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I celandic rock music is a strange and mysterious creation. Apart from Bjork and her former band The Sugarcubes, no Icelandic outfit has been so acclaimed or treated with such reverence across the globe as Sigur Ros.

Founder singer and guitarist Jon Por (Jonsi) Birgisson is a friendly, relaxed and down-to-earth character - not what you might expect from the leader of a band who create the kind of sonic cathedrals that might make even Thom Yorke and Radiohead green with envy.

The two bands actually worked together on the soundtrack for a theatrical dance piece called Split Sides, which was performed in New York back in 2003.

Sigur Ros take their name - which translates into English as Victory Rose - from Jonsi's sister. Now 15, she was born on the same day the band formed.

"It would be quite cool and funny if she grew up not to like the band - but she does," smiles Jonsi.

She's not alone. In the past decade and a half, the group have amassed a large international cult following. But their richly imaginative blend of prog, classical and experimental soundscapes accompany songs which are sung in a language few listeners can comprehend. But surprisingly, perhaps, as a child Jonsi loved London metal stars Iron Maiden.

"We met Maiden's Bruce Dickinson once on a show for Radio 6," says Jonsi. "He didn't believe that we actually had liked them, but I really did. I loved the energy, the power and the melodies.

"My first memory of music is playing a Beatles album too fast on my parent's stereo. I used to love doing that - it's how I learned to play the guitar."

Jonsi's haunting guitar - often played with a cello bow - is one of the distinctive elements that make the Sigur Ros sound unique.

"Our bass player was given a violin bow by our drummer as a present," he says. "He tried to play the bass with it but it didn't really work. I then picked it up and found it worked very well for getting that floating ambient sound."

As an isolated gay youth, Jonsi sought refuge in music.

"Being gay seemed natural, but I didn't come out until I was 21," he admits. "Living in the countryside meant I didn't meet anyone, so it was isolating. When I saw Little Britain, I even identified with the Only Gay In The Village guy."

After releasing two albums on The Sugarcubes' Bad Taste label, Sigur Ros rose to international fame with Agaetis Byrjun (An Alright Start) in 1999.

"It was a surprise but exciting and fun," says Jonsi. "We never considered the possibility we might be successful or playing in foreign countries. Being in a band was about being with friends and having fun - I never thought about being famous or anything."

Recently, of course, Iceland has become infamous for its part in the frozen bank funds row.

"I guess everyone hates Iceland now," Jonsi sighs. "It's crazy here. The currency is so low it feels like Iceland is going bust, but it's kind of cool - a wake up call. I think the country thought it was getting too good."

Maybe craziness is an Icelandic trait. One of Jonsi's most celebrated songs is called Within Me A Lunatic Sings. Is it a true story? "I think that's true for everyone," he smiles. "I definitely have one. And I'm certainly not telling you how it makes itself known."

Sigur Ros's UK tour begins on Tuesday at Wolverhampton Civic Hall, then around the country.

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BOW DOWN: Jonsi on stage; IN FROM THE COLD: Sigur Ros
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Oct 31, 2008
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