From Iceland — Talking It Out

Talking It Out

Published September 2, 2005

Talking It Out

I didn’t personally download your album. I overheard someone listening to it and confiscated it. I swear. After we heard that you weren’t that upset over the fact that it was online.
Jónsi: How does it sound when you download it? I haven’t downloaded it myself.

Really high quality for a pirated recording.
Jónsi: I like that better than if it were a crappy recording.

We’ve spent all week dealing with Sigur Rós fans, honestly. I’ve been surprised by the international community behind your band. At how interested they are solely in the music, not in the personality or the lifestyle of the members. The Sigur Rós website, for example, focuses only on types of keyboards.
Jónsi: That’s how it should be. Though I never go to the website. I think it’s quite scary, actually, how everyone wants an explanation for everything. I never go.

Is it scary even if they’re only discussing music? We had someone looking at the photo we had from the studio explaining that the keyboard is a Casio 87, asking which song it might be on.
Jónsi: Well that’s obviously wrong. It’s just nerdy, though I think it’s cute, actually, when they’re asking about how we got the guitar sound, but then it gets scary beyond that. A lot of weird discussions go on.

Regarding the music versus personal, there is an aspect I liked about Sigur Rós and the coverage in Iceland. When The Grapevine went to your studio last year, even though you and I had met before, we discussed nothing personal at all—a Sigur Rós interview used to just be a reminder that you should be content with the CD. But then this week, in Iceland, I’ve been seeing your personal life in the media. All about who you’re dating and who got married.
Jónsi: I know, I think it’s fucking ridiculous. I think it’s because of the website. The web designer put it up for news, but then Fréttablaðið just took it and printed it. It makes everything weird for us.

You’d rather be left alone when you’re at home.
Jónsi: Yes, but we can’t get frustrated about this. That’s just the way journalism is. We just leave it alone.

That said, it’s hard for journalists to cover Sigur Rós. I’ve been thinking about this: with rock or folk music, you have lyrics and patterns that interact with journalists as much as fans, as opposed to say jazz and classical music, which doesn’t directly transfer into print. Plus, Sigur Rós doesn’t react with journalists. There’s an interesting pressure when we just have to review music like its music, not like it’s somebody’s article.
But you’re really fucking with rock journalists when you put out an album that considers influences and styles outside of our small space of known material.

Jónsi: Especially with the brackets album. That was so hard for them. No titles, no lyrics. Nothing for them to hold on to. When they got it and they realized there were no titles and you just had to listen, it was too much for them, I think. And they talked more about that than the music. And I think when the journalists are not being fed everything then they get a little scared.

But you sympathize with that, I imagine. A lot of musicians in Iceland have written or commented on local music in addition to performing. Are you one of them?
Jónsi: No. I think it’s scary to analyze music too much. There should be a certain amount of magic that shouldn’t be thought about too much. It should happen naturally. I think that’s always the best thing.

Talking about the album, Takk. Can we begin with the overall organization? How it works together. I noticed songs blended together, it felt like a complete symphony more than a collection of tracks.
Jónsi: It was not organized: there are many songs, which connect with each other. The order just came along that way. Of course number 11 had to be number 11. And track 3 and 4 are looped. And they’re actually made from a loop from Ágætis Byrjun, a reverse loop of track 7. So it’s a lot of recycling going on. I think it’d be fun to take one song and try to sample something from that, then sample something from that. And make something from that. It would be fun. Do you want to know something about the songs or something?

Anything you want to tell. The song that most fascinates me is Lest, track 5. The composition, the mixture of beats. The polka.
Jónsi: That was funny. We got a celeste, do you know the instrument?

No, I honestly hardly knew any of the instruments at your studio.
Jónsi: A celeste is like a small upright piano. There’s a picture of it here (in issue 12 of The Grapevine), this is Björk’s celeste. It sounds a lot like a glockenspiel. But it is played like a piano.

