Renaissance man: an interview with Icelandic writer and Björk’s frequent collaborator Sjón at the 2018 Georgetown Literary Festival

Interview by Lawrence Pettener

Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson, or Sjón for short, is a poet, novelist and lyricist from Iceland. He frequently collaborates with Björk, perhaps most notably having written the song ‘‘I’ve seen it all”, the soundtrack to the Lars Von Trier 2000 movie Dancer in the Dark, which Björk starred in and which earned Sjón an Oscar nomination. He has also performed with her band The Sugarcubes as Johnny Triumph.

In 2005, Sjón’s folktale The Blue Fox won the Nordic Council literature prize. His career continues to impress and he makes news in major newspapers all around the world, including the New York Times and The Guardian.

Writer Lawrence Pettener recently interviewed him in November 2018 at the Georgetown Literary Festival in Penang, Malaysia.

I was watching you with Einar Orn in the 80s on YouTube, clowning on Luftgitar. Could we say that Einar was the mad fool while you were the more refined eccentric?

Yeah …yes; that’s a good way of describing it. Einar was always a bit dangerous on stage; he’s a peaceful and lovely man, but when he’s on stage you can never know which form it’ll take, what sort of energy he’ll exude. We’ve known each other since teens. He was the undisputed King of Punks. He was always full of anxiety, but he always contained it, and that was the magic of his performance. He still goes on stage sometimes with one sentence in his head, and he improves maybe for 10 minutes, to beats and noises; no one knows what’ll happen.

Did you hang around with Bjork in her first bands, Tapi Tikkarass and Kukl?

When she was in Tappi Tikarass my best friend, Thor Eldon was one of the Medusa poets, and a guitarist already, he met her on the music circuit; and one day he introduced me to his girlfriend and it was Bjork, who I’d heard of, but never met. And they married and later they had a son.
Kukl was a supergroup really, because it was made up of the best Icelandic bands of the time. A band made up for one gig only, a celebration of an alternative radio programme, its last ever show. The programme was like a night school in music for all of us; they always played what was new, and exotic, little known; everything from free jazz to experimental electronics, whatever. We all tuned in on Thursday nights at ten. Kukl enjoyed working together, and they were together for about three years before The Sugarcubes.

Were there lots of drugs around in Iceland in those days?

Drugs were not a part of it. I mean, when I was growing up there was teenage drinking and teenage smoking. For example, I worked in a youth centre in the eighties. The kids there were thirteen to fifteen. I remember we had to ask them to smoke outside. Before that, there was a smoking room for thirteen- to fifteen-year-olds!

We all started drinking alcohol around thirteen, fourteen years. Alcohol was the drug of choice in those days. There was a little bit of hashish. We were young; it was mostly people who were going to university who were smoking hashish, some of us had access to it. But drugs were not really a part of what fuelled the scene; in the late eighties then amphetamines came to the music scene, but for us it was not there; maybe a little hashish once in a while, but it wasn’t part of the creative process. LSD disappeared at the time, it was just something you read about.

With vodka, some people died. There was no beer in Iceland until 1989; we were drinking red wine mostly. There’s never been a beer culture in Iceland. There was maybe some imported to Iceland in the late nineteenth century, but there was a prohibition in Iceland as well. It was for economical reasons, because after we became a sovereign country in 1918, we had to start doing some proper trade, and with the agreement with Spain, we sent them salted cod for their bacalao, and they wanted to trade wine. So the Icelandic government gave in, and the prohibition was lifted on wine and spirits, but they left out beer to appease the prohibition movement and the templar movement.

But we were kids and we drank everything. Pernod was quite popular at the time. It was easy to dilute, and you could drink it over a whole night because it was good on the stomach. Of course, we just drank everything that we could lay our hands on.

Did it bother you that you had to leave Iceland to make it big?

I mean, for my generation it wasn’t something we thought about. We’d had bands trying to make it abroad in the late 60s and early 70s and they all sang in English to get the record deals. But part of the cultural statement of the new wave scene starting in 1980 and 1981 was performing in Icelandic; we were saying, this is for us; we’re talking about our reality, directly talking to each other. None of us had aspirations for getting known abroad; it was of course a small scene. Einar put it nicely when he said: Why should I sing in English when the audience is twenty of my friends?’ It’d be silly. But punk and new wave was a movement that had all the hallmarks of an avantgarde movement. There was a network, because most of it was released by small labels, all in contact through small, specialised record shops. Einar had one; he imported from Rough Trade and others, so he was in touch with all the music makers.

