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trax interviews georg & jónsi

trax cover february 2001

[see the ný batterí site for a scan of the article.]

to see sigur rós on the cover of "trax" might well come to you as a surprise. yet, scoring high in our last poll, the subtle and witty "post-rock-ambient" icelandic quartet demonstrates that today's electronica is best assumed not in the confines of a genre, but with an open mind.

"do you like soup?" asks a laughing jónsi, sigur rós's lead singer, while leaning above his stove and feeling excited at the idea of cooking up some dinner for a french trio made up of a pr girl, a photographer and a journalist come to iceland to meet up with the planetary musical revelation of 2000. this image of a relaxed, easy-going jónsi with an avid smile on his face, might surprise some. while listening to the unreal and stomach-churning "ágaetis byrjun", which bridges the gaps between vocal rock materialism, ambient electronic abstraction and thought-provoking classical music, it was easier for us to imagine him as a delicate elf hovering in the air, rather than this strange looking cook in pink slippers, confidently stirring his boiling stew which fills the room with an irresistible smell of garlic. orri, the quiet drummer, kjarri, the flegmatic keyboardist, and georg, the easy-going bass player, all share with their singer the same passion for good food and wine. thus, before we started enjoying the homemade "minestrone", georg complained about not being able to have us taste his famous guacamole, due to the loss of a mysterious ingredient on the way from the supermarket. while jónsi puts the final touches to his preparation, we discuss at great length the pros and cons of the spanish red wines rioja and ribeiro, which takes us quite far from the music world.

music is actually very discreet in jónsi's humble three-room flat located on the heights of reykjavík, a vantage point for us to admire the numerous fireworks lighting up the icelandic sky for the epiphany. only orri, the sepultura fan, who started up a rudimentary magneto-cd as soon as we arrived, so that we could listen to a local 60's singer reminiscent of both marcel amont and frank sinatra. at two hundred francs a piece, and despite the band's recent success, it is not surprising to see that the shelves in the flat are not full of cd's. this apparent musical virginity has much to do with the magic of sigur rós, the founding principle of which is naturality. but the time has come for us to taste the soup. a vegetarian and definitive enemy of tobacco - which will force my two companions and the other members of the band to light their fags outside when it's -10 degrees celsius - jónsi proves to be a fine cook, even if, apart from garlic, pepperoni and (non hallucinogenic) mushrooms, there is hardly any recognizable ingredient in this truly unique dish. unique is also the impression that grips us when we come to realize that we are having dinner with a supposedly inaccessible band. an aura of mystery ("only one of them speaks english" had we falsely been assured before leaving) which suddenly appears grossly overestimated. four ordinary young men writing somewhat unconsciously extraordinary music outside all norms: that may be the secret of the sigur rós miracle. we tried to clear this after the (icelandic) cheese.

first of all, what did you like about being on the cover for "trax"?

jónsi: it's an electronica magazine and we thought it would be funny to imagine the look on the face of techno-hardcore fan (he imitates the sound of techno: pfuit pfuit pfuit) when they see us on the cover.

yet don't you think that your music is as close to the world of ambient-electronic as it is to that of rock?

georg: today everyone seeks influences in all kinds of music, not caring where they come from or to what style they're linked. music tends more and more to escape earlier categorizations.
jónsi: for example, i don't think we are a guitar band, it's just easy for the press to put us in that box.

do you work with machines?

jónsi: we work with synths and computers only in the production process, but we don't write with machines. in rehearsal or live, there is no electronic effect.

in the future, do you think your music could become more electronic?

georg: i really don't know. since we started playing together, we never planned anything like: "we will do this and not that." it's always been really: "whatever will be, will be."

what did you had in mind when you decided to do that strange photo shoot?

jónsi: we hate all the photos we did in front of icelandic landscapes. these pictures do not mean anything, only our music does. the image cast by these handicapped persons, who are also in our video, describes perfectly the honesty, sensitivity and purity that we mean to represent. this is also the reason why we put babies on our covers. they represent a form of innocence that we are very attached to.
georg: besides, that sheds some light on the work of this theater company [perlan] which tries to help trisomics have a normal life.

