Múm's the Word

Iceland is a mysterious, mythical place -- and its exports are disturbingly adorable

In a culture bombarded by information, Múm offers plenty to attract your overtaxed attention: It's from Iceland! It records albums in remote lighthouses! Until recently, it included a pair of twin sisters whose singing voices resemble those of 6-year-old tree nymphs!

Yet play one of Múm's records in your bedroom after dark and you may feel as if you're entering a world in which our culture doesn't even exist. The trio -- multi-instrumentalists Gunnar Örn Tynes, Örvar Thóreyjarson Smárason, and Kristín Anna Valtysdóttir (Kristín's sister Gyda left the band about two years ago) -- is part of a busy little worldwide scene set on blurring the lines between live-instrument indie pop and cerebral electronic music. (The exact boundaries are as hotly contested among record-collecting Internet nerds as any other useless arcana, but if you're grasping for context, think of bands like the German electro-pop outfit the Notwist or Scottish knob-twirlers Boards of Canada or even American emo sweethearts the Postal Service).

Múm is a great manipulator of sound. Take a listen to nearly any of its songs and you'll discover a miniature wonderland of tones and textures. Consider "Don't Be Afraid, You Have Just Got Your Eyes Closed," a track from the band's 2002 album, Finally We Are No One. (Those titles give you an idea of where we're headed here?) We start out with a rhythmic crinkling, like a little kid trying to unwrap presents on Christmas Eve without awakening anyone; the crinkling slowly takes on sonic weight until it resembles a chopped-up drum-machine beat, at which point it is in fact a chopped-up drum-machine beat. Then a tinny keyboard figure cranks to life, a little descending line that might remind you of a music box you once received for Christmas -- the one you had to act surprised about receiving, since you'd already unwrapped it the night before, when everyone else was sleeping. Right when the music-box melody is about to drive you completely insane, a mellow horn line enters the mix and complements everything else so nicely that you think, "Hey, horns are nice. I'm no longer about to go completely insane." Then it's over.

OK, so there might not really be miniature unicorns in Iceland, but Múm's quirky glitch pop is just as cute.
OK, so there might not really be miniature unicorns in Iceland, but Múm's quirky glitch pop is just as cute.

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I realize that what I've just described isn't much of a song. There are no lyrics, of course, so you're no closer to unlocking the mysteries of Icelandic living when you finish it than you were when you started. And if you made a music video of the song, you'd probably be tempted to include scenes of leaves falling from trees, bread being prepared from scratch, or magical unicorns running along the beach.

But in the way that Múm controls the sounds in its music, the way it slides them against one another, getting little sparks of friction then separating them, there's a remarkable mood of privacy -- the kind of world a lightning bug might experience when it's caught and dumped into an old Mason jar. So it's not totally surprising when I call up Kristín at home in Iceland during a break in Múm's tour schedule and she nonchalantly dismisses the band's sound. (I actually called Gunnar first, but he told me he'd been on the phone all day and wondered if I could possibly call Kristín instead and ask her questions, since she was around and not doing anything important. I said sure and punched 47 more numbers into the phone.)

Looking to avoid the high-pressure experience of recording in a professional studio, the band tried to find a house in which to create Summer Make Good, its latest album. A friend's dad had a lighthouse, so they borrowed it. Kristín is especially reluctant to supply pat explanations when I suggest that since Björk and Sigur Rós are also Icelanders who specialize in making music that invites facile imaginings of magical landscapes and out-of-time rituals, everyone in Iceland must inhabit the same gently hallucinatory daydream.

"I sometimes feel like journalists have this idea about the Icelandic music scene of being very serious and landscape-y," Kristin says. "And then they talk about Sigur Rós and Björk and stuff. But for me, the music in Iceland and the people in Iceland, there's so much variety. It's not really the reality that's going on. But those are the bands that most people outside of Iceland know the best and connect to the landscape here and their ideas about the people."

Kristín pauses for a second, and I can hear the sound of dishes being washed in the background, as I have for the past 15 minutes. She lets out a little half-giggle. "I don't know if I'm making any sense at all."

In the end, the band's ethereal mystery may be impossible to crack. And that's just fine with Múm. When I tell her that despite the fair amount of singing she does on Summer, it's the band's most textural record yet, Kristín gets even more enigmatic. "Some people think this record is more about sounds and ambience and not songs," she says. "And some people think we're writing more proper songs. I think I'll leave it at that. It's good that people are confused about it. "

 
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