Through Sigur Ros, Jónsi showed the world his unique voice and transcendent music. Many have said that his song Svefn-g-englar inspired tears, despite the lyrics being indecipherable. Hear now why this song makes Jónsi laugh.
Episode 4: Jónsi - LE
Shirley: The Jump is a podcast where I, Shirley Ann Manson, sit down with musicians and talk about the one song that changed everything.
Shirley: I have to confess that I was a little nervous about meeting Jónsi, lead singer of Sigur Rós, one of the most original sounding and thrilling bands of my generation. I didn’t know what to expect, as I had been told that he was notoriously difficult to interview. Conversely, I found him to be utterly charming, amusing, and laser sharp - that is once we got past the initial frost. I posed my first question to him, only to be met by what seemed, to me at the time, an eternity of complete and utter silence, all the time he was looking at me straight in the face. It was excruciating, but I was, of course, deeply thrilled because I love a man who knows how to keep me on my toes. Listen to my interview with the fabulous Jónsi here.
Shirley: Extraordinary record, extraordinary career that you have had, and uh, a peculiarly, unique sound, which in this day and age is extraordinary to be able to forge that kind of sound and be the only one.
Jónsi: Okay? [Laughs]
Shirley: So, how did this emerge, this sound of yours?
Shirley: I mean, that's a big question. So I-I… I don’t know...
Jónsi: No, no, it makes sense. So I guess I just, when I was really young, I grew up, um, listening to the Beatles, usually like on double speed on my vinyl turntable, so it's like always too fast. Then I went into heavy metal.
Shirley: Wait, wait, wait, hold on. What did you say? You listened to a 45 instead of 33 and a half? Is that what you just said?
Jónsi: No, like, um, what's it called? A 78 or something?
Jónsi: Yeah, something like that.
Shirley: [Laughs] This is such a peculiar beginning! [Laughs] You listened to Beatles records at the wrong speed.
Jónsi: Yes. When I was like 10 years old or something. And then my next musical memory is my cousin was really into heavy metal. So I went into heavy metal, like Iron Maiden, Metallica, and like ACDC, and like, Overkill, and Megadeth, and all that stuff. And I think that that was really healthy, and that's where I got my sense of melody I think, like, cause all metal is really melodic.
Jónsi: And it's kinda like on the verge of being classical music somehow. Then I went into my parent's record closet, and, like, went into, like, Uriah Heep and Deep Purple and all that, you know, hippie stuff. And that was good. And then I went into grunge mode, I think, like Nirvana and all that stuff.
Shirley: You were a flighty little devil?
Jónsi: Yes. And then I went into ambient. So yeah, there's a lot of-
Jónsi: Yeah, I guess so. Yeah. I started in like a few bands and then I-I kind of- when we started Sigur Rós when I was like 18 or something.
Shirley: So, how old were you when you discovered you had some form of musical curiosity?
Jónsi: Uh, I started learning guitar when I was nine, acoustic guitar and it was horrible. And I hurt my fingers and it was just, like, horrible guitar, and it was just like, not easy to play. But yeah, then when I got into very- into a heavy metal, my cousin, was… We- yeah, we used to, uh, my father got me my first electric guitar when I was 13, and then I was really getting into heavy metal and, yeah, I remember me and my cousin playing and jamming out in my bedroom and stuff like that. That wa- Yeah. And I kind of slowly, and I always, I would try to do guitar solos because that's kind of where I, kind of like, I've played guitar with a lot of guys who did guitar solos.
Shirley: ‘cause it excited you?
Jónsi: Yeah. And I thought that was just so cool and like, you know, but yeah then I figured out I was just really bad at it, and I just started writing songs since that, and this is really good. I don’t know.
Shirley: So, you knew at what age that your songs were really good?
Jónsi: Uh, I don't know. I know, hm… I'm like, I don't know, 16 or something. Yeah, and then we, you know, started Sigur Rós when I was 18. We all liked, like, slow drawn out ambient music, I guess. We were really into, like, Spiritualized, Verve, also really into Smashing Pumpkins and the, you know, the first album. So we kind of enter this grunge-ambient thing. We played for a year, the band, before we can't have found our sound or a direction, basically.
Shirley: What's your engine as, um, as a creative?
Jónsi: Uh, neat. Like um, just like, you have to do it to be sane in this world we live in, which is pretty weird. And I think also when you're growing up in Iceland where it's like dark and depressing, nine months of the year, and cold, you can’t be outside, so you just basically have to do something to, yeah, like I said, to be sane and happy and that started basically, you noodle in your room, guitar or something, then you start a band and then you find you create something out of nothing with your friends. I don't know where it comes from, [Laughs] but it is beautiful and you feel fulfilled and really happy and, like, satisfied. So yeah, it's always been a need.
