Photo: Lilja Birgisdottir
After fronting Icelandic ambient rock band Sigur Rós for more than a decade, guitarist/vocalist Jón “Jónsi” Thor Birgisson set out on a solo adventure last year with the intent of making a low-key acoustic album. But somewhere along the line, he says, “It just sort of exploded.” The result of that explosion is Go, a fully realized sonic tapestry that debuted on XL Recordings in April. Combining acoustic elements with layers of electronic and rock styles, Go offers an expansive musical palette brought to life by Jónsi alongside some imaginative collaborators.
During his years with Sigur Rós, Jónsi had conceived songs that didn''t fit with the band, so he filed them away in his head. For Go, he initially drew from his acoustic folder and recorded rough demos comprising voice, acoustic guitar, and harmonium into Apple Logic Pro on his Apple iMac, using a Neumann U47 mic. “The U47 is my favorite mic of all time,” Jónsi says. “It''s so balanced, beautiful, and rounded; it''s bright, but not too bright. I usually don''t like new microphones, but the top end is unbelievable. I went from that into a Thermionic Culture Rooster DI preamp—the Attitude control has some crazy tube stuff—through a Retro Instruments Sta-Level tube compressor, a Chandler Limited TG1 limiter, into an Apogee [Ensemble] audio interface, which fed into Logic.”
After talking to friends, Jónsi decided to take his demos to Peter Katis'' Tarquin Studios in Connecticut. Looking back on the nearly yearlong production process, Jónsi says that even though he didn''t have a clear idea of what he wanted before, it was through spontaneous studio collaborations and “happy accidents” that the music began to transform.
“It was a bit scary working on a solo album because I was coming out of this cocoon from working with Sigur Rós, a very democratic band,” he says. “At the same time, it was super-liberating. Peter, who is a talented engineer, had an unconventional way of working. He has a selection of really good microphones, outboard gear, and preamps, and is unafraid to distort something if it''s good for the song—and as a result, brought a lot of life to the album.”
From April to November, Jónsi and Katis recorded the acoustic elements—guitars, strings, brass, wind instruments, pianos, glockenspiel, celeste, double bass, and drums—into Digidesign Pro Tools, adding collaborative elements from arranger Nico Muhly (a Philip Glass protégé) and Finnish drummer/percussionist Samuli Kosminen.
“Boy Lilikoi” (see Web Clip 1) started as a rough demo with acoustic guitar and voice, but was transformed into an energetic sonic wash with the help of Muhly''s playful arrangement. Before working in Tarquin Studios, Jónsi sent rough demos of the song to Kosminen, who recorded some ideas and sent them back. “I really liked what he had done,” Jónsi says. “He is an amazing, inventive drummer. When we met in Peter''s studio, he appeared with a suitcase of trash and toys and played on everything over the course of six days. It was really spontaneous. A lot of the drums were recorded separately, actually: bass drum with only the beater, cymbals, snare, and tom-toms, which were layered later.”
Back home in Iceland, Jónsi played around with the prerecorded studio pieces, recording additional overdubs and samples that he created inside Logic. “I like to [mess] things up, and [one] of my favorite toys [is] Sugar Bytes'' Effectrix, which has endless possibilities,” he says. Many of the songs—such as “Animal Arithmetic” [see Web Clip 2 target="_blank"]—feature up to 150 layered tracks, which were eventually mixed together by Tom Elmhirst at London''s Metropolis Studios.
Home base: Reykjavik, Iceland
DAW of choice: Apple Logic Pro
Must-have gear: Martin acoustic guitar, piano, Apple iMac