Ah ha. This explains a lot.
Jónsi: It’s really a beautiful instrument. We got that on loan from Björk. And we got a vibraphone that we bought at a flea market in New York. When you get toys like this you start to write differently. Then we started playing different instruments. It keeps us awake and happy.
So this song was written right when we got the celeste.

The whole composition? With that many layers and change-ups. I figured it was a long project. What was Orri just going crazy with drum beats or something? There’s a waltz in that one, too.
Jónsi: It kind of happens like this a lot. This is actually two songs put together. We wrote the first part then the second. We wrote it like that and then we found that it really worked together.
A lot of our music is like that. Nice accidents. Accidents that really work well. Kind of accidental art.
We changed a lot on this song. In the first part, I play piano, Orri played vibraphone and Kjartan played celeste, and, in the second part, I play the vibraphone, Orri plays the celeste and Kjartan plays the piano. But it’s really fun though.

So when we hear things like the thundering basslines, we can’t assume it’s Georg.
Jónsi: You know it’s him. He plays so massive. I really like the bass sounds—he has a signature sound.

Do you have any favourite tracks on this album?
Jónsi: Right now my favourites are tracks 3 and 4. These are studio songs, songs we found by accident and just played around with. (Reading from The Grapevine) “Also we developed a sneaking suspicion that track 4 may present a reversal from track 3,” já, that’s exactly what it is. It’s just backwards.

One good guess. The main advantage to doing early reviews is that it will be out of print before the album comes out. Everything I got wrong I’ll say “I was right, you just aren’t remembering correctly.”
But you prefer composing in a studio as opposed to live.

Jónsi: Já. Most was written in the studio. Gong was the only complete song before we went in. Glósóli (track 2) was the first song we wrote for the album, and then a lot of the others are just us playing.

How are you going to prepare for the reaction to this? I’m thinking it will be quite a different critical response than for the bracket album.
Jónsi: This is definitely more accessible. The bracket album was a lot heavier. When we did this album we wanted to have more fun. For the other album we’d been touring with the songs for so long before we went to record them. So it was very hard to be creative. But for this the songs were fresh.
And I think we silently agreed that we were tired of the heaviness. Because we aren’t very heavy, we’re just a bunch of silly guys. Definitely not serious. I think we just wanted to have fun.
(Looks closely at The Grapevine.) Heh heh heh. You wrote [regarding track 6, Sæglópir] “Opens with a reverb piano part strangely reminiscent of 90s metal ballads” that is very true I think.

So you’re not pissed?
Jónsi: Does it get many beers?

Oh shit. You read our paper. It would get six beers, I think. One thing that I find especially commendable, something that is hard to cover, is how much pressure this album had on it. You really had a lot of magazines and websites wondering, especially when movies like Life Aquatic were featuring the old material.
Jónsi: I just wasn’t listening to them. Especially after the brackets album. We had so many people saying for that album can they follow Ágætis Byrjun again, and we just never listened to them.

The fans who emailed us wanted to know what track the toy piano featured in our photo of your studio is on.
Jónsi: It’s on track 5, your favourite song.

Yeah, okay I’m a dork for liking polkas. But if you were going to make a sequel to The Triplets of Belleville, I really think that could be the soundtrack—it’s such a blend of energy and melancholy.
Jónsi: (laughing) Yes, it would fit very well in there.

Are there extra tracks that you recorded completely that aren’t on the album?
Jónsi: There’s one track, Salka, that may be released later. We were going to have it on this album, but we couldn’t find a place to get it in.

Can we talk about your tour schedule? You were selling out without a new album, how do you satisfy the fans now that you have new material?
Jónsi: We’re going to be touring for a year. We like to tour. It’s fun to travel and play and meet people. That’s what’s great about a tour: when we’re in Iceland we never play together. We like it, we take one year and we tour and work, then we get one year off. It’s like a carrot, that year off at the end of the tour.

Is there any chance that you could play a show in Iceland before you go?
Jónsi: Yes, in the beginning of October. We’re thinking about that.

