pictured above [L-R]: Geory Goggi Holm, Jonsi Birgisson, Kjartan Sveinsson, Orri Pall Dyrason
“You can’t be friends with everybody,” goes the old adage. But after meeting the charming, completely disarming Jonas ‘Jónsi’ Thor Birgisson, you really have to wonder. There’s nothing even remotely aggressive or offensive about this shy Icelandic fellow, who speaks in soft tentative tones about the wonders of the world around, like the palm tree waving gently in the breeze outside his Hollywood hotel window. “Trees are really amazing creatures,” the 30-year-old murmurs. “I’ve been traveling so much, going to Japan and Hawaii and now California, and I’ve really been looking at trees, and they’re just so remarkable. Like this palm tree here—we certainly don’t have that in Iceland.”
Who could take umbrage at such Little Prince innocence? Even Birgisson’s physical presence is friendly; He has the delicate frame and limbs of a baby bird, the wide-eyed gaze of said fledgling peeking out at its forest for the first time, and a way of hiding himself inside his baggy black clothing so that he almost disappears. In fact, the only modestly wild thing about him is his tufted mini-Mohawk, which ends in a long awkward tail that droops down to his bony shoulders. But it’s more fun than it is feral. All told, this singer/guitarist for otherworldly Reykjavik outfit Sigur Rós comes across as one of the nicest, most sensitive guys in modern rock.
So it’s indeed hard to picture him being hauled in recently—kicking and screaming—by his local constabulary. But it happened. And yes, Birgisson sighs, there are subjects that ruffle his well-preened feathers so much that his claws eventually emerge—among them, the Kárahnjúkar dam, a power plant currently under construction in the Icelandic highlands. Environmental activists the world over have united in protest of the structure, who claim that its 2006 completion will have irreversible negative effects on the area’s ecosystem and countless indigenous animal species, like reindeer, harbor seals and pink-footed geese.
How did Birgisson come to be arrested? “It was in Parliament, where you can go inside and watch the conversations between politicians, the proceedings,” he explains, kicking off his rubber clogs and curling up on a pillowy hotel couch. “And there was a big argument about this dam—there was one politician that everyone was expecting to say ‘No’ about the dam, but he said ‘Yes’ to it and everyone was really surprised, because it affected the biggest untouched nature preserve in Europe. So I don’t know what the government is thinking—the decision seemed to be all about corruption, money and power.”
A political decision based on greed? Apparently, Birgisson is a bit naïve. And angry. So mad, he says, “that I went into Parliament and started to scream at the politicians and stuff. And that’s when they arrested me, then took me and threw me out of Parliament.” But there was no overnight stay in the clink. “Thankfully, it was no big deal. But I think my picture actually made it into the paper.”
To understand Birgisson—and the surreal soundscapes Sigur Rós has sketched on its operatic latest, Takk…—is to comprehend his island surroundings, a volcanic land of fjords and geysers where kids pilot ATVs up 45-degree glaciers to picnic at their icy summits, or coast snowmobiles across half-frozen streams, knowing that if the engine cuts they’ll instantly sink to their ice-watery doom. A country where, adds Sigur Rós drummer Orri Páll Dy´rason, the long, dark winters lend themselves to melancholia, ennui and national pastimes like “reading, going to the cinema and drinking a lot.”
Steeped in the historic lore of sagas and eddas, Iceland is a place where children are brought up believing in trolls, ghosts and fairies; a place where road construction often wends around natural obstacles like boulders because they’re rumored to be dwelling places for elves. “And that just happened again a few years ago,” claims Dy´rason, an equally unassuming chap every bit as likable as his bandmate. “There was a giant rock, and bulldozers were trying to move it, but every time they started the bulldozers, they just broke down. In fact, everything started breaking down. They kept trying for several days, until finally they contacted this person who could talk to elves, this clairvoyant. And she made a deal with the elves on the rock, and only then could they move it to another place.” Dy´rason smiles secretively, as if he knows something the rest of us don’t. “In Iceland, there are people who can see the elves. And some of them even do elf tours. But if you’re not clairvoyant, you’ll probably just see rocks.”
