From Iceland — Norður, Niður And Back Again

Norður, Niður And Back Again

Published June 30, 2023

Norður, Niður And Back Again
Photo by
Chloe Kritharas

A conversation with Sigur Rós in eight parts

I. The eulogy

A genuinely palpable sigh of relief could be heard echoing through circles of Icelandic music fans when news broke in 2022 that multi-instrumentalist Kjartan Sveinsson had returned to Sigur Rós after a 10 year absence. 

The band had laid dormant since 2017, when a gruelling two-year-long world tour culminated in arguably their most ambitious project to date. “Norður og Niður” (colloquial directions to hell) was a four day festival at Harpa that boasted an incredibly impressive line up of the band’s friends and favourite artists. The spectacle took place at the very end of December, channelling the dark, grim and apocalyptic atmosphere typical  that period on the Icelandic calendar. 

It also took place in the shadow of a bizarre scandal wherein Kári Sturluson, the band‘s longtime right hand man and a part of Norður og Niður’s promotional team, had taken 35 million Icelandic krónur of ticket buyers’ money and snuck out the back door. Still, the show went on and Sigur Rós had a triumphant homecoming, playing four sold out shows at Harpa’s Eldborg, the last of which I had the honour of attending. 

As I joined my peers in a procession out of the grand hall, I had an ominous feeling that this had been a four-day memorial service disguised as a festival.

It was an emotionally exhausting event to attend and, as I joined my peers in a procession out of the grand hall, I had an ominous feeling that this had been a four-day memorial service disguised as a festival – an opportunity to eulogise, lay wreaths on the band’s grave and celebrate an end of an era. I was certain we’d seen Sigur Rós for the last time.  

“Yeah, I kind of agree with you” Kjartan tells me when I explain to him how that night felt. “There was that feeling in the air, like the adventure was over.” Kjartan was in attendance that night, though not on stage. Georg Hólm, however, was most certainly on stage and so I posed the same question to him, eliciting a slightly more pragmatic answer. 

“You´re probably not far off from the truth. However, we never decided anything was over but a lot of stuff was accumulating there at the end of 2017,” the band’s bassist, known colloquially as Goggi, admits. “That surreal Kári case, which was simply a daylight robbery, two years of exhausting tours, and this was our fourth Harpa show in as many days, the pressure of playing in front of friends and family. Plus, the last show was nationally televised and happened to be our least favourite of the four. So yeah, when we walked off stage we were kinda like ‘jæja, ok…’” 

“We knew at least we wouldn’t be back on stage for a long time,” he continues. “but whether we were ever going to play again was never discussed. Not that that’s ever really discussed. It’s all pretty loose. We’ll just keep going until it stops being fun.” 

II. To hell and back

It’s hard to imagine it’s been much fun over the last few years, either. Since 2017 the band has had to weather a constant barrage of storms. Shortly after the aforementioned corrupt promoter case, the band faced a tax evasion lawsuit that was litigated to hell and back, and only closed earlier this year with all members finally acquitted. 

Amidst all the fiduciary drama, drummer Orri Páll Dýrason was accused of sexual assault in 2018, catalysing in his departure from the band. 

Yet here we are, against all odds, it seems Sigur Rós are back to having fun. They’ve just released their eighth studio album, fittingly named Átta (Icelandic for “eight”) and at the time we spoke were preparing to travel the world with a 41-piece orchestra. It may sound like a mad idea, but there’s no other way to do this album justice. 

It’s a grown up’s middle finger of an album. A grandiose and expansive orchestral piece, a soundscape the band have often dabbled in, but never to this extent. It’s almost entirely void of rhythm and the orchestra does it’s best to drown out the signature bowed guitars and verbed out electric pianos, but leaves just enough space so that Átta still feels unquestionably like a Sigur Rós record. It‘s endless.

It became obvious to us pretty early in the writing process that we wanted to take this orchestral route. Make it gigantic.

III. A sundrenched return

“It became obvious to us pretty early in the writing process that we wanted to take this orchestral route. Make it gigantic,” Kjartan tells me. “The music just kinda begged for it. The band has only ever written with everyone present in the same room but this time around Jónsi and I started writing just the two of us. So the room was obviously lacking a rhythmic element and the songwriting just had a different flavour to it. There was clearly space for another element there which ended up being the orchestra. 

