Sigur Ros: The ice kings melt a little

The ambient Icelanders Sigur Ros have a hit, thanks to David Attenborough's 'Planet Earth' series. Nick Duerden goes to Reykjavik to meet them
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The Independent Culture

In Sigur Ros's recording studio, a converted swimming pool 10 minutes outside Reykjavik, there is a photograph of Tom Cruise clutching the band's guitarist and keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson, and grinning that famous grin of his, teeth everywhere.

"He is holding me pretty tight," Sveinsson notes. "Me? I'm pulling a funny face. I'm not sure why."

The photo dates back a few years to when Sigur Ros, Iceland's biggest band, played the 18,000-capacity Hollywood Bowl. Cruise wasn't the only A-lister there. Brad Pitt was also in attendance, as was Mötley Crüe's Tommy Lee. The X-Files's Gillian Anderson, meanwhile, who has since made it known that she never does yoga to anything but their exquisitely floaty music, went backstage to meet them. And not for the first time, either.

"No, it was the third, maybe fourth time," Sveinsson says, rolling an impossibly anorexic cigarette in the corner of a deserted Reykjavik bar on a freezing Monday night. "She was nice, but we are not particularly good small talkers, and we didn't know what to say. She stopped coming after that. What are you supposed to say to these people?"

Sigur Ros first came to public prominence six years ago with the international success of their second album, Agaetis Byrjun, a record whose music made critics swoon - "an extraterrestrial Radiohead," they said, "folk music for the afterlife" - and turned some fans, Anderson among them, into fanatics. "I think I can understand that because our music, it is like when you walk into a cathedral, yes?" Sveinsson says in his sing-song accent. "But I like not to analyse it because I want to stay sane. If you think of the effect your music has... well, it makes you a little crazy, I think."

He talks, unwillingly, about the obsessive fans the band has attracted, the ones that write letters and send e-mails and stand in front of the tour-bus with expressions of rapture. "It doesn't disturb me much because I think I can relate," he says. "I have experienced extremes in my life as well. Mentally. I was very religious at one point, but it became too much and got strange. But..." he adds, scratching at an imaginary itch in his beard, "I don't think I should speak of it."

Bassist Georg Holm is far more matter-of-fact: "We just play rock'n'roll with slow bits," he says, then promptly loses himself in his beer, which he sips at very delicately indeed.

Sveinsson and Holm, alongside singer Jonsi Birgisson and drummer Orri Pall Dyrason, all now hovering around 30, got together at school in 1994, initially coming together out of a collective love of heavy metal. Three years later, they released their first album, Von, which failed to secure UK distribution, Holm says now, "because it was shit." But by the time of Agaetis Byrjun, they had become famous, and spent the next three years touring the record and loathing the exposure it brought. "We are from Iceland," Sveinsson states. "Very remote and very protected, and suddenly we are thrown into the world of strange journalists and horrible record-company people. We trusted no one. It was hard for us, and for me it was overwhelming."

The album that came out of this period, in 2002, went untitled, but due to its sleeve design has since become known as (). It's a morose, bleak record, Birgisson singing almost exclusively in his own made-up language, "Hopelandish", the very mention of which now causes Holm to groan: "That has been blown out of all proportion, a Hindenburg of a media story. Jonsi sang like that simply because we didn't have any lyrics ready. We are not quite so enigmatic as you would like to hope, I think."

After a year off, they reconvened to record Takk, which, when it was released last summer, was hailed as their most accessible album to date. It has already shifted close to a million copies around the world, but media interest in the band is still something they are desperately keen to deflect, often refusing all interview requests. Agreeing to meet with me, one at a time, in their native Reykjavik, then, is highly unusual. It proves to be rather difficult.

"Our music is better left unexplained," Holm tells me, a lugubrious man who suits his Arctic-style beard. He says that after (), he and his wife and young family moved to Girona, Spain, which gave him a whole new outlook on life, but they recently moved back to Reykjavik. He declines to say why.

I meet Sveinsson next, who listens to questions with an arched eyebrow and doesn't necessarily always answer them. He recently scored the soundtrack for a short film called The Last Farm, which received an Oscar nomination, and once had a job in a local kindergarten, "but I was grumpy with the children." After we touch on his aforementioned "mental extremes", our chat fizzles out and he stalks off.

I meet Jonsi Birgisson at a café, the singer clad in a checked hat that ties up beneath his chin. He has been blind in his right eye since birth, and because he rarely makes contact with his left, it is difficult to know whether you ever have his full attention. He turns out to be a rather sweet man. He tells me that his American boyfriend of three years is studying art at the university here and that, one day, they'd like to leave Iceland for Greece, Italy or Spain: "Travel opens the heart and mind, don't you think?"

Of Sigur Ros's just-completed world tour, he shrugs, saying that it was sometimes easy, often difficult, and he seems barely concerned that "Hoppipolla" (recently used to trail BBC1's Planet Earth series) is about to give them their first hit single. I tell him I'm amazed at his band's refusal to allow their music to be licensed for television adverts and, to my surprise, he agrees: "The others believe the music should be kept pure. Oh well..."

He leans forward, perhaps, I hope, to let me into some secret of the inner workings of this most beguiling of bands. Not so. "My car broke down recently, but I've had it fixed," he says, delight in his voice. "I'm thinking of going for a drive soon."

The single 'Hoppipolla' and the album 'Takk' are out on EMI