Published Jun 01, 2001For months now, fans with an ear to the ground have been buzzing about a band they're not even sure how to pronounce. They've been wandering into records stores to ask for an album whose title, Ágætis Byrjun, is a twister for all but the most Nordic-oriented tongues. And minor urban legends have emerged, of music fans chasing Sigur Rós like Sesame Street's Snuffalupagus. "We just got ten in, but they sold in five minutes," seekers of the trippy, atmospheric Icelanders are told, or "They're on back order, try next week."
The buzz has provided a head start for the arrival of Sigur Rós on North American shores, through a distribution deal between Universal, UK indie Fat Cat, and the band's Icelandic label, Smekklaysa. Ágætis Byrjun means "a good beginning" in Icelandic, and the title seems prophetic, almost cheaply so for writers seeking a clever quip. Sigur Rós bassist Georg Holm explains, "It could just be a good start for anything. For the person listening to it. A good beginning of something new. When we were recording the album, we used to say this quite a lot - Oh yeah, that's a good beginning.' We used it so much, we had to call the album that. It's also kind of like we were beginning over again. I don't know why or how. We were just starting over."
Sigur Rós is certainly starting from scratch as far as North American ears are concerned. The buzz started late in 2000, when copies of Ágætis Byrjun made their way across the pond. The album caught the ear of the critical cognoscenti, and suddenly Sigur Rós moved from a few Best of 2000 lists to the lips of many curious open-eared fans. And the album has been crossing musical boundaries as well - Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich recently penned a letter of praise to the band, thanking Sigur Rós for inspiring work on their new album.
The band certainly has a number of interesting elements that helped create this early legend. There are the ambiguously gendered vocals of singer Jón Thór "Jonsi" Birgisson, whose falsetto soars high above the band's drifting New Ageisms. There's the fact that Birgisson strokes and coaxes the band's signature spacy sounds from his guitar strings with a cello bow, albeit in a much gentler fashion than the pounding Jimmy Page inflicted in The Song Remains the Same. And then there are the lyrics, a combination of some Icelandic, and their own gibberish language, called Hopelandish.
Musically, they are also shrouded in mystery, favouring overly long, drifting songs that seemingly incorporate environmental sounds as much as drifts of keyboard and guitar. The result is akin to Spiritualized on a valium overdose, all couch-bound smiles and sleepy-headed half dreams, while instruments fall into place like big drops of water echoing through a large cave.
I call a number in Iceland, and somewhere on the streets on New York City, Sigur Rós bassist Georg Holm picks up the phone. Actually, drummer Orri Pall Dyrason answers, but since Holm is the only member of the quartet who speaks fluent English, he's been handling all the press on the band's first trip to North America. They've been getting buzz in the UK for a while now, but even by those hype-driven standards, the band seems a little overwhelmed by the reception they received for six recent shows on this continent.
Between the afternoon's MTV appearance and the evening's gig, the quartet wanders through a city with a population 32 times greater than all of Iceland. "It's really nice," Holm enthuses genuinely about his first trip to NYC. "It's very different from the way I thought it would be - I thought it would be really hectic, like London, but it's very cosy and kind of calm. It almost feels like a small city, even though it's not.
"It's quite strange coming to America for the first time, and playing the venues we've been playing," he continues. "They're not very small." They're also not very typical. Rather than a rock club or medium-sized New York venue, the band plays at the Angel Orensanz Foundation Center for the Arts on the city's Lower East Side, in a 150-year-old building originally built as a synagogue. It's the band's preference to play in places with some emotional resonance, like churches, and where audiences are more likely to listen and less likely to clink drinks and chatter.
Audiences who catch these performances hear a band keen on expanding the already drawn-out passages of emotional sonic landscape found on the album, often extending them to ten minutes or more. But what they don't hear are hits - not that the album contains even one song that could be considered pop radio fodder. Ágætis Byrjun is an album the band is already tired of playing.
"We are playing lots of new stuff. We're only doing three songs from the album; in our last two shows, our keyboard broke down so we couldn't play some of them and we had to skip them. But people seem to enjoy the new songs."
"We don't try to reproduce the songs exactly in concert. We just let them be. They have a life of their own." But letting the songs evolve is not the same as letting them go, and the stress of doing so many shows in a short time, coupled with perhaps more media attention than they were anticipating, has been draining. "When we play our music, it takes a lot of concentration, and we have to really be into it and really feel the songs. It can be a little bit difficult. If we're really exhausted and playing the fourth show in a row, it can get a little dull. It becomes a little like brushing your teeth."
Despite the fact that their new distributor would prefer them to "sell" the product that's just hitting store shelves, the band will soon stop playing Ágætis Byrjun songs altogether. In fact, Holm reveals, "Even the new songs for the next album, we're almost getting bored with them as well. We've been playing them so much and haven't been able to record them properly."
It's a part of Sigur Rós that's been lost in all the "best new band" hype: they've been around for seven years, Ágætis Byrjun is actually their second record, and it's now almost three years old.
Sigur Rós (their name means Victory Rose, and it's also a play on Jonsi's sister's name, Sigguros) formed in 1994 as a trio, featuring teenagers Jonsi Birgisson singing and playing guitar, bassist Holm and original drummer Ágúst Gunnarson. Shortly after, they were featured on a compilation (released by the still-active Sugarcubes label Smekklaysa, or Bad Taste) commemorating Iceland's 50 years of independence from Denmark. It took three years of work before their debut, Von (meaning "hope"), was released. Von is a little harsher and more diverse than the smooth space-outs of Ágætis Byrjun; it also betrays a more "environmental" influence than the later album, one of the reasons why early buzz on Sigur Rós so closely tied them to the empty skies and wide open spaces of Iceland's landscape. Von's "Leit Af Lifi" became a number one hit in Iceland, and within a year came a remix record, Von Brigdi (the title translates as "Variations on Hope," but also puns on "Disappointment" and "Recycle Bin"), that featured remixes from a variety of Icelanders, including Gus Gus and Sigur Rós themselves.