is being the devil a fantasy?

jónsi: oh no, it is much too demanding a job! (laughs)
georg: it's just a joke, to break our usual image.

listening to "ágaetis byrjun" feels like entering another dimension...

georg: the process of writing this music is natural. we start playing and what you hear on the record is the actual sound our instruments make. we have an open mind, which probably has to do with this feeling of space.
jónsi: since the beginning, we have never discussed the way our music was going to evolve. we are completely spontaneous in our musical approach.

which feelings do you wish to convey with your music?

georg: any kind of emotion. if people feel sad or happy when they listen to "ágaetis byrjun", we are pleased, because it means that this music has an effect on them. it it were not so, our work would be pointless.

how do you explain the fact that your music corresponds perfectly with people's idea of iceland?

georg: maybe our music is like an icelandic landscape: open and mostly wild.
jónsi: there aren't many cities in iceland, hence it feels so big while being very small.

would you create the same music if you lived in paris or london?

georg: if we moved today, we would still make the same music, because we are, above all, icelanders. iceland is our country. we love it and it is deeply present in our minds. we think like icelanders. had we been born somewhere else, our music would certainly have been very different.

you declared that you wished to change music forever...

georg: it was more of a joke than a serious statement.
jónsi: it was actually our prime objective when we were teens. as soon as we started working properly and meeting people in the music industry, we quickly realized that it would be very difficult to change things. (laughs)

your music seems to feed on spirituality...

jónsi: yes. (so quietly that everyone is laughing) the best thing for me is the feeling of unity when we write. we play as if we were one. things go naturally. this feeling is certainly linked with the subconscient, the unexplainable. if you start discussing endlessly about the music, you lose all spontaneity. what a waste!
georg: we are probably the worst band in the world when it comes to discussing ourselves and our music. we always answer "we don't know", because we really don't know how things happen. to us, the result is truly magical.
jónsi: "sigur rós: they don't know what they're doing!" that's a good title for your article. (laughters)

except the few who speak icelandic, nobody understands your lyrics. do words have no importance to you?

georg: words do have an importance but it is not necessary to speak the language to understand them. like any other instrument, the voice can convey a feeling without saying something that makes sense. it is above all the language of music which will convey feelings to the listener.
jónsi: when i sing in icelandic, words have a meaning. i'm singing about everyday life. my lyrics are quite harsh. but i cannot easily translate them because, in icelandic, a word can have several totally different meanings. the next songs will be entirely sung in "hopelandic", and they are not "classical" lyrics either, it's only about the sounds. it gives a lot of freedom when writing because i don't have to adapt my words to the music and vice versa.
georg: even if it's a bit pretentious, it seems to me that the right way to describe what we are doing is to compare us to a painter who thinks of nothing in perticular while holding his brush. somebody arrives in his workshop and says: "oh, that looks like a summer scene." and that corresponds to what he meant to do. our songs are like that. tableaus that make sense for people who listen to them, while they had no real purpose when they were written.

when talking about sigur rós, the same names (radiohead, mogwai, my bloody valentine, cocteau twins) come up all the time. does that bother you?

jónsi: no but it's typical of the need that journalists feel to categorize everything in boxes. to be compared to major artists is exciting, even if it's quite a burden sometimes. the comparison with the cocteau twins makes me laugh. we had never heard of them before the media told us about them.
georg: we never listened to them, or to my bloody valentine. at first we asked, the bloody who? (laughs) as a rule we take no interest in what people say about us, because we know who we are.

do you feel close to artists from the electronic scene?

orri (coming out of his silent reverie): we listen to a lot of them.
jónsi: mainly boards of canada and aphex twin. our label fat cat is quite renown in that scene and they have a pretty good taste. but i like labradford and post-rock bands a lot.
georg: i recently discovered a japanese band called fantastic plastic machine. it's really excellent.

