Sometime, way back when, while you were watching Vanilla Sky or a CSI re-run, or perhaps while tuning in to your musically informed friend’s record player, you were submerged in an ethereal soundscape coated with epic washes of notes, haunting strings, and gentle, alluring falsetto. Though unable to detect the language or understand the singer’s words, the music struck a chord and inspired a whirlwind of beautiful imagery and emotion that stayed with you long after you’d heard it. That was the day you discovered the beloved Icelandic group Sigur Rós. After a four-year hiatus, a concert film, and two solo records, lead singer Jón “Jónsi” Þór Birgisson is back together with his band mates releasing their sixth studio album, Valtari, along with a dozen evocative music videos, produced independently from the band by filmmakers who were given complete creative freedom as part of The Valtari Mystery Film Experiment. Actor and self-proclaimed Sigur Rós fan Casey Affleck caught up with Jónsi after a day’s band practice. This warm, soft-spoken, and down-to-earth musician, who is in large part responsible for the refined, cinematic, and heart-wrenching sound the band is known for, opens up about the group’s “rusty” reunion, how much he loves his Jack Russell pup and why, quite frankly, after 18 years of Sigur Rós’ success, he wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.
CASEY AFFLECK—Where are you?
JÓNSI—I’m in Reykjavík in Iceland. I just came home from practicing with Sigur Rós – it was the first day with the brass and the strings.
CA—How did it go?
J—It went really well. The guys in the band, we haven’t played for four years so we’re slightly rusty and bad, so it was fun to get some more supportive stuff behind us.
CA—Your band hasn’t played in four years?
J—Yes, it’s funny, it’s like we’re 14 year-old kids… It’s getting better though.
CA—Are you practicing to go on tour?
J—Yeah, we’re going on tour, starting in America I think, for three weeks, and then we’re going to Japan and Europe for some festivals.
CA—Is that fun or are you dreading it?
J—I’m actually really looking forward to it. I like touring. It’s fun to go on tour and meet people and to go to different places. And I really like summer festivals. They’re fun – summery and “circusy” and smiling people, and a lot of booze.
CA—What is Iceland like right now?
J—Right now it’s amazing. It’s super summery and warm – it’s a beautiful day here. Me and my boyfriend just got a dog, so we are really excited about it; a four-month-young puppy.
CA—What kind of puppy?
J—I think it’s a Jack Russell, but it’s kind of a mixture between some dog breeds. That’s the most exciting thing in my life now.
CA—That’s sweet. We just got two puppies and I was sitting here talking to you and one of them just walked into this room, and I was thinking, should I mention my dog, and then I was like no, you can’t just talk about your dog, you have to talk about serious stuff, and then you brought up the dog. I can’t believe it!
J—What kind of dogs do you have?
CA—We have two, they’re terrier mixes, they’re sisters – we got them at the pound. They’re just little mutts – they look like dogs out of a Dickens novel.
J—I love that. That’s actually my favorite type of dog!
CA—What’s going on with The Valtari [Mystery] Film Experiment?
J—I think there have been three films now, and I think they’re all really cool. We love to make videos, and we always love everything outside of the music: album artwork, backdrops for our shows. I think we wanted for this to make it totally different. The videos come not from us but we give everything to other people and they have totally free rein to do whatever they want. I think that’s kind of exciting for us. If the video sucks, it’s not our fault. And it’s really interesting what people are doing. They’re doing some really weird shit. It’s cool, I think.
CA—It’s funny, because your earlier videos – the most well-known, probably is for Glósóli – you were more involved with and then these ones you’re saying you weren’t at all involved with, but there’s something so similar about them. Your music somehow inspires these really impressionistic videos, whether you’re involved or not. There must be something inherent in the music that makes people do this really abstract impressionistic stuff.
J—People always say our music is quite cinematic. People who make movies connect on some level with our music, which is really cool. It’s quite fun actually when you don’t control the videos, you don’t control what the story is about, it’s kind of interesting to see what happens, what people do…
CA—So the videos are really important to you?
J—Yeah. I think it’s always been important to us to be creative in all senses of the music – to create everything around it also, and to make it interesting and be a part of the world.
CA—So then on the other hand do you mind if your songs are used in American TV shows like 24 and CSI?
J—I don’t know. We used to have crazy principles. We used to be really Nazi about how our music was used. We didn’t want it to be used in commercials and stuff like that. But obviously now it’s used in TV shows. I think as you grow old you kind of lose your principles and get sloppy.
CA—I don’t know… I wouldn’t call it losing your principles. I think as a guiding principle not being a Nazi about something is probably a good idea.
J—Yeah, exactly. There’s also this thing about being too serious and your work being too precious. I think you have to let go at some point and just enjoy things.
CA—Have you ever played with Michael Stipe?
J—Yeah, once we played with him in New York at a Free Tibet concert. We didn’t actually play with him; he was playing at the same time as we were. It was fun. It was the first time in my life that I’ve seen a really professional performer, perform. I remember when he came backstage, we were talking to him and he was really nervous. His hands were shaking and he was so stressed about going on stage. But he just went on stage and totally changed his persona – he was really professional and really cool, saying jokes and singing really well. That was the first person I’ve seen live where I thought, this is how you do it. It was impressive.
CA—Do you get nervous when you’re about to perform?
J—Sometimes. I used to get really nervous. I think the more you do it, the less nervous you get. For some shows we still get nervous. When you’re playing in your home town it’s probably the hardest. You just have to have one stiff drink and then you’re fine.
CA—Is there a personality, a performing persona you’ve had to create in order to distance yourself or protect your own personality from the public?
J—No, I don’t think so. When I’m playing in Sigur Rós I’m exactly the same guy I am in real life. When you’re performing I think with us it’s always about being honest and true to yourself, not to fake anything and be someone different from who you are. So we’ve always tried to keep it real and not be anybody else. I’m an insanely terrible actor so it would be hard for me to pretend to be someone different.
CA—Michael Stipe recently stopped singing, writing music, and recording albums, and he said it was just too hard to write lyrics and that he wakes up and thinks about doing sculpture and other things. Do you think that there’ll come a point where you’ll think, “I don’t want to have to produce albums and go on tour,” and that you’ll want to do something else?
J—Yeah, probably, maybe later. I’m still really enjoying all the stuff I’m doing. We had a four-year break with Sigur Rós, and I did my solo album, and I was touring two years ago, and I really enjoyed that – you can do whatever you want with all the people you want. That was also a good experience for me to try and do something different. I’ve been in Sigur Rós for 18 years now; it’s a ridiculously long time, so it’s good to change it up and try something new. But I’m really enjoying making music and playing with people. My boyfriend Alex and I have a tiny farmhouse in Reykjavík, and on the second floor we have a small recording studio, so he’s recording bands. I like just having music around me; it’s cool I think.
CA—Tell me more about your solo work…
J—Yeah, it’s cool. How we write music, Sigur Rós, we always write the four of us together. You meet, four guys in a rehearsal space, you start just playing, jamming, and then something actually happens, and then you’re like, “Oh, this sounds cool!” and you start playing more around that idea. You’re carving something out and molding something and a song happens. We always do everything together. And while we’re doing that of course I’m doing songs on my own at my place. I’ve got a lot of songs I’ve been writing through the years and I kind of wanted to try something out and play with different people and stuff. It was good.
CA—So you feel like you can go in and out comfortably between playing with the band and doing your own thing and there’s no conflict there?
J—There’s no conflict. I kind of like to work a lot. Well, not work, just make music a lot, so I like to have multiple outputs if I can.
CA—Wasn’t there a feature-length film made about Sigur Rós at the Venice Film Festival?
J—Yeah, it was cool.
CA—Did you watch it?
J—Of course I had to watch it, but we hated it at first. It’s kind of weird to see yourself play on stage. It’s really weird. But I’m starting to accept it now, and I think all of us are. What are you working on at the moment? Are you writing some scripts?