Einar’s Pukkur Pillik were invited to go on tour with The Fall; then Crass happened later on; that was through Einar too. We’re 56 now, so maybe soon we have to say he was the grandfather of punk. He worked on the foreign contacts, starting at 17, summer 1980, when he brought The Clash to Iceland. That was the start of the New Wave movement. He took it on himself to go to Europe and talk to them. They knew he was very young, but the UK punk scene was made by very young people. So they were not surprised that this 17-year-old kid came and said, Hey, why don’t you come to Reykjavik and do a gig.

Crass released the Kukl albums. Then some of Kukl got tired of it all. All dressed in black, singing about very dark themes; slow rhythms, droning guitars and all that. Sugarcubes were a reaction to that – a return to the joy of music, allowing silliness in. They were founded on the label of Bad Taste, which became the most important label for Icelandic music at the time.

How did you get on with London? Did you like it?

Ah, I was there for two years and half or so, in the mid-90s. We were in West Hampstead. It was an interesting time. My wife’s a mezzo soprano, she was studying singing, and I was doing some writing, and I started working with Bjork at the same time. Her guy Tricky was working with another Icelandic singer, Rakka, who’s the singer with him on Maxinquaye. She’s a very fine singer. The stuff he was doing was amazing.

Why did you write: ‘Cats are watching us and learning’?

At the end of the Epilogue to my novel, Codex 1962, I create an apocalyptic scenario where the human species become extinct; and it is implied that cats become the master race through genetic engineering and interacting with an artificial, intelligent being. I have for a long while been interested in the possibility of interspecies communication and with systems of artificial intelligence. In the book, a programme working with exactly that goes out of hand and an artificial intelligent being discovers that it has an easier relationship with animals than with human beings because it’s threatened by the human beings, and it starts conspiring with cats and dogs; especially the cats because, you know, they are the cunning ones; the dogs have their loyalty, you know. And the cats become the new master race. Because you know, with artificial intelligence and all the bio-enhancement programmes that are taking place now, the cats can ask to be genetically engineered so they can walk on their hind legs and they start getting all sorts of gadgets.

This is not in the book! Maybe I will write out the scenario in more detail in another book later, a short story.

There are 2 cats in our house; my children look after them. They fight all the time, in the night. I like cats, so I’m very glad they’re there.

You’ve referred elsewhere to David Bowie’s influence. Was Berlin a pilgrimage for you?

He definitely brought the attention of my generation to Berlin by going there; of course also Germany, because the Connie Planck studio was in Cologne, where he recorded Low and Heroes. The first time I went to Berlin was with Kukl, in February 1986; they supported Einstürzende Neubauten. We stayed in a squat near Nollendorfplatz; it was winter, it was freezing. On the ground floor was a pub and a small stage, so Kukl played 2 nights to pay for the lodging, and they did a big gig with Einstürzende Neubauten in the Metropole, their return gig after having become stars in Europe. The spirit of Bowie was definitely there, but I also connected to the works of Georg Grosz and Otto Dix, and authors like Alfred Döblin.

LP: You said elsewhere: ‘Wereld is the time of being; that’s where we are’. That’s containing time in a different way than we normally hold it – a shamanic moment?

Yes, it’s an idea that encompasses us as a species. And also as individuals; the world is only while you’re here; it’s as simple as that. The world as we know it will only be here as long as the human species is here to notice; while we are self-aware. And it’s really interesting that the old people, this was just ingrained in them, that matter and time went together. Time and being. There’s this old Icelandic philosophical poem, Lilya, a cosmological poem, but written in Catholic times; there’s a beautiful line about time and matter being siblings.

Do you hold an overarching view on the arts?

I definitely think the arts are one of the main tools we have to sustain ourselves as a species. It keeps us in balance, you know, I really believe so. It’s a perpetual self-healing, keeping us in check as individuals and as a society. And the gift of creating something – a song or drawing, or a line of poetry, is really what makes us what we are.

There is an Icelandic philosopher who was asked the impossible question, what is culture? We are quite new to philosophy in Iceland; the philosophy department in the University of Iceland, I think it was established in 1978. Before that we only had stories, and philosophers were just seen as people with mental issues, that they were trying to solve by thinking too much, you know? (Laughter).

He said: ‘Culture is doing things well; doing things with care’.  And I think he is absolutely right, and that is what the human species is capable of; what makes us what we are is heart, mind and eye and coordination, you know, or physical coordination – that is what culture is. And it is doing things well. And it’s very interesting to think about the oldest tools we find: they always have an element that goes beyond the functional; they’re always made with care. There is always an element of beauty; and why is it? – it’s possible that it’s there simply for the practical reason of handing down the skills. To hand down the skills of making a stone axe, an arrow head, you have to go beyond the functional.

