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The Unbearable Lightness of Being Jónsi

April 6, 2010  |  7:30am
The Unbearable Lightness of Being Jónsi

With his acclaimed band Sigur Rós on indefinite hiatus, the man with the most transcendent voice in popular music steps out on his own.

Of the four peacocks onstage at this January afternoon’s private concert taping in the East London neighborhood of Bethnal Green, only two hold the distinction of being actual birds. Peacock #3 has a ukulele draped over his slight frame; his signature faux-hawk forms a slender, light-brown ridge down his scalp. His given name is Jón Þór Birgisson, but everyone calls him Jónsi.

Jónsi is the lead singer for post-rock darlings Sigur Rós, the most popular band Iceland has ever produced. Today he’s costumed in a leather-and-cloth sash, variously patterned feathers, a furry shoulder harness and military-issue pants with a narrow stripe along the outer seams; pink makeup bursts across his temples. The look is 85 percent Peter Pan Lost Boy, 15 percent circa-1983 Cyndi Lauper.

Peacock #4 is Nico Muhly, who sits with unusually good posture behind the club’s ratty piano. Since graduating from New York City’s Juilliard School six years ago with a masters in music, Muhly has straddled the classical and pop divide, scoring 2008 Best Picture nominee The Reader and collaborating with artists like Grizzly Bear, Björk and Bonnie “Prince” Billy. The tight cluster of crimson feathers pinned above his left ear looks like a seeping head wound.

Peacocks #1 and #2 huddle near the lip of the stage, heads bobbing imperceptibly like a pair of squat, overdressed security guards as Jónsi and Muhly plunge into the first song, “Go Do,” the lead track from Go, Jónsi’s new solo album. Despite the song’s cheerful, mid-tempo bounce, the birds remain calm, unfazed by the music. Well, mostly unfazed.

After the song’s final chord fades, Muhly pipes up: “That peacock just shat! FYI, in the department of things that have just happened!” The dozen or so people in the room fall over laughing. And then the show goes on, starting again from the top. These artists are pros; they’ve all made peace with a world where monitors feed back, guitar strings break and on-stage peacocks take foul-smelling dumps near your feet.

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Despite Muhly’s outsized creative investment in Go (virtuosic piano playing; scoring all the string, brass and woodwind arrangements; hiring his own session players; conducting the in-studio orchestra, etc.) his busy classical-performance schedule will make it virtually impossible to take part in Jónsi’s spring tour. “In the rock world, people are booking tours for March now,” Muhly says. “Whereas in my universe, I’m literally talking about March 2015 now. For instance, last night I had a show in Eindhoven in Holland, and I’ve known about it since 2008. The date just arrives and you have to get to Eindhoven somehow. It’s an odd life.” This afternoon’s attempt to document the pair’s exquisite musical chemistry is thanks only to a rare planetary alignment that allowed their schedules to converge in the same room at the same time.

It’s instructive to watch Jónsi work in a situation like this. Today’s four-song performance will be edited together later, which gives the proceedings a studio quality. Following one of the “Go Do” takes, Jónsi gently directs Muhly to be less strident with his piano entry coming out of a quieter passage. Later, when Jónsi flubs the initial take of “Boy Lilikoi,” inadvertently skipping the entire bridge, Muhly laughs and ribs him with a playful, “You suck.” Each tune is played numerous times and the two vary their musical ideas subtly with each pass. When I sit down with Muhly after the taping, he will describe arranging songs as precisely this sort of iterative give-and-take, albeit in “slow motion, over the course of several hours.”

Jónsi’s stoic onstage demeanor and spindly build might foster the perception of him as a timid pushover but good luck bullying the man. The afternoon’s final selection is a gorgeous ballad he wrote 10 years ago called "Stars in Still Water," which didn’t make Go’s final cut. The song packs a number of tricky syncopated passages and Jónsi is having trouble nailing the lot. Roughly four minutes into the piece, he misses a chord change and stops in frustration. He starts again. Several minutes pass before the take is derailed by another small error. After the third attempt comes up short, the director of the film crew starts getting testy, saying his staff needs to call it a day. Jónsi rebuffs the protest by calmly counting off another pass at the tune. He refuses to acquiesce until he gets it perfect. And eventually he does.

The venue for today’s taping, The Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club, mirrors the playfulness of Go’s more exuberant cuts. The club’s website greets you with the hyphen-happy exclamation: “Blimey! We’re an east-end party-house, love!” A series of photographs lining the walls depict blue-collar Joes on a fishing trip, holding aloft their scaly trophies. A neglected video-gambling machine called Take Note waits patiently for the bar’s regular clientele to return. The stage dressing appears to be modeled after a ’70s dating game show—a shimmery tinsel backdrop and a massive red heart dotted with glowing white bulbs that could have been nicked from a Vegas wedding chapel. Someone even plugged in the electronic bingo caller, which hangs on “55,” as if the number held some kind of Adamsian universe-unlocking significance.

Tinsel. Live animal props. Dress-up. Kitschy London piano bars. This is how the skinny dude from Sigur Rós goes about dismantling, brick by stoic brick, the perceived Great Wall of Self-Seriousness encircling his band’s frequently austere music. The sonorous organ hum, 13-minute tracks and wraith-like vocal cascades of Sigur Rós’ mystifyingly-titled ( ) album seem a zillion miles away when you watch Jónsi plucking his ukulele and singing flowery, life-affirming sentiments in clear English. Welcome to the opposite of opacity. Give your eyes a moment to adjust.

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