“Let it in and make up your own mind.” Ice­landic band Sigur Rós on their new al­bum,

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Front Page -

IS IT RE­ALLY 18 years since Sigur Rós first put spec­tral pen to an­cient pa­per? And if so, why does the Ice­landic band’s lead vo­cal­ist Jónsi Thor (yes, Thor) Bir­gis­son still look like a 12-yearold bunk­ing off school for the af­ter­noon? We are in London’s Covent Gar­den Ho­tel on a wet, wet, wet af­ter­noon. The Ticket, Jónsi and Sigur Rós’s drum­mer Orri Páll Dyra­son gather in an an­te­room that acts as Me­dia Cen­tral for the very few in­ter­views the band are al­low­ing them­selves to en­gage with in the lead-up to the re­lease of their new al­bum, Val­tari (“Roller” in English). There is no slav­ish re­quire­ment on the band’s be­half to talk to all and sundry, yet there is also no sense that they are keen to de­lib­er­ately add to the mys­tery and enigma that al­ready en­velops them.

That’s not to say the band don’t take a cer­tain de­light in side-blind­ing: with his long, strag­gling hair and un­kempt beard, Dyra­son looks like a mem­ber of a heavy me­tal band raised on a diet of Jethro Tull. Bir­gis­son, mean­while, is imp­ishly dressed in a thread­bare red patch­work shirt and an odd-look­ing pair of trews that the masses might be scammed into buy­ing if cross-coun­try cy­cling wear should ever be­come this year’s lit­tle black dress. Each mu­si­cian is as quiet as a church mouse, and re­mark­ably po­lite.

“Elec­tric Pic­nic?” queries Bir­gis­son when he learns that The Ticket is from Ire­land. “That is the show I’m most look­ing for­ward to this year. I just love it . . .”

Named af­ter Bir­gis­son’s younger sis­ter, Sigur Rós formed in Reykjavik in 1994, re­leas­ing their de­but al­bum, Von, in 1997. Ar­riv­ing two years later, Ágaetis Byr­jun did the trick of ef­fec­tively forc­ing the band to en­gage with a com­mu­nity much larger than that of their na­tive fan­base. Sup­port slots with Ra­dio­head beck­oned, but it was Cameron Crowe’s movie Vanilla Sky that brought the band’s mu­sic to an even wider au­di­ence. (In a nod to Crowe’s ben­e­fi­cial as­sis­tance, Bir­gis­son wrote the score for the di­rec­tor’s lat­est movie, We Bought a Zoo.)

When the band first started, what were their ini­tial am­bi­tions?

“You start play­ing in a band with your friends be­cause you want to have fun,” ex­plains Bir­gis­son, who does most of the talk­ing; Dyra­son seems not to mind at all. “I think there isn’t that much am­bi­tion – you just want to en­joy your­self. It turned into some­thing a bit more se­ri­ous when we started to get known out­side of Ice­land, and when we started to tour into other parts of Europe and Amer­ica. That was se­ri­ous, but for some­one like us – peo­ple who had never set foot off the is­land be­fore – it was a great ad­ven­ture.”

Also, at this early stage, adds Dyra­son (who re­placed orig­i­nal drum­mer Ágúst Evar Gun­nars­son in 1999, and has been a friend of the band since their school days), no one was re­ally think­ing about what life out­side Ice­land might be like.

“At that point, the best-known group from Ice­land was The Su­gar­cubes. Kids were just mak­ing mu­sic for no rea­son other than that they en­joyed it. Cer­tainly, the thought that any money was to be made was nowhere near our minds. Plus, in Ice­land it’s bet­ter to be in­side a garage mak­ing mu­sic than to be out­side in the cold!”

Any no­tions of even a loose in­fra­struc­ture by which to ad­vance their plans or am­bi­tions were un­rav­elled by the fact that The Su­gar­cubes had split up sev­eral years ear­lier and Björk (that band’s for­mer singer) had de­camped to London to con­tinue with an in­creas­ingly suc­cess­ful solo ca­reer.

“Oh, no, there was very lit­tle in­dus­try around,” says Bir­gis­son. “It was a re­ally small and friendly scene of some bands, all of a sim­i­lar age to us, and we played in the same venues. Look­ing back, I’d say our early mu­si­cal en­deav­ours were naive and full of want­ing to ex­per­i­ment. We were young and stupid but full of en­ergy and mis­chief. You know, when- ever I think back, all I can re­call is that the weather was so sunny out­side. That’s prob­a­bly not how it was at all, though, which says prob­a­bly more about me than any­thing else.

“It’s like this: we started play­ing al­most 20 years ago; we lived on a small is­land, and we were so much more iso­lated back then. You never thought that you were go­ing to play off the is­land. And I re­ally mean never. When all of that came it was truly amaz­ing for us. And we never gave much thought, ei­ther, to the word or the no­tion of ‘de­vel­op­ment’.”

Yet the band has most as­suredly de­vel­oped. Where once Sigur Rós’s mu­sic was viewed as a plea­sur­able odd­ity, now it is a by­word for a com­pletely dif­fer­ent kind of sound­scape. Across al­most 15 years, the band has re­leased five stu­dio al­bums, with Val­tari the sixth. No one can ac­cuse them of flood­ing the mar­ket, but with mu­sic of such long-last­ing power, it’s the seep­ing qual­ity that counts. The stick­ing-point ap­pears to be how such won­der­ful mu­sic is con­structed. It’s a sim­ple and quite bor­ing process, they ex­plain. The four mem­bers get to­gether in a re­hearsal space, one or more of them starts to im­pro­vise and then, says Bir­gis­son, “at some point we’d hit on some­thing, and we’d fo­cus on that un­til mu­sic ap­prox­i­mat­ing a


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