Progress Report: Sigur Rós
Valtari, Sigur Rós’ sixth proper full-length album, is by all accounts a record that was none too easy to make. Despite the apparent behind-the-scenes drama the album is as seamless and expectedly beautiful as anything else in the band’s back catalog, which is no small feat considering how many truly epic songs Sigur Rós already have in their repertoire. The band is currently in the midst of a world tour and overseeing an ongoing video project that involves a dozen different filmmakers slowly rolling out their own filmic interpretations of tracks from the new record. I called up bassist Georg Hólm to talk about the complications of making Valtari and what fans can expect to see from the band’s current tour. [Photos up top are from the band’s performance in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park last night.]
STEREOGUM: So apparently the making of this record was quite a saga.
HÓLM: Yeah, that’s true it wasn’t straight forward, this record. It was complicated in many ways. It was fun to make definitely — we had loads of fun doing it, it was just that every session that we did it got more and more confusing as to where we wanted it to go. I think that’s the problem — I don’t think we really did know where we wanted it to go and it kind of just went everywhere and all over the place. We kind of had an album that didn’t make any sense in the beginning. As we continued working, it continued not making any sense and then at some point like late last year I would say that, all of the sudden, it just came into focus and we realized what we wanted this record to do and where we wanted it to go and that we needed to focus it in that direction and we managed to do that. It was hard to make and not hard like not fun just hard as in loads of work, but good fun work.
STEREOGUM: Well, it sounds like the record involves pieces of music that come from a lot of different eras — from things that were written in the early 2000s to pieces that were conceived recently. How do you go about tying all these pieces together?
HÓLM: The earliest bits of recording are probably from 2005 maybe or 2006. I’m not 100 percent sure even. We never knew what we were going to do with those bits … when we started to listen to the record the other day we couldn’t even remember why we recorded this certain bit … it seemed just out of the blue. The first real session of making this record was March 2009; we did a little session in the studio. A lot of the stuff was recorded there but it was still just bits and pieces — it didn’t have a structure, it wasn’t whole it was just all over the place. During the process up until late last year we were finding it hard to even know what we had — we were kind of going through the computer and recording some tape and things and we would think, “wait a minute when did we record this?” or “wait there is a bit little piece, we should do something with that!” So, it was all over the place. Even the songs that we felt were going in completely the wrong direction -– we just had to sit down and deconstruct them and rethink those songs and try to make them fit into the whole. And I think we managed to pull that off in some way.
STEREOGUM: You guys have been a band for a while so you have a way of working together and sort of understand how each other work, but as the sessions went on and things were still not coming together, did you ever have the feeling like this new record might never happen? Or that you might just scrap the whole thing?
HÓLM: Absolutely. Yes and no. That definitely did cross our mind but it doesn’t make us nervous really. If it doesn’t work we all agree it doesn’t work and we all just think well, we’ll start doing something else. We never get worried about it; it just is what it is. But we definitely did think, this isn’t working and this might never work. And we did a few times just completely scrap it. We thought, “NO, this isn’t the album that we want to make because it doesn’t make any sense.” And we kept going through those emotions up until late last year we had decided that this record was not going to happen because we couldn’t figure it out. But after the final session we all realized that we had something on our hands that we all really enjoyed and really liked and was sort of special. It wasn’t just like the next record, it was the next step.
STEREOGUM: In those moments when you are thinking “This isn’t working right now” do you just sort of say, ok lets just go away for a while and reconvene in a bit … how do you deal with that as a band?
HÓLM: Well, it was kind of easy for us this time because we did our last show in 2008 in Iceland — and we had decided beforehand that we were going to take a year off and in March 2009 we got back in the studio … which means we didn’t take any time off really. And it was just too early, I think -– we went in too quickly. It wasn’t too bad; we all just quite enjoyed taking some time off and staying at home. I think, you know, we’ve been working quite a lot since 1999 -– either working on records or touring or some extra stuff. We all thought it was time to have a bit of a holiday and be normal people living in your house and having kids and being dads and all that. So it wasn’t that difficult for us.
