Editor’s note: Stomping Grounds is an ongoing interview series where artists, musicians, authors, and directors give us an intimate look at the coolest cities and regions on earth.
Mystery surrounds Sigur Rós, the Icelandic prog-rock trio that formed in Reykjavik in the mid-’90s. Opening for Radiohead at the start of their career, the now-three-piece (Jónsi, Georg Hólm, and Orri Páll Dýrason) has amassed a cult following over the years, due in part to their enigmatic nature, and for their peak status as an indie band in the early 2000s, a time their fans are still nostalgic for.
And while words like ethereal are often used to describe their sound, and their promo photos are always artfully distorted, the band embodies the simplicity of the island they hail from.
“Everything is inspired by your surroundings,” says the band’s bassist and founding member Georg Hólm. “But [our] last two last records, Valtari and Kveikur, the music inspired the lyrics, and we felt the music was headed towards the sea, boats, mountains, weather, and things like that, the things that you notice a lot in Iceland.”
Though their last full-length album came out in 2013, Sigur Rós has kept busy, collaborating with the International Space Orchestra, and raising money for the ACLU. This year they’re embarking on a massive world tour, which includes three nights at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles as part of the LA Philharmonic’s Reykjavik Festival. The band is introducing a new concept for the festival: they’ve chosen various artists, like Dan Deacon, to compose their own orchestral arrangements of Sigur Rós songs that the band will perform with the LA Phil. “We have an hour before the first show [to practice with the LA Phil],” Hólm tells us. “In all honesty I have no idea how this is going to go, but it will be something else for sure,” he says, adding, “I promise it will be exciting.”
Below, Hólm shares his #1 tip for tourists in Reykjavik, how the city has changed recently, and the pact the band made when they first started out.
Reykjavik Festival is taking place now through June 4 at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Downtown Los Angeles. Sigur Rós will perform on April 13, 14, and 15.
The Sigur Rós songwriting process
“We usually sit down and listen to the songs when they’re almost finished. We sit and write down what we think the song is about. We try to make the music explain itself. Most of the time we actually all agree...we all write the same things down. Maybe not 100% exactly the same words, but we have the same feel for what the song is about.
“Just off the top of my head, [for one song] we imagined if the wind were a person, what type of person would the wind be? The wind is really annoying actually [laughs], so that’s what the song is about—it’s about annoying wind.”
The unexpected reason Iceland produces such great artists
“There’s always been this Icelandic joke about why there are so many books being published and why there are so many bands, and so many painters, and artists in general; the joke is that it’s because of boredom, because of the weather, and people just need to vent, need to do something.
“I don’t think it’s completely true; it might have something to do with it. Iceland is not a small island in itself, but there’s not many people that live here; there’s a certain closeness. I remember growing up in Iceland, and especially growing up around friends in bands, and everyone is doing something, it becomes this community, and you get a phone call every week from one of your friends from another band saying, ‘do you want to play a show with us?’ There’s always music everywhere. All of your friends [are] in a band or something, so you automatically form a band, it’s kind of how it happens.”
Iceland’s music scene in the ‘90s vs. today
“Icelandic hip hop is a big thing right now, so it’s a completely different scene from the early ‘90s when we formed a band. But there’s always...you have this hard rock band that’s working with this really hip, rap artist, and they’re releasing their own record but they’re also helping the rap artist do some stuff, and everyone is in all the bands. People just play music. I do remember when we were younger and forming [Sigur Rós], we made a pact that we wouldn’t be in any other band [laughs] so we were kind of like the Three Musketeers.”
Georg Hólm’s favorite places in Iceland
“I think Iceland is my favorite place on earth. I’m always homesick when I’m traveling. My family has a little summer house as well just outside of Reykjavik. We try to go there every time we can. If [we have] any breaks, we’re just there—in the forest, by the lake. Just enjoying that.
“There’s a mountain called Esja, it’s a 10 minute drive in a car, maybe 15, and it’s great for going on a hike or a picnic or something like that. I can almost see it from my window right now—I can’t actually because it’s dark [laughs]. Nature is very close in Iceland, always. Even if you live in Reykjavik. I mean, Reykjavik is not a huge city, it doesn’t look very metropolitan, because it’s only 118,000 people. It’s a fishing village that’s still growing up.”
Where to eat in Reykjavik
“There’s a restaurant in Reykjavik, it doesn’t even have a name, it doesn’t even have a sign outside of the building, and they make the weirdest and most fantastic pizzas you’ll ever have.
“I went to a place called Lobster and Stuff. It was absolutely fantastic. Slightly fusion Nordic cuisine is Iceland’s thing at the moment.”
Where to drink in Reykjavik
“Iceland is all about craft beer at the moment. Skúli Craft Bar is a small place but they’re always changing the beers that they have. It’s a really cool little place. I’m not very much into craft beer myself, I’m a lager kind of guy; I like it simple. The hotels have really good cocktail bars; they have amazing—what are they called? Mixologists?”
What the tourism boom means for Reykjavik
“You hardly hear anyone speaking Icelandic on the streets in Reykjavik. It’s almost bizarre. It has really good sides to it, and bad sides to it. The bad side is that a lot of the really old little shops that have been there maybe for 100 years on the main shopping street or anywhere around have started to disappear, and these shops that sell fluffy puffins or Icelandic wolf sweaters knitted in China have taken over a little bit, so the shopping has changed to more touristy things.
“They’re expecting two million tourists in Iceland [this year], and we have 358,000 inhabitants. It’s not a bad thing, I don’t mind it, we just have to figure out how to sustain it.”
Advice from Sigur Rós for travelers to Iceland
“We have to warn people in a joking but serious way that Iceland weather is schizophrenic, never trust it. It’s going to change in 5 minutes, so always be prepared for whatever you do. Even just a short hike, be prepared, because it could change.
“I remember a snow blizzard in the beginning of June, these things just happen. Especially if you’re in the highlands, which are uninhabitable, because they’re cold and windy and wet. I’ve been reading a lot about it in the news actually; people rent a car and trust their GPS device a little bit too much, and a lot of people get stuck up in the highlands, in a little car on roads that are really just meant for 4x4’s, basically.
“Always ask a local. If you see a barn, knock on the door, and ask, ‘is that road safe?’ or, ‘how do I get here?’ and anyone would answer you just happily. Everyone should. Iceland can be dangerous [laughs].”