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Jónsi Birgisson has been a figurehead of Icelandic music for a long time now. For 25 years he's been best-known as the frontman of atmospheric post-rock band Sigur Rós, who rose to international fame in the late '90s after the release of their sophomore record Ágætis byrjun. His solo work under his first name was also a raving success, seeing the falsetto songster dip his toes into more upbeat, pop-tinged arrangements. But the work that has long been fabled is what's come out of his creative partnership with longtime romantic partner Alex Somers.
Ten years ago the couple released a joint ambient album titled Riceboy Sleeps. Somers is the Riceboy, a nickname that was given to him after a few years of poverty that left him living solely off of rice. The story of their love was entangled into the record. It's hard to fathom that just as the two are touring behind the tenth anniversary of the record, playing it in full for the first time since its release, they've told KEXP that they're going through a separation. The split doesn't seem to have obstructed the tour nor their creative partnership which saw them release the follow-up to Riceboy last week, Lost & Found. Below, KEXP chats with the two about the breakup, their move to Los Angeles, and running into Björk at the Bonus supermarket.
KEXP: This is the first time that Riceboy Sleeps has been performed in full in the 10 years since it was released. How does it feel to finally bring the album to life after all these years?
Jónsi: It's good. It's fun. It's weird, though, doing an album and then 10 years later going on tour is pretty... but it's kind of our style. Kind of slow-motion moving people.
Alex: Yeah, it does feel good. Feels really fun to fully realize these songs with orchestra, choir, percussion and like everything happening all at once in really beautiful rooms all over. And I feel really lucky to be able to do it ten years on, you know.
Tell us a little bit about your choice to work with the Wordless Music Orchestra. Because they're amazing. They've worked with so many great artists over the years. Have you worked with them before?
Alex: A little bit, yeah, one time before. Well, first, our conductor is Robert Ames and his orchestra is in London called the London Contemporary Orchestra. So for a bunch of our shows, we were working with them. But here, in North America, we have a relationship with Ronan, who runs Wordless Music and that orchestra is so amazing also. They're really beautiful people. They just really understand our language and playing a little bit differently in some of the extended techniques that we're employing and Rob can really communicate with them. They just they totally get it. We're really lucky to have them.
So I'd love it if you could take me back to that time 10 years ago when you were making this album. Was there a certain moment that sparked the desire or a certain reason that this album was made? And I'd love to know the story of how it happened.
Jónsi: Yeah, this started pretty organically. Maybe as soon as we started seeing each other, we kind of started it. We're both musicians and both making music all the time so I think it was just a natural move, making music together.
Alex: I think what Jónsi saying is we actually didn't intend to make a record. We were just two people that met and came together and immediately started just doing what we do, you know, making music, sampling things. None of this music was recorded in a recording studio. It was just being made in our bedroom or in our kitchen, in our living room. All the other players who weren't us were just personal friends. It was very DIY. Just a homemade record being made on and off for about five years until we finally realized, "Oh yeah, we kind of have an album here if we want to put a little energy into mixing it."
So just at the very end, we spent one month mixing the album. That was the only focused work time on this record. Everything else was just happening as a part of our daily lives, really. So it was a really fun process that I think we both look back on it really fondly. We were so free. We didn't have any hang-ups about recording anything, you know, really punk and careless. Where, now, we've learned a lot about engineering and mixing and microphones. So you tend to like...
Alex: Yeah, you just overanalyze it because you're like, "Oh, you can't do that. I'll just wait and do it properly when I have my studio gear." But back then, that wasn't where we were.
There's something beautiful about that naivety, though, and just going with your instincts rather than going with what's like classically "right" or "correct."
Jónsi: And we also, like Alex said, spent one month mixing it and we kind of didn't know much about the mixing. So we went to Hawaii in the middle of the jungle at like a sustainable community, like a total hippie clan. It was just amazing. We ate raw food and drank some really weird brewed wine stuff from some magician lady.
Alex: A bathtub champagne. We met this medicine woman who walked around the forest literally with a huge cloak, a hood, and a wicker basket. And we bought the champagne that apparently she just had grapes smashed with her bare feet in a bathtub in the middle of the jungle. We also bought magic mushrooms from her and had the most beautiful trip in this jungle in Hawaii. Amazing.
