bitter sweet symphony
it was a simple idea: spend two months with sigur rós as they make their new album-come-multimedia art extravaganza. what go go wrong? well, lots actually...
the mysterious, volcanic landscape of their native iceland says much for the strange beauty of sigur rós's music. somewhere between the scottish highlands and the far side of the moon, it's a sulphur-reeking wonderland of monstrous waterfalls, spurting geysers and steaming mountainsides. no wonder at least 10 per cent of the population believe in the existence of "huldufólk", the hidden people, a secret colony of elves living below this surreal terrain. even the local government employ folklore consultants, diverting plans for any roadworks which may intrude upon huldufolk dwellings.
the hidden people offers an apt description of sigur rós themselves, a band who operate in an insular, media-shy bubble while selling more than a million albums worldwide and accruing a-list admirers in the process. metallica's lars ulrich has written them fan mail, chris martin and gwyneth paltrow's first child, apple, was born to their music, motley crue's tommy lee admits to listening to them while curled on the floor in a foetal position and brad pitt once named them his favourite band. on tv, their inimitably emotive music is inescapable. take saturday, 26 april, 2008 when the ubiquitous hoppfpolla from their 2005 album takk... cropped up on itvs britain's got talent (it's already an x-factor "you're through to the next round" perennial). barely 30 minutes later, over on bbc2, another sigur rós tune accompanied a profile of ronnie o'sullivan during coverage of the world snooker championships.
sigur rós may prefer to be "hidden" but their global profile is about to get bigger. since january of this year they've been working in greater secrecy than usual on their fifth album proper. titled með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust (in english, with a buzz in our ears we play endlessly), it was finished in may and is being released online this month. beyond the music, the band also commissioned renowned danish/ icelandic conceptual artist olafur eliasson to collaborate on a deluxe cd package and "revolutionary" stage show intended as a combined music/art extravaganza at least, that was the plan.
over three months, four countries and two continents, q entered the very private world of the most introverted band on the planet as they grappled with everything from funny handshakes and journo-phobia to orchestras, harry potter choirs and the sleeve design from hell...
mosfellsbær, icelandeaster monday, 24 march 2008
twenty minutes outside the icelandic capital of reykjavik, in the town of mosfellsbser, lies the unassuming concrete bunker that is sigur rós hq. built as a community swimming pool and later used as a textiles factory, from the outside it looks like an abattoir. were it not for the faint strains of a brass ensemble drifting into earshot as q approaches, you wouldn't guess that such a bleak building was where sigur rós's life-affirming soundscapes originate.
first impressions of sigur rós confirm their reputation as fragile spooks with the social skills of your average martian. when q joins singer jónsi birgisson (ian curtis as drawn by tim burton) and bassist georg holm in the control room, they offer a polite but cautious welcome, clearly trepidatious over outsiders being admitted into their creative hub. down in what was once the swimming pool, keyboardist and musical director kjartan sveinsson is conducting a group of local brass players through a buoyant pop melody codenamed hit song 2. drummer orri dyrason is missing, recovering from the mojito excess of a group trip to cuba the previous week under the pretence of "recording vocals".
today marks roughly eight weeks since they started and six weeks until the as-yet-untitled album is scheduled to be mastered in new york. according to georg, the only member of sigur rós remotely comfortable talking to q, none of the 11 tracks in contention have finished titles. he refuses to share even their working names "because they're stupid". his reserve is typical of sigur rós's caginess, but proves pointless in this instance. on the wall opposite is a white board with the names of all 11 tracks scrawled in marker pen. some are titled after the lead instrument (acoustic), others are icelandic jargon such as gobbedigobb (literally "clippety-clop", though within a week it will be mistranslated by management as "gobbledegook" and renamed accordingly).
at this stage, sigur rós profess ignorance to the download aspect of the album's release. equally, they claim to have "no clue" what olafur eliasson is preparing for their cd cover and stage show. "he has crazy ideas," says georg, in an icelandic burr that sounds half welsh, half ore. "it could be fantastic. well, we hope so."
assault & battery studios, londonfriday, 28 march 2008
four days later, sigur rós are in the north london studio of flood, award-winning producer of the killers, pj harvey and most prominently u2. flood had previously been asked to mix takk... but had to decline because of time constraints. when they approached him for their new album in december 2007, he readily agreed. "they're fantastic to work with," he says. "there's no panic. you know they're going to get things done."
as jónsi records his vocals next door, a plaintive piano ballad, very different to the brassy pop we heard in iceland, fills the room. in the corner, orri, having fully recovered from his cuban cocktail "poisoning' is looking at soundwaves on a laptop. i ask him if they've managed to title any of the songs yet.
