Sigur Rós on the 20th Anniversary of "Ágætis byrjun" - Evolving Joy | Under the Radar - Music Magazine

Sigur Rós on the 20th Anniversary of “Ágætis byrjun”

Evolving Joy

Jul 24, 2019 Web Exclusive
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With seven albums under their belt and a list of artists citing their influence as long as the band members' collective arms, Sigur Rós have inspired a generation. However, the album that many of those suitors keep coming back to would be Ágætis byrjun, the band's second LP. Released in the summer of 1999, it undoubtedly heralded a new wave of ambient rock forged on a combined love of My Bloody Valentine, Ennio Morricone, and classical music.

To commemorate its 20th anniversary, the band is releasing a deluxe reissue of the album featuring three discs of previously unreleased outtakes, demos, and live material. Under the Radar spoke to founding member and bass player Georg Holm about the making of Ágætis byrjun and its reissue, and discovered a new Sigur Rós album might just be around the corner. The other remaining Sigur Rós member is Jónsi (the other members at the time of Ágætis byrjun were Ágúst Ævar Gunnarsson  Kjartan "Kjarri" Sveinsson.)

Dom Gourlay (Under the Radar): Jónsi is currently performing his Liminal project with Alex Somers and Paul Corley. What are you up to in the meantime?

We're all in separate corners of the globe at the moment doing different things. I'm working on music for a new Icelandic TV series that's going to be out next year.

Will there be any new music from Sigur Rós in the foreseeable future? 

There is new music. When it's going to be released I just don't know! We have written quite a few new songs and recorded most of them. So the next record is almost ready, but when it's going to see the light of day I'm really not sure.

Do you still get the same buzz from writing and performing as you did when the band first started 25 years ago? 

I really don't know to be honest. I think it changes a little bit. It evolves, the joy of it. I guess when you get older and life becomes more complicated, it also complicates the creative process at the same time.

It's 20 years since Ágætis byrjun came out. Did you expect it to have such a massive impact and influence so many artists over the past two decades?

No, I can't say that we expected this sort of impact. Even when we were writing the record we didn't expect it to be this good when we recorded it. It actually came out better than we expected, the recording and the mixing. We had to redo it a few times to get it perfect but then we already had these nice sculptures. We just needed to polish them a little bit. We were really happy with it and had a gut feeling this was a good record, at least for us. We thought it might turn some heads in Iceland but I don't think any of us expected it to do as well as it did internationally.

It was quite a sudden departure from Von sonically even though there were only two years between the albums. Were the songs written shortly after that first record or was it more of a gradual process?

When we made Von we weren't really in the studio to make a record. We got free studio time in this really nice place so we were just playing around for the most part. Some of the songs that ended up on Von could easily have made it onto Ágætis byrjun. They weren't that far apart musically for us in the rehearsal space. I think we just went completely overboard experimenting with that record. At least two of the songs off Von we played live for a really long time after it came out. So they lived on albeit as different versions to the ones you can hear on Von. Musically we were honing in a bit better on what we wanted to do, maybe maturing a little bit, yet also still in the same headspace. We were just getting better at what we wanted to get out of the studio.

Several of the songs off Ágætis byrjun also feature quite prominently in your current live set. Do you ever get bored of playing the older material?

 Sure. There are songs that have come and gone, and then there are songs that will always be in the set. Some of them you always enjoy playing. You actually look forward to them coming up in the setlist! Then there are others, which might be personal favorites of some band members whereas others might be dreading having to play them again. It really depends on what people are doing on stage. There are definitely songs we feel are really good on record but never worked as well live. We've always tried to separate the two a little bit. We understand when people come to a live show they are there to be entertained. You can't lose sight of that in any way. Obviously people want something spectacular and special which is what we always try and bring to the live shows. Whereas on record it's a very different thing. You can focus on the tiniest little details, which is really difficult when you're playing live.

Are there any plans to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Ágætis byrjun by playing the album in full? 

Not at the moment, no. It was discussed.