We need to be more than just the functional?

Yes; and once we go beyond the functional, we have culture; yeah! (Laughs). It seems that soon we discovered pleasure from doing things with care. There’s pleasure in going beyond the functional; poetry is language that can go so far beyond that. And why did we take something as functional and practical and language, and just carry it on – into poetry? It’s amazing. So I think we are special beings, but it’s the same element that makes us capable of doing great harm to each other. Take for example a drone that is used to drop bombs on people – you can be sure that those drones were made with great care, and that the curving line of one of the arms of the drone is not purely functional, but it also has an element of beauty in it. And the designer/engineer who made it, felt the pang of pleasure when he got it right. Yeah, that’s the scary thing. And the stone axe has the possibility of being a tool, a weapon and a thing of beauty. We haven’t progressed that much since those axes.

Does it bother you, in your novel Codex 1962, you’ve named your character Leo Loewe that most anglophone readers might not get it?

They’ll get ‘Leo’. It’s just there. And those who understand that Leo means lion, they’ll get it straight away. But there are so many things written in books that we don’t get, even though they’re written in our own languages, you know? If you read a book by Dickens, there might be punning in the names of some of the characters, a punning that would have had everyone in his time laughing. But we’ve completely lost it because we don’t have that reference any more; we tend to forget that it’s not only translated literature that is alien to us and is full of references that we have no clue about; even literature from the fifties, has references that we don’t connect with any more. If it’s a good book, there should be enough left in it (laughs) to make it enjoyable.

Kids watching movies from before 2,000 even, they were watching movies full of gadgets that disappeared. OK, the turntable returned, but until then, most kids wouldn’t have a clue how to operate it. They didn’t realise that you had to flip the record, they thought it was on one side only, like CDs. So there are little things which are disappearing from our environment, which have obvious references for us, so if you have a poem by a Merseybeat poet, writing about flipping the record, I mean what does a nineteen-year-old today make of it? ‘I felt I was an A-side, and she treated me like a B-side’ – kids won’t get that.

The Blue Fox won the 2005 Nordic Council literature prize. Photo: In Green Canoes

Do you think Icelandic script is cool? Do schoolkids think so, that they have something unique?

S: Those are just parts of our language. I don’t know. It’s invisible to me. Maybe the young kids brought up on the Internet, it’s clear to them that we only use this script in Iceland. I think we all take pride in it. We have an uneasy relationship to the whole Viking thing though, mostly because of the cultural theft committed by the Third Reich, because they took the Nordic and Germanic heritage and completely reversed it, by naming their platoons and institutions by the Nordic pantheon, and introducing the runic script; they tied it completely in with the white supremacy idea.

People in Iceland working with those elements, a band called Skald for example, they’ve been setting some of the old poems to music, to metal. An old friend who’s president of the pagan society, they’re all battling all the time to fight off the affection of the neo-Nazis because they think there’s an automatic relationship between using runes or the names of the gods, with the far right ideology. For us it is not all, for us, it’s really like a nature religion, it’s much more about ecology and the relationship between man and nature. So the whole Viking thing, the blond aggressive male, the blond savage, we’re not in for that.

Our genealogical heritage is not only Nordic; we are part Nordic and part Celtic. Up to 60% of Icelandic women are of Celtic origin; and up to 40% of the men. So it seems that the people who settled Iceland were mixed; but the Nordic culture became dominant, then we became Christian in the year 1,000 and the influence of the culture that the Catholic church brought to the country was immense, and it was then that we started to write the sagas. The Catholics knew how to make manuscripts, and insisted that they should be made in the Icelandic language, and it was obvious that they would start mining the oral tradition. We became in a way the custodians of Germanic culture, because so much of the epic Germanic poetry would only be known to us because it was written down in Icelandic; which is amazing. The Icelanders were crazy in the thirteenth century; it wasn’t enough for them to write the history of Iceland and then the sagas, which were like fictionalised narratives about the people of the settlement age; they also wrote the histories of the Norwegian and Swedish kings and the Danish dynasties; they tried to write the history of the world. Right from the beginning, our culture was about communication with the rest of the world. It’s amazing to read some of those old books, because when they are timing the events in the book, they always cross-reference with other events in Europe and the known world. It’s not an insular culture; it never has been. 

What do you think of Instagram poetry?

