sound on sound talk to ken thomas and jónsi birgisson about
the recording of the latest album.
over the years, iceland has produced more than its fair share of innovative,
experimental pop music. the country's latest hot exports, sigur rós,
are currently recording an album in a disused swimming pool..
iceland's sigur rós came to the world's notice in 2000 following
the release of their sweeping, orchestral album ágætis
byrjun (icelandic for "a good start"), a favourite of innumerable
critics including radiohead's thom yorke. their unique sound combines
quiet-loud-quiet-loud dynamism, lush instrumentation, and lead singer
jónsi birgisson's cherubic falsetto. following a lengthy tour
to promote that album, jónsi and his band members guitarist/keyboardist
kjartan sveinsson, bassist/keyboardist georg holm and drummer orri páll
dyrason are now hard at work on a new record. like ágætis
byrjun, the new album will be produced by ken thomas, who has a long
track record of working with cutting-edge and experimental artists.
"i started as an assistant on the early queen albums," he
remembers. "when they first arrived they were like an in-house
band for trident studios. then the whole punk thing happened and i worked
with martin rushent and martin hamnett. i did loads of punk bands like
the buzzcocks, all the wire albums, the first public image limited single,
all that sort of stuff. then i went more esoteric after that."
eventually, thomas' punk travels led him to the underground label 'fetish
records', with whom he worked a great deal. "we did 23 skidoo,
clock DVA and all those kinds of alternative bands. we had 'throbbing
gristle' on our label so i produced the first two 'psychic tv' albums.
i did a lot of early industrial stuff like 'test department' and 'einsturzende
neubauten'. i also did some of the first sugarcubes album - just mixing,
and that was my first connection with iceland."
thomas' affiliation with the sugarcubes would not only lead him to
iceland, but directly to sigur rós. "i was with [sugarcubes
guitarist] thos [eldon] one night," thomas smiles. "thor is
bjork's ex-husband. we were both drunk. he played me von, the album
before ágætis byrjun and said 'ken, listen to this.' he
said, 'i think they're great, but no-one else thinks they are."
inspired by von's menacing avant-gardism and the band's obvious predilection
towards music with strong spatial definition, thomas went to see the
band play live. after only one show, he implored them to let him produce
their next album.
swimming in sound
in addition to being markedly more dynamic and rawer than previous
outings, the band's as-yet-untitled recording will also stand as the
first proper record to be completed in the band's new studio. located
about 30 minutes outside reykjavik in the small, scenic community of
mosfellsbær, the unnamed recording space is flanked on all sides
by a winding mountain range. it's hard to imagine a more fitting setting
for sigur rós' stately brand of rock. the mosfellsbær building
is comprised of two levels, the lower of which once housed a public
swimming pool and later, an art gallery. "it's a really peaceful
place. it didn't take long to set up because we worked really hard,"
jonsi recounts. "maybe a couple of months. we got a friend who
is a carpenter to build some walls for us. we also had to tear the roof
off the house to get the mixer in. we brought it in with a really big
crane - that was quite a lot of work." "the initial idea for
the second album was to do an album that was different, because it'd
be too easy to do an album that was the same as the last," ken
thomas explains. "so we were going to try to record at the top
of the mountain, at this old army barracks, where the sound was really
quite hard and concrete. when we saw this place, we'd just come back
from climbing the mountain - which was totally impossible - and i said
'let's forget the mountain and go here.' when we got the place together,
i went in with some guys from iceland and drew up the plans with them
to do it."
the end result was obviously well worth it. the control room, a bright
and beautiful space located on the second level, is built to overlook
the bottom floor, where the band do all of their tracking. although
they've also built a variety of isolation rooms, there is ample space
on the lower level to facilitate live band sessions. none of the premises
have been acoustically treated, and as a result, the space yields a
fairly generous reverb. eager to capture that sound on album, the band
and producer have been fastidiously miking the building for ambience
full-on. "we use the recording area for ambience full-on, so the
whole record is going to have an open feel about it," says ken.
from simple ideas
because of their complex nature, sigur rós compositions tend
to be built from the ground up. most songs are sparked from simple ideas
and tracked accordingly. "some of the songs on this album started
off as quite long," thomas continues. "longer than usual,
with nothing really happening. they've been playing them live and they
kind of got away with it, but in the studio it sounded a bit boring.
so we've tried editing them to make them shorter or to loop bits that
sound good into another place. the way they work, really, is that you
have to catch a vibe with them, and the vibe will dictate what's going
to happen." many of the songs begin with a band performance recorded
live, which is later edited and overdubbed. "the philosophy really
is that the sound starts down there and then it comes up here. and then,
hopefully, it'll sound the same as it does down there," says ken.
