For a band whose lyrics have never been in English and whose songs regularly clock in at more than six minutes long, Iceland’s second biggest musical export, Sigur Rós, are astonishingly successful.
Even before the release of Takk, their fourth and most accessible record to date, Jónsi Birgisson, Kjartan Sveinsson, Orri Páll Dýrason and Georg Holm numbered Thom Yorke, Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt amongst their celebrity fans. But, as Holm told us, celebrity trappings have never really meant much to them…
A personal interview has background. There’s much to tell of someone when you meet them face to face, for faces express language every bit as much as words do. The surroundings, and the interviewee’s place within them, can indicate mood, preferences, likings. A background can set a scene.
Unfortunately none of these nuances are possible with phoners, so I ask Georg, Sigur Rós’s bassist, to tell me where he is by way of a substitute for scene. It’s an interview of substitutes, if truth be told – the band’s front man, Jónsi Birgisson, the interviewee requested, is unable to speak due to a voice problem. Georg has replaced him and is on a phone from his hotel room.
“It’s a featureless hotel room – they’re all the same,” begins Georg, leaving me none the wiser about his surrounds than before I’d asked the question. But it’s a hotel room in Washington DC and the date is 11 September. Four years ago on this day, one of four hijacked airliners smashed into the Pentagon, not too far away. I wonder what the mood in Washington is like on this sad anniversary. “I don’t know,” says Georg. “I haven’t been out of my room. I didn’t even know it was 9/11.”
“He goes on a quest to find the sun. It’s just a story we set to music” – Georg on Glósóli
Sigur Rós are not a band whose music comments on world events. Rather, it’s easy to imagine the Icelandic quartet existing in their own odd yet blissful bubble, cut off from screaming headlines, politicians, terrorists and the concerns of the day while producing the ethereal soundscapes that have delighted audiences around the globe. Sigur Rós’s music has the ability to render such mundane and everyday considerations vanished, leaving instead a deeply personal musical experience and a spectrum of emotion.
Turning then to the personal, I ask about Jónsi. “He seems to be losing his voice,” says Georg. “This is the first time this has happened on tour.” But the band are due to play a gig tonight, and it hasn’t been cancelled. We assume Jónsi will improve with the imbibing of some honey and lemon and perhaps speak to us some other time. For now, I’m hoping Georg will be a little more lyrical about the band’s new album Takk, their most accessible work to date. The title means “thanks” in Icelandic. Thanks for what?
“What does the word mean to you?” counters Georg. “When you read the word Takk, or thank you, it could be a good reminder of people to be thankful to, I guess. It’s not just us saying thank you to somebody, it’s… I don’t know… a word.”
Perhaps Takk could be a thank you for happiness, for relationships, I speculate. Georg and drummer Orri were both married this year (“Orri’s was a private affair, just the two of them, with a little drink afterwards…”), while Jónsi during the current North American tour has mentioned missing his American boyfriend. Domestic bliss all round then – reflected in the music? “Yes I think it is,” agrees Georg. “Our music reflects our mood.”
“We want our music to be heard by everyone in the world” – Georg declares the Sigur Rós pop revolution
And the mood has changed since 2002’s dense, difficult and occasionally brilliant (). “The last record… we were very tired,” begins Georg, casting his mind back. “A lot of our songs were written three years before we recorded them. We’d been touring constantly for three years and, going to the studio to record those songs after we’d been playing them for three years was quite difficult for us. I think it’s a really good record, but it was difficult.”
What changed this time? A big bucks deal with EMI has at least feathered the Sigur Rós nest. But the deal “hasn’t made difference to the music,” Georg insists. “We seem to have more freedom, I guess. More space and less to worry about. And we have a piano now.”
But there was more to Takk than happiness at owning a new instrument. “We did have a short break before we started this record, probably the first break in years. We all came back into the studio and we were excited about recording a new record,” he enthuses. “With the last record we weren’t that excited. The whole process of making this record was different. We wrote (it) in the studio. We didn’t have any songs when we started writing.” The process was that much more spontaneous.
Such spontaneity has been key to Sigur Rós’s development of their unique and lauded sound down the years. Take Jónsi’s guitar bowing, one of the band’s most recognised hallmarks. “It was accidental,” agrees Georg. “The bow was a gift to me from Ágst (Sigur Rós’s first drummer) and I always wanted to try it on the bass and see what it sounded like.” The result was not groundbreaking. “I tried it out and it didn’t sound all that good on the bass, so I just put it on a shelf in our rehearsal space and, one day months later, Jónsi picked it up and wanted to try it out. It sounded great, so we’ve been using it since. He still owes me a violin bow…”
“We don’t know where it comes from. When we write the songs it’s very much we just plug our instruments in and start playing” – Georg demystifies Sigur Rós’s ethereal sound into prosaic terms…
Understanding how picking up a bow can translate into the sweeping, meteorological sounds that feature on Sigur Rós records isn’t easy. “We don’t know where it comes from,” says Georg. I can’t see him, but I think he’s shrugging. “When we write the songs it’s very much we just plug our instruments in and start playing.”