"yes," he murmurs. "all have titles." so, what's this one called? he looks shifty. "it hasn't got a title." thankfully, flood is here to bridge the chasm between sigur rós's j ournalist-weary brotherhood and the rest of the human race. "for the moment, it's called mellotron."
jónsi finishes his vocal and enters the control room. "hello," he says, grasping my palm. "we were all talking about your handshake." apparently, icelanders invest a lot of first impressions on handshakes. it seems mine is a bit "jagged" and has been a private joke for the last couple of days since our first meeting. jónsi giggles under his breath before joining orri in staring at soundwaves on a computer screen and sniggering away in their native tongue. things are getting weirder by the second.
abbey road studios, londontuesday, 22 april 2008
three weeks later, and jönsi birgisson is dressed like a dickensian undertaker in a white bow tie and black, tailed dinner-jacket. this, apparently, isn't altogether unusual. quite the collector of victorian costume, he's recently bought a ripper-esque cape and is often spotted around reykjavik in a sherlock holmes deerstalker. the latter is so famous locally that on the frequent occasions jónsi leaves it in a bar after a night on the lash it's habitually returned to him the next day.
there is, at least, a good reason why he and the rest of sigur rós are dressed up to the nines today. we're here at abbey road's cavernous studio one where 41 years, two months and 12 days ago the beatles recorded the orchestra for a day in the life. today, sigur rós hope to imbibe the ghost of the fabs' brilliance with their own equally ambitious symphonic pop blockbuster to be performed live with the 67-piece london sinfonietta and the 20-strong london oratory boys choir (previous form: the lord of the rings, harry potter and westlife).
we're told it's called "piano", but the fact jónsi's lyric sheet says "ára batur" - as it will appear on the final album - indicates they're still keeping their cards close to their chest. if they're nervous (and looking at the garrison of musicians assembled, they should be) it doesn't show. the nine-minute "piano" is an extraordinarily moving ballad climaxing in an orchestral crescendo of heavenly choir and crashing gongs. by the fifth take, they think they've nailed it. listening to the playback in flood's control room, a bottle of champagne is popped. the celebrations turn out to be premature. everyone agrees the ending isn't intense enough. "we've got to go bigger," urges flood. "now it's just a case of over-egging the pudding."
they continue, take after retake. with 12 minutes of booked orchestra time to spare, take 10 is a virtually perfect performance. the sinfonietta disperse. more used to the demands of beethoven, a violinist chuckles to q that in comparison today was "oh, really easy". the boys choir also seemed to have enjoyed themselves. "it was very dramatic," says nine-year-old ned. "sort of between classical and pop. quite hypnotic, really."
out in the studio garden, the band congregate for a congratulatory drink.
have they an album title yet?
"no," says orri.
have they any finished song titles?
"no," says jónsi hesitantly. "i'm still writing lyrics."
are they worried they've only two weeks left to finish everything?
"no," mumbles kjartan, who promptly disappears.
yet behind the smoke and mirrors, there is one great unknown causing sigur rós genuine concern. for the first time in their career, they've handed their artwork to an outsider. in less than 48 hours, they're due an appointment in berlin where olafur eliasson will unveil his grand design. "it's either going to be, wow!" speculates georg. "or, [comedy horror face] oh... my... god!"
studio olafur eliasson, berlinthursday; 24 april 2008
it's 8am at london's gatwick airport and sigur rós are about to board a flight to berlin, where olafur eliasson is due to unveil his idea for the album artwork and stage show later today. the band's manager, john best, confesses he's "feeling really nervous about today".
it was eliasson's 2003 installation at london's tate modern, the weather project (based around a giant artificial sun), which initially aroused sigur rós's "organic" art aesthetic, prompting them to request a collaboration. but the moment we land in berlin, the mood among band and management is visibly edgy. so much so it's decided that they'll go on ahead to eliasson's studio "to break the ice" while we wait for the "all clear" to join them.
two hours later, we're summoned to an inconspicuous warehouse not far from berlin's main hauptbahnhof train station. from the moment we enter the studio, it's obvious things aren't going quite as planned. eliasson has just finished showing them slide ideas for their stage show. the last that q manages to sneak a glimpse of is a white triangle floating inside a red circle, like the cover of pink floyd's the dark side of the moon on an overhead projector.
eliasson invites sigur rós to join him for lunch around a large wooden table to talk "ideas". after 10 minutes or more of holding court, john best politely asks the artist to expand on his grand plans for the stage show.
"ok," begins eliasson in his slurry scandinavian drawl. "my ideash are... shmoke... bubblesh... bubblesh filled with shmoke... balloonsh... big balloonsh... and maybe shome shmall balloonsh..."
at this point, kjartan excuses himself from the table and returns to the hotel because he's "feeling unwell".
eliasson produces his rough outline for the sleeve: a multicoloured geometric pattern reminiscent of a spirograph design. the blood drains from jónsi's face, no mean feat for the palest man in iceland.
