Icelandic music is still hot in Belgium. Here’s the Exclusive interview with Eva Vermandel, Belgian photographer who collaborated with the band, and Jónsi of Sigur Rós in De Morgen Magazine (dmmagazine), 29. November 2008. Sigur Rós were 3 times on stage in Belgium in 2008.
Now the Magazine is pride to have an exclusive interview with Jónsi, but De Morgen didn’t cover the yearly Airwaves ’08 Festival, and I know people who talked, although very short, with the band in Scotland! And btw I was there too, @ the Sugarcubes concert @ Vooruit, Ghent, but I didn’t jump on stage.
Editorial by Rudy Collier
Interview by Bart Steenhaut
Pseudo-translation by !linus
Editorial: Icelandic cool
Sigur Rós, let me be honest with you: I had barely heard of them. But that is where it becomes fun to be confronted by a young redactional team. From time to time they have persuasive arguments to change even the mind of a somewhat elderly chief-editor. Such as: Sigur Rós was top of the bill at Werchter and Pukkelpop. and moreover: de Morgen Magazine is the only one, worldwide, to do an interview with the musical sensation of 2008. And if that wasn’t enough persuasive force: Belgian photographer Eva Vermandel made a photoalbum about this band. Sometimes even the most obtuse chief-editor can be moved by such arguments. So, we want to know. who are these people out of bankrupt Iceland that can inspire the young folks in Flanders so much that they even achieve the top while singing in a non-existing language? Further more there is the remarkable role played by Flemish photographer Eva Vermandel in the Sigur Rós saga. She made a remarkable photoalbum about the band which was added to the luxurious edition of the latest album by the band. When she was 22 she left for London in the hope of building up a career as photographer there. aAtask she managed quite well. Without much glamourous tricks she made photographs for the Observer, the Independent magazine and worked for the Wire and British Vogue. that deserves some respect. As much respect goes to Sigur Rós, the counterpoint to the adage which tells us that the media is all-defining. Sigur Rós never needed the media, they even didn’t want anything to do with it. Thus they haven’t done any interviews this year, with the exception for one in the British magazine Q. How then did Bart Steenhaut managed to get to them? Shall we ever get an answer to it? Two years ago there was an appointment, but then front-man Jónsi left without honouring it. Now however it worked. Flemish Eva Vermandel probably provided a link. Because things work out between Vermandel and the Icelandic sensation. “I thought what she does is real art. not too styled, not too cool” we are told. Maybe the most interesting question of them all was asked at the end of the interview, especially so after the impressive performance Sigur Rós pulled off at Vorst Nationaal. With what sort of feeling do you hope the crowd leaves after a Sigur Rós concert Bart Steenhaut wanted to know. “I hope they are happy and satisfied. but above all I hope our music inspires. Sometimes i am amazed when i see the part our music plays in the lives of others.”
There’s more to Iceland than Kaupthing bank.
Top-act Sigur Rós collaborates with Belgian photographer Eva Vermandel
having to pose, that is really the worst of the worst
He is the singer in the band that had a worldwide breakthrough in 2008, and dislikes photo shoots. She is a Belgian photographer who works for the best British magazines. Sigur Rós’ Jónsi Birgisson and Eva Vermandel have at first sight little in common, yet they collaborated for the deluxe edition of “med sud í eyrum vid spilum endalaust” (sic), the latest album [of the band] and a magnificent photo-book. “at first she terribly annoyed us. but what a result.” an exclusive double interview.
Vermandel was twenty-two when she moved to London hoping to build up a career as photographer there. She didn’t have many contacts, but she knew there was no place in Belgium for the sort of images she wanted to create. London was a tough city, but one where you could get a chance. And that is what happened. In the past her photographs, bereft of all glamour, appeared in the observer and the independent magazine and she worked for W, the Wire, Mojo and British Vogue.
