“This record is the blueprint of our relationship, how we met and found each other. It felt really special. We weren’t intending to make a record. It was just after years of making all these songs that we realized we had something.”
Welcoming me into their relaxed backstage area, Jonsi & Alex’s Alex Somers candidly offered me a freshly brewed cup of steaming black tea, whilst light jazz peppered the room’s low lit ambience. It certainly matched the energy of their awe-inspiring ambient album Riceboy sleeps, with which they were touring on a celebratory 10 year anniversary. The album is monumental to them - as it documents the period in which they fell in love, Alex’s departure fro Berklee and an exciting period of exerimentation. For me, it has been the soundtrack to my last 3 years, comforting me through hard times like a best friend. Having recruited Robert Ames (conductor of the London Contemporary Orchestra) to orchestrate and conduct a full orchestral version of the album, the night at the Wilbur Theater in Boston was bound to be a special one. I must just add that part way through the first piece, the audience was prompted to tear open packets of pink popping candy, place it on our tongues and, as a ‘sonic experiment’, let it fizzle away, mouths open in an enveloping theater-wide crackle. This is just a small lense into the inquisitive minds that are Jonsi (of Ieland’s Sigur Ros) & Alex Somers.
Did you intend to make this album?
No. When we started, we didn’t even live together. When I moved to Iceland in 2005 Jonsi was working with his Sigur Ros and I was in art school. So it was more like an expression of our daily lives. We enjoyed it so much, because there was no a frame around it. If we made a piece, we’d let it loop in our home for days to get ideas, and then we’d make dinner and one of us would say “oh, what if this piece had this choir thing?” We’d talk about it, and then the choir thing wouldn’t happen for a year.
How did being at Berklee influence you?
I got in on guitar and did music therapy and film scoring - which is really funny because now it makes sense. But at the time I didn’t go to school to get a degree or a career. I just knew I wanted to be immersed in music. But I wanted to do everything, and Professional Music was only created around the time I left Berklee. I wish I could have taken that.
I wasn’t interested in engineering and production when I was at Berklee, but years later I opened a recording studio. Now I’m really into that stuff, but at the time I was recording straight into a cassette because I didn’t give a sh*t. Berklee really shaped me in a weird way because it was a music school, but I wanted to make music that sounded so non-schooled. I was seeing everybody who was so good at playing instruments and so organised and it pushed me in this weird direction where I just wanted to play one note, just for the swell of one major chord. As an 18-year-old I thought that was a defiant gesture, but it’s so tame!
What inspired Riceboy Sleeps?
As soon as Jonsi and I met, we quickly became friends and started experimenting with sound. We didn’t even talk about intentionally making music - we would just hear something and think it sounded cool. We walked past a speaker outside of guitar center near Berklee, and they were spitting out piano music. I thought it was cool, because it sounded like a sh*tty horn - low fi but fast, like so much classical piano music. We had the idea to record it, so we held Jonsi’s laptop up, sampled the sound until our arms were aching, went back to my apartment, and slowed it down a sh*tload. And when we found a cool little piano figure, we realized that it was something and started building music around it: writing chord progressions for guitar, piano, and keyboards. We made a few songs like that. Often one of us would write the top line, and the other the bottom. It always happened naturally. We just had a similar sensibility for sound and pacing.
What inspired the name of Riceboy Sleeps?
It’s kind of embarrassing now, but when we first met and I was at Berklee, I just had no money. I would walk to the grocery store and buy a massive bag of rice, because that was the cheapest thing they had, and I would carry it home really pathetically. And that’s basically what I ate for all meals. I got really into food later, like beautiful plant foods, but I didn’t give a shit about food at that point in my life. Then Jonsi thought it was so bizarre. He would come to visit and crash with me and my brother in our apartment, and would say, “Aren’t you going to go to the grocery store?” Then I would say “no, I’ll just have this.” And I was sleeping one day and he wrote a piece and called it Riceboy Sleeps.
Did you have a creative process?