I think you’ve answered every question we had. I know you have a long line of people outside.
Jónsi: Já. What are you listening to, are you listening to any good music? I’m so sceptical about music, I think everything sucks, big time.

Really? I have to admit I just started listening to Highway 61 again.
Jónsi: Similar to me. I’ve been listening to old music, too. Like Billie Holiday and old Icelandic music. It’s amazing.

Jón Leifs or something Classical?
Jónsi: No, like Elsa Sigfússdóttir. The same atmosphere as Sinatra or something only it’s Icelandic. Only because it makes me feel good. The atmosphere in it. There’s nothing happening right now. And everybody is trying to copy everything. If one band like the Strokes comes along, then everybody tries to rip them off.

Yeah, and the consequence is that you end up hating the Strokes as well. But I enjoy some of the stuff. Fischerspooner. Polyphonic Spree.
Jónsi: I really don’t like scene of retro-electronic. But I’d like to see them live in concert. I’m really picky about music. If there’s one thing about music I can’t stand it.

(Brief argument about Bright Eyes.)

Jónsi: There’s one thing I like, Joanna Newsom. I heard one song and it really hit me.

After a year on the road, having to listen to radio crap, maybe you’ll be more accepting. If you’ve been listening to these old classics, does that explain the lullaby riffs at the end of the album.
Jónsi: Orri was actually playing the celeste there. We all did the melodies.

And while we’re discussing the lullaby tone, this seems to be true of the lyrics.
Jónsi: Yes, the lyrics are naïve and simple. Actually, it’s really hard for us to do lyrics and to speak. We’re all very quiet, that’s why we’re musicians. But this was really healthy for us. And even though it was hard, now that it’s done, we’re really happy that we did it.

Okay, finally, key question here: Hidden people, yes or no! (Slamming fist on table.)
Jónsi: (Laughing) Oh god. We don’t get that one as much. More landscapes.

Yes! Landscapes. Beautiful landscapes. Tell me what key reflects the Icelandic landscape, go! (Slamming fist on table again.)
Jónsi: It’s not as bad anymore. Now they ask about fashion.

With a restaurant full of reporters, Jónsi and I discuss life in Iceland, and life in Boston for another thirty minutes, before the Smekkleysa Record Label manager comes in and asks Jónsi to take part in other interviews.

I have been speaking with Jónsi for an hour and a half, but as I go to leave, he guides me to Kjartan’s chair and tells me to speak with him. Orri and Georg get up to do a television interview, during which they will say almost nothing.

Kjartan: What’s this?
An MP3 recorder. I use it to play music and do interviews.

Kjartan: Is your battery gone or is it full?
Ah, good question. It’s empty. I really wasn’t expecting to get an hour and a half.

I can’t believe how much you guys are talking. Are you getting all the interviews out of your system or something? Is this it for the year?
Kjartan: No, when we’re on tour we’re all business. We do interviews for an hour a day. It’s a part of the job. And it helps the artists to talk.

You’re looking at talking to strangers for an hour a day about the same album for a year.
Kjartan: It’s probably just for the beginning.

I doubt it. This album is going to be everywhere. I’m slightly exhausted. Look at these cameras (nodding to television camera behind my head).
Kjartan: We’re getting much better with interviews. It was really hard at first, especially in English, we weren’t that confident in English. But sometimes it’s quite enjoyable. Because we never talk about music. Talking about music all day helps us realize what we think about what we’ve been doing. So that’s a positive. Sometimes it really helps you to realize your vision. It’s good to talk.

And are you prepared then for one more level of fame? If you have cult status now, it looks like it’s going to step up.
Kjartan: I think we are. Our life has settled down. We all have our place in the band. Touring has been accepted, just as doing interviews and talking to record people has. Now we just know what we’re doing rather than going out and discovering the world.
We had to get used to things. You know, starting out, we didn’t know whom to trust. We were just four boys from Iceland going out to the big world. Which is strange.

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