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the sunday times feature (28.08.05)
iceland’s sigur ros have shaken off the gloom for some thrashing rock’n’roll. look out, says robert sandall.

today, however, the singer, jonsi birgisson, is sipping a cappuccino in a coffee shop on reykjavik’s main street, soaking up the ghostly, grey morning quiet of europe’s smallest capital. this place looks more like somebody’s living room than a cafe, and if the other customers recognise iceland’s most famous living male vocalist, none of them lets on. “there’s so much action on tour, and when some people come home, they just get depressed,” he says cheerfully. “but i really, really like it in iceland — to be isolated, to read books and to have a normal life. if you don’t want to be harassed, you just turn off your phone.”

for the rest of the day, birgisson plans to help his american boyfriend sort out the student visa he needs to start a new course at reykjavik university. first, however, a few words about takk ..., the album that sigur ros all feel, quite rightly, to be their best effort to date — best in that it has all their signature grandeur and churchy choral effects without that occasional aura of introverted gloom. the songs this time are more concise, a shade faster and bursting with delightful new details: music boxes, a celesta, various bell sounds, some striking string and horn arrangements. many of these innovations grew out of the band’s musical collaboration, last year, with the avant-garde choreographer merce cunningham, on his split sides show. artiness is firmly shown the door, however, when the guitars take over: if they so choose, sigur ros can give u2 a run for exhilarating, crash-bang rock.

“everybody has been asking us, ‘is this your rock’n’roll album?’” birgisson says. “but we never really plan anything. everything happens by accident. the songs are intense because we wanted to make something happier-sounding, because now we are living in happier times.” at last. sigur ros used to be a notoriously moody and uncommunicative bunch. this aspect of the band came to the fore when they released ( ) in 2002. problems with one of their independent labels, play it again sam, coupled with the fatigue they felt at having played these songs for two years before recording them, lent ( ) a truculent, sombre atmosphere that suited the fans they already had without winning them many others. a new, comfortingly rich deal with emi bucked them up no end, apparently.

their guitarist and keyboard player, kjartan sveinsson, puts the old attitude down partly to shyness and partly to wariness. “when we started, people told us, ‘don’t trust anybody in this business, not even your mother.’ now we are more grown-up, less sceptical.” grateful, even: the title of the new album is icelandic for thanks. it’s a word that sveinsson says “has been following us around for a while”.

it is certainly the case that the normally harsh world of rock has been consistently gentle with sigur ros. when they began, in 1994, they were a bunch of teenage metal-heads who, as birgisson puts it, “got into some of that old hippie ambient stuff we found in our parents’ closet. you just take the best from everything.” they took their name (which translates as victory rose) from birgisson’s newborn sister. that had nothing, though, to do with his preference for high, girlish vocals. “i sang that way because i was shy, and because there was nobody else,” he says.

“i found that when i sang falsetto, i could tune my voice more and control it.”

when sigur ros began making their breakthrough second album, agaetis byrjun, in 1999, they all still had day jobs, which meant recording through the night. it took them 18 sleepless months to finish, but, according to sveinsson: “we knew it was going to be big.” how right they were. unassisted by media hype or marketing money, the album eventually sold 600,000 copies around the world, and its dreamy lead track, svefn-g-englar, became an alternative anthem — and a huge favourite with potential advertisers.

“we have turned down millions,” sveinsson says. “but for me, the really important thing is how precious music is to people, especially when you are younger, when a song might connect to a special emotion. we are not saying anything important — there’s no message in our music at all — and that’s great, because people can take the songs and attach them to themselves.”

in the democratic spirit of the band, birgisson takes a more relaxed view of commercials — “it’s only music, it will only play for six months, and we are only like this small sand dust in the universe” — but he won’t fight sveinsson over it. sigur ros don’t do arguments, ever, and besides, he’s “really happy kjartan feels so strongly about it”.

they are completely united in their enthusiasm for the new album and the visually lavish show that accompanies it. birgisson says that recording in their own studio — a converted swimming pool by a river on the outskirts of reykjavik — has made them both more relaxed and more adventurous. “it’s amazing to have your own studio. it gives you the courage to play celesta, vibraphone, whatever.”

performing the new material live is a thrill, too, he says: “after every show, we sit around and talk about what could go better or run smoother, like the lights, or other technical things.” how typical of sigur ros’s absorption in their craft, i say, that they should spend their after-show hours having constructive conversations such as these, while other rock bands fritter away their time in bars or making the acquaintance of members of the audience. “ah, but we do that too,” birgisson says, with an enigmatic grin.

takk ... is out on september 12

(robert sandall)


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