popstars on ice
fifteen, 20 minutes' drive north of reykjavik, along the coastal ring road that circumscribes the whole of iceland, the last of several small, suburban developments gives way to an elemental vastness. late one afternoon in mid-winter, a greyish sea joined a low, leaden sky at no point i could confidently discern. to the inland side, snow peaked mountain ridges, hewn and crevassed by glaciation, alternated in the mist with mournful expanses of frosty moorland. there were no trees, no birds, no colour, few signs of habitation really. wind blew. flurries squalled. it all felt far, far away.
it wasn't, of course, and not just for reykjavikites, who understand the proximity of "remoteness" as something that makes them who they are. on a loosely paved stretch ribboning off the ring road towards an old farming village, in a nondescript cement structure that once housed a heated pool (these pools are everywhere in iceland, thanks to countless geothermal springs), a state-of-the-art recording studio was being completed, and work was about to begin on an album by a band that, according to a recent report in the los angeles times, was "among the most coveted acts by us record labels at this time". the band is called sigur rós. its four young members are romantically invested in the promise of rock music and in their own capacity to say something soul-nourishing and new. this makes them rather typical of the hipsters they live among in reykjavik.
downtown reykjavik may resemble an overgrown fishing town, but the soundscape recalls nothing so much as the vanguard ferment of lower manhattan circa 1980. everybody under 30, it seems, is in an art-rock or a space-rock or an experimental-rock band. one evening, while i was playing pool in a harbourside joint with georg holm, sigur rós's bass player, he said, in the sturdy english most icelanders are able to speak, "i think people can make too much of this being a music city." when we went to pay up, the bartender slipped me a piece of paper with an address scribbled on it. it was for a club - reykjavik has no shortage of them - where his band would be playing later that night.
even in reykjavik, though, sigur rós is something else. the band is the biggest homegrown musical sensation since the sugarcubes, iceland's first native-born rage when they burst forth 15 years ago. the country's top 40, like its bland commercial radio, is programmatically 'n sync-ed and britney-fied. nevertheless, sigur rós's album agaetis byriun reached no 1 not long after it was released in iceland in the summer of 1999 - and remained on the charts for nearly a year. in a country of only 280,000 people, most of whom live in and around reykjavik, the album has sold 16,000 copies, the equivalent of selling 16 million in the us.
more than 20,000 copies of agaetis byrjun (the title translates as "a fine beginning" or "an okay start') have been sold in the us since it became available last year, but there the cds are imports which had to be sought out in big-city specialty shops or on the web. (in australia, more than 6,000 copies of agaetis byrjun have been sold - 2,000 following its release last year by inertia and a further 4,000 plus since its reissue in march by festival mushroom records.) the bleakly beautiful album also made numerous us end-of-year "best of" lists, including the village voice's annual nationwide poll of more than 500 pop music critics, this despite the fact that none of them, presumably, could understand sigur rós's lyrics - which, unlike those of bjork, the former sugarcube and iceland's leading cultural export, are sung only in icelandic. that is, when what's being sung are lyrics and not simply, or not so simply, the word-like oscillating intensities of jon pot birgisson's schoolboy falsetto.
jonsi, as he is known to everyone, also plays electric guitar, which he likes to bow to eerie effect. and while he is not officially the band's leader, he did give it its name - sigurros, or "victory rose", is the name of his little sister, who was born just before the band formed seven years ago - and is chiefly responsible for its sound, which might best be described as wintry post-rock. the preferred tempo on agaetis byriun is largo, the lyrics are hymn-like and the compositions are built less on verse-and-refrain than on the careful accretion of tone colours.
rock critics have tended to describe sigur rós's music as a sonic transmutation of the sublimely melancholic icelandic landscape, and while the members of the band were walking me around their nearly completed studio that night, i asked about this. they shot one another the kind of glances i imagine the samoans must have traded whenever margaret mead showed up to take notes. kjartan sveinsson, who plays organ, piano and some guitar and also arranges the strings sigur rós likes to employ, took a deep breath-and said, "if you are saying we would make different music if we lived in london, yes."
georg opened a door onto a stream that ran alongside the studio and said that sometimes he pictures the landscape while he plays, but i think he was feeling a little sorry for me. finally, jonsi, who at 25 is the oldest member of the group but could pass for the youngest (with his beanpole physique and odd sprout of hair where a widow's peak should be, he looks like a flesh-and-blood tintin), tried to set me straight. "we do not really like to talk about our music," he said. "yes, your surroundings always affect you, but it is unconscious and can't be explained."
the taciturnity is very icelandic, too. actually, there is little about sigur rós that could not be said to be icelandic, or at least recognised as such by icelanders, who were quick to embrace not only agaetis byrjun but two new songs the band released last year in the wake of the album's success: one a novel take on an icelandic lullaby, the other a spooky reworking of the organ theme that is played on the national radio whenever deaths and funeral arrangements are announced. that these place-particular songs were appealing to icelandic listeners at precisely a time when sigur rós was mesmerising european rock sophisticates - and major-label execs - as an opening act for radiohead on its big european tour last year is evidence, i think, of a globalisation more complicated and more hopeful than the dark prophets of a looming imperial pop-monoculture would have us believe.
