Iceland's Múm made their live debut in the United States in July of 2002 to a sold-out house at New York City's Knitting Factory. The advance buzz on the band came thanks to their second release, Finally We Are No One, issued on the British label FatCat. Múm is a foursome that includes twin sisters who were still teenagers when they teamed with two longtime friends to form an ambient-music act that has been described as a "baroque-techno pop quartet" by Village Voice critic Piotr Orlov. Yet Múm's work has little of the mathematically symmetrical structure of traditional baroque melodies. Instead, their music is arcane, sometimes without a melody, and filled with computer clicks, whispers, and sounds from nature. Despite the eerie moodsets of their songs, Rolling Stone music writer David Fricke still called them a "pop group, