By Raymond Simon
Even in the information age Iceland remains a curiosity to most Americans. This tiny island nation, sitting in the North Atlantic, roughly halfway between Great Britain and Greenland, is home to, at most, 330,000 inhabitants. Until the country’s banking system collapsed a little over a year ago, we Americans knew very little about Iceland except the rumor that many of its adults believe in elves, that it supplies a large proportion of competitors to strong man competitions broadcast on ESPN, Björk, and Sigur Rós.
But if Sindri Már Sigfússon and his compatriots in Seabear have anything to say about it, that may soon change. In March, the Icelandic folk-rockers put out their second release, We Built a Fire, an 11-track LP of charming, off-kilter songs sung entirely in English, which should help make the record more accessible to American audiences.
There’s no great mystery behind the band’s decision to sing in English, according to Sigfússon. “When I started to try and make music, I was probably trying to imitate my musical heroes, and ever since I can remember my musical heroes have been singing in English: Michael Jackson, Prince, Guns N’ Roses,” he says. “I don’t think it matters if you sing in English, Icelandic or Swedish…If it’s good, it’s good.”
Music lovers here in America will soon get the chance to catch the Icelandic septet live and judge for themselves just how good its music is. The band will be packing up its mandolins, ukuleles, autoharps and fiddles – along with the guitar, bass, and drums – and embark on three-week tour of the states beginning with an appearance at South by Southwest (SXSW) on March 17th, and hitting Kung Fu Necktie in Philly on the 24th.
Playing at the venerable Austin music fest will give Seabear a showcase in front of tastemakers and music aficionados, but the band is unlikely to limit itself to the beards-and-skinny-jeans set. Sigfússon’s music idols all transcended their original genre (R&B, dance, and heavy metal respectively) to reach mass audiences, and, in its own sly way, Seabear tries not to limit itself.
It doesn’t hurt that they’ve already had one of their songs placed on a popular American television show. “Cat Piano,” a cut off the band’s 2007 debut album, The Ghost That Carried Us Away, appeared in an episode of the CW’s popular teen drama, Gossip Girl, during the 2008 season. This moody number, whose hushed vocals and pensive lyrics contrast with cheerful xylophone and old-timey banjo, was unlikely ever to get extensive radio play, but, thanks to television, Seabear has now reached untold numbers of tween girls (and their moms).
That break was a stroke of good luck for Seabear, one Sigfússon views pragmatically. “I don’t mind my music being in movies and television shows or even adverts,” he states with refreshing candor. “That stuff pays really well, and the Gossip Girl thing paid for a whole tour we did.”
Given the changes in how music is produced, distributed, and consumed, the Icelandic troubadour views such synergies as a viable way for artists to continue making music. “I don’t think people realize how hard it is for [a] band with an indie crew to tour anymore,” he says. “You used to go on tour and you knew you were going to lose money on it, but more people would buy your records. But these days, people aren’t buying records anymore so it’s kind of a hard situation.”
Fortunately, these changes in the marketplace appear to have had little adverse impact on Sigfússon’s productivity. This past October he released a solo record, Clangour, under the rubric Sin Fang Bous. Rolling Stone senior editor David Fricke favorably compared that work to Beck. If that release slipped by you, no need to worry: Sigfússon is already hard at work on his next solo album.
In the meantime, this Icelandic music multitasker dexterously juggles projects. For one thing, he writes Sin Fang Bous as being more studio-driven than his work with Seabear. But it’s primarily how he writes for each creative outlet that helps Sigfússon keep them sorted out. “For each album I like to think of a theme that I write the lyrics in,” he explains. “For Clangour, the theme was to listen to my crazy voice, which everyone has in the back of their head, I think, if they listen hard enough. For Seabear’s We Built a Fire album, I was thinking about rural things and relationships of people living in a countryside environment, but not in any specific place or time.”
Sigfússon’s band members help him flesh out this rural vision on the band’s sophomore effort, playing a battery of acoustic instruments associated with more folk-oriented music, like the musical saw and fiddles that enliven the record’s second track, “Fire Dies Down,” or the springy banjoes and galumphing tempo of the sweet, silly track, “Wooden Teeth.”
It would be a mistake, however, to pigeonhole this shambolic septet as a roots act, because Sigfússon’s songwriting is too slippery for that. Pop flourishes crop up unexpectedly, tempos shift, and dynamics vary, sometimes all in one song. “I think lots of the time we were thinking, ‘Let’s try not to do the thing that would be typical to do in this song,'” he says.
In the studio, band members had no predetermined template to follow. Even the songwriter’s vaguely rural concept was honored more in the breach than in the observance, which is why the record happily accommodates songs like “Softship,” an unabashed indie pop-rocker, with a peppy beat, female harmonies, a brief guitar solo, and the Pixiesh hard-soft sound of “Warm Blood.”
For other artists, such an approach to songwriting and recording might lead to aimless jams or avant-garde contrariness, but that’s not the case for Seabear. The loose-knit Icelandic collective’s muse happily allows them to explore without ever losing sight of the sweetness and pleasure of music played with an appreciative audience.