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