‘I love gay techno!’ Sigur Rós singer Jónsi on his bold new sound

Best known for his angelic vocals with the Icelandic rock band, Jónsi Birgisson is turning his hand to future pop, perfumery and sex toy-themed art

Around 2010, Jónsi Birgisson, the angel-voiced frontman of Icelandic post-rock experimentalists Sigur Rós, had plans to start a new musical side project called Olympic Boys. While it didn’t pan out, he’s still a big fan of its chosen genre. “Yes, I love gay techno!” he smiles, before revealing he can often be found driving around his adopted home of LA listening to Pride radio and its hi-energy selection of “classic Lady Gaga and shit like that”.

In fact, by the end of our interview – one in which the endearingly awkward Birgisson constantly paces around his apartment, his phone set at an upwards angle to showcase both his nostrils and an expanse of ceiling – he has a request. “The other day they were playing some crazy techno version of Adele’s Set Fire to the Rain,” he says. “Do you know who remixed it?” He’s keen to commission a club-friendly reworking of Salt Licorice, a squelchy, future-pop banger taken from his new solo album, Shiver, that features Swedish pop titan Robyn. “Don’t you think that would be good?” he says. “Just to hear it in every gay club,” he smiles, before remembering our global situation: “All the closed gay clubs.”

So the last five minutes of our chat are spent searching Spotify for the aforementioned gloriously OTT Adele remix (it’s by Moto Blanco, for the record), which isn’t how I’d expected an interview with the reclusive frontman of the 00s premier art-rock band to go. While not self-consciously trying to upturn people’s perceptions, Birgisson – who’s in the middle of a very LA-sounding stretch of “intermittent fasting” and later recommends some good recipes he found on TikTok – seems miles away from the medieval elf vibe he previously gave off.

Making scents ... Jónsi at work as a perfumer.
Making scents ... Jónsi at work as a perfumer. Photograph: Barnaby Roper

There has been a musical shift, too. If Sigur Rós’s brand of sky-scraping mood music – used to soundtrack everything from the BBC’s Planet Earth to, allegedly, the birth of Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow’s daughter Apple – evoked the feel of gliding peacefully over Iceland’s wintry terrain, the juddering Shiver is like falling headfirst into an erupting volcano. Co-produced alongside pop provocateur and Charli XCX collaborator AG Cook, it also takes the self-described “indie-boy Enya” feel of Birgisson’s more organic 2010 solo debut Go and clads it in hard, cold steel. One song, Wildeye, finds Birgisson utilising his trademark mournful coo – once described as “redolent of the world’s loneliest polar bear” – over an electronic hellscape that resembles three overlapping panic attacks.

A fan of Cook’s work under his PC Music umbrella, specifically the happy hardcore sugar rush of 2015’s Beautiful, the 45-year-old Birgisson was keen to work with someone “who didn’t know much about who I was”.

Coming from a country where everyone is assumed to be odd from the outset, then mixing that with a propensity to play guitar using a bow and sing in a made-up language (Hopelandic, as it was dubbed), there seems to be a lot of baggage around him, I suggest. He laughs, something he does surprisingly often given he’ll later refer to interviews as “a necessary evil” and something that “fucks up your day”. (24 hours after our interview his PR tells me Birgisson has cancelled all remaining UK press for the album.) “Baggage is a funny word,” he says. “But yes, you’re right, because some people who have worked with me have this idea about who I am and they want me to be in that world. So it’s refreshing not to be there and have that, as you say, ‘baggage’.”

While Birgisson is aware of the stereotypes around Iceland – “We are odd in a way, but everybody’s odd” – his upbringing was, he says, normal. “Normal kid. Normal family. Good parents, not divorced. I had a really safe, fun, innocent upbringing.” Born blind in one eye, he says it never really affected him growing up. No bullying at school? “Oh, because I’m cross-eyed and all that?” he shrugs. “No, not really.” At the age of 13 he became obsessed with the electric guitar, having quit “boring” classical guitar lessons four years earlier. “I was in my bedroom trying to play Iron Maiden solos,” he smiles.

He says his metal upbringing influenced the heaviness of Sigur Rós, which he formed in 1994. After achieving unlikely success across seven albums – 2005’s Takk… went platinum in the UK – and picking up famous fans along the way (a picture of the quartet with a beaming Tom Cruise adorns their studio wall), the band are currently on hiatus. “Being in a band is weird,” he says carefully. “It’s like a really drawn-out marriage. People have families, people grow apart. It’s hard to keep things interesting.” It has also been a troubling few years, with the band – who faced charges of tax evasion in 2019 (later dismissed) – now reduced to a duo after keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson quit then drummer Orri Páll Dýrason resigned following allegations of sexual assault from artist Meagan Boyd (Dýrason denies the allegations). Did Birgisson think of calling it a day? “Definitely,” he says. “I was kind of like: ‘This is time.’”

Toys are us ... Jónsi butt plug-laden installation, In Bloom.
Toys are us ... Jónsi butt plug-laden installation, In Bloom. Photograph: Jeff McLane

The uncertainty around the band and his separation from his partner of 16 years, Alex Somers (they broke up “six months ago ... A year, maybe,” he says vaguely), has fed into Shiver’s abstract lyrical framework, which favours English over the gobbledegook of old. While the lilting Exhale promotes serenity (“It isn’t your fault/ Just let it go”), new single Cannibal details “chewing cartilage” and removing hearts, its Hannibal vibe softened by the operatics of Cocteau Twins singer Elizabeth Fraser. Similarly enamoured with high-wire wordless singing, Fraser was often cited as an influence on Birgisson at the start of his career, only he’d never heard a note of her music. “I was like: ‘Who the fuck are these Cocteau Twins? I really don’t like being pigeonholed like that,’” he laughs. “So I didn’t want to listen to them. Then three years ago Alex was playing Cocteau Twins here and they’re so good, man!”

After years of not trusting outside influences to permeate Sigur Rós’s hermetically sealed sound, Birgisson has been slowly venturing outside of his own bubble. He initially planned to make Shiver, which features songs written nearly 20 years ago, completely alone. “I had this megalomaniac thing where I wanted to write everything, sing everything, record everything, mix, master. In the end I had a meltdown and realised: ‘Fuck, I need people.’” He’s burrowing further into collaboration with his next project, creating the soundtrack to Without Remorse, a blockbuster starring Michael B Jordan. “I never thought I would ever be doing anything like that,” he smiles. “It’s kind of interesting, it’s healthy, it’s weird.”

He has also been taking time away from music. As well as training to be a perfumer for the last nine years (he walks me through two large rooms full of hundreds of upturned scent bottles and pipettes), he’s recently exhibited some of his art in LA. In fact, the two passions often overlap, with one installation carrying a whiff of “fecal musk”, which, as Birgisson is at pains to point out, is “diluted so much that you can’t smell that shit smell”. Sex toys also make an appearance, with glistening glass dildos used alongside chrome butt plugs wedged on to large speakers. “They’re really beautiful, actually,” he says of his X-rated objets d’art. “For some people who have no clue what they are they look innocent and pretty, and then for people who know what it is they get a different view on it.”

Maybe that’s true, too, of Birgisson, AKA Jónsi, AKA that guy with that voice from that weird Icelandic band. It’s all about perception, after all.

Shiver is out 2 October


Michael Cragg

The GuardianTramp

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