Ótrúlegt in Every Language

Sigur Rós bassist Georg Hólm talks about building atmosphere and heading back to the swimming pool.

It’s rare that you have to brush up on your Icelandic before an interview, but in the case of my conversation with Sigur Rós bassist Georg Hólm, it’s rather necessary. Hólm actually speaks impeccable English, but if you want a decent shot at correctly saying album titles like Ágætis byrjun and Kveikur correctly, you might need to Google a few Icelandic pronunciation guides.

But for Sigur Rós, the effort is more than worth it.

Originating in Iceland in 1994, Sigur Rós has been making lushly atmospheric post-rock for the past two decades. Their 1997 debut, Von, was the world’s first taste of frontman Jónsi Birgisson’s impeccable falsetto, and  their sophomore effort, 1999’s Ágætis byrjun, took them from the fjords to international acclaim. Many have compared the band’s early work to Radiohead, thanks largely to its orchestral elements and Birgisson’s cello-bowed guitar work.

It’s now been nearly four years since Kveikur, Sigur Rós’s seventh and most recent studio album. As fans eagerly await word of new material, Hólm tells me that a recent photo on the band’s Instagram page — a hazy photo of Sundlaugin, an abandoned swimming pool from the 1930s which the band converted into a studio — confirms that they are indeed recording new stuff.  

“We have been in the studio,” Hólm says. “We have more stuff ready, studio-wise, than we have ready to actually play. We’re working on it, and hopefully we’ll be adding as much as we can to the show.”

The “show” in question is their 2017 North American tour, which finds the band continuing as a three-piece, an arrangement that has been in place since the departure of multi-instrumentalist Kjartan Sveinsson in 2013. (He left to pursue other projects.) Sigur Rós has also reworked its sound to exclude strings, which had been a signature component for the group.

“It was like an experiment for us,” Hólm says. “It was just that on the last record, we felt like strings were not important, so [we] took them out.”

Experimenting with sound has always been second nature for Sigur Rós. On Kveikur, the band explored a darker, more aggressive tone, as evidenced in the lead single “Brennisteinn” — translation: “brimstone” — in which Birgisson swaps his angelic, glistening vocal style for unsettling, guttural yelps. “Óveður,” a loosie released in 2016, furthers this change in direction with its sparse dreaminess that’s all about seeking beauty from bleakness.

But to Hólm, Sigor Rós has always lived at the precipice that divides splendor from devastation.

“I think that’s always been our thing. We go either way,” he says. “I guess that song was a little bit still in the direction of what we were doing with Kveikur, but some of the new material that we’ve been working on is not necessarily that bleak. Some of it is quite uplifting and beautiful. We always have a wide spectrum of emotions in our music. We like to keep it that way.”

Hólm would also like to lay the concept of Vonlenska (known as “Hopelandic” in English) to rest. Coined in 2002 when the album ( ) came out, Hopelandic is a term that the band came up with to describe the gibberish that Bergisson speaks throughout the record. Even though artists often use filler words when constructing songs — one famous example is  Paul McCartney singing “scrambled eggs” as a makeshift chorus while writing “Yesterday” — the media seized on the idea of Hopelandic as a made-up language, and Hólm feels like they gave it more attention than it deserves.

“Frankly, it’s nothing that’s important to us,” he explains. “We started writing lyrics for these songs, and then all of a sudden we thought, ‘Why are we pushing ourselves to create some words to music that we’ve been playing for such a long time?’ ”

While the words may lack definitions, they still have meaning, both for the band and listeners. Sigur Rós has always been willing to challenge their fans, making music that veers into the abstract and sometimes requires more than simply pressing “play.”

This is why many Sigur Rós fans treat their shows more like religious experiences than rock concerts. The band’s mesmerizing light and video productions are a staple of their performances, building an atmosphere that is at once ethereal and brooding. That the typical Sigur Rós song is also often in excess of seven minutes only adds to the mythical nature of seeing them live.

Hólm says the band doesn’t spend much time worrying about where they’ll play (although he does say The Greek in Berkeley is one of their favorite venues). In fact, as is often the case with Sigur Rós, they prefer the challenge of the unconventional.

“It’s obviously really nice for the audience to come into a proper theater and sit down, but we also really like just going to the next basketball arena and playing a show that creates an atmosphere that you’ve never seen there before,” he says.

Regardless of where they play, Hólm just hopes fans won’t treat their music too seriously.

“Although we sometimes play really slow and quiet music, it’s not a funeral people are attending,” he says. “It’s a musical experience [and] a rock show, as well.”

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