Optimistic, Hopeless, Content

múm on music, culture, values, protests and the dying afterparty
20.8.2009
Words by Haukur S. Magnusson
Relentlessly experimental electro/pop/whatever outfit múm are arguably
one of Iceland’s most successful musical exports to date. Since forming
in 1997, the band has released five successful, highly influential LPs
and toured the world extensively, consistently adding to their cache of
friends and fans each time around.

Throughout the band’s life, its members have also diligently
represented certain values that – while certainly not prevalent in
Icelandic society as a whole – are held in high regard within some of
their generation’s artistic and creative niches. Although never loudly
political, they have, along with their peers in bands such as Sigur Rós
(and, in fact, most other notable Icelandic outfits), continually
rejected the market values, greed and unfettered capitalism that many
believe lead Iceland to the brink of whatever it’s on the brink of
right now.

Labelling them as great thinkers or spokespeople of their generation
would be unfair, but to a casual observer of Icelandic music it seems
evident that they are rather influential in their MOs and values, and
that they partly embody the hearty and hard-working DIY spirit that the
local scene celebrates and is in turn celebrated for.

In any case, they will release their sixth long player this month, the
decidedly brilliant Sing Along To Songs You Don’t Know. This provided
Grapevine with a good opportunity to catch up with founding members
Gunnar Örn Tynes and Örvar Þóreyjarson Smárason, learn about them and
their new album as well as their thoughts on some of what’s been going
on in Iceland lately. So we met for coffee and conversation.

A frightening heap of events

-Who are you? What are you doing here today? Describe the chain of events that lead to our meeting here over coffee.


Örvar Þóreyjarson Smárason: A very long chain. Gunni [Gunnar
Tynes] and I met at my 19th birthday, where he showed up uninvited.
That was where the chain started.

Gunnar Tynes: A frightening heap of events has lead to this very moment.

-For the uninitiated, what have you been doing since the two of you formed múm twelve years ago?

ÖÞS: We’ve mainly been making music. We’ve been hyperactive at
that. We started playing together in a band called Andhéri and there
discovered that the two of us had a lot of drive to make a lot of
music, to work hard and create together. We eventually got pulled into
working together, as the rest of Andhéri kind of dropped out.  

GT: We were kind of like the extreme trainspotters or aircraft model enthusiasts, in

that we wanted to devote all our energy to making music. To us, it was
more than a hobby. Lots of people around us wanted music as a
diversion, when they weren’t tending to their real lives. There really
wasn’t anything else we wanted to do. We were too obsessive.

-Andhéri was a great indie rock band, although extremely different from
your initial output as múm. Did you discover that you shared aesthetics
or an interest in specific genres before forming múm?  

ÖÞS: I think we sensed immediately that we were both open to all of the
possibilities present in music. We realized instantly that we weren’t
interested in confining ourselves to making indie rock. We were fine
with sounding like Slint, but there are just so many possibilities out
there; there’s no reason to confine yourself to a specific sound.

GT: I think what united us more than anything was our drive rather than
any shared aesthetic or taste.  The most important thing about creative
cooperation is bringing different ideas to the table, mediating and
then uniting them.

Playing explorer...

-The process of creating electronic music has changed a lot since
your first releases, when the process was a lot more complicated. Was
making those first múm albums a learning process for you?
 

ÖÞS: Definitely. The main difference is that the technology has
changed and advanced; it’s harder for us to play explorer now as
everything is much more accessible. Starting múm, or at least making
those first albums, would probably be harder for us in this
environment. Or at least the music would have sounded a lot different.

GT: Still, that’s something we continue doing. We keep searching
for new grounds to explore and map out, this is partly why we moved
away from making purely electronic music, we were feeling too confident
on that terrain.

ÖÞS: And then we’ve perhaps taken part in shaping the landscape
of today, the methods that are now prevalent. We’ve been working in the
field for over a decade and helped develop some things. Like Ableton
Live, which is now the main program for making electronic music. We
made friends with the creators of that program before it came out. That
was in Berlin ten years ago, when they were a bunch of geeks like us.
We’ve been in touch with them since and had a say in the development of
the software. It’s odd to think that Live is nearing its ten-year
anniversary. That software has definitely had a big impact on the way
music is made and performed on stage.

