out from björk's shadow
like their fellow icelander, sigur rós challenges convention on their nameless new album
reykjavik - 'i hate breakfast," georg holm says as he arrives at a morning rendezvous at the gr÷i ktturinn in iceland's capital, after passing on the intolerably popular kaffibarinn. he can't eat in the morning and instead orders applesin, icelandic orange soda in a clear glass bottle.
holm has just returned on a night flight from press tours in spain and is thus hard-pressed to live up to his reputation as the "gregarious" member of the internationally appreciated band sigur rós. poor gregarious holm gets cigarette smoke in his red, jet-lagged eyes before he's able to answer any questions. he doesn't seem too bothered, though, sitting cross-legged in his black velvet blazer -- an offbeat wardrobe choice for the average hipster reykjavikite, who wears denim with his denim.
sigur rós is second only to bjrk as the token icelandic musical export, profiled in publications from vanity fair to the economist. the title of the band's last album translates as "a good beginning," and it followed through on the promise by selling an abnormally high 40,000 copies in the united states. the band's name means "victory rose," and it's also the name of singer jón (jónsi) thor birgisson's sister, who was born around the time the band formed. the new record, however, doesn't have a name; it's simply called ( ). and there are no liner notes, on purpose, so people can write their own lyrics.
"it's a concept album," holm explains, then pauses to compile his thoughts. "the booklet is empty because there are no lyrics on the album and there are no titles. when we released the last one, which was all in icelandic, people still came up to us and said even though they didn't understand icelandic, they really understood the song. it's like taking that one step further, and they can actually take part in the creative process."
what holm is trying to get across is that the lyrics, one set sounding something like "us┌dello, y f┌dello, usodell┌," seem icelandic but are actually all babble. much of the last album's lyrics were also gibberish. drummer orri p÷ll dyrason says the band once jokingly called the babble "hopelandic," now an abhorred description repeated often by the media that makes the band sound ridiculous and pretentious.
the affable dyrason is more at ease than his jet-lagged counterpart. he's comfortably seated before a breakfast plate of thick brown toast, lace-thin icelandic cheese smeared typically with orange marmalade, and reykjavik's specialty, an espresso. on this menu, you can have the bean nine different ways, including a macchiato, tvfaldur latte and swiss moka.
the conversation turns to the previous evening's concert by the leaves, where, much to the distress of their manager, the icelandic up-and-comers blew a circuit, leaving the concert hall without lights and sound for a good 10 minutes. the teenaged-looking songsters were hardly fazed themselves, giving a proud rock-on salute when the system tanked. it turns out the band's drummer is holm's cousin, which isn't too surprising given that reykjavik is about the size of guelph, ontario.
holm and dyrason are also linked to members of rising icelandic bands quarashi, trabant, gus gus and môm. they're all friends. reykjavik became a musical hub, like san francisco or halifax, when it underwent a new wave explosion. this new music scene emerged in the 1980s with the seminal sugarcubes, bjrk's group that evolved out of her earlier punk rock days in kÖkl. at the leaves concert, head of music at icelandic radio "lafur (oli) p÷ll gunnarsson says it goes back a bit farther.
"people always say that it all started with the sugarcubes, but that is not the whole truth," gunnarsson explains. "einar rn from the sugarcubes was the manager for the band [the outsiders], and the singer in that band, bubbi morthens, is the icelandic [bob] dylan, the icelandic iggy pop, the icelandic neil young."
waiting for the lights to come back on in the concert hall, gunnarsson, who also djs there , tells me he works in music because he wants to spread it as far as possible. back in the day when sigur rós was still an indie band, gunnarsson gave out 25 copies of ÷g┌tis byrjun at the 1999 glastonbury festival. foretelling their imminent popularity, he presented the album to radio people from argentina, new zealand, germany, sweden and england, including to legendary bbc radio dj john peel.
at the caf╣, sigur rós discuss the contents of their cd collections. the last two records dyrason bought were by blondie and woody guthrie. holm just bought a bulgarian choir cd. he also likes hip hop, reggae and leonard cohen, glowing when he mentions that the band plays montreal, the writer and musician's birthplace, tomorrow night.
"i really, really love his music, ever since i was born actually. my parents listened to him a lot," he says. "but the whole sound and conduction of [the new album] is horrible, all these string synthesizers. you just feel like calling him and saying, 'come over and record something in our studio.' " the band's studio, a swimming pool facility built in 1937 and later converted to an open-concept flat, influenced the recording of the new album. the openness allowed them to work at their own pace and let them make it more raw- and live-sounding. holm explains that capturing a "live spirit" in a studio is difficult, and dyrason compares the studio to a concert hall. "it sounds really open, but it would be quite a small venue. bare, yeah, really bare. but i think capturing the live spirit was more in kind of playing together. just getting one big line with all the mistakes," dyrason says.
the new album does sound more raw than the last, but you can tell they've worked on it by their use of samples: birgisson wailing into a microphone and "quite a lot of glockenspiel." liner photographs taken and manipulated by the band portray the two brackets and represent the album's two halves. a 36-second intermission, which the band says has arcane significance, breaks a first, more soft-sounding half with a second, more intense one. this laborious artiness makes the band sound like they take themselves too seriously, but in person they're unpretentious and easygoing. newspaper articles have not depicted them as so, making generalized comparisons of their ambient music to icelandic scenery, describing it as woeful like the sparse landscape. not surprisingly, they're used to being asked about this. "oh, one of those questions," holm says with a laugh. "it's not as if we sit out in nature with an acoustic guitar, write songs and look at the elves running around. oh yeah, that's the sound of a geyser going off. being from iceland probably influences our music in a way ... i mean, german techno, it sounds like it's from berlin."