Valgeir Sigurðsson in The Spotlight @ www.icelandicmusic.is
Producer, mixer, composer, engineer, programmer and musician Valgeir Sigurðsson has been a part of the music scene for over a decade, working his studio magic on innovative homegrown artists like Björk and Múm and international luminaries such as Bonnie 'Prince' Billy and Howie B. He set up his Greenhouse Studios in 1997, which continue to go from strength to strength, and in 2005 started his Bedroom Community label, putting out music by himself and composers such as Nico Muhly and Ben Frost. Valgeir recently released his highly anticipated debut album Ekvílibríum and is about to embark on a European tour alongside another Bedroom Community signing, Sam Amidon.
What got you started in music – was there a spark that kicked it all off?
My older cousins turned me onto punk and new wave when I was around 9; there was no way back.
Did you want to be a musician or a producer first of all?
I didn't find out until later what a producer was, but I was set on making music professionally without knowing what or how exactly. I think that it is hard or even impossible to plan a career in music, but things developed and I found a place in the studio where I was much more comfortable than on stage. I'm just recently starting to really enjoy performing my own music live.
What specifically led you into the studio/engineering in particular?
I found a job in a tiny studio in Reykjavik when I was 16 or 17, after I went there to record some demos of my songs. I just liked it so much and started hanging out there all the time. I ended up buying the gear with borrowed money and running it as a business for some time before I sold it again and headed out to learn more about recording in London.
You’ve worked with a lot of artists over the years. Can you name a couple of the most inspiring/pleasurable and tell us why they were interesting or good to work with?
My long time working for Björk was both inspirational and educational, her outlook on the whole music industry is also very refreshing and I got to know a lot of that. I also really learned a lot from Thor Eldon, the ex-Sugarcubes guitarist. I knew him before I knew Björk – he introduced us. I can also mention many others that have been a huge inspiration, each in a different way, I’m constantly learning and drawing from these relationships, past and present. I rely on my own filters and taste, but ideally a collaboration should open your eyes and ears to new possibilities and be a learning experience.
Was Björk the first major artist you worked with in the role of producer?
Before my relationship with Björk started I had been doing studio work for years, with some Icelandic bands and with my own music etc. but I had only recently started the Greenhouse studio. To correct a common misunderstanding, I was first and foremost a programmer and an engineer when I was working with Björk. I was there to help her shape the ideas that she had and run the studio operation. She never asked me to produce with her, but she generously recognized production input from me on a few occasions. Working with her opened many doors for me but she needs to get a full credit as the producer of her work. She often works with co-producers, but choosing the right person for the job is one of her fortes.
More recently you worked with Will Oldham a.k.a. Bonnie Prince Billy; how was that experience?
I worked on his album “The Letting Go”, and it was an extreme experience by all accounts. Difficult, enjoyable, scary and greatly rewarding.
When did you set up Greenhouse and what was the key aim? Has it surpassed what you intended it to be by now?
I started it as a project studio in 1997, I figured out early on that if I wanted to master some technology and be able to use it as a creative tool I had to have unlimited access to it. It started with a very basic setup in a raw and undesigned office space, it served me well and soon I got some great projects coming through. After some time it became clear that I would need to move to a new place so I started to look around and I finally found a great space, a house that had been built as a workshop for an artist. I didn't have a lot of gear and I didn't set out to start a full commercial recording studio right away, but rather continue to develop it as a recording-workshop. The studio has now developed into what I envisioned it becoming back then and it's a place that is built to my ideas of 'the ideal music workspace' and can also function on a commercial level.
Did your Bedroom Community label grow in the same organic way?
Starting a label was an idea that I had carried around for a few years, but it started to materialize around 2005-2006. I kept coming across artists or projects that I’ve wanted to be able to develop and work with, but when there is no hope for the material to ever see the light of day it just seemed too wasteful to spend time and energy on such projects, and that’s a real shame. I had also been feeling a need to get my own music out, but I would probably be the last person to approach anyone with a label and ask him to release my music. When I had hooked up with Nico Muhly and Ben Frost there was no doubt in my mind that between the three of us there would be a solid base to build a label upon. I also know that it would be highly unlikely that any other label than my own would allow these artists to make the records that I thought they should be making.
What plans do you have for the label in the next few months?
I'm releasing a new Nico Muhly album, titled “Mothertongue” at the end of May. It's a 'big' album consisting of 3 works. Ben Frost is far down the line with his new album and I am starting to work on ideas for a new album with Sam Amidon. So we are keeping it in the family still, but some other things and projects are on the horizon too.
Your debut album “Ekvilibrium” took a while to come – is that because you were busy or just because it wasn’t the right time?
I had to find the right time and make the right time. It seemed I could not wait longer.
Was the record what you wanted it to be, or did it change dramatically from its initial premise?
It was and is exactly what I wanted. But it's not what I want the next album to be, if you know what I mean...
You’re going on tour soon – how are you feeling about that? Have you toured much in the past?
I have toured here and there in the past with some bands I played with and recorded. Never for long with my own material though, and I don't really see that happening, although I do really enjoy performing now. This tour is two weeks long and it feels really great. I look forward to being able to develop the material with the line up that I have now and seeing how that experience will translate into the next album.