Sigur Rós: Deconstructing The Band

Music Features Sigur Rós
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Sigur Rós’ sixth studio album, Valtari, closes with eight minutes of crawling, pointillistic ambience called “Fjögur píanó” (translated in English to “Four Pianos”), a track built almost entirely on four gorgeous piano lines that trickle like waterfalls—one part played by each member of the band. It wraps up Valtari (“Roller” or “Steamroller”) with a moment of reflective calm, notes twinkling and decaying in jagged harmony.

Slow-motion soundscapes are nothing new to the critically-adored Icelandic quartet, who perfected the art of extended, dream-like suites on 1999’s Ágætis byrjun and its polarizing, unpronounceable follow-up, 2002’s ( ). But “Fjögur píanó” is a completely different brand of ambience. The drone-iest, headiest moments on ( ) and even the band’s 2005 commercial breakthrough, Takk…,still sound like a rock band conjuring black magic in real-time, four instruments being played simultaneously in one room—with frontman Jónsi Birgisson’s bowed Les Paul spewing shards of white-noise over Kjartan Sveinsson’s ethereal keyboards and the sturdy muscle of Georg Hólm’s bass and Orri Páll Dýrason’s drum kit, quite often erupting into majestic crescendos. “Fjögur píanó,” on the other hand, never blooms—simply content to glow and pulse in its own sonic dew. But even still, the song isn’t necessarily a great departure from a purely musical standpoint; the biggest shake-up for Sigur Rós was its method of construction.

“It was an interesting experiment for us,” says Hólm, (one of two remaining co-founders, along with Birgisson), speaking late at night from his Icelandic home. “We had this loop, like a bit of sound that we all quite liked, and we didn’t know what to do with it. So we ended up just playing it and playing it in the headphones, and everyone had to leave the studio except for one person from the band. One person would sit down by the piano and play something and record a piano line to that loop. And then we’d swap—that person would exit, and another person would come in. And none of us was allowed to hear what the other person did.”

“And then when we finished,” Hólm continues, “we just played all the pianos at the same time and took out the loop. That’s basically what you hear. And we found it quite interesting that we all played something that was in tempo and in the same key. The loop that we had playing in the headphones wasn’t clear on the key or anything. It was…kind of…weird. We all played something that fit together perfectly. That kind of sums up how we create our music.”

Knowing the origin story behind “Fjögur píanó” makes a world of difference. Without it, the track is simply a fairly routine example of the kind of extended, soaring beauty Sigur Rós have been churning out since their formation back in 1994. But with Sigur Rós, context is—and always has been—crucial.

Dýrason, one of the most subtle and powerful percussionists on the planet, joined Sigur Rós back in 1999, just after the release of sophomore effort Ágætis byrjun, the album which cemented their status as kings of Planet Post-Rock, amplifying and refining the messy quirkiness of their 1997 debut, Von, and augmenting their dreamy texture with horns and strings. When previous drummer Ágúst Ævar Gunnarsson left the band to attend university for graphic design, Dýrason hooked up with the remaining trio—and everything instantly fell into place.

“I didn’t know them much until they asked me to join,” Dýrason says, speaking from his car and battling the din of his screaming two-year-old son in the backseat. “I was in another band. We had the same rehearsal space, and that was in 1999, and they were just finishing Ágætis byrjun. They came to one show I was playing with this band, and they asked me if I wanted to join Sigur Rós. We did one rehearsal, and that was kind of it.”

Though 90 percent of the adjectives used to describe the band’s music are usually directed toward Birgisson’s swooping falsetto and Sveinsson’s dreamy string arrangements, the rhythm section of Holm and Dýrason is critical in keeping the songs grounded and muscular. “Njósnavélin,” ( )’s reflective, emotional centerpiece, lies and breathes on Dýrason’s dead, booming tom-toms; on the polar opposite end of the mood spectrum, the brisk sonic parade of “Inní mér syngur vitleysingur” (from 2008’s Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust) is buoyed by Dýrason’s joyous, hard-hitting kick-snare patter.

