Icelandic IDM Outfit Conjures the Ghosts of Youth

First appeared in the Seattle Weekly, August, 2002

No matter how old and crotchety we get there is always a little bit of the child we once were, buried deep inside us. Random sensory information—a smell or a sound—can sometimes trigger a flood of memories, tapping into that inner-child that we’ve buried so well. And occasionally, a band comes along that has a knack for channeling that childhood vibe, for capturing the essence of youth in their sound.

“I had a place to run around when I was little, a big hill with trees and run-down bunkers and tunnels from the war,” says Múm’s Örvar Þóreyjarson Smárason, attempting to explain how this Icelandic quartet so perfectly captures the essence of childhood. “It's the intense senses and feelings and thoughts that all blend together into being a child.”

He and his bandmates—Gunnar Örn Tynes, and twin sisters Gyða and Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir—recently released Finally We Are No One, their second album of lilting melodies laid delicately and carefully over bubbling, glitchy beats and shimmering electronic washes. They avoid the usual electronic outfit’s tendency to become addicted to computer sounds and samples, incorporating glockenspiel, accordion, guitar, cello and other traditional instruments into their music.

“Playing around is important for us,” explains Örvar, “enjoying and trying out different things.” His “playing around” with computers dates back to when his parents bought their first computer and young Örvar started experimenting with programming BASIC. After hitching up with Gunnar, they discovered the classically trained Valtýsdóttir sisters playing Pixies covers at a community center. They found that the girls’ whispery vocals and multi-instrumental skills were an ideal match for their dual laptop trickery.

After an early cassette-only release, the foursome released their debut album, Yesterday Was Dramatic Today Is OK, on Iceland’s Thule Records in 2000 and were quickly gobbled up by both the international music press and the European IDM community. Comparisons were drawn to Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada and even Scottish baroque popsters Belle & Sebastian (with whom the band has since become friends). All of which these mellow middle-class kids took in stride.

“Yes, we have had a warm reception, but we don’t feel any pressure because of it,” quips Örvar.

Their adoption by the European experimental electronic scene led to a number of remixes by laptop heavyweights like μ-ziq, Christian Kleine, ISAN, Phonem and B. Fleischman. In 2001, Morr Music—a hip German digital pop label—put together a number of mixes and some new tracks for Please Smile My Noise Bleed. Múm got in on the other end of the remix game as well, reworking tracks by acts such as Italian/Icelandic chanteuse Emiliana Torrini and the last big thing to come out of Iceland, Sigur Ros.

Apparently their connection with musicians from around Europe hasn’t made Múm tired of Iceland, either. When asked whom they would like to remix, Örvar replies, “It would be good to remix Gunnar Thordarson (a popular and prolific Icelandic songwriter). But he is old and Icelandic, so maybe that does not count. But he has written many songs that would be good to play around with.”

After Thule Records sold a Múm song to Sony without asking the band, thus breaking their contract, the foursome moved to Fat Cat for Finally We Are No One. The record finds the band leaning a little more towards the melodic, less towards the twittering electronic meanderings.

“There is more focus on Finally We Are No One,” admits Örvar. [Recording] “Yesterday was more of just letting it come out the way it wanted. It’s not any direction that we have thought about heading in. Maybe the next album will just roll itself out.”

They don’t have a set method of coming up with their ideas. “We compose in many ways. Sometimes the beats come first and melodies later or first there are recorded sounds and then there is a guitar. Or there is a tune and then there is everything else.  I can’t really explain. I can tell you that there is a lot of time spent with an instrument or in front of the computer or both.”

Regardless how it came about, these four unassuming kids from Iceland have made one of the best records of the year; a hypnotizing and inviting blend of quirky acoustic instrumentation and cutting-edge electronica.

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