SPEAKING DIRECTLY TO their fans during an online Q&A session on Reddit in January, Sigur Rós confirmed the rumours. Keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson had left the band. Amid a flurry of questions about his departure, they simply responded: "He said he spent half his life in the band and it was time to do something different."
So does his exit represent a new chapter for Sigur Rós? Sveinsson had contributed significantly to the Icelandic post-rock band since 1998, including many of the orchestral and string arrangements that helped define their sound.
"This will definitely be an interesting time," says bass player Georg Hólm, over the phone from his home in Iceland. "What will come out of it, we have no idea. We're really excited about it, though. We all thought, OK, either something great is going to happen, or something really not great. But as soon as we started writing these songs, the first day we started playing, I don't know if all the ideas made it to the record but it was just great fun to be playing again. And it was quite an energetic atmosphere."
Hólm is on a short break between the US and Asia legs of the tour. "The travelling takes its toll - you have to leave your family behind for months. But this tour has been going amazingly. Better than we imagined, I'd say."
Those who saw Sigur Rós last time they played here in 2006 can look forward to quite a different show when the band returns to Hong Kong to perform at AsiaWorld-Expo on May 21.
"We've been adding new material, stuff from the new album," Hólm says. "Visually, we're taking it further than we have ever taken it before, too. It's a lot more, for the lack of a better word, extravagant than it has been before. It's quite impressive."
So far only two tracks have been released from Kveikur, due to launch mid-June. If its first single, Brennistein, driven by a gritty bassline, is anything to go by, we'll be hearing a more potent, rawer sound - a departure from the ethereal, ambient, slow-rolling album Valtari released last year. It's also the band's first self-produced album, allowing them to take back full control of the sound. In a way it's like a return to the early days, when they were just a handful of guys in a garage making music.
"Yeah, we were laughing about it the other day," says Hólm. "We actually started recording this album in Orri, our drummer's, garage. So we really go back to basics. It was kind of funny, just to be in a small garage again, banging away."
They recorded most of the songs for Kveikur in one session, then recorded the rest a couple of months later.
"It was a more of traditional thing; you write a record and then go and record it," says Hólm. " Valtari was a really weird record for us. It was just snippets, sometimes more elaborate songs, but sometimes just an idea, a riff or something. It wasn't always all four of us in the studio at the same time; sometimes it'd be one or two of us, just piecing it together slowly. We'd never worked like that before, and I guess for that record it just had to be done like that.
"We all knew we wanted to do something different for Kveikur. Also the dynamics had changed quite drastically, as there were only three of us left in the band. It wasn't the four of us any more."
Many of the fan reviews from the current tour hail a return to form, following what the media labelled as an "indefinite hiatus" in 2009 - a term Hólm disputes.
"That was never something we decided to do, it was never an indefinite hiatus; we were actually working quite hard. We were just doing a little bit less than usual, and we took the touring out. We weren't maybe writing as much as we used to do. We definitely did have a chance to recharge our batteries, though."
Their renewed energy comes across in the second single, Isjaki, which is available online. And while some will miss the slow build and transcendental string arrangements from past albums such as Ágætis byrjun and ( ), Sigur Rós still transports the listener to that arctic landscape in Isjaki - just at a different pace. Jónsi Birgisson's layered vocals still provide that lift and the rolling rhythms remind you of some of the better moments on their 2005 album Takk.
"For this whole record, I would say we're more experimental than before," says Hólm. "All the things we'd heard and learned through the years and all the rules that we'd put onto our music, they all went out the window. It was like, let's start again, and see what happens. Let's not over think this, let's just start writing. Some of the songs that we started writing were pretty bad actually. But we continued; we just kept on writing."
Next January, Sigur Rós will have been together for 20 years. Once an obscure band from Reykjavík, today they're filling stadiums. They'll officially become household names on May 19, when they join the ranks of Tony Bennett, Ricky Gervais and Glenn Close by making a cameo appearance on The Simpsons.
Homer and his friends, apparently, are going to Iceland. " The Simpsons have been going for over 20 years. It's an institution. When we heard that Matt Groening, the creator, is a big fan and they wanted us to score one of the episodes, and that they would animate us. It was one of those moments when you go, 'Wow'. You think, 'OK, if you've got into The Simpsons, then you've made it.'"
The episode will feature some new material, including Sigur Rós' take on the theme tune. "We did quite a simple version for it - we didn't have much time or resources, as we had to do this all backstage during our tour."
Perhaps it's partly an attempt not to be taken so terribly seriously. Fan reviews talk about their music almost religiously - it is, after all, serious stuff. They also tend to be deeply personal: people get married to Sigur Rós, they give birth, get through cancer and even decide against committing suicide after listening to it.
"It's definitely an honour when people send us messages saying our music inspired something in them, or helped them through something," says Hólm. "It's one of the reasons why we try to be very careful in how we use our music, so we don't sell it to something like Coca-Cola. Imagine if someone got married to that song, and then all of a sudden it's the Coca-Cola song. We try to treat the music with respect, to keep respect for the fans, too."
He admits, however, that it can put pressure on them.
"Sometimes it can get a little bit too much. It's music. I mean, music has a power. But people hear one of the new songs, and they'll be like, 'Oh, that's nothing like how I like them and this is no good because it's not like the ( ) album.' We don't want to keep doing the same thing forever because then it gets boring. And then we quit."
Perhaps one of the reasons people respond on an emotional level to the music is most of us don't understand the lyrics, which are either in Jónsi Birgisson's unintelligible Hopelandic, or in Icelandic. "I hope the music speaks for itself. I think in many ways people do understand the music without it being spelled out for them. You don't need to be obvious. People find their own meaning in it. And we really like that."
That said, the band has just done their first lyric video, for Isjaki, with titles across the screen - a request from management, says Hólm, laughing. "People make their own YouTube lyric videos, apparently. So we thought, well, OK, maybe we should do one, so they actually get the correct ones."
Who knows - perhaps they'll find the Hong Kong crowds singing along in Icelandic at their upcoming concert then?
"That would be amazing."
Sigur Rós, May 21, AsiaWorld-Expo, HK International Airport, Lantau, HK$750, HK Ticketing. Inquiries: 2629 6240Topics: Sigur Rós