Drumming—or percussion, for that matter—is nearly non-existent on Valtari, the band’s most difficult and insular album to date. You wait and wait for a surge of swelling cymbals, for the thud of a bass drum to keep time through the fog. But, for the most part, it never comes. You’d think that kind of massive sonic gear-shifting would be tough for Dýrason, at least in principle, but the drummer (who also plays keyboards, samplers, and other instruments) simply views the shift as a necessarily concession toward the greater good of the music.

“There’s almost no drumming (on Valtari),” he adds with a high, charming giggle. “I’m playing much more keyboards and pianos and samplers. There are two tracks—on “Varúð,” I play drums, and there’s another with a beat that I made on my phone on the bus, that I made up with some samples. There just isn’t really any room for drums—it doesn’t need the drums. If I was trying to put drums on the songs, it would have been forcing it.”

And it wasn’t just Dýrason who found himself re-evaluating his position in the band.

“Me and Orri have always played more instruments than bass and drums,” Hólm adds. “In particular, we’ve played a lot of keyboards—a lot of glockenspiels and things like that. But on this record, I guess, especially with bass sounds, I’m not always quite as visible. I do tend to play a lot of chords that may just sound like a synthesizer or something. And I do play some synthesizers on there, actually, and some pianos as well.”

Freed from their more typical instrumental roles, the quartet found the Valtari sessions freeing: “We were all kind of just running around playing different bits and pieces of different instruments. Even Jónsi wasn’t playing as many guitars as usual—until the end, when he did some guitars on top. It was definitely different in that way—that we weren’t playing a role on this record. None of us. Not ‘You’re the bass player; you’re the keyboard player.’ Everyone was running around, playing whatever they felt like.”

“Well, not much running, actually,” he laughs. “I think it was quite liberating. We all felt like we don’t have to be confined to our instruments. I guess we’ve never really felt that, but less on this record than ever.”

A huge catalyst for that liberation came from the use of technology. Much of Valtari was pieced together from loads and loads of old recorded fragments, many of which were recorded several years ago.

“We used computers more on this record than on any record before,” Hólm says. “A lot of it was finished on computers, as in editing and things like that. You might have a little bit here that we all really liked and didn’t know how to finish, but we’d realize it fits really well with this other bit that we created and just edit it to it. It’s more electronic in that sense, even though—I read somewhere that ‘electronic’ can be misunderstood to be like techno music. But it isn’t techno music—it’s organic. Even without rhythm. But it’s very much constructed on a computer.”

Even though Valtari ended up being the band’s most electronic effort—their least “band-oriented” album (at least in the traditional sense), the quartet never had a clear mission statement on steering the sound in that direction. In fact, the first idea Sigur Rós had for a follow-up to Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust was an all-choral album, with some sessions dating back to 2007. The idea was ultimately scrapped (“It just wasn’t interesting enough, Dýrason says), and many later sessions were—while fun—similarly lacking in focus. Valtari might be Sigur Rós’ least radio-friendly, most ambient album since the days of ( ), but the two albums are connected in Hólm’s mind for another reason.

“Like you say, in many ways, it reminds me of the untitled album—not maybe musically that much but more like the process being hard, getting to the end. But the difference is that the untitled album was difficult to get to the end, and we weren’t always happy about it. It was kind of a struggle to get that record finished—but with this one, it was always fun! All the sessions were great—we were all having fun doing music. It was kind of a happy-go-lucky atmosphere around it.”

When they originally broke through to an international audience with Ágætis byrjun, critics tended to shroud Sigur Rós in mystery—though a lot of it was the band’s own fault. Their press pictures were dark and artsy, full of eerie shadows and jagged Icelandic expanses; their faces were often distorted, or peeking out from behind their shirt sleeves. Ágætis byrjun’s cover featured an alien-angel fetus. It’s the kind of mystique that adds an exotic level of intrigue (at least for the band’s non-Icelandic listeners), the kind of intrigue that famously inspired a Melody Maker writer to write, “They sound like god weeping tears of gold in heaven.” The mystique was much-needed at the time—just when the Internet was starting to saturate our brains into oblivion, at a time when every band’s private lives were only a few clicks away. Sigur Rós provided a level of intrigue and mystery missing since the glory days of vinyl. Curious buyers were surely captivated by Ágætis byrjun’s album cover, and when they bought it, they probably thought, “Who the hell are these guys?”