Really? That’s it? “A lot of times there’ll be a… sparrrrrrk,” says Georg, delving. “A new instrument maybe, and somebody will sit down and do something on a new instrument and we’ll do something with that. Or it might be an accident – somebody stumbles onto a cymbal and it crashes down, it sounds weird, so we’ll try it again…” I can see him shrugging again. “Our music is just a roll of accidents.”
Contrary to reports, none of the band are (yet) classically trained musicians – although keyboardist Kjartan is studying music, and arranges strings. Sigur Rós, it seems, are just extraordinary.
While we’re on the subject of debunking Sigur Rós myths, what about their recording studio being a swimming pool in Alafoss? “It’s just a building, a house,” clarifies Georg. “It ceased being a swimming pool in the ’50s and doesn’t look anything like a swimming pool actually. It just looks like a normal recording studio.”
They’ve even given an impromptu gig at the swimming pool for their Icelandic fans. Surely these adoring folk are aware of Sigur Rós’s genius by now – do the band get mobbed as they amble past Reykjavik’s imposing Hallgrimskirkja on a blustery Sunday morn?
“Our music is just a roll of accidents…” – Georg on how clumsiness can create sonic beauty
“Icelandic people aren’t like that,” refutes Georg. “If somebody’s famous or however you want to put it, people tend to ignore you even more. Björk walks down the street in Reykjavik. It’s a small place. The Icelandic mentality doesn’t include running down a street screaming.”
Georg’s Icelandic mentality seems to be relaxing into the conversation and he decides to offer an anecdote about his wife waving to Ted Danson. I ask him if he finds being away from ‘er indoors strange. It’s September – the Holms have been married only since June.
“It’s not more strange than the last six years. I’ve been with my wife for years and we have kids, so we just got married,” he reasons. “She came along on the last European tour.”
I explain to Georg that much of my line of questioning was to be for Jónsi, as vocalist, to answer. Storylines, lyrics, that kind of thing. But he’s happy to explain some of Takk’s songs – sung in Icelandic, which is at least more accessible than Jónsi’s made-up Hopelandic of () and Ágætis Byrjun.
The video for the epic Glósóli, Europe’s first taste of Takk, involves children dressed up in all manner of costumes jumping off a cliff. What’s all that about? “It could be that there’s a main character to the song. It could be a boy, it could be grown up, it doesn’t really matter,” explains Georg. “It’s just like a character. So he wakes up and he finds the sun has disappeared from the sky, so he goes on a quest to find the sun.” I’m hearing that shrug again. “It’s just a story we set to music.”
“If somebody’s famous or however you want to put it, people tend to ignore you even more…” – Georg on Iceland’s reality check
Takk’s first single proper will be euphoric Hoppípolla. “We like to play with words a lot, put two words together for example,” Georg patiently explains, “and make a new word out of it. It means jumping into puddles. It should be two words but it’s almost like a name now. The lyrics describe an atmosphere, a memory or something, like being a kid jumping into puddles, falling down and getting a nosebleed, getting back up… It doesn’t really matter when you’re a kid.”
I suggest it’s almost certainly too early to begin speculating on the music that will follow Takk. “We have two or three songs, or at least ideas,” offers Georg, “and I guess they don’t sound anything like the songs on this record. Maybe they’ll be on the next record, maybe they won’t… We’ll just have to see.”
Maybe they’ll get to deal with Iceland’s famous Sagas, I venture. “We did Odin’s Raven Magic a few years ago and perform it occasionally,” says Georg, surprising me. “It’s quite difficult to perform, with a full string orchestra and a choir.” This he pronounces, rather endearingly, as “quoyre”. “It’s been recorded… We might try and find the time to finish it one day.”
But for now Sigur Rós have their most popular record to date to enjoy. It’s had fawning reviews, not least from this publication. How do the band rate Takk compared with their previous output? “I never really put any of the other records in my stereo at home, but I do actually put this one on,” enthuses Georg. “I really enjoy it. It’s definitely more accessible, and that’s good. We want our music to be heard by everyone in the world.” Sigur Rós goes pop? “Umm… No!” There’s a pause. “Well, maybe in context of our previous work…”
Sigur Rós’ album Takk is out now through Parlophone.