Jónsi: That and also we mixed in there. So we were in a tiny hut in the middle of the jungle. No electricity, no walls. It was just a lot of tree frogs that were really loud. And we had to get a really long extension cord from the kitchen because there was no electricity and they had like one solar cell on the roof. So, yeah, it was definitely interesting. Then we got some speakers shipped from Honolulu to the jungle. It was pretty DIY and fun, fun times.
Sounds like such an amazing experience! I have like 12 follow-up questions just about that magician lady but we'll move on. You've worked on so many projects over the sixteen years that you've been together. I'm curious about how your creative partnership has grown or changed over the years.
Jónsi: Well we split up. So it's like horrible, don't work with your partner at all. [laughs]
Oh, you did? I'm so sorry.
Jónsi: It's actually been really good. We never fight. We work really well together. Yeah, maybe we bicker a lot when we work together, but we always kind of see eye-to-eye and we kind of have the same taste in stuff. So it's been pretty easy working with you, Alex.
Alex: I think we just never force anything. If something's not right, if one of us is offered a project or are offered it together and it doesn't...like even if we say, "Oh, we're excited, let's do that." If it doesn't naturally just bloom, we just kind of let it fall away. So in these 16 years, we've definitely done a lot of stuff but we've also not done some stuff. And I feel like we just try to, when we're actually working on something, give it all we've got and do good work. If we're excited, it'll translate. We're still doing stuff all the time, on and off, just when it feels right.
I feel like 16 years is such a success for a relationship honestly. While I'm sad to hear you've broken up, I just feel like you can't really be sad because relationships come in phases. But now I can't help but ask what it's like to be on tour together. Do you have any issues? Is it working well?
Jónsi: It's just natural. Life is weird. And you go through a lot and go through phases and this just was one of that phase. And we had an amazing 16 years together and now just something new and exciting is gonna happen to both of us, I think. It's just exciting. At least that's how you have to look at it.
Alex: Yeah, I mean, we have a lot of care and love and support for each other and a lot of gentleness. And, you know, we will always be very much in each other's lives and family. And it's just yeah, it's gonna be really good.
Although I feel like since this album was made in the beginning of your relationship, does that bring back any feelings? Sorry if I'm getting too personal here.
Jónsi: Yeah, sometimes. I maybe think about when you were making food in the kitchen or having some loop on repeat on the computer in the kitchen or stuff like that. And you're making something and just enjoying each other time in the kitchen. You're always making stuff actually if it's music or food or art or something else, we were always doing stuff together.
Your raw food videos were great. I love those. so cute.
Well, let's move on to another subject. But thank you for being so open and honest with me about that [your breakup]. I'm sure it's is a weird thing to talk about. So, right now it's Taste of Iceland in Seattle so we're celebrating the music and the culture and KEXP is doing a show, Reykjavik Calling, with Icelandic artists performing. And Seattle's been very enthusiastic about Icelandic culture for a while now. What do you think attributes to Iceland being such a strong musical influence to places so far removed and so far away?
Jónsi: I think there's definitely something similar with Iceland or like Reykjavik and Seattle. It rains here a lot. It's depressing, dark and miserable. Everyone's walking around cold [laughs]. In the same sense it has a really great energy here and cool people and like not a lot of stuff happening. So it's kind of similar. I think it's just this energy of creativity and like you have to do something to survive. Either create music or whatever but you have to do something to survive.
Right, something to fill the days on those gloomy, gloomy days. You both moved to L.A., correct?
Alex: Yeah. We live in Los Angeles now.
Jónsi: [laughs] Talking about gloominess, "Yeah, we both moved to L.A!"
Well, that definitely cures that problem! But I'm curious about how that's going to affect your work, especially you [Jónsi]. All of your previous work feels like the epitome of Iceland's gloom and it seems the nature of it is influenced in your work. What's it gonna be like, creatively, to be in sunny L.A., in the hub of the entertainment industry?
Jónsi: I'm trying to get more into the pop world.
Right, I heard you have a side dance music project with a song with Robyn?!
Jónsi: Oh, that's on my new album, actually. I did a song on my next solo album with Robyn. Yes, she's amazing.
Jónsi:: Moving to L.A., it's just, I guess...Alex, he's from Baltimore and he's half Greek and he moved to Iceland a long time ago. He's been living there for eleven years.
