sigur rós take a break outside their studio the pipe smoking organization 'geysir' - álafoss 2005
after having grinded coffee beans for five minutes in the swimming pool studio, jÑnsi suddenly exlaims: "hey, do you wanna hear some songs from the new album?". this question is naturally met with a nodding head. drummer orri pàll leads me into the studio's control room, which is home to comfortable chairs and a couch. he offers me a seat, presses play and tells me that this song will probably be the first single to be released, possibly through download only. i'm left alone in the room to listen.
the songs i heard didn't exactly fall under the short pop/rock structure which is rumoured to be the theme of the new album, but it's clear that there is a transition in style here: the songs are more focused, while at the same time more "rock and roll" than previous material. kjartan, the keyboardist, goes on to say later in the interview that this is precisely what sigur rÑs is all about: rock and roll. somehow it is a more popular opinion that the members of sigur rÑs are tea drinking new age hippies who write songs about elves and lava. jÑnsi exclaims "no tea, we only drink hardcore coffee around these parts". he adds with a smirk "well, hardcore coffee topped off with a little soy milk".
since autumn 1999, following the release of àgûtis byrjun, sigur rÑs has comprised jÑn ÿÑr birgisson (guitar and vocals), georg hÑlm (bass), kjartan sveinsson (keyboards), and orri pàll dýrason (drums). orri replaced àgÏst ûvar gunnarsson, who went into design studies. àgûtis byrjun is the album that got sigur rÑs on the international pop/rock map, and has sold in half a million copies around the world. at the time of the album's release, the record label was hopeful to sell up to 2000 copies.
jÑnsi, kjartan and orri now enter the control room with their coffee cups, fully equipped for an interview. a light-hearted chat eventually leads up to talks of the mastering of the new album. at the time of this interview, it was unclear whether the band would go overseas for mastering sessions on monday or thursday. kjartan finally manages to convince jÑnsi it's monday. kjartan: "we have to make the sound on the album more solid. we are aiming for a korn and papa roach kind of thing." the chat instantly transforms into an impassioned discussion of the latest papa roach album, "getting away with murder", and its notably crystal-clear sound.
mastering is the final stage of an album's production. bjarni bragason is the most prominent name in mastering in iceland but overseas the biggest names are bob ludwig and howie weinberg. as it turns out, sigur rÑs once offered bob ludwig to master some of their music but weren't thrilled with the results. "it was far from bad," says jÑnsi of the experiment, "but the outcome was strange somehow. it wasn't what we were looking for, anyway."
the recording of the new album took about one and a half years. "that's it?" says jÑnsi with a curious expression. "yeah, it was twenty months," orri confirms. during the recording period, the band and its members have indulged in numerous side projects. in fact, they have been swamped in work since the completion of their last album, 2002's ( ). in addition to the band's extensive spring tour of 2003, sigur rÑs's soundtrack to the film 'hlemmur' was released, and the band composed new music to merce cunningham's dance piece 'split sides'. the english band radiohead joined them in the latter endeavor. sigur rÑs released this music from split sides last year on the ep 'ba ba ti ki di do'. in 2003, the band members also assisted their friend jimmy lavelle (the album leaf) in recording his latest album in the swimming pool studio. the same year, sigur rÑs received the mtv award for best video, to the first track of ( ). later that year, the band recorded new music for the scottish short film 'the loch ness kelpie'. in 2004, jÑnsi performed solo in reykjavÕk under his pseudonym frakkur, while kjartan and orri headed to the Õsafjùr¦ur music festival to perform under their pseudonym, 'the lonesome traveller'. this band performed four sigur rÑs songs in a laid-back country music fashion (complete with cowboy hats and boots). in 2004, kjartan also composed the score to rÏnar rÏnarsson short film 'sÕ¦ast bûrinn'. sigur rÑs's most intimate collaborators, amina, released an ep later in the year, which was recorded in the swimming pool studio.
in between these side projects, sigur rÑs have been nominated for various awards, including the grammys. their songs are appearing in hollywood films and the revered kronos quartet has arranged the band's songs. sigur rÑs's brief international career has been a prominent one thus far, and interest in the band has never been greater despite three years having passed since their last album. sigur rÑs's latest musical adventure was writing a song for h.c. andersen's 200 year birthday celebration in copenhagen last april. the song was written for the royal danish ballet's interpretation of the story of the little match girl.
