Sigur Rós would be hard to define even if they didn't shape-shift as often as they do. While bassist Georg Hólm tells Rolling Stone that "Led Zeppelin is one of the reasons I play music today," he also describes the new album as an "avalanche in slow motion." Its atmospheric soundscapes are a far cry from "Misty Mountain Hop" or "Rock and Roll." In fact, the album's title, Valtari, means "steamroller" in Icelandic and its eight tracks even stand in sharp contrast to the band's slightly more commercial previous album, 2008's Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust.
Sigur Rós took four years between records, in part because they just couldn't figure out how to move forward. That might explain why, instead of cascading walls of sound, this one kind of crawls. It is, however, a beautiful crawl. And while Hólm repeatedly stresses that the album is "difficult to talk about," he does discuss the making of it in the following interview, as he tries to shed some light – both for himself and for us – on Sigur Rós as a band, as they prepare to tour Valtari worldwide. The tour will make just a handful of stops in North America this summer but, after that, Hólm promises, "We will definitely be back." And we might not even have to wait another four years for another album.
Were you ever in danger of actually breaking up? Or do you think the media unfairly portrayed the long "break" as more of an "indefinite hiatus?"
I don't think we knew a word like hiatus before we read about it. But we definitely didn’t think that we were breaking up. We just knew that we wanted to have a little bit of a breather. We'd been working quite constantly since the year 2000 or so, either in the studio or doing tours or extra-curricular work. So it was just time to take a bit of time off. Originally, we said that we would take a year off. But it turned out to be four years. It was a bit longer than we expected, but then again, Jónsi went on his solo tour, so we got a little bit of an extra break. But no, we never thought we were going to break up. That was never the plan and never really crossed our minds. It was just meant to be a little bit of a pause.
We're not machines and we don't feel like we can be creating just to create. It has to come from somewhere. We felt like we had to refresh our batteries, really.
During the break, were you still in regular contact with your bandmates?
Oh yeah, absolutely. We're really good friends and we always stay in touch. We always talk to each other and go to see a soccer game or just have a beer, whatever. Have a meal.
Did you make a point to see Jónsi live on his solo tour for Go?
I did. I actually wanted to see it more than once but I ended up only seeing it when he played in Iceland, actually.
The new album came together in a very unusual way.
It was unusual. What's not unusual is that after the last show in 2008 we said we're going to have a year off – and, in March 2009, we were already in the studio. So only a few months after the last show, even after saying we were going to have a year off, we were still back in the studio. Which was probably the wrong thing to do, because everyone was just . . . we weren’t really there. Some of it sounded really good. Actually, all of it sounded really good, but it was just so different. Every bit was so confusing and different. You couldn't put a record together with the material that we recorded during that session. So then we just kind of gave up.
And I don't know how many months after but it was definitely quite a few, we tried again. We went back to those songs and tried to write some new ones. And yet again, it was still too confusing. So it was definitely unusual because usually we just sit down and we decide it's going to be like a month or something of writing songs and they always seem to have a certain feel to them or a certain sound. But, back then, none of them did. They were all different and they all sounded different, had a different feel. And this continued to be like that, every second we did, up until late last year. It all kind of made sense all of the sudden. It had been confusing.
The album veers away from the pop direction that you dove into on the last record. Was the return to an earlier sound discussed at all, as a band?
I think after the last album we definitely knew that we didn't want to do another record that went in that direction. We definitely knew that. But we didn't know which direction it was going to go into. Every record that we make, we always make it kind of organically. We don't sit down and decide it's going to be this type of record. It's more like we plug our instruments in and there's just something different about the process. We just do it differently. And it always happens, like I say, in an organic way. This record was difficult because everything was still organic but so unfocused.
It's really difficult to talk about this record. It always reminds me of – I think it was David Byrne who said that talking about music is like dancing to architecture. Especially talking about this record because I really don't understand it . . . but I like it.
You just said emphatically that you knew you weren't going to keep going in a pop direction. Is that because you were unsatisfied with it, or is that just because creatively you're always looking to do something different?
Definitely not unsatisfied with it, no. We kinda just felt like we were done with it, in a certain way. We're not done with it in general. We'll probably write something like that again. It was just, we felt a need to explore something different. It's really difficult to explain. We felt like . . . let's explore our insides again, rather than just continuing in the same direction. When we talk about Med Sud, we sometimes say that we kinda did that record on autopilot. It happened quite quickly. It was a really fast process, that record. Writing and recording it and everything about it, it just kind of appeared in front of us all of the sudden. Not very much thought went into it. It just became what it was.
With this record, the new record, Valtari, we had to put so much more into it. We had to really think what we were doing. I guess that is why we tend to use the word introverted with this record, because we were always talking about the music and discussing the record. The last record before this just appeared, while this one really had to be born.
There's a rumor that the band has already created and completed a second new album, one that's very different from this one, to be released in 2013. Is there any truth to that?
No. No. Absolutely not. But at the moment we're just feeling really good about the music and really good about being in the band. Every time we rehearse we're working on something and we find it hard to just rehearse old stuff. We tend to slowly move into something new. I think we're very excited about doing something more. I think we'll definitely not be waiting as long as we have been in the past. We're feeling really excited. We want to continue.
I read a music resource site on the Internet that listed Bjork as one of your top influences as a band. Do you think they assumed that just because of geography?
I would definitely say that we wouldn't put Bjork near the top, no. [Laughs] I think she's fantastic, but I personally wouldn't put her as an influence.