sigur rós was founded in december 1994 and takes its name from sigurrós, one of the band members' (jón þór birgisson's) sister, who was born shortly before the band was founded. at first the band was called 'victory rose' (the first song they made was called fljúgðu), after the first song was released, they thought it was rather silly, as they've said, to be an icelandic band which sings in icelandic but has an english band name. so "victory rose" became "sigur rós".
the founders of sigur rós were jón þór birgisson, georg hólm and ágúst ævar gunnarsson. the initiative came from jón þór and ágúst and it was their suggestion to go into a studio with their first idea, in 1994. georg hólm helped them out in the studio.
they were only six hours recording the song but right after they finished, they started practicing another kind of music, "smashing pumpkins rock", as bassist georg hólm calls it. in an interview with morgunblaðið two years ago, he said that it had taken the band some time to figure out what they wanted to do and in the end they went back to the same kind of music they did in the first song. jón þór played guitar and sang because no one else was available, as he has said himself, and georg played bass and ágúst played drums. jón soon started playing the guitar with a violin bow which ágúst had gotten for christmas. they had previously attempted to use it on the bass.
in 1994, the threesome began recording material on a full album, but it was taking a long time to make, both because they had little money to buy studio time and because they were still moulding the music and creating a style and genre for themselves. they were also set back because georg went to study film making one winter and little was done in the meantime. jón þór was also in another band at that time, called "bee spiders". he called himself "johnny b" and took part in músíktilraunir in 1995 and again in 1996.
the majority of the album was recorded in "hvarf" studio in mosfellsbær but the members were well liked by the manager of the studio, ólafur ragnarsson, and among other methods, paid for the studio time by painting the studio for the manager.
with long working hours, the album changed considerably. later the band said that it had probably have been wiser to have put the recordings aside and start all over again, but that would probably have taken even more time and the songs would then possibly never have been released, because as they have said, they are bored with playing the same songs over and over.
the first album, von, was released september 1st in 1997 and received great reviews although it didn't sell properly. in a review in morgunblaðið, it was said that the album filled all expectations although it wasn't an album that could be swallowed in one bite, "and the bites are likely to choke everyone except the biggest adventurers". it was also said that von was a gust of fresh air into the staid icelandic rock culture, "a revolutional album and as a whole, it is exceptional".
in those years, the sigur rós guys looked like hippies, longhaired and bearded. many found their music to be reminiscent of the experiments of a post-hippie and many dismissed them as hashheads, which would explain why they took such a long time recording the first album. the band have said they saw a danish article once that said they were hashheads and heroin addicts. "you can maybe laugh at that but it's rather bad reading nonsense about yourself in foreign countries," said georg. they had some trouble with high schoolers in the country because of these stories.
around the time when the album was released, an interview with jón þór appeared in which he said he didn't really want to talk about the music on the album; he said that they had become a little tired of the piece, they had finished feeding and nurturing their offspring and it was time for it to move out of the house, as he put it. when von was recorded, there were three band members and jón þór said in an interview that they preferred to stay that way because three was such a "cool number". it wasn't long after the release of the album that kjartan sveinsson, who played keyboards, guitar and other instruments, started to help out the threesome and soon he became the fourth man in the band and had a big influence on the evolution of sigur rós' sound.
smekkleysa released von but when it came to releasing the next album, smekkleysa and skífan competed over which company got to release the album. smekkleysa was victorious and recordings began before christmas. sigur rós' process of recording was unusual; they recorded the bass and drums first and then applied arrangements on that base, layer by layer. this process takes much more time than what most bands do, which is recording in practically one go. the album was originally intended to be released before christmas 1998 but in autumn it was clear that the album would not be finished by this time, so the release was set back to summer 1999.
ísar logi arnarson, the editor of undirtónar magazine, pitched sigur rós the idea of releasing an album with remixes by various artists. this would also be done to shorten the wait of a new sigur rós album. the album came out in august 1998. it is noteworthy that there was one new sigur rós song on this album [leit af lífi] which was supposed to be on von but they hadn't finished mixing it.
in the autumn, sigur rós played with the rhyme singing of steindór andersen, the foreman of the rhymer society 'iðunn'. they were so happy with that collaboration that the band, among other concerts, appeared with him at gus gus' opening party at airplane hangar nr. 4 at the reykjavík airport, in which they stole the show. following this, jón þór became interested in working with more rhymers and applied for a grant from reykjavík to do this, but was denied.