“In fact,” he continues, “the palate we started from consisted of Jónsi’s massive guitar tones and my [Yamaha] CP sound and the plan was to replace that entirely with the orchestra, but it didn’t quite pan out that way“. 

Árni: So when did you start working on the material? 

Kjartan: Jónsi and I started meeting up in 2018. At the time there was so much uncertainty surrounding the band. Orri had obviously left and there were just the two of them left. It was barely a band. But we wanted to try and work together. Even though we never meant for this to be a Sigur Rós project, it quite quickly became obvious that’s what it was meant to be.

Á: Was this at Sundlaugin (Sigur Rós’s legendary recording studio that Kjartan now owns and operates)?

K: No, I had to go to Jónsi, who had then relocated to Los Angeles, my favourite place, [he says with the most casually ironic tone one could muster.] I went there twice in 2018 and we wrote the whole thing on those two trips. It was incredible how quickly it all clicked into place. When you‘ve been in a marriage with someone for so long everything comes so naturally. We just wrote a song a day and we were done. Then when we had realised this was a Sigur Rós album and Goggi agreed he brought a ton of great elements to the mix.

Átta is, therefore, based on sunbaked Los Angeles demos, which were then brought to life by the London Contemporary Orchestra but somehow sound unfathomably Icelandic.

IV. Poems for the apocalypse

Átta is, therefore, based on sunbaked Los Angeles demos, which were then brought to life by the London Contemporary Orchestra but somehow sound unfathomably Icelandic. Sure, Sigur Rós employ a dash of English here, in the track “Gold” – an exceedingly rare occurrence, as anyone familiar with their repertoire would know – but the bulk of the lyrics, on tracks like “Blóðberg,” “Mór” and “Andrá,” pay homage to romantic era poetry, making the entire thing feel like a long lost ode to nature. 

This vivid imagery is further reflected on the album’s cover, which boasts an image of a rainbow that’s been set on fire. The remarkably violent image is from a 1983 performance art piece by Icelandic artist Rurí, who was later commissioned to create the monolithic and industrial-looking rainbow sculpture that greets everyone coming or going through the international airport in Keflavík. 

“The music dictates and instils its own meaning, and in this case we felt the album had an apocalyptic quality to it,” Goggi says when asked about the significance of the album cover. 

“The album is centred around a series of big questions with no clear answers; impending apocalypse, how we’re treating the earth and each other and so on. The rainbow seemed fitting as it’s the purest expression of nature and can’t be touched or altered in any way. So, setting it on fire is obviously excessively brutal but somehow so beautiful. I think it reflects the album well,” he continues. “The album is introspective in the sense that it’s an attempt to express an emotion and as such it looks outwards. But it’s all just a big question mark with so many questions being asked at the same time. So open for interpretation.” 

V. A long time coming

As work on the album got underway six years ago, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that rumours of its existence have been circulating for some time. There‘s the obvious delay caused by the pandemic, but even with that leeway, Átta took longer to finish than one might have expected. 

“Yeah, we actually mixed it twice,” Kjartan says about the additional time it took to bring the album over the finish line. “The first mix was made in March 2022, but that was abandoned and we went back to the drawing board. The idea was to release it before the tour we went on last year, but that obviously didn’t work out.”

Á: So wasn’t it a bit of a bummer to go on the tour? 

K: Yeah, it kinda sucked. I’ve always found it a little bit lame to tour without any new material. We never considered postponing the tour though. We’ve had to do it once and that’s just horrible.

The band then went on an extensive tour, reunited with an old member but without any new music to showcase. 

This year, however, they’re planning an all out tour for Átta, where for the majority of stops they will be accompanied by a gigantic orchestra to help them translate this material to the stage. Kjartan maintains that some of Átta’s material is simply too big to be done justice live – even with an orchestra – so the band will also lean on older material, including a few things they haven’t played in a long time such as megahit “Starálfur” off Ágætis byrjun and a couple of songs from the band’s sixth album, the last with Kjartan, Valtari

Photo by Daniel Dittus

VI. The absence

Speaking of Valtari, Átta actually feels like Valtari’s older, more mature sibling. 

