God weeping golden tears from Heaven”? When they formed in the early 1990s, Sigur Rós never dreamed they’d be seen outside Iceland. Now they avoid reading “crazy' descriptions of their music just to keep sane, singer Jonsi tells TONY CLAYTON-LEA
IS IT REALLY 18 years since Sigur Rós first put spectral pen to ancient paper? And if so, why does the Icelandic band’s lead vocalist Jónsi Thor (yes, Thor) Birgisson still look like a 12-year-old bunking off school for the afternoon? We are in London’s Covent Garden Hotel on a wet, wet, wet afternoon. The Ticket, Jónsi and Sigur Rós’s drummer Orri Páll Dyrason gather in an anteroom that acts as Media Central for the very few interviews the band are allowing themselves to engage with in the lead-up to the release of their new album, Valtari (“Roller” in English). There is no slavish requirement on the band’s behalf to talk to all and sundry, yet there is also no sense that they are keen to deliberately add to the mystery and enigma that already envelops them.
That’s not to say the band don’t take a certain delight in side-blinding: with his long, straggling hair and unkempt beard, Dyrason looks like a member of a heavy metal band raised on a diet of Jethro Tull. Birgisson, meanwhile, is impishly dressed in a threadbare red patchwork shirt and an odd-looking pair of trews that the masses might be scammed into buying if cross-country cycling wear should ever become this year’s little black dress. Each musician is as quiet as a church mouse, and remarkably polite.
“Electric Picnic?” queries Birgisson when he learns that The Ticket is from Ireland. “That is the show I’m most looking forward to this year. I just love it . . .”
Named after Birgisson’s younger sister, Sigur Rós formed in Reykjavik in 1994, releasing their debut album, Von, in 1997. Arriving two years later, Ágaetis Byrjun did the trick of effectively forcing the band to engage with a community much larger than that of their native fanbase. Support slots with Radiohead beckoned, but it was Cameron Crowe’s movie Vanilla Sky that brought the band’s music to an even wider audience. (In a nod to Crowe’s beneficial assistance, Birgisson wrote the score for the director’s latest movie, We Bought a Zoo.)
When the band first started, what were their initial ambitions?
“You start playing in a band with your friends because you want to have fun,” explains Birgisson, who does most of the talking; Dyrason seems not to mind at all. “I think there isn’t that much ambition – you just want to enjoy yourself. It turned into something a bit more serious when we started to get known outside of Iceland, and when we started to tour into other parts of Europe and America. That was serious, but for someone like us – people who had never set foot off the island before – it was a great adventure.”
Also, at this early stage, adds Dyrason (who replaced original drummer Ágúst Evar Gunnarsson in 1999, and has been a friend of the band since their school days), no one was really thinking about what life outside Iceland might be like.
“At that point, the best-known group from Iceland was The Sugarcubes. Kids were just making music for no reason other than that they enjoyed it. Certainly, the thought that any money was to be made was nowhere near our minds. Plus, in Iceland it’s better to be inside a garage making music than to be outside in the cold!”
Any notions of even a loose infrastructure by which to advance their plans or ambitions were unravelled by the fact that The Sugarcubes had split up several years earlier and Björk (that band’s former singer) had decamped to London to continue with an increasingly successful solo career.
“Oh, no, there was very little industry around,” says Birgisson. “It was a really small and friendly scene of some bands, all of a similar age to us, and we played in the same venues. Looking back, I’d say our early musical endeavours were naive and full of wanting to experiment. We were young and stupid but full of energy and mischief. You know, whenever I think back, all I can recall is that the weather was so sunny outside. That’s probably not how it was at all, though, which says probably more about me than anything else.
“It’s like this: we started playing almost 20 years ago; we lived on a small island, and we were so much more isolated back then. You never thought that you were going to play off the island. And I really mean never. When all of that came it was truly amazing for us. And we never gave much thought, either, to the word or the notion of ‘development’.”
Yet the band has most assuredly developed. Where once Sigur Rós’s music was viewed as a pleasurable oddity, now it is a byword for a completely different kind of soundscape. Across almost 15 years, the band has released five studio albums, with Valtari the sixth. No one can accuse them of flooding the market, but with music of such long-lasting power, it’s the seeping quality that counts. The sticking-point appears to be how such wonderful music is constructed. It’s a simple and quite boring process, they explain. The four members get together in a rehearsal space, one or more of them starts to improvise and then, says Birgisson, “at some point we’d hit on something, and we’d focus on that until music approximating a song would arrive.”
