie asks entre nosotros “is a change going to come” because of the exhibit — Raul takes the wide and inclusive approach, that the change happened a long time ago, “I will be here either way.” Martha feels that the exhibit doesn’t change anything while still providing pride even while the industry chases money. She is not waiting for change, especially based on her own band’s experience.

8:13 pm — El Vez notes that what he does is constantly “add on” while Louie sees sabor as ingredient not additive, something vital like yeast in bread. A mystery why there were so many Chicano soul bands but not so many black mariachis, that there is something in urban sounds.

8:08 pm — Marisol says that sabor is not a taste but the center, the substance. Martha notes the “mad dash for cash” with things like Cinco de Mayo instead of the recombinations that the musicians and listeners make — and her mom LOVED “Double Dutch Bus” as did she!

8:03 pm — Josh asks after the title — ‘sabor’ or taste and additive, and asks how the panelist feel about being “added” to American culture, as well as the politics of playing non-rock and roll musics.

8:01 pm — Marisol and Shannon add further suggestions and memories.

7:56 pm — Raul feels that the full range of experience can’t be fully captured, notes how in fighting for ourselves (speaking of ‘the black and the brown’) don’t want to give a little ground sometimes, that cultural exchange can and does still happen.

7:50 pm — Kandia notes a friend who spoke in the exhibit, also a line “Wes Montgomery goes East LA,” noting her own family background with Caribbean and Spanish background but how it is not upfront in her sense of identity. Sounds very nervous, honestly!

7:43 pm — El Vez speaks of growing up among white surfers but with strong family pride and how a helped him and others be their own heroes just like their white heroes, while Louie talks of how “he’s not a kid anymore” and speaks eloquently about his many experiences with music, loving rock and roll and newly appreciating Mexican standards, “crossing generational divides.”

7:35 pm — Raul says “Who cares?” — meaning that you need to react to stereotypes and pigeonholing by simply carrying on, in life and in music, and that recombinations and creativity has “been going on since the beginning of time…I feel happy to be open.”

7:30 pm — Martha talks about growing up in East LA and how Los Lobos in particular helped to demonstrate, as further movements and bands have shown, that “we exist…in spite of the industry.”

7:25 pm — Marisol talks about the sound modules in the installation, “telling the story with the sound” for a diverse audience, playing a sample from the salsa module, music with illustrative narration.

7:15 pm — Shannon talks about how Caribbean music is often seen as black, notes how “Louie Louie” has roots in a Cuban composition, “El Loco Cha Cha.” He notes that Richard Berry learned the song from LA Chicanos rather than Cubanos, noting further the question of communication between Latinos.

7:12 pm — Michelle introduces the panel — five minutes per panelist, then questions from the responders.

7:07 pm — basic introductions so far from EMP folks and Eric W. Opening reception was very good fun as per usual, reacquainting with old friends and new.