The Icelandic combo known as Sigur Rós create some of the most haunting otherworldly sounds and songs. Their third album, known only as (), clocks in at 70 minutes with eight tracks and no liner notes! Plus it was recorded in the band?s own studio, a converted swimming pool in the Icelandic countryside.
We interviewed guitarist/vocalist Jón (Jónsi) Birgisson on the band?s tour bus when they played Portland. Jónsi had been a musician and full-time studio engineer before starting Sigur Rós in 1994. One can?t help but wonder if his knowledge of the recording process and boredom with traditional "rock band" sounds had a huge influence on his band. Jónsi?s use of large reverb sounds on his guitar, a cello bow-guitar technique and ethereal choir boy vocals in Icelandic or Hopelandic (i.e., not a real language) combined with the band?s sense of space and compositional development sounds like nobody else.
The other members of the band are Kjartan (Kjarri) Sveinsson on keyboards, Orri Páll D ?Rason on drums and Georg (Goggi) Holm on bass. The Portland show was transcendent, with a sold out crowd sitting in rapt attention as the band, accompanied by the Amina String Quartet, created the same magic vibe live that they pull off on record.
LC: So you guys have a studio, and it was formerly a swimming pool? Like an indoor swimming pool?
We're in the oldest swimming pool in Iceland. From '33 or something.
LC: How did you pick that as a space for the studio?
We were looking for a place to conduct rehearsal space and studio — this was the first place that we went. It's actually the place where I grew up — out in the countryside. A friend of ours kind of knew this was going but it wasn't open yet, so we just kind of stumbled into it. So designed for us — so brilliant.
LC: What's the layout of the building like?
There's five-meter high ceilings and there's a swimming pool and there's a walk going all around. So you can walk all around. The second floor is where the control room is. So you can watch down from the control room down to the swimming pool.
LC: And you set up in the swimming pool to play music?
Yeah. We have lots of booths too. When we record the drum track we can record in the three booths.
LC: Like isolation booths.
LC: What's the studio's name? Does it have a name?
We just call it the swimming pool. [I've seen it listed as Sundlaughin -LC] It's a really nice place and it's in the countryside and it's really quiet. It's nice to be outside the city. Because all of your friends are dropping by and you can't do much, but if you live outside, they are too lazy to drop by.
JL: It's just an old public swimming pool?
It's a really old kind of wool factory area. Manufacturing sweaters and things like that. But it's been a really long time since that shut down that it's mainly just artists, sculptors and painters — so it's really nice energy. Really peaceful and quiet.
LC: Except for you guys. [everyone laughs]
JL: The rest of the building though, what is still in there?
Just apartments and artists.
JL: So it's a shared space?
It's actually kind of strange building. There is a river that runs just beside of our building, there's another building there, it's an apartment, there's a bridge over the river, so it's really nice and we have a pond. It's really, really nice.
JL: You were living in there, weren't you?
Yeah, we were living in the basement. There are other people who live there. It's funny. It's a really small apartment — on the bridge. Really, really terrible.
LC: On the bridge?
JL: Was a troll supposed to live there? [everyone laughs]
They live under, but we used to live in the basement, kind of. At the corner is a pub but it shut down actually now. It was really nice.
LC: Maybe you should open up a pub there. You could make some money on the side with the pub. Help support the studio. Did you purchase the building?
We purchased it. We used all kinds of publishing money to buy it.
LC: That's better then buying sports cars and drugs.
It's a really good investment. When we get older, we can sell it.
LC: Or you could keep making records.
JL: Since the ceilings are so high do you have any special room mics just kind of permanently placed? In the corners or anything like that.
Yeah, we mic the corners. We bought quite old mics from Russia, Oktava mics, they're really nice. We put those in the corners, and then we have on the balconies just close mics to use to control.
JL: It looks like Orri's drums were just in the bottom of the pool? Do you use some of that, those mics, to get the natural reverb?
On the drums? Yeah. In the studio, we did nothing like to make, like sound traps, or bass traps, or anything so it's all really kind of homey, you know. We did nothing for acoustics.
LC: Right. You didn't cover it in red foam.
I think it's actually quite nice because you never listen to music in that place. If you think of it you just...