the long-awaited album, ágætis byrjun, came out june 12th 1999. the album got its title from the song on the album with the same title, which is actually about the time when the band had just finished recording von. at the time of the release, there were really only three members remaining, as ágúst quit the band during the recordings. he played drums on the album and at concerts during the winter but his last concert with sigur rós was at the icelandic opera house, where the opening concert of ágætis byrjun was held.
the album was recorded in stúdíó núlist , which jón þór and kjartan created along with other musicians, but it was mixed during the night in studíó sýrland. their conditions at these studios explains the length of time taken to finish the album, and probably has something to do with the fact that the first thing the band did after getting paid for the release of ágætis byrjun in europe was building their own studio.
the album's packaging, which gotti bernöft illustrated and ágúst designed, aroused interest. its manufacturing was expensive, each paper case with the booklet cost 300 krónur. the usual cost of a jewel case with a booklet costs 35 krónur to manufacture.
when the cd's themselves arrived to the country, the cases themselves had yet to be assembled. a massive 'glue party' was held in which the band members and some friends sat and glued the cases together and inserted the discs. this process had some unfortunate side effects, as many of the discs were damaged by the glue that spilled on them. this writer sent ten copies of the album to friends around the world and only one of them worked.
the album received excellent reactions and immediately jumped to the top of the charts, and is still sitting in the charts after 96 weeks on release. reviews were positive, morgunblaðið reported that ágætis byrjun was "a new beginning for icelandic music and a new beginning for more ambition from icelandic musicians".
after the opening concert in the icelandic opera house, which sold out in a few hours, the band made a short pause from music making while a new drummer, orri páll dýrason, was practiced into the band. the first sigur rós concert with orri was at kaffileikhúsið on july 8th and they then embarked on a tour around the country, in keflavík, akranes, ísafjörður, blönduós, húsavík, akureyri, egilsstaðir, vopnafjörður and selfoss.
they played only new songs, said that they were tired of always playing the old songs. "it's tiresome to repeat things, playing the same thing over and over," said georg in an interview with morgunblaðið and jón þór added that that was why they never played flugufrelsarinn, which got a lot of airtime on icelandic radio that summer.
before the release of ágætis byrjun here in iceland, smekkleysa had already begun looking for someone to release the album internationally. among those interested was the english record company fat cat. fat cat began a few years ago as a record store in the basement of a clothing store. the founders of the company were dave cawley and alex knight. fat cat later became a daughter company of one little indian, which releases björk in britain and released the sugarcubes and ham, but 1998 fat cat left one little indian and it became an independent company.
it was very important for sigur rós to have total control over the music, the arrangements and recordings and in the end, they signed with fat cat records because, as jón þór described it, they were on "the same wave-length" and they were big music lovers and honest guys.
alex knight said in an interview with the british paper 'guardian' that he had come to iceland because of his friendship with einar örn benediktsson [a former sugarcube]. he was a dj and played at the aforementioned concert in hangar 4. in the interview he said that sigur rós stole the show that night and that after they finished playing, you could've heard a pin drop.
sigur rós' and fat cat's record deal began with the release of a single, svefn-g-englar, which was released in september 1999, featuring two extra songs from the opening concert at the icelandic opera house. the week before the single was released, the british weekly paper 'new musical express' selected this single as the single of the week. in its article it said that the music was so delicately beautiful and sincere that the listener feels like an unwelcomed guest.
after this, the band toured in denmark and england and articles about the band started appearing in foreign press in which the writers weren't sparing any adjectives. in the weekly paper 'melody maker' sigur ros' music was described as if it was like "god crying golden tears in heaven". journalists are prone to using such descriptions when describing sigur rós' music. people have also sent the band fantastic accounts of how sigur rós have effected their lives, as can be seen on the band's official website, www.sigur-ros.com. a journalist of the british fashion magazine 'the face' went even further to call sigur rós the last big band of the 20th century.
sigur rós' agent in britain, john best, has similarly said in an interview a year ago that the band's music has brought a certain fulfillment in people's lives. he said that the band would be a success in britain and the whole world, for that matter. at the end of february last year, another single came out in britain, ný batterí, and the band's first proper tour in britain was in march and april, when they were invited to play with the canadian band 'godspeed you black emperor!'.
