A few hours before Sigur Rós play the first of two consecutive sold out shows at the United Palace Theater-- an opulent, gilded concert space on 175th Street in Washington Heights, New York-- Pitchfork sits down with Sigur Rós bassist Georg Holm, who answers our questions about encores, "CSI", what "Gobbledigook" really means, and whether or not Sigur Rós are funny.
Pitchfork: I read on your Wikipedia page that your nickname is White Fang because you can catch trout with your teeth. Is it true?
Georg Holm: [Laughs] Yes and no. That started in 1999 or 2000, when we went on a tour around Iceland for two weeks-- the tour that inspired the film Heima. We had a manager at the time who was Icelandic. We went on this boat tour once, with hiking and fishing. [Pauses] I probably shouldn't be telling this story. It's going to ruin the whole mystique!
Say that I stare down bears or something.
Pitchfork: OK. Do you enjoy touring? Do you get into the rhythm of the road, or do you find it tiresome?
GH: A little bit of both-- it's kind of a love/hate thing. It's great to play shows. And this tour has been really great, we've had so many shows we've enjoyed, and none of them have been bad. It's been kind of hectic, we're doing a lot of touring in a short period of time, but it's good. The bad parts are being away from family, being away from your house, not seeing your dog for a few months.
Pitchfork: The United Palace is such a tremendous venue. Do you actively pursue old, majestic theaters like this, places with character?
GH: I think a few years ago, we really wanted to play different venues, not typical rock'n'roll venues. We wanted to play churches, places like that. At that time, we would have loved to have played a place like this. And of course we do now, as well. But we're also kind of enjoying playing normal rock'n'roll venues. We like people to stand up and enjoy themselves. There's more energy. Sometimes we feel like we're putting people to sleep while we're playing. I think our music is a bit more upbeat than it used to be, as well. Things have changed a little bit.
Pitchfork: Sure, the new record is very different. You could maybe even dance to it.
GH: Sometimes we even ask people to stand up. Obviously, it's very nice-- it's a privilege-- to be able to play in a place like this. It's very beautiful, it's almost over the top. It's so extravagant.
Pitchfork: You're touring now as a four-piece. Having toured with [the string quartet] Amina for the past seven years, has it been difficult to adjust to being a quartet again?
GH: We did a one-week experiment. We went to Eastern Europe, to do a tour as a four-piece, and to our surprise, it seemed to work fine. It becomes a little more rough around the edges, sometimes, and a little bit more raw. Sometimes more energetic. Our sound engineer, who has been with us for a long time, said he wasn't missing anything from the music, and that it made it more interesting for him. That before, it had been a bit too polished in a way, there had been too many things happening at the same time. I don't know, it's just different. Not better or worse, just different.
Pitchfork: The last several times I've seen the band, you haven't played an encore. Is the encore just something that you think is silly? Because sometimes I think it's silly.
GH: Me too, actually. [Laughs] But most of the time, when we've finished and you can hear that the audience enjoyed it, it's like a little gift, a little extra. Sometimes we go further, we do more songs than we thought. But you're right, with us not playing encores a few years ago. But we're doing encores now.
Pitchfork: Heim was your first acoustic release. Was it a challenge to capture the Sigur Rós sound-- which is very majestic, very epic, very large-- using instruments that are inherently quieter?
GH: I think we were all a bit surprised. When we were doing the film Heima, we decided to play this tiny little extra show up in the mountains, where they're building a dam and flooding the whole area, and 90% of the Icelandic population was against it, and we though we'd show our support. We drove up there and played a little acoustic set. It's in the film. We were just standing in the middle of nowhere. And when we went up there, we though, OK, we should probably do this acoustically. But how do we do that? We've never done that before. So we tried out playing some of the songs on acoustic instruments. It's crazy when you take a song that has a lot of reverb, a lot of production, and you strip everything off it, you're only left with the music itself-- and for the first time, you hear the song as it really is. It was very interesting to us.
Pitchfork: Well, you're standing there kind of naked, as a songwriter.