"that is a real fundamental. a lot of people will have a shit sound
'down there' and they'll EQ it to make it sound good."
to better aid the recording process, thomas has also supplied each
member with a small mackie mixer, which they use to create custom monitor
mixes. "all the foldback they do themselves," he says. "we've
set it up so they can do their own mixes and get the vibe that they
want." where sigur rós are concerned, improvisation and
experimentation are all. "everything is open," jónsi
stresses emphatically. "it's a play ground and you have to be open-minded
and ready to try things out without planning. if it works, it works,
if it doesn't work, it's crap. you just have to be kind of interactive
and open. the song is not sacred - we can still something with it even
after we've mixed it. we did a lot to the songs for ágætis
byrjun while we were doing the mastering - we put a vocal into one song
where we hadn't sung one yet! there's nothing in the process that is
sacred." as if to underline this, when i visit, the band's resident
string quartet are recording their contribution to one of the new album's
many epic compositions. "there are no notes written for the strings,"
jonsi explains. "they're just improvising and playing by ear."
the band's unconventional approach extends to their choice of recording
medium: they have bucked the pro tools trend in favour of a 'soundscape'
pc-based DAW. "this actual soundscape unit is the R.Ed unit, which
is kind of the rolls royce of soundscapes." ken thomas explains.
"because it was their studio, i was open to the decision. jonsi
had a little studio before, where they did their other album, and they
liked editing on PCs. they did a film soundtrack in the middle of doing
this album and they really used the 'soundscape' editing facilities
to the fullest extent. they were looping drums and detuning stuff. jónsi's
really good at all of that, and he's totally into it. it would be crazy
if i was the only one who could operate the system, so we went with
'soundscape'. i thin pro tools has more facilities, especially crossfade
facilities, but this is fine and i'm getting used to it. when you record
in analogue you normally need a little more top end. but with this,
you need a little more low end, and you compress a little bit more."
although he's never recorded with a soundscape system before, thomas
has found lots of things to like about the setup. "there's litte
things," he says. "with pro tools, if you fill the whole screen
up, you see tracks above or below and you have to make them smaller
or move them or whatever. with 'soundscape', you can scroll up or down
like you're reading a letter. i do also think 'soundscape's A-D converters
are better." the attraction of soundscape FPR the band clearly
lies in its editing possibilities rather than the availability of software
effects. "we don't use any plug-ins," insists jónsi.
"we just use outboard gear and the EQ on the mixer. plug-ins sound
a little fake to me."
the centrepiece of the sigur rós studio is an old neve console
obtained from a friend's tv station. "it's got compressors on every
channel which are quite harsh, like you hear on the old beatles stuff,"
volunteers ken. "on cymbals and things, you can kick it a bit more.
in the punk days, i used to use compression at full. if you go to a
gig and you hear everything very loud, your ears have compressed to
make it sound like it's a loud gig. it's especially good if people are
playing really soft but very loud - from a mixing point of view, it's
really good to bring out the low points. i play around with release
times a lot. on the last record, i played around with pumping levels
onto tape where it'd be just screaming. in the past, i've actually stuck
stuff onto cassette really loud and brought it back, just to get the
smell of it and make it sound like it's kind of talking to you a bit
more. it comes from being a bit of a punk, i suppose." other compressors
include a symetrix 425 dual compressor and a urei 1178, while TC electronic
M5000 and an AMS 16 reverb supply the onboard effects. they also use
outboard mic preamps, in the shape of the joemeeks VC2 and the avalon
VT 747SP. "we had the joemeeks in our old studio," explains
jónsi. "have haven't been using them a lot - more the avalons."
as befits a band that can boast three part-time keyboardists, there's
a healthy selection of synths and organs in sigur rós' studio.
favourites include a roland juno 106, hammond B3, yamaha VSS30 and yamaha
SK20. "the SK20 is fun because no one uses it," sveinsson
enthuses. " i don't know anyone who does, so you can get them for
about 150 pounds or less. we have three."
"he always uses the same one, that yamaha SK20, for the organ,"
thomas says. "he never uses the synthesizer part, iit's just for
the straightforward organ sound. and there's his hammond. kjarten's
always looking for keyboards."
"i have a yamaha RS7000 at home and i love that," adds jónsi.
"it's just perfect, it's like it's designed for me. i like things
all to be in one box. i have a laptop computer and i did a solo record
that i haven't quite finished yet with 'fruity loops'. i usually go
to the flea market on the weekend and collect toys and i sample them
in to the RS7000. i use my keyboard and all kinds of instruments to
make songs out of that. i also sampled some pianos and music boxes and
it sounds really organic. your voice, sounds from around your environment
- it's really nice to use sounds you create yourself, and i think it's
"sound sculpture is really important in every music. i really like
electronic music when it has an organic feel to it - for example, 'boards
of canada' have a very organic feel about them and there are no fake
sounds on their records. sound is just really important, if you have
a good song but it's got bad sounds, it just doesn't work. i think we're
always looking for organic and real sounds on everything we record.
for example, if we want to use strings, we'll use real strings. we don't
take shortcuts and use a korg."
"we spent a lot of time on georg's bass [usually a fender jazz,
played through an EBA amp] this time, just to get it quite deep and
quite juicy," adds thomas. "it's really important to get the
bass out of the way. we ended up just sticking the amp outside and turning
it up really loud. on the last album, because we had to do it really
quickly, i just stuck a shitty little mic in front and compressed the
shit of it. sometimes we'd use an eventide harmonizer low-pitched as
well, just to give it some more substance."
