‘Valtari’—Sigur Rós’ much-anticipated sixth-release—is risky.
Not that the band hasn’t, in its 18-years-active, established itself as a creative juggernaut of sorts, and cultivated an insatiable fan base. But ‘Valtari’ is risky in the way all matters of the heart are risky. Because it is uncalculated. Because it is driven by—devoted to—an abstract sentiment. Because it is blind to anything but the stars.
‘Valtari’ is also the record that nearly wasn’t. During over three years in labour, the group abandoned the project at least three times before giving it its final audition, the push that led to the definitive scheduling of the album’s release on May 28.
For when it comes to releasing music, Sigur Rós offers us only that which comes organically to the band—regardless of, but not despite (as ‘Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust’ proved) the material’s marketability. It is in this way that ‘Valtari’ emerges as a testament to the band’s fierce creative independence, not only in content but also in process. Because apparently even the world’s most successful artists struggle with knots in their imaginations, and to this creative loyalty, ‘Valtari’ is likewise a tribute.
In the attic of Iðnó, I sat down with Jón Þór Birgisson (“Jónsi”) and Georg Hólm (“Goggi”) to discuss how the band navigated the creative riddle of their impending release.
A lot of the preemptive commentary about ‘Valtari’ has characterized the album as a homecoming, a sort of ‘return to ambience.’ As though the last album had been a weird mutation, and now you’re somehow going back…
Jón Þór Birgisson: back to basics.
Right. Do you think of the record that way at all? As a harking back, maybe to ‘()’ or ‘Ágætis byrjun’?
Jónsi: We didn’t really think of it like that.
Georg Hólm: That was not the point of departure, at least, when we were making this record.
Jónsi: It just developed that way. But we had had this idea for many years to make an ambient record—like purely ambient, somehow.
Some of the recordings on ‘Valtari’ go back as far as six or seven years…
Georg: Yes. And at the time they weren’t necessarily thought of as belonging to this record. They were just some recordings, some ideas. It wasn’t until 2009 that we had our first session, specifically intending to make this record.
Jónsi: We’ve given up three times since then, I think.
Jónsi: Starting, stopping, putting things aside.
What made you decide then to finally release the record? Or to do it now?
Jónsi: We just had enough material. And when we listened to it again after getting many years of distance from it, we realised that we actually had a record on our hands.
Georg: And that it was maybe better than we had thought.
Given that the material was developed over such a long period of time, and that it was maybe not originally conceived of as a whole, was it a challenge to make the pieces fit together?
Georg: I think that was maybe the most difficult part of the record, really. Because it was all so different. So we had to somehow mold it all together.
Jónsi: We took a few months, just now, to finalise it, and then something just came over it.
Georg: Some kind of wholeness.
There’s a quote on the band’s website where you say, Georg, that this is the only Sigur Rós record you listen to at home, at your leisure. Why is that?
Georg: This is maybe not the first record that I’ve listened to at home. I said that just in conversation with our manager, after we had just finished the record. I was telling him that I was really happy with it, because this was a record that we had given up on several times. And personally, before we came together for that final session, if you can call it that, I had in my head just sort of written it off. I just thought: no, we’re not going to finish this album. We’ll just throw it out, in its entirety.
You couldn’t untangle it.
Georg: Right. I wasn’t understanding it. But I stand by what I said, that sometimes when I’m driving my car or when I’m sitting at home and I’m alone—which, however, isn’t often—then I like putting it on. There’s something about it… there are all sorts of images that come up in my head. But maybe it’s also just that I’m so tired of the other stuff, you know, that I wouldn’t necessarily go and listen to.
Jónsi: I think there’s something strange about listening to your own music.
Georg: It’s so self…
Jónsi: ‘Oh, damn this is good.’
Georg: Extremely weird.
Jónsi: ‘Listen to that solo!’
You hear of a lot of hip-hop artists doing that. I think Kanye just sits at home listening…
Jónsi: To himself. (Laughs.) Right. It’s just that you listen to it so much when you’re making it. In the studio a whole year goes into listening to the same songs over and over again. So you do get sick of it in a certain way, it just becomes one big mash. But maybe when you’re older you do pick up these records again and listen to them.
Georg: I think it has to do with the memories too. And maybe also that you’re still thinking critically about the songs.
You don’t have any distance from them.
Georg: Exactly. But for example I listened to ‘Von’ the other day, because it was being re-released on vinyl, and I just needed to do a test-drive, to check the sound quality, nothing else. And suddenly I started really enjoying the music. It occurred to me that this was a damn good record. Just, really good. Sounded better than I remembered.
Is it different when you perform the songs live? Harder to get sick of them that way, because it’s an experience that’s different each time?
Jónsi: That just depends on how much you drink. [laughs] No, but sometimes it can be tedious and sometimes it feels like a job but usually it’s incredibly fun. To play in new places for new people. People give you a certain energy. It’s just fun playing for an audience if everything is as it should be: if there’s good sound on the stage and we are in good spirits. Then it’s incredibly fun.
