Published December 5, 2017
It was over ten years ago, in 2006, when Sigur rós last had a grand homecoming. The band had released a trilogy of albums—’Agætis byrjun,’ ‘(),’ and ‘Takk’—that took the world by storm. They came back to Iceland for a victory lap of their homeland, staging shows for locals in remote corners of the country, from the Ásbyrgi to Ólafsvík, Ísafjörður, Djúpavík, Seyðisfjörður, and more.
Flash forward to 2017, and Sigur rós are coming home once more—but this time, they’re bringing some friends. Their brand new festival, Norður og Niður (“North and down” in English—a euphemism, roughly, for “Everything’s going to hell”), started as a simple idea. The band would stage a series of headline shows at Harpa in that hazy, lazy, period between Christmas and the New Year. The idea of support acts came up, and the project snowballed as the wish list grew. Soon enough, Sigur rós realised they’d almost accidentally created a music festival.
“Originally it was just the idea that we’d play a show in Iceland at the end of this tour,” says Georg Hólm, the band’s bassist and sometime spokesperson. “We didn’t want to play in Laugardalshöllinn again, because we always play there—and we have this beautiful room in Harpa. It’s smallish, but it’s still a beautiful room. We knew that we would play multiple nights. And it wound itself up and became more than just three or four Sigur rós shows. We invited more and more people to come along. And it became a festival.”
“Elborg is a beautiful room,” says Jónsi, the band’s frontman. “I like the colour. When you walk into Harpa it’s a little like walking into an airport. We want to change the feeling when you walk in, so it feels nice, instead of cold. It’s a nice time of year to do something like this—between Christmas and New Year is a little depressing and dark, so it’ll be nice to do something fun. People will have somewhere to go and have drinks and see good music.”
“We’re working on making it nice inside,” he continues. “It’s exciting.” Georg adds, “It’ll be pretty spectacular, I hope.”
The lineup includes established artists like Jarvis Cocker and Kevin Shields, post-rock acts such as Mogwai and Stars Of The Lid, and up-and-coming musicians like harpist Mary Lattimore and emerging electronica star Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith. “It was a lot of fun at the beginning,” says Georg. “We thought, ‘Who do we want?’ and started writing down names. Then another name pops up, and another.”
“There are a lot of old losers like us,” smiles Jónsi. “Kevin Shields and Jarvis Cocker have been around the block. We met Kevin when we were playing in Spain, a long time ago. It’ll be fun to do something together. We grew up with My Bloody Valentine, I have great memories of being sixteen years old in a rehearsal space, blasting ‘Loveless’ through a guitar amp and lying on the floor really drunk. It’s amazing.”
“Then there are some newer things,” Jónsi continues. “We’ve been spending more and more time in LA, and Mary Lattimore and Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and Julianna Barwick—they live close to me, so we kind of hang out. They’re really nice people.”
It’s a rich musical menu, and the band are gratified at how many artists have agreed to play, given the timing of the festival. “We’re really happy and amazed how many people said yes,” says Georg. “There are even more acts that we haven’t even announced yet. It’s amazing how many great bands agreed to this. It’s not the easiest time of the year to get people to come, during the holiday season.”
Bland í poka
The lineup forms an interesting diagram of Sigur rós’s diverse and widespread musical mores and influences. As well as friends and family (both proverbial family, and in some cases, literal family), many of the artists playing are Sigur rós collaborators, old and new.
“Dan Deacon did an arrangement for us when we played at Disney Hall in LA,” says Jónsi, becoming animated at the memory. “He’s a Baltimore guy, so we know him a little bit from there. Stars of the Lid is one of my all-time favourites. They never play! So it’ll be really good to see them, actually.”
“There are bands like Mogwai who we’ve played loads of shows with in the past years,” says Georg. “It’s a ‘bland í poka’—a mixed bag, when you go to the shop and put your 500 króna on the table for a mixed bag of candy.”
ET phone home
Music is just one piece of the Norður og Niður puzzle, and Jónsi and Georg are keen to talk about additional events, from dance performances to artist collaborations to lectures. The band will also unveil unreleased work at the festival, with The Icelandic Dance Company performing to a previously unheard piece. Some specially-pressed vinyls will be on sale—including a solo electronica album from Jónsi, highlights of the generative music from the ‘Route One’ project, and solo material by Alex Somers—with limited edition handmade artwork. There are also appearances from some exciting big name artists—visual and musical—pencilled in, pending confirmation.
“We didn’t want it to completely be a music festival,” says Georg. “It’s an art thing, or even wider than that. We have people giving lectures, like Nelly Ben Hayoun, who works with NASA and SETI. She’s a really interesting character—super intelligent, and out there, to say the least. She’ll be talking about the search for extraterrestrial life. There’ll be little things for everyone, and lots going on for free.”
“It’s been a lot of work,” finishes Jónsi, laughing. “But it’s going to be a lot of fun, too.”