kjartan sveinsson is thinking about drinking. 'we like to play concerts where people are sitting down and the bars are not open,' he says. 'i think it would be hard for people to listen to us when they're drunk.'
in the context of sveinsson's native iceland, it is difficult to imagine a more spectacular heresy. even the astronomical price of alchohol in iceland has not deterred the country's inhabitants from being arguably the most determined, enthusiastic and prodigious consumers of the substance on earth. yet, last night in akureyri, iceland's northernmost city, keyboardist/guitarist sveinsson, 21, and the three other members of sigur rós played an appreciative sober friday-night audience.
'we never drink at our shows either,' continues kjartan, hunching over a table with 24-year-old singer/guitarist jón þór birgisson in a bar in their home town, reykjavík. (the bar, like most of those in reykjavík, seems to have been designed by someone who owned bulgarian discos in the mid-seventies.) 'a lot of people assume, from listening to our music - because it is, i guess, kind of out-there - that we must be stoned all the time, but we can't work like that. you just end up with a completely fake idea of what you're doing.'
the show in akureyri had been a strange, disorientating one for other reasons than the sobriety of the audience, sigur rós offer a take on rock music utterly disconnected from the instinctive, exuberant hedonism that generall characterises their nation's cultural produce. instead, sigur rós' song are great, sprawling lakes of bowed electric guitar and mantra-like keyboards, decorated with birgisson's whale-call of a voice. rigorously shorn of any kinetic aspect, the effect is as gently overwhelming as a glacier proceeding towards the sea.
tonight, sigur rós will play a similar gig in their home town of reykjavík, headlining above minneapolis ambienteers low and british noiseniks immense, are by the way of wrapping up a 1999 which has seen sigur rós the biggest band in iceland, surpassing lhooq, gus gus and all the other icelandic acts heavily touted in the wake of björk. it would be an exaggeration, however, to suggest that sigur rós are letting this success go to their heads. 'we have sold 4000 copies, i think, of our new album,' offers jón þór birgisson, universally known as jónsi. in iceland, 5000 sales is a gold album. i think it's difficult to form a band here and not become famous.'
the good news for sigur rós is that a number of people, bewitched by the bands oblique, eerie soundscapes, every bit as bleakly beautiful as the icelandic interior, are hoping to expand the band's horizons over the coming months. one single, 'svefn-g-englar', has already been released in britain by independent techno label fatcat: the aforementioned icelandic album-chart-topper 'ágætis byrjun' will follow in april, with some live dates to accompany it.
sigur rós are an anomaly among icelandic bands. most of them - witness the sugarcubes and gus gus - tend to lead with their lips: expounding, with the amused condescension that tends to characterise this self-possessed island breed, wilfully absurd manifestos to justify the rackets. little of this sort of intellectual hooliganism goes on when sigur rós attempt - or rather, gently refuse - to explain themselves. in between the interruptions from their mobile phones, kjartan and jónsi elaborate the minumum they think is polite. their music, they insist, is just what happens when the four of them (kjartan, jónsi plus bass player georg holm, 25, and drummer orri páll dýrason, 22) get together with their instruments. though kjartan and jónsi will uneasily acknowledge the influence of, or a kindship with, eighties indie style starlwarts my bloody valentine, cocteau twins and band of susans, they insist that there is nothing particularly deliberate about it. the group's six years in existance have been largely dictated by happenstance (they are called sigur rós after jónsi's little sister, who was born on the day the band formed, and jónsi plays his guitar with a violin bow because holm, his bandmate, was given it one christmas by one of the band's former drummers).
sigur rós are modest and quiet young men who give you the impression that it would require only the merest to elicit an apologetic mumble of: 'we just make music for ourselves and if anyone else likes it, it's a bonus.' though they've been likened to the musically anomorpous bands like ride and chapterhouse, as well as late-nineties spiritual kin mogwai and godspeed you black emperor!, the band appear utterly nonplussed by the comparisons. kjartan and jónsi seem, indeed, to take pride in sigur rós' lack of subtexts.
'when we write together,'says jónsi, 'i think we have the same.. beauty sense? you know? or whatever you would call it. we just know when something is right, and we know when something is wrong. the songs really aren't about anything. they just float, naturally.'
just as the cocteau twins sang in an invented, semi-celtic language that fascinated a generation of music lover until they abondoned it in the early nineties (although liz frazer returned to it when she sung on massive attack's 'teardrop' in 1997), so sigur rós' songs are sung in a mixture of icelandic and an improvised language of jónsi's creation which he refers to as hopelandic ('noises that sound good with the music,' is the most precise linguistic definition he will agree to). jónsi only became sigur rós' singer because nobody else wanted to do it (a picture of the four struggling to beat each other into the spotlight is one that admantly refuses to come into focus): and not for the last time, fortune favoured their diffidence. jónsi is possessed of an extraordinary voice, a tremulous but deceptively dramatic falsetto that many overseas reviewers, to jónsi's evident satisfaction, have assumed to be female. set against the squailing guitars, discordant keyboards and insistent rhythms otherwise conjured by sigur rós, this graceful, unfettered voice is as startling and beautiful as sunlight through cloud.
'it is just.. natural,' shrugs jónsi, almost as if physically ducking the compliment. 'and that is why we use it like that, like it was another instrument. i don't know why we put lyrics to it.' and even when they do, sigur rós react to any exploration of them like a magician asked where he hides his rabbits.'we would drive ourselves mad,' says kjartan, 'if we were to dive into our music and try to say anything definite about what it is, or what the songs are about, or whatever. there are of course, lots of very personal emotions involved from our point of view, but we don't analyse them, because we would go crazy. and, it would be very boring.' he accepts, however, that it won't stop people trying: vocal pop music is probably the last art form left whose consumers refuse to accept the abstract as abstract. 'oh, we get a lot of emails,' he smiles. 'really intense ones, asking if this song is about that or that song about this.' and? 'well, they're never right. but some of them are pretty funny.'
sigur rós are not totally without ambition - enough people seem to have told them how good they are that they've almost started believing it themselve, and they are also beginning to run out of places in iceland that they can usually play (in recent memory, in some windswept hamlet on the island's east coast, sigur rós performed for an audience of two dozen farmers). they have permitted themselves the extravaganza of ordering a kilogram of incense from india to perfume every date on the imminent tour, and say they're looking forward to seeing what the world will make of them and their strange and lovely songs about nothing in particular and whatever you like. 'this is pop music of the future,' says jónsi, as stray snowflakes drift into the doorway of the bar. while the statement is delivered with the wry smirk demanded by his chronic humility, it's not unreasonable to believe he may be right.