Yes, for sure. If you listen to the first demo, it sounds like there’s less in it. We added strings and choir eventually, which was very homemade - just our friends in our living room. I had two cheap mics and which we recorded on a multitrack pass. The mixing was pretty rough! For the song “Happiness,” we just did the top line, then the bass line, then the intro. The field recordings you hear at the very end of the song are from outside Guitar Center.
We wrote the string loop on a sampler while I was visiting Iceland. We chucked a field recording on, then wrote the music on a sampler. Then we sampled the Jonsi’s voice, he wrote the bass line ontop, and I wrote the top line on a toy Yamaha VSS30. There’s no loop - the strings just play it live.
In “Sleeping Giant” there is a crackly fire, or creaking, breathing sound. How did you make that?
When I was in Tuscany I wanted to buy this beautiful toy red accordion at a flea market, but there was a language barrier. So this weird old man made me play it, and then I bought it from him for next to nothing. I was f*cking around with it and realized that when you play a certain button, you just get the bellows but no tones. We sampled that, and then put it on a keyboard to play it. It sounded like slowed down breathing, so we called the song “Sleeping Giant”. We actually recorded a brass ensemble for that song, but the hard drive failed and we lost it all. At that point we figured it wasn’t meant to be.
How did you get such a big sound world on an album recorded so lo-fi?
We used a sub bass in almost every song. We were obsessed with sampling things, so there’s lots of layers. The lowest bass was mostly Jonsi’s voice, EQ’d a bit. Reverb and delay gives a sense of space - especially on the strings and choir. We were obsessed with this brand-new synthesis app called RTGX (Real Time Granular Synthesizer) that doesn’t exist anymore. We’d run music via that and do a long capture, which would create an audio file, which we’d drop back in the session and blend it. I still think this album has a smallness to it. It doesn’t sound crazy lush and thick compared to other records that I’ve made with strings and choir. We didn’t really know what we were doing. It was all instinctual, and just a lot of reverb.
After this album, what inspired you to grow musically?
Production and engineering, and collaboration. I made three or four albums a year following this, where I was the engineer, producer, and mixer rather than the songwriter. I would co-write and get pretty hands on, which was liberating. Sometimes writing songs, finishing them and following through, takes a lot out of you. I’m not as prolific as Jonsi. I liked being in that role where I didn’t need to compose the whole song, and I could do everything else but that.
I’ve been learning about gain staging. Whenever any audio is captured there’s an input and an output. The level at which it’s captured and the level which it passes through any piece of output gear or a microphone, or even the sound source itself impacts the final sound. Even in software, the way it hits the plugin is a gain stage. I’ve been getting really obsessed with that and learning how to control that, because I’m a control freak. I love distorting things, or doing reverse reverb.
For vocals I like doubling everything - recording something in mono but doing it twice. It’s artificially wide, because recording it in stereo means you record it twice in mono and then pan it. It’s really appealing to my ears. I do piano in stereo because it’s a physical instrument, but guitars, samplers, and bells - anything that’s a small sound - I use doubling.
If we like something we’ve recorded, we play it back through the studio monitors and hold a little toy sampler up to it. We record one and a half seconds, which is automatically mapped to the keyboard so you can play it. All of that synth like sounds are strings played on an eight-bit sampler. Sometimes we play the whole mix back and it sounds really f*cked up and cool.
What advice would you give yourself starting out?
I think part of the reason I got into engineering, production and opening a recording studio is because I didn’t believe in myself as a songwriter. I thought it was sh*t. But I would say even though you have a low opinion of your skill, you have your own unique perspective, which you should embrace. Be super individual and weird, and don’t give up on it.
How do you #getinthegroove?
You don’t need to be Richie James; you don’t need to be a genius mastermind to write great music, you just need to be with great people. I’m doing film scoring now - and I want to work with people that are going to expand my world. For me it’s all about collaboration, and believing in yourself even if you don’t want to. It’s better than doing something that’s going to suck your soul. If you love music, just do it.