The Unbearable Lightness of Being Jónsi

Music Features Jónsi
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If some longtime fans are disappointed, it’s only because they crave the inscrutability, the self-delusion that Sigur Rós’s music arrived from some exotic domain further away than a mere plane flight. The music’s geographical origin—a remote volcanic island peeking out of the frigid North Atlantic, with a rep for spawning deliciously subversive pop—injected the band’s persona with a heady dose of exoticism. Like an overnight snowfall, the music’s stark atmospherics offered a supple emotional canvas, inviting listeners to leave their own distinct, shoe-print sketches. But considering the hopped-up percussion assault of 2008 album Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust’s lead single “Gobbledigook” and the band’s pop acumen evident on tracks such as the spiraling “Hoppípolla” (from 2006’s Takk), whatever snow happens to be left on the ground is melting fast.

The world will have to wait a bit longer to see where the band goes next. Jónsi went on record in late January saying they had begun recording material for a new record but subsequently “chucked it all away.” When I spoke to Sigur Rós’ sound engineer Birgir “Biggí” Jón Birgisson, his assessment of the situation was far more optimistic: “We did a session in May of ’09 that wasn’t discarded, it’s just on hold. The band wanted to see how far they would get in one month and there were a few songs that got pretty far, but we’ll see in a few years what they might use, if anything, whenever they start working again.

“But it was definitely a new direction—more electronic,” he continues. “They were trying out different things with samples and manipulating sound and drum machines and stuff like that. So it was definitely not as acoustic as the last album. I got the impression they felt like, ‘OK, we did the acoustic album, let’s do something totally different.’ And we were also working with recordings we did a couple of years ago in London with a choir. They were meant to be on Takk, but they were trying to fit them in and see how they would sound. So the recordings were really diverse, from choirs and stuff like that to really beat-oriented, electronic stuff.”

If anything’s getting chucked this year, it’s the idea of Jónsi as a morose, super-sober artiste. His good friend, Kristín Björk Kristjánsdóttir, who recently relocated from Reykjavík to Berlin and performs offbeat folktronica under the moniker Kira Kira, puts it this way: “He possesses a certain light and joyous drive that’s very inspiring. I remember a long time ago before I shook off my stage fright, I had a show in Berlin and I was really, really nervous. I put on some Sigur Rós, jumped up and down for 15 minutes and then I was good to go. Jónsi is very brave and, I don’t know, it’s easy to get smitten by the joy he spreads.”

Kristjánsdóttir says Jónsi always wrote music alone in his room during the time they shared an apartment in 2001, but he wasn’t ready to show it to anybody—they weren’t Sigur Rós songs, they were his own. Then, in 2004, she invited him to perform at the fifth anniversary celebration of Kitchen Motors, an organization she co-founded to promote cross-pollination between divergent Icelandic artists. (Par for the course in Iceland, she hosted the 12-hour shindig in an old Reykjavík netting factory.)

“I think that was the first time he ever played his solo music. He got a few other musicians to play with him and they all wore beautiful marching-band costumes. He designed these amazing butterfly wings for everyone and wrote a beautiful birthday song for Kitchen Motors, which he performed for the first and only time with a 20-girl children’s choir. We got lights and we put them where their hearts are, and when the concert started, Jónsi led everyone marching into the venue at the front. If I remember correctly, he had an old marching-band drum. The music he played that night was beautiful, though much more ambient back in the day than it is now.”

It’s hard to listen to Kristjánsdóttir’s description of that maiden Jónsi solo gig without thinking of him as the young, blond-haired boy in Sigur Rós’ “Glósóli” video, pounding away on his toy bass drum, charming a throng of children into joining his ragtag parade. Some things never change: when Jónsi set to work on his first solo album, he began the exact same way—rallying new and old friends to his side in hopes of unearthing a bit of fresh magic.

Since opening in the fall of 1999, producer Peter Katis’ Tarquin Studios in Bridgeport, Conn., has hosted a stampede of great bands, including The National, Interpol, The Swell Season and Frightened Rabbit. In late 2008 it was Jónsi’s turn to reach out to Katis. He’d been impressed by the work the producer had done for London folk-pop sextet Fanfarlo, and an indefinite Sigur Rós hiatus had been prompted by three bandmates parenting new babies. Jónsi decided to take advantage of the resulting downtime by collecting the songs he’d written over the years that hadn’t made sense for the band; he envisioned a low-key acoustic album and had his heart set on recording the project at Tarquin.

At least one part of that vision came to pass. The following spring, in April of 2009, Jónsi and his boyfriend/collaborator Alex Somers (with whom he created the instrumental album Riceboy Sleeps) showed up on Katis’ doorstep and began the initial tracking phase of Go. During that first week, Jónsi and Somers laid down acoustic guitar beds and scratch vocals—and then Finnish drummer and Múm collaborator Samuli Kosminen arrived and kicked the notion of a quiet, intimate record to the curb.

Instead of playing a standard drum kit, Kosminen wanted to explore more exotic forms of percussion. On Jónsi’s website there’s a behind-the-scenes video of Kosminen in the studio, alternately stomping and slapping out rhythms on a blue plastic suitcase. It’s easy to imagine airport baggage handlers using it as a training video on how to inflict maximum damage to people’s belongings. “[Recording Kosminen’s drum parts] was when the album began to get bigger and more amazing than we thought it would,” Katis says,
taking a few minutes away from finishing The National’s new record to catch up by phone. “Samuli’s playing made it so much busier and we just went crazy. We didn’t show a lot of restraint as far as production. But instead of a horrible mess, it turned out to be something pretty exciting.”

