"It actually feels like coming home again" - DiS meets Jonsi from Sigur Ros
When Sigur Ros announced last month that they had a brand new album recorded and ready to go, the collective sigh of relief could be traced all the way from the United Kingdom to the United States and back again. Stories of indefinite hiatuses and even possible break-ups proving to be completely unfounded, Valtari, their first record since 2008's Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust, has been confirmed for release on 28th May 2012.
What's more, it's a succinctly atmospheric affair, more akin to the ambient soundscapes of Agaetis Byrjun or () rather than its predecessor's fluent pop stylings. It's an album that will delight long term devotees of the band while re-establishing them as a creative force to be reckoned with, some eighteen years after initially forming.
Inevitably, every last pocket of the music press wants a soundbite or two to go with the news story, something which the reluctantly shy four-piece have managed to go to great lengths to avoid throughout their career. Bearing this in mind, DiS feels quite honoured at being one of the few publications granted access to the personal space of guitar player, vocalist and principal songwriter Jonsi Birgisson.
We find ourselves perched in the plush surroundings of the Covent Garden Hotel in the capital's ubertrendy Monmouth Street, where test tube shaped bottles of water sit awkwardly on pristine, antique coffee tables. Pleasantries exchanged, not least a complimentary reminisce from our host about his previous encounter with Drowned In Sound, the interrogation begins.
DiS: It's been four years since the last Sigur Ros album. Was there ever a point where the so-called "indefinite hiatus" could have become permanent?
Jonsi: I don't know about that! Somebody said we were on an indefinite hiatus - I think it may have been our manager - and I didn't even know what it meant. We'd been touring for so many years and we'd gotten tired so we took a break and the guys had babies. I did the Riceboy Sleeps album with my boyfriend Alex Somers and also a solo record (Go) which I toured a little bit. Now we're back together and it's a really nice vibe. Personally, it's great to be working with the guys in the band again after so long. It actually feels like coming home again. I enjoyed making the solo album but at the same time it feels great working with other people, sharing responsibilities and ideas rather than having to do everything myself.
DiS: I believe you had initially started writing the follow-up to Med Sud I Eyram Vid Spilum Endalaust as far back as 2009, but that it was scrapped several times? Have any of the songs from those sessions made it onto Valtari, and if not, will they be released in the future?
Jonsi: Valtari is basically that. A couple of the songs are even older than that. We recorded some of the choir segments in London maybe five or six years ago. At the time there was even talk of us maybe putting an album consisting entirely of choir music. We started recording those two songs ('Dauoalogn' and 'Varoeldur') and then we decided to slow everything down. A year later we started something else and then we began recycling a lot of our old music and added strings to it, which was cool but not inspiring so we shelved that also. The process has been quite scatterbrained and all over the place, quite confusing even. A few months ago we were listening back to all this material with our manager and he told us to release it and I guess looking back, we did put a lot of time and energy into making those songs so it would be a shame for it to go unheard. The last song on the album 'Fjogur Piano' was another recycled loop from some of our old material. We had this really deep concept that was almost like waiting in a parking lot outside the studio in a car. Kjartan (Sveinsson) went down into the swimming pool and recorded his piano part and turned into a loop so that when we put all the parts together you couldn't hear what the rest of us played but it all fitted so that's where the "four pianos" comes from.
DiS: The album's title, Valtari, translates as "Roller" in English. Is there any significance or concept in relation to the rest of the record as far as the title goes?
Jonsi: No, I couldn't really say there is. As far as the name Valtari or "Roller" goes, it was just a working title for the record for a long time. We took it from the name of the next-to-last song on the album which in itself was named after a construction outside the studio! I guess it ended up becoming something more important than it was originally supposed to be. I think it's quite a fitting title for the album actually.
DiS: Valtari seems to consist of a lot more atmospheric soundscapes than its most recent predecessor. Was it a deliberate attempt on the band's part to evoke the ambiance of () or Agaetis Byrjun?
Jonsi: Yes, I think so. With Med Sud I Eyram Vid Spilum Endalaust we'd kind of made an upbeat, festive pop record and it got to the point where we'd had enough of that so it seemed the right time to do something else.
DiS: The third track on the record 'Varuo' in particular reminds me of the final track from 2002's (), arguably your most underrated record to date. In hindsight, did you feel () was overlooked by certain sections of the media and is Valtari your way of rewriting the record books as it were?
Jonsi: No. I can honestly say I don't really listen to my own music any more. Once I've created something I'd rather just move onto the next thing than go backwards. I never revisit my old records.
DiS: Do you pay much attention to what people in the press are saying about you or the band?
Jonsi: I made a decision many years ago when I was eighteen years old and we'd just started the band not to pay too much attention to what critics are saying or writing about us, and I haven't really changed from that. I know there are a lot of weird people writing things on the internet but that's something we've learned to live with. I guess we haven't done too badly as far as the critics are concerned to still be here making music and playing live shows.
DiS: Your partner Alex (Somers) has co-produced Valtari. What did he manage to bring to the recording sessions, and it change the dynamic in the studio between you and the band bearing in mind you're both in a personal relationship?
Jonsi: No, it was cool. He's so nice to work with and a great guy in general. He mainly helped us with the recording process. He recorded us in the swimming pool and also our rehearsal space and then he mixed it in our attic in the house me and him share. He brought a lot of new arrangements to the songs and reconstructed some of the pieces that were all over the place. He helped us make sense of it all and also encouraged us to record more instruments, and for me to sing and write more lyrics. I guess you could say he played a big part in the making of the record.
