Originally published in AU magazine, March 2010
LET’S BE frank for just a moment. When you think of Sigur Rós, arguably one of the most cerebral bands of the 21st century – a band whom the word ‘ethereal’ was seemingly devised solely to describe – you don’t necessarily expect them to be captivating conversationalists. Harsh? Well, try sticking ‘Sigur Rós Radio Interview Disaster’ into Google, witness the stultifyingly awkward ‘discussion’ that followed on NPR in 2007, bear in mind that this is a band who regularly sing in a made-up language, and then tell us that you’d like to be stuck in an elevator with them for an hour.
It comes as a pleasant surprise, then, that Jónsi Birgisson –frontman and possessor of that insanely chaste falsetto – is a thoroughly nice chap. Heck, we’d even go as far as to call him enthusiastic. “I think I’m quite a positive person, actually,” he says, virtually radiating sunshine down the phoneline from his label’s London offices. “I think sometimes music can reflect your mood, whatever place you’re at in your life, how you’re feeling. And I feel quite good, I think.”
There’s a good reason for his cheerfulness, mind; ‘Go‘, the 34-year-old Icelander’s official debut solo album, is done, dusted, and ready to be unleashed on the music-buying public. It’s a bit of a departure from Sigur Rós, the band he’s been part of since he was 18; these nine tracks are tunes that are bombastic, immediate and largely beat-driven, rather than tunes that required patience and percolation. ‘Animal Arithmetic’? ‘Boy Lilikoi’? Practically experimental, if you ask us.
Yet it’s not Birgisson’s first endeavour without his bandmates. Last year’s beautiful ‘Riceboy Sleeps’ album was crafted with his partner Alex Somers, while he also released material under the ‘Frakkur’ banner in the past. Still, actually releasing material under his own name has been a long-term ambition for the amiable musician.
“Yeah, for a few years, I’ve wanted to do a solo album,” he confirms. “How Sigur Rós work, we work together like one machine, we write together as one – so I never bring songs to Sigur Rós. I had a series of songs at home that I’d been collecting through the years, and I just wanted to do this album by myself now. And also because the other guys are all having babies,” he chuckles, “so it was the perfect time for me to do my solo album. This is my music baby.”
So, what is it that made the biggest creative difference to ‘Go‘? Was writing on his own a daunting task, after years of bouncing ideas off other people?
“I think it’s mainly because of the people I chose to work with on this album, like Samuli [Kosminen, Finnish drummer with Múm and others]. He’s a very different drummer from [Sigur Rós drummer] Orri. But it was a different experience, definitely. Coming from such a safe environment – I’ve been in Sigur Rós for 16 years – it was different to come out, and be totally on your own, make all your own decisions. You kind of have to fake your way a little bit, have to pretend what the best thing is to do, even though you’re not always sure what’s right or wrong. But at the same time, it’s very liberating and fun.”
The ubiquitous bob-a-job string arranger Nico Muhly also weaves his magic into ‘Go”s tapestry – the violinist spends a lot of time in Reykjavik, says Birgisson, so it was just a matter of asking him. Yet although Iceland was the setting for the recording of the album’s vocals and overdubs, it most mostly recorded in the Connecticut studio of its producer Peter Katis (The National, Interpol). His sound may be intrinsically linked to his home country, but Birgisson claims that the location of a studio matters little to him in terms of inspiration.
“Did it make a difference? Ummm, no, I don’t think so, actually,” he says. “I mean, probably it does, but I don’t notice it, because when you’re locked inside some room somewhere in the world, it doesn’t matter where you are. It’s just a studio. I think of course, places always have different moods and atmospheres, but yeah.. I was just in a studio, and was in a working mood, and we worked really hard, and we didn’t go outside, because outside… wasn’t really nice! I think it’s just personal, more than anything. How you are wired, and what instruments you have at that time, the place you’re in… there’s a lot of influences. Friends, family, experiences… just life in general, I think. Everything just tips into your personality.
