Getting glacial with their sixth complicated album

Proceedings were not unfolding how we imagined. The environment seemed bizarrely incongruous.

Padding down the muffled corridors of a five-star hotel in central London, Clash are led into a room where a startled Jónsi Birgisson and Orri Páll Dýrason from Sigur Rós appear wary, but also drawn and matted with a numb tiredness.

Having been infected with their musical synthesia and wide-screen pastoral musings for years, we’d always pictured holding court with the band at the top of an Icelandic forge with their inspirational northern winds scampering around our words. But London is the diametric opposite of these wasted and frozen plains. And Clash were lined up at the end of the second day of global press that’s more akin to moronic speed dating where most hopefuls have the identikit questions.

We feared even our generous levels of riotous partying in Reykjavik over the years weren’t going to get us through this. We had burning questions. But had they already been exhausted by the French radio DJs we saw escaping ahead of us?

First up, we were desperate to know how they felt about being the most listened to band during childbirth. Will all our children in thirteen years time be obsessed with glacial soundscapes that are as apt for scoring salmon migration as they are for actually making babies to? Hmm. They weren’t THAT forthcoming. Never mind; we’d return to the sticky topic later.

Next we had to deal with the awkward hiatus they’d negotiated after the success of ‘Takk’. They’d withdrawn from the limelight after it turned out that they too had been making quite a few babies between them. And singer Jónsi had released his debut solo album ‘Go’.

This band may at points be monosyllabic on topics of midwifery, at others obsessed with their own musical genesis, but their latest album, ‘Valtari’, had a strange shape of creation for their impromptu standard. So was it their hardest LP to make? After few stilted false starts singer Jónsi finds some conversational rhythm: “No. I think all albums are just different. All are difficult in a different way, and you always think you learn so much, like, ‘Oh, we’re not going to do this for the next album, we know that now’. But it’s always weird. This album was more schizophrenic maybe because of all the stopping and starting, many years of stopping and starting.”

‘Valtari’, for such an unconventional band, is by turns conventional and thus for the band their most incongruous. Rather than write and record songs, these eight tracks are composites, layers, vocalised thoughts and misfits from other sessions but obsessively blended into one coherent body of work along with mixer Alex Somers.

The album title means ‘steam roller’ in Icelandic. An ill-fitting moniker considering the hulking nature of editing and the source of the material, but drummer Orri defends their choice: “We just liked that word. It was the working title for one of the songs and then we moved it to another song title, and it’s just a nice thing. It was kind of rolling in the last weeks.” From Jónsi’s point of view he can relate the actual sounds more deeply to the whole tone, as he quietly points out: “It kind of fits with the album because it’s big and slow and rolls over you slowly.”

Navigating to this conclusive momentum, however, was anything but easy. The band decided to put this album on hold mid-way through its confused conception. The ‘forensic’ level of analysis when running through their archive was horrific when compared to the natural chemistry of a live jam in their calm rehearsal rooms of Iceland’s Sundlaugin.

Bassist Georg Holm, however, can place this album in generous space and pays it a massive personal accolade. “I really can’t remember why we started this record,” he admits. “I no longer know what we were trying to do back then. I do know session after session went pear-shaped, we lost focus and almost gave up ... did give up for a while. But then something happened and form started to emerge, and now I can honestly say that it’s the only Sigur Rós record I have listened to for pleasure in my own house after we’ve finished it.”

The band’s music is pastoral beyond belief. It also induces journalists to unleash their most overstated depictions of nature. Writers can’t help but deploy naturalistic hyperbole. It’s a scribe’s lexical orgy of the senses and many a writer has resorted to exposed cliché to get the reader to the abstracted space of understanding. Despite privately pledging to avoid such slippery slopes the problem was unavoidable: Sigur Rós forge glacial edifices of bliss that DO sound like they’re balanced on a frozen rain drop, or that they’ve conjured ocean spirits to play icicles and stalactites like xylophones. The band themselves describe ‘Valtarti’ as like “an avalanche in slow motion.” Thankfully us journalists are not alone in these radical overstatements of nature.

Hilariously the hyperbole at points transcends into reality. Sigur Rós have actually played a mountain! In their arresting documentary ‘Heima’, filmed during 2006’s domestic tour of Iceland (translated as ‘at home’), we find them meeting and jamming with a man of the wilds in a northern village who created a sort of marimba from suitably tuned glacial scree. He also made a percussive instrument from vintage rhubarb. Stick that on your trowel, Aphex Twin!

‘Valtari’ is out now on Parlophone. Sigur Rós headline Iceland Airwaves on November 4th.

Words by Matthew Bennett

The full version of this interview appears in the July 2012 issue of Clash Magazine. Find out more about the issue HERE and subscribe to Clash magazine HERE.

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