Surprise By Design Sigur Rós Jónsi Creates a Pure-Sounding Acoustic Album—With a Twist

Although he started writing songs simply— a vocal accompanied by guitar, piano, or harmonium—Sigur Rós frontman Jón “Jónsi” Thor Birgisson and his collaborators stirred up a storm of creativity for his gorgeously complex solo album, Go.

Although he started writing songs simply— a vocal accompanied by guitar, piano, or harmonium—Sigur Rós frontman Jón “Jónsi” Thor Birgisson and his collaborators stirred up a storm of creativity for his gorgeously complex solo album, Go.

At home in Iceland, Jónsi and his producer boyfriend Alex Somers initially thought Go [XL] would be an acoustic record. And technically, it is. There’s only one electric guitar on the whole album, and there are no synths at all. But things got interesting once New York composer Nico Muhly (a Philip Glass protégé who’s worked with Björk and Antony & the Johnsons), Finnish percussionist Samuli Kosminen, and Connecticut-based producer Peter Katis (The National, Interpol) got involved.

It started with a demo of the dirgelike “Koinidur.” Muhly put the track in Logic, routed instrument sounds to various channels, and tried out ideas on a MIDI controller. “It was super-fun,” Jónsi says. “He’s so hyperactive and spontaneous and such a hard worker, and I’m like that in some ways, so we fit really well together. He wrote five arrangements in one night.”

From there, Jónsi and friends moved on to Katis’ Tarquin Studios in Connecticut, and the album was built up with celeste, glockenspiel, harp, kalimba, strings, woodwinds, brass, and various drum and percussion instruments.

Katis used a pair of Telefunken ELA M 260s regularly throughout the process. For acoustic guitar, he’d use one close up and in cardioid, and one six to eight feet away in omni. For the string sextet, Katis used Coles 4038s or RCA 44DXs as close mics, two M 260s at medium distance, a Brauner Valvet in one far corner, and an AKG C 414 in another corner. But he ended up not using the close mics. “To me, the sound of strings are strings in a room,” Katis says.

The strings were recorded in one day through Gordon preamps, without compression. “It’s not the kind of thing that we could redo if we had to, so most of the manipulating of the strings came after the fact,” Katis says.

On opener “Go Do,” Katis ran strings through a Thermionic Culture Culture Vulture distortion unit for an extreme effect. “There are times definitely where we thought, ‘This song needs to be a little more interesting,’ and we would start hacking the arrangements, distorting them, flipping them around, and everything that you can think of just to make the song a little more dynamic,” he says.

Katis then spent a day recording woodwinds, a day for brass, and a day for flute, miking each of the instruments from three to six feet away.

Meanwhile, Kosminen played an ever-evolving, unusual drum setup. “It wasn’t a proper drum kit,” Katis says. “He’d just put different drums on the floor and percussion pieces, even things like his suitcase, which he stomped on to get a really interesting sound.”

“Samuli’s the coolest drummer ever in the whole world, easily,” Somers says. “He just plays on random things, like four bass drums and one floor tom. And he tapes little objects to drums. He showed up with a huge suitcase with random noisemakers—little rusty toys like cranks and shakers. The middle of the drum will be one sound, and then he has the toys going around the perimeter. So he has, like, 50 sounds, whereas most drummers have five.”

For the explosive, trashy-sounding drumbeat on “Animal Arithmetic,” Katis miked Kosminen’s setup with M 260s set far apart and routed through different preamps and compressors (including a Chandler TG Channel and Urei 1176). Then a Thermionic Culture Rooster—which is “nice for manipulating stuff in a more discreet way, where you can overdrive it but not destroy it,” Katis says—was used on both signals.

Jónsi’s main vocal chain was a Neumann U 47 (although an AEA R84 ribbon mic was used on “Koinidur”) through a Universal LA-610 preamp and a Chandler TG1 set to Limit mode. “When we bought [the TG1], Peter Katis recommended that we put it on Limit and set the Recovery to 1,” Somers says. “It just sounds way better there than anywhere else, like, a 100 percent of the time.”

In the two-month break between recording and mixing Go, there was more sonic experimentation Jónsi and Somers wanted to do. “I think this album became way poppier than anyone planned because so many people were putting their twist on it,” Somers admits. “So I think it was really important to keep it sounding dirty and never too polished.”

Somers re-sampled piano parts, backing vocals, and even whole mixes using a Neumann CMV 563 or U 47 into Logic’s ESX24 sampler, but he also used more lo-fi means, with an 8-bit Yamaha VSS-30 sampler. “It’s such a creative tool because it narrows down your focus,” he says. “The sample time is only a few seconds, so you get these little blips. And what you can do with that is so surprising. You can U-Turn it, put some fuzz on it, or turn the attack way up for a nice, slow attack. So you’d never know what the sound was [originally].”

Aside from re-sampling and manipulating sounds (Somers slowed and pitched down “Hengilis” by two whole steps, for example), Jónsi and Somers found other ways to rough up the music. “It was just playing around with different effects, like Sugar Bytes Effectrix,” Jónsi says. “It’s a playful plug-in, so you can f**k things up badly with different filters and different grain sizes, but still keep the right timing.”

In the end, Katis liked the balance of pristine and dirty sounds. “If we had just left this record completely unmanipulated and kept it an acoustic record as it was recorded, it would still be pretty awesome,” Katis says. “But Jónsi really wanted to never be bored with it, and that’s why there was an anything-goes approach. The more crazy the setup, the crazier it sounded, the more exciting it was.”