There is no set time for how long this takes, they say. Usually, admits Birgisson, it takes a day, “and then we add to that. It’s exactly the same process as writing a pop song, to be honest. At some point in the process, a spark occurs and you know you have a good tune. And then, of course, it takes another 364 days to get it right!”
The process, from start to finish, claims Birgisson, is very easy for them.
“When I say that, what I really mean is that it has always been natural for us. What has changed from then to now is that at the start we really didn’t talk that much to each other – we just locked into the improvisation and got on with it. You know, something happened musically and we all knew it was working. Now, though, we talk a bit more – but only a little bit.”
And what of the music? So much has been written about it in mostly hyperbolic terms – “the sound of shearing glaciers” (BBC Music); “an amniotic cocoon moving tectonically” (Pitchfork); “Birgisson warbles in a falsetto that approximates a lovesick, hermaphroditic extraterrestrial” (Boston Globe) – that it’s now surely pointless thumbing through either National Geographic or Roget’s Thesaurus for apt descriptions? Just let it flow, right? Both Birgisson and Dyrason appear relieved that they aren’t going to be called upon to try to describe their music.
“I remember NME wrote years ago of us,” smiles Birgisson, “that it was like God weeping golden tears from heaven! You can understand people wanting or needing to categorise the music, but we feel it really isn’t necessary. You should just let it in and make up your own mind. I never describe it – I’ve never bothered with that. What’s important for us is that our music is viewed as timeless, organic in the best possible way.”
And the lyrics, whether they’re sung in English, Icelandic or the band’s much-talked about “gibberish” language, Hopelandic?
“Oh, the words are abstract,” dismisses Birgisson, the band’s main lyric writer, “and not very obvious at all.” He shakes his head, seemingly part wistful, part incredulous. “A long time ago I made the decision not to read anything written about us or our music. It keeps you sane. But that NME thing? That was crazy.”
Valtari is released on May 25th. Sigur Rós perform at Electric Picnic, Stradbally on August 31
Top 5 Icelandic musical exports (and why they're all a little bit bonkers)
Why she’s so good: She’s easily the most eclectic and experimental female performer/vocalist operating in the outer reaches of rock/post-rock music. She straddles avant-garde, electronica, trip-hop, punk, pop, dance, techno and throat singing. And, no, she doesn’t give a fiddlers what you think.
Why she’s a little bit bonkers: Her first band was an all-girl act called Spit Snot; a subsequent band was called Tappi Tikarrass (Icelandic for ‘Cork the Bitch’s Ass’); she wore a “swan” dress at 2001’s Academy Awards.
Must hear: Debut (1993) and Homogenic (1997); björk.com
Why they’re so good: Formed in 1997 by Gunnar Örn Tynes and Órvar Póreyjarson Smárason, Múm’s stock-in-trade is experimental electronica that is imbued with traditional and unusual instrumentation. Member Ólöf Arnalds, meanwhile, has a gorgeous little sideline in solo Icelandic troubadour tunes.
Why they’re a little bit bonkers? The band has two songs (Behind Two Hills . . . A Swimming Pool, and Faraway Swimming Pool) that were recorded specifically for listening to underwater.
Must hear: Finally We Are No One (2002); mum.is
Why they’re so good: Unassuming, studious, diligent and circumspect, this quietly amazing group has four women at its core – Hildur, Edda, Sólrún and María – who collectively produce some of the most gorgeous folktronica (or whatever) you’ll ever hear.
Why they’re a little bit bonkers: The instrumentation they use includes a hotel reception bell and a glass-o-phone (their own invention).
Must hear: Kurr (2007); amiina.com
Why he’s so good: Kjarr is the latest sideline from Ampop and Leaves member Kjartan F Ólafsson. With an eponymous album out (released in October of last year) it won’t take too long before Olafsson’s spritely psych-pop reaches a wider audience.
Why he’s a little bit bonkers: Last year he moved from Iceland to Glasgow. Really!
Must-hear: Kjarr (2011); kjarr.bandcamp.com
Why she’s so good: Lay Low is Lovísa Elísabet Sigrúnardóttir, who topped the Icelandic charts in 2006 with her debut album, Please Don’t Hate Me. Think no-nonsense trad blues/roots with a kick.
Why she’s a little bit bonkers: She seems normal enough to us, to be honest.
Must-hear: Farewell Good Night’s Sleep (2008); laylow.is
Icelandic composer Johann Johansson talks to Sinéad Gleeson. Life Culture