In the hyperactive romp of “Animal Arithmetic,” you can sense a delirious fever in Kosminen’s drumming that picks up the tribal throwdown of “Gobbledigook” and drives it clear off the reservation with breakneck abandon. But if Kosminen was Dr. Seuss’s Thing One, showing up to the tidy house of Jónsi’s acoustic record and causing all sorts of thrilling mischief, you’ve already met Thing Two.

Nico Muhly had been working with Jónsi on arrangements for the record long before he ever set foot in Tarquin Studios. He was staying in Iceland when the rough songs first popped into his inbox; it was the middle of the night and Muhly planned to start working on arrangements the following morning, but after listening to the first track, “Boy Lilikoi,” he knew exactly what he wanted to do with it. He stayed up all night cranking out the first demo.

“It was like these crazy woodwinds and all this stuff and it was completely insane,” Muhly recalls, turning giddy all over again as he describes the experience. “I was at the studio in Iceland with 15 midi tracks of piccolo in Logic, just kind of freaking out. I sent it to Jónsi and I was like, the next email I get from him is either gonna be like you’re so fired or he’s gonna be like this is great. And he sent me this rapturous email, like ‘Yes! That’s great!’

“No one ever lets you get away with all that shit,” Muhly goes on. “So for me that was exciting because it opened up the world of the album for me and made everything much more possible. Some of the really sweeping [arrangements on the record], I wouldn’t have dared be so free.”

When Muhly finally joined the other musicians in Connecticut, he had a huge amount of work to do in a narrow window of time. But thanks to his background in conducting sessions for film music (“where every second is like $8,000,” Muhly winces), he managed to finish well ahead of schedule, knocking out the recording in just three hectic days. Katis was impressed by Muhly’s work ethic but also with his flexibility and the lack of preciousness in his material: “You could say, ‘Nico, what about this arrangement, blah, blah, blah?’ and he’d say, ‘Give me 10 minutes’ and he’d run out and come back with new scores. He went through two ink cartridges in my printer. He owes me.”

After the whirlwind of April, everybody adjourned until September, when Jónsi and Somers returned to Bridgeport and spent a solid month with Katis, perfecting the vocals and determining exactly what sonic treatment to give the album’s stockpile of recorded material. Even though the record has exuberance to spare—Jónsi joked with one
reporter that the propulsively upbeat cut “Around Us” could be a gay club anthem—there’s virtually no sequencing whatsoever.

“It’s shocking how few tricks there are on this record,” stresses Katis. “You just watch Jónsi sing, thinking to yourself, ‘Wow, that really does just come out of him. He really does sing that well.’ It’s crazy.” fter the taping at Bethnal Green, I pile into a taxi with Jónsi and his manager. It’s been a hectic afternoon. The singer is ravenous and suggests we hit up his favorite vegan restaurant, Saf, around the corner in Shoreditch (he’s been a vegetarian for 13 years and a raw-food vegan for a year now). The restaurant is airy and stylish, full of ultra-modern accoutrements and immaculately polished hardwood floors. No music plays. We slide into a table at the back of the restaurant and chat for a few minutes.

Jónsi is cheery and warm in manner; extending a near-instant rapport long before you feel like you’ve done anything to earn it. He’s enthusiastic and employs the word “cool” with endearing regularity. But despite his most valiant attempts to engage my questions, he can’t fully mask his weariness of talking about his music, career and the soon-to-be-released record that will have his name stamped on it; his manager warned me earlier that he’d done at least 80 interviews in the past two weeks alone. Jónsi’s replies frequently consist of a brief one-or-two-sentence answer that trails off into vague statements like “So it should be fun,” or “So yeah, it was cool,” or “We’ll just see what happens, you know?”

Over the course of our conversation, he refers several times to the importance of not taking life too seriously (“You’re just here, now, doing what you do, and in the end you just die. So you just have to enjoy it while it lasts. And, you know, just have fun.”) He underlines how much he hated school growing up (“I don’t like the molding that goes on in school, being told you have to learn this and this. That’s bullshit! You should just be introduced to lots of things, to be inspired.”) He talks about learning to trust his instincts while recording Go (“It was kind of scary. Like, is this right? Is it cool? Does this song sound all right? Or is it really bad? You start to doubt yourself, but I think it’s healthy.”)

The most revealing moment of the interview is, oddly, when I ask him about a little keychain photograph dangling from his backpack. He picked it up as a trophy for surviving a roller coaster during a tour stop in Holland—one of those things where a camera snaps an unflattering photo of you mid-drop, and the image is plastered on trinkets and peddled to you upon exit. Jónsi confesses to being terrified of heights. In fact, he’d never been on a roller coaster before that trip to Holland, but his Sigur Rós bandmates convinced him to join in. “I hated it,” Jónsi assures me. “It was ridiculous. I absolutely hated it. Just so scary…the screams, the primal screams out of my belly.”

Jónsi may be scared to death of heights. He may struggle with insecurity when recording music outside the confines of his band of 16 years. But, in perfect accordance with the sentiment of “Go Do,” his solo album’s lead single, he goes; he does. Even when the doing is frightening; even when it’s hard work. After he finishes touring behind this record, there are no plans to slow down. “I’ve never done any sports in my life,” he says. “I want to do, like, gymnastics, catapult contests or something. I feel like my body is kind of calling out for movement.”