CA—I’m just focusing on my interviews right now!
J—That’s a really good answer.
CA—I just acted in a film, and I’m about to go to Louisiana and start another one this summer, and then we’ll take it from there. You’re always unemployed and have to start from scratch after every job.
J—Are you going to come to our LA show? We’re playing the cemetery there. What’s it called – a really famous cemetery there?
CA—Wait a minute… [checks the Sigur Rós website] you’re playing in Philadelphia, and then you’re going to go down to Prospect Park in Brooklyn, and then you’re going to go to Toronto, Montreal, Chicago, Seattle, Portland – that’s going to be a crazy show. Do you know Gus Van Sant?
J—Yeah. I don’t know him that well. I kind of want to talk to him more. He seems like a good guy.
CA—He’s a pain in the ass! It says your shows are sold out in Philadelphia, New York City, and Toronto but then in Montreal and Chicago you’re not even close to being sold out. What’s the deal?
J—[Deadpans] There are just some fucking losers who live there.
CA—You can’t say that, dude. We’ve got to do something about this… That’s Lollapalooza in Chicago for God’s sake, man. You love that shit – the smiling faces and all the people.
J—Have you been to Lollapalooza?
CA—I’ve never been. When I was a teenager I went to the Reggae Sunsplash – that was the closest I got. And I went to the Free Tibet Tour. I was in DC at the Free Tibet Tour and somebody was struck by lightning in the crowd, so they cancelled it.
J—That’s amazing! When are we playing in LA? What’s the name of the cemetery?
CA—It’s called the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. You’re playing on my birthday, August 12th.
J—You should come on your birthday.
CA—I think I’m going to be back east, but you’re in Brooklyn July 31st, I’m going to fucking make that show. It’s sold out so that means you’re going to have to get me tickets.
J—Yeah, I don’t know. You can just buy tickets. Joke.
CA—Hey listen, you’re going to have to get me some free fucking tickets, man… When you’re playing on stage, you have some very long songs, and many of them have some long instrumental stretches. Do you ever think about just never ending a song and just seeing what the audience would do? Just play and keep playing that one song until everybody left?
J—We used to do that in the early days, when we were in our hippie era, and we had long hair and stuff. We used to play songs that went forever. We have pretty long songs but not crazy long.
CA—In Iceland, can two men get married?
J—Yeah. What about in LA? They can in California?
CA—No, they can’t. It’s very tricky in the States. Where I’m from in Massachusetts, it’s a pretty progressive state, and we were the first state to say that same-sex unions can happen. But out here in California, they think they’re so fucking ahead of the game, it’s still not legal.
J—Is it the governor…
CA—George Clooney’s our governor now.
J—I was just saying that our puppy, he has gray hair, kind of looks like George Clooney. He has his five-o’clock shadow.
CA—George is gorgeous – he’s got a good look. I’m not trying to beat you up or anything but I just want to point out that on November 4th you’re playing at the Iceland Airwaves Festival in Reykjavík and it’s not sold out. That’s your home town.
J—But that’s not for a while.
CA—I wouldn’t be making excuses. It says a lot about a person or the band how their home town receives them.
J—I think it’s something to do with the depression. You should just bring your friends along to Iceland and fill it up.
CA—I’ll bring my friends along if you can get me tickets. I’d like to talk about some of your videos again and why they mean so much to you but I can’t make fucking heads or tails out of most of them, so I’m not sure where to begin. I think they’re beautiful. I don’t know why Shia LaBeouf was naked in your video, though.
J—Did you see him…
CA—I saw his penis.
J—The only reason I wanted to work with him was just to see his penis.
CA—Is there anything else you feel like you’d like to talk about?
CA—I really feel like I’ve gotten to know you, man. You seem like a really sweet, lovely person and I’m a gigantic fan of your work and I’m glad you’re not going to give up music any time soon. I really hope to see you at one of these shows and I’d love to meet you in person some time.
J—It’s been really fun to talk and see you in Brooklyn or the cemetery.