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ágætis byrjun

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memories from 1999

to celebrate ten years of ágætis byrjun, we asked people close to the band for their memories of the recording and release of the album.

ási, smekkleysa records (the band's record label in iceland)

sigur rós and friends glue together the first edition of ágætis byrjun the night before the release. photo courtesy of morgunblaðið. the release of ágætis byrjun was an especially memorable time for myself and an important chapter in the history of smekkleysa records. i had known the band for a few years before ágætis byrjun. i first remember meeting kjartan when sigur rós held their release concert for von. shortly thereafter began talks about making a remix album for "von" ("von brigði").

sigur rós performed at a music festival in 1998 along with gus gus, hilmar örn, einar örn and mark bell, if i remember correctly. dave and alex from fat cat records had previously heard "von" but this was the first time they sigur rós perform live. the performance blew them away. it was my impression that this was a particularly creative time in the band's career, although the band hadn't been playing many of the songs that would later appear on "ágætis byrjun". i recall having heard three songs from the album being played publically before the band went into the studio. i remember a performance of "flugufrelsarinn" at the icelandic music awards, as well "svefn-g-englar" at a packed concert in the music club gaukur á stöng in 1998. you could feel the interest in the band mounting.

contract negotations were lengthy and many meetings were held. the budget was under constant revision as the band's ideas were very ambitious - a big string band, a brass band, etc. eventually we recruited ken thomas, who had been a big fan of "von", to record the album and oversee the studio work. soon it became clear that the band's vision of the album was crystal clear. the band had planned the process from start to finish, with a solid work schedule having been drawn up. the album was to be released in october 1998, with plenty of time before christmas.

the band worked incessantly in the studio, day and night, to realise their ambitious ideas in time for the release date. the songs were recorded in studios sýrland and núlist. eventually it became clear that it would be impossible to finish the album as scheduled. no matter how hard they tried, there simply weren't enough hours in the day. the boys worked like dogs in núlist throughout the winter and mixing finally began in april of 1999. a giant weight was lifted off our shoulders - we could see the road at the end of the tunnel.

and then there was the small matter of packaging. naturally, the boys wanted a totally unique sleeve which didn't coincide with any standards, and no factory wanted to produce it. now what? we were sitting at a rather glum meeting when suddenly a man from the west came and told us "this is no problem, i'll handle the manufacturing, anything is possible." this news was met with great relief - it's all going to work out. a release date had been set for 12 june 1999, a solid date that we felt we could meet. a concert was organised at the icelandic opera house to celebrate the album's release.

it's a few days before the release and the first still edition hadn't arrived. this is when we started to feel a little uneasy. on june 11th the man from the west flew to iceland and delivered us the first edition, with the sleeves unassembled. yet another sleepless night followed when the band members and friends had to laboriously glue together the sleeves and package them for the first distribution. by this time the anticipation for the release was palpable and this snail-paced manufacturing method wasn't exactly the best way to meet the demand. what's worse was that the sleeve's ink hadn't completely dried so many of the copies were returned to the stores covered with ink smudges and glue blobs. it wasn't until the second edition arrived that a perfect copy of ágætis byrjun saw the light of day.

looking back, the whole process of making ágætis byrjun was in a way a publisher's nightmare. at the same time the experience was necessary to preserve the purity of sigur rós's idea behind the record. they set out to make what is most important to us old school music collectors - the comprehensive LP. in 1999, just before the digital age took over the music industry, sigur rós created an LP in the classic sense - an album that carried on the tradition of the cohesive, palpable album. they created something that would become a pivotal piece of music.

dave cawley, fat cat records (the band's former international record label)
a still from 1998's popp í reykjavík, after a concert where dave first discovered sigur rósa few memories from that time.

hearing tracks from the record for the first time and knowing that i was listening to something very special. the icelandic way of doing things. being in kiddies shop trying to stick cd sleeves down in time for the launch party. the closeness of special friends. bbq's, fun times and inspiring conversations. the excitement of sharing wonderful music with more and more people. the bullshit of money and greed. a belief that things could be different. perlan theatre group. the beauty of nature. the price of naivety.

those times will always have a special place in my heart.

john best (then publicist - now manager)

svefn-g-englar named single of the week in the nme late 1999 sigur rós was an immediate no-brainer for me as a publicist, even if they themselves would be first baffled and then somewhat floored by the reception 'ágætis byrjun' received outside iceland.  i'd been sent a batch of four band's cds from fatcat records in 1999 to ask if i wanted to take any of them on for press. the others included mice parade and some other stuff i've long since forgotten, but the svefn-g-englar ep just seemed to be beamed in from another place entirely. it was on the surface vaguely attached to the post-rock tropes that were de riguer, but at the same time so entirely different as to completely obliterate the competition. while mogwai and godspeed both were dark and dystopian, sigur rós seemed light and full of possibilities.  my immediate thought was: a lot of people are going to like this. there was no question that sigur rós had emerged as a fully-formed phenomenon, and the fact that they had no understanding or interest in this fact, only deepened the enigma.

i think i first saw sigur rós play was with emir kusturica's no smoking band in reykjavik in august 1999.  they looked so young, and although i didn't know it at the time, i guess orri can only have been in the band for a matter of weeks, but they were staggeringly powerful and overwhelmingly intense.  i ended up shuttling journalists to and from reykjavik in the months between the svefn ep and ágætis byrjun (which didn't come out in the uk until aug 2000). and every time i went back it seemed they had written another new song even more capable of pinning you to the back wall than previously.  deathsong, poppsong; all the great stuff that would two years later form ( ), came out of this initial post-"fame" creative outpouring, and may well have been an unbidden darker riposte to the light and beauty that was beguiling people listening to the then-new record.

i didn't (and still don't) really like the artwork for ágætis byrjun, it seemed naive and a bit dungeons-and-dragons, but as with everything about sigur rós a lot of what on the surface was *wrong* was paradoxically right.  they were surly and at times monosyllabic, especially around journalists, several of whom arrived in awe and left with less lofty opinions. but sigur rós really, genuinely didn't give a fuck about all this "bullshit", and they were sincere when they said they wanted to change the music business forever. perhaps by making a record as self-contained and non-referential (not to mention timelessly beautiful) as ágætis byrjun they kind of did.

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