-As a music enthusiast, I get the impression that múm has
contributed somewhat to the sounds and methods of modern music, at
least in certain corners of it. I know it’s an odd question, but do you
feel... influential? Do you hear yourselves in the works of others?


ÖÞS: I oftentimes feel like we’ve influenced some good things with some people...

GT: I think you can’t necessarily hear it, if it’s even the
case. I mean, most of the music that influences me doesn’t necessarily
affect the way my songs will sound... I think that if we’ve had any
influence, it’s mostly in our open attitudes and willingness to
experiment.

ÖÞS: At least people now seem more open to using different instruments and mixing up styles. Being open and honest.

GT: If we have indeed had any influence, we hope that’s it.

Fiscal concerns

-You’ve been making a living off being musicians for a while now; this is uncommon for Icelandic artists...


ÖÞS: Yes, this has been our day job for around eight years.
We... we just basically do all we can – a lot of hard work – to make
some sort of living off this.

GT: We’ve had to work hard, making a living off this is only
possible by being diligent. You can do anything you love for a job so
long as you’re diligent enough, if you put enough work into it.

ÖÞS: It’s sort of a risk, though. You need to accept the fact
that you have no job security at all, you never know if you can make
ends meet two months from now. And be content. Like a lot of people
are.

-Speaking of fiscal matters, in the immediate aftermath of our
ECONOMIC COLLAPSE, a lot of people went after artists and musicians for
not being critical enough in the years leading up to it, the so-called
“Goodyears.” That they were sorta off in their own worlds, not paying
attention to corruption and social affairs. I felt the criticism was
unwarranted... for instance, you have always seemed to publicly
champion different values than those that lead the people of Iceland
astray, swimming against the mainstream that was dancing around golden
calves...


ÖÞS: Well, I think it’s safe to say that we were mocked and
viewed with a suspicion by mainstream society during the boom years,
for not partaking in the feast and representing different values than
those in vogue at the time. And then when everything went to hell, us
and other artists were singled out again. That was kind of unsettling,
there are probably few social groups that participated less in all the
boom bullshit than artists and musicians.

And there are in fact few social groups better equipped to deal with
the aftermath of the economic collapse than musicians; there’s never
any job security, there’s no grants... it’s a profession that has come
to expect, and live on, nothing.

-The criticism seemed unfair. Musicians like yourselves and Sigur
Rós, for instance, always seemed to endorse modest and egalitarian
views, speaking up against materialism and greed, even if you weren’t
beating the message into folk’s heads...

ÖÞS:
People tend to forget that politics are just as much about
presenting different views and ideas for the future, different
possibilities and portraying different worlds. Underlining the fact
that the world we currently inhabit isn’t the only one to be had. I
feel this is something we’ve tried to do. We’ve always had our opinions
and given them out freely, without necessarily spelling them out in our
lyrics or album covers.

The hangover has begun...”

-Still, as a band you’ve been fairly politically active, playing
benefits and supporting various causes. And you were active in the
January protests...


ÖÞS: Those rewarding times. You felt as if there were these
amazing things happening, everyone had a tension in their heart. Since
then people have come down, like they will from any sort of high. The
hangover has begun...  

-Are you disappointed with the results?

ÖÞS: Well, who isn’t? I can’t imagine that anyone that protested in January is happy with the way things have developed since.

-Explain how. When you read about Iceland’s situation in the
international press, the story usually goes that in the aftermath of
the collapse, the people of Iceland successfully drove the government
away from power by protesting and have since then been rebuilding
society.


ÖÞS: Most of the protestors were hoping for something much more.
There was a great demand for a new republic, the foundations of a new
system, a massive restructuring and clean-up. A new way of running
things. Those ideas have all been swept under the rug, even
Borgarahreyfingin [The Citizen’s Movement – a grassroots political
party that sprang from protests. They ran in last April’s parliamentary
elections and won four seats] is on its way to becoming part of the
same old rotten system. Right now it seems everyone is thinking of ways
to get back to what we were doing pre-collapse.

GT: The situation now could be likened to a messy afterparty,
the house has been thrashed and no one has the energy or will to start
cleaning up. The party people had these big ideas at one time, but now
everyone is just making calls, trying to score more booze.

ÖÞS: Right now, the only issues that are being discussed are the
IMF loan and the Icesave agreement. How to score the next fix, to
increase our currency reserves. During those days in January, I don’t
think anyone imagined that these were the only things our society would
be emphasising.