Jónsi: Twelve years in just like no sun. So he was he was really craving sun. So I remember when he came to L.A. a lot for work, maybe two times a year or something, and we all really liked it. It was sunny, really nice food. I'm vegetarian and he's vegan so the food was amazing. It was like a vegetarian paradise. So we just slowly started spending more time there and then we just finally moved. It was good. It's also nice to get away from a place. I'd never lived anywhere else in my life, I've only lived in Iceland. I've traveled all around the world many times but I've never lived anywhere else. So it was the first time I've lived somewhere else. It's kind of nice to get away from everything and everybody.
I feel that. I think it's really cool the way you [Alex] moved to Iceland because I think most Americans who go to Iceland...I went to Iceland for Iceland Airwaves four years ago and was immediately like, "I want to move here." But then you're like, "Wait. The language is really hard and it's very cold." So how was it for you, just jumping in and living there for twelve years? Was there a culture shock at all?
Alex: Yeah, there was definitely a culture shock, which I probably didn't realize in the moment. But looking back on it, I feel really lucky to have truly learned another culture. I love Iceland. I love Icelandic people. I love Icelandic culture. But it kind of took time to learn that because people in different countries are just different. You're raised differently and have different mannerisms and different language and different gestures. So, yeah, I think it took me a little bit of time. But the life there is so beautiful. I just feel really lucky that I got to live there and be a part of that music community and family community. And when I moved there, I went to art school. So I was immediately in school, meeting new people, had to be creative all the time, wake up early and go to school. So that was really good way to come to Iceland. It wasn't just like you're all of the sudden there, you know? And, of course, I came through Jónsi's friend and family community so I had such a good support system kind of immediately. And it's just fun. Reykjavik is fun. It's crazy out there.
Jónsi: But you were saying, it's a little bit hard to meet friends or family. I think that people are kind of closed off somehow.
Alex: I think just when you first [meet]. I don't think they're closed off as a people, but I think there's a lot of like party or drinking culture. It does seem like the shortcut to meeting people and getting meaningful relationships is just going to the bar on the weekend, just like staying out till 7:00 a.m. and getting really wasted. And if you do that a few times with someone, then all of a sudden you're like, there's this like easier access to having real conversations and being close. But because everyone sees each other all the time, the community is so small and you just walk around one to one Reykjavik, that if you don't have these experiences, you tend to have like a million acquaintances, but few friends.
I actually heard about an app in Iceland that because it's so small and because of the way that the last names are that you can see if you're related to someone so you don't have sex with them. Is that a real thing? Or did someone just make that up?
Alex: I heard it's a website. I didn't know they made it into an app. But a long time ago, it was a website. Because you and Kjartan did it.
Jónsi: Yeah, it's not an app.
Alex: It might be an app in 2019.
Jónsi: But it's a good idea because Iceland is tiny it's only 330,000 people in the whole country and everybody's related and everybody is like really inbred [laughs]. So it's good to have this if we can check. That's why I was with Alex with 16 years. [laughs].
It was a safe choice! I am curious about, now that you live in L.A., how that's going to affect Sigur Rós and working together. Are you just gonna fly over there regularly?
Jónsi: We haven't been really active the last few years. We kind of did a lot of touring in the last 25 years since we've been together. So long. But we've done a lot of touring so I think we just kinda needed a break and to get away from each other and charge batteries and stuff. Yeah, I don't know exactly what's happening.
I think that's very fair. 25 years is a very long time for a band to be together. So, I know that everyone's been asking you about this, but I can't help but ask about this perfume you're working on. Was there a certain type of smell or feelings or locations or sense a place you're trying to evoke in it? And also, when can I wear it?
Jónsi: What perfume? I've done a few for my sisters that run a small shop in Iceland [Fischer] where they sell homemade stuff they make themselves. So I made like two or three perfumes for them.
Jónsi: But yeah, I'm always making. I'm never happy with anything so I'll make like tinctures and blends every day. I have a scale and a book and hundreds of aroma chemicals and essential oils and stuff like that so I do a lot of experiments. It's just slowly working. And yes, you're like trying to find some connection of like a place where maybe inside you that you connect with and feels right. I'm just drawn and attracted to kind of a more smoky, leathery, very grassy and that kind of stuff.
