Iceland's múm Are at the Cutting Edge of Cool

From the Land of the Ice and Snow
With their dreamy-yet-unnerving sounds and surreal visuals, múm are at the cutting edge of Icelandic cool

In a 2007 survey conducted by the University of Iceland, 64 percent of citizens polled had some belief in alfar, or elves. Roads in Iceland are built circuitously, where no boulders are moved in the process, so as to not disrupt or anger the “hidden people” who might be living beneath.

Iceland is a place where bewitching natural phenomena such as volcanoes, geysers and the aurora borealis abound, where indie-folk/electronica outfit múmNs enchanting musical creations communicate in a sonic language even stranger than Icelandic—could it be elvish? The bandNs intricate compositions, full of soothing vocals and nontraditional instruments, make listeners simultaneously giddy, introspective and unnerved. And then suddenly calm. Finding glee in the juxtaposition of dreamy electronic stylings and lo-fi techniques, múm create a wavering balance that almost makes sense, but with a constant, vague undercurrent that evokes a compelling unease. ItNs like the record is playing backwards, and sometimes one can hear a layer of just that playing very softly in the background.

MúmNs quirky, artistic music videos are an integral part of their repertoire. The band have worked with a variety of video artists to create moving-image accompaniment to their elfin arrangements. Incorporating both Icelandic iconography and surreal fantasy tropes, they range widely in imagery from funhouse mirrors to goats to stop-motion graphic drawings.

Reached just before a sound check in Toronto last week, múm lead singer/guitarist Örvar Þóreyjarson Smárason discussed how the varied video artists used for the bandNs songs are selected. Conscious of the potential for syrupy arrangements, múm seem to make a concerted effort to incorporate a bit of the ugly and perplexing into their works.

“Since we come up with a theme and let the artist take off with it, itNs very important that there is a certain friction, to create nuances between the music and the videos,” Smárason said. “It canNt be too sweet, and there are actually a few múm videos that have never seen the light of day because the melding of music and visuals felt too saccharine.”

This not-too-sweet formula also pervades the music of múm (which, according to their publicist, “rhymes with ‘gloomN and ‘doomN”). Two years after the release of their fourth album, the eccentric Scandinavian pop maestros are touring to support their new Sing Along to Songs You DonNt Know. Quieter and a bit more morose than the bandNs prior output, Sing AlongNs songs fluidly sample, layer and re-configure sounds using a wealth of subtle methods and noisemaking techniques. From the complicated (computer sequencing, a full choir and studio mix tricks) to the quotidian (SmárasonNs parentsN parakeet, a half-full pot of water and a xylophone), múm draw on many different sources for musical sounds and ideas.

“We donNt really dissect what influences what in our music,” Smárason states. “Nature and our surroundings have a lot to do with the sound, but thatNs not the overarching theme of this record. And though there are some elements that are specifically Icelandic, like traditional folk and pop music from the N50s and N60s, we look to all kinds of music for inspiration.”

Fellow Icelanders Elly Vilhjálmsdóttir and Magnus Blondal Jóhannsson seem especially influential in múmNs songs, as do the Sugarcubes (of course) and the generation of similar artists popular in the late N80s. Using a lot of piano, guitar, bass and drums, múm also deliver the kalimba, ukulele, marimba and vibraphone to their sonic tapestry. The current tour includes the two founding members, with Smárason on guitar and Gunnar Örn Tynes on bass, and the lineup is expanded to include friends Eiríkur Orri Ólafsson (trumpet/piano/keyboards), Hildur Guðnadóttir (cello/vocals), Sigurlaug Gísladóttir (vocals/ukulele/percussion), Róbert Reynisson (guitar/ukulele) and Samuli Kosminen (drums/percussion).

In the past, water has been a crucial component to múmNs music: Liquid noises show up frequently in recordings, the band staged the score for Sergei EisensteinNs epic Battleship Potemkin at both the Brooklyn Lyceum and SpainNs Gijon Film Festival, and they also once performed at an Icelandic public pool and used underwater speakers so listeners had to be submerged to hear anything. This time around, múmNs members assert in their press kit that the new record is “an ode to the light in its different shapes . . . from a fading bulb to the blinding sun.”

These distinctive shades of light (and dark) are evident in the haunting melodies and mesmerizing rhythms of the new album, where those paying attention can deconstruct the complex layering of musical artistry . . . or simply enjoy a winding path paved in an assortment of intellectual fairy dust.

múm play with Sin Fang Bous at the Yost Theater, 307 Spurgeon St., Santa Ana, (888) 862-9573. Nov. 7, 8 p.m. $18 in advance; $20 at the door. All ages.

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