Georg: It does depends a lot on mood. If there is the right kind of atmosphere on stage it can be fun to play any song, really. But then there can be…
Jónsi: There can be days when everything is bad.
Georg: A bad concert or just a bad song in the middle of a concert.
Jónsi: If the sound is bad then it’s just absolute hell.
What else are you listening to, for enjoyment?
Jónsi: I’ve been listening a lot to the radio show, Morgunstund með KK, [on Icelandic National Broadcasting Service (RÚV), an NPR equivalent]. I don’t wake up that early but I listen to it online, almost everyday. Listen to it and read the papers. That’s really nice.
They play vinyl on Fridays.
Jónsi: Exactly. It’s great. Also my boyfriend has been working with Julianna Barwick, so that’s been playing at home a lot. There’s no getting by it. But it’s quite nice, of course.
Georg: I’m trying but I can’t think of anything.
Jónsi: You just listen to Sigur Rós. [laughs]
Georg: There is one song I have been listening to a lot: “The Book of Love.” It’s actually a cover song by Peter Gabriel, I found out. I didn’t know it was a cover, I just thought it was Peter Gabriel. But I discovered it by accident, went out for a run the other day and it came on shuffle and since then I’ve been completely hooked. Incredible song. That’s what I’ve been listening to these days.
Jónsi: One song.
Georg: [laughs] Yes, just one song. I’m sort of bad with music. I somehow just end up listening to the old classics. Like Led Zeppelin or something.
Jónsi: My boyfriend Alex has also been working with Sin Fang, so I’ve been listening a lot to him, to his new album.
Georg: That’s a nice way to discover something new.
Jónsi: He is really good at finding new stuff. Meanwhile I just listen to Morgunstund með KK.
Is there any truth to the rumour that there is an already-made follow-up to ‘Valtari’?
Georg: That’s just a fabrication.
Jónsi: It’s so strange that Fréttablaðið just published some rumour without talking to us. I just think it’s weird.
Georg: We are always working on music, though. But we’re not necessarily recording anything.
What about the rumour that Kjartan had quit. Do you know where that came from?
Georg: No. I don’t know where that came from. There is always something like this, someone supposedly quitting some band somewhere.
But it is decided that he will not play on the tour this summer.
Jónsi: Yes, I think that’s almost completely certain… I think he’s not going to play with us live.
Jónsi: He was on ‘Valtari’ with us. I think he’s just tired of touring.
Jónsi: Wants to do something else. Spend his time doing something else. A lot of time goes into the tour.
Georg: Which is maybe not exactly the most productive time.
Jónsi: No. And not necessarily creative, either.
Jónsi: A little bit draining, naturally.
It must take a certain toll on your family life also, especially when you have children that are stuck in Iceland.
Georg: Absolutely. You have to always sow it all together somehow.
Jónsi: Like Goggi has three children. It’s hard to go away for such a long time.
Georg: I’m used to it. Sailor’s life.
Jónsi: It is definitely a sailor’s life, going on tour.
Must have been nice for Kjartan when you toured with Amiina, to be able to have his wife with him.
Jónsi and Georg [emphatically]: Yes.
Jónsi: Damn nice.
Georg: Very lucky.
Does that have something to do with how this four-year hiatus evolved? The fact that most of you were having babies. Or did it have more to do with your solo project, Jónsi?
Jónsi: Both, I think.
Georg: Yes, all of the above. After the tour ended in 2008, it was sort of decided to take a year off. That was the goal. But then right away, if I remember correctly, by March of 2009 we were in the studio starting this record. Which was actually just one month that we were in the studio and then we went back to being on vacation. But we have been making this record, in reality, on and off since. And we’ve played a lot together. Even while Jónsi was touring, you know, when he came home during breaks we dragged him into the studio. So we were always developing something. But just less than usual. I don’t know, there was really no reason to go on tour. No record or anything like that, so really it just seemed natural somehow. So much else to do, also.
To what extent do you let others into the collaborative effort that is Sigur Rós? Especially when it comes to composing, are you entirely exclusive when the four of you sit down to write?
Jónsi: Yes, I would say so.
Georg: At least for the foundations of the songs. It would be very strange, I think it has never happened that someone has composed a song with us. I don’t remember it ever happening, at least. Actually, maybe it did happen a little bit when we were on tour many years ago and composing ‘()’. Amiina were always with us on stage, and some of those songs just came about in sound checks.
Jónsi: That’s right.
Georg: But I think in most cases when it comes to the core, the foundations of the songs, it’s just us four. And then maybe recently we’ve been letting people get a little bit closer.
Jónsi: We have become a bit more open, maybe. Just in terms of letting different people work with us. Learning to trust. We’re such bumpkins at heart; we never trust anyone, no one is trusted. But I think it’s mostly that you start letting people in and let someone do something and we’re just never happy with it.
Maybe you also just have a strong sense of how you want to do things. You want to have control over what you’re making.
