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Listen to Their Landscape

Somehow Sigur Ros has translated the desolate beauty of its native Iceland into haunting music that has fans spinning.

May 20, 2001|SUSAN CARPENTER | Susan Carpenter is a Times staff writer

The members of Sigur Ros were stone-faced as they fiddled with their instruments and twiddled knobs on their amps before their first U.S. radio performance at the Santa Monica studios of KCRW-FM (89.9) earlier this month. Driven by perfectionism, they barely spoke or made eye contact with onlookers until it was time for their performance and an interview with host Nic Harcourt, at which point they banished everyone unaffiliated with the band from the studio.

Later, Jonsi Birgisson, the band's singer and guitarist, explained that they don't like performing on the radio.

"We have to follow their rules," said Birgisson, a wafer-thin 26-year-old with elfin good looks. "We hate rules."

And in fact, this Reykjavik foursome doesn't follow many, whether promotional--they refused to pose as a group for a Times photographer, for instance--or musical.

Birgisson often plays his guitar with a bow. Georg Holm sometimes bounces a drumstick on the strings of his bass for an unusual rhythmic effect. With the exception of keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson, none of the band's members is a formally trained musician.

It's this art-naive approach and cross-breeding of instruments that has helped shape Sigur Ros' unique, otherworldly sound, one that has won the band critical acclaim and a cult following on both sides of the Atlantic in the past year. When Radiohead singer Thom Yorke cited it as an influence, it not only solidified the band's reputation but also made it one of the most talked-about groups in music circles.

"It's not that we're trying to break the rules. It's just that we don't know the rules," said Holm, 25, dressed in slacker chic--a well-worn T-shirt and jeans. Of the band's members, he is the most fluent in English. "It's always fun trying to do different things with normal instruments. There's so many things you can do."

The members of Sigur Ros (which rhymes with "bigger dose") are not trying to be different, they just are different, and it works. Even their language defies convention. Birgisson sings in a mixture of Icelandic and Hopelandish, a made-up tongue that the band describes as babble. And he sings it in a choirboy voice that has some listeners confused about his gender.

"People ask me if it's a girl who's singing," Birgisson said with a mischievous smile. "I really like that."

A lot of listeners do too. The band's 1999 album, "Agaetis Byrjun," sold almost 40,000 copies in the U.S. as an import--an unusually high number for a virtually unknown band.

Sigur Ros' music tends to evoke a visceral reaction in listeners. An Icelandic music critic said it was so beautiful it made her vomit.

"The thing about Sigur Ros was how sparse and haunting it was," said KCRW's Harcourt, who first heard the band a year ago on an English CD sampler and started playing it on his program. "If you can sort of allow yourself to slow down and hear the space, it's just very beautiful."

The band has often attributed its unique sound to the barren plains and endless sky of its home country. Presuming it's even possible to interpret a landscape through music, Sigur Ros has certainly done so--translating its sparsely populated and desolately beautiful environment into moody, soul-sweeping soundscapes with a guitar that mimics the wind and drums like crashing waves.

While the group shares some sonic territory with neoclassical psychedelic English acts such as Spiritualized, the Verve and My Bloody Valentine, "they are among the gifted few who transcend the art form," said Jed the Fish, a DJ on KROQ-FM (106.7) who has played Sigur Ros on his show. "These guys are almost inventing sounds. It's hard to believe they use the same guitar, bass, drum and keyboards as everyone else."

With all the attention Reykjavik has been getting for its robust music scene recently, this might just be the year that Iceland's main export--fish--is rivaled by the bands it is producing. Despite the country's small population--only 280,000--hundreds of groups, from pop to punk to electronica, have sprung up to make this an increasingly vital scene. No city since Seattle in the early '90s has been so besieged by rock journalists and record label scouts.

In terms of home-grown talent, Sigur Ros is second only to Bjrk in popularity, both in Iceland and abroad. The band was formed in a small city two miles outside Reykjavik in 1994. At the time Holm, Birgisson and Agust Gunnarson, the band's first drummer, were in high school. For three years they only practiced while they worked odd jobs. Holm edited news for a local television station, while Birgisson worked at a home for the disabled, and Orri Pall Dyrason, the group's present drummer, took care of children at a kindergarten.

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