GH: Right, yeah. We went up there and they said ‘We have this P.A., and this little motor that can power the P.A.' And we thought, well we're actually protesting the building of a dam which produces electricity, so maybe we should skip the electricity. After that, we thought, this is kind of fun, playing the songs acoustically. We worked out a few more songs we could play acoustically, the December after, and a few weeks after that, we went somewhere out in the countryside to write songs for the new album. A lot of the songs we actually wrote acoustically, and then put in electric instruments instead. We worked the other way around-- normally we make the music and record it, this time we actually wrote the music acoustically and then produced it afterwards. It sounds complicated. [Laughs]
Pitchfork: The film is so beautiful. You're often playing, outside, with no audience besides the film crew, which I presume was rather small. Did that affect your performance?
GH: I don't know. I don't think so-- I can only answer for myself, but maybe I got into the same headspace as I do when I'm recording a song. You want to do it really well-- obviously, you want to do it really well always, but sometimes you just can't, when you've got 300 shows a year. It was kind of like recording. I was concentrating really hard on getting it right. You can do it five or six times and use the best take, which you can't do live.
Pitchfork: Do you ever get stage fright?
GH: Sometimes, yes. It depends on the show, it depends on where we are. In Iceland, we get a bit nervous. And in New York, as well. [Laughs] I would say Dublin, as well. Dublin is actually one of our favorite places to play. There are a few places where you get a bit nervous. We were just on a short break for two weeks, so this is our first show in two weeks, and we're in New York. It's a bit nerve-wracking, I get a bit nervous about it, but I think it's good to get a bit nervous. It pumps up your adrenaline.
Pitchfork: Were you traveling for those two weeks, or just spending time at home?
GH: Just at home.
Pitchfork: I imagine when you're touring all the time, traveling is the last thing you want to do when you get some time off.
GH: Yeah. I was just waiting around to pick up the kids from school, walking the dog.
Pitchfork: As you mentioned before, the band has campaigned a bit for environmental preservation. Has it been a challenge to uphold green ideals while touring?
GH: Yeah. We probably don't do enough of that. You should-- what's the saying, preach what you teach? You know, if you're fighting for something, you should do what you're fighting for. But sometimes you go, ugh, I just flew 17 hours from somewhere on an airplane, and this bus is driving me thousands of kilometers. I read, I think, that Jack Johnson has a bus that runs on bio-fuel? I think that's really cool. We should do something like that. I wish we did.
Pitchfork: Well, it's hard. It's not cheap.
GH: It is hard! It's very expensive, it's more expensive to do that than the other thing, which makes it more difficult. Which is kind of stupid when you think about it. The government should pay people to drive electric cars, but they don't.
Pitchfork: I want to talk a little bit about the new record, and the song "Gobbledigook", in particular. It feels like the title is a little tongue-in-cheek, like maybe it's a response to all the conjecture and discussion about the nature and language of Sigur Rós' lyrics. Is it a joke?
GH: It was, a little bit, but only a little bit. I think there's a big misunderstanding about us, about the language and the lyrics. We actually do take great care in writing lyrics, we really try to do our best. We don't want to just say anything. And 95% of it is in Icelandic. So it is in a language. I hate to even say it-- the Hopelandic stuff is mostly a media thing, it's only a few songs. Obviously, the brackets album was all in that language, which is gobbledigook. It doesn't mean anything. The title actually came…should I say anything? Am I revealing too much? [Laughs] We called the song "Gobbldigob", which is an Icelandic word for the sound a horse's hooves make. I think you call it "clippity-clop" in English. It sounded, to our management, who are English-- well, you know, actually, it was Flood, our producer. He started it. I think he wrote down "Gobbledigook" instead of "gobbledigob," which is our word for clippity-clop. That's where the title came from. So it's Flood's fault. [Laughs]
Pitchfork: So it was inadvertent.
GH: Yeah. Afterwards, we said, "Well, that's kind of cool." That's kind of funny. It's also weird. It's gobbledigook.
Pitchfork: I thought it was funny. I think in general, Sigur Rós doesn't get much credit for being funny. People think you are deeply unfunny.
GH: Yeah, that's another misunderstanding. We're humorists!
Pitchfork: The cover of the new album is funny, it's butts with black stickers placed over them. It was censored by a lot of retailers in America.