DiS: What about the electronic influence that seems to be prevalent throughout the album? Was Alex a major factor here as well?
Jonsi: It does have a lot more electronic pieces than our other albums, although I think this has more to do with us enjoying playing around and experimenting with new gadgets than anything else. Whenever we discover a new instrument or tool it's really exciting for us.
DiS: You put out two vinyl releases last weekend for Record Store Day. Do you see Record Store Day as being an important fixture on the calendar bearing in mind internet downloads have surpassed physical sales in the market?
Jonsi: I think it's cool, quite reminiscent even for me. When I was younger I'd be really excited to go to my local record store and see which band had released an album that week. I see it as being quite nostalgic in that sense. These days I'm pretty bad when it comes to discovering new music. I rarely go out and buy albums, but I like the concept of Record Store Day if it encourages kids from the next generation to seek out new music in the same way I did when I was their age. Nowadays it is so instant to consume music. People don't tend to listen to albums in full any more. They just seem to skip tracks and go to their three favourite songs then onto the next album and so on.
DiS: Are there any new artists at the moment who've caught your attention?
Jonsi: I'm really bad when it comes to new popular music but there's one artist I've been listening to a lot recently. Her name is Julia Holter. Her album is really cool. Also there's an Icelandic artist called Sin Fang. Alex (Somers) is doing an album with him at the moment. I think they're hoping to put it out next year. What I've heard so far is really good.
DiS: You're playing a number of festivals this summer including Bestival on the Isle Of Wight and Electric Picnic in Ireland. What made you choose those particular festivals and will their be an extensive world tour later on in the year?
Jonsi: We're doing a short North American tour and a few European dates as well as the festivals, then we're off to Australia. I think it only works out at about 30 shows this year, but we're definitely hoping to play some more shows in the new year.
DiS: Will you be taking the orchestra on tour with you?
Jonsi: I'm not sure yet, but I think we'll want to take some strings with us, especially when we're playing the new album. It will be difficult to translate those songs live without them.
DiS: How do you choose which shows or tours to do without any orchestration? On Inni that seemed to be a key characteristic in terms of affecting which songs you were able to play.
Jonsi: On our last major tour, we kind of decided straight away what we could play because we had Amiina doing the strings and a brass section with us, so that made it really comfortable. I think that's why we played a few shows just as a four-piece, because we wanted to prove to ourselves that we still had it!
DiS: At the same time, some of your songs only feature orchestral instruments. How do you go about writing those in the studio and then performing them?
Jonsi: When we were working with Amiina, they just came over for a weekend and just jammed over the top of the songs. We then decide what to leave in or take out and the songs generally develop from there. We tend to do everything from that point onwards, constructing then reconstructing each piece until it works for us.
DiS: With such an extensive back catalogue of work to choose from, how do you put together your setlists? Are there any songs or albums which you probably won't revisit again?
Jonsi: It's quite weird because we haven't played together as a live band for nearly four years now, so we're just starting to look at which songs we want to play live. We've a lot of songs to go through so it may get a bit confusing! Of course it's fun for us too, because there are some songs that we haven't played for a long time that may reappear on this tour, whereas some we won't touch. I don't know. What songs would you like to hear?
DiS: I'd like to hear 'Myrkur' from Von.
DiS: It was the first song I ever heard by Sigur Ros. I still play it when I DJ every now and then.
Jonsi: Really? Wow. It's so long since we played that song I've forgotten how it goes! I haven't heard that record in years.
DiS: I have to ask you about a blog that appeared on your website a while back, Homage Or Fromage, which kind of named and shamed numerous television commercials where unauthorised copying of your music had taken place. It seemed to center largely around variations of 'Hoppipolla' which had been used to advertise all sorts of products. Have you spotted any more recently and has there ever been a time where you've been forced to pursue legal action against one of the perpetrators?
Jonsi: I don't think so. I remember there was some golf club or company that was using one of our songs, or something that sounded very similar recently. There's a lot of that stuff going on, more so in the past. It seems to be used a lot in advertising campaigns and sports programmes whereby the producer has obviously tried to make it sound something like one of our songs but changed one part.
DiS: Going back to your solo projects such as Riceboy Sleeps, Go and also the We Bought A Zoo soundtrack for Cameron Crowe, do you see yourself embarking on more of these in the future? Particularly soundtracks or scores for example?
Jonsi: Yeah, I'd love to do a film score. It was fun to do something different like We Bought A Zoo. It's a lot more challenging than just doing your own songs for yourself or the band because you have so much more to think about. You have to study the dialogue of the film carefully and also the acts and the scenes so that each piece of music fits in with what you can see. It felt weird at first but now I think it was a good learning experience. I guess you could say it's a little bit more choreographed in some ways.
DiS: Aside from the album release and the live shows during the summer, what are your plans for the rest of the year and how long will we have to wait for the next Sigur Ros record?
Jonsi: We're going to start rehearsing for the summer tour very shortly, and then most of this year will be concentrated on the live shows. As for the next record, I think it probably won't be that far away... It feels really good to be in this band right now. Everyone's really excited again.
DiS: Are there any new songs or ideas floating around?
Jonsi: Maybe?!? No scoop!