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Sigur Rós - Home Is Where The Hvarf Is

Author: Laura Parker
Thursday, 8 November 2007
Iceland’s masters of the exquisite, Sigur Rós, have captured the intense and remote beauty of their homeland on their new doco Heima and double CD set Hvarf-Heim. 3D’s Laura Parker discovered that, as interviewees, sometimes the band can be almost as inaccessible as their country of birth.

Kjartan Sveinsson, the keyboardist from that ingenious Icelandic sensation, Sigur Rós, is not a talkative guy. He greets me with a crackly Icelandian "Hello" over the phone line from Melbourne, where the band are promoting their first DVD film, Heima. When Sveinsson agrees with me he likes to say "Yes" and when he disagrees with me he likes to say "No", and the rest is left up to my own interpretation. Fair enough, it's cold in Iceland, so maybe people don't like opening their mouth too much.

Sigur Rós, hailing from Iceland's capital of Reykjavik, began with influences from the Verve to My Bloody Valentine and the Smashing Pumpkins – but their sound has evolved into something quite different. Sung in Icelandic and also in their made-up language Hopelandic, the band's orchestral songs dissolve into each other, offering an intense and intimate musical experience.

And you might say it all started when guitarist Jon Birgisson put a violin bow to his guitar. "When we first heard the sound that the bow made on the guitar we were awestruck. We just loved the sound it produced. It's not an entirely new concept: Led Zeppelin used to do it. But what we found was our sound became more developed,'' Sveinsson says.

Their international break, however, came in 2000, when fellow Icelandian Bjork gave Thom Yorke a copy of one of their albums. "Radiohead then invited us to tour with them across Europe. This was a very good thing for us, and it was really productive working together with them.''

Seven years later, and Sigur Ros has wowed audiences all over the world with their innovative visual shows and their mystical music. And now they’ve made a film.

Heima - meaning 'At Home' - was filmed last summer during a two-week Sigur Ros tour around their home country of Iceland, and released with an accompanying double album called Hvarf-Heim - a compilation of five studio versions of previously unrecorded tracks and six of the band's older songs done acoustically.

The documentary wasn't cheap, or easy, to make. The production notes paint a story of a band struggling with the inexperience of organising such a mammoth project. Having decided to make every stop on the tour free, Sigur Rós made the decision to not publicly announce or advertise their shows, so it was word-of-mouth that brought audiences in. Surprisingly, things went better than expected. The biggest-selling national daily newspaper in Iceland wrote an article on the band, claiming their Icelandic tour was a kind of gift which was joining the nation together, and this was enough to entice everyone from three-year-olds to ninety-three-year-olds to check out Sigur Rós as the band rolled into their town.

The tour took the band around some of Iceland's most remote places, including a disused herring factory, a country tearoom and a protest camp at the bottom of a dam in the untouched wilderness.

"We did a tour of Iceland in 1999 and we had loads of fun,'' Sveinsson tells me. "We were finally given the chance to do Iceland shows again and this time we wanted to play in places we'd never been before. It was a good opportunity to see our country. We had a lot of fun, and we felt so relaxed being at home, which gave us the perfect opportunity to film Heima.''

"With Heima we wanted to deliver a different kind of experience of watching Sigur Rós than you get in a gig venue," says John Best, the band’s manager, in the film's production notes, "Many people watch Sigur Rós with their eyes closed, and enjoy the show as an overall experience. What we wanted was to move the camera in much closer and reveal what was actually going on on stage."

After watching music documentaries like Jazz on a Summer's Day and Pink Floyd Live in Pompeii for inspiration, the band knew what they wanted for Heima. It was to be an intimate documentary, one that used little camera motion and incorporated the audience's character. The other influencing factor was the location - Iceland was the perfect backdrop for Sigur Rós, where the beautiful, remote environment could intertwine perfectly with the band's majestic music.
But Sveinsson seems to disagree with me on this point.

"I don't think Iceland is reflected in our music at all,'' he says, taking me by surprise.

He mentions Kylie Minogue representing Australia in much the same way that he thinks Sigur Rós represents Iceland, but this to me sounds irrevocably brutal. Watching Heima it's clear that Iceland's vast, incredibly beautiful and dark environment, with its sweeping plains and pure soil, untouched by humans, is the vital visual counterpart to Sigur Rós' music. But perhaps I'm wrong.

Upon the conclusion of the Icelandic tour, the band found itself in a tight spot. The footage filmed was indeed beautiful, but there was no narrative to tie it all together.

Enlisting the help of Pixar employee Dean DeBlois, director of Lilo and Stitch, Sigur Rós worked on the 120 hours of footage to come up with a story. It turns out all that was needed was face-to-face interviews with the band's members, who, after much persuading, finally agreed to face the camera. And Heima suddenly came to life.

Sveinsson says Sigur Ros is currently working on a new album, and although there are no plans to return to Australia just yet, it's something the band hopes
to do soon.

"We really like it here actually, Melbourne especially is great. Hopefully we'll be back very soon with a tour.''

WHO: Sigur Ros
WHAT: Hvarf-Heim CD and Heima DVD out through EMI
WHEN: Out now