Shirley: On this program, of course. So, we concentrate basically on one song in which in your career you've discovered something new, or you took some extraordinary risk, or there was a jump of some sort, and you picked- now I can't speak neither Icelandic nor, um, Valeska or whatever you, however you say it-
Jónsi: You didn’t rehearse before I came, or?
Shirley: [Laughs] But is it Svefn-g-englar? Is that how I say it?
Jónsi: Yeah, Svef- Svefn-g-englar,
Shirley: And you picked that as- which came off the second record. Can you say it for me?
Jónsi: Ágætis byrjun
Shirley: This extraordinarily beautiful record of yours. Um, but I wanted to know why you picked that particular track.
Jónsi: Um, I think we did one album before, and I was definitely quit school when I was maybe like 18 or something and, or 19 and I took a big bank loan [Laughs] and I bought myself a studio with my friends, and which after what I'm thinking now is pretty cool thing to do.
Shirley: Brave thing to do.
Jónsi: Yeah. [Laughs]
Shirley: Or a nuts thing to do. [Laughs]
Jónsi: It’s actually a nuts thing- a really stupid [Laughs]- But yeah, so I, we, I kinda went deep, deep, deep into that like learning all the equipments and how to record stuff. So-
Shirley: So basically how to engineer, right?
Jónsi: Yeah, so there wa- that- the first album was a lot of experimentation, trying things out, and just be in the studio, and hang out, and playing with things and effects and machines and stuff like that. So the first album is pretty experimental in a cool, fun way because it's, it's definitely has, has, that young blood attitude to where everything goes, nothing is wrong, nothing is right. So, it's kind of fun. When the second album, which this song is on, Svefn-g-englar, it's kind of the, I think it's the first song on the album, but that's kinda more when we went into a studio with a, like, a proper engineer and like really good studio and they had the, like the first ISL mixer in Iceland, there was no ISL mixer in Icelan- like the big nice mixer. So yeah, that was kind of really, kind of, exciting time for us. Like, we went to like a proper studio and record everything well and worked for the first time with like a string orchestra and brass and like, um, stuff like that. They got like some people to help us play on the album. And so, so it was really ambitious. It was really ambitious album and he kind of went all out on it production wise and also just like, um, timewise. Like I remember the record company, The Bad Taste, it's called Bad Taste in Iceland. Like really, kind of like, got really mad because we went really behind on time and stuff like that. So we can- and when we were gonna release it, we kind of said to stop and just delayed, delayed it for a year and just kept on building on top of the songs and recording more, and- I know it’s-it's really fun, creative, innocent, like full-filled, summer-y, bright time, where everything was just exciting. This is a beautiful thing.
Jónsi: And also that song is kind of where I started to kind of develop the, if you say, like, say your sound with, uh, well with me playing the cello bow on my electric guitar and that's- kind of plays, kind of a little bit- big part in where, so basically we were playing for a year in rehearsal space, didn't know what they're doing. No, no, it was just really fun. And we were kind of like, it was all, like, kinda like grungy Smashing Pumpkins sounding. ‘Cause, like, we kind of love Smashing Pumpkins and stuff like that. And then I started playing the guitar with um, cello bow, my electric guitar with, like, a lot of effects, like reverb and echoes and stuff like that. And that, then we kind of found something, “Oh this is interesting. Different, like it sounds kind of floaty and cool, and like, kind of, more, kind of, the direction you want to go. And then also I sang, I started singing when I was younger because nobody else sung, so I just had to sing because nobody else was there to sing. And I found if I sang, because I had my vocal, just my microphone into like a really shitty guitar amp and I found that- and it was just so loud. So I found out if I sang really high, like in falsetto, I could kind of, I kind of, I kind of could hear myself more. [Laughs] And it was easier for me to pitch my voice. So-
Shirley: Could cut through.
Jónsi: Yeah, exactly that bullshit. So that's kind of where- how I started singing in falsetto also.
Shirley: So by mistake, really?
Jónsi: Kind of by mistake. Yeah.
Shirley: Um, were all the songs on that record written before you went into the studio, or were they written as you went along?
Jónsi: Yeah, most of that was written before. Yeah.
Shirley: So, can you remember when you wrote Svefn-g-englar?
Jónsi: Um, you're in definitely in some really shitty rehearsal-
Shirley: Ghastly rehearsal room. [Laughs]
Jónsi: Exactly, like horrible.