-How should things have progressed differently in your opinion?

ÖÞS: All that energy that was floating around at that time
should have been steered into more constructive pathways. It should
have been used to write a new constitution and to re-envision what sort
of society we want to build for the long run. A re-imagining of what it
is to be Iceland. The only demand that was taken seriously was that for
an election, and that kind of corked it.

GT: The problem is how late it all happened. That revolution
should have happened two years earlier. One of the problems was that
when it finally happened, we were in such a ridiculous situation that
the biggest demand was just for it to stop. Right away. There wasn’t a
lot of room to try and envision what should replace it.

-You guys aren’t very optimistic, I take it?

ÖÞS: I am optimistic about life and for humanity and all of us,
but not particularly when it comes to public affairs in Iceland,
cleaning up the corruption etc.

And the music?

-Moving on to merrier subjects, we do have a lot to be thankful for in
Iceland, not the least the awesome music scene we enjoy and all the
good people that contribute to it...
 

ÖÞS: Exactly, that should be celebrated. It’s great how many
good people there are making music and trying their best to entertain
and surprise themselves and their friends.

GT: And the furthest thing from anyone’s mind is making money or
making a living. I mean, getting paid to play is excellent, everyone
should get paid. But you rarely do in the Icelandic music scene, and no
one seems to mind. Folks are doing it for the joy.  

-A lot of international publications actually contact the Grapevine
to talk about Iceland’s music scene, almost on a daily basis. All of
them are surprised and impressed at the proficiency and output of the
Icelandic music scene; they want to know why and how. We sometimes tell
them it’s because no one gets paid, that people are in it for different
reasons...


ÖÞS: I think that’s definitely a contributing factor to the
atmosphere. People seem to have different motives than earning a
paycheck.

GT: I agree. I believe musicians and artists contribute greatly
and positively to Iceland’s image abroad, and the country’s appeal to
tourists and travellers. They should get a tax discount.

ÖÞS: A tax discount, hahaha.

GT: Why not? Almost no one in these fields is making a decent
living, and the amount of positive publicity a lot of them raise for
Iceland is invaluable. That contributes directly to the country’s
wealth. Whenever we tour, we are interviewed numerous times and we
always have to answer a million questions about the country. I’d like
to see any ambassador or tourism spokesperson field as many questions
about visiting Iceland as we do.

ÖÞS: But the feeling that we’re some kind of tourism officers
whenever we tour abroad is still really depressing. Working for the
tourism propaganda department.... it feels weird. I try and slip in
things about whaling or the aluminium smelting plants, just to clear my
conscience.

-Still, you may have a point about the tourism. This spring, we
reported on an American Express poll that named Iceland one of the
world’s ten hottest travel destinations, especially citing the local
music scene as one of the main reasons why. To quote the poll:
“"Iceland is the locale for those in search of a vibrant music scene
with popular indie bands, punk rock, electronic music and Icelandic
folk music acts.”


GT: Yeah. I guess this means we should pour more money into
aluminium smelting plants. Go talk to Rio Tinto. Talk to
aluminium-assed panty soilers. Lick their behinds. That’s the only
thing they think of...

Music Palace Conference Centre

-You’ve been active in the local music scene since 1995 at least. How do you feel it’s evolved?


GT: It’s great. Just great. There’s so much renewal going on all
the time, it’s encouraging and heart-warming to watch these new kids
with their new bands and ideas and fun things come forth every year.

ÖTS: A lot of people have been expecting it to falter or fade
away for the longest time, since the nineties. That a dry spell was in
order. But it keeps getting better. We have a very healthy scene here.

GT: It’s sad, though, how little the community or powers that be
do to encourage and nurture it. Reykjavík is full of empty buildings at
the moment, yet acquiring a practice space is as hard as always. There
seems to be no ambition to help these kids. We’ve been playing in bands
for over ten years and getting access to rehearsal spaces has never
ever been easy, for instance. The only time was when Björgólfur
[Guðmundsson, recently bankrupt bankster] lent a building he wasn’t
using for Klink & Bank. It’s difficult to understand why the city
or state don’t do anything to encourage or support young musicians,
maybe by sponsoring a rehearsal space.

It’s actually sort of ridiculous to think that this great treasure of
musicians and artists has been growing in Iceland over the last 30
years and there’s no respect... nothing. Not a nod from the powers that
be. Instead they build a ludicrous ‘Music Palace.’