Keyboardist and guitarist Kjartan Sveinsson joined the band after Von was released; and after a year's worth of studio work, Ágætis Byrjun was released by Smekklaysa in 1999. Shortly after, drummer Ágúst Gunnarson left to pursue a career in graphic design; he was replaced by Orri Pall Dyrason.
Georg Holm explains the reaction to Ágætis Byrjun in his homeland. "It was quite strange, actually. People were really waiting for the album, and then when it came out, it didn't start selling that much immediately. Suddenly, three or four months after it came out, it was like a bang!" The album parked itself on Iceland's charts, and it spent many of its 50-odd weeks at number one. They've now sold almost double platinum in Iceland, 20,000 copies. That's the equivalent of 2 million in Canada, or 20 million in the U.S. it means approximately one out of every 15 people in Iceland have bought it. There has been a lull between Fat Cat's UK release and the explosion of attention in North American, but the scale just keeps getting bigger. Despite not being able to keep up with demand, Fat Cat has sold more than 130,000 copies of the album world-wide.
But while the rest of the world catches up with Sigur Rós, the band themselves are getting restless. And the time that once stretched endlessly before them, when they enjoyed the luxury of spending three years to record their debut, now comes in very short supply. "We really want to go into the studio," Georg says. "We could probably write three songs in one day if we really wanted to. It's incredibly easy for us. We start playing and the songs are just there, in a way. The only thing we haven't had is time to actually do it. We haven't had time for a while now."
In order to make a new record, Georg will have to take yet more time away from his new home in Brighton, England, where he recently relocated, in order to go home, to Iceland. "I think all Icelandic people are patriots æ they love Iceland and always consider it home. You meet young people who have lived in Iceland their whole lives and they tell you they hate Iceland and they want to move somewhere else, and they do. After a year, they tell you they miss Iceland. It's always home."
And just as Icelanders never mentally stray far from home, they also maintain patriotic ties to their far-flung brethren as well. Gimli, Manitoba is home to the largest Icelandic population outside the island nation, a fact not lost on Georg. "We call them West Icelandic peoples," he explains. "They're basically Canadian, but they're Icelandic to us because their parents or grandparents were from Iceland. Every time someone from Iceland does something, the Icelandic people and the media jump all over them. It's quite funny, but it's cool."
Iceland also provides an environment that Sigur Rós in particular are going to enjoy returning to when it comes time to record. "The good thing about being in Iceland, living there and creating music there, is that it's a small place and it's kind of isolated. You don't really have to go that far to be in the middle of nowhere. You can actually close your door and turn off the phone and no one will call you or come knocking for as long as you want. You can isolate yourself really easily, which is good for creating music. You're not bombarded with stuff from other people æ you can just be yourself in a way."
That solitude extends not just away from people, but also towards Iceland's unique geography. "In Iceland, you can go some places and hear perfect silence æ meaning you don't even hear the wind. And I think silence is a very important part of music. I've heard that kind of silence, and it's quite maddening. You almost have to start talking or something because it's so quiet. It's a good thing, though. There's nothing to distract you from anything else."
In that kind of environment, you could develop a signature sound æ something many art-rock Icelanders continue to do æ and even your own language, like Jonsi's Hopelandish.
For Sigur Rós, lyrics have always come last. When the band first started, Jonsi would sing in a hybrid of Icelandic and his own broken English, but that was quickly abandoned in favour of wordless vocalising. On a press tour in Europe last summer, the band began telling journalists that "Hopelandish" was the name of this "private" gibberish language he sang. "We never write the lyrics," Georg explains. "That was the last part of writing or recording a song, was actually writing the lyrics, and then singing them.
"The most surprising thing [on this tour]," Georg continues, "and one of the most enjoyable, is that we're singing in Icelandic and this babble language that has no words, really, just vocals, and you always pick out four or five people in the audience who are singing along to the songs. We always think, What are they singing along to? They don't know what we're saying.' But it proves a point æ that lyrics aren't important; it's all about the melody."
As for the future of Hopelandish, Georg says "We'll probably continue doing that for a while. It feels right at the moment. But it might change completely two albums down the road. We might start singing in English..." he pauses, "or Hindi... or Japanese."
"Sometimes I wish people would tell us more that we're crap," Georg says baldly. It's odd, but true æ success may be the demon chasing Sigur Rós right now. The band is on the verge of losing the very thing that has made Ágætis Byrjun such a delight - the sense of discovery when you stumble upon it. The gentle, quiet record may simply not be able to withstand the weight of the hype being loaded upon it. "Of course it's inspiring when someone comes up to you and says things like Your music has changed my life.' But we're not desperately trying to become pop stars or anything. We're just enjoying doing our music, doing our thing."
They're being offered the moon on the basis of this hype, but these four men, all still in their early 20s, remain tentative. They would like to take on more of the remix projects being offered them, though they're more interested in the possibilities of reinterpreting their own music than creating rump-rousing club mixes. They're very anxious to write and record a new album, which if they started today would more closely reflect their live sound and be less produced than Ágætis Byrjun. But that's today; tomorrow will bring new ideas, new possibilities. And Sigur Rós will continue to do whatever they want. Having fielded offers from labels big and small around the world, they inked a deal only after they were assured full control over their music.
And they're doing their best to keep their heads. "We want people to hear the music. They won't hear the music if they read an article about us or look at our photo. It was never a plan to be this mystery band or anything - we just want people to hear the music rather than looking at our faces."