Jónsi: All Systems Go



He may be turning 35 next week, but Sigur Rós’s Jon Thor Birgisson (a.k.a. Jónsi) has never sounded younger. Sixteen years into fronting one of the more improbable pop acts of our time with his clarion falsetto, Jónsi appears to have been reborn with his solo debut, Go, an unbridled forty minutes of joy. While the album does achieve Sigur Rós-like levels of grandeur, the Jónsi of Go trades the relative restraint and austerity of his day job for man-child abandon, with chaotic, clattering calls of carpe diem. From the opening brass ring-grabber “Go Do,” to the driving “Animal Arithmetic” and “Around Us,” to the unapologetic wonder of “Boy Lillikoi,” it’s all soaring strings, celestes, glocks and horns, arranged to the point of bursting by Jónsi’s new pal, composer and bon vivant Nico Muhly. Muhly is an erstwhile Björk collaborator, so it’s no surprise that, on this record, Iceland’s second-most famous musician comes across as the sonic, wide-eyed male counterpart to the country’s biggest act. The link is cemented with the “Go Do” music video, in which Jónsi dons feathers, wraparound pirate gear, and makeup as he bangs on a suitcase and communes with birds.

An album this grand and cinematic calls for an extraordinary tour, and Jónsi has delivered on that front, as well, with a highly theatrical stage show that began its eastward swing across North America last week. I spoke with him as the tour arrived in its third stop, Portland.

JOHN NORRIS: Jónsi! I have been hearing and reading nothing but glowing stuff about this show you’ve just taken on the road. How’s it been so far? 

JÓNSI: I have to say, I think it’s going super well. It’s the first time I’ve ever had a production rehearsal before I went on a tour, so that helped.

NORRIS: So, the tour was designed by London’s Fifty Nine Productions, who are known for their work in opera and theatre. Had you known them prior to this, and how much direction did you give them in terms of the look of the show?

JÓNSI: No, I hadn’t heard of them. It was my manager who had seen some of their work, and just was amazed by how cool it was. So, I met with them, told them about my ideas–which really just had something to do with animals–and they just went with it.

NORRIS: There were some images of a burned down Parisian taxidermy shop that inspired the set. As a vegetarian, did you have any problems with that?

JÓNSI: I guess maybe, because I do really like animals and I think stuffing animals is not cool. But the idea at first was really about bringing them back to life, giving them new life through the music. Birds, especially, were an inspiration. 

 NORRIS: You’ve got some big, but fragile-looking set pieces in this show. How challenging is it moving it all from place to place?

JÓNSI:  It is, yeah, and in some places we can’t use the whole thing. Like, where we are playing in Portland tonight, we are only using one fourth the size of the full show. And in Coachella this weekend, I don’t think we’re using the set, because anyway it’s a day show. So we’ll play the songs.

NORRIS: And as for the songs–even though the album is quite dense–I know you have said that, rather than assembling a small orchestra, you wanted a leaner band for this show, to keep it “raw and dirty.” Did you achieve that?

JÓNSI:  Yeah, I mean, the record is so layered and elaborate, and I think it was important that the show be more straightforward and simple. And the band has come together well and quite quickly. I had never played with any of them before, except for my boyfriend Alex [Somers], of course. We had like ten days of rehearsal.

NORRIS: So many people are saying that they feel like they are seeing a new side of you with this amazing, mostly exuberant album, Go, one that they hadn’t seen with Sigur Rós. Do you feel like you’ve been liberated by this record?

JÓNSI: Yes, you know, I had had a lot of these songs for so many years, and it was just really important to get them out, it was like a small “housecleaning” for me.  And it’s been great. I’m writing even more now. I’ve probably got thirty songs written.

NORRIS: It sounds like there will be more of this?

JÓNSI: I think so.

NORRIS: You’ve got a birthday next week, and if my Jónsi tour itinerary is correct, you’ll be somewhere between Kansas and Minneapolis at the time. Any big plans?

JÓNSI: I’m sure we’ll just be on the bus somewhere getting shitfaced. Alex is with me, so that’ll be good.