There are few bands that cut through the noise and distractions of the world to bring you a pure elemental truth or feeling like Sigur Rós. It seems only fitting that now they should return by surprise with their most intimate and emotionally direct album to date with ÁTTA.
While they’ve seemed ever-present with ambitious live shows, mixtapes, sound baths and anniversary celebrations of now classic albums, it’s been a long ten years since the Icelandic post-rock pioneers released a full album with 2013’s edgy and industrial ‘Kveikur’.
As you hear on ÁTTA, there’s a new compulsion and drive to Sigur Rós that comes with the new formation of the line-up. Multi-instrumentalist Kjartan Sveinsson is back in the fold to join frontman Jónsi and bassist Georg Holm – having left the band in 2012 – and they’ve also found a more stripped-back sound following the departure of drummer Orri Páll Dýrason in 2018.
“Kjartan came here to my home in LA for a holiday, and we just planned to do some demos and fool around,” says Jónsi. “It was nothing serious or necessarily Sigur Rós-related, then Georg got involved and we just started making the album properly.
“It was really refreshing and fun to get Kjartan back. It felt like something was missing when he was not there. He brings a new dimension. His ability for composing these little melodic touches is just great.”
Holm agrees, describing Sveinsson as a “a very serious guy”, but one who’s “very serious about music too”.
“We needed a kick in the butt and for someone to say, ‘Right now we’re going to start work – here are some ideas’,” says the bassist. “It was like a defibrillator and brought life back into the band. We needed focus, detail and a work ethic. He’s an old member, but it was like fresh air.”
Sveinsson is naturally a little pragmatic about his return, noting the comforting is being back among his old friends – albeit now much wiser than when they first met as youngsters. “We’re all a bit older and appreciate each other’s individuality a bit more,” he says. “We’ve all grown up. When you’ve been in a band together since you’re a teenager, there are some patterns that are hard to get out of. Now that we’re older, it’s much easier to look at everything differently.”
With just the three friends in a room, letting the mood speak to them, they found themselves “just wanting to have minimal drums and for the music to be really sparse, floaty and beautiful,” explains Jónsi of the self-produced album recorded at Sundlaugin Studio,on the rural outskirts of Reykjavik with the strings laid down at London’s iconic Abbey Road. “We’re getting older and more cynical so I just wanted to move us so that we felt something!”
Sveinsson agrees: “We wanted to allow ourselves to be a bit dramatic and go far with these arrangements. The world needs that right now. After COVID and everything, people just need something nice. It’s hard to describe, but for me everything is always open to interpretation. People can think and feel how they want.”
In a post-pandemic world torn apart by war, economic turmoil, culture wars, and brutally divisive discourse, ÁTTA feels like a balming and unifying bond. “It’s what the music asked for and spoke for itself,” reveals Holm. “I remember when I was a kid, I’d have this feeling of things being really big and really small at the same time. I like the idea that’s what this record is. There’s a 32-piece orchestra and loads of reverb, but at the same time some of the songs are just like a small dot.”
“This record sounds like a Sigur Ros album, but it’s more introvert than before. It’s very expansive with this sound of strings, but it looks within more than outside.”
It’s that inward reflection that attracts Sigur Rós’ cult of fans. While some bands bind followers to them with a story, their star-gazing celestial sounds and mixture of Icelandic vocals and Vonlenska (their own non-linguistic vocalisations) ties the listener directly to the heart and soul in the most primal way. For even Sigur Rós themselves, now 29 years and eight albums into their career, it’s a concept that few could have expected to have become the universal phenomenon it has.
“You start a band when you’re a teenager, you’re isolated on this tiny island and want to play this type of music, and then it becomes something else,” recalls Jónsi. “It is weird to think that some guys from Iceland who sing in Icelandic and some nonsense language are able to play all over the world and have so many people want to come and see us. There are no lyrics or stories for people to hold on to. It’s more about pure emotions that people experience from the music. It’s not from the words, it’s all in their minds.”
Having sold over 10 million albums worldwide and changed countless lives, they’re feeling rather content for just “three normal, stupid guys from Iceland who enjoy playing together,” as Jónsi puts it – but that’s not to say they’ll be around forever. There’s an upcoming tour this summer that will see them play theatre shows and festival dates as they debut ÁTTA and reimagine old classics with a 41-piece orchestra – including a date at Meltdown in London under invitation of Christine & The Queens, but beyond that, who knows?
“We might do something else or we might stop after the tour,” says Sveinsson. “It’s a good situation to not have to always decide what’s coming next – that’s exciting. I think we’re all there. There always used to be another album or tour coming up, but I quite it like this. If we decide to do something else, then we just will.”
For Jónsi too, both Sigur Rós and ÁTTA exist purely in the moment – reflecting the times when we might need them most.
“When we do this, we always talk about each album as if it might be the last,” he adds. “We’re always thinking about climate change, doom-scrolling and going to hell. The world felt a bit bleak making this album, but maybe there is hope. When there is darkness, there is light.”