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i-d magazine interviews björk, jónsi and kjarri
(viðtal)


photos by ari magg courtesy of i-d magazine

in 1987 iceland was a remote country. both in geographical terms in regards to people's subconscious. it existed north of the borders, on the precipice of the northern lights: the home of icebergs, geysers, fjörds and magnus magnuson. then björk happened. fronting her band the sugarcubes, björk screamed her way into the charts with 'birthday', heavily pregnant both with radical ideas and with son sindri (now 18 and currently rocking out in a heavy metal band). she was an event, a happening. she had to be seen to be believed. her voice belonged in the other world, known to reduce people to floods of diamond tears with its intense emotional impact. she launched her inevitable solo career and five albums and one movie later, björk still furrows, she still burrows and still borrows. whether from people she rolls with at the time - tricky, polly harvey, talvin singh or the places she inhabits - reykjav’k, london or ny, where she currently resides with boyfriend matthew barney and baby daughter isadora ("because she is adorable"). björk is a vessel for innovation, a human gun to shoot ideas through. a pioneer, a visionary. in her wake, iceland received attention from the western world - but as much for damon albarn owning a local bar as for homespun talent. that was until sigur rós arrived with a bang as loud as a snowflake landing on the ground. with their quiet genius, the band made epic soundscapes, rocked their own sound. although influenced by grand matriarch björk, but not obviously so. sigur rós (icelandic for victory rose) don't wear their badges on their sleeve. theirs was an art that reverberated in its own beautiful ice cavern, detached yet inclusive, warm yet cold. then last year, out of nowhere, they swagged the best video at the mtv awards. beating missy elliott and the white stripes in a rare case of substance over fame with an anti-war statement that accompanied their song: 'untitled 1' from the album ( ), which ironically has never been shown on mtv: it seemed like björk and sigur rós should be friends: they must have swaggered home following drunken conversations about art, music, video, life and death. but surprisingly, although both parties were aware and admired each other's body of work, neither had actually met, until i-d hooked them up. notoriously shy of publicity, sigur rós - fronted by singer jónsi, guitarist kjartan and drummer orri - agreed to take part in the interview because of björk. likewise, björk - currently working' on a new as-yet-untitled album - agreed because of the chance to talk to her young icelandic pretenders about the new music they composed for the merce cunningham dance company and so it happened. we met in the local fisherman's cafe, we ate cod chins (a local delicacy) and rolled drunkenly around reykjavik. we went to a blue-themed easter party where björk played justin timberlake, introduced jónsi to the wonder of 'peaches' and colored my arms with poster paint. then jónsi and björk sang an awesome, impromptu set with björk on harpsichord and jónsi on xylophone, both voices from the heavens. here is the conversation that took place earlier that day.

so you guys have never met before?

björk: i guess we have mutual friends, right? we've known about each other because it's a small town.
jónsi: we all live really close together.
kjartan: we see each other at parties.

do you all still live in iceland?

björk: i'm sort of 50/50 between here and new york. last year, for example, i was seven months here and five there. it sort of depends, because my son goes to school here.
kjartan: iceland is really nice. i haven't lived anywhere else, so i don't know how to compare, but we grew up in the countryside with horses and stuff like that.

what impact did björk have on you growing up?

jónsi: she was always really weird, pregnant, dancing around, really strange. (laughs)
björk: things don't change, do they? hello? the oscars ...

do you feel paternal towards bands coming out of iceland?

björk: i definitely get mushy when i read about them, i feel like their old aunt or something.
kjartan: i guess we are a really proud people.

was iceland a direct inspiration when writing your new album?

björk: i guess my head was sort of between iceland and new york, then i escaped to an island in the canary islands where not even the tourists go. it's really small, and this guy lives there and he's just opened a studio in his living room, so i went there and i was walking a lot. i don't know why i have to walk when i write - it's the ocean air, the dodgy fishing village, the dodgy food. i probably needed to get away; i had just become a mum and stuff.

did you go on your own?