laugavegur, the main shopping street in reykjavik, is barely wide enough for two-way traffic, making it a funnel for the city's relentless wind - which, one morning, was carrying not only sizeable hail pellets but the voice of stephen malkmus. malkmus, the former front man of the legendary indie band pavement, was in town from oregon to do a show that night, and the twang and sneer of his new album was pouring out the open door of japis, a big record store in reykjavik, one among many. nearby there's hijomalind and the thunder and, on a backstreet corner, 12 tonar, a favourite with the members of sigur rós and a kind of shopfront encapsulation of the city's remarkably innovative music scene. 12 tonar has the look and warm cheer of a university-town bookshop. two customers were discussing the hottest demo recording circulating around town, by a band called the apparat organ quarter. coffee brewed. johannes agustsson, the shop's co-owner, urged on me a series of recordings of concert events organised last year by a multi-arts group called kitchen motors - well-attended happenings that presented the city's leading music-makers at their most outlandishly experimental. the band curver performed an audience-interactive piece for laptop and mobile phones; sion, who writes songs with bjork, composed a soprano-sung art-song cycle with mum, a captivating technospheric ensemble; jonsi joined a 13 member guitar orchestra for something a lot louder than sigur rós usually gets.
i had been directed to 12 tonar the night before by arni matthiasson, music critic of iceland's leading newspaper, morgunbladid. over a couple of beers, ami had explained how his city emerged as an internationally recognised rock-music laboratory. it really went back to the early 1980s, he said, when the members of sigur rós were toddlers and punk hit reykjavik. the most important band was purrkur pillnik, which more or less evolved into kukl, which went on to become the sugarcubes. but there were many other bands, which would play before the same 90 or so icelandic punk rockers every saturday night in what started life as a world war ii-era hut, and what mattered most, matthiasson says, was the attitude. "it wasn't punk like in england - it wasn't about class or social conditions," arni said. 'eveiybody in reykjavik is middle-class. punk here meant do-it-yourself. start your own band. create your own image. and you see, this is actually all very icelandic. you have a house here, you might have built it yourself, or if you live in a flat, you fix the plumbing yourself. punk was the youth version of that."
sigur rós started out as a trio - jonsi and georg and the group's original drummer, agust gunnarson, all of them still teenagers and all having come from bands that played loud and fast under the influence of american art-rock bands like sonic youth. in a tiny recording studio, sigur rós went on to create a more contemplative musical approach, the band's sound surfacing slowly from long instrumental jams. "we would play together a lot, sometimes playing the same riff for hours and hours, not writing anything down,' is how jonsi describes it. "just playing and trying to get it as pure as we could." arni matthiasson recalled: "you'd see them around - they had this long, long hair and these beards, like old hippies. but they weren't old hippies: they were very young, and also they were working every chance they got, always practising or recording in that studio."
by 1998, sigur rós had grown to four. the songs grew more song-like, and jonsi began singing with more confidence and feeling. they rehearsed more relentlessly than ever, performing only rarely and, they say, seldom enjoying it. "i think we didn't play live much because it was hard for us to get used to people talking loud during our shows," georg shouted at me, and cracked up - we were standing at the back or reyjavik's premier rock club, gaukur a strong, as stephen malkmus and his new back-up band, the jicks, finished up their set. the place was packed with hard-drinking locals and not a few european and american tourists. ït still bothers us,"georg said. "these people are here to drink and meet people, and we don't make background music for that. we mostly like churches now, old churches - that's where we do our shows here. it's the right atmosphere; there's this sense of expectancy."
"you are going to see, like, old iceland," jonsi said, as he led me through the dining room of a chic downtown restaurant and up a narrow flight of stairs to a half-empty bar. the couple of dozen customers arrayed at tables along the walls looked to be in their fifties, mostly, as did the four men (bearded, tweed-jacketed, serious) arranging themselves in the centre of the room: the entertainment. they are called rimnamenn, they chant rimur, which are medieval icelandic rhymes and, as jonsi was telling me as we took a table, they take him places not even chet baker and leonard cohen and his other favourite singers can. "it is so pure, so simple, their singing," he said. "when we begin to make the new album, i want it to be that way, too."
bjork, through bjork overseas limited and me company, retams artistic and copyright control over her albums. now sigur rós is trying to decide on how they should proceed. as georg said: "we want control, total control, and so there have been many meetings." one decision sigur ros has made that departs from biork's trans-world route is to forgo singing in english, at least for now. jonsi did give serious consideration to english a while back but decided against it, and when sigur rós reached an agreement earlier this year to sign with mca, language was not an issue. the band's new songs have vocals by jonsi but no lyrics at all, strictly speaking - just invented, wordlike sounds not unlike the ones bands sing when creating songs for which they have yet to write lyrics. all the actual lyrics on agaetis byriun are in proper icelandic, and their meanings, while elusive, would be wholly lost on no-one in reykjavik, including those gathered to hear the rimur - lyrics about man's essential isolation or about a sleepy-time visit from one of the spectral humans with supernatural powers that icelanders call angels, or 'hidden people", or elves.
i could understand none of the words as the men sang that night in old norse of (as jonsi sketched for me) terrible battles, natural catastrophes, a forlorn farmer who'd unhappily outlived his wife. but with the voices straining to harmonise in monkish fifths, the cumbrous cadences of a language that resists easy flow, the heavyheartedness was there for anyone to hear and be moved by. when the singing was over, one of the 'rimnamenn', steindor andersen, joined us for a drink. it turned out sigur rós was planning to take him along on the band's american tour and have him sing the rhymes of old iceland during its shows. "what the rimnamenn do so much from the roots, so honest, from the heart - you feel it, like with all music everywhere about emotions, jonsi said.
i found myself thinking of something baudelaire wrote 150 years ago for a world only beginning to construct the strange and tangled web of cultural appropriations, impositions, affinities, exchanges and connections that has only lately come to be called globalism. whatever its origins, a picture or poem or song was beautiful, baudelaire suggested, when it was "something ardent and sad, leaving the field free for conjecture".