do you think about doing remixes from the last album?

georg: why not? we know trent reznor would like to do a remix. it could be interesting. (laughs)
jónsi: i like the idea of giving our music to other people and see what they do with it. in the future we would like to remix other bands. we haven't had much time until now.

jónsi, the accent is always put on your personality. doesn't that create tensions within the band?

jónsi: we try not to care about what people think about us. we are really good friends, we play together, and the only important thing is to remain together. every musical detail is our common work.
georg (kidding): my bass playing is much better than jónsi's voice. seriously, everyone in the band is on an equal footing. we write songs together, even if jónsi deals with most of the lyrics. we just celebrated our seventh anniversary, and i really think nothing can surprise us any more. we see the hype around sigur rós today as a bonus.

do you enjoy playing live?

georg: a lot, but we prefer it when the audience is sitting and let themselves flow with our music. the way people applaude is fundamental. sometimes we can tell by the way they do how they feel about the music. it is quite humiliating when people are drunk all along during a concert. we are on stage and we wonder why they are not listening. often i think that we should stop playing and see what happens.

what memories do you have of the tour with radiohead?

georg: litres of champagne!
jónsi: it was totally unreal to play in front of these huge crowds. all add up to as many as iceland's population. until then we were playing in pubs, and we find ourselves suddenly in front of 30.000 people.
georg: luckily, the guys of radiohead are trying as much as possible to get away from the "megastar rock n' roll circus" cliché. they stay themselves, and they're quite shy actually.

what do you think of the "serious" image that you are associated with?

jónsi: that's another media thing. our personalities are not quite understood.
georg: our music is, and that's what matters. everything we say is overamplified. you say a word and it becomes a book. we are serious in the way we look on our music, but we have a lot of fun when working. some of our songs even give us a good laugh. being sincere and profound while having fun is not impossible.

icelanders have a reputation for partying all weekend...

jónsi: we like to party a lot.
georg: it's very healthy to forget everything, to let go, in a moment of madness, all the steam that has accumulated over the week. you have a hangover the next day, but you had quite a good time.

in order to demonstrate this fact, georg and jónsi take us a few minutes later into the folly of an icelandic night party, where the warmth is in complete opposition to the cold outside. first stop as a "before" - things never go serious until 2 am - the "kaffibarrin", a small bar where sigur rós are regulars. while the dj slips on the wonders of reggae-dub (scientist, mickey dread, dr alimentado), we drink numerous pints of "viking", the local beer, while discussing with georg, jónsi and some close friends, the wonders of france, a country which seems to be the great passion of icelanders (men and women...). jónsi himself dreams of a house in provence.

at kaffibarinn, a warm place for hip youngsters and artists of reykjavík, the presence of the two from sigur rós does not go unnoticed, their latest album having trusted the first place in the local charts for weeks. nevertheless, so sign of pression or aggression: iceland is a small country where everyone knows everyone. one of their friends tells me however of his surprise at the success of his former high-school buddies: "i've known them for a very long time, so when i open rolling stone now and see an article about them, i have a hard time believing it."

a few vikings and a few hours later, our companions' fame allows us to avoid the perspective of freezing in the line by taking us right inside the club where carl craig is to play a while later. the "gaukur á stöng", the most important night club in the city, holds three storeys of a wild and hot icelandic crowd, seemingly intent on partying like it was their last day on earth. one word of advice: if you want to party, forget london, ibiza, cyprus or goa because reykjavík is the place to be. the only problem: a beer is 50 francs, a gin tonic, 80, which explains that people stay home until midnight to consume their own alcohol before going out. fortunately, since a memorable gig they did here, sigur rós are entitled to an open bar that profits everyone accompanying them. to see georg and his friends, rock icons, despite themselves, of a tight-ass indie rock, shake like madmen to the rhythm of a particularly enjoyable carl craig set, destroys the last doubts we could have had about the necessity of our presence there that night.

"fuck the purists."





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