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FILTER 48: Sigur Rós: A Far Off Place

By Breanna Murphy; photos Lilja Birgisdóttir on August 16, 2012


FILTER 48: Sigur Rós: A Far Off Place

It begins with a resonating buzz in your ears. Slowly and sadly, the strings begin and crescendo, connecting with a palindromic, music-box piano refrain that sounds like it’s twinkling underwater. The structure winds, dissolves and continues until the arrival of an audible, purposeful breath inwards—and out pours an emotive, legato verse of unfamiliar syllables and words. You have no idea what the voice is saying, it’s in a language you’ve never heard, but somehow you know exactly what the music means. It’s sad. It’s beautiful. It’s wondrous. It’s joyful. All heartbreakingly so. When a brass ensemble joins the plaintive celebration, you could be in tears. By the time the faint sound of fireworks is keeping tempo, softly cracking low in the background, you’re probably smiling. A million emotions in six-and-a-half minutes—and you have no idea what the voice is saying. But you saw it in your head, and you felt it in your soul. And it was real: It’s called “Starálfur.”

To visit the mysterious and complicated universe of Sigur Rós is as intrinsically simple as listening to one of their songs. Every album is an opportunity for a journey. Press the button, flip the switch or drop the needle anywhere on any of their records and it will transport you to all the destinations you’re meant to go. A hum begins, and a place starts to take shape. It’s blurry at first, appearing in glimpses—the mercurial way light behaves at dawn, and dusk—and then it comes sharply into focus, into reality, inviting you in right on cue. The band’s music is lushly cinematic, wordless choruses painting vivid scenes and instrumentals constructing myriad emotional displays upwards and downwards, from solemn contemplation to ecstatic triumph to a fury of noise. The places Sigur Rós take you are hard to shake, long after the music ends and silence returns.

For 18 years—now six albums, two films and hundreds of notable live performances—the Icelandic quartet of Jón Þór Birgisson (who goes by Jónsi), Orri Páll Dýrason, Georg Hólm (often called “Goggi”) and Kjartan Sveinsson has been building imaginary worlds inside of listeners’ heads. With each successive release, the landscapes get more expansive, adding new and gorgeous details to an ever-adapting universe that occupies the space from one ear to the other. As subjective as the experience might be, it’s also a universal one; the band’s international popularity speaks volumes.

But, the commonality of their music’s effects doesn’t necessarily make them comprehensible. Sigur Rós is a band veiled by its own mystery and imagery, both real and imagined. To everyone who’s not from Iceland, the band hails from a strange, unknown country, makes records with unpronounceable album titles and composes music whose genre is unidentifiable and lyrics that are unfathomable. Their music is frequently cited as “inaccessible,” which probably relates to its lengthy, enigmatic and experimental nature—not to mention the majority of their songs are sung in Icelandic (a complicated and gorgeous language with roots in Old Norse and North Germanic dialects, spoken by less than half a million people) or Hopelandic (a made-up singing-construct language, spoken by no one). The “otherness” sets it apart from everything else but, more so than any other band before or after, that unique nature also offers Sigur Rós’ audiences a blank slate upon which to build their imaginations and emotions from musical experiences.

The picture you have in your head is certainly vivid, but it’s also a destination that exists nowhere and everywhere. It’s foreign and familiar, alien and welcoming. Or, perhaps, in the real world, it’s a much more specific place of opposites: where mountains erupt in flames, and then are cooled by layers of ancient ice; where days sometimes never end, and other times never begin; where the new modern is forced to adapt and cohabitate with the old world, and not the other way around.

“It’s like going to the moon,” was how Iceland was described to me just shortly before landing at Keflavík International, the country’s largest airport: a two-runway, one terminal hub originally built by the American Air Force during World War II. The military base nearby, an assorted menagerie of brightly colored buildings, was only just abandoned by the U.S. in 2006, finally leaving its post as a NATO Cold War presence titled the “Iceland Defense Force.” Iceland has no standing army to speak of.

During the 30-mile drive into Reykjavík, the country’s capital and most populous metropolis (holding around 120,000 people, or one-third of the entire population), travelers pass through the second and third largest cities, Kópavogur (roughly 30,000 citizens) and Hafnarfjörður (just over 25,000), respectively. The landscapes that drift past the window are otherworldly, alarmingly beautiful and unlike anything else from this time: the still-very-much-active volcanoes that rise up out of snowy ranges disguised as mountains and the terrain of cooled, thick lava rock (now covered by dense, vibrant-green moss) surrounding everything is the only hint of the delicate, impermanent peace that nature keeps here. Outside, the early spring air is a sharp 1.5 degrees Celsius (“Not too cold, not a problem,” my driver, Skæri, assures me, tapping the temperature gauge knowingly), and when you breathe it in deep, the crispness hits your lungs in a rush. The nature is overwhelming, but man is present, too. Empty buildings, built too quickly with no one to fill them, and the huge, industrial pockmark of the Rio Tinto Alcan Aluminum plant are ominous intruders to the pristine, millennia-old vistas—constant, modern reminders of the 2008 banking collapse, a devastating blow for the country, which had been on a swift rise before the economic crisis. In Iceland, the old standards and new ways are in constant concert with one another, a balancing act that keeps the country faithful to its traditions while existing as one of the most progressive nations in the world.

