With the likes of Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber and Rhianna topping the latest Forbes list of highest-grossing young celebrities, the music sector has a lot to answer for in terms of international exports.
But in an industry where similarity is the cornerstone of acceptance and therefore, commercial viability, it would seem Icelandic four-piece, Sigur Rós, is an exception to the rule.
With a career spanning near on two decades, the band has maintained an international presence, while upholding musical integrity; operating in defiance of geographical boundaries and language barriers, not to mention the dreaded three-minute radio edit.
“It’s really quite funny because we never tried to be popular outside of Iceland,” explains bass guitarist Georg Holm. “In my opinion, we never tried to be popular at all. It just kind of happened. We’ve always sung in Icelandic and we like to play around with words a lot [referencing the band’s ‘made up’ language, Hopelandic], which makes it quite difficult to translate, so it was surprising to us that people around the world would be interested in what we do.
“If you think of any type of art, music has been especially misused for such a long time. I’ve never understood how you can write some music and because it might become popular and a radio station wants to play it, you have to edit it down. It’s just like someone saying to van Gogh or somebody who was not popular at the time, but quickly became popular: ‘This painting does not fit in my gallery; we need to cut half of it off’. It’s the same in some sense. It’s just bizarre.”
For Holm, the band’s sixth LP, ‘Valtari’, sits at the end of a long-running continuum. Maybe it’s the labour of love that lead to the album’s completion or perhaps the prospect of the band’s first real tour in four years, but Holm can’t help but get a little nostalgic.
“When we started talking about how we made this latest album, we realised that we actually started it such a long time ago and it’s been in some sort of strange progress ever since about 2006. Now if I sit down and I play it, I always find something that I’ll go like ‘wow, I didn’t remember that’ or ‘what is that?’ or ‘who did that?’ It’s very strange for me in that sense.
“I feel like ‘Valtari’ was the album we just had to finish. We had to put the punctuation at the end of the sentence and now we can move on. In many ways, it feels like we’re moving on but at the same time, this album has been like a culmination of everything we have done before,” he says.
“We started slowly rehearsing for the tour back in April, before we had even released the album, and it had been such a long time since the last tour that I think we were all a bit nervous just trying to remember how to play the songs.
“We’re all very confident right now though. In fact, we were rehearsing and going through some songs the other day and all of a sudden, realised that we had been playing for three-and-a-half hours. We thought ‘woah, we actually have too much music now’, but I guess that’s a nice situation to be in. Now we can pick out whatever we like to play.”
If the band’s recent rehearsal sessions are any indication, Australian audiences are in for a treat when Harvest Festival lands later this year.
“Three-and-a-half hours is definitely too long for a festival set. We’ll probably get kicked off the stage if we try to do that,” he muses.
“There will be 13 people on stage and if you’ve seen us before, then hopefully this will be something new. Kjartan [Sveinsson], our keyboard player, won’t be coming along, so it will be just the three of us [Jónsi Pór Birgisson, Orri Páll Dyrason and Holm] in the band, with two extra back-up players, six people in the strings section and a brass section. It’s like a big family.
“There will be a lot of stuff that we haven’t played in a long time and also, some newer stuff. It will be a good mix of music I think.”
In addition to a string of Australian shows in November, Sigur Rós will extend their live reach to the United States, Asia, the UK and wider Europe before the year is out. Having largely defined the world’s view of an “Icelandic sound” (not discounting the work of Björk, of course), the band’s international imprint often comes under much scrutiny in mother Iceland – a concept that is explored in Serious Feather’s documentary film ‘Iceland: Beyond Sigur Rós’.
Editor of The Reykjavík Grapevine and the film’s unofficial narrator, Haukur Magnússon, relays the struggle of many Icelandic musicians who are forced to live in the “ethereal” shadow of Sigur Rós.
“I read a lot of international reviews about Icelandic music,” Magnússon says. “For instance, I read a review [of Icelandic singer-songwriter Mugison]… and the guy was pretty much pissed off it didn’t sound like Sigur Rós. I’m like fuck you; we’re an entire country, man. You take your blues with your Sigur Rós.”
Having recently stumbled upon the film himself, Holm is a little puzzled as to where his band fits into the grand scheme of things, but credits his homeland with a wealth of musical offerings nonetheless.
“I think in some ways, there are a lot of bands that are only trying to be popular in Iceland. They’re just playing their music and enjoying it. Having said that, I think there are also a bunch of bands here that should be heard outside of Iceland, but are not.”
And what of those glacial landscapes, hot water springs and magical auroras that are so readily referenced when speaking of Iceland’s musical exports? Well, Holm plays it down… although not entirely.
“I’m more inspired just by Reykjavík as a city, rather than the landscape. I love travelling around Iceland and I do it a lot, but I think music is more to do with who you are rather than where you are. It comes from within you; it doesn’t come from outside of you.
“I do love being a representative of Iceland anytime I go abroad. I do think it’s a magical place and everyone should visit Iceland – obviously, it’s quite spectacular. I love living here and I love the country, but even if I was to move to South Africa and live there for 20 years, I think I’d still be playing the same music – it wouldn’t change.
"I wouldn’t just wake up one day and start playing the steel marimbas,” he jokes. “It’s all about what you find within yourself, not outside of yourself. I think that’s the main part and more important than any landscape.”
SIGUR RÓS WILL PLAY HARVEST FESTIVAL, ALONGSIDE BECK, GRIZZLY BEAR AND THE DANDY WARHOLS, AT THE BRISBANE’S BOTANIC GARDENS ON NOVEMBER 18. ‘VALTARI’ IS OUT NOW.