GH: It's ridiculous! It's just buttocks! [Laughs] There's nothing offensive about it.
Pitchfork: The new album is the first time Sigur Rós has had a song with English lyrics. What prompted that decision? Was it deliberate?
GH: Yeah, I think it was. In fact, we actually wrote the lyrics for five or six of the songs in English. But it didn't seem to work out, it didn't fit. We needed to do something about it. So we tried to translate some of them back into Icelandic, and sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't, and sometimes we wrote new lyrics. The only song on the album which is in English ["All Alright"] is one Jonsi wrote, and he was very secretive about it. He didn't really let me read them before he sang the song on the record. He was very quiet about it. I was always asking him, "What are we doing about that song, are we writing more lyrics?" And he would say, "No, I've already done it, it's in English." "OK, can I read it?" "No."
Pitchfork: Were any of your Icelandic fans miffed that he was singing and writing in English?
GH: Not that I'm aware of. I expected more of a thing, more of an "oh no." But nothing happened. [Laughs]
Pitchfork: The new album is also a bit of a stylistic departure, in that it features less string arrangements and more guitar. It also feels more optimistic and more obviously joyful in a lot of ways. Did anything in particular motivate you to change direction? Was it a reaction to the super-serious mythology of the band?
GH: No. I mean, it would have been very subconscious if it was. I think we did want to move a little bit away from what we'd done, we wanted to do something new. I think we've always done that, with every single record, but maybe it's a bigger leap this time. I also think that we wrote it in a very different way than we ever have before. We decided we wanted to do it really quickly, which is very different from what we've done [in the past]-- some of our records took two years to make, this took two months. Everything went really quickly. We also just wanted to change our working process, and I think when you do that, things change by themselves anyway, the music changes. A lot of the songs that we've written are happier and more upbeat than people realize. I think we're just getting better at expressing it. I think one of the reasons the songs are much shorter is because we wrote them acoustically. We couldn't drag everything out with reverb, we had to cut it short. It made it interesting. We recorded the album here, in New York.
Pitchfork: Was that the first time you'd recorded outside of Iceland?
GH: We had done some recordings, but not a whole album. It was twelve days, and we went it in and thought, "OK, we're here from 9 a.m. to whenever we want to stop." And we just recorded. Some of the songs weren't even completely finished when we went in to record them. We finished writing them in the studio.
Pitchfork: Which was also new for the band.
GH: Yeah, the songs are usually kind of set in stone. As an example, the brackets album, some of those songs were written three years before we recorded them, and we'd been touring them for a long, long time. Which made it difficult, because you want to capture the live element, which is impossible in the studio.
Pitchfork: Do you think it affected the album, being in a foreign city? Do you think place in general affects art?
Pitchfork: So you think it's pretty self-contained?
GH: Well, it affects your working process. You're in a foreign country in a city you don't live in, you're staying in a hotel, you don't really have anything else to do but work. I don't have to pick up the kids.
Pitchfork: Or walk the dog.
GH: Or walk the dog. There's no distraction, so just lock yourself in and work. And I think we always found it hard, in Iceland, because there's always something else to do. Like, I really need to go to the bank.
Pitchfork: Right, you've got to go to the post office. Do you think it's something you'd do again, recording outside of Iceland?
GH: I think so. Or maybe we could jump into that headspace while we're working in Iceland. I don't know. It was an interesting experiment, working really quickly. And it worked, so we'd probably do it again.
Pitchfork: Sigur Rós uses a lot of found sound and some non-traditional recording practices. I read that several parts of the new record were recorded on an iPhone?
GH: There are some noises in between songs-- some whistling. The whistling is actually from London, where we were mixing-- and doing some recording as well, we didn't finish all the recording here. Me and Jonsi we were just walking down the street from the studio, we'd just been mixing that song, and it was stuck in our heads and we were both whistling it, whistling harmonies. And Jonsi took his iPhone and started recording it, and we put in on the album as a prelude to the song itself.
Pitchfork: In your everyday life, do you find yourself listening to the sounds around you and thinking about them musically, thinking about them in terms of songs?