I don’t know. I don’t know, and I don’t care how people express themselves. I think it’s very important just to respect that expression finds different outlets. Sometimes underprivileged people have to use means which are seen as secondary by the dominant culture. Who would have guessed that the turntable would become an instrument? Hip-hop artists in the US who had no access to instruments, they made the turntable into an instrument. For me this is the best example of how people just manage, and find solutions; and in Europe, writing for the Internet, and publishing on Twitter or Facebook, or Instagram or wherever, is seen as a secondary means of getting your poems or whatever noticed. But in some places, this is what you have for publishing, so this is how they do it. 

The means of expression – a printed poem can be so much worse than one which is simply said out loud in a cafe cellar in Kuala Lumpur. The means of publishing has no guarantee for quality; I started as a self-published poet; Haldr Laxness, the Icelandic Nobel Prize winner, he started as a self-published writer. Most of the successful, high-quality writers of Iceland in the twentieth century, started as self-published authors. Because at the beginning of the twentieth century in Iceland, when Haldr Laxness was coming forward, there was no infrastructure; there were no publishing houses in the country. Iceland authors who really wanted to become professional, they moved to Copenhagen and wrote in Danish. So for Haldr Laxness to decide to write in Icelandic, was a big cultural statement and risk for a young, very ambitious writer. He was horribly ambitious right from the beginning. And there was no question that he was going to get the Nobel Prize in his mind, never doubted it. But he had to make a decision whether to write in Icelandic or Danish; by writing in Danish he would most likely have found a good publisher in Denmark, quite early on, and he would have become a wonderful author in Danish; but he chose Icelandic, and we are still benefiting from that choice, because he expanded the possibilities of the language as a literary language, in his novels. He showed us that you could become a great twentieth-century author in the Icelandic language, he renewed the language after the sagas.

So self-publishing was the only means of getting your books out in Iceland for decades, and when I was starting, the publishing houses were not attractive to me or my generation at all because the publishing houses were too big, they belonged to the Right and the Left. The biggest was a socialist publishing house, and the other one was run by people from the Conservative party, and people like me, I had no interest in taking sides, left or right. So anarchism was god’s gift for us, when the UK punks started up: Anarchy in the UK, just the word, anarchy – all of a sudden, we had an answer. When people said, ‘Where are you with politics’, we just said ‘We’re anarchists’ and they said, ‘Really? What’s that?’ Then we explained it, and they said: ‘That’s irresponsible’, then we would say, ‘Thank you!’ (big laugh)

So self-publishing was what we did, and of course it was all part of the whole punk thing, all the independent record companies. I just know that a great poet will find his or her way of getting their poems out there. It can be by standing on a street corner, it can be by publishing a handsomely-produced book, it can be on Twitter or Instagram, or wherever. So I don’t care!

How does anarchism translate into being a parent and holding some boundaries?

Well, if you want your kids to become anarchists, then you have to be very strict with them! That’s my only advice. I did that. Of course, they grow up in a household that’s always been unlike those of their friends and schoolmates…I work very strange hours; I sometimes don’t work for days or weeks, and they never see me go to work. Sometimes when they come home from school at 2 pm, I’m still asleep. So I try to be a good role model when I can, with nice erratic behaviour. But then I’m strict with other things. Then they might say, when I’m strict with them, ‘But you’re asleep till 2 pm’. So I will say: ‘But I’m a grown-up – you can do what you like when you’re a grown-up.’

What are your kids doing?

My daughter’s studying photography, and doing quite well; she’s already doing photography on the Icelandic music scene and the drag scene too. My son, he’s nineteen, so he’s making music and doing some design, and he’s a tattooist. He surprised us 3 months ago when he said: ‘Well, I’ve just ordered a tattoo machine’.   

Does your daughter know Bjork’s son, Sindri? They must be of a similar age.

Of course they know each other, sure; they grew up together, I mean this has always just been a group of friends, so our kids, yeah, they know each other. Einar (Orn) has got three kids – two boys and a girl, so they all know each other; when they were younger they met more, and now they all know of each other.

You spoke in one interview, of a feeling of ‘getting away with it’ – what can you say about that?

Being a writer, at least when I started, is a rare thing to do. It’s rare to take a stand to be published – everyone in Iceland believes they can be a better poet than those who are publishing, but it’s a rare thing to do it. And to choose this path was not something that was given; there were no writers in my family, I grew up with a single mother, she worked in a bank but she was a great reader, and still is.