Jónsi: Yeah I guess it is also that. That we’re just controlling.
Georg: We are actually very controlling.
Jónsi: [laughs] Difficult to work with.
Georg: I think we are getting better though.
Jónsi: Yeah, we’re a little bit looser with age.
Georg: More carefree.
Has Sigur Rós’ success had an effect on your lifestyle when you are in Iceland? What I mean is, has your environment here changed at all?
Jónsi: It’s mostly just the tourists who stop us.
Right. You said something to that effect in a recent interview with Q magazine. In fact you also apparently said that the tourists were the worst thing about the crash here in Iceland.
Jónsi: Yes, Goggi was furious about this. They were saying that we hate tourists.
Georg: It was a total misunderstanding. We were talking about the recession in Iceland, and I said—maybe to answer your question from before—with regard to the crash and whatnot, that maybe we have felt the effects of it less because our daily bread comes from abroad. So maybe we haven’t felt it as much. And then we stopped talking about that and [the interviewer] asked me what it was like living in Iceland, whether we get stopped much on the street. And I said no, that it was mostly only tourists that did that. And in some kind of jest it got twisted into that we can’t stand tourists. I don’t know exactly how he did it, but in any case it was a big misunderstanding.
I want to ask you how you feel about being interviewed. You have something of a reputation for being… well, there are a few epic examples where things didn’t go so well for the poor journalist.
Georg: [laughs] Yes, or us.
Right. How do you feel about being interviewed?
Georg: I think it’s just fine. It depends on the day. You can land in some terribly weird interviews, you know. Just like, seriously weird. But you’re probably thinking of that NPR interview. That was kind of a funny moment. I think we had just come out of some 14-hour flight.
Jónsi: We had just come from Japan; had just landed in New York and were driven right up to some radio station.
Georg: Totally fried in the head.
Jónsi: I don’t remember exactly what the questions were, but it was something like…
Georg: It was just awful. Really pointless somehow, and it was something like 8:00 in the morning.
I remember it being very superficial. He was asking you guys about ‘hopelandish’ and things like that.
Georg: Yes, exactly.
Jónsi: It was painful for us and for him.
Georg: But if you look at the interview as a whole, it’s not really as terrible as it looks when they cut it down. But that beginning is of course really bad. Nobody really knows who should start answering, because everyone is somehow not totally present, and not really listening.
Jónsi: We’ve actually discovered that when we are four in interviews it’s terrible.
Jónsi: It’s best when we are one or two. But in general it’s just a big myth. We have this stamp on us now that we’re really difficult in interviews and photo shoots. Which is actually really nice, because then everyone is always on their toes, everything happens much quicker.
People are well prepared.
Jónsi: Exactly. Which is just great, for us.
Georg: When we were first starting out we freaked out a little bit, because photographers would want to have us for three, four hours, changing clothes and…
Jónsi: Doing poses and stuff.
Georg: That’s just not us. We don’t feel comfortable doing any of that. So for that reason we were maybe… we seemed somewhat difficult, because we were pushing back a lot, resisting. I remember one time a photographer just walked out, furious. That wasn’t the last time either.
Jónsi: That was for Dazed and Confused.
Georg: They threatened to never write about us in their paper again. They were so mad at us. But that was just because we had been there all day and we had to put on this and that and then I remember the final straw for Kjartan came when the photographer asked him to open his mouth a little bit. [laughs] He just felt like some cheap whore. He freaked out. But it’s understandable, in retrospect. The photographer, he’s trying to capture some moment.
Is the summer tour really about promoting ‘Valtari’? You’re playing a lot of festivals, I wonder if the record will work in that setting?
Jónsi: These festivals are just a kind of circus.
Georg: It doesn’t really work to play much of ‘Valtari’ there.
Jónsi: No, it’s too quiet. You can’t really play this kind of album at a festival, with Rihanna in the next tent. It’s hard when you don’t have the space. But we’re going to try and play something off the new record.
Georg: Yes, some percentage of the album will be on the tour this year.
Jónsi: It will most likely be when we have our own concerts, in our own environment, that we will play more of the new record. It just has to be that way, these festivals are just like that.
Have you started practicing for the summer tour?
Jónsi: Yes, we’ve started planning a little bit. We don’t know exactly how it’s gonna be or how it’s gonna end but we’ve started thinking about it. Goggi is even having nightmares.
Georg: [laughs] Yes.
Jónsi: Regarding the tour.
Georg: I have literally been having nightmares.
And what happens?
Georg: I just get nightmares where I walk on stage and don’t know a single song.
Jónsi: People start booing and you just back off the stage.
Georg: I’m just like, ‘whoops,’ and walk off. But no, we have started thinking about the summer a bit.
Jónsi: We decided to meet up just the three of us to sort of run through the songs and see whether we still know them. We haven’t really played any of this in four years. But muscle memory is incredible, when it kicks in. It’s always there, somehow. You just need to dust it off a bit.