I confess to being anxious about meeting Sigur Rós. Firstly and most importantly, because I love them. The ebbing and swelling of this Icelandic band’s graceful, heaven-sent music has a deep magic that no other band can touch. Secondly because they’ve been messing with my diary for weeks, first wanting to meet in Bergen, then Birmingham, and finally Bristol, where they switch the appointment at the last moment from 6pm to 11pm, immediately after their harbourside concert in the city.
And thirdly, because when you google “Sigur Rós interview”, the very first thing that comes up is a conversation described by NPR, the American radio station that carried it out, as “possibly the worst interview in the history of electronic media”. One-word answers, excruciating silences, it’s got the whole package.
So it is with much relief that I find Sigur Rós to be in expectation-smashing form at the moment. Jonsi Birgisson, the angelic, enigmatic voice of the band, known for playing his electric guitar with a cello bow and singing only in Icelandic or a made-up language he calls “Hopelandic”, strides purposefully into the trailer bellowing, “Right, let’s get this interview done!” He is wearing boxer shorts and socks and nothing else.
It turns out that the hour after a successful gig is a great time to find them in fun, elated form. His practical joke having succeeded, I regain my composure while he disappears to get changed properly, bassist Georg Hólm fetches a beer for himself and a white wine for his singer, and they sit down to discuss the most important issue of the day: Iceland’s match against England in Euro 2016, due to happen a few days later. At the time they don’t realise quite how exciting it’s going to be for Icelanders. “It’s phenomenal, unbelievable! This is changing Iceland’s history. We’ve gone way further than anyone expected,” says Hólm, 40. What with Iceland having roughly the population of Reading (just over 300,000), naturally he knows one of the players, who is the nephew of one of his good friends.
Aside from them and Bjork, their country is more famous for its landscape than its people. The cliche is to describe Sigur Rós’s grandiose, exquisite music as an aural equivalent of those green moss-covered lava fields, white glaciers, black sands and blue lagoons. The band capitalised on that connection last week by providing the latest example of “Slow TV” from Scandinavia: a 24-hour live broadcast, on Icelandic television and YouTube, of an 828 mile drive around the country’s coastal ring road on the longest day of the year. “We’d been planning it for three years. We got really intrigued by Norway doing these films of journeys on a ferry and a train,” says Birgisson, 41. “It was the perfect thing for us: really slow and nothing happens but you get kind of sucked in.”
The broadcast’s soundtrack was a version of their new single, Óveður, that was stretched and altered by “generative music software” to last for the full 24 hours. The six-minute real thing is far less inviting and unspoiled than the Icelandic countryside, however. Largely electronic and driven by industrial beats, with an unsettling second half of awkward gunshot rhythms and woozy sounds that make the song feel as if it is running on a faulty turntable belt, it has little connection with the sonic purity of much of their past work. The title is Icelandic for “bad weather”. Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin’s daughter Apple was reported to have been born to the sound of Sigur Rós. If this had been playing, the scene would have been more like something out of Rosemary’s Baby.
“I guess our music is becoming a little more aggressive,” admits Hólm. That sounds like a severe understatement if you can bear to watch the new single’s video. Directed by the Swede Jonas Akerlund, best known for his work with Madonna, it features a blind drunk female vagrant, her half-blind dog and a horrifying bloody bar scene straight out of Dante’s Inferno. “I never want to show my boyfriend the video because I know he is definitely not gonna approve,” says Birgisson.
“It suits the song which is quite confrontational, especially the second half,” adds Hólm. “It’s ugly and beautiful.”
The change in sound has been necessitated to some extent by the departure of keyboardist and multi-instrumentalist Kjartan Sveinsson in 2013. Sigur Rós’s 2013 album, Kveikur, made without Sveinsson, also had its aggressive moments. They’re experimenting with electronics more and working with outside collaborators including Paul Corley, who has also produced songs for Anohni and Oneohtrix Point Never. “We definitely miss him,” says Birgisson of his former bandmate. “But at the same time you just do something else, you start something else. Now we’re letting people in a bit. Paul Corley is good to be around – weird, fun, creative, a hard worker.”
They promise a new album perhaps a year from now, and more new songs in the meantime. They don’t seem to be in a big hurry. The lone new song has been released because they’re touring the summer festivals and it was the one closest to being finished. “I don’t think we even know,” says Hólm about their music plans. “No album this year, that’s for sure, but it might be next year. Hopefully more new songs though. There mght be songs that even if we don’t record them and release them, we add them into the set. It’s about finding time.”
Those who see the band at their only London show of the summer, headlining this month’s Citadel Festival in Victoria Park, will see them perform as a trio on stage for the first time since they were starting out over two decades ago. Birgisson seems to find the new set-up, with drummer Orri Pall Dyrason at times playing drums and keyboards simultaneously, somewhat stressful.
“We just played at [Barcelona music festival] Primavera and it was our first show in two and a half years or something,” he says. “Only three of us playing, no strings, brass or anything to hide behind, and I was so nervous. I couldn’t sleep, just really bad. I was just thinking, why are we playing for 20,000 people? An Icelandic band with an Icelandic name, singing in Icelandic, with no radio-friendly songs, no singalong songs? It’s so weird!”
Among their peers, possibly only Radiohead have risen so far without ever compromising an unorthodox sound. It means that Sigur Rós are worshipped more intensely than many other bands, and Birgisson isn’t entirely comfortable being the focal point of that adulation, with people hanging on his every word. When talk inevitably turns to the EU referendum and politics in general, he says: “I always feel like you have to know exactly what’s going on, and I kind of don’t know exactly what’s going on, so I feel like I can’t be a spokesperson if I’m not really involved. I don’t want to say anything weird or stupid or bad.”
He talks far more enthusiastically about the world of fragrance – explaining at some length how to extract a smoky oil from birch bark – and whittling. He recently made two spoons for some friends who were getting married. It turns out he’s a funny guy – both ha-ha and peculiar – and as with his music, is simply not interested in doing the kind of things we expect.
“Music is this totally spontanous, pure, art form. And politics is the exact opposite. The two things really don’t connect. But people do want to get the things mixed. I just want to do music, because you just do things and then you die. I want to do really cool, good music. That’s what I want to leave behind.”
Citadel Festival, July 17, Victoria Park, E3 (citadelfestival.com)
Sigur Rós’s new single Óveður is out now on XL.