“Peter was super-super fun to work with, and a really talented, good-hearted guy. I wanted it to be a little bit more crazy than he wanted, I think, so there were some clashes – I think I wanted to push it a little bit further than he wanted it to be but it’s all good. We never fought or anything. For example, ‘Grow Till Tall‘, the end part – I really wanted to distort that to hell, but he didn’t want to. But it’s good to have other peoples’ opinions. I’m pretty happy with it.”
For the first time, too, Birgisson sings primarily in English rather than his customary ‘Hopelandic’. He admits that it was “a challenge”, and took longer than expected – but considers it just another stage in his musical evolution. He’s certainly come a long way since his teenage years; the young Jónsi spent much of his adolescence obsessing about AC/DC and Metallica. How, then, did he arrive at a sound that most reviewers clumsily place somewhere in-between ‘otherworldly’ and ‘post-rock’?
“I dunno,” he says with a shy chuckle. “I started playing guitar in my bedroom with my cousin when I was 13, y’know, playing Iron Maiden. Then I slowly got better and better, and I started writing my own songs because I got sick of playing other peoples’ songs. From really early on, I started to make my own songs. I think that’s really important, it’s kind of what has kept me going all these years – just making songs. It’s the only thing I really, really love. Creating. Whatever you create, it just feels so good, or something. It just gives your life meaning. I started playing heavy metal, then got into grunge, then got into ambient, and then started Sigur Rós. I picked up the violin bow and started singing in falsetto, and obviously a lot of things changed. It’s just kind of gradual explorations, just exploring things, getting introduced to a lot of different genres of music, and styles. I think it’s the best thing for a musician, just being open-minded and listening to other stuff. Although I think over the last ten years, I haven’t been listening to music that much at all, really. I usually just keep, like, old jazz in the background.”
Strangely enough, those memories of jamming in garages with your friends are now having an impact on the new Sigur Rós sound. Oh yes, don’t worry; no matter how successful his solo career may be, Jónsi won’t be forsaking his bandmates for a full-time solo career. Although sessions for the follow-up to ‘Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust’ got underway last summer, Birgisson reveals that the preliminary sessions were scrapped, meaning that Sigur Rós album will be recorded later this year, and released in 2011.
“I really, really love Sigur Rós and as you say, we’ve been together for such a long time, that I definitely wanna do more stuff with them,” he says. “A few months ago, we started work on a new album, but we didn’t like it, so we decided to start all over again. We got rid of our swimming pool and our rehearsal space and studio, and started again in our drummer’s garage. We’re going back to basics, like 15-year-olds rocking out in your parents’ garage,” he chortles. “We’ll see where we go from there.”
Their success in recent years has made Sigur Rós one of their country’s most famous exports – musical or otherwise – but he claims that fame isn’t an issue when he’s walking down the streets of Reykjavik.
“I think Icelandic people are kind of respectful in that way, they give you your privacy or whatever,” he claims. “I live a totally normal life in Reykjavik. I go to the grocery shop, and stuff like that.”
That probably wouldn’t be the case in Ireland, I tell him, where his band are treated with a reverence becoming of only U2 or The Pope. Indeed, their Electric Picnic set in 2008 was one of the few times this hack has seen people publicly cry for no reason other than sheer force of music-stimulated emotion. Does that sense of expectation and high standards – along with the knowledge that several of their albums made it on to numerous ‘Best of Decade’ lists at the tail end of 2009 – weigh heavy on the shoulders of the man with one of the most unique voices in modern music?
“I don’t pay attention to any of that stuff, actually, and I actually don’t know about this ‘decade’ thing at all,” he says, an audible smile in his voice. “I think it’s kind of important not to know about that kind of stuff. You should just do what you love, and do what you do, and keep on making music and just do that well, I think. I’m just super-happy about it in general. That I did the album at all. That it’s actually a reality.”