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DETROIT — Since breaking into the wider consciousness more than 13 years ago, Sigur Rós has mastered that rare modern feat: ambient art that sells.
The Icelandic band hasn’t so much created songs as it has guided listeners on deep, immersive journeys — richly layered soundscapes that envelop listeners while slowly unfolding around them. It’s all helped the low-key guys in Sigur Rós earn a devoted, engaged audience around the world, and even led to a Top 10 U.S. showing for last year’s Valtari album.
On Kveikur, the band’s recent seventh record, the atmospherics take on a heavier, occasionally aggressive edge, laced with new melodic ideas and even traditional rock structures. It was the first album following the 2012 departure of Kjartan Sveinsson, the classically trained keyboardist who had masterminded many of the band’s orchestral parts.
Sigur Rós has spent much of its career cloaked in a kind of mystique, often opaque in interviews and hard to pin down in public. The band avoided television appearances for 10 years before a March performance on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon — which it followed two months later by getting cartoonized on The Simpsons.
Bassist Georg Holm spoke with the Detroit Free Press ahead of his group’s kickoff to a fall U.S. tour in support of Kveikur. He talked about the band’s new musical twists and its revamped stage show.
Q: Talk about the musical shift on the new album, and how that will work with the live approach on these songs.
A: The change kind of happened naturally. The only conscious decision we made was we wanted to do something different, but it wasn’t clear from day one how different, or in what way it would be different. But when we started actually writing and playing the music, the first note on the record is actually the first note we wrote thinking we were writing a record. It became clear very quickly that this was going to be something completely different, and it was a good surprise for us. It was a nice feeling.
It happened very quickly. We wrote them quickly and went to the studio. When we finished recording it, we started touring and we didn’t play those songs very much. So we didn’t play them for a very long time. When we (finally) started to tour with the new songs, we kind of looked at each other and thought, like, how are we going to reproduce this? We can’t even remember the notes. (Laughs)
But in another nice surprise to us, it all flowed very naturally and easily. It became quite easy to reproduce them. We haven’t played all the songs on the new record live yet, but we want to add as many of the new songs as we possibly can on this U.S. leg we’re going on now. We want it to be a heavily “Kveikur”-oriented show from now on.
Q: How did the departure of Kjartan play into all this?
A: Looking back now and thinking about it, it was a good thing. It was a good change that happened. He’d been talking about for a few years that he wanted to start doing something else, so we all knew the day would probably come. So when it happened, it was all in a good way.
When we started writing the songs without him, what we started off doing was relying on computers a bit more than usual. Actually, at some point we started calling our computer “Kjartan,” because it was like the fourth member of the band.
Q: These are precise recreations of his parts? Or have you taken it and done new things with the space that’s now there?
A: Yeah, we did consider what we should now do. And we just decided we should feel completely free to do whatever, you know — change his parts, reproduce them with a different instrument than he would usually play. But we did hire two extra guys to help us out live, for piano parts and guitar parts. We decided to hire two people rather than just one person so we could actually add even more layers on top of it.
I think the live show now is probably better than it’s ever been.
Q: And there’s a new visual approach as well, right?
A: Yeah, absolutely. We’d been touring some of the old visuals for a very long time. And we just thought we needed to do something different — the whole look and feel of the show.
It’s taken a long time to get to the point where we actually really like the show. When we started out last year with this tour, we weren’t very happy with the show. We felt like we’d just taken a step back rather than forward. So that was kind of annoying. It took us a while, but I think we’re finally at a point now where the live show is — dare I say — up to par with the music. (Laughs) Before, we thought, “Oh geez, the only thing (keeping) us up right now is the music — the live show is really bad.” But it’s really on par now.