STEREOGUM: There are so many layers to your albums, I would think just the production alone could be like this endless black hole — so many competing sounds — and the mixing would be completely overwhelming. Did you work with a producer or specific engineer on this album?
HÓLM: In the end it ended up us being the producers but Alex Summers did co-produce it with us and definitely mixed it. And we would have never finished this record without it. Definitely not. It can be a black hole, as you said, definitely but there is always this point where you go “Oh yeah this is exactly how we want it to sound!” and it can be confusing especially when it has no focus but there is always this point where it comes into focus where you realize, ok this is a great song, NOW this is a great song.
STEREOGUM: I was thinking too about your recent concert film and live recordings. I know when bands do those things sometimes it can be a kind of definitive statement — a line in the sand, like this is who we were and what we sounded like on this day at this time — and now we can move on.
HÓLM: Yeah, absolutely. The whole point of that film was to end an era in a way. And, we wanted to move on. Maybe it was too early for us to go into the studio in early 2009 after just finishing that and not even releasing it. We definitely wanted to really reinvent after finishing that tour we didn’t want to continue on that same track.
STEREOGUM: Are you excited about going out and playing live again?
HÓLM: We are pretty nervous because we want it to be so perfect … but also super excited.
STEREOGUM: Your live shows tend to be pretty perfect, in my experience.
HÓLM: …(hesitant) yeaaaah…(laughs)
STEREOGUM: Well maybe not to you guys, but they always feel perfect. In what ways are you changing the way you play?
HÓLM: The first leg of the tour, especially the North American bit that we are doing in July and August, is mostly a festival run and a festival is a different kind of show and we have to work it that way. So it’s going to be a lot of old material I guess — the new record will be hard to replicate right away I think especially because the stage next door might be some hardcore techno (laughs) so it’s always hard to play something quiet. But, yeah we want it to look different and we are going to try and reinvent the old music at the same time as well and do something new. We want it to be new for us … and then hopefully people can experience it that way. And there will be about 11 people on stage. We have had like 14 or 15 on stage at some point — but that’s like a string section and things like that so, you know loads of people to help the experience.
STEREOGUM: Well, I guess touring with that many people can be complicated but it also takes the pressure off — there are more people to talk to.
HÓLM: Yeah absolutely — but you know, at a festival it’s just more fun. It’s sunny outside and people are standing and seeing lots of bands — it has to be a FUN experience. It can’t be a completely introverted and depressing experience. There has to be a bit of summer fun.
STEREOGUM: I always thought that was interesting because the music that your band makes is usually thought of as very majestic, serious, and generally somber music. Do you find that people have a funny conception of what you are all like as people, based on the aesthetic of the music you make?
HÓLM: I think we are very much-misunderstood people! We aren’t actually very serious, but we take our music very seriously. We like to make fun of our own music but when we write it and when we play it live we are extremely serious about it being absolutely perfect but we love just joking around with it. And like I say we are absolutely not serious people at all.
STEREOGUM: I remember seeing you guys play pretty early on at theater shows here in NYC. By a lot of people’s standards the music you guys make is very unconventional. I remember being at a sold out show — at Carnegie Hall, maybe? — and thinking how amazing it was that a band like yours was commanding this kind of an audience. I found it so inspiring. Were you guys surprised by the response to what you were doing or the success?
HÓLM: I honestly can’t say. I’m not sure. It kind of just happened. I don’t think we were expecting anything, but we weren’t surprised either. Do you know what I mean? If anything it was, you know, it would be really nice one day to be able to just do this — to just play music for a living. And that happened. And I think we are really all very happy to be where we are and that people like our music and we all still very much enjoy playing it. I think we all think of ourselves as very lucky people.
STEREOGUM: Do you anticipate being on the road for much of the foreseeable future?
HÓLM: Yes, definitely. We’ll probably be on the road until the end of next year.
HÓLM: On and off. We are ready to play and play until people are tired of us again.
Sigur Rós’ Valtari is out now on XL.