Sigur Rós – A Step to the Left
June 14, 2012 § Leave a comment
Five long years since the release of the album Með suð í eyrum við Spilum Endalaust, which met with mixed reviews from fans and critics alike, Sigur Rós returned to active music-making this may with Valtari, a heady combination of ambient noise scaping and their trademark glacial sounds. It’s clear that, as a band, they’re determined not to repeat themselves, but their newest offering maintains a clear picture of the band’s musical history as well as setting a vivid case for change.
The band themselves (for the purposes of this interview, being one Jónsi Birgisson and Orri Páll Dýrason) combine a certain shyness with a charm and sense of humour characteristic of their countrymen; jokes and vernacular are lost in translation, and they don’t say a great deal, clearly confident that Valtari will answer all the questions they can’t.
First things first: between this album and the last album you’ve all been doing your own thing really – why regroup now and make this album?
After the last tour we went straight to the studio and started recording some ideas. We were working in the old studio – but we weren’t really feeling what was happening, so we took a break and then a year ago we started recording again.
If you hadn’t taken that break, would Valtari sound anything like it does?
Probably not. It was really weird – we did so many sessions. We started recording after the last tour, but even before that we had been recording choir songs at Air studios in 2007. This album is less band like; less structured.
Were you looking to make an album that was distinct from your back catalogue?
I think this album was always gonna be different, no matter what, it’s just the nature of it. It would have been boring to make the same record exactly.
It’s probably closest to Brackets… what made you go back that way – you’ve gone from being a cult band from a small island to one of the most recognisable sounds in the world…
In the universe. We don’t think too much about that – we always wanted to do this album. The first idea was to make a quiet choir album or something really weird. But then we put that on hold – but it’s always been in the back of our minds.
Why did you call it Valtari (Steamroller)?
It was a working title for one song… now it’s the title for another song; it’s confusing – it’s confusing to me, anyway.
Alex Somers produced the album – what sort of input has he had?
He’s done an amazing job – he focused us on finishing it and gluing all the parts together in to a whole. The session he had in the computer was really messy and confusing – he helped us to find a structure. He encouraged us to try things – he encouraged me [Jonsi] to sing more. This music is so up his alley.
There are tracks on the album that aren’t so different to your older stuff as others – was it something you thought was important, to leave that trace of recognisability?
It’s just kind of how we are – what we do – it’s hard to grow away from that. We’re still the same people. We’ve changed to keep ourselves happy – to make it interesting for us; we try not to repeat ourselves too much.
And are you happy with Valtari?
Yeah, really happy. It’s such a different album to make – not the classic band album where we meet up and write songs – it’s more of a studio album, more experimentation.
Is that something you’re keen to continue?
It’s always fun. I think for our next album we’ll go back in to the band, keep people guessing, maybe do a rap album.
There’s been a lot of music coming out of Iceland, from under your shadow these last few years – have you been keeping track of that scene while you haven’t been a part of it?
Of Monsters and Men are doing really well. It’s good; they don’t have that kind of “Icelandic weirdness” that people expect – it’s just good pop music and people can connect to it. People always think there’s only strange music in Iceland, but it’s just like anywhere else. Which brings us back to the rap.
There’s so much production involved, how are you going to perform Valtari live?
We have no idea. Playback? We have a few string players and two extra players – we’ll just… do something. We have some time. Maybe it would be fun to try and arrange the old songs like Valtari. It’s always going to be different to the album – I like that – to see how it evolves.
Are you planning to stick together now, as Sigur Ros, rather than going back to your personal projects and lives?
At least for a while. We’re touring all next year – we don’t know what happens after that. If something happens then it happens. But we don’t write on tour, not together, you do something on your own on a laptop: it’s kind of schizophrenic – it’s hard to focus on anything.
You’re only playing Bestival here this year – are you looking forward to that?
[Jonsi:] I’ve played before. it was awful – it was dirty and sweaty and rainy, and there was a techno band playing next to me. No, I think it’s going to be good – I like the festival, it’s cool.
Do you prefer festival shows?
It’s just very different. When we put together a setlist we think about that because most of the time there is a techno band playing in the woods. It’s hard to play quiet songs. When we play festivals it’s like a big circus – you just have to have fun and expect everything to go wrong.
Georg has said this is the only Sigur Ros album he’s ever listened to for pleasure – do you ever listen back to your previous albums?
Only when I’m extremely drunk. I listened to a little bit of this album on the plane – it’s in the in flight entertainment system. But I never listen to our albums, maybe I will revisit them ten years from now when I’m an old man.
What are you hoping other people hear when they listen to Valtari?
I don’t know – it’s kind of a more introspective album; it’s easy to listen to by yourself. Maybe not when you’re in the gym – it’s not a pump up album or a party album.
The sound of the album is closer to ( ) or Von than any of your more recent work – do you still think it’s a step forward?
No, a step back – I hope it’s not a step back; a step to the left maybe. I think people will be surprised. And we were surprised, we were kind of expecting EMI to just reject the album and we’d have to put it out ourselves.
Was it what you were expecting when you started out? Five years is a long time…
We were going to do a choir album, but after we started working on the choir we were trying to hide it in the music – we didn’t want it to be a classical album.We went to AIR studios to record the Sixteen choir, and it was really expensive top quality equipment but we ended up using a tape recorder.
Does it affect the dynamic of the group when you’re not creating songs out of rehearsals and band compositions – who takes charge of that process?
We’d been working for many years but we were a little all over the place – so it was good when Alex came in; we weren’t always there together, but Alex was always there. Sometimes it’s fun to be on your own, you can experiment more, and we’ve always experimented in the studio – we love new equipment, new toys.
Did you still have the right dynamic after you’d all been out on your own?
It worked straight away – it was really nice, and that doesn’t always happen. When I [Jonsi] went out, playing my own stuff, and came back to Sigur Ros it was like coming home.