Search The Line of Best Fit
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Sigur Rós: “We needed to step out of our comfort zone”

Sigur Rós: “We needed to step out of our comfort zone”

17 June 2013, 11:30

“I think a few journalists misunderstood what was going on, and the situation got totally out of hand.”

From his home in their native Iceland, Sigur Rós’ bassist Georg Hólm is reflecting on the virulent press speculation that surrounded the band’s extended break post-2008, much of which suggested that further records might not materialise. “Somebody wrote that we’d decided to go on an ‘indefinite hiatus’, but that was never the intention, and we certainly never said that. We were still working during that time; we put together Inni, did a little bit of work on what was to become our next album, and then Jonsi had his own side project.

“We just weren’t touring, so as a result, we were basically out of the public eye. We worked less than usual, but I don’t think it ever crossed anybody’s mind that it was a permanent split.”

Indeed, last year saw the band complement their sporadic return to the road with a new record, Valtari, that saw them on typically enchanting form, if a little quieter than usual; the album, which was almost totally devoid of percussion, has been quickly followed by this month’s Kveikur, but Hólm – after assuring me I’d pronounced the title correctly – is quick to point out that it was totally separate in its origin.

“The two records are completely different; Valtari was kind of a weird one, really,” he says. “The first recording we did for what eventually became that album was done in 2005, so it’d been in the works for a long time when we finally released it. We had all sorts of bits and pieces that we knew were going to go on the next release, but it wasn’t until we had this one final three-week push in the studio that we were able to turn it into a cohesive, finished product.

“At the same time, we were playing around in rehearsal spaces and starting to write a lot of new music pretty quickly; we probably surprised ourselves with how fast we had enough material to make another new record. They’ve both been released within the space of a year, but they’re totally far apart. It wasn’t like we went into the studio, wrote and recorded Valtari, then decided to go straight back in and make Kveikur.”

Sonically, Kveikur seems like a reaction to its predecessor, moving in almost totally the opposite direction. On ‘Brennisteinn’, a smouldering introduction gives way to pounding drums and squeals of feedback, whilst the title track proves an unusually stormy affair; darkness has enveloped the Sigur Rós sound in unprecedented fashion. “We don’t normally have a set idea about how the writing process is going to progress, but with Kveikur, we actually did sit down and say, “we should really try to make something completely different from anything we’ve ever done before.” We didn’t know exactly what that was going to be, but we thought that if we were going to make another record, we needed to step out of our comfort zone and push each other to do different things, and move in new directions. I think we felt that we needed to sort of force our interest in electronics down the routes we were interested in.”

With an exhaustive touring schedule having been put into place for this year, the band were challenged with producing a brand new array of visuals to match the fresh material; their career-spanning dedication to the implementation of appropriate aesthetics is what has helped raise their live shows from impressive to genuinely breathtaking. “The visual side of things is probably more important now than it’s ever been, but the process of putting it together has definitely changed,” Hólm reveals. “We used to just go out with a camera and film things we thought we’d be able to relate to the songs we wanted to play. Often, it’d just be short loops that were easy to put together; it wasn’t until later on that we aimed for longer videos that we could manipulate more. This tour is actually the first time we’ve worked with somebody else. The basic idea is just to try to recreate the atmosphere of the song visually, and what we’re doing on this current cycle is the closest we’ve come to that so far.”

The interest in, and appreciation of, visual accompaniments is something that has expanded beyond live performance and album artwork, as evidenced by two full-length films as well as the Valtari Mystery Film Project, which saw twelve filmmakers given free rein to produce music videos for the record. “We’re usually pretty involved with all the visual aspects of what we do. The obvious exception to that was the Valtari film experiment, where the people involved had complete freedom. Honestly, it’s always been very difficult because we have such a clear vision of what it is that we’re looking for, but it’s so hard to express that and make people outside the band understand it. The two feature-length films that we’ve done, Inni and Heima (a 2007 documentary chronicling the band’s Icelandic tour), were a really big hassle to produce at the time, a real pain in the ass. We actually almost scrapped them completely; both times, we talked about just throwing them away and moving on, but the sense of accomplishment always rewarded us in the end.”


Sigur Rós - Brixton Academy, London 07/03/13 | Photo by Jason Williamson Sigur Rós – Brixton Academy, London 07/03/13 | Photo by Jason Williamson

Audiovisual elements aside, a Sigur Rós show is likely always going to be lacking something if the surroundings fail to match the sweeping atmospherics of the stage show. It’s an importance that’s not lost on the band, who seemed an obvious fit for one of a series of shows being held in the shadow of the giant Lovell Telescope at Cheshire’s Jodrell Bank space observatory in August. “Some years ago, we loved playing in old churches and theatres, and places that had a lot of character,” says Hólm. “We still do, but the live show we have now is designed specifically for arenas, and it works so well that I think we’re actually really enjoying playing in those kinds of rooms now, which would have been pretty surprising a few years ago. We’re hopefully going to do something special for Jodrell Bank, I think; it’d be a shame not to in such a special environment.”

Perhaps the most genuine qualification to the label of post-rock that Sigur Rós possess is the fact that their music is so adept at eliciting an emotional response in listeners without reliance on lyrical content; their near-total use of their native tongue is likely to effectively render their words an irrelevance for large swathes of their fanbase. It’s not unreasonable, then, to wonder if the band pay less attention to their lyrics than they do to their instrumentation.

“It’s such a weird process for us. We obviously want them to be good, but at the same time, they’ll always be secondary to the music,” Hólm admits. “It’s always the absolute last thing we do on a record; in the past, we’ve left it so late that it was ready to go and be mixed and we’d be saying, “we should probably write some lyrics now.” It’s a difficult balance, trying to produce something you’re happy with when you know you don’t consider it the most important part of what you’re doing. The fans here in Iceland will understand, and there’s going to be people translating them too, so you have to produce something you think is good enough.”

For an Icelandic band with markedly foreign lyrics to crack America is an impressive enough feat in itself, but their permeation into the popular consciousness there reached unprecedented levels last month, when they appeared, alongside Björk, in an Iceland-oriented episode of The Simpsons. “Well, I believe Matt Groening is a fan, and he approached us directly,” says Hólm of the episode’s origin. “He wanted to do something different with that episode, and a big chunk of it is actually set in Iceland. The difference was, it wasn’t just going to be us appearing in it or doing the voice work for the characters or whatever; he actually wanted us to score some music for the episode, which is the first time in the show’s history that a band has actually been asked to do that. It was just the sort of opportunity that you don’t turn down, but we were on tour when we heard about it, and just kind of looking at each other and thinking, “how are we going to manage this on the road?” But we knew that wasn’t really an excuse not to do it. We actually wrote and recorded all our contributions for it backstage.”

The often dramatic, and almost unequivocally intense, nature of Sigur Rós’ music has furnished them with a fervent fanbase, but is also, by its nature, bound to lead to accusations of self-indulgence. Do they ever feel that they might be taken a little too seriously? “Definitely. But, at the same time, I think it’s kind of beautiful that we’ve made something that people can connect to so personally. The idea that our songs can represent something so important to people is really special to us. I think it’s more that we, as people, get misunderstood a lot; we were once in an interview where the journalist actually said to us, “say something serious.” I don’t know if he thought that we weren’t living up to the impression of us that he had – it was completely bizarre, but if that means we’re making a connection with people, we don’t mind.”

Kveikur is available now through XL.

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