ÖÞS: Actually, it’s a conference centre....

And that new album

-Speaking of music, you guys are in the process of releasing a new
album, Sing Along To Songs You Don’t Know, that’s pretty awesome by all
accounts...


ÖÞS: Yes, it will launch on the 17th, through gogoyoko. It will
be available exclusively through that store for the first week, before
it’s formally released in Europe. We are excited about this gogoyoko
thing and thus decided to pre-launch it there. It is a cool initiative,
they for instance give you the option to easily donate some of the
proceeds of album sales to a charity of your choice. We’ll be donating
ten percent of the retail price to Refugees United, a remarkable
charity organisation that aims at reuniting refugee families and loved
ones that have been separated. Learn about it at www.refunite.org.

-You two have made up the core of múm since its inception, but can you tell us something about the current line up?

GT: We think of anyone who’s ever played with us as pat of the
family, even if they’re doing something else at the moment. But the
current line-up is comprised of Örvar and I along with Sigurlaug
Gísladóttir, my girlfriend [Mr. Silla and Mongoose, The Gimmicks],
guitar virtuoso Róbert Reynisson [Mark Noseby, Benni Hemm Hemm, Borko,
etc], percussionist Samuli Kosminen [Edea, Kimmo Pohjonen Kluster],
Hildur Guðnadóttir [Lost in Hildurness, Stórsveit Nix Noltes, Rúnk] and
trumpet player Eiríkur Orri Ólafsson [Benni Hemm Hemm, Kira Kira,
Stórsveit Nix Noltes]. That’s the core of the outfit right now, but
others also contributed to the new album. Folks such as Högni Egilsson
[of Hjaltalín], who did some arranging for us.

These are all wonderful, brilliant people. Geniuses. Writing and performing music with them is a true pleasure.

-What’s the album about then?

GT: We can’t answer that. It’s abstract. No, that’s a hard question.



The Galtarviti Lighthouse Project

Says Gunnar: We were looking for a place to make some music, somewhere
out in the country. We’ve tried to seek out new and different locations
when we record, as it breathes fresh air into us and makes room for new
ideas. I heard from my brother that his friend just bought a lighthouse
in the Westfjords, so we got in touch with him and soon enough we’re
hauling boatloads of stuff to this abandoned lighthouse on the corner
of nowhere.

What we worked on there wound up on the Finally We Are No One LP. The
place has been close to our hearts ever since; we’ve gone there to work
on subsequent releases and I often go there myself to work. I think
everyone who ventures there forges a connection with the place and
comes to understand it, in a way you fall in love, it takes a place in
your heart.

Anyway, Óli Ísfjörð, the lighthouse keeper, always had the idea that
this would be a place for creative people—musicians, writers,
artists—to work on their projects; he has no ambitions to turning it
into a tourist destination but would be happy to see more art come to
life there. But it hasn’t been happening too much, maybe it’s the
remote location or maybe not enough people have heard of it, so we
decided to embark upon this project.

Basically Óli had the idea of making a compilation album to support
Galtarviti and publicise it, to get a bunch of the artists that have
been working there to contribute songs and sell it.  The proceeds would
go to improving the facilities, working on the roof or painting the
house or whatnot. This seemed like a good idea, but I countered it with
my own; that we would bring a bunch of instruments to the lighthouse,
set up recording gear and make our very own record there on the spot.
Basically to welcome everyone to come there, play their stuff and
partake in a creative adventure with us.

We did this in the summer of 2008 and came home with a lot of material,
probably well over thirty tracks. We decided to keep working on the
project; instead of mixing and releasing an album immediately we would
upload the tracks to a web-site and give those interested a chance to
fiddle with it—to mix or remix, sing over it, play the accordion or
write some lyrics. A sort of communal creation, if you will. We are
going to let it ferment for the next few months and then release an
album with the results.

We encourage everyone to partake in working the materials. This is a
great cause, as well as a fun way to create some nice music. And next
summer, we’re going to go back and record some more, do it all over
again. But for now, you can and should access the tracks and contribute
by logging on to www.galtarviti.illivill.com. It should be a grand old
time for anyone who’s interested, at least I love messing about with
tracks, remixing and dithering about, that whole Lego puzzle thing you
do.

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