Name: Birgir Jón Birgisson
Occupation: Producer, recording engineer
Current release: Emmanuel de la Paix's Rescue Pack, produced by Birgir Jón Birgisson, is out via Broque.
Over the past one and a half decades, Birgir Jón Birgisson has established himself as an integral part of the Icelandic music scene, recording and/or mixing albums by the likes of Sóley, Hjaltalín, Ólöf Arnalds, Skúli Sverrisson and Gyda Valtysdottir as well as mastering the releases of the new Tangerine Dream line-up (plus, on one occasion, Roedelius). Most listeners, meanwhile, will be familiar with his work through his long-term relationship with Sigur Rós, which started with the folk-flavoured 2005 masterpiece Takk... and continued up until 2012's Valtari and whose instantly recognisable style and aural signature he helped to define. From rock to electronica and from krauty structures to three minute pop songs, Birgisson's galaxy knows no boundaries – which supports the artists he works with to go beyond their own limits and arrive at something truly unique.
Although working with him in person has by now become a dream for some musicians - including Swiss guitarist and vocalist Emmanuel de la Paix who sought him out explicitly because he "wanted to take the courage to explore new music dimensions" – Birgisson's name will forever be tied to the Sundlaugin studio, where he has realised almost all of his important projects. The complex has a fascinating history of its own, emerging from an abandoned pool and with colourful accounts of how the construction workers had to open the roof and lower the giant Neve console through the gaping hole with a crane. It's an association which Birgisson feels comfortable with, since it is really only at Sundlaugin that he enters into the right mindset for creating. In a way, he and his recording space have become one. Or, as he puts it himself: "I don't have a method, it's more about the place."
[Read our Emmanuel de la Paix interview]
[Read our Sóley interview]
[Read our Gyda Valtysdottir interview]
[Read our Tangerine Dream interview]
[Read our Roedelius interview]
Recommendations: Der Klang der Offenbarung des Göttlichen by Kjartan Sveinsson and The Visitors by Kjartan's friend and collaborator Ragnar Kjartansson. Der Klang is on Spotify and also available on vinyl and Visitors is on Youtube but should be enjoyed as an installation in a gallery.
If you enjoyed this interview with Birgir Jón Birgisson and would like to know more about his work, head over to his discogs page for a closer look at the different productions he's been involved in.
What was your first recording-related job - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started out as a sound engineer for the National Radio, totally wet behind the ears with no prior experience. Sound is extremely complex, diverse and fun to work with in so many shapes and forms.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as a producer and the transition towards your own voice?
I had the privilege of working with a producer called Ken Thomas on one of my first big projects, on Takk… by Sigur Rós.
If I was to point out a single most influential person who I have worked with, that would definitely be Ken Thomas.He taught me lot about how to place yourself as an engineer in the studio and in sessions. He had such a nice presence, really made an effort to make everyone feel good and confident in the studio. Ken was also very open to any kind of experiments on recording, for him there were no rules or "correct" way of doing things, very punk in a way. I worked a lot with him in my first years at Sundlaugin so I guess I took a lot of his ethics and aesthetics with me in to the sessions and projects that came later.
A great foundation to build on but after that there are numerous projects, artists, friends and others who have contributed to the way I have developed as an engineer or a producer as well as the working environment. Sundlaugin has always had great gear to work with which probably has an enormous impact as well.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Technology was a bit different when I started out, at the radio, everything was done on 2-track analog tape machines. You’d have 3-4 machines in each studio and even the news were cut to tape. Everything was also processed through outboard gear, no plug-ins, and mixed on consoles and after I started at Sundlaugin,
I mostly kept the same workflow on the Neve we had there, until 12-13 years ago … way after everyone had ProTools and Waves and UAD. Today we probably just have too many nice things to choose from ...
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
I guess I'm super lucky in that sense, Sundlaugin had some amazing pieces of equipment so I was spoilt from the start.