For those who will never have the chance to experience this country for themselves, Sigur Rós and their music are international ambassadors to this strange land of contradictions, a country that, for many, remains a foreign, mysterious entity floating “somewhere” up above the United Kingdom and Ireland. When you imagine opposing forces, the complication and the beauty of Sigur Rós’ music, it’s an obvious choice to believe the musical portrait reflects their faraway homeland.

 “It’s beautiful here. It’s raw and harsh, but so beautiful in that way.”

Alex Somers pours more hot mate from the tea press and smiles.

At Alex and Jónsi’s cozy, wooden house in downtown Reykjavík, in the loft studio where the latest Sigur Rós record, Valtari, was completed, Alex and I are discussing a variety of things, especially the circumstances surrounding the new album. Somehow, though—of course—the topic has taken a detour and ventured off on the country’s undeniable beauty. Alex, an American musician and producer, has lived in Iceland with Jónsi for seven years; the two share a home and their lives together, but even further, they share a collaborative recording history that stretches over the past half-decade. As an outsider on the inside, so to speak, Alex is still able to revel in the uniqueness of the exquisite, unconventional surroundings of Reykjavík.

“The nature here is really powerful and intense: waterfalls and glaciers and volcanoes. When you look out [at the landscape], it’s like you could see dinosaurs,” he laughs.

Looking around the small studio space, the two have amassed a curated collection of interesting and vintage instruments from around the world. Next to the couch is a trunk of children’s musical toys found at Goodwill; against the wall are several small antique pianos; from the far corner, Alex brings over a handheld string instrument operated with a series of wooden hammers called a Marxophone (“It makes me think of Aphex Twin,” he says). At the bottom of a windy staircase, in the living room, Jónsi is excitedly putting together a set of bell-like chimes with the enthusiasm and joy of unwrapping presents at Christmastime—the instrument was recently acquired from a collector in Beverly Hills, an arrival to the house that coincided with my own. Many of the assorted knickknacks living in the loft were used in one way or another on Valtari.

“I’d never worked with Sigur Rós,” Alex explains. “I got involved in this album really late; the band was working on this album on and off for a lot of years, actually, and it was only at the end of last year that they seemed that they wanted to try something different. It made sense to give this a go.”

According to the band, the recordings that would go on to become this, their long-awaited sixth album, were begun in sessions all the way back in 2006, after the release of their critically acclaimed and bestselling fourth album, Takk. But the journey of Valtari isn’t as simple as something complex built steadily over many years; this is the story of an album that almost wasn’t made at all.

 In May 2009, six months after the end of the band’s world tour for 2008’s poppy and playful Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust, Sigur Rós announced on their website that they had begun work on the follow-up record. They even went so far as to say the effort was “nearing completion” and noted a distinct change in direction from both Takk and Með suð, describing the new material as “melodic but much less noisy and more ‘out there.’” However, nearly a whole year passed without news nor release, and by January 2010, the band were giving interviews suggesting that regardless of what sessions had been recorded previously, they had been essentially shelved and that the group had no future plans of recording.

“I always find it such a serious word: ‘hiatus,’” says Georg Hólm thoughtfully, sipping from a pint glass.

“When it came, I didn’t even know what it meant: ‘Hiatus,’” says Jónsi, laughing, hesitating on the foreign term for a moment in his thick accent. “I had never even heard this word before.”

Speaking with the band in a Reykjavík hostel’s common room over lunch, coffee and beers, this is one of the first interviews the notoriously private foursome will give discussing the details of the processes and perspectives of the new album. Recalling their creative state in 2009, they all express a certain feeling of exhaustion and tedium of that time.

“We haven’t been overworked, but the 10 years before that hiatus was kind of intense. I think it’s completely excusable,” Kjartan Sveinsson explains, a bit defensively—though no one can argue with his logic.

“We wanted a little break, and we didn’t know exactly how long it would be. It was more innocent, I think,” Georg agrees. “Creativeness, maybe, at least I felt for me… I was kind of becoming just…tired. I couldn’t feel the energy anymore.”

