Listen to Their Landscape

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.

They began performing live and recorded their first EP--"Von"--in 1997. Then Sveinsson joined the group, filling out the sound with keyboards. The band released two more EPs--"Svefn-G-Englar" in 1999 and "Ny Batteri" in 2000, both on the British label Fat Cat. It wasn't until 1999, when they released "Agaetis Byrjun," that the band began to get noticed, mostly by the English music press. The buzz spread from there to attuned U.S. fans last summer.

In January, KCRW gave away 2,200 copies of the record during the station's fund-raiser. At about the same time, there was a major-label feeding frenzy to sign the group. Atlantic, Capitol, Interscope and Arista were among the interested labels, but MCA Records got the deal.

"We just sensed a masterful musical vision that really captivated us," said MCA President Jay Boberg. "We thought maybe this could be the beginning of something that would really in the end be seminal ... one of those bands that has more than just a musical influence, but a directional innovation that tends to influence other musicians and music to come."

"Agaetis Byrjun" came out in the U.S. earlier this month on Play It Again Sam, a European label marketed by MCA. Next spring, MCA will release a new album the band is recording in its Reykjavik studio--a converted indoor swimming pool.

While some in the music industry think Sigur Ros may be too arty to be a commercial success, Boberg thinks the group's appeal can be broad.

"I can see 50-year-olds and 15-year-olds buying and being impacted by this record," said the executive, who worked with R.E.M. at I.R.S. Records in the early '80s.

Still, even Boberg was surprised when he heard the band had been played on the testosterone-fueled KROQ.

But according to Jed the Fish, who was introduced to the band by Stone Temple Pilots singer Scott Weiland, "It isn't really so out of context when you consider that we were all over 'Kid A' and Radiohead. What's going to be difficult is getting seven-and 10-minute songs played on KROQ on a regular basis--that's the hurdle, not so much the sound."

"Brilliant," Birgisson kept repeating as he stepped onto the stage at the John Anson Ford Amphitheater for a late afternoon sound check. Smiling and shoeless, he padded around in his mismatched socks and baggy cargo pants looking up at the blue sky.

The outdoor theater in the Hollywood Hills was one of those "special places," he said, like the churches they prefer to perform in, where audiences "actually want to sit down and listen to the music."

The show that night would be their first headlining concert in the U.S., and their second stop on a sold-out, whirlwind, five-city U.S. sweep that was already exhausting the band.

What did they think of Los Angeles? The Hollywood sign was smaller than they expected, Angelenos were friendlier than they'd imagined and the audience at their show was too polite.

"Between songs, they were kind of like this," Birgisson said after the performance, hunching his shoulders and clapping inaudibly. "I was thinking maybe they don't like it, [but] I always think that."

He needn't worry. The group received not one, but two standing ovations.

There is an infectious idealism to Sigur Ros that carries through not only in their music, but in the band's name and the titles of its records. Translated into English, Sigur Ros means Victory Rose--the name of Birgisson's sister, who was born around the same time the band was formed. The group's first EP was named "Hope" and its breakthrough "Agaetis Byrjun" means "A New Beginning."

In interviews, the members have said the band wants to change music, and that Sigur Ros is not a band, it is music. These are grandiose claims, but they come across without pomp or pretense.

"Seventy percent of music or more is manufactured crap that has no soul, nothing. It's too polished. It's just like McDonald's," said Birgisson, who is a vegan. "It's really bad for you but you still buy it because of the commercials, and you get fat. People are fat on bad music."

Holm said the group has tried to be "pure, as much from the heart as possible."

It's this sincerity, both Holm and Birgisson said, that attracts listeners to the music and also sometimes even changes their lives.

"One guy, he was going to the Army," Birgisson said. "But when he heard our music, he didn't want to go. I think that's brilliant. And some other guy, we got an e-mail that told us he lost a part in an accident. He listened to our music to help him get through it. That's the best thing to hear. It makes you keep on going, making music."

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