ágætis byrjun came out in britain a year ago and although the album didn't sell as well in britain as it did in iceland, it sold rather well, about 40.000 copies in britain and about 200.000 copies around all of europe.
positive feedback was naturally the cause of sudden interest in the band, but sigur rós' supporting the popular rock band radiohead at ten concerts, also influenced their popularity. reading cd buyers' comments on amazon.com, it can be seen that many of them bought ágætis byrjun due to this.
the album appeared in numerous lists over the best albums of the year 2000, despite it not having been released worldwide. it got on lists at amazon.com, top ten at village voice, new york times, spin magazine and on the record store chain hmv's top lists, and it goes on and on.
as was stated earlier, the band signed with fat cat regarding a release in britain, but in the united states, record companies fought over the release rights of ágætis byrjun in america. reportedly, 7 major record companies were in this race and 8 small record companies, all trying to outbid each others' offers. the band members set certain conditions about the length of the deal, payments for each copy sold and freedom to have the album exactly as they wanted it. they also made the condition that they themselves would own the release rights, and would lease it to the record company, something that is not common in pop releases, besides björk. sigur rós' record company is called krúnk and it will own the release rights to the band's music. in the end, the band signed with mca records, which is part of universal. reportedly, the band has a better deal with the label than the british musician sting. it's also interesting that in the band's contract, it's states that sigur rós are free to choose in which language they will sing; there is no requirement for the band to sing in english.
the reason for the big race to sign sigur rós was, according to those who know the business in the united states, that the labels were not looking to sell millions of copies of their albums, but to be known as a label that takes in bands who have gained so much respect, because that will encourage other bands, possibly more important bands, to deal with that particular label. there are many examples of these, for example, according to an executive at elektra records, radiohead has this effect for capitol, björk for elektra and sonic youth's signing to geffen caused beck and nirvana to do so as well.
as has been previously stated, the first thing sigur rós did after getting paid for the release of ágætis byrjun overseas was building their own studio in mosfellsbær. they turned an old swimming pool into a perfect recording studio. one of the reasons, they've said, was so they could take all the time they wanted to record their music; to be free of time limits.
construction of the studio began early this year, the equipment was put in and everything was completed a few months ago. the first project was recording some songs with steindór andersen for a single which was to be sold at concerts later this year, and following this, the band returned to the studio to record their next album, which is to be released early next year. work on the album has been going slow, as the band has been touring steadily, and will continue to do so this summer.
work on the band's third album will be unusual for the band this time. they will not record the drums and bass first as they did with ágætis byrjun, but rather record the album mostly "live". the songs that are going to be recorded have been played and moulded at concerts in recent months. jón þór has also said that they have planned their work so that they will only record the songs that are to go on record, they won't be choosing from a bunch of songs, as is custom.
as was stated earlier, the band has been holding concerts in between trying to do some recording in the next studio. the band played at 18 concerts around europe in april and five concerts in the united states, during the beginning of may. accompanied with them were steindór andersen and a string quartet of icelandic girls.
there was great interest for sigur rós in the states and the their concerts sold out in new york in only a few minutes. the demand was so great that the concert was moved to a larger venue. the editor of the sunday new york times, gerry mazorati, predicted that many celebrities would show up at the band's concerts in los angeles, san francisco and new york. he was right, among guests on the west coast were members from the red hot chili peppers, some famous actors, beck hansen and lars ulrich, who among others wrote a thank you letter to the band. in new york there were stories of moby and david bowie showing up. an executive from pias records has said that it was most memorable to him when the band sat backstage and chatted with metallica, the chronos quartet and gillian anderson, who is known for her role on the x-files.
according to gerry mazorati, demand for the band's album in the united states has been huge and the album has therefore recently been released there. according to him, stores could not manage importing albums from britain which sell out instantly, despite being much more expensive than those released in britain. mazorati says that people's interest in the band can, among other reasons, be explained by how easy it has been to get songs by the band in mp3 format through napster. mazorati also considered it respectful of the band to say no to shortening a song in order to appear on the david letterman television show, as they were only intented about four minutes to play on that show.
ágætis byrjun finally came out in the united states may 16th and it's interesting that the album is now in the 62nd place as the most sold album. 20.000 copies of the imported albums were sold in america but since it was released it's sold 30.000 copies. i will add that the album is just starting to be distributed and is only available in the biggest record stores.
as previously stated, sigur rós is expected to to record an album this year but it will not be a coherent working process, as the band will be touring again soon. they will play for example at the sonar festival in barcelona in the middle of june but they will also play in the jazz festival in montreaux in july and there the band will have an office there in which they intend to teach children music.