cool band from a cool place
the music of iceland has a presence on the world stage that far outstrips its influence as a country, a phenomenon of which the country's inhabitants are immensely proud. along the main shopping drag in reykjavik, pictures of bjork are pasted up in every record store like icons of the virgin mary. if ms gudmundsdottir is the madonna of icelandic pop, then sigur ros - four local heroes with a worldwide following - are fast becoming its beatles.
in the three and half years since the release of their last record, agaetis byrjun ("a new start"), sigur ros have shifted well over a quarter of a million records. their music, which is earnest, sombre and quietly religious in tone, has earned them plaudits from radiohead and, more implausibly, brad pitt. calls to collaborate have come from prestigious quarters, including the kronos quartet and american choreographer merce cunningham. last year, they won the shortlist music prize (america's equivalent of the mercury music prize) and became the subject of a furious major-label bidding war, finally choosing to sign with mca/universal because they offered the most creative freedom rather than the most money. (in the uk they are signed to the tiny fatcat records, known chiefly for its output of abstruse experimental music.)
over dinner at an indian restaurant in reykjavik, just days before they were to embark on a european tour to support their forthcoming album - titled simply by two parentheses with a single space between them - the group display a playfulness not immediately apparent within their music.
bassist georg holm is encouraged by the others to show off the doe-eyed boy-band look he has perfected. jon por birgisson (aka jonsi), the androgynous vocalist with the tintin curl and a lazy eye, reveals that he became frontman because he was the cutest. keyboardist kjartan sveinsson, the only one of the four multi-instrumentalists who can read and write musical notation, evinces a humour so dry that it could be easily mistaken for dourness. drummer orri pall dyrason barely says a word, but, if prodded, will apparently launch into a vigorous defence of his country's right to resume whaling.
before the meal is over, jonsi and georg are elected for interview duties the next morning, a task the band claim none of them enjoys. they also insist on being interviewed separately because they can't agree on a venue. in any case, explains kjartan, "we discovered that, if we do interviews together, then none of us will say anything".
they are also at a loss to explain the incongruity of a situation that finds them collaborating with merce cunningham, with whom they share a similar artistic sensibility, while at the same time being feted by hollywood. (tom cruise and director cameron crowe featured their music in vanilla sky.) "it's ok that [celebrities] like us," says jonsi when we meet at his apartment, "but i don't like all the attention on it."
in fact, sigur ros would prefer that any attention was deflected from themselves and entirely focused on their music. to compound the sense of mystery surrounding the band, official photographs show them ambling through countryside but shrouded by foliage. "we are not exactly hiding," says jonsi. "but we think all this focus on the person who is making the music is quite tiring. we feel really stupid if we have to pose in front of a camera. it's so unnatural, and with our music we are trying to be as natural, sincere and honest as we can."
nevertheless, they maintain total control over the way their music is packaged, generating the artwork for record sleeves and video backdrops for their live show. inspired by british graffiti artist banksy, jonsi designed an iconic stencil of a somnambulant child as part of the artwork for their new album (and corresponding images of each band member). he even took to spraying his images on walls around reykjavik. "i like the kick," he grins, acknowledging that, although illegal, it's not an activity especially hazardous to his freedom because "there aren't really any cops in reykjavik".
sigur ros were formed seven years ago by jonsi, georg and former drummer agust var gunnarsson, three friends who met in the smoking lounge at school and shared an aversion to studying, and named themselves in honour of jonsi's baby sister.
remarkably, they claim that their first attempts to record ambient music with traditional rock instrumentation came out almost fully formed. "afterwards, we spent a whole year trying to play what we had captured in the studio, but we couldn't," says jonsi. "then, finally, it clicked." this core sound was later augmented by hammond organ, a string quartet and willowy bowed guitars.
under the auspices of their first manager, who worked in the local record store, they embarked on a tour of iceland, performing in community halls and small pubs. "in one town, there was nowhere to play except a pizza place," jonsi recalls. "sometimes we played to just 25 people, farmers. i think they thought it was kind of interesting."
their music is anything but parochial, but location is key to the inspiration behind the band's finely-honed atmospherics. the eight songs on ( ) were the first recorded in the band's studio, a converted municipal swimming pool, appropriately located beside a pond and a babbling brook in an artists' community near reykjavik.
"we tried a studio in england, too, but it didn't seem to work," says georg. "originally we wanted to record the album at the top of a mountain, on the northernmost mountain in iceland, in an abandoned nato tracking base with no windows and one door." on closer inspection - after a four-hour boat trip and an eight-hour walk up the mountain - they found it was filled with ice and retreated to a more conventional studio.
as it's title archly suggests, ( ) is a record of two halves, contained but open-ended. naive sing-song melodies give way to epic tracks that negotiate an otherworldly musical landscape that veers from brittle to brutal. performing the record live at the festival hall last week, backed by a young, female string quartet, sigur ros were absolutely beguiling.
the songs, which have no titles, were sung by jonsi in his own made-up language, forcing the audience to derive meaning strictly from the emotional tenor of the music. the booklet accompanying their cd consists of blank pages instead of a lyric sheet. "the idea," says jonsi, "is that filling in the space between the music and lyrics becomes a soundtrack to your own life." '( )' is released by fatcat records on oct 28.