Jónsi, on the other hand, had the year of his life in 2008. Sigur Rós became, with its absolutely unique music – somewhere in between classical music and post-rock and with a hint of folk – the band of the moment. And that happened outside the eye of the media because, with the exception of a feature article in British magazine Q, the band hasn’t spoken with any journalists this year. The reason for this is that Birgisson would rather prefer to have a bone marrow biopsy instead of being interviewed. When I had made an appointment with him two years ago he left even before we had been introduced. Today the usually shy singer with the weird eye appears to be not only willing to talk, but he is also – there is no end to it – in an extremely good mood. There is even a hefty handshake to be had.
What did you appreciate in the work of Eva Vermandel?
Nothing really (laughs loudly). We hadn’t heard of her before. so when she came over for the first time to shoot some photographs she annoyed us straightaway. We are a close family, and it is not easy to allow someone into that. But when we saw her images I was very impressed. Real fine photographs. It wasn’t the usual rock-photography. I thought it was real art and loved the way she used colours a lot. She just tries to capture the moment. nothing too styled, nothing too cool. I also like the fact that we didn’t have to pose. because posing, that is really the worst of the worst.
I already did a photo-shoot with them eight years ago for the wire. And on that occasion they travelled around Iceland with me, but it appears they never made that link.
To be honest I don’t really get this hatred towards photographers. Sigur Rós has always been intensively involved in design, and your cd’s do not look the same as the others available in stores. What is so bad about a photo shoot on occasion?
There are never images of ourselves on the album-covers, and we never feature in our videos [what a little lying cheat you are Jónsi!]. We prefer it when the artwork reflects our music rather than ourselves. in that respect this photo-album is a real exception.
Do you think that – despite this dislike for photographers – you look well in images?
Hmm yes. But not in all cases. And there is one that i really dislike, but that has more to do with me than with her. And I love the layers in her work.
Those are there on purpose, because in everyday reality they are present as well. nothing is ever one way. You are never totally happy or a hundred percent sad. Real life rather situates itself in the nuances between those two extremes.
Did you needed to change the view you had of Sigur Rós greatly after working with them so intensively?
No. they were exactly as I had imagined them: talented musicians with a dislike for cameras. I collaborate best with people who are particularly good in what they do. The guys in Sigur Rós know what they want, and what they do not want. It makes things immediately clear, and that way there is never any bullshit. The only thing that surprised me is how strong a grip they had on their music. They are involved even up to the smallest details, and in the studio they knew exactly what could be improved, and how to get to that result.
(laughs) I deny everything Eva said. Most vehemently even.
Earlier this year sigur rós was one of the biggest headliners at Rock Werchter. I have been told that afterwards you set up a party the likes of which they haven’t seen that often there. Even Róisín Murphy was impressed, and she is used to quite a bit.
I recall that things got quite out of hand over there.
see: that is not something people associate with a band that makes rather emotional, almost serious, music.
It is not really that remarkable. Beth Gibbons of Portishead also appears very introvert and serious on stage, but she is also a party animal. And comedians are off stage often extremely sour people.
Those are just two extremes in our personality. moreover: those exuberant parties are part of icelandic culture. We are constantly running around drunk. (laughs) Last night we travelled from Paris to Brussels in a double-decker bus, and we had a gigantic party going on. The bus was stuffed to the brim with people and on each floor there was a dj. A world-tour is as exciting or as dull as you allow it to be, or so I believe.
When bands get bigger the fun often wears off because unwillingly they find themselves running a huge organisation. In the case of sigur rós the process seems almost reversed. Your music and performances have only become more colourful.
That is absolutely true. look: when you are – like Sigur Rós – almost constantly touring it is like you are dropped together on a boat in the sea. You are almost forced to get along, otherwise you wont make it. The people in our entourage are also our best friends. So we don’t have to boss around over anyone. A tour is a party that moves on to a different location each day. This summer we had, besides a string quartet, also a brassband with us. And despite the fact that we were on the road with a huge company there was never a bad word amongst us. nevertheless I find it useful that we are now playing with just the four of us again, because we almost never did that since 2001. It was necessary to work with just the four band members again, so that the bonds can be build up a bit. it is rather refreshing actually.
Do I get, based on your music, a good view on who the musicians in Sigur Rós are as persons?
I am not sure whether our personalities are that explicitly interwoven into our albums. anyway, I don’t really care if you understand our lyrics or not. I don’t think it is necessary. In Iceland for example the reactions are not different than elsewhere in the world. It just depends on how the music touches you.
