The Inside Job: Björn Gunnlaugsson.
The hidden history of Mosi frændi.
– Artsy and psychedelic in the basement –
Mosi frændi was never likely to be a popular band. Formed in 1985 by a group of students at MH, a secondary school in Reykjavík with a reputation for being artsy, the intention was at first to become a psychedelic band – about as far from the “in” sound of the times as you could get. None of the original members had any musical skill to speak of.
Various line-ups were tried in sporadic practise sessions, with members alternating between instruments, but it was only when Gunnar, who had a classical and jazz education, joined on keyboards, vocals, and occasionally trombone, that things started to take shape. The first gig took place in the legendary Norðurkjallari venue in MH as part of a music festival organised by the school art committee, which coincidentally featured two members of the band. Other bands playing at the festival included S.H. Draumur and Kukl, while Mosi frændi played early in the afternoon for next to no people. Later, they could maintain that they had opened for illustrious performers on their debut. The first live set took in three songs, none of which were originals: “Wild thing” by The Troggs, “Stand by me” by Ben E. King and “Love missile F1-11” by Sigue Sigue Sputnik.
Over the next months with Geir Brillian on guitar, a few gigs were played, stirring up a bit of media interest. Psychedelia had been swapped for a more punky sound, and butchering cover versions of current pop hits became a staple of the live set. These included “Útihátíð” by Greifarnir, “The Sun Always Shines on TV” by A-ha and “The Final Countdown” by Europe. Geir later said of Mosi frændi: “We wanted to be the worst band in the world, and we did it well!” Unfortunately, Geir was too busy with his other band to devote himself full time to Mosi frændi.
– Spinal Tapes –
Some original compositions also began to appear. Magnús brought “Vélin”, a song he had written while teaching himself guitar, and he also came up with lyrics which Aðalbjörn set to music, a song called “Herbergið mitt” which described a weird Sunday in the life of a teenage girl. Gunnar put some overelaborate jazz chords to an Edgar Allan Poe poem, called “A Dream Within A Dream” and attempts were made to make a music video. The tapes are lost forever, unfortunately.
In the summer of 1987, Björn had managed to get himself appointed “gear guy” in MH, meaning he was responsible for sound and lighting equipment in Norðurkjallari. This meant he was given keys to the school building, and during the summer holiday, Mosi frændi began recording songs on an old 4-track reel-to-reel tape machine. The songs began to pile up and it was decided to send demo tapes to various people who had been releasing music independently.
Two cover versions were chosen, “Útihátíð” and “Popplag í G-moll”, a twist on a song by the popular band Stuðmenn called “Popplag í G-dúr” (dúr and moll mean major and minor key, respectively) which in late summer 1987 was the first song by Mosi frændi to be played on the radio. Incidentally, prior to recording that version, it was decided that approval from the songwriter was going to be required. Sigurður recalls reading the changed lyrics over the phone to a completely unimpressed Valgeir Guðjónsson, who at the time was contemplating leaving Iceland’s most successful band. Mosi frændi may have pushed him over the edge. Only one recipient of the demo tape responded to Mosi frændi, the frontman from S.H. Draumur, later to become known as Dr. Gunni. He gave various useful bits of advice and information about what was needed in order to produce and release a cassette. In October, a 13-track cassette (originals on one side, covers on the other) was released in 100 numbered copies, bearing the title “Suzy Creamcheese for President” – a reference to an early Frank Zappa song. The front cover features a puerile parody of Andy Warhol’s “banana” cover art from the Velvet Underground’s debut album.
When the tape was released, two gigs took place to promote the release. First, Norðurkjallari as usual, and then a tiny dive in downtown Reykjavík called Duus hús. Four bands played that night, but it was Mosi frændi that captured the headlines after a full page spread in local paper DV appeared. The tape quickly sold out and has become the stuff of legend. Thankfully, the scarcity of copies feeds the legend. Like with the Sex Pistols gig at the 100 Club, a ridiculous number of people claim to own or at least have heard the tape.
While Mosi frændi was busy recording, a compilation tape named “Snarl” was released by the aforementioned Dr. Gunni, featuring six underground bands. One of the bands, called Sogblettir and featuring the younger brothers of two members of the Sugarcubes. The tape was a great success and the good doctor decided a sequel was in order, called “Snarl 2”. Mosi frændi contacted him and asked to be on the second tape, to which he agreed. This meant the band entered a professional recording studio for the first time. Studio Gnýr was chosen, due to its reasonable pricing and the fact that S.H. Draumur had recorded the legendary “Goð” album there. Three songs were recorded – “Vélin”, a new song by Björn called “Geirþrúður”, set to lyrics written by Múzzólíní singer Henrý Henrýsson, and last but not least, a cover of “Poppstjarnan” by Utangarðsmenn, the legendary band of singer/songwriter Bubbi Morthens.
