When Geza met Jónsi

For Sigur Rós frontman, Jónsi, making scents comes second only to making music. On his world tour, he took time out to hang with Geza Schoen at his Berlin laboratory. Listen in...

When Geza met Jónsi

Jónsi – I have always been obsessed by smells, probably a bit like you. When I get a book the first thing I do is try to smell the print. A few years ago I started playing around with essential oils. When that got limiting I got into aroma-chemicals. That’s when it becomes this crazy endless wide world. [shows Geza some pictures] This is my portable perfume organ.

Geza – You’ve never had any trouble at the airport?

Jónsi – I just don’t put it in my hand luggage... And this is my perfumer’s organ in LA, where I live part time now. It’s an old church organ. I took the insides out and kept the shell.

Geza – I like it - the perfumer’s organ in the musical organ.

It would be cool to correlate each molecule to a particular musical note – and play it.

Jónsi – There’s definitely a connection between music and perfumery. I would like to go deeper into it. You know those graphs they produce when they are analysing exactly what is in a perfume?

Geza – Gas chromatography – mass spectrometry, yeah, where you identify each aroma-molecule in a formula by the spike it makes on the graph.

Jónsi – It would be cool to be able to correlate the spike made by each molecule to a particular musical note – and play it.

Geza – Yeah, that would be really cool... So here we are in the lab, is there anything you have always wanted to smell?

Jónsi – I’ve heard about this crazy vetiver molecule that smells so good but I don’t know its name.

Geza – Let me show you a few things. This is vetiverol, which is the alcohol... And this is vetiveryl acetate.

Jónsi – You use this instead of vetiver essential oil?

I’ve heard about this crazy vetiver molecule that smells so good...

Geza – If I don’t want too much of the smoky, leathery note in vetiver, yes. Vetiveryl acetate is much cleaner. Lets try it first because it’s the least strong of the vetivers.

Jónsi – Why isn’t it stronger?

Geza – Because of the acetalyzation process. You mix vetiver oil with acetic acid, and that takes out the smoky and bitter notes and adds a grapefruit note.

Jónsi – [smelling vetiveryl acetate] That’s incredible! Wow. That’s like - Jesus ... that’s amazing... it has this dark, deep, so spicy feeling...

Geza – Yeah and this little grapefruit note sitting on top which I love. Vetiveryl acetate is the molecule in Molecule 03. Let’s smell pure vetiver oil now .. this one from IFF is the best.... €350 a kilo.

Jónsi – [sniffing the blotter] That’s full on. Super-grassy.

Geza – Yeah and not too smoky.

Jónsi – I love the vetiveryl acetate. If only I could pump it up somehow. My dream is to create a potent, spicy vetiver. It’s really hard for me.

My philosophy of perfume is that it’s not about what you put in, its about what you leave out.

Geza – You’re self-taught, right?

Jónsi – Yeah. I’m trying to absorb everything, but perfumery is so secretive, no-one wants to show you their formulas.

Geza – I never understood that. Imagine if a musician would say, ‘I’m not going to show you my music’. I have absolutely zero problem showing somebody my formulas. Here ...

Jónsi – That's so cool man, that’s so cool. [they go over some of Geza’s formulas and start to smell the ingredients...]

Jónsi – Do you have a secret power ingredient?

Geza – Well I have some secret ingredients if you like, such as orris.

Jónsi – Kind of like ionone, it boosts things up?

Geza – It adds a soft powdery note. It’s hard to detect but if you have a trial formula with orris and another trial without it you can immediately smell the difference.

Must be the same in music? If you want to create something new, you leave out the chords that sound generic.

Jónsi – Mmm. I was trying to do a gasoline smell.

Geza – Difficult.

Jónsi – I put in dihydro jasmonate, para cresyl methyl ether – I really love that, it’s so potent - methyl salicylate and other stuff. It’s pretty close to gasoline. I love industrial smells.