"it's sort of like compass dots on a navigation map," says eliasson. "it's about orientation. finding your way around."
eventually, best speaks. "ok, so who likes this?" a long, toe-curling silence follows.
the meeting over, the band return to their hotel to "gather thoughts". they decide to find a café for a crisis summit. q is invited along until the very second we're about to set foot in the taxi when we're told not to follow. at best this is peculiar, at worst unnecessarily rude.
four hours later, they return. the cloud of all-consuming paranoia has thankfully evaporated. seeing georg in the bar, i ask if they've come to a decision about eliasson's ideas.
"yes," he says. "we're not using him."
so what's happening to the artwork now?
"i don't know," he shrugs, then wanders off sporting a mile-wide grin.
sigur rós have exactly 10 days left to find a designer for their still unfinished and apparently untitled album. and, freaks that they are, right now they seem elated.
new york citymonday - tuesday, 5- 6 may 2008
a sunny morning in downtown new york.
three extra-terrestrial figures materialise amid the blinding haze looking deliriously happy if slightly lost. between them they lug three cardboard boxes. after months of intensive work (literally finishing recording till the moment they got on the plane), secrecy and stress, sigur rós's grand music/ arts spectacular finally boils down to three boxes of magnetic tape that jónsi, orri and kjartan are carting around as breezily as if they'd just picked them up at a car boot sale. they contain the masters for the album which they can now tell us is called með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust.
they begin mastering in two hours, but in the meantime jónsi wants to show us the small soho exhibition of his photographer friend ryan mcginley, contacted to provide emergency replacement artwork after the berlin fiasco. the youngest photographer ever to have a solo exhibition at new york's prestigious whitney museum of american art, the 31-year-old mcginley has previously snapped kate moss, staged an exhibition on morrissey fans and earned the admiration of michael stipe. his current show, titled i know where the summer goes, involves nature and nudity. jónsi points out the cover they've chosen. titled highway, it's a photo of four skinny nudes pelting across a deserted road like some sort of naturist's cross-country run. on the opposite wall is another naked portrait of a healthily endowed young man.
"maybe we can use this one instead and superimpose my face," quips jónsi. kjartan and orri cackle in return. for the first time in three months, sigur rós are laughing, joking and indeed acting like human beings.
soon, we're all having breakfast in a nearby cafe. as they chat vegetables, football (orri's father played in iceland's national team and once shared a pitch with george best) and their unexpected love of iron maiden - anything but their album in fact - it's as if the mute aliens we've been tailing for the past eight weeks have been bodysnatched by the kind of warm, friendly souls you'd happily enjoy being stuck in a lift with. they even insist q come and hear the finished album in the mastering suite later that evening, which we do. for all the eccentricities and evasions of the past few months, it's hard to deny the grandeur of what they've created.
jónsi is just as sociable the next day when q finds him in the new york production offices of friends and film-makers arni & kinski to discuss the video for what will be the album's first single, gobbledegook. in keeping with the album art, four of mcginley's regular models - pretty young things in smiths t-shirts with arms like breadsticks -are also here to learn how they're to be cast. the treatment is about "uninhibited expression of desire" to be "filled with vibrant moments of lovemaking so intense you don't know if it is a fight or sex." the models blink vacantly. jónsi fidgets in his seat, smirking like a guilty schoolboy.
later that evening, q joins the whole band (minus georg, back in iceland with his family) for the ritual end-of-album dinner at jónsi's favourite midtown raw food restaurant. the vegan singer is such a fan that he and his boyfriend, artist alex somers, wrote their own raw food cookbook which they distributed among friends in iceland ("his chocolate milkshake is very good," swears orri). we eat cheese made from nuts and tiramisu made from dehydrated bean matter. jónsi is even given a tour of the kitchen to see their hi-tech dehydrating equipment, exhaling a series of "wow!"s every few seconds.
returning to the table, he pops open a bottle of organic champagne (his favourite drink), telling q he can't wait to get back to his own kitchen and play the new album at full volume. "then i'll know if it's good," he says. maybe it's the bubbly, but it seems as if jónsi's forgotten that he decided last year he no longer wanted to talk to journalists. considering he's been sat beside one for the past two hours, what exactly is his problem?
"we just don't like doing interviews," he says. "we don't care about any of that stuff. all we care about is our music. it takes a lot out of us. when we're making it, we don't want to bother with anything else. it's, y'know [screwing up his nose] "bullshit" cheers.
"oh, but this has been nice," he laughs sweetly. "hasn't it?"
there follows a chink of champagne flutes, then three parting "funny" handshakes before sigur rós head off. but whether it's back to their hotel or some other subterranean troll kingdom, who knows.
simon goddard, q magazine, june 2008