– Hi, is that Bubbi? –
A lack of knowledge of music industry protocol meant that members of Mosi frændi believed they had an obligation to seek permission from Bubbi to cover his song. It should be pointed out that at this time, no one had attempted to cover anything by Bubbi, ever. A trip to the record store Grammið was made to procure his phone number and a nervous telephone conversation took place:
– “Hi, is that Bubbi?”
– “Hi, my name’s Bjössi, and I’m in a band called Mosi frændi, I don’t
know if you’ve heard of us…?”
“Oh, yeah, I know Mosi frændi.”
– “Well, we are going to be on a compilation tape that Gunni from S.H.
Draumur is putting together…’”
– “And we would like to record a cover of one of your songs.”
“OK, what song?”
“That song is not written by me.”
– “What?” (According to credits on the album it was. Should one
contradict the great man…?)
“No, it’s written by Mike Pollock. I wrote the lyrics. You can cover the
song as far as I’m concerned, but you’ll have to ask Mike as well.”
– “Errm… OK, do you have his phone number?”
“He’s in rehab at Silungapollur, you can call him there.”
– “Right, OK then, thanks!”
Mercifully, this all happened before the people operating rehabilitation facilities in Iceland realized that it was a bad idea to have patients receive phone calls from whomever. So Mike was duly contacted and gave his approval.
Mosi frændi’s version of “Poppstjarnan” was virtually unlistenable. The amount of distortion and feedback on the guitar tracks made the recording engineer at Gnýr worried that his equipment would be damaged. Magnús performed the vocals and absolutely screamed his fucking head off. He even fluffed his lines in the last verse but had destroyed his voice so it was impossible to do another take. Mosi frændi had changed the lyrics a little bit. The song was originally a criticism by Bubbi of the music industry but now Mosi frændi pointed out, in no subtle terms, that Bubbi had become a large part of what he had been criticizing. References were made to his dress sense, his hair style and the size of his penis. He was accused of taking advantage of young girls and of being unable to maintain an erection while doing so. Bizarrely, a reference to cocaine use in Bubbi’s original lyrics was omitted in Mosi frændi’s version. A music video was made, featuring shots of the band miming on instruments with LP covers hiding their faces, as well as Ármann, a friend of the band, having his throat slit with a banana.
– Musical Experiments –
By now Mosi frændi were pushing lots of buttons, sometimes causing negative reactions. While their limited musical ability had been overlooked by some who praised their originality and fresh ideas, now their abrasive style was starting to piss some people off. After a gig promoting “Snarl 2”, two reviews appeared in the papers, totally slating Mosi frændi’s performance. After the same gig, drummer Geir left the band, and it was decided that Ármann would join on drums. He had no experience or ability to play drums but this was not considered to be particularly important. Mosi frændi decided to participate in Músíktilraunir, the Icelandic battle of the bands. Vigorous rehearsals ensued. After one of the warm-up gigs, a review appeared in national newspaper Morgunblaðið, written by a certain Ari Eldon, who also happened to be the bassist from Sogblettir. Ari used this opportunity to express his opinion that Mosi frændi’s music, and particularly their cover versions of old songs, was something that no one should be subjected to. For the appearance in Músíktilraunir, the band was required to perform four new songs, which must be original and not have been performed before. A lot of thought went into the songwriting, while at the same time it was deemed necessary to put on some live shows to get the band grooving together.
During the songwriting period, guitar player Björn was traveling home from rehearsal on the bus one evening and happened to hear a radio program by media personality Þorsteinn J. – who incidentally had written the positive review of the Duus hús gig a few months previously. During the radio show, Þorsteinn invited his listeners to help him write lyrics to a pop song. This was meant to be satirical, pointing out the poor quality of lyrics prevalent in Icelandic pop music at the time. By the time Björn got home, the lyrics to a song entitled “Katla kalda” were completed so he decided to write a song to them. Þorsteinn was contacted and he asked the band to show up at the radio station and perform the song live. The performance was recorded and broadcast a few times, sparking quite a bit of interest from listeners.
Describing the process of writing the song, Björn recalls: “I was listening to a lot of 50’s rock’n’roll at the time, with basic G-C-D chord progressions so I decided that this would form the basis of the new song. I was writing the song on my Aquarius electric guitar, with a pen and a piece of sheet music paper to jot down the vocal melody. I tried to keep everything as simple and banal as possible so the verse was restricted to G and C, but when I got to the chorus and the D chord, I didn’t know where to go next. That’s where the punk instinct took over I guess, and using A-shaped bar chords I put entirely inappropriate E-flat and F chords in there. It sounds weird and wrong from a musical point of view but that’s what makes the song in a way.”
