On Friday, April 7, the Santa Barbara Bowl will fill with the overwhelmingly beautiful sound of experimental Icelandic rock band Sigur Rós. With a one-of-a-kind aesthetic that has consistently drawn comparisons to not just the majesty of their volcanically dynamic and snowy home landscape but also the songs of angels, whales, and extraterrestrials, their huge soundscapes born of a small island have attracted a worldwide, religiously enrapt following.
Now, they’re creating as a three- and sometimes four-piece, having lost longtime member Kjartan Sveinsson in 2013, and they keep surprising themselves with what they come up with, bassist Georg “Goggi” Hólm said. “We’ve figured out loads of new ways to do things,” he said. At the Bowl, they will play in their most pared-down form yet, eschewing the orchestras of years past for a much sparser sound. “It’s been an amazingly fun and joyful experience to play some of the songs we’ve been playing a really long time or that we have not played at all ever. If people know some of the songs, they will definitely hear them in a new light,” he said.
When I was lucky enough to speak with Hólm, he was in his favorite place in all of Iceland, near a family cabin in the Westfjords. “It’s not a place that you just jump in a car and drive to; it’s pretty far away,” he said.
These days, the famously contrasting landscape of fire and ice is at its most contradictory. For one, the evidence of climate change is frighteningly evident. “If you’re an Icelander, you would never deny that global climate change is happening,” Hólm said. “We used to talk about how the Icelandic weather was completely schizophrenic; it’s even worse now. No one thinks this is normal.”
And yet tourism has never been more booming, their picture-perfect scenery never more documented, and the island feels perhaps more saturated than its citizens know how to handle. “It’s a little bit contradictory — there’s an unbelievable amount of tourism, airplanes, big trucks,” he said. “It’s fantastic that people want to visit the country, but it’s obvious that we’re not handling it correctly, and it’s kind of exploding in our face.”
That’s understandable for a landscape and music culture that’s so attractive. Ever the transportive musicians, the band invited listeners last year on a tour of Iceland without the Reykjavík plane ticket with Route One, a 24-hour “slow TV” event live on Iceland’s national television and streamed globally, set to a constantly evolving, daylong version of their song “Óveður.” “That thing really surprised us. It was a complete experiment, taking a song and deconstructing it by an algorithm in a computer, which writes the song for 24 hours,” he said.
The band is known for powerfully evocative washes of sound, and when asked how they plumb such deep emotional depths, Hólm said it usually starts simply with “a little spark of something, a sound, a beat, a riff” that brings the feels, so to speak. “If it feels either beautiful or scary, then we’re doing something right,” he said. “It seems to translate to everyone.”
Translation hasn’t been an issue for a band that has broken language barriers in a mostly English-language rock world. “We sometimes have to pinch ourselves, like, ‘Wow, we’re a band from a tiny little country that sings in the tiny little country’s language, and we’re still traveling the world, and that’s amazing,” he said. “There’s usually a language barrier with music. For some reason—I can’t put my finger on it—there hasn’t been for us. Maybe if we started singing in English, people would start hating us,” he said. As far as the infamous “Hopelandic”? “It was invented by journalists,” Hólm said. “We made the artistic decision to leave language out of a few songs, and this monster was born.”
No matter the language, they’ve transcended borders. “With our first albums, we were creating music for Iceland, but it turned out we were creating music for a lot more people than just Icelandic ones,” he said. “That old but true cliché — that music doesn’t have a language — it seems to be correct.”
411 Sigur Rós plays Friday, April 7, at 7 p.m., at the S.B. Bowl (1122 N. Milpas St.). For more info, call (805) 962-7411 or visit sbbowl.com.