We had the Neve console and Soundscape recording system, a 24-track Otari MTR90 tape machine, a Neumann U47 valve microphone to start with and over time added some great outboard and mics. As things started to move into the computers, you could very much see the trend that most software processors, or plug-ins, are either direct emulations of or derived from hardware that was made in the pre-computer era. There are countless software versions of LA2A, 1176, Lexicon reverbs .... you name it. So in that sense, we just carried on working on the same gear to some extent, now we just twist the knobs with a mouse on a screen.
When you are running a commercial studio, the choices are ofter tied in with what the client wants or expects to be at his disposal in the studio so I guess that was the main motivation in the last decade or so. I'm pretty sure I would have made many different choices as a musician or buying for personal use.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
Growing up on analog gear and moving to digital has definitely been the biggest change, nothing comes near that. I'm actually quite surprised what small role software instruments play in the music I get to work with, I hardly see soft-synths or such. But that's probably more common in other genres.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
In my mind these are two interrelated things - I kind of see the sound as a tonal aspect but composition as a structural aspect, if that makes sense.
Sounds can easily be compositional as the structure can be very simple or just the fact that the sound changes or evolves can make it into a composition.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
Music making in my case is always a collaboration, since I'm always working on someone else's music. And they are most often face to face, although mixing can often be done remotely these days, artists send me the raw material and we exchange comments and ideas as the work takes shape.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
The sessions vary a lot but they used to be longer, start later and stretch into the evening or night, even. These days, artists tend to be more like the rest of us, they like to be able to be back home before dinner and start early.
I like to separate work and home life, I guess that's one of the things Ken Thomas taught me, not to bring the work home with you. It's also hard to keep those creative juices flowing for a long period of time, you have to be able to take your mind off things and let them digest subconsciously.
I know some artist who only do 6-8 hour sessions at a time and even take a break within that period.
Can you talk about a breakthrough recording, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
Don't know if I would call them breakthrough but some projects stand out to me, personally. Heima, a film about a series of free concerts that Sigur Rós did back in 2006, would probably score high on my list of projects that I'm particularly fond of.
It started with Sigur Rós asking Ken and me to record this a week or two before it was supposed to kick off. We went around Iceland in a home made OB truck, basically took all the gear we had at the studio and fit it into a Ford Econoline. We did 10-12 performances, some in really difficult locations like an abandoned herring factory in north Iceland. Really challenging but tremendous fun also.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
This sometimes comes naturally, I guess. It depends a lot on the material you are working with, sometimes the decision is to do as little as you can and sometimes, songs call for a more defining approach.
I don't have a method, it's more about the place. I guess if I'm at Sundlaugin, I kind of automatically go into that mindset and there is not much that distracts me when I'm there. On the other hand, I find it impossible to work at home, despite numerous attempts.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
I've heard first-hand stories of people who were about to commit suicide but got saved by music. People use music to support or enhance their emotions and artist play with this all the time, it's basically what music is about to a large extent.
I don't know if there are any unexplored territories when it comes to healing with music but we just have to look at the part music plays in religion for example to see how people have used the healing power of music for ages.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
I think the rules we have on those issues are quite fair but I also think that what makes a good artist is the ability to take in and use the influences he or she is under without others being able to identify where they get their influence from.
This is indeed a fine line because we all get our inspiration somewhere, weather we realize it or not.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
I guess smell hasn't been associated much with music so far but I think it's just a matter of time someone ties those two senses in a profound way.
The strongest connection when it comes to music is probably hearing and sight, they are like coffee and cream. But there is loads of opportunities in this field.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
I don't think I have ever regarded myself as an artist, I see myself as someone assisting artists to realize their vision. That said, I do have to have a certain approach to what I do and mine would probably be defined as an invisible catalyst.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
That would be hard to put in words but music can travel unfiltered between countries and continents, from one generation to the next without any need for translation.