“Music has been intertwined with my life from the age of six. Actually, I didn’t give up my soul to it until I turned nine and started playing an instrument. After that, there was no turning back, really,” says soft-spoken Valgeir Sigurðsson.
After an industrious career as a recordist and producer in his recording studio Greenhouse, recording artists such as Björk, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and múm, he is just now stepping into the limelight as a musician after more than a decade of working in the shadows. This is due more to the nature of his work than personal modesty, although those who meet him will attest he isn’t lacking in that department either. A quiet, contemplative demeanour gives off the air of someone who would rather just do his work properly than boast of it.
“I started off as most people do, perusing my parents’ record collection, listening to the Beatles, strumming a tennis racquet, however, my uncles quickly exposed me to what was happening in punk and new wave at the time. soon enough I was making ritualistic visits to the Grammið record store whenever I got to Reykjavík [Sigurðsson was born and raised in the small town of Blönduós]. I remember going by myself to see Crass play Laugardalshöll at age 12. I was pretty scared of all the large punkers,” he says, laughing. Soon after moving to Reykjavík for high school at age 16, Sigurðsson found a job at a recording studio. Describing it as “a way out from a school I couldn’t find myself in,” the job quickly took over his life, eventually leading him to decide that music was what he wanted to devote his life to.
The early nineties saw Sigurðsson record his first full-length records, but he says it was through his work with Bad Taste recording artists Magga Stína and Unun [for whom he ended up serving as a keyboardist] that he started gaining momentum. Setting up his own studio in 1997 was a milestone, as would a fruitful collaboration with Björk that commenced the following year. “She was moving back to Iceland and wanted someone to work with. She invited me to try my hand at it, and I guess we both liked it enough to collaborate further. Our first project was the Dancer in the Dark soundtrack and it kind of evolved from there, we never planned on working together for as long as we did.”
Was it intimidating to work with her at first?
“No, not at all. It probably helped that I wasn’t a particular fan of hers, although that would change as I got to know her. I approached it as just another job to be done, an attitude I probably learned from [Unun guitarist] Þór Eldon while touring the world with him. I learned a lot from his outlook on things, one of them being that no matter how famous or notorious someone is, in the end, they’re still just people.”
Since working on Dancer in the Dark, Sigurðsson has steadily added successful projects and collaborations to his résumé. His level of professional respect, probably culminated when he was asked to provide Britney Spears with some songs for consideration [he gracefully declined]. When asked what determines his decision to work with an artist, he says the most important thing will always be the possibility of a dialogue between the two. “Music is a form of communication. In order to make it you have to work with someone that you can communicate with. There needs to be a level of trust, that really serves as the basis for everything else.”
He speaks enthusiastically of a recent visit to Mali, where he was fascinated by how the natives approach music. “It’s a purer form of communication, something that really underlines the difference between our culture and theirs. In Mali, it doesn’t matter if you’re five or 50, everybody operates on the same level in regards to conveying ideas and emotions through music. It serves as a basic form of communication and interaction that everyone participates in.
“Their attitude towards music betrays a certain purity in their culture, whereas our culture seems to have alienated a large portion of the population. Here in Iceland for instance, it’s more common for people over 30 to withdraw themselves from those forms of culture, perhaps feeling that they should rather leave it to knowledgeable cultural beacons. This is unfortunate, as I feel that music talks to us on so many levels, be they primal, sexual, intellectual… It’s a universal language if there ever was one.”
What determines the value of a piece of music for you?
“There are many factors. It’s hard to say exactly. Often, I will look for a certain integrity in the artist, if that is missing then there isn’t really anything to get from it. When you make something that’s been determined to push someone’s buttons, to please them, it’s unlikely to have any merit. That said, I immediately feel an urge to contradict myself. You can of course make excellent calculated pop music too.”
In the past year and a half, Sigurðsson has embarked on his most ambitious project to date: setting up an eclectic record label with two close friends. At first conceived as a means to release a collaboration between Sigurðsson and New York-based composer Nico Muhly, Bedroom Community quickly evolved into a full-fledged ‘boutique label’ with ambitions to release the best in experimental and unorthodox music. Formed around Sigurðsson, Muhly and Reykjavík-based Australian composer extraordinaire Ben Frost, the label released its début last month, Muhly’s critically acclaimed Speaks in Volumes. October will see the release of Frost’s Theory of Machines and Sigurðsson’s anticipated solo début is tentatively planned.
“Nico and I were originally discussing doing a project together that we felt might be difficult to get a decent release for. So, we figured we might as well release it ourselves and started conceiving the Bedroom Community. When Ben moved to Iceland, I told him of the idea and invited him to join. He liked it and wanted to be part of it, after that it became serious. We’ve been working hard at the project for the last year, doing idea work and preparations, and it’s therefore pleasing to watch it manifest now. Although we’ve only got our own records planned at this time, we see the community as a growing organism that will continue to thrive for a long time.”
Sigurðsson explains that there is indeed a wide audience for the type of music they plan on releasing – reaching it is just a matter of distribution and aggregation. However, there is no business plan: “I feel that viewing music as a consumer product severely diminishes its value. This is one of the reasons we’re operating the project on a smaller scale and putting our own money into it, rather than, say, securing funding from an investor. I have a limited belief in anyone who invests in such a project to make money.
“If you only want to partake in something to financially benefit from it, then I have no interest in speaking with you. I can’t relate to that mode of thought at all, although I suppose it must be a valid one since so many people are practicing it. The Bedroom Community will have to find its feet without an investment from someone who’s simply hoping to advance his capital. Expectations of productivity and revenue only serve to create a negative pressure that stifles creative thought. And we are creating this forum to be free of such things.”
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