But for fans who were eagerly awaiting a new effort from the quartet, the words “indefinite hiatus” signaled uncertainty. After over a decade of the constant cycle of album recording, touring the world, then another project—be it book, documentary film, soundtrack or anything else that the band has been known to dream up—and repeating the process over and over again, Sigur Rós lifted the needle off their perpetually spinning disc and rested it for nearly four years.

 Georg, Kjartan and Orri each had children over the course of 2009–2010 and settled in to family life at home. Jónsi, however, kept up an impressive work ethic, venturing off from Sigur Rós, first with Alex on 2009’s instrumental Riceboy Sleeps, then for his debut solo album, the self-described “floaty” Go, released the year after. He toured widely for both records, and then collaborated with director Cameron Crowe, soundtracking the film We Bought A Zoo in 2011.

Though Jónsi remained musically manic, Sigur Rós had not performed live since the end of their international tour for Með suð in 2008—for all intents and purposes, they had dropped out of the picturesque environment they had constructed for years without end. And in that absence was silence. To fill in the void, three years after, in 2011, the band (along with director Vincent Morisset) released a live film and album, titled Inni, documenting two nights at the Alexandra Palace in London from November 2008. Inni is a stark contrast to what was presented in Heima, Sigur Rós’ 2007 music documentary. Rather than vivid colorscapes illustrating the band at home in diverse Icelandic settings, Inni is a saturated, claustrophobic, black-and-white vision of four individuals in unison as one. Rarely are there shots of the band together, and when there are, they’re from quite far away.

“We kind of just wanted to record that moment of how it was at that time because, I guess, already, we were thinking we would do something different after it. We talked about a ‘macro feeling’ to it, bringing the audience up on stage so that you would see details that normally you wouldn’t see during our show, that no one notices,” says Georg.

“It was just the four of us, we did not have any string players or brass players, and we wanted to capture that,” says Orri, explaining the departure of the band’s longtime string accompaniment, Amiina.

“It was kind of the end of an era,” says Kjartan.

The film and album encapsulated the energy of Sigur Rós’ legendary live performances, but it gave no hint to what the future might hold. Unbeknownst to the public, however, around the time of Inni’s premiere at the Venice Film Festival, Sigur Rós was back to work on music together after three years, though that itself would present another round of hurdles, as well.

 For Valtari, the band decided to reconcile some of their recordings from 2006 and a few other times, in addition to the bulk from 2009. They entered Sundlaugin studio, where they have recorded every album since 2002’s ( ), and picked up where they had left off.

“When we go in and do a new album, we don’t think about the last one,” says Kjartan. “We’re not forcing ourselves to lead a certain soundscape or anything like that, because we have a certain sound, you know, and it’s very easy to go into that.”

“We try not to think of a path to take, it’s something that evolves and takes shape later in the process,” says Orri.

“We’ve always been super collaborative in everything we do. We kind of work like that in the rehearsal space. We just be together and we all write songs together,” says Jónsi simply with a shrug. In speaking with all four members about one another, the tone and camaraderie they express—both with and without words—makes it increasingly clear that, beyond simply a band, Sigur Rós are family. “It’s always been that way, we always do everything together,” continues Jónsi. “I think that’s really cool, actually, I like that it feels like a unit and that we’re kind of communal. Everybody is in it for the same reasons together.”

And the length of time spent away from the songs that had spawned a break in the first place turned out to be a blessing.

“I think [the break] was really necessary because we were kind of always giving up on it,” Georg explains, of returning to the recording three years on. “We felt like, ‘[sighs] No, it’s not happening,’ giving up and then coming back to it and saying, ‘No, there is something, it’s good,’ and then giving up again,” he laughs. “I think it’s always good to step back a bit, and then when you come back to it, you will notice things that you didn’t notice before. You clear your head and then you come back to it again and think, ‘Ooh, yes, that’s really nice.’”

“It’s a weird album,” Jónsi admits. “We started it so many times and put it on hold and then started it again—it’s definitely weird.”

“We changed [the recordings from 2009] a lot, just the feel of it,” Orri says. “We put meat on the bones.”
Still, at the end of 2011, the band hit another creative roadblock—perhaps spending too much time with the thing itself. Alex, assigned with the task of mixing his first Sigur Rós record, turned out to be much more instrumental.
“In a lot of ways, Alex kind of saved it. It’s very hard to work on music like that for a very long time,” Georg says candidly of the difficulties Valtari’s compositions presented. “He has the patience to sit down and just listen to one of those songs for hours and hours and hours. And we didn’t all the time, so we were coming in and out and doing bits and pieces. But he was always there.”