Geza – So have you smelt this? [he gets Boris Bidjan Saberi’s fragrance].

Jónsi – Boris Bidjan Saberi? Hey, I’m wearing his sweater. [sniffs Boris’ fragrance] You made this for him?

Geza – We worked on it together.

Jónsi – It’s really good – really potent. I love the smoky, leathery element.

It’s pretty close to gasoline – I love industrial smells.

Geza – It’s basically a huge chunk of Iso E with a few other things like fig, stemone with gamma octalactone. It has 11 ingredients. It had to have 11 coz Boris is mad for the number 11. He’s got a huge big 11 tattooed on his back.

Jónsi – What do you put in to add body to your fragrances?

Geza – The body is always where I rather leave things out.

Jónsi – You don’t lose power by doing that?

Geza – A bit but I’m not a big fan of floral hearts. Most perfumers work within the industry so they have to use these ingredients to compete with the other perfumers’ hearts. My fragrances are more about big top notes and fresh and spicy bases.

Jónsi – Do you use a lot of musks?

Geza – Less than most. Musk is a typical cheap big fat ingredient you use like a filler. If you bang 10 -20% in there, it lasts on skin. But it also smells like every other perfume.

Jónsi – Yeah of course. Right.

Geza – My philosophy of perfume is that it’s not about what you put in, its about what you leave out. So the big musks like galaxolide and ethylene brassylate – I leave them out. Must be the same in music? If you want to create something new you avoid the chords that sound generic.

Jónsi – Oh yeah for sure... I know what you mean about musks but I am just getting into them. I had to learn slowly how to smell them.

Geza – It’s exactly as you phrase it. You have to learn how to smell the musks.

Jónsi – I just got into galaxolide actually.

Geza – It’s a great smell – clean, lovely, cocooning. It’s one of the top ten ingredients of all time. The whole world wants it – in large quantities.

Jónsi – I’ve also been getting into Iso E Super. I’m starting to appreciate the sweetness... the spicy element. I remember when I first smelt Molecule 01 I was like ‘hmm what is this all about?’ You get this whiff of something so good off people and then it vanishes. It’s a secretive scent. You feel compelled to ask them, ‘what is that?’

I remember when I first smelt Molecule 01 – you get this whiff of something so good and then it vanishes.

Geza – Yeah it’s like the best of everything is in Iso E... You seem to know an awful lot. I’m surprised because I’ve talked to other people who fancy doing this at home and they don’t know that much. Can we smell some of your fragrances?

Jónsi – Yeah. I have 120 ... 121... and 122 with me. So, shall I spray?

Geza – [sniffing 120] Are you wearing this one yourself today?

Jónsi – Yeah. I’m really into that smoky kind of smell.

Geza – It smells very good.

Jónsi – This is 122. I just made this yesterday.

Geza – Hey, so you are really working on this every day? A lot of incense in here. But the first one, 120, smells even more of incense.

Jónsi – And there’s cade oil in there. I love cade... And then we go to 121...

Geza – This one smells like gunpowder. Look man, you really seem to have a hand for this. Why not come up with an Icelandic niche brand?

Look man, you seem to have a hand for this. Why not come up with an Icelandic niche brand?

Jónsi – Well, I have been working with two women who distil oils from Icelandic plants and trees. If I ever did my own brand it would be cool to have Icelandic elements in there.

Geza – You’re good enough to do your own fragrances, that's what I would say.

Jónsi – Have you any advice on how to improve these ones?

Geza – Well the only thing is maybe I would take the pine a bit down in 120. Too much pine makes it clinical. I use pine oil as well but in most cases I kick it out in the end and use juniper berry and cypress instead.

Jónsi – I don’t actually have juniper berry oil.

Geza – That's impossible. It’s fuckin’ fantastic. I’ll give you some...

Jónsi – Great! Thanks for showing me all your formulas man. Nobody does that.

Geza – Yeah well if you don’t share stuff you don’t grow.

Jónsi – Yeah!