“Asking the elves’ permission to move a stone?” queries Birgisson, rhetorically. “I think everybody wants to believe it. And I think it’s nice to believe it. And actually, where our studio is in Iceland, it’s rumored to be a huge elf site. It’s an old swimming pool, built in 1937 [appropriately dubbed Swimming Pool Studio], but a long time ago it stopped being used as a pool and became an artists’ space. We were told it was a big elf site, but I lived in the basement of the studio for a little bit and didn’t feel anything.” It’s the same location, Birgisson says, where Takk… (“Thanks,” in Icelandic) was tracked. The new record is bound to surprise Sigur Rós’ cultlike following, who—since the band’s ’99 breakthrough, Ágætis Byrjun, was voted Iceland’s Best Album Of The Century—have relied on the quartet’s moody, almost Gothic atmospherics, which revolve around Birgisson’s feathery, multi-layered vocals (sung in a curious combination of his native tongue and a nonsensical language dubbed “Hopelandic”) and a quaint habit of stroking his electric-guitar strings with a cello bow. But Sigur Rós never made it easy for fans. The band’s ’02 offering boasted the odd non-moniker of ( ) (Birgisson calls it the “Bracket Album”), a blank-paged CD booklet, and 70 minutes of untitled compositions. One of which—“Untitled #1”—won an MTV Video Award for Best Rock Video, thanks to a spooky clip directed by David Lynch-ian artist Floria Sigismondi.
Post-Bracket, the band (which also includes bassist Georg Holm and keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson) kept busy with several side projects—recording soundtracks for the films Hlemmur and Loch Ness Kelpie; a Dy´rason/Sveinsson offshoot called the Lonesome Traveller, that performed country versions of Sigur Rós staples; composing the sonic backdrop (along with old touring pals Radiohead) for the Merce Cunningham ballet Split Sides, issued on an ’04 EP as Ba Ba Ti Ki Di Do; and writing a commissioned cut for the Royal Danish Ballet’s celebration of Hans Christian Andersen’s 200th birthday. So by the time the group arrived at Swimming Pool, Dy´rason recalls, “We were just exploding. It had been so long, and we wanted so much to create, so we just locked ourselves in the studio. And it took twenty months to do [Takk…], but it was fun the whole time.”
To help ponder what they were creating, the members initiated the Pipe Club. Only pipes are puffed in the studio, no cigarettes, and they’re tamped with only the finest imported black vanilla tobacco. Why? “Because it just smells good,” is Dy´rason’s logical reasoning. However, contrary to the tenor of our times—and such gloomy, looming environmental threats as global warming and the Kárahnjúkar dam—Sigur Rós produced a songbook brimming with cherubic tones and childlike wonder. Like Birgisson himself. Rather than rely on the whale-music-ish sound of cello-bowed six-string, the band plunged headlong into the chiming optimism of celeste, marimbas, harmonium, vibraphones, glockenspiel and even a vintage paper-spooled music box. Why? “Just because they sounded good,” shrugs Dy´rason.
The songs—sung mostly in Icelandic this time—all feature the same processional pacing and melodies as lullabies, with Birgisson’s fluttering partial falsetto often building into boys-choir crescendos. Leadoff single “Glósóli” punches in at 6:15, and tick-clangs like a clock shop as it meanders from a booming bassline through a jackbooted penguin march into a bell-tolling finale, with Birgisson weaving in and out like some spectral graveyard shade. Its lyrics tell the fantastical tale of a young boy who opens his window in the morning to find the sun gone (Icelandic winter, anyone?). He then tromps outside in his pajamas to find the missing orb, but eventually wakes with a start, thinking it was all a dream. Or was it? Gasp!—he’s wearing muddy boots in bed.