Another part of the Sigur Rós mystique is the language (or lack thereof) raining like gold, godly tears from Birgisson’s mouth. On Ágætis byrjun, it was mainly Icelandic: thick, throaty, purring syllables that made every word sound important, even when—on a track like “Starálfur,” he was singing about elves visiting a boy in his bedroom. Some of us flocked to Google Translator, some of us invented our own words to match the sounds. Even if you didn’t understand what Birgisson was saying, you felt it. And on ( ), the singer took that principle to an untouched extreme, vocalizing every melody in a gibberish style—a nonsense stream of placeholder syllables (Example: “No so fi lo, you so”) that ended up sticking. Critics called it “Hopelandic” since the first seeds of this babble were planted way back on Von (translation: “Hope”); Birgisson and company didn’t really give a shit what it was called: They’d taken up the Talking Heads principle of “Stop Making Sense,” removing literal meaning from their music—( ) had no title or lyrics, packaged with an all-white booklet of blank pages, so that listeners could invent their own lyrics, or even draw pictures to match the sounds.

Since that point, Sigur Rós have embraced a mix of Icelandic and gibberish, and to most English-speaking listeners, the point is moot. Fittingly, “All Alright,” the closer from Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust and the band’s track to date with English lyrics, is by far one of their least interesting tracks ever.

Valtari is sung almost entirely in Icelandic—that is, when there’s singing at all. It’s by far their least vocal-based album, closing with three tracks (and nearly 24 minutes) or quiet orchestral-ambient reflection. But as usual, when Birgisson’s singing, there’s plenty of aching emotion—even if you can’t understand the literal meanings of his words.

“I think when we started creating the lyrics and listening to the songs and thinking what the music was about, we all had similar ideas of what each song was about,” Hólm says. “And the surprising thing was that they’re all quite introverted, and they’re all about something in your own mind as a thing. They’re all going on in your own head.”

That introversion arrives as a shock—for many reasons. Sigur Rós’ previous two albums were considerably catchier and upbeat, layered with peppy orchestrations, twinkling keyboards, and—in the case of the jolting “Goobledigook,” frenzied handclaps, campfire chants, and energetic rhythms. Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust translates loosely to “With a Buzz in Our Ears, We Play Endlessly.” On that album, Sigur Rós sounded fed up with their cold, obscure mystique—ready, for the first time in their recording careers, to have a little fun. And if that album didn’t drill home that message, Birgission’s 2010 solo debut, Go, did so with the might of a sledgehammer.

If Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust was the sound of Sigur Rós in 3-D, Go was the Disney-fied IMAX version, full of bold, neon-bright colors and sentiments: dizzying orchestrations (courtesy of arranger Nico Muhly), pile-driving percussion, and loads and loads of vocal harmonies. Jónsi was singing in English, mostly, and he sounded more confident and free than he ever had in his old band. Go was one of the best albums of 2010—which, ironically, made it a stressful time to be a Sigur Rós fan. Had our fearless leader jumped ship for sole creative freedom? For greener commercial pastures?

Hólm, for one, wasn’t worried about the band’s hiatus. In fact, he was relieved. “No, I don’t think we were ever that nervous about it,” he reflects. “Originally, at the time, I didn’t even give it that much thought. The only thing I thought was, ‘Oh, cool—he’s doing a solo record!’ And then I thought, ‘Well, maybe I should do one!’ [laughs] It was more that—not negative thoughts. It was more like, ‘Good luck’ and ‘have fun!’”