björk: i went with my engineer.
jónsi: do you still have your small box to write with? your lyrics, do you write them down?
björk: usually i just remember them. it's when you are really busy doing other stupid stuff that you need to use a dictaphone, but i feel like it pollutes the idea somehow. if i use a dictaphone i end up just using what's on the tape directly on the album.
kjartan: you think it pollutes the idea if you write it down? i think it's good because you can distance yourself. you can put something down, then completely forget about it then look at it again.
björk: i do that with instruments but not my voice so much.
jónsi: do you sing melodies into the dictaphone?
björk: yes, sometimes. do you use a dictaphone?
jónsi: no, i use an old cassette recorder and just play guitar and sing ideas into it.
björk: i remember when i was in a group ... it's different, because you are writing together. then it's good to listen to again later. it's different when you work alone.
jónsi: we've recorded a little bit recently, but we are working on making our studio better. have you finished your new album?
björk: i've got ten days until i'm mixing, so in theory i'm finished, but i keep going "what if i change this?" i was just listening to your cd with merce cunningham (the dancer for whom sigur rós, along with radiohead, have just written an original score) and it's really exciting. merce also asked me to make music, and i went and saw all of his shows. it became such a big thing in my head. i felt such a big difference between the stuff he did with john cage and the stuff he did with all the other people, because he lived with john cage since he was 20. they were like a couple. merce is so physical, obviously a dancer, and john cage was always the more spiritual one. when his music comes on, the whole dance thing all makes sense. sometimes even with the best composers on earth, you look at the dancers and it looks like they are lost, just walking in circles, but the minute john cage's music comes on it becomes like a sort of cosmic world, i wish i had seen your collaboration. there's something innocent and spiritual in your music that i think is really similar to john cage's, when you read the books he writes he also has this obsession with recipes.
jónsi: and mushrooms.
björk: and just like how to live your life - almost like a moomin. it's very pure. it's like merce almost needs some hope and optimism, something quite spiritual, a guiding light, i think you guys have that sort of mood in your music. did you think about these things?
jónsi: well, we had never heard about this merce guy before, because we are very uninformed. we just thought it would be interesting to compose music to dance.
kjartan: we didn't investigate it either, we didn't look at who he had worked with or anything.
björk: sometimes it's good with collaborations not to bring any luggage, especially brain luggage. with my favourite collaborations i didn't know anything, it was pure and i believed that some merge would happen. i think it's better that way, otherwise it's too calculated.

what has been your favourite collaboration?

björk: that's hard to say,
jónsi: you did a thing with john taverner recently didn't you? (a child prodigy, sir john taverner wrote and performed his first concerto aged 18 and recently received fame when his composition, 'song for athene', was played at the funeral for diana, princess of wales)
björk: that was great. i've always written my own melodies, and john would listen to my records and then write something that suited my range, i was really touched.
kjartan: is it going to be released?
björk: maybe i'll release it later. i'm kind of shy about it.
kjartan: i think he's great, i really like his stuff.
björk: he's amazing. he has this disease which is related to your heart where your bones never stop growing. i can't remember what it's called. so he is really, really, really long. his fingers are really long, he has really long hair, a white suit, that's too short for him and all this greek orthodox jewellery on his fingers. the doctors told him he was supposed to die five or ten years ago and he's way past his time. so he lives every day like it's his last, he's obsessed with greek red wine. when i first met him, i was really shy and he grabbed this bottle of wine, smashed it on the table and said: "so, what do you think about death?" (laughs) "what is your favourite music, what was the greatest love of your life?" so you get really drunk with him and a few hours later he's playing the 'sound of music' and 'my fair lady' on the piano, asking us all to join in.

did you sing along?

biörk: come on, you pretend all your life you don't know the lyrics, but of course you do! (laughs)
kiartan: that's the type of music you really know the lyrics to. (laughs)

who would you like to collaborate with?

kjartan: it's really hard for us to collaborate. because we've been playing together since we were teenagers, we are not used to playing with anyone else.
jónsi: and we never talk much. maybe we could do something together?
björk: i'd like that, it's the sort of stuff we talk about when we are drunk. (laughs)

what music is inspiring you at the moment?

björk: i'm quite inspired by my i-pod. shuffle, it's the new big thing, i've got missy elliott, peaches and john cage. it's not exactly the songs, it's what's between them. (laughs)

what about sigur rós?