“There,” in the loft studio, Alex responds with humble straightforwardness. “All the songs were really good from the first listen. But they were lacking some kind of structure, even if that was an ambient structure; they needed some kind of form. We all worked together in trying to find that,” he explains. “I think the guys are really spontaneous in nature. Normally they’ll write a song and the core of it happens quickly, but this album was so drawn out, I think they were all kind of getting bored with it. I think that’s why it was good they got someone else to come in and breathe new life into the project. I think I just helped get everyone excited about it again because it is really good.”

The band spent six weeks with Alex in the home studio loft, where the recordings were chopped up, tinkered with and rearranged. Band members came in pairs and individually to complete overdubs in the intimate space, adding piano bits, percussion, Jónsi’s signature bow guitar and utilizing “all kinds of weird stuff” from Jónsi and Alex’s cache, all the while evacuating their individual comfort zones by regularly switching instruments.

The result is Valtari, described by its creators as “weird,” “different” and “very beautiful.” It is most definitely all three. Miles from the purely experimental atmospherics of Von’s “Hafsól,” the acoustic simplicity of Ágætis byrjun’s title track, the build-up and sonic assault of ( )’s “Untitled 8,” the orchestral ecstasy of Takk’s “Hoppípolla” or the fast-paced, carefree delights of Með suð’s “Gobbledigook,” Valtari is the next sonic voyage. Unlike any other Sigur Rós album, their sixth combines ambience with sepia-tinged antiquity. Pianos and idiophones warble out of pitch through the atmosphere; stringed notes are bowed out until frayed exhaustion; tape decay crackles in and out, a delicate static background. It could all come out of the depths of a gramophone, if you close your eyes for long enough. As the album that took the longest to make, picked from the fragments of many different times, it sounds like it could have been first, at the turn of a century that’s never existed. And for all the building and constructing their music inspires in one’s brain, or soul, Valtari reasserts that they, too, are architects themselves—of their art.
“It’s just the sound that these four guys create—and it’s not like guitar-bass-drums-piano or whatever,” says Alex, smiling. “I think it sets a good example for bands to not be locked in and thinking too much about being a musician. It’s more about being music-makers.”

At this moment in time, Sigur Rós are finally preparing to set the needle back upon the spinning grooves, with Valtari as the catalyst that brings them back to us. Now, the destinations that lie ahead for the quartet are the foreign and the strange, as they prepare to tour the world for many months ahead for the first time in years.

“I’m really looking forward to it, actually. I think it’s really exciting,” Jónsi says, his face lighting up. “I haven’t toured in a long time. The last time I went on tour was two years ago; with the guys, four years ago.” He pauses, cracking a smile. “I think they’re all really stressed. Like Goggi, he had this bad dream about going on stage and not knowing the songs and being booed off stage. So he’s really nervous.” Jónsi laughs. “He hasn’t touched his bass in four years, so he’s like, ‘I have to learn all the songs again? I don’t remember any of the songs!’ We’ve only met once so far to practice, and that was yesterday, and we only played one song through.”

“The rehearsal yesterday is the cure for my nightmares. I just realized that this is not going to be as hard as I thought,” says Georg, laughing. “When I got back home, I started listening to live recordings of our music, and the really weird thing was that I closed my eyes and I could see my hands on the bass, the actual notes I was playing. It was quite clear and bizarre. Muscle memory.”

“We were talking about how funny it is when it kicks in. You’re so stressed and then you take up your instrument and you start playing, and then you automatically go into the right chord,” Jónsi says.

As my car drives against the very same 30-mile route that brought me to Reykjavík two days earlier, the experience is akin to waking up and opening your eyes—or pausing the music. It’s time to return to reality, to another existence. Leaving Iceland is to venture away from a comfortable sense of balance and equipoise: where an ancestral culinary tradition such as hákarl (essentially rotten shark meat) is kept close to its national identity while sensibly adapting to societal reform in the name of progress and the good of its people. The rough terrain, fresh air, glowing blue geothermal rivers and lakes and gorgeous landscapes begin to slowly fade in the rear-view. But, the very nature of departing almost always means returning, one day.

Soon, Sigur Rós, too, will depart; leaving one extraordinary country in order to travel to dozens of others, bringing with them the music that, entirely on its own, transports us all to far off places.

“A good show, for me, is when I am kind of zoned out,” Georg describes of his experiences on stage. “It’s almost like meditation. It feels like natural energy. A bad show, I feel really conscious of myself. I snap out of it and I go, ‘Oh. I’m here.’ You know? A good show is when you barely notice that you are actually doing it—you just listen to the music.”

And let it take you away. F

This article is from FILTER Issue 48