For Dýrason and his wife, who are currently expecting their third child—and coming off a decade of a nearly non-stop album-tour cycle—the timing was perfect for a hiatus. “I was very happy for him,” he says. “He has been writing music for such a long time, and he’s always writing music on his own. He really needed to do this, I think, to get it out of his system. I was never worried that this would be the end of Sigur Rós or anything like that. We were all at home, you know? It was just a very necessary break for us. We all had babies. And the break wasn’t so long—it had been a long time since we had released an album. But it was just a break for us—maybe a year, one-and-a-half years or something. After 10 years of being together, the four of us, it was very necessary.”

“We were all happy just being home and relaxing, re-charing batteries,” Hólm continues. “I think Jónsi is more—I wouldn’t say restless or hyperactive—but he just likes to continue working, and I think he just needed to blow some steam off or something, and I think it was really cool that he did.”

Go is the hyperactive sound of Jónsi “blowing off steam,” if your preferred method of blowing off steam is taking an eight-mile jog through the desert. Valtari is more in line with a LSD-enhanced space voyage. But more importantly, it’s the sound of Sigur Rós figuring out how to make music again. They’ve channeled the ghosts of their old mystique, but they’ve done so in a way that feels vital and alive.

Much credit for the band’s new outlook goes to Alex Somers, Jónsi’s boyfriend and frequent musical collaborator who produced Valtari, ultimately helping the band wade through and edit all their assorted musical scraps, pushing the quartet to embrace a more minimalist approach. The resulting album should sound like a jumble: Sessions were held in 2007 and 2009, to varying degrees of success, yielding both pop-oriented material (the frosty “Rembihnútur,” which was largely de-constructed after the fact) and choral-based pieces with the fantastic 16 Choir (the elegantly melancholic “Dauðalogn”), but instead, Valtari flows and flows infinitely, largely because of Somers’ restraint. “Ekki múkk” pulses and crawls through a sea of Sigur Rós trademarks (cooing 8-bit vocal samples, ascending falsetto lines, e-bow bass drones), but it never wanders into cliché. “Varúð,” the album’s emotional centerpiece (originally recorded—but never used—for the soundtrack of a “Swedish vampire film”), is a lone moment of explosion—with liquidy pianos and a ghostly girls choir (featuring Georg’s daughter, Salka, and her friends) drowned by a tidal wave of drums and bowed guitars.

“It was a bit of everything, says Hólm, reflecting on the album’s unconventional genesis. “I think the first sort of real session of this record, we were all recoding our instruments together; we were playing and trying to write songs, and we did. But we just felt that they were kind of too all over the place. It’s true that we probably played less all together, all our instruments on this record than usual, but then again, every time we create a record, the process changes. But I think all the original foundations of each of the songs is something that we created together playing, but it just took such a long time of processing and working on the music afterward to make it what it is today. I tend to like to think of it as we were trying to focus a lot of things that were going in different directions into one direction. But it just took a hell of a lot of time and a lot of patience! And I definitely thank Alex, who had most of the patience and kind of pushed us, saying, ‘Oh, you have to come in today, and you have to listen to this!’ The album wouldn’t have been made if he hadn’t been pushing us.”

Dýrason agrees. “Yeah, he did a lot to help us glue it all together. That’s actually why it sounds so ‘whole.’ It was so many sessions spread over such a long time—five years—and he did an amazing job to glue it all together. It sounds like almost one piece.”

Whether fans will respond to Valtari with as much enthusiasm as they did with Takk… (or as much fantastic wonder as they did with Ágætis byrjun) is yet to be seen. Valtari isn’t their most charming album, and it’s far from their easiest. But it just might be their most important.

“If we had kept going along like on Takk…, it wasn’t really appealing to us,” Dýrason admits. “We always want to do something else. In the end, it is for us, and it starts to get boring when you repeat yourselves. But we didn’t really talk about doing something new or something else—that’s just what came out of it.

“I think the next album will definitely not be like this,” he adds, with a laugh. “We’re not going to do this album again.”