jónsi: i'm just listening to two songs at the moment. they are the only songs on my computer. i erased everything else so i had more space to record.
björk: when i did my last album, i only listened to micro-beats for three years. nothing else, all my friends were really worried about me. now all i listen to are vocals, anything vocal, from yodelling to greek choirs to hip hop, just anything vocal.
jónsi: so is your record just vocals? just you and a choir?
björk: yup, i've been recording with a lot of vocal people, so i ask one person to do a bassline, another to do drums, it's been hilarious. some of it is really rubbish.
kjartan: when me and jónsi were in the studio once, we recorded a kind of barbershop quartet. i was singing the bass and the tenor, jónsi was singing the rest. it was really funny.
björk: i met this girl who lives really far north in canada in a town with only 200 people and she invented her own style of throat singing. it's supposed to be totally with no emotion, but she's like edith piaf or something, totally emotional, so i got her to do beats to quite a few songs. that was fun.

your visuals are so important. do you enjoy doing photo shoots?

björk: i don't think i ever enjoyed it. it's more like i do it, then don't like the results so try to come up with better ideas so it's bearable.
jónsi: we are really bad!
kjartan: i think the best was when we dressed in devil costumes. the worst is when you have to stand on the street and look cool: 'no smiling, no smiling. can you open your mouth a little bit, look a little dazed and confused?'
björk: i think it's nice when you start a relationship with a photographer. it can almost be like making a song with someone.
jónsi: you feel almost relaxed working with the same person.

have you planned your visuals for the next album?

björk: sort of. i need to finish the music first though, it's like having a different head on. this time round i'm not sure if i'm going to do videos.
jónsi: you should. it's a nice medium, it can be really powerful.

how was winning the mtv award?

kjartan: very very drunk, the best thing was meeting beyonc≥,

how was beyonc≥? did she know sigur rós?

kjartan: probably not. orri lit a cigarette and she said 'oh, you are a smoker' and turned around and walked sway.
jónsi: i think it's funny to win an mtv award when the track is never played on mtv.
björk: i went on google, typed sigur rós and downloaded it in like ten seconds. it's so easy now.

how do you feel about the state of the music industry now with downloading potentially closing smaller independents?

björk: i think that the structure of the entertainment industry has ten floors full of people doing something it only takes five people to do. all these people are losing their jobs, but sitting behind them are people who don't care anymore, so i'm not going to make much money? that's okay because i want to make music. the people who care about music aren't gonna leave. you are doing it because you love music.
jónsi: there are so many money people in these companies who know nothing. we are lucky. we never have pressure to make anything commercial.
kjartan: people know what they are getting into. our record sales are increasing, so i don't think downloading is affecting it as much as we think.
jónsi: if you really like something, you go to the record store and buy it because you want to own it.
björk: people thought cinemas would close down when people bought video machines. it just becomes this different medium. people need music and it's not going to change.

do you ever worry that you'll lose your inspiration or muse?

kjartan: there's always something.
jónsi: when i am alone, it's harder to finish things. that's why working with the right people is so important.
björk: even now doing 90 percent of my album on my own, for the last 10 percent i have to communicate or it just becomes some weird disease or something, it's so wrong. for the last month in new york, i got this classical singer and this beat box guy, and suddenly the whole thing became healthy. just to get a conversation going.
jónsi: throw ideas around.
björk: i seem to have so little time and so many ideas i want to do. i have to refuse myself doing these ones and focus on these instead, so as of yet i'm not afraid of losing my inspirations. i'm more worried about time, like 'how the fuck am i gonna finish all this?'

what video are you most proud of?

björk: i don't look at it like that, i think it's more about the people who i work with. like i did six videos with michel gondry, which is a lot. michel is really possessive, he hates me working with other directors. he calls me and threatens me. when he goes really neurotic and starts to worry, he is almost like woody allen. you have to say, 'it's ok, you don't have cancer'. he's really sweet. i only did one with chris cunningham, two with spike jonze. maybe those three guys, people i still keep in touch with.
jónsi: when i saw your robot video with chris cunningham, i got goosebumps.
björk: yeah, he's fantastic. floria (sigismondi, director of the sigur rós video) is amazing, right? she actually introduced me to my best friends in new york, these four people who make clothes (the designers as four). i hang out with them in new york all the time. it's her fault.

what do you think about the electroclash scene over there?