Shirley: They’re always horrible
Jónsi: In Reykjavik, like really dark and dingy and like, but you know, it's, I also have like a really romantic time of that when you look back, you know, on the dingy dressing rooms, like ashtrays everywhere, beer cans, and like- we were this young and really horny- is like making music and just enjoying everything about it. Just like working, like being in the studio on some like night shifts because that was the only thing we could afford. And it's like, it was just all about being so deep in it that like nothing else came. Life wasn't even there. It was just you, you're just making music and that was the most important thing in your world.
Shirley: So when you wrote it, do you, how does it work in the band at that time? Did you bring an idea in, or did you all work on it together, or do you have words and then you start sending them to music? How, how- What's your process?
Jónsi: So the process in Sigur Rós has always been, and still is that we all do everything together. It's really the demo-democratic band. So basically nobody comes in with an idea and we jam on that. It's always that we are in rehearsal space together. We start playing together somehow, maybe the drummer and the bass player starts jamming something and I come on top and the keyboard player comes in, or something or, and then something evolves into a new you, you slowly sculpt it into a song.
Shirley: And so, do the melodies come at the same time as you're playing?
Jónsi: Yes. Always at the same time and pretty fast. And the hard thing is the lyrics I guess. [Laughs]
Shirley: And do the lyrics come at the same time or do they come later?
Jónsi: They always come later. It's kind of the last minute possible. [Laughs] It's all the worst thing. When you're writing a song for the first time and you just, you sing some babble, there's some bullshit and you just, you know, often these sounds are actually really true to the melody and the song. And usually you sing something that really- some syllables of something that really lend themselves to the song, rightly. So, you kind of just, I always find when I have to do lyrics, which is hard because lyrics and words are naked and they're so exposed, it's kind of hard for me. So we could- yeah, music becomes so natural, words are really like, I dunno, forced. So yeah. Then I have to do worse, they always come at it at the end and I always listen to the guide vocal, which I had done with a recorded, some, like, demo or something. Always listened to- And usually there are some indication of words or some, yeah, syllables or something you can like Latin, “Oh this kind of sounds like that. And then, Oh yeah, okay. Maybe that means that, I don't know. It slowly, kind of, evolves into lyrics. Eh, it is interesting, our relationship entails, we kind of don't like talking in general to each other, so we just play and then it slowly evolves and we kind of have similar sense of what works and what is good and what is bad. So we, there's not much talking going on, and there’s no- we just slowly hone in on what feels right and what feels good and what makes us feel good. So it just slowly happens like that. So it's... fun.
Jónsi: This song was like really, all me. Like it was always underwater sound and we had this like a sonar thing in the song, like ‘bing!’.
Jónsi: Like it goes kind of through the song with his candle, like a thread in there and yeah, it was definitely something about being in a womb, yeah. And um, yeah. Then you're like basically, yeah. Then you're born and things get… hectic when you're born into the world.
Shirley: Right. What does the title mean?
Jónsi: So to speak, like Svefn-g-englar means like a sleepwalker, walkers, but when you break it down, it's like- asleep, like a- then g, and then angels. So other-
Shirley: So sleeping angels?
Jónsi: Yeah, basically. Yeah. It's, so it’s just about basically the society we live in and everybody's just walking around in like coma or something. Robots or something. When this album came out and when we started to get a little bit noticed in foreign countries, not Iceland. That I kinda like that, that people actually didn't have no clue what the song was about, but they kind of have their own interpretation of the song, which- and I thought that was really precious to me that you actually just really connect to something even though it's not in, like, your own language, not in English or whatever, but, but, people connect to it on some deeper musical level. I thought that was just really interesting, and like…
Shirley: Yeah, like competitive?
Jónsi: No, not at all. I don't like any kind of competition. [Laughs]
Shirley: Do you ever have any stress as a musician with an incredible career?
Jónsi: No. What do you mean like, how?
Shirley: Well, do you ever worry it's going to run away from you?
Jónsi: Not really, I ca- I feel like also I'm not a musician sometimes. Like if, like, some people, like, love being on tours, love playing shows, love being in a band and it's just like all their life and for me it's kind of always, it's fine. [Laughs] I'm like, I can, sometimes it’s fun to be a- on tour, but sometimes horrible.
Shirley: [Laughs] That’s the understatement of the year.
Jónsi: [Laughs] Sometimes it is great being in a band, sometimes it’s horrible so I just, but I, if I would stop making music, I would just do something else and I'm fine with it. I'm always fine with life, or like, you know, you just, this life is huge and it's just so abundant of everything. So I guess if you ever stop making music, I would just like, ah, “Oh goodness. Become artists or something or perfumer or something.” [Laughs]
Shirley: And are you interested in production in a serious way?
