Sixteen years ago, when Alex Somers was a student at Berklee College of Music in Boston, he met Jónsi (born Jón Þór Birgisson), frontman for the Icelandic band Sigur Rós. The two men hit it off immediately.
“It was the most fun,” Somers says. “And inspiring and beautiful and romantic and creative.”
Not long after meeting, they started making music together. On one of Jónsi’s visits to Boston, Somers says, an early piece was inspired by a piano store near Berklee that had a horn outside that was always playing classical music onto the street.
“And it just sounded so cool, because it was a really crappy megaphone horn, almost,” Somers says. “And it sounded really lo-fi and mid-rangey. We love those kinds of sounds.”
Not having a field recorder at the time, the pair would stand in front of the store, holding up Jónsi’s laptop, and record the music the shop pumped into the street.
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“We slowed it down, like many octaves, really slow,” Somers says, “because it just went by so fast. And then we had these little vignettes of kind of like slow-motion piano figures that were of course blended with a lot of environmental sounds, because we were just on the street in a busy city. But when you slow those sounds down as well, it became environmental and otherworldly. It didn’t sound like an ordinary city street, of course, because it might have been slowed down six octaves. We just started writing chord progressions and string arrangements and piano around it. That was the first piece of music we made. It was really fun, really spontaneous.”
Some of those vignettes would become the genesis of Riceboy Sleeps, which they released in 2009 and will perform live with Wordless Music Orchestra on Friday, October 18, at the Paramount Theatre. The title of the album, which was recently remastered and reissued, alludes to Somers’s time at Berklee when he didn’t have a lot of money and was basically living off of white rice.
“I would go to the grocery store and buy these huge bags of white rice and really pathetically carry it back to my house,” Somers says.
Jónsi thought it was really funny and ridiculous that he didn’t really eat anything else besides rice.
“I was sleeping, probably a lot, too, probably because I was malnourished,” Somers says. “One day he was in my bedroom making a piece of music while I was asleep, and he just called it ‘Riceboy Sleeps.’”
In 2005, Somers moved in with Jónsi at his Reykjavík home. They continued to work on music for what would be Riceboy Sleeps, noodling on ambient pieces, never thinking about them having a beginning, middle or end. At Jónsi’s house, there were lots of guitars, a piano, bells, samplers and toys, which Somers said they would use to create little sonic environments and loop them.
“While we were listening to loops...we would get ideas, like, ‘Oh, maybe this should have a choir or something,” Somers says.
Most of the tracks on Riceboy Sleeps were made in DIY fashion in Jónsi’s house. When it came to adding a choir, they invited a bunch of local teenage girls to come over and record in the living room. What sounds like a full orchestra on the album is actually Iceland-based string quartet Amina playing over tracks of themselves.
“We weren’t engineering or mixing professionally,” Somers says. “We were doing really homemade and kind of just raw, and that’s why it sounds kind of a little bit small or intimate, because that’s just the nature of what it was.”
Over the past year, Somers and Jónsi have teamed up with Robert Ames, who conducts the London Contemporary Orchestra, and arranger David Handler has been working very closely with New York-based forty-piece orchestra/choir Wordless Music Orchestra in bringing Riceboy Sleeps on tour. Somers says Riceboy Sleeps sounds very different live with the orchestra and choir.
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“It’s like all the melodies and textures and structures that are there on the record, but presented in a different way,” Somers says.
Before playing Riceboy Sleeps from start to finish in running order, Jónsi, Somers and Wordless Music Orchestra will open the show with "All Animals," a piece Jónsi and Somers wrote in 2009 that was fully orchestrated by Ames in the past year.
Jónsi and Somers also just released Lost and Found, which Somers says is a sibling album to Riceboy Sleeps.
“It falls somewhere between what was, what is, and what will be," Somers explained in a recent statement. "Tape experiments, modular synth processing, and acoustic soundscapes drift in and out of focus. Sound friends that you may have heard or seen before appear; familiar, but different.”
Jónsi and Alex Somers play Riceboy Sleeps with Wordless Music Orchestra at 8 p.m. Friday, October 18, at the Paramount Theatre, 1621 Glenarm Place. Tickets are $39.50-$99.50 and available at Altitude Tickets.