What made you choose that particular live show from Islenska Operan in 1999 to go on one of the Ágætis byrjun bonus discs? 

We chose that show specifically because it was a big moment for us. It took place on exactly the same day as the album came out in Iceland. There was a guy we knew who actually flew over with suitcases full of the records. It hadn't been packaged so we had separate suitcases full of CDs and packaging which we had to glue together then put the CDs into every single one then send them out. That same evening we played the show at the Islenska Operan. Half of the CDs ended up being returned, as they were full of glue! About 50% of them. But for us, that was the show that really changed things for the band and our lives. After that, everything started rolling. There seemed to be this weird buzz around the band in Iceland at the time. I can't really say or put my finger on why? I think we were a little bit obscure and playing strange music yet there was this buzz around the album for some reason. I'm not sure we even created it ourselves. I don't know what happened. I can't even remember playing the show, yet I do remember the whole day up to and evening after the show. It felt like we'd just climbed to the top of Mount Everest or something!

There are also a number of demos and alternative versions of songs which eventually made it onto Ágætis byrjun included on the other bonus discs. What made you release them now, and if you had the benefit of hindsight, is there anything you'd change about the album?

Part of me wants to say yes, I'd take this song out and put another song in. Or even just take one out and not put anything in. But overall, I think the answer has to be no. I wouldn't change it. It is what it is. Some of the songs on the bonus discs aren't exactly outtakes. They're just songs that were written around the same time. I'm not sure which ones might have gone onto the album and which were never contenders. I can't really say. I can't even remember! I don't think we'd have ever released those songs as they were. It's such a long time ago that we felt now was an okay time to just let go a little bit so people can hear these really bad demos we recorded in our rehearsal space 20 years ago. We were kids back then. I think it's also interesting for anyone that likes the album and the band, or even for a person that's never really heard the album and is only discovering it now. It's really interesting to hear those things because they give an insight into how we were working things out back then. There are demo versions of songs that actually made it onto the album which are closer to how we were playing them at the time than how they ended up on the record. The difference between how those songs were played live and how they were recorded is really interesting. The contrast between them gives an insight into our working methods at the time.

How much of an impact do you think opening for Radiohead at various shows on both the OK Computer and Kid A tours had for the band? Certainly in terms of introducing Sigur Rós to a wider audience?

It was essential. We're eternally grateful to Radiohead for inviting us on tour with them. It was an amazing experience for us as young boys coming out of Iceland, and then all of a sudden playing in front of 20,000 people. It was pretty mindblowing! It definitely opened a lot of doors. I don't think many people would have discovered us unless we'd been invited to do that tour with Radiohead. It was quite funny driving around with two crew members in this small van, sleeping on the floor of the van then running around trying to get our equipment on stage. Then afterwards watching this band with six tour buses, trucks, and their own huge tent. It was a really surreal experience for us in our early 20s. It was fantastic. I look back on it with joy.

If you had to pick a definitive or favourite record from the Sigur Rós catalogue, which one would it be and why?

Without sounding too diplomatic I think each one represents a period of time in our lives. We always try to reinvent ourselves a little bit every time we go into the studio with the mission of creating a record. Ágætis byrjun was definitely a turning point in our lives, so that will always hold a special place in our hearts. We still play a lot of the songs off that album in our live set 20 years later which says something about the record. They're all special for me, but Ágætis byrjun was a turning point, so that has to stand out. They're all personal. They all represent something for us. There might have been something specific going on in our lives at the time we made a certain album so they'll always create a different emotion for us when we listen back to them. They all have their own character.

What advice would you give to someone who's just starting out as a musician or in a band? 

Don't do it! I have to brutally honest. I think that is the correct answer! But if you must do it, do it for yourself. Be in a band because it's a passion. If you enjoy playing music then do that. But as a career move, I'm not sure it's the best thing. You can be successful and all that, but then people have different measurements of success. Just being able to create something for yourself and enjoy it is a measure of success to me, and if someone else enjoys it too it's just a bonus. So I believe you should always measure your success in joy.

www.sigurros.com

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