Jonsi & Alex celebrate the 10th anniversary of their ambient masterpiece Riceboy Sleeps with the first-ever live performances of the album
Paramount Theatre | October 18
By Brian F. Johnson
Photo by Lilja Birgisdottir
In 2009, when Jónsi Birgisson and his partner Alex Sommers released Riceboy Sleeps, ambient music was an incredibly niche and severely over-looked genre, to say the least. Mainstream outlets who were falling over themselves to write about the Sigur Rós frontman’s new project, following the success of the band’s break-out 2008 album, Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust (with a buzz in our ears we play endlessly), didn’t know what to make of Riceboy Sleeps, a record that was over an hour long with no lead vocals. Although NME had called the Sigur Rós release some of “their best work,” it called Riceboy Sleeps “tedious” and accused it of lacking “any semblance of a point.” And while the famously salty Pitchfork called Með suð “beautiful” and “full of wonderful moments,” they trashed Riceboy writing that on first listen “I fucking hated it.” And, if that wasn’t enough the writer went on to describe a “frustrating, indecisive ambience, too deconstructed, patient and ethereal to really qualify as pop music.” They really wrote that it was too patient, as if patience were a flaw.
Despite the fact that the misguided writer missed the entire point of Jónsi & Alex having no intention of qualifying as pop music, ten years after its release Riceboy Sleeps is now lauded as a masterpiece of ambient music — a flagship of the genre, a musical meditation that is required listening for anyone who’s ever used the word “mindful.”
For the 10th anniversary, the pair have released an analog remaster of the double album on 140-gram vinyl and coupled it with a vinyl version of the 30-minute EP All Animals that came packed as a bonus with the original CD release in 2009. But in addition to the 10th anniversary treatment, Jónsi & Alex are touring Riceboy Sleeps playing the material live for the first time ever.
“We didn’t think of ourselves as a real band,” said Somers, during a recent interview with The Marquee, explaining why it took 10 years for the material to make it to the stage. “I mean Jonsi’s band — he’s in a band — and they’re a real band. They make records and tour. They have a structure around it. We never thought of ourselves like that. It was just this very homemade thing that we were doing that was really fun and was a creative outlet for us and really brought us together and we were like exploring each other in that creative space that didn’t have any structure around it. So, it was really fun and free and we never thought to get a tour or play live.”
And now, with some downtime between Sigur Rós focuses, the two have decided that the meditative foundation of Riceboy Sleeps is a crucial reminder for people to slow down and celebrate that patience that Pitchfork couldn’t grasp back in the day. “I think to us — to Jónsi and I — it’s so much us that it will always have the kind of same relevance to us in our inner world, but in the outer world, beyond like our little reality, I think that it’s probably a lot more relevant in 2019 than it was in 2009,” said Somers. “I’m not sure if it’s real or just my perception, but I feel like from the time I was like 16 and I started really getting into ambient music, to 2009 when we actually put out Riceboy Sleeps — what was I, 24 at the time — I feel like in that time that I loved ambient music and my brother and my friends did and Jónsi did, but beyond that there didn’t seem to be any interest outside of my own circle. It didn’t seem like people gave a shit, it was just this super niche thing. But in 2019 it seems like, there’s definitely somehow more cultural relevance. That’s exciting and I’m always surprised when there is a little bit more love around music that is patient and is happening and unfolding slowly.”
Somers, who since Riceboy’s original release has become a producer and has his own recording studio, “nerded out” on the remastering, experimenting with tools and techniques he didn’t even know existed when they first recorded the album. But he said the delicate tweaks he did make, opened up the album and helped to make this re-release what he called “the definitive pressing of the record.”
“I feel like I approached the remastering kind of from a technical standpoint more than a feeling — which is weird, because I’m way more of a heart-driven kind of person. But when we made that record I had very little engineering and mixing skills and I didn’t really know what that was. We were just inventing everything — like kind of amateur D.I.Y. style. But in the decade since, I opened up a recording studio and got really into engineering and microphones and preamps, outboard gear, the whole thing. I’ve been mixing records, for other artists, producing records, engineering, so for me that was the exciting angle of like, ‘Oh, I actually know about technical sound at this point in my life,’ and I didn’t then, so I heard it technically different and I was able to nerd out and really take my time and do a full analog remaster that certainly made it sound better,” Somers said. “But better is subjective, because at the same time that record is very lo-fi and D.I.Y. because it was recorded that way and assembled that way.”
He went on to explain that while they didn’t re-mix anything, all of the remastering “hugged and squeezed” the music in ways that it hadn’t been on the original. “It is very subtle at the end of the day — which, I think, is correct. It would have been weird to meddle with the music, but it was nice to use really juicy analog tube compressors and dial them in really carefully and set the attack and release times and massage the mixes in that way. I have a bunch of really nice outboard EQs where we were able to scoop resonant frequencies and boost more treble in places so that some of those small details that we baked into that music are a little more apparent — sometimes a lot more apparent.
For the live performances, Jónsi & Alex, who will be joined by the Wordless Music Orchestra for the shows, will begin the evening with a staging of the 30-minute All Animals EP, followed by a brief intermission and then a “top-to-bottom” presentation of the entirety of Riceboy Sleeps.
Paramount Theatre | October 18
Go If You Dig:
- Max Richter
- William Basinksi