“You think so?” Kjartan questions when I make the connection. “Yeah, the thing is Valtari is a bit of a strange one. I had technically left the band in 2008, after the Suð tour [referring to the band’s fifth studio album, Með suð í eyrunum við spilum endalaust]. The thing was we had one album left of our EMI deal and we were obliged to deliver that. We had all this leftover ambient material from the Takk sessions, which we had originally intended to be a double album. So Valtari mainly consists of that stuff. Ambient outtakes and the like.”

The Sigur Rós mission was just so important that it took priority over everything else.

“I kind of always saw it as a byproduct rather than an actual album,” he continues. “It was just something we had to do to fulfil our obligations to EMI and free me from the record contract. I was very surprised when the guys decided to tour that record. I did, however, listen to it again last summer and today I think it’s justified as an album. I was just so out at the time.” 

Kjartan explains that he departed among what he calls a “total burnout” amid a period of years where the band was touring massively while individual band members had young children and other obligations in their personal lives as well. “When you think back you just realise how insane it all was,” he admits. “The option to stop just simply wasn’t there. The Sigur Rós mission was just so important that it took priority over everything else.” 

VII. The return

Á: Were you hesitant to return to the stage? 

K: No, I was just burnt out at the time, but now it‘s just so fun to come back to this. Everyone‘s older and more mature. There‘s less madness and people just have respect for each other.  We have become accustomed to talking about our feelings and taking care of ourselves and each other. 

Á: So, 14 years between tours. Has anything changed drastically? 

K: No, not really.  The venues are the same, the process is the same and it‘s more or less the same technology. 

We‘ve certainly upgraded our old AKAI sampler and run samples of computers now, but I actually kinda miss the samplers. They were much more reliable. But essentially it‘s just cables. 

I guess the main difference is the audience. Back in the day the occasional audience member would pick up their phone and call their friends to brag they were at a Sigur Rós gig. You’d get this super loud interference noise in the monitor and I’d be furious. Same thing when someone would pick up their camera. I’d be incensed. But now nobody’s actually watching the gig. People have way less attention span and patience. It’s only the real die hard fans that show up and actually listen whilst a large portion of the audience just can’t seem to immerse themselves and are constantly distracted by their phones. It’s wild.”

When we started rehearsing for the last tour I found that all this music was just in my fingers. I didn’t need to think at all. There was such a depth of understanding and everything was so comfortable.

Á: I reckon touring is quite an institutionalising lifestyle, did you miss it during your hiatus?

K: Yeah, I missed playing so much. I’d only ever played with the guys in the band and I am super uncomfortable and shy about playing with other people. I had crippling imposter syndrome. I didn’t want anyone to find out I wasn’t as good as they thought I was. I was simply scared to death about working with anyone but the band. I’d been in the band since I was a teenager and we all understand each other. We’re all equally shit.

Á: So, does it feel like coming back home? 

K: Yeah, it’s obviously such a comfort zone. When we started rehearsing for the last tour I found that all this music was just in my fingers. I didn’t need to think at all. There was such a depth of understanding and everything was so comfortable.

VIII. Welcome home

In a world as fickle and unforgiving as the music industry, a 14-year absence may sound like an actual lifetime, but in Sigur Rós’s case it’s nothing. Átta arrives a year before they celebrate their 30th anniversary and, considering the headwind and the obstacles they’ve had to overcome over the last few years, there’s no reason to assume they won’t go for another 30. This isn’t actually such an anomaly in 2023, though. A quick glance over this summers’ festival headliners makes this abundantly clear as the vast majority of artists considered worthy of a headline spot released their seminal albums sometime last century. Bands just don’t seem to quit. 

“Not anymore they don’t” Kjartan says. “Bands had basically zero lifespan back in the day. If you hadn’t released an album for three years you were just old news. Nobody got the opportunity to age in music but nowadays it’s different. I’m not sure why but it might just be a byproduct of pop culture being so young.” 

It’s certainly young. By most estimates, it’s just over 70 years old. That means Sigur Rós have been around for roughly 40% of pop’s history and well over half of Iceland’s pop lifespan. 

They’ve thankfully aged gracefully as they’ve never stopped challenging themselves. They’ve raised the bar and set new standards with every successive release and Átta is no exception. 

Welcome back Sigur Rós, we’ve missed you. 

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