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Gay Times July 09 - Issue 370

The Ice Boy Cometh

The gay frontman of Iceland’s greatest band Sigur Rós is releasing a solo record with his boyfriend. Hoorah! Patrick Strudwick talks to him about Björk, drugs and coming out

There are two types of excruciating interviews. The first involves a celebrity who perhaps hasn’t taken their mood elevators that morning, whose ego is roughly the size of Asia, and who really doesn’t want to talk about the fact that they, say, dumped their pregnant girlfriend, or are famously partial to bondage. They are deliberately difficult, obstreperous. They hate you. Resent you. And not even secretly wish you were dead. And then there’s the Jónsi kind. These are invariably people with actual talent, with something genuine and precious to offer the world, who are so lacking in ego, but so darn sensitive, that being probed by a journalist makes them recoil like a hedgehog poked with a stick. And so it was when Sigur Rós’ frontman, Jónsi comes on the phone from Reykjavik.
A veritable white-knuckle ride of awkwardness, silence, misunderstandings and jokes falling flatter than a dropkicked blancmange ensues. Example: when I ask why the album is instrumental, bereft of his incredible falsetto voice, and jokingly ask if it was because he had an exceptionally sore throat, he replies simply, “Yes”. Followed by a long silence. When I attempt to compliment him on having created such a blissfully serene, ethereal record that it made me want to smoke pot, he replies: “Cannabis? Okay.” That was it. So I try to explain my comment, saying that it is so transporting on its own that you wants to complete the experience chemically. “Yeah,” he says. Someone kill me.
Yet despite the pain felt during the interview, it’s impossible not to like him. Apart from being sweetly well-meaning despite his one-word answers, the album, written and performed with his boyfriend Alex Somers, is utterly astonishing. Not a far cry from Jónsi’s usual output with his band of fellow Icelanders, this solo project clearly marks out his own individual talent. And to be charitable, English is not his first language.
There are, mercifully, certain subjects, however, that provoke an almost talkative side in him. Namely, his boyfriend. Was it hard working with his partner to create this record? “It was actually extremely easy,” he replies, perking up. “We had a studio in the kitchen, so we were making music and food together.” Any arguments? “Yeah [laughs], there were arguments but it was mostly really nice and they were never crazy arguments.”
Speaking of eating, in the press release it says that part of the album was made in a raw food commune in Hawaii, is that a joke? “No,” he says cracking up. “We went to the jungle there for a month and were living in a small house, just eating raw food.” But why Hawaii? “I don’t know, we just felt we had to do something different. And I like the heat.” The couple have been together for five years, after Jónsi (pronounced Yon-see) met the American through his brother. The precise account as to how that came about was explained to me, but the combination of a bad line, and a thick Icelandic accent, meant that despite a couple of efforts to clarify, I never quite got to the bottom of it.
Uncovering the back-story behind the album title, Riceboy Sleeps, proves much more fruitful, thankfully. It’s the same name the pair go under for their visual art projects and exhibitions. So where does it come from? “When I met Alex he was living in Boston and I used to visit him a lot. He had so little money that he would only eat rice. And he slept a lot.”
Growing up in Iceland, with a population of just 300,000, might seem like a nightmare to many a gay. But not Jónsi. Indeed, when the 34-year-old (whose real name is Jón Þór Birgisson) starts talking about his experiences in this area, he says that he started coming out at 21, adding that that is quite late –testimony to how progressive attitudes clearly are on the island. “But it was a very slow process,” he explains, “because I grew up in the countryside. When I was younger I didn’t know anyone who was gay, then I gradually met a lot of people. I was always just really comfortable with who I am, though. And in Iceland, everyone is really liberal and open-minded.” Is there much of a gay scene? “Er no, there are only two gay clubs. The first time I went to London, I went to Heaven and it was like this warehouse full of boys, it was so crazy. I had never seen anything like it, I was kind of blown away.”
Does he get involved with gay politics? “No, I don’t to be totally honest. I kind of just live my own life, but I feel strongly that everyone should have the same rights.”
Icelandic politics have been in the news more than ever – with it now having the first openly lesbian prime minister and the economic crisis bankrupting the tiny nation. Has that recession been depressing to witness? “It was hard for people, but I think for some reason it brings people together, and people are not so focused on consumerism, so in some ways it’s positive.”
An interview with an Icelandic musician wouldn’t be complete without mention of its most famous export, Björk. Particularly, as this one has performed with her. So are they friends? Do they hang out? Or is it just business? “We’re friends. We don’t speak that often, but I think she’s always touring and I’m always touring so we don’t meet up that much.”
Being one of only two Icelanders famous outside your country, does he feel like an ambassador? “No.” Heck, we’re straying back to the one words answers again, so I end by asking about his music and why it is, as he has said previously, that it is purity he wishes to express in it. “I think that’s just who you are and, I don’t know, I never thought it’s how we are and who we are, so you try to be that in your normal life so your music should be that, rather than trying to be something else.” That clears that up then. Thankfully, the thoroughly brilliant album speaks for itself.

Riceboy Sleeps by Jón Þór Birgisson and Alex Somers is released on July 20th

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