BY JONATHAN VALANIA FOR MAGNET Iceland isn’t the end of the world but you can see it from here. This is both a blessing and to a lesser degree a curse. Much less. It is the land that time forgot, which is why it is a place of such uncommon purity. Primeval is the word that comes to mind: smoldering volcanoes, black sand beaches, towering geysers, geothermal hot springs, epic waterfalls, vast lava fields that recede infinitely out to the horizon, bumping up against glaciers thousands of years old. Elves. Not for nothing did Ridley Scott select the hinterlands of Iceland to film the stunning, panoramic ‘beginning of time’ segments in Prometheus, his recently-released sorta-prequel to Alien. The Viking ‘sagas’, the epic poems situated in pre-historic Iceland, are said to have been a primary inspiration of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
The occasion of my visit to this magical Nordic isle is the release of Valtari (XL), the first proper studio album by Sigur Ros since since 2008’s nudist-friendly Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust, which marks the cessation of a so-called ‘indefinite hiatus’ that many feared signaled the end of the band after seven albums in 18 years. Sigur Ros, which in English means ‘victory rose,’ first showed up on most people’s radar a dozen years ago with the release of Ágætis byrjun, a grand bargain of ethereal post-rock, minimalist psychedelia, and sweeping orchestral maneuvers, guided, like a beacon in the fog, by the mesmerizing otherworldly voicings of their singer, Jón Þór Birgisson, aka Jonsi. It sounded like somebody snuck a tape recorder into heaven. Like cherubim swinging the hammer of the gods. It was said the singer was in fact singing in a newly invented language of his own device. The name of this language in Icelandic was Volenska. In English it was called Hopelandic.
But as of late there were signs trouble in paradise. Allegedly insider reports surfaced intermittently on the Internet indicating that the new album had been made and scrapped at least three times. Then, shortly after Valtari was released in May, word came from the Sigur Ros camp that Kjartan Sveinsson, the band’s multi-instrumentalist (piano, keyboards, organ, flute, tin whistle, oboe, banjo, guitar) — the one member of the band who can read music, the member of the band who wrote the signature string and horn charts — would not be joining the band on the planned year long tour in support of Valtari. His reason for not touring — that it would “not necessarily the most productive” use of his time — struck many as a curious thing for a man who makes his living as a musician. Could it be that hope no longer springs eternal in Hopelandia?
Magnet sent me to Iceland to find out. I was doing what I usually do between MAGNET cover stories — lying around in a Saigon hotel room smoking and listening to The Doors in my underwear — when the order came down from on high. My instructions were cryptic: get on a plane from Philadelphia at the crack of dawn. Fly to Minneapolis and wait there for eight hours, then board a plane shortly before midnight and fly through the night, arriving on the shores of Iceland with the rising sun. There I was to be picked up by a very nice man with an unpronounceable name who would chauffeur me into the heart of Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital city, and await further instructions. As the plane approaches, dropping out of the Western sky at sunrise, looking out the window you would be forgiven for thinking you were landing on the moon. As far as the eye can see is the vast lunar wastes of blackened lava fields that recede into the horizon. The landscape is dotted with smoking holes in the ground. Nearly 99% of Iceland’s energy needs are provided by geothermal and hydro power. Keflavik International Airport is actually part of a de-commissioned NATO base that has since been converted into a university and a hospital.
My hotel is situated by the harbor, and there is a massive whaling ship dry-docked in front. I check in and crash. Hard. I am awakened at two in the afternoon by the urgent ringing of one John Best, Sigur Ros’ manager. Best is a tweedy Londoner with bushy mustache and eyeglasses seemingly left over from the Ford Administration. Even after spending a solid 48 hours with the man, I still can’t tell if his look is ironic or hip beyond my comprehension. A gifted raconteur with an ear for what comes next, Best is a veteran of London’s Brit-Pop era, working as a publicist for Elastica and then managing The Verve, all the while dating the lead singer of Lush. He started working with Sigur Ros as their publicist but soon transitioned into manager, a position he has held since the release of Aegtis Byjrnum.
He fetches me at my hotel and we walk the streets of Reykjavik in search of Vegamont, the sidewalk cafe where I will meet the first of my interview subjects, Sigur Ros’ bassist Georg Holm, aka Goggy. It is an incurably sunny day in the low 70s, all blue skies and zero humidity. On a clear day in Iceland you can see forever. Literally. Out my hotel window I can see the snow-capped Snæfellsjökull volcano some 120 miles away as the crow flies.
Reyjavik is a charming, hilly spread of low-rise two-story chalk white buildings and narrow cobblestone streets where nearly a third of Iceland’s mere 319,000 citizens reside. By American standards, Reykjavik feels more like a historic village than a nation’s capital. In the wake of Bjork’s international stardom, Reykjavik has attracted the attention of bohemian jet-setters like Blur’s Damon Albarn who — Best points out as we pass it — owns a minority interest in one of the city’s hippest bars. Everything is immaculately clean. Everyone is blond and tan and stylish and seemingly 25. Nobody seems to have a job. It’s a Wednesday afternoon and the sidewalk cafes are filled to capacity with Icelanders hoisting frosty mugs of beer. And yet there are no discernible signs of poverty anywhere.
“That was the most shocking thing about going to America for the first time,” says Holm. “That some people could be so rich and everyone else could be so poor. It’s not like that here.” MORE