Meanwhile, some other songs were being written. A female friend and fan of the band, schoolmate Brynhildur Björnsdóttir, had given Mosi frændi a Christmas present in the form of a song lyric, also meant to be satirically bad. It was decided that a song should be written to the lyrics, entitled “Sláturtíð”, and that the song would be one of the four presented at Músíktilraunir. Realizing the need for an upbeat number, the song was created as a country-polka jaunt, but the temptation to veer into weirdness was too strong so the chorus was put to a waltz tempo. “Jói sjötomma” was a reggae-style song to lyrics about child abuse written by Magnús, who also provided the lyrics to what has remained one of Mosi frændi’s favourite compositions, “Prinsessan á Mars.” Originally intended to be an angry punk song, as the lyrics are about unrequited love, an experiment in rehearsal led to the song being arranged as an atmospheric U2-style number, vaguely inspired by the song “Bad”. When a cello bow was used to play one of the guitars the song took its final shape and was once described as “The Velvet Underground leading U2 into a dark alley and beating the shit out of them.”
Bylgjan, the radio station where Þorsteinn J. was working, agreed to pay for the studio time to record “Katla kalda” as listeners kept bombarding the station with requests to play the song and the live performance was not considered of sufficient quality to justify heavy airplay. Again, studio Gnýr was chosen but by this time the studio had been taken over by Eyþór Arnalds and Þorvaldur Bjarni, who were later to become very successful with their band Todmobile. Once the song started being played, it entered Bylgjan’s singles chart at number 40. The next day, Mosi frændi were contacted by the promoters of Músíktilraunir and informed that since the band now had a song on the radio, they would be disqualified from the contest. In response, the band asked whether they would be allowed to compete if they appeared under a different name, which was approved. Therefore, they participated as the band “Katla kalda”.
The performance in the semifinal of Músíktilraunir was good enough for Mosi frændi to be one of the bands to progress to the final. After coming off stage, the band walked around the auditorium and approached the best-looking girls and invited them to appear in their next music video. This was not just a pickup line, because the TV station Stöð 2 had agreed to produce a video to the song “Katla kalda”. Obviously, a party was called for to celebrate getting to the final, and after visiting a venue called Zanzibar, the party moved to the public swimming pool in Seltjarnarnes, which was closed at the time of course, but surrounded only by a fence that members of the band climbed over. Somehow, a few members of the band ended up at guitarist Magnús’s place in Grafarvogur, all the way across Reykjavík. To this day, no one is quite sure how that party ended. The week after the semifinal, “Katla kalda” jumped from number 40 to 18 on the chart and the video started to be shown on television, featuring only the briefest of glimpses of the band members. The girls recruited after the semifinal mimed playing the instruments in skimpy clothes while Kristófer Dignus, a schoolmate of the band and a respected filmmaker today, played the part of the lead singer. This would lead to problems for Magnús that summer as he tried to make the most of his pop star status, but failing to convince many girls that he was the guitar player in Mosi frændi.
The following week, “Katla kalda” was at number 11 and then number 6. By then, the final of Músíktilraunir had taken place and the top three places were given to bands playing exactly the kind of music the boys from Mosi frændi despised – brainless, upbeat pop with no substance. What prevented Mosi frændi from making more headway in the contest is not known, but likely it was a mixture of their limited musical skill and the fact that they already had a hit song, which may have prompted the promoters to prevent Mosi frændi from winning.
– When the lightning strikes –
Determined to follow the success of their hit, Mosi frændi went back to the studio and recorded their fourth and final song from the
Músíktilraunir set called “Ástin sigrar” – a bitter and twisted song about an impending breakup. The tapes were sent to the UK and a 7” record
was pressed and released in July. Around the time when the record arrived in the shops the band was asked to play an outdoor concert on the
balcony of the National Radio building. A thunderstorm broke out and the band was lucky to escape without injury when lightning struck the
The record was partially financed by Bylgjan in exchange for the radio station’s jingle being heard at the end of “Katla kalda” which was on the
b-side. 500 copies had been ordered, but workers at the pressing plant forgot to switch off their machinery so 622 copies arrived in the post
from the UK. All copies were sold, meaning the band just about broke even.
To promote the record, a video to “Ástin sigrar” was produced, showing the band robbing a bank and driving off to Keflavík Airport in a red
open-top sports car. Not all members were impressed with the idea, especially Ármann, who can be seen moping in the back seat of the car.
– Tear me up before you go-go –
That autumn, when school had started, the thought of another winter as eventful as the previous one appeared less than desirable to a few
members of the band and it was decided that Mosi frændi should break up. A pair of farewell concerts took place, one in the youth venue
Tónabær and the final one obviously in Norðurkjallari. After the final gig, guitar player Magnús’s trademark red plastic jacket was torn to
shreds and a mad party in Norðurkjallari went out of control. Magnús was caught at a downtown bar later that night trying to steal a bar stool,
and ended up in a jail cell with a man who said he regularly spent his Saturday nights in there.
After a long hiatus, Mosi frændi reunited in 2009, playing in a sold-out concert to some acclaim. The band soon afterwards released a CD with
the recordings, that received rather positive reviews in the press. The band has since then played a few gigs, and it seems that it refuses to die.
1. Casablanca venue (1987)
2. Morgunbladid: Ad hlemmur bus station (1988)
3. Musiktilraunir (1988)
4. MF Reunion (2010)