björk: when i first moved to ny in 2000, there was this place called passerby which would only play that type of music. it's fun to go out get drunk and dance to, but to go in the studio and make music like that for me isn't creative, it's very retro. but then again, i think something always comes out of it, right? like peaches, she's the best. i remember when the dance thing was happening first and there would be house versions of old songs always on the radio and now you are getting electroclash versions of whitney houston. it feels like it's about to become something else, it's fun.
jónsi: i've never listened to it, i guess it's probably fun to dance to.
björk: it has a lot of raw energy. the music it's referring to was totally underestimated by people of my generation. human league, you just can't top them, right? it's good friday 50 it's illegal here to play music after midnight tonight, we could do some acapella electroclash instead. sigur rós could do a cover of vienna.
kjartan: or omd.
björk: they have the same celestial kind of element as your music. (laughs) i was obsessed with this japanese guy online. he's a student who works in this rehearsal studio in japan. he's obsessed with tuning people's guitars and stuff. he started this website doing acapella versions of songs by people like slayer and stevie wonder, but he does all the instruments. i got him to sing on one of my songs.

where do you find all these freaks?

björk: i'm always looking for acapella sites online with all these perverts. i have to forward you the slayer version he does - the double drums are amazing.

are you gonna go metal?

björk: isn't everything metal? we could do like a 'bohemian rhapsody' with the same four people looped. (starts singing 'galileo')

do you think you'll ever move back to iceland?

björk: i sort of feel like i never left. when i was touring with the sugarcubes, i would spend half my time away and half here. so it still feels like that.
jónsi: it's really nice to get away and meet new people, it's so small here.
björk: i find it with friends that live here all the time, they want ~o go away at least four times a year.
kjartan: you really have to, especially in january. the darkness gets too much. it's actually darker in december, but by january you are just so tired of it. the shortest day is three hours.
björk: it's interesting, i was in brazil this summer for the festival. people spend all year making their costumes, then in march they get post-carnival depression so everyone goes to the psychiatrist. we get it after christmas! all their costumes are torn, lying on their bed. i really recommend the carnival. i went to this town called salvador. it's not so commercial, more like voodoo. in rio de janeiro, it's more like ricky martin, drag queen sort of thing. in salvador you get these 70 year old black women with outfits made of tinfoil, who go into a trance with all this drumming. i'd love to go again. but it's too hot for icelandic people.
jónsi: we went to brazil once, but i got sunstroke. (laughs) i really like the heat. i love to get sweaty because you never can in iceland: it's so dry, i was half dressed in my pyjamas running along the beach and after two days i felt really bad. we played two concerts and during the second one i was like in a coma or something, all the songs felt really long and were hard to play. (laughs) everything was really blurred, i kind of liked it.
kjartan: it's really nice to go to all these places.
jónsi: you have to learn how to tour, how to treat your body. are you looking forward to performing again?
björk: i am, actually. when you are touring it kind of interrupts the writing process, so because i did two tours in a row 'vespertine' and 'greatest hits' - i'm going to reward myself and do two albums in a row, i'm going to try it for the first time just to see, because i always do an album, finish it, mix it, then go on tour and i'm always wondering "what if i had of stayed home one more month?" because sometimes you do your best stuff after you have mixed, when you are just lubricated.
jónsi: then you have finished your record and you want to try something new.

what is the new sigur rós album sounding like?

kjartan: our next album is going to be full of pop songs, because the last album was so heavy.
jónsi: we never played it in concert because it was too heavy for us.
kjartan: now every time we start writing, we try to feel really happy.

so what next for you all?

björk: we are gonna unite on the barbershop scene. it's a scene that needs help. no more sonar, no more glastonbury.
kjartan: yeah let's take that barbershop thing on the road!
björk: it'll be massive!
kjartan: everyone will be doing it.
björk: instruments will be like, sooo out, there will be no more speakers, everyone will just be singing. (imitates drumsound)
kjartan: people don't sing as much as they used to, only karaoke.
björk: my family always sings.
jónsi: when icelandic people come together they have to sing icelandic songs.
björk: i think icelandic and irish people are really similar you know that dance that came from spain? the macarena? well, it was huge everywhere, number one all over the world, except in ireland and iceland. because when we get pissed, we don't wanna go like this [starts dancing the macarena], we wanna go like this. [at which point björk grabs her glass and bursts into song]

björk is presently doing final mixes for her new, as yet untitled, album to be released later this year. for more information check out www.bjork.com. sigur rós release ba ba, ti ki, di do, the three pieces of music to their split sides collaboration with the merce cunningham dance company, on june 16. the music is also now available exclusively through itunes.

 

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