Jónsi: What do you mean?
Shirley: In the production or the production end of this? Making the sounds and putting them together.
Jónsi: Oh, producing? Yeah, I'm hugely excited about that. That's kind of my like that's basically, that's basically what Sigur Rós is- basically it is- are- is just simple pop songs, but they're just produced in that way.
Shirley: You think of them as pop songs?
Jónsi: Yeah. If you scale it down really simply, play-played twice as fast on an acoustic guitar. Yes. It’s basically-
Shirley: Back to the Beatles? [Laughs] Amazing.
Jónsi: Twice as fast, yeah.
Shirley: Yeah, and can you tell me a little bit, because I got really sort of waylaid as I was sort of looking into you. You know, that I've been dreaming about you for weeks because I knew this interview was coming up.
Jónsi: [Laughs] Freak.
Shirley: And I just sort of, yeah, I was having really strange dreams. But the biggest dream that was inspired by knowing I was coming to meet you face-to-face was your collaboration on a research ship with the Swedish composer Carl Michael von Hausswolff.
Shirley: Which is Dark Morph, right? You just put a record out this year.
Shirley: First of all, tell me how you ended up on a research ship ‘cause it makes you sound like Captain, Ahab or something about to spear Moby Dick.
Jónsi: Yeah, that, it is pretty random. But uh, we have a mutual friend, Francesca von Habsburg.
Shirley: There's a name, there's a name for you.
Jónsi: Exactly. She is, she has this Re-research vessel and she invited some artists and scientists and stuff like that on like two and a half week, like um, kind of research trip slash holiday. So, and we went to Bali and Tonka and so it was basically supposed to be a holiday, but I have a hard time doing nothing basically. So, she has a lot of cameras and recording equipment on the boat, basically. So we, me and Mickey and I met him on the boat and uh, re really connected because he is like, um, I dunno like a experimental musician like us- it’s kind of incredible, like credibly clever, intelligent, fun guy to be, be around with. And we kind of hit it off immediately and we kind of just started to record on the boat, basically. We like, we started to record like, uh, field recordings on the islands we’re going to. And then also, we did, like, some like, um, hydrosonic recording-recordings like underwater and stuff like that. We're always trying to like find some whales and we found whales on the last day we were there like amazing recordings but uh, yeah, but it was just pretty spontaneous and we, so basically we were just did an album in like two weeks there on the boat of field recordings. Yeah, everything was field recordings. Yeah. If you have a frame like, “Oh, you can only use field recordings”, and then sometimes it's more creative. So yeah, that was fun. Music is always fun. It always comes pretty naturally and easy to me. Music is really kind of, I feel like it's not maybe part of life, it's more just like some universal thing that is streamed down to you and you're just like trying to tame it or capture it and put it into, uh, some kind of a song or something.
Shirley: Are you aware, or are you careful to try and always mind different notes, different structures or, or do you not- try not to pay attention to that and just cut- see what comes naturally as a writer?
Jónsi: No, I think the first instinct, the first spark is always really precious and you know, I guess you just have to try to like harness that somehow. Not play to death and like over polish something or, but… Oh shit. What was the question? [Laughs] I zoned out.
Jónsi: Just la- no. Yeah. Okay. So I think I'm just try- When you get older, [Laughs] you just, when you make music it just- for me-
Shirley: Why are you laughing? Why is this funny?
Jónsi: Because I just love saying ‘older’. It's just funny.
Shirley: Why is it funny?
Jónsi: Because life is funny.
Shirley: Why is it old- being old? Funny?
Jónsi: Because you get like, you know, just older you get like-
Shirley: You don't like older?
Jónsi: No, no, it's just my mind is always the same, but my body is starting to get like all soggier and like, just kinda like not- [Laughs] not as-
Shirley: Not as?
Jónsi: Fun as it used to be. [Laughs]
Shirley: There’s a euphemism and a half.
Jónsi: Yeah, I know, but like, yeah, but writing music for me personally, the more you do it, because I know I’ve been doing it for like, I dunno, 30 years or something, but I just am more- it- but I just want to be excited. I want to be, I want to be surprised. So you just have to experiment with something, like try new plugins, try, try a new way of doing things or like, just keep you motivated and excited.
Shirley: Thank you so much! [Laughs]
Jónsi: Yeah, thank you.
The Jump is an original series from MailChimp, and I'm your host Shirley Manson. It's produced by Lyra Smith in partnership with Little Everywhere, executive produced by Dann Gallucci, Jane Marie, and Hrishikesh Hirway. Original music composed by Hrishikesh Hirway.
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