Q&A with Georg Holm from Sigur Ros

Sigur Ros’s brand of musical minimalism eschews conventional structures, familiar formulas and lyrical language, resulting in an emotive form of ambient dream pop, which relies on fluid textures, open-ended forms and an invented idiom of gibberish, branded Vonlenska by the band, for its surreal effect. The band’s latest studio album, Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum End, represents departures in both form and lyrical content, while it boasts the band’s trademark reliance on simplicity to create an evocative effect. Released in June, the new album features fewer orchestral cues and a more improvised approach to its content. Lyrically, the album features songs sung in the group’s native Icelandic, as well as lead singer Jón Þór Birgisson’s first foray into a vocal in English. As the band prepares to make its a long-awaited return to the States to bring its intimate, ambient approach to Red Rocks Amphitheater this Saturday, we caught up with bassist Georg Holm, who talked about the group’s creative process, the challenges in recording the new album and gave us hints at future projects.

Westword (Adam Goldstein): Can you elaborate on your approach to lyrics? What compositional advantages does drawing on your own hybrid approach to language (English/Icelandic) provide?

Georg Holm: We always leave lyrics til last, and then sweat bullets trying to get something to work. The music comes much more easily than the words. I guess we managed to avoid writing lyrics for a long time but just using vocal sounds. This was also a deliberate attempt to avoid putting meaning on the songs, but since most of the world do not speak Icelandic this still stands even when we are singing “proper” lyrics.

AG: There is a definite orchestral quality to your music. Where does that influence come from? Are there any traditional classical composers who have helped to form your sound? Are there contemporary instrumental artists that you see as inspiration?

GH: I don’t know really. Kjartan likes Arvo Part, but I wouldn’t say he’s an influence. We never really question why we do things. That would seem to be the enemy of instinctive creativity.

AG: In terms of the contemporary independent music scene, where do you see yourselves as fitting within the established structure? In the sense that your lyrical and compositional approaches are so unique, is it difficult to find a niche in the current scene? We never try consciously or otherwise to either fit in or not fit in. I guess Sigur Ros is more than the sum of its parts, individually it is unlikely we would have created the music in the form it is. I don’t think we’ve ever tried to chase a sound from another band, or say, it’s cool when x does y, we should try and emulate it.

AG: Can you elaborate about the creative process that goes into your music? Considering the unorthodox lyrical structure, is there a narrative method that goes into composing a song? Or is it purely emotive and evocative?

GH: There is no method. Someone will start playing and then someone else will join in and then if we can remember it the next day it will probably survive as an idea, if not it will be lost to eternity. As we said before lyric structure comes much later.

AG: What are some of the challenges in marketing your music in the United States? American audiences tend to be accustomed to a set format and a set approach to lyrics. How do you overcome the cultural distance for a Western audience?

GH: Of course we don’t think like that, but maybe if everyone is doing one thing, designing music to try and please people and fit some real or imagined marketing demographic, if someone then comes along and doesn’t subscribe to these rules, they will maybe stand out and get attention. We are always being told what we have to do to get more people to buy our records, and often we don’t do those things. Maybe this makes us more special to the fewer people who take the trouble to seek us out.

AG: The new album includes some new musical textures – fuller brass and other expansive sounds. What kind of new directions did you want to take on this album, and what were some of the hurdles in realizing your musical goals?

GH: Not so many hurdles, just a letting go process. We decided that the old regime of lengthy recording and endless tweaking was maybe becoming tedious to us. We made a conscious decision to work quickly and instinctively and although it was difficult to let things go without being fully polished, having made the choice we stuck to it.

AG: In terms of the upcoming Red Rocks show, how are you going to approach the massive scale of the venue? Some of your material boasts an undeniably intimate appeal. Will you alter your set specifically to fit the Red Rocks venue?

GH: I don’t know. I guess we’ve been playing a lot of festivals this summer and so have gotten a bit acclimatized to playing more of a “rock show”. We probably won’t play too many glockenspiel-led tinkle fests, but honestly we haven’t thought about it yet. The good thing about being four or five albums in is we have plenty of material to draw upon now, so we can pretty much tailor a show to an environment. Truth be told we will probably write the setlist about 6pm on the day, as per usual.

AG: On songs like “Gobblediqook,” the percussion recalls the fast pace and strong drive of South American rhythms. Did you draw on any world music sources in composing the new album?

GH: No. It was written as an unconscious riposte to three hours spent watching the Eurovision Song Contest, a vapid pop competition, in which countries try and out-bland each other. This just popped out when we went into rehearsal later that night.

AG: This tour represents a long-awaited return to the United States for many of your fans. As you’re traveling and playing live gigs, are there any preliminary plans for a future album, or any other projects (film, live album, etc.)?

Always a few more projects bubbling away in the background, yes. There’s a new super-8 film we’ve just finished that’s going out in the special edition of the album, which we are really happy with, that’s going to shops in November. We have an orchestral piece called Odin’s Raven Magic that have recorded and filmed with an orchestra that we are going to try and get out next year. We are always being asked to score movies, so next year when we have no (current) touring plans we can look at some of those requests.

AG: You’ve kept up a relatively private persona in terms of the Western press. Is there a purpose to the low profile?

I don’t think anyone ever reads their press and likes what they see. It’s useful in terms of people knowing you are out and about and active, but it very few things actually nail you (or anyone) in terms of accurate definitions. We are lazy about doing press, it’s true, so it’s part that and part and attempt to avoid being pigeonholed.

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Dave Herrera
Contact: Dave Herrera