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Friday, April 14, 2006

Sigur Ros warm to a wider world

Special to The Japan Times

When Sigur Ros proclaimed from their remote, treeless, volcanic island in 2000 that they would "change music forever, and the way people think about music," there was something mythical about their otherworldly sound and the made-up language of their lyrics that had some listeners actually believing them.

News photo
Sigur Ros performing in Tokyo earlier this month

Six years later, marriages, kids, major-label record deals -- and their subsequent insistence that their music is not, in fact, intended to convey any deep, or even specific, meaning -- has given their earlier pledge a certain hollow and hubristic ring.

So were they joking all along? Has fame actually grounded Iceland's second-most-famous musical export, by achieving the opposite effect to that it has so often had on rock stars slurring that they're going to save the world even as the rehab door bangs shut in their face?

"Maybe it's age," says keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson, all of 27 years young, in Tokyo recently where Sigur Ros played two shows in support of their most recent album, "Takk" (meaning "thanks").

"We're kinda used to this stuff now, this music, this lifestyle, all of it, it's all getting easier. We've also realized that we can't be on top of everything. That was kind of in our way, a little bit."

The band's reputation for obtuseness in their journey from Reykjavik obscurity to music-industry hype and then 2-million-plus worldwide album sales following the international release of their sophomore effort, 1999's "Agaetis Byrjun," is well documented. They insisted on making all their own videos, titled one of their albums an unpronounceable "( )" -- as much to misanthropically mess with radio DJs as anything else -- and for a long time grunted monosyllabically in interviews, to the point that they once reportedly reduced a reporter to exclaiming, "I got nothing! I got nothing!"

"I'm sure we were difficult, and I think we still are sometimes," Sveinsson admits. "It's hard for the record labels, too, because these big labels have a way of doing things. And then suddenly you get a band like us. So we learn to let go a little, and they learn you can try alternative ways of doing things."

They still insist on creative control. They generally resist media photo shoots (the shots in Tokyo were the first they had agreed to do in six months) and their latest video, for "Saeglopur" from "Takk" was another self-directed effort, something their international label EMI seems resigned to letting its prodigies get away with fairly often, especially after the band won Best Video at the MTV Europe Music Awards in 2003.

News photo
Sigur Ros keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson

So if by "changing music" Sigur Ros meant doing it their way, things are going fine -- though it's hardly a groundbreaking goal. Or could it be that they wanted to eschew the more traditional rock trappings of fame and bid instead to be the calmest rock stars on the planet?

"We're really bad rock stars," Sveinsson acknowledges. "There's no groupies, no drugs; an occasional beer. We go to the park and shop. Sometimes Orri [Pall Dy'rason, the drummer] when he's drunk, he might, you know, move a Lazyboy chair between floors in a hotel. It's not exactly throwing it out the window though."

They return to Iceland every three weeks, where bassist Georg Holm has a young daughter, and they all check in regularly with family and friends. Call it sustainable living for the international music circuit.

"Before, we'd probably tour for a couple of months at a time, and much more hardcore -- not as comfortable as we can today," says Sveinsson. "And then we were signing record deals and publishing deals, and there were all these people around us -- plus speaking another language all the time. We were just four boys from Iceland. So our second album ["( )"; their second album released internationally] was kinda depressing, if you will."

But they took a year off and returned to Iceland to regroup and recharge. "One of the privileges of being from Iceland, a small community, is that there's no industry," continues Sveinsson. "Bjork is a sort of international star, but for us our anonymity is actually kind of protected. If you live in Seattle or New York and you form a band, you're gonna make it -- that's the purpose, and you'll do anything to get there. We've never been in that situation, which is something I'm really grateful for . . . We weren't going to compromise because we didn't feel like it."

The hiatus seems to have done the trick: "Takk" is as uplifting and accessible as "( )" was cold, ponderous and at times almost purposefully bled of meaning, as attested to by its accompanying 12-page booklet of entirely blank pages. Whereas the idea, back then, was that fans were supposed to fill the blanks with their own interpretations, on the latest album singer Jonsi Birgisson has foregone his made-up "Hopelandic" language and returned to regular Icelandic. The song structures too are more conventional, the most purposeful and optimistic expressions of their trademark crescendos since "Agaetis Byrjun" defined their style.

Desperate for some deeper way to describe the music, people tend to turn to the spartan and glacial Icelandic landscape for metaphors.

"We're not trying to compare with Iceland's nature," Sveinsson says. "I think people notice a lot of similarities between our music and the landscape, and I think there are, but I don't think nature has a direct influence on our music. Our songs are kind of big sometimes, atmospheric and big, which is kind of like Icelandic nature which is also big -- just huge horizons everywhere and no trees. But there are many, many different kinds of music in Iceland."

As if to underscore that point, the band tours with compatriots Amiina, who serve as their string section but also open with a beautiful, though much more understated, show replete with all manner of instruments from metallophone to a musical saw.

Meanwhile, Sigur Ros have also scored films, collaborated with Icelandic throat-singers and contemporary dance legend Merce Cunningham, and written music to accompany an oral performance of "Odin, Raven's Magic," from the collection of epic Norse poems, the "Edda." And that's not to mention Sigur Ros' occasional acoustic sets.

"If you sit down with a bunch of Sigur songs and take away all the guitars and the production, you can play it all acoustic," says Sveinsson. "You could even put a dance beat behind it and change the vocal a bit and you'd have pop. They're all very, very simple."

If the songs are simple and the meaning is unprofound and the band's music industry obligations amount to what Sveinsson calls "just a job like any other," is it time to let the band off the hook from their own childish manifesto? Does Sigur Ros still want to "change music"?

"Forever!" Sveinsson declares with a laugh. "No, I don't think so . . . but I think we've done something, had some kind of impact. I hope so anyway. We're definitely not gonna change, we're going to try keep our integrity intact. We're getting older now."

Smiling, he adds: "Gotta do a Levi's commercial now, right?"

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