"there's so much difference between new mics and old mics,"
insists jónsi. "the neumann U47 is a really good tube mic.
when you put this in front of a vocal, it will take only everything
that it's supposed to. there's no extra bottom or hum or bass or extra
top, it's just perfect, no EQ needed. we had a sennheiser MKH80 and
i was trying that for my vocals but we got like a ...[he makes a subtle
sucking noise]. this mic takes your voice, but nothing else from the
the band have augmented the U47 and U87 with some more unlikely choices.
"we've got some russian oktava mics - we're using those as overheads,"
jónsi says. "they're really good and really cheap."
"the problem is that you have to pump up the mic amps quite high
- they're not really sensitive," adds ken thomas. "but they're
fine for ambience. we used them on the strings and they sounded quite
good. the strings and the room were quite hard. the strings and the
room were quite hard, so they took a bit of the brightness off, that
high-pitched squeal. because of the amount of money we have, we can't
really have everything. we've got a lot of dynamic mics, like the shures,
which we use, and some sennheisers. when i bought the microphones, i
wanted different mics with different characters. if they had all the
sme character, we'd get something that sounded great but had no personality.
sometimes a shitty mic sounds good to me. i have lots of old mics that
i've got from jumble sales and car boot sales and microphone scrap yards
and they all sound pretty good to me, so we've tried lots of funky stuff.
it's the same with snare drums - if you have a snare drum that's got
a weird bark on it, sometimes it can be good.
"i think mic placement is really important. i spend quite a lot
of time just moving mics slightly to get the right sound. you have to
experiment with mic all over the place. we had mics up in the roof,
up close, all in different places. we're always moving the mics slightly
to get the sound that we like. it's all done very much like we're recording
for the first time. it's good fun; we're experimenting. it isn't like
we're in a room in westlake studio or something where everything's going
to sound sweet. it's sort of a little bit garage-y and tough-and-ready.
that's very much what they're about."
jónsi playing the guitar with a bow
a novel challenge facing ken thomas is that of getting the desired
spatial characteristics from jonsi's guitar. as birgisson is one of
the few guitarists left in music who plays with a bow, thomas has been
finding it particularly difficult to capture accurately on tape. "the
approach is to get the sound right through the amp, and then to get
it as open as possible," he laments. "we've tried moving the
mics, jonsi has played the guitar differently, we've tried moving the
strings up and down, we've tried everything. it's quite a delicate job
and we still haven't got it right."
perhaps surprisingly, birgisson hasn't need to perform many alterations
on his guitar to make them more suitable for his style of playing. "i
use a Gibson les paul - i find it kind of really nice for the bow,"
he says. "the bow isn't hard to learn - you just play it slowly
and through a lot of reverb. i use a cello bow, not a violin bow. some
people don't know that you have to use rosin, but it is important to
use it; you also have to use cello rosin and not double bass rosin.
the feel for the bow just comes, but it takes a long time to develop
the touch. "i use the same tuning and everything, there's nothing
really strange about it. it's how you play it. with a bow you can get
loads and loads of overtones so it's about how you handle them. it's
like you're riding a really mad horse and you're trying to tame it."
sigur rós' secret weapons
jonsi: "it's an amazing keyboard. i just use the sampler, but it's
amazing what you can do, just beautiful. it's the best instrument i've
had since the guitar. after you play the guitar for a while and it becomes
your main instrument, it becomes part of you because you know exactly
how it works and just play it with out thinking. it's kind of the same
with this small keyboard - it's unbelievably simple. you just sample
something and there's an effect where you can reverse the sample and
make a u-turn, but it's all really simple. it's my instrument beside
the guitar. I really, really love it."
EBS multidrive pedal
georg: "i use a pedal from EBS called an octobass - it's an octaver.
i don't really use it that much, but i sometimes use an e-bow and that
takes all the bottom end off the bass. i use a regular e-bow - i don't
understand why they don't make one for the bass. this pedal is a drive
but you don't have to use it as s drive; it can be just a great sustain
and then it sounds fantastic."
AMS RMX16 reverb
jonsi: "we bought this reverb because we used it at the studio
where we recorded out demos. There's some really nice sounds; it's really
warm." ken: "we haven't even started recording vocals for
this album, but on the last album, jonsi had to be in the right mood.
if he's not in the right mood, he wont do the vocal. now, he sings really
easily, he's been giggled so it's a different ball game. bit last time
it was so critical. he has to have the right sound before he can sing,
as well - there has to be the right reverb, everything. it's why we
got the AMS."
don't hold your breath
when your recording in your own idyllic studio in the middle of nowhere,
time pressures evidently don't weigh as heavily: sigur rós say
that they expect to complete the album sometime this year. all of them
have other artistic interests such as painting and sculpture an eventually,
if all works according to plan, the mosfellsbær space will be
more than just a recording studio - it'll be sigur rós' artistic
hub. until then, bigissison says, there are other things to keep the
band preoccupied. "when you have your own studio, sometimes friends
come here and you think 'let's have a coffee - we'll record tomorrow,"
he grins. "for some reason, this record has been going really,