GH: Good question. Again, I can only answer for myself, but sometimes, walking down the street, my footsteps-- I have to walk in a certain tempo. And then I'll hear a train going ch-ch-ch and I have to walk in beat to the train. Beats are everywhere. It's kind of fun, actually.
Pitchfork: Well, you are a bassist. It's in your blood, I imagine. The band is also known from some unconventional instrumentation. You've played bass with a drumstick, Jonsi often plays guitar with a bow. Do you deliberately try to think beyond the obvious ways an instrument can be played?
GH: I think the bow and the drumstick, those were ideas we had fourteen or fifteen years ago. We're still doing it. I don't know. In a way, yes-- not necessarily that we say, "What can I do different to this instrument?" but "What can I do differently with this thing that's not what I've been doing for the past few years?" And sometimes, you don't want to do anything. [Laughs]. You just want to do the same thing. Practice makes perfect. I never really thought of myself as much of a musician. I always say that I'm a drummer. I just try to make the drums sound better.
Pitchfork: Do you find that your music is received differently in Iceland than in other parts of the world?
GH: Maybe in some ways. I think because in Iceland, they've known us for longer. So it's a bit different that way. And when we play in Iceland now, we're getting so many younger fans, it's kind of strange. We're being rediscovered in Iceland.
Pitchfork: That must make you feel old.
GH: [Laughs] Yeah, exactly! How many gray hairs do I have?
Pitchfork: You're having an online contest to remix "Gobbledigook". Have you ever thought about releasing a remix record?
GH: Yeah, we actually did one. The first record that we ever made, Von, was released only in Iceland, although you can buy it here now. Before we released the second album [Ágætis Byrjun], I think we'd sold about 400 copies [of Von]. But after we released it, we wanted to get Icelandic electronic artists to remix all the songs on it. We got loads of different people to remix the whole album, basically. Some were good, some were bad.
Pitchfork: Is it available widely, or is it hard to find?
GH: It is kind of hard to find. There's one version, the vinyl version-- the vinyl itself is green. It's super rare. I have one at home. [Laughs]
Pitchfork: I bet people would go bananas on eBay for that.
GH: Yeah. [Laughs] But we are thinking about doing that again, with this record. Getting loads of people to [remix] it, not just Icelandic people. We have had some remixes in, and we're waiting for some more.
Pitchfork: You always have really interesting set design. Does the band participate in that?
GH: Very much. I think through the years, it's mostly come from us. A lot of things have come from our lighting guy, he's really good. But this time around, we wanted to move away from what we've done before. We wanted to strip everything away, to get new ideas and see what happens. We've been doing that for the past few months. And we decided to go back to some of the old elements we had, because they added something. Tonight, actually, is the first dry run of the new show. We don't know what's going to happen. We're doing a lot of things we never thought we would do. We've got loads of little cameras hidden around the stage. So you have lots of different things happen, little details, things you've never seen-- like the inside of a little keyboard, things like that.
Pitchfork: Do you think you'll use that footage to do another film someday?
GH: Probably. We probably have plans to film the new show at some point. I don't know what will happen with it.
Pitchfork: Sigur Rós has always been aggressively anti-commercial-- I know you've turned down offers to have your songs featured in some television shows and advertisements. In general, is it a challenge to navigate the grey area between art and commerce?
GH: I think we're notorious in the industry now. We always say no, so people have just stopped asking! [Laughs] We have very strict quality control. If we don't like it, then we don't want to do it. Advertisements for brands are usually just a no, immediately, unless it's a charity thing, and then we just give it away. TV shows, sometimes-- I love "CSI". With films, we usually ask that we see the film before we say yes. Hollywood finds it very difficult to let anyone see anything. It's a catch-22-- they won't let us see it until we say yes, and we say we won't say yes until they let us see it. A lot of the time we let things go. And then other times, it's impossible to have any say-- especially in Europe, there's a blanket agreement, especially with the BBC. I think it allows for thirty seconds [of sampling], and they don't need to ask permission, they can just do it. Which is fine, we've had great things come out of it, like "Planet Earth"-- BBC News constantly ran one of our songs on the trailer for "Planet Earth", and we're all happy about it. It's David Attenborough! How can you say no to that guy?