Eva, is it important that you appreciate an artist when you are asked to do a photo-shoot?
When I am working on assignment for say the independent magazine, not really. People are people and everyone is interesting. Everyone except Ronan Keating that is. That is really a nasty piece of work. By far the biggest cunt I ever photographed. On the other hand, the boys from take that are rather sweet, but you wont see my buying a cd of theirs soon.
However, when I – like in the case of Sigur Rós – am working on a big project it is essential that I am a fan myself. The music of Sigur Rós creates a world in which I wouldn’t mind living. The same goes for Joanna Newsom, Radiohead and The Smiths. Their music is some sort of escapism, far away from the real world.
For me it is hard to express what a band sets free in me, or why it touches me emotionally. For me music is a way to explore uncharted territory. That’s what makes it so magical.
Touring as a photographer with a band seems to me to be physically – and mentally – extremely tough. But is it something you would want to do more often regardless of that?
No, because physically it is indeed rather demanding. I like healthy food and a good night’s rest, two things you do not get when you are constantly on the road. I am not exactly rock’-n-roll i guess. I slept on the crew bus because on the bus of the band there was no room. And also because they wanted some privacy. It is important to have some space to your own. The crew called me Anne Frank because I always stayed in my bunk. I do like a good party, but when I am tired I need my sleep. I was usually the first to go to bed.
When you are a singer it is important to have enough hours of rest everyday anyways to save your voice. When you are exhausted it has an effect on the way you sing.
So you are a bit more disciplined in that respect compared to the rest of the band?
err. no (laughs) in the beginning I was, but nowadays we have so much fun that I can’t bring myself to go to bed before the others.
Did you make eva’s life a hell, in the beginning?
We have been quite rude, yes. and also we didn’t really try to make her feel welcome. That’s the fate of any photographer who gets close to us I fear. Cameras just get on our nerves quite quickly. It is just so annoying when there is someone stalking around you capturing every move you make, because that makes you enormously “self consious”. Having said that however, she did manage to capture the essence of who we are in images. It doesn’t cease to amaze me how she managed to do that. especially considering the fact that it was such a jumble with the string and brass sections around. When you have to portrait a solo artist you can probably still manipulate things a bit. But having to work with a mad gang like ours … that doesn’t sound like an easy job to me.
Eva, how did you feel about the fact that the band wasn’t really happy with your presence?
I never took that personally, because I knew their attitude had nothing to do with who I am. On top of that I am very aware of the fact that people hate it when they are photographed. The thing is to be discreet. I do realise that had I walked into Sigur Rós’ biotope without care I would have got zero on the request. In the end I am an intruder into a group of people who have known each other for years, so I didn’t expect them to give me a warm welcome. After a while things got easier, but I always remained careful. the last thing I want is to forcefully arrange things.
I notice you use a very small camera. Is that another way to make yourself a little bit more invisible, or inconspicuous?
That is the intention, yes. I always use very small, sweet cameras. The fuji I used for the Sigur Rós book makes a very nice sound when you shoot with it. Almost like a toy camera. I am very intensively aware of the effects my camera has on the people I shoot photos of. That is one of the reasons why my employers often give me the “difficult” people to work with. Well, that is not too bad, because I like things to be challenging. John Lydon for example was a tough one, and recently David Attenborough wasn’t exactly working along with me. While a few weeks before his brother Richard had been a real darling. All in all I got a good feeling out of it in the end. and besides: I prefer an honest bad temper over fake friendliness. Something that happens as well.
When was the moment where things started to get going between band and photographer? You appear to get along fine now at least.
During our recording session at Abbey Road studio. I was especially impressed by the images she took there. The layering in her photos really appeals to me.
During that session you collaborated with a big classical orchestra, and it struck me that you too where rather formal looking. All dressed up in very neat, respectable suits.
