the music of icelandic quartet sigur ros is remarkably versatile. chris martin and gwyneth paltrow's daughter, apple, came into the world to the sound of it (they are one of martin's favourite bands); gillian anderson told the band she used their second album as a yoga soundtrack; and tommy lee's recent autobiography presents the wonderfully improbable scenario of the notorious mötley crüe drummer listening to it while lying on the floor, curled into a foetal position.
"that's a nice image," chuckles sigur ros's rail-thin singer, jonsi birgisson, tucked into the corner of a reykjavik cafe. "he's so different from us. he probably lives in his own rock'n'roll world." birgisson tries to imagine what this might entail. "american craziness or something, i don't know. it's really far away from us."
sigur ros's immense, uncategorisable sound, fronted by birgisson's unearthly falsetto, is undoubtedly evocative - but nobody can agree on what exactly it evokes. they have a tendency to make critics lose their heads and babble on about glaciers and volcanoes, or, in one particularly purple instance, "the sound of god weeping tears of gold in heaven". on the band's third album, 2002's (), they even dispensed with titles, and birgisson sang almost entirely in hopelandic, an imagined language he cheerfully describes as "nonsense".
on their astounding new album, takk ... , titles are back and most of the lyrics are in icelandic. this spirit of glasnost also animates their interviews, which were once a barren tundra of single-word answers. in 2001, one journalist came away with just three usable quotes, one of which was "yeah, yeah". they'll still admit that, given the choice, they would never talk to the press. "it would be nice, yes, if that was possible," says guitarist and keyboardist kjartan sveinsson. "that's something i used to talk about, but i'm getting older and," he laughs, "weaker. i used to be really sceptical about these things and not really trust anybody."
but these days, if they answer a question with a shrug or a nonplussed "i suppose so," it's just because, in some respects, sigur ros's music is as mysterious to its composers as it is to everybody else. none of the standard inquiries - how do they write songs? what are their inspirations? what are they trying to say? - cut much ice. when i ask birgisson, who at 30 is the band's oldest member, if sigur ros try to avoid being influenced by other people's music, he retorts: "no, we don't try anything. that's the key - to be as normal as possible."
perhaps sigur ros only seem strange because iceland itself is strange. whereas björk would be considered eccentric anywhere on earth, sigur ros appear fairly unremarkable on their home turf. when they are not touring, they live quiet, unhurried lives, making music at their own pace in their own studio, a converted swimming pool 10 miles outside reykjavik. much has been made of the fact that birgisson is gay and has been blind in his right eye since birth, as if those qualities automatically lend him outsider status. but when you meet him they seem like incidental details, no more significant than his distinctive tintin quiff. he fetishises normality - so much so, in fact, that it ends up sounding a little odd.
"ordinary things are nice," he says in chirruping, stop-start english that makes everything sound slightly quizzical. "i walk around and smell trees. smelling trees is really nice. i've recently discovered the mall. i don't even buy anything. i just walk around and watch people." he grins boyishly. "normality is fun."
doubtless, normality is more fun in iceland than in ipswich. sigur ros's surroundings have bequeathed their music a sense of enormous space. the country has only 300,000 inhabitants (all of whom seem to be sensationally good-looking) on an island half the size of the uk, with some of the most spectacularly alien geography on earth; neil armstrong and buzz aldrin trained here in preparation for their moonwalk. to most people, it is impossibly distant and exotic. once, during a us tour, an american fan asked sveinsson if icelanders lived in igloos.
so when their second album, 1999's agætis byrjun, made them a cause celebre in europe and america, with the likes of david bowie and brad pitt singing their praises, they could always find refuge in iceland. with such a small population, it has no music magazines, no real record industry and virtually no concept of celebrity; as they gather in a local cafe on a crisp summer's morning, iceland's second most successful musical exports trigger not a flicker of interest among the regulars.
"i remember robbie williams walking down the main street with four bodyguards and everyone was thinking, who the fuck is that? who does he think he is?" says sveinsson. "björk is really famous but she hangs out at the same bars as everyone else. it keeps you on the ground."
iceland stoutly guards its cultural independence. every time a foreign neologism threatens to enter the language, a naming committee at reykjavik university coins an icelandic alternative. when sigur ros were growing up, there was only one tv channel, which didn't broadcast at all on thursdays. foreign bands rarely included reykjavik on their tour schedule. "nobody in iceland wanted to be a famous rock'n'roll star," says birgisson. "there's a lot more focus on iceland than there used to be, so maybe it's harder for young bands to be special."
birgisson, sveinsson, bassist georg holm and drummer agust ævar gunnarsson (later replaced by orri pall dy'rason) formed sigur ros in 1994, naming themselves after birgisson's youngest sister, sigurros, who was born the same week. their first album, 1997's von, was only released in iceland but agætis byrjun plunged them into two years of touring and promotion, during which they wrote and played the songs for (). by the time they came to record them, they were fed up with them, hence the album's mood of funereal solemnity.
"we were so tired and it was a little bit hard," reflects birgisson. "there was music industry bullshit, too. we felt quite heavy about it. i think we all silently agreed that we didn't want to go there again. this record has more hope for us. maybe lighter. happier." the title of takk ... , which is their most accomplished and affecting record yet, translates as "thanks". "it's a simple, very strong word with a lot of meaning. we're thankful for being able to do what we're doing and to be alive and happy." reacting against ()'s elegant blankness, sigur ros sat down together to write lyrics, but birgisson concedes that non-icelandic speakers probably have a purer relationship with the music. i feel almost guilty revealing anything about them. according to dy'rason, the song glosoli, which means "glowing soles" (must have been a lazy day at the naming committee), is about a boy who loses something and sets out to find it, while hoppipolla is about "kids jumping in puddles and one of them gets a bleeding nose but he's still having fun with blood on his face and wet shoes. it's kids having so much fun they're crazy, you know?"
although their songs suggest epic vistas, they are really about the small things. "those moments that are really perfect in your life," says birgisson. "when you hold somebody's hand and spin around. being with somebody you love and the smell of their hair." often, it comes back to the simplicity and innocence of childhood. "there's no acting, there's no bullshit, there's no mask," birgisson says passionately. "i think we seek things that are quite pure, quite honest."
the band members' own upbringings sound suitably idyllic. birgisson was "a typical boy. i didn't stand out or anything. i didn't want any attention. but i was always really good at drawing."
i ask him what he used to draw, expecting something suitably poetic, but no. "i used to like heavy metal so i used to draw skulls and all this really dark stuff, but i didn't think it was dark. i just looked at them like really beautiful pictures. i never had youthful angst and stuff. being in a band when i was 13 with my friends, it was just a perfect time in my life. so fun. you know when you look back in your memory and it was always sunny?"
i ask what music makes him cry and he can't think of anything, although he loves billie holiday and has recently discovered bulgarian choral music. "recent music in general is so uninteresting and boring. when i'm home i never listen to music." sigur ros's influences are rarely what you'd expect. when agætis byrjun was widely compared to the cocteau twins, they had to buy one of the band's cds to find out what they sounded like; they didn't see the connection.
it sounds like an enviable life, making music with your friends in the icelandic countryside, with no expectations nor explanations, however much journalists might crave them. "we are never too serious in sigur ros," says birgisson, gamely trying once more to illuminate what makes his band tick. "there's nothing remarkable or weird or special about how we do things. i think we just maybe see things differently from other people."
· takk ... is released on emi on september 12. glosoli is available as a download-only single now.