There were no people who were involved in culture in my family, in any way. So taking the step in publishing and being involved in culture was something new. Einar’s father was a theater director, so he was in culture from early on, but for me it was always something that was a surprise to everyone, and choosing to be a writer who was not going to write books that people would obviously like was also a decision I made early on. I knew that I would never write books to please. I would always look for what was difficult, either in the text or the subject matter, or whatever. That’s why I always have this feeling that I am getting away with it somehow; that it’s not a given that I should be read or translated; I‘ve been fortunate so far with my books. Until a few years ago my books didn’t sell much in Iceland, and I never expected to live from writing my novels or my poetry. I’ve done commissions, I’ve written screenplays, I’ve done collaborations, and they are my way of earning money.

What I said today at the talk, about trying to avoid the feeling of the writing being a job, is something I take very seriously; so I write without expecting it to earn me any money. I’m very careful of not taking advances from the publishers and things like that, because that would also put on me the pressure of feeling it was a job, that I had committed to a company in some way. That’s what I mean about getting away with it. Then when the books go for translation in different countries, that is luck. I can never know if a book will be picked up and published abroad, I don’t know if Codex 1962 will be the last book to make it out of the country. I’ve no expectations like that.

You started writing libretti. Did it reconnect you with poetry?

Yeah, I write poetry slowly. I’ve published poetry every 7 years, for the last twenty-one years. Poetry is very dear to me, and I’m very glad every time I manage to write a poem. The libretti have been very dear to me, an opportunity for me to work with my lyrical skills and my poetic side. I’ve really enjoyed doing that. It’s different from writing my own poetry, because the libretti, they are lyrics with a dramatic context, so it’s different.

What about these numbers – 22 chapters, 92 pages, 23-page epilogue – are these Fibonacci numbers or a different system?

No, no, it’s just in this case, the main character lived to be twenty-two. So I just thought, I need a structure for the book, and it’s not that I’m writing a chapter for each year in his life, but it gave me a reason to use a specific number. But then it’s also the number of tarot cards; I’ve been using those, so I find inspiration from that number in many ways.

It’s the master number too, in numerology.

Yeah, yeah. I always try to come up with some formulas, and the Moonstone for example, is in ten parts. I always try to look within the material for possibilities of structure.

How do you relate to nature?

Well, as a kid, I spent summers in a town on the east side called Esterbjoven and that was my contact with nature. But I stopped going there when I was twelve or thirteen. I’ve never been much of a nature person, I’ve never been in nature doing hikes and all that. When I grew up my mother didn’t have a car, so I never did the Sunday drives that most of the other kids did, into the countryside and nature.

As a grown up, I’ve gone fishing with my brother-in-law, out in the wilderness. My wife and I have a cottage by the coast, looking out onto the Atlantic, so I connect with nature like that, but I’ve never been a nature person, I’ve tried to be as urban as possible in a city of a hundred thousand people (laughs).

In my Reykjavik suburb there was social housing, but there was also independently made high-rises, and quite mixed neighbourhood. All the social problems in Reykjavik were solved by building social housing there, so it was quite a rough new neighbourhood when I was growing up, but the privilege we had was that we were close to the nature, because it was on the outskirts of the city, so a fifteen-minute walk would take us to a salmon river; a fifteen-minute walk in the other direction would take us up a hill where we could see the migrating birds coming in. The third direction would take us to the moors where we could find ducks’ nests and all that; so we lived on the edge of what was absolutely new and problematic, and pure nature. I remember as a kid enjoying that.

Reykjavik was a town of fifteen thousand people, and it’s always been despised by people from the country. My generation’s mostly made up of the children of people who moved from the countryside to Reykjavik. This was the generation born after World War Two, so in the fifties there was a great migration from the villages around the country to Reykjavik. My father’s from the north, my mother’s from the east, but we all had connections to the countryside. But they are the traitors, the people who left.

So Reykjavik has never been like the affluent city; of course we have all the government offices and all that but at the same time, it was for a long while the poor part of Iceland; because in the fishing villages, the people there all had jobs in the freezing plants or on the docks, so they were prosperous until like twenty years ago. Reykjavik was the place where you had unemployment, where there were housing problems; all the social problems were in Reykjavik. It was always seen as the dark side of the country; and it still is. People outside Reykjavik, they still speak very poorly of it. Other places are small enough to ignore those problems, if they have them. The cruelty of the small place! That’s how they solve the problems in the small place, they just turn up the cruelty. That’s what we say in Reykjavik, of course.                        

About Lawrence Pettener


Originally from Liverpool, Lawrence Pettener works full-time in the Klang Valley as copy-editor, proofreader and writer, specializing in helping solo authors. His most recent (and forthcoming) book reviews and interviews are in The Star (Malaysia) and As Kwailo Lumpur he writes comic material about Malaysian life, food especially. Following the success of May All Beings Rock, three original poetry books are due out in 2019.
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