Interview: Jónsi and Alex
Sigur Rós frontman Jón (Jónsi) Ţór Birgisson and partner Alex Somers, from Reykjavík band Parachutes, started their artistic collaboration in 2003. Three years later they released a picture book under the name of Riceboy Sleeps, followed by art exhibitions in Iceland, the US, and Australia. In terms of music, they have so far released two singles, "All the big trees" and "Daníell in the sea", and have contributed the song "Happiness" to a charity compilation album produced by members of The National. A full-length album has been long in the making, and it is now finally complete, while the Riceboy Sleeps name has been simply replaced by Jónsi and Alex. Release date is July 20 for Europe and July 21 for the US. The album was entirely recorded in their Reykjavík flat and its slow, atmospheric landscapes were created purely on acoustic instruments, with additions from long-term Sigur Rós collaborators Amiina, along with the Kopavogsdaetur choir. It's a Trap! was invited to Jónsi's and Alex's place in order to ask them a couple of questions over a cup of green tea.
Why did you decide at this point to make an album together?
Jón Ţór Birgisson: We've been working on this album since the day we first met. Constantly, but with long breaks in between of course. It has been in the background of our lives for four or five years.
Alex Somers: It just felt right now.
JB: We decided late last year that we should take one month off in February and then just mix it and finish it.
Is it hard to find time between the schedules of your bands?
AS: Sometimes. The way we worked on this album, it was so much part of our daily life. We never said, let's take a week and record. There were days, when we would take three days and do strings, but even that was just for a couple of hours in the night time. We were always working as we were doing other things, until this past February when we actually mixed the record. It was always working on the sidelines.
JB: It's sometimes hard to find time from the schedule of other stuff. The only reason why we could do it now is because Kjartan (Sigur Rós keyboardist) had a baby, so he took time off.
AS: But it's never been a problem. The album grew in a really natural way.
According to your press release the album is "endlessly toyed with on solar-powered laptops in a raw food commune in some far corner of Hawaii." How was that experience?
AS: Like Jónsi said, we mixed in the month of February and that was also in Hawaii. We were looking for some warm place warm to go so we can work on our album, because it's really cold and dark here, so we weren't that inspired to be locked inside here for a month, and Jónsi ended up finding this raw food community, because we are both raw food vegans and we're really into that, so we went there. It was about twelve people living in this small land.
JB: And you live totally off the land. You just get one shed for you, a bed and a desk and we just had one laptop and two speakers.
And how does the solar power thing work?
JB: The only electricity they use, they just get from the sun. They just have solar power on the roof, with just one long lead to our shed. It was kind of our dream set, it was amazing. You just eat amazing food from the land and the trees. You get total peace and is great to get away from Iceland this time of year and this crazy depression, everything is bankrupt and really dark, and we just went to sunny Hawaii.
AS: And we were really in the middle of the jungle, it wasn't like a holiday retreat kind of place. It was very rough and natural. There were no toilets for example.
Are you annoyed that your album has been leaked on the internet awhile before its proper release?
JB: I think it's fine. It takes so little these days for information to go on the internet and travel around.
AS: One thing we have to mention is that the leak that is around is not the final mastered version. That was the only thing that disappointed me. For example the last song, we've actually remixed it. Most of it is very similar, but there are some changes. But we're not angry about it. We are happy that people can hear it, but we hope that that people that like it will get their hands on the mastered version, either buy it or download it.
The album is instrumental and downbeat and one could say that it's a difficult kind of music. To whom is it addressed?
JB: We recorded this definitely only for ourselves. That's why we only listen to old jazz that creates this atmosphere. When we are writing songs, we just have the song we're working on in loop for a few days and...
AS: ...soak in the atmosphere.
JB: It's kind of atmospheric music. It just makes us feel good.
With all this technology available to musicians these days, how do you feel about it interfering with the creation of music?
AS: If it interferes, it's a bad thing, but if it's a tool, it's a good thing. We love technology. We use computers a lot in our music. But instrument-wise, when we are making music, we don't use anything electronic, no synthesisers, just all acoustic instruments and voices. But after we record them, we love to treat them in the computer, speed them up, slow them down, stretch them out etc. That's an amazing tool for us.
But do you reject electronic music?
AS: No, I like electronic music. It's just not what I want to use in my music.
JB: It's the same as you do when you do some artwork. It's the same thing with music. Take old books, old photographs or drawings. Everything is organic and then you put them in the computer and fine-tune it and finish it.
AS: We are obsessed with scanning things and it's really similar, if you think, recording into the computer. Just scanning your artwork, and then shrink it and change the colours.
What instruments do you play?
AS: Just everything you see in the living room! [Laughs]
JB: Piano, harmonium, glockenspiel, guitar, bass, voice sampler...
Do you share the same taste in music?
AS: Pretty much, yeah.
JB: Everything exactly the same!
AS: No, not quite! [Laughs]
JB: Mainly we just listen to old music.
AS: Ninety percent of what we listen to is stuff like Django Reinhardt, Billie Holiday and Washington Phillips. We like this kind of music for the sound quality, and the music of course.
JB: Like we were talking about earlier: the atmosphere.
AS: It creates a mood. I personally stopped following music really closely around five or six years ago. I used to go into the record store and find out about new underground bands. I still think that's great, but for some reason I just slowed down on that and just got really into this.
What else do you do apart from music?
AS: We are planning exhibitions. Two little things this summer and maybe one solo exhibition towards the end of this year.
Here in Iceland?
AS: No, in London. We have the chance to do another solo exhibition here in Reykjavík, but we just haven't booked it. We don't know when we want to do it really.
JB: It's sometimes a little bit hard, because we've been so busy in the music now, and it is sometimes little bit hard to focus on both.
AS: But we brainstorm and talk a lot about cool ideas, but we haven't actually dug in and started doing it.
I find your video clips very interesting.
JB: We are kind of obsessed with the visual side of things: artwork, sleeves, books, images and moving images also.
Do you do everything yourselves?
AS: Yeah, when we were in Hawaii mixing, we were making a new video piece that hopefully will be ready with the album.
JB: As a special edition.
How do you feel about the Icelandic economy collapse?
JB: I think it brought everybody down to the ground again. Everybody was buying jeeps before. It's really bad for some people who are losing houses and jobs, but in a way it's healthy in the long run.
Why do you think it's healthy?
JB: ... it was getting out of control.
Words and picture by Vasilis Panagiotopoulos