Constructed from dainty piano parts, “Hoppípolla” praises such simple childhood pleasures as jumping in a rain puddle; the thunder-bridged “Sæglopur” elegizes a marooned sailor; and “Heysátan”—struck with meticulous piano and guitar chords—doesn’t concern Beelzebub at all. “It actually means ‘pile of hay,’ or ‘haystack,’” Birgisson chortles. “There are gonna be so many misunderstandings about that song. But, as in ‘Hoppípolla,’ we just wanted to write about happy moments like where you grab somebody by the hands and spin around or just smell somebody’s hair that smells nice. It’s the details in life. Beauty. Or just walking into a shop that has flowers, taking a big breath and walking on. I will definitely stop in any flower shop.”
Ever since he was a child, Birgisson has had an elevated aesthetic sensibility. And it wasn’t easy, he says, when the avid painter first discovered he was gay. He didn’t meet anyone else with the same feelings until his late teens. “So when I started to think that I like boys more than girls,” he notes, “I was like ‘Don’t think about it—just create something new to get satisfaction!’ Then instead of escaping into drugs and alcohol to hide my sexuality—well, not hide it, but escape it—I escaped into my music a little bit. But when I was 20, I decided ‘I have to meet somebody, I have to touch somebody, I have to meet other guys who are on the same wavelength as me.’ It was a slow process, but really nice and natural for me, I think.”
Currently, Birgisson’s significant other, Alex Somers, runs an ultra-hip design firm with Dy´rason’s wife Lukka called Toothfæries. The firm has come up with over 100 different hand-screened Takk… T-shirt designs, as well as the CD artwork, based on two vintage Icelandic tomes—one concerning a fishing village; the other—you guessed it—a children’s book. Birgisson insists that “all these details matter. Or maybe it’s just that we Tauruses are passionate about stuff. But even inside your house, everything matters—your surroundings, how you are at home. Everything you choose—tables, chairs, everything.
“Like me and my boyfriend, when we were in Japan, we bought these amazing forks made from trees, these beautiful wooden forks to eat with. And I really like all this organic stuff. In my apartment, I have a really massive Japanese table with a hole in it that has a tree growing inside of it, like a bonsai. I drew it up myself and asked some carpenter to do it for me, so it’s really well done. I’m not crazy—I’m just really picky about everything. And there is nothing on my walls—no art, no pictures, no distractions.”
Birgisson even removed the legs from his living room couch for a more earthy feel, and bought a DVD projector, a pull-down wall-size screen, and—he’s almost ashamed—two DVDs, Oldboy and A Very Long Engagement. He particularly enjoys the work of Engagement director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, he adds, “because all of his details are really beautiful, well thought-out. He really concentrates on the small details, and I think that’s so important in everything you do. Details are so important to glue everything together, to make the whole.”
Which might explain why a lone, hollow trumpet signals the coda for “Hoppípolla.” Or why the cloudy, pensive keyboards of Takk…’s “Sorglega” succumb to the bright rays of Birgisson’s voice, which cut through the mix like sunshine. Or why the tinkly “Hufupukar” flickers like a traveling carnival heard from a nearby village. You don’t need the elves’ permission to enjoy them. And as a vocalist, Birgisson is compelled to conclude, “I’m becoming more… how do you say? More confident? But that comes with age, and when you travel and tour. I mean, I never practice vocals at home or anything like that; I only rehearse it on tour, when I just sing and sing and sing. So it’s like this muscle that just gets better and better.”
Sigur Rós’ Los Angeles visit marks the end of a mini world tour, and—Birgisson and Dy´rason both confess, rubbing their respective noggins—they were out drinking the night before ’til nearly dawn. Now, the members’ families (Lukka and Alex included) are beginning to gather for dinner. Birgisson studies the palm tree once more, and his gaze drifts down the bole to the inviting blue water at its base. Yes, he sighs, just as Takk… captures the pristine awe of childhood, he still feels like a great big kid inside. “And right now, you know what I wanna do?” he winks. “I kinda wanna go jump in that swimming pool. I mean just leap right on in!”
And why not? It’s “Hoppípolla” all over again. Just on a slightly larger scale.