Sounds very sexy.
Jónsi: [laughs] I'm a sexy guy!
So, this might be as a silly question, and one purely for my own vanity that I just have to know. Are you and Bjork best friends? Because in my fantasy, you guys just hang out all the time on mountaintops, you know, singing.
Jónsi: Like with small alpacas and stuff.
Right exactly. And wearing the wool sweaters.
Jónsi: Yeah and like dancing around fire [makes some sort of jig tune].
A trail of children just follow you.
Jónsi: Playing flutes [laughs]. No, it's, uh, we're like, you know. Of course, we know each other, but not like best friends. We meet each other sometimes, but not very often.
Can you find her just like at the supermarket in Reykjavik?
Alex: Yeah. We've seen her in Bonus a few times.
Jónsi: There's a really funny store called Bonus in Iceland. And yeah, you'll see her there sometimes. And at the swimming pool.
Who are your favorite Icelandic artists?
Jónsi: She's one of them. She's kind of trailblazer for a lot of amazing stuff. Then there's a kind of a good friend, Ragnar Kjartansson, a visual artist who's just doing amazing stuff.
Alex: Gyða Valtýsdóttir is a really good friend of ours. She makes beautiful music and Sindri Már Sigfússon, who makes music under the name Sin Fang and Seabear, he's a really good friend of ours. Of course Jófríður [Ákadóttir], who's putting out records under JFDR and Pascal Pinon is a friend and collaborator of ours. Kjartan Holm and Kjartan Sveinsson. Both Kjartans are making cool music. It's a really thriving scene. A lot of cool stuff and always new kids popping up.
Jónsi: Yeah, it's good. But yeah, it's like I haven't...I live in L.A. now, so I don't know what's happening there.
Oh, yeah. Do you feel kind of removed now that you're thousands of miles away?
Jónsi: Kind of. And I'm kind of trying to. I don't read any Icelandic news and I'm not following what's happening at home. I call my family and stuff like that but it's kind of nice to be not think about Iceland for one minute.
Alex: I read the Icelandic news. But I don't get any Ice gossip because I've been living abroad for like two and a half years.
Jónsi: You always read the Icelandic news, usually.
Alex: Yeah I still read it every day. It's really funny because so much of it's just about like really intense weather stuff like 'These Roads Closed' or like 'Watch Out, It's Really Windy.'
Jónsi: Or it's like 'Old Woman Fell On Main Street and Broke Her Ankle.'
Alex: It's so cute. Icelandic news is amazing. It's so nice to read.
How do I find the Ice News?
Alex: MBL So, Morgunbladid is like the main newspaper in Reykjavik.
Is it in Icelandic?
Alex: It's both. You can get Icelandic or English.
I'm subscribing tomorrow. So, KEXP is the station where the music matters and it's a loaded question but why does music matter to you?
Jónsi: Um, it's why I am where I am now and it's been a long guiding light through my whole life. And it's been a path I'm still on and it's guiding me...somewhere [laughs]. Hopefully to the light.
Alex: I think music matters because you can't touch it. It's just this thing that's existing in not really any normal linear time and space. And it moves you. It helps you when you're down. It fuels what you're going through. It surprises you. You can come back to same pieces of music in many phases in your life and hear them differently. That's a pretty profound experience that we've all had. And even in times like this, where Jónsi mentioned in this interview that we're going through separation, like it's so beautiful to have music there, to pour everything into and create music and share it. And hopefully just spark newness in the world and create waves of something positive and something new and creative.
Jónsi: Yeah, it is kind of amazing. It's invisible, but it still moves people in profound ways. And people kind of don't know why which is kind of amazing.
Alex: Yeah, it's a purely instinctual. You don't need to know anything to play music or to create music or to listen to music or engage with it. It's just like this thing that we all have. It's really cool.
The six-song LP is a companion album to 2009's Riceboy Sleeps.
The romantic and creative partners will be joined by the Wordless Music Orchestra and Choir to perform the album in its entirety.
The last time they were at the Paramount Theatre, Sigur Rós were touring behind their just-released sixth album Valtari, their final LP with founding member Kjartan Sveinsson, who declined to tour with them that year and would fully quit the band not long after. That album remains the most mellow...