The Sunday Times,
June 24 2018
Last year, Sigur Ros recorded a 24-hour live broadcast of an 828-mile drive around the Icelandic coast, soundtracked by one song they stretched.
Yet the seaside stunt is far from the weirdest thing to happen to these most unlikely rock stars. That would be Ondine, a film starring Colin Farrell, in which a fisherman believes a woman to be a mystical creature because she sings in a spectral voice he thinks has to be from another world. No, he discovers, the woman just likes singing Sigur Ros.
When the band first caught the attention of the music press outside Iceland, they were described with ludicrous adjectives: whales, blizzards, God’s own voice. At the turn of the century, their country was less well known than now. That was before dozens of blockbusters, from Star Wars reboots (black sand) to Prometheus (waterfall), were filmed there; before the national football team beat England and drew with Argentina. The nation felt magical, not just a venue for a weekend break.
Sigur Ros’s second album, Agætis byrjun (1999), launched their dreamy, often anthemic rock, sung mostly in gibberish, onto the world. It has been ubiquitous ever since, championed by luminaries from Radiohead’s Thom Yorke to Tommy Lee of Mötley Crüe, who listens to them curled up in a foetal position. Their music became the go-to euphoria for slo-mo sporting replays, the theme for the BBC’s Blue Planet, Gwyneth Paltrow’s birthing soundtrack. The band have appeared in The Simpsons and Game of Thrones, where they played the minstrels at Joffrey’s wedding.
Strangest of all their activities, though, are the events that the lead singer, Jon Thor Birgisson — aka Jonsi — has been putting on recently with his artist/musician boyfriend, Alex Somers, and the composer Paul Corley, called Liminal Soundbaths. An ambient playlist from one is now available, with more to come. These happenings provide abstract mixes, where little is immediately recognisable until a remix of Untitled 7, off the superb Sigur Ros album ( ) — yes, just parentheses — cuts through the mystery about an hour in, with its gorgeous melody, a reward for patience during the (admittedly pleasant) soundscape noodling.
The other day, the playlist helped me fall asleep on a plane, but that’s no insult. Over 90 minutes, the pace barely lifts above the beautiful and woozy; people have fallen asleep at the Liminal events, too. “We played the Primavera festival, in Spain,” Birgisson tells me, “and one of the promoters fell asleep. Me? I only slept three hours last night. I was really fried. I would love to fall asleep.”
Jonsi on stage in Budapest in 2016
Last week, this Sigur Ros sideline show did three nights in London, at Robert Smith’s Meltdown. It was the most conventional setting yet, given that it was in an actual venue, as opposed to an art gallery (LA) or the great outdoors (Arizona). The event is a new, fluid experiment with sound and light, using some live instruments but, definitely, no band as a focal point.
“It’s very different from a normal gig,” Birgisson says over breakfast in London. The space rocker has come from LA, where he lives, to do prosaic admin such as renewing his US visa.
He is delicate, friendly, with an otherworldliness exacerbated by his one blind eye. “People have different expectations at these shows, and they’re not going to drink beer, be loud and get energised. They lie down and close their eyes. It’s more about being with yourself, maybe. Also, we have dancers,” he continues. “We call them sleepwalkers. We had some naked people, too.” What, walking around?
“We got them through a dance company, but there is no dancing,” Somers says. An enthusiastic American, he seems in awe of everything. “They wander through the crowd, doing two laps holding lanterns. A few weeks ago, we had 12 naked people.”
The audience just accept it? The pair laugh. “They went, ‘Whatever!’” Somers says. “Liminal is evolving at its own pace, which is quite slow.” “This is still such a young idea,” Birgisson says. “Probably, in a few years’ time, we’ll have a residency in Vegas.”
He rolls his eyes when I cite the praise lavished on his band. Would the phrasing be less purple now we know more about where they are from? “Definitely. It’s popular to go to Iceland now,” he says, somewhat sadly. “Our natural resources are trampled on.”
In fairness, their 24-hour broadcast was so full of open roads and green fields, it was the best ad for Iceland since Terrence Malick used the area around the Krafla volcano in The Tree of Life. But Sigur Ros don’t do outlandish things just to get noticed now. Their records tend to go gold, at least; they headline festivals. No, they push odd ideas around to keep themselves amused.
“People think Sigur Ros is really serious, but we’re not at all,” Birgisson says, smiling. “It’s just so fun to challenge people. For instance, our Soundbath event in LA was medicated, as people took one marijuana gumdrop. That was fun. We had 200 people and everybody was high!”
Should you be in the US, you can buy these drugs “inspired by the flavors of foraged Icelandic berries” for $60 from a concoctor of pain relievers. In Britain, of course, this is illegal. What is the recommended intoxicant for a Liminal show here? “We did it in Iceland,” Birgisson says, “and some people took a brandy mixture.”
High, tipsy or sober, Birgisson and co are forcing, gently, their audience to re-engage fully with music at a show. This is the time of phones in the air, recording terrible footage for YouTube: he and Somers agree when I say Liminal is a reaction to that. Its full immersion is less invasive than banning phones at gigs. “Didn’t Grace Jones have that?” Birgisson asks Somers. He nods. Their mobiles were taken off them at a “crazy birthday party this baroness friend of ours threw, where Grace Jones was the surprise musical guest”. Some rock stars, it seems, remain on another planet.
For details of Liminal releases and events, visit sigur-ros.co.uk