That is Icelandic humour for you, I guess. Seeing how the whole symphonic orchestra had dressed up for the occasion we thought it would be funny if we did it ourselves as well. We looked like we were wearing school uniforms. A bit stiff, but nevertheless: hi-la-ri-ous. It was also a way to hide the fact that we were a bit intimidated by such a large group of people who were going to play our music. It is really something to see a song, which you composed in a little room on your computer, come to life. We never worked with an orchestra before, and I found it was a very emotional experience. On top of that I was a nervous wreck. Everything was going to be recorded live, so I could not afford it to make any mistakes. Not without loosing face that is. it was real: everything on tape in one go, just like it used to be done in the past.
At first the artwork for your latest album was to be created by Olafur Eliasson, the world famous artist who, amongst other things, was responsible for the much talked about weather project at tate modern. How come this collaboration didn’t go through?
In the first place we wanted to get him involved with our live shows, because we had the intention of doing something that absolutely did not look like a rock concert. Because these days all the shows of every artist look exactly the same, with a lot of lightening, fireworks and drama. We tried out a couple of things together, but pretty quickly it transpired that we weren’t on the same frequency. but I found it nevertheless very exiting to get to know Eliasson. Except that the food he had in his studio was real shit. Pasta and stuff like that (laughs). That was an extra argument to discontinue the collaboration with him.
Did he knew of you beforehand?
Yes, he liked our work, and we liked his. So that wasn’t the problem. Only, the way we make music is the opposite of his methods of making art. Everything he does has been contemplated over and over again long beforehand. Everything is organised, up to the most minute details. While we on the other hand stumble from one coincidence to the next accident, until something beautiful comes into being. Composing remains a very spontaneous and organic process. His approach was impossible to match with ours.
In the book you feature together with Björk, the first ever international superstar hailing from Iceland, in a photo. was she an example to you?
No, because musically there are no links between us. But we all look up to her because she has a very cool remarkable personality. And on top of that Björk is good company. What I admire most in her is that she, irregardless of whatever commercial pressure there is, stubbornly does her own thing. She knows what she is doing, and a hit is not a priority for her. That is the way we look upon our own music as well.
The first gig I ever saw was by the way a Björk one, when she was playing with the Sugarcubes in Ghent. I was fifteen and during the encores I actually jumped on stage. Einar (the other vocalist in the band, bs) even took a picture of Björk and I.
Last week you mailed to tell me Sigur Rós were such a dream to collaborate with because they have no ego. frankly i found that hard to believe.
Nevertheless. Actually there is a rather simple rule: the more talented the artist, the less his ego gets in his way. Only those without talent are fussy. Because that way they think they can prove something. But during the touring with Sigur Rós there was not one bad word said ever. And that was all the more remarkable because they were touring with such a big entourage.
That is also the reason why we are still around even after fifteen years, I think. Sigur Rós is just four guys who simply enjoy making music together intensely. nothing more, nothing less. There isn’t a single reason to make more of a fuss about it than that.
Nonetheless, 2008 was beyond doubt the year of Sigur Rós. How did you experience the transformation from cult band to popular mainstream band?
It has been a very natural process. It probably wont sound hip, but I really enjoy playing for a large public. Our music can take it to be played in enormous spaces, at least that is what I think. Not that we ever thought about that in the past. We just played music with our friends and never gave much thought to other things. At first no one showed up. After a while there where some people we know who came along to watch. And now we play for seventy-thousand people at Rock Werchter. Actually the success has made everything so much easier. I have a very good feeling with what is happening to us. And I also enjoy being on tour.
So homesickness never troubles you?
All the time. I long all the time to be at home. But when the atmosphere in the band is good you learn to cope with that.
With what sort of a feeling you hope the public leaves after attending a Sigur Rós concert?
(thinks for a long while) I hope they are happy. and satisfied. but above all I hope our music inspires them. That would be the best compliment. Sometimes I am amazed to see the part our music plays in the lives of others. The child of Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin of Coldplay, for example, was born to our music. To be allowed to be present at such an intimate moment as a birth, that is almost impossible to understand.
When in my case it ever gets to that point i wont even hear what is playing. Nine out of ten I would be all knocked out by painkillers anyways.
If it ever gets to that point I wouldn’t want you to put on a Sigur Rós album. I will come over and sing live for you in the delivery room.
Source: Message Board @ www.sigur-ros.co.uk