"it's really fun taking on these kinds of projects. unfortunately the time we have to have work on them is often limited." says jÑnsi. " but personally, i thought the h.c. andersen celebration turned out horribly. it had a strange las vegas feeling to it. tina turner and olivia newton-john dancing around didn't seem fitting."
hawaii, here we come
the band was faced with no real obstacles in the process of recording the new album. "hmm, no," says kjartan contemplatively. "this album somehow came together faster and better than ( )." the new album is likely to contain ten songs, two of which have been played at concerts before. next on the itinerary is the most extensive tour the band has embarked on. the first concert takes place on july 8th and the band will be more or less on the road until october. summer festivals will follow in the summer of 2006. destinations for the 2005 tour will include europe, japan, australia, north america, even hawaii.
"that's right, we are going to the 'pride of the pacific', as it's called," says orri with a smile. "the venue is a very cool old theatre built in 1920." kjartan says they will use the opportunity to take a brief break in hawaii. "it's amazing to be able to go to places like these. we're going to go scubadiving and stuff."
the tour is greatly anticipated by the guys. jÑnsi points out that they haven't held a proper sigur rÑs concert for ages. "this is going to be great, i can't wait to get back into touring. long breaks like these keep you fresh. it's a very refreshing feeling to find yourself really looking forward to playing live again."
further details on the upcoming tour can be found on www.sigur-ros.co.uk, the band's official news page, as well as a source of various information on the band. the website was founded in 2000 and is run by bjùrn erlingur flÑki bjùrnsson, paul mcallister and chris wray. the site was originally a fan site but was so successful that the band decided to collaborate with them. "these guys really know what they're doing," says jÑnsi. "they know more about what's happening with sigur rÑs than we do!". orri says that they keep in good contact with the webmasters, meeting up with them regularly and inviting them to concerts overseas. "we plan on opening our own website though, before the album is released," says jÑnsi. "but the news site is incredible. it's good for us because we're not net-gurus ourselves." kjartan adds: "i'm not sure we belong to this generation. we do know how to send emails though. but when you go online you don't really know where to go." (laughs)
i got nothing
the band is now supported by a substantial group of music industry staff - managers, agents, lawyers, etc. "we're obviously a huge band, you know," kjartan jokes. "we are going to be as big as U2!". jokes aside, the band agrees that the staff needed to keep the band going has grown over the years. "that's the good thing about living in iceland," says jÑnsi. "all business stuff goes on overseas so we are able to isolate ourselves from it here. it helps you keep your feet on the ground."
sigur rÑs's record deal is a unique one - basically, they can do what they want. "it's great to not have people telling you you have to do photoshoots, interviews and stuff," says jÑnsi. "although, interviews can sometimes be interesting. we went on a two-week interview marathon when we released ( ). we did about 12 interview a day so we got to know different kinds of journalists. some were idiots, others were very intelligent and had interesting insights. it's actually pretty fun to talk to journalists like that. we came out of the marathon feeling very focused, after having chatted constantly for two weeks."
kjartan and orri encountered an unfortunate journalist in switzerland. orri: "he had all these preconceived notions about us and the album and then he got offended when he found out they were wrong. he was fishing for some profound idea behind the album when there wasn't one there." kjartan assumes the journalist's voice: "i got nothing!" i got nothing!". kjartan recollects how annoyed he was with the band. "the poor guy. he had dressed up and everything."
kjartan says they are pumped up for the impending madness on the release of the new album. "we've matured in this respect, at least speaking for myself. when we started getting into the music 'biz' we were incredibly nervous about the whole thing. we were just these kids from reykjavÕk. we were kind of afraid of journalists, which i think was reflected in our first interviews. we've grown more comfortable in these situations. still, the whole thing is kind of silly."
jÑnsi says that interviews have served as practical training in talking about what they do. "we never do that ordinarily. we're not particularly analytical people, so it's strange to talk to journalists who examine everything you do and ask for concrete answers to vague questions. it's difficult for us to give them that." he says the best interviews are the ones that turn into general coffee house banter. "apparently there were 160 interviews for ( ) altogether," says orri. "if you made a connection with the interviewer you tended to be more giving. the dull interviewers just got the default robotic replies."
sigur rÑs's music seems to have touched the hearts of people of endless nationalities. just glancing at the comments made in the amazon online stores is staggering. people seem to be in shock that music as beautiful as this exists. the boys giggle when i say this. "yeah, apparently our music is actually 'golden tears falling from heaven' or something," says kjartan. "it's definitely fantastic that people appreciate what we're doing." jÑnsi: "there's a chapter in tommy lee's new book where he describes himself lying on the floor in foetus position listening to sigur rÑs. his friend comes up to him and turns off the music." (everyone laughs.) "in this book he talks about us, led zeppelin, and megadeth, " says kjartan. "not bad!". orri adds that tommy lee has requested to do an interview with them when they come to the states.
the conversation now turns to another big name in music - thom yorke. sigur rÑs played with radiohead on their autumn 2000 tour, and later joined them in making the music to 'split sides' in 2004. "we never got to know thom or the other guys very well," says jÑnsi. "we did around ten concerts with them and it was like two bands in separate corners doing their own thing. there was very little interaction, although we did chat quite a bit with colin. he is an absolute top guy."
kjartan remembers the immense crew that followed radiohead. with walkie-talkie security guys everywhere, it's no wonder the interaction was so little. "during tours like these you first and foremost interact with your crew. it's not a given that two groups travelling together will mingle."
earlier that year, the band had toured with the canadian band 'godspeed you black emperor!'. jÑnsi says touring with bands as different as these two was a valuable experience. "it was a learning experience for us to see how these things are done. godspeed did everything themselves and they were really serious about everything. radiohead on the other hand were surrounded by this huge staff, which surprised me a little."
georg walks into the room - it's time to go into the kitchen and get some more coffee. kjartan continues: "we're very grateful to radiohead for giving us the chance to tour with them. it introduced a lot of people to our music. we were playing for 12000 people a night."
suddenly i decide to make a bold move and ask plainly whether there is any ideology behind the new album. kjartan does the talking: "hmm. it was just a natural progression from the last album. the last album was so heavy, so it felt better to rock this one out. damn, that was a really lame sentence." (laughs)
sigur rÑs are now signed with geffen in america and EMI in britain and the rest of the world. they originally signed with MCA, which has since merged with geffen. they were signed with fatcat records for a few years but the contract was dissolved due to dissatisfaction with fatcat's distributor, pias.
the first clear sign of international interest in sigur rÑs was at the frÕkirkjan concert at the iceland airwaves festival in 2000. the church was packed with foreign journalists and record label agents. this set off a series of offers from big labels. "there were fifteen labels in all," says georg. "we replied with our terms and three labels called back." from what i'm told, the goal of the big labels was to seize a band which would garner universal respect amongst the music community, rather than reach colossal sales figures. this is what geffen did a while back when they signed the underground rock band sonic youth, which led to nirvana signing with geffen later on.
kjartan and his robe
the interview now turns to lighter territories. it's two days since the iron maiden concert in iceland, which all the members of sigur rÑs attended. sigur rÑs are surprisingly knowledgeable about iron maiden, though georg least so, owning only one of their albums. kjartan is the biggest fan of the group - him and myself gush over some of the ingenious songs from their 1988 album 'seventh son of a seventh son'. the iron maiden discussion expands into kjartan's recollection of the time he ran onstage at the end of iron maiden's set at the roskilde festival 2003, just minutes before sigur rÑs were to go onstage themselves. kjartan was wearing a massive iron maiden t-shirt at the time, which fitted him like a robe. "the timing was awful," sighs kjartan. "i just barely managed to finish iron maiden before we went onstage."
the interview is regularly put on hold in order to step outside for cigarette breaks. in the parking lot outside the studio, the members of sigur rÑs form a circle and kick a football between each other, trying to keep the ball off the ground. to be honest, their skills at this game took me quite by surprise - it's clear they do this all the time. their joint effort in keeping the ball aloft is full of passion. grunts, shouts, heels, knees, chests and foreheads come into play.
watching this display on the parking lot, i realised the similarities between this simple game and the art they create together. on this lot crystallised the gentle and laid-back spirit which characterises this band which has become iceland's biggest music export, excluding bjùrk only. like bjùrk, it has been the integrity and sincerity put into the music which has made their success possible. the four men in sigur rÑs share one thing above all - using passion as a starting point to achieve great things, both in and outside their work.
(arnar eggert thoroddsen, translated from icelandic by björn erlingur flóki björnsson)