the icemen strummeth
iceland's sigur rós keeps the music slow with simple, sweeping beauty, ethereal vocals and deeply moving sense of emotive portent - all inspired by poor musicianship
°it's just because we are really bad musicians," says sigur rós keyboardist kjartan sveinsson, with accented deadpan. "we can't play any faster." that, folks, is the secret to iceland's enigmatic, enthralling contribution to the post-rock landscape. the sweeping beauty, ethereal vocals and deeply moving sense of emotive portent - all inspired by poor musicianship. "maybe it is one of the reasons," sveinsson continues, soberly. "i don't know. we never made a decision to play fast or slow. it's easy to play slow. we're not very technical. also, we don't want things to be too complicated."
things move slowly in the world of sigur rós. musically, at least. in the outside world, things have moved rather quickly for the band. the buzz spread swiftly following the release of its album ÷gaetis byrjun two years back.
it began as an underground rumble, a flurry of excitement spread by the most reliable of emissaries - word of mouth.
with stylistic nods to radiohead and our own godspeed you black emperor!, plus a dash of the heartstring-tugging pixie dust used so freely by homeland matron bjrk, sigur rós made everyone stop, drop and feel. and now, the follow-up. the new album is titled ( ). that's right: open parenthesis, close parenthesis. it's a work in two movements, with a 36-second pause in the middle, songs without titles, made-up lyrics and a cd pamphlet with blank pages.
"we wanted to leave things open for the listener," goes the group mantra. done. but the telling secret in sigur rós's abstraction is a cunningly veiled adherence to form. a conformity to the rules of beauty, combined with - and here's the kicker - a supremely sensitive distillation technique. "one evening, we were having a few drinks and a laugh," tells sveinsson. "i picked up an acoustic guitar, put on my best creed voice, and played all our songs.
"you can actually play all the songs like that. you'll find that they are all really simple pop songs. it's just how you arrange it. we hadn't realized that. it's funny, but that's how it is."
tempos and arrangements notwithstanding, there is something more to the music of sigur rós, something the bandmembers can't express, that critics make up hybridized words for, and that fans simply feel.
"we all get together in a rehearsal space, pick up instruments and just play," sveinsson says of the band's creative process. "and things happen very naturally. it's quite easy.
"we never stop and say, 'you're not playing it right.' none of us sits at home with a guitar, writes tunes and brings them in to rehearsal. it's all written on the spot."
the new record was both easier and more difficult to make, he explains. the band built its own studio this time, in an old swimming pool on the outskirts of reykjavik. it provided freedom - the heart of agaetis byrjun was recorded in a weekend - but perhaps too much so. it was a bit hectic," sveinsson explains.
""it was heavy. getting things done, and done right was heavy, and hard. the songs were all quite old, and there were other things going on, touring, all this business of being in a band, which we didn't have to worry about before."
"in those times, we were just four guys, we all had other jobs, and had space from the music and the music business. we don't have that now. we have to watch out more, not to be sucked in. we're managing alright, getting really important days off, and enjoying them."
even for the members of sigur rós, their music is an escape, an extended moment outside the parameters of daily life. like its predecessor, ( ) is a trip. this one goes a little further, visits some new terrain, but it begins, and returns to, that same moment.
"what this album means musically varies a lot," sveinsson says. "it was a really hard record to do. we had been playing these songs since our last record. it was hard to get into the right feeling and capture it on tape. "we were trying to capture every one of us, all four, playing. sometimes, when we play a concert, everything is just happening. i don't know what it is, how to describe it. everyone is feeling good, very similar things. that is what we were trying to capture.
"when you play a song hundreds of times, you could lose that feeling. so it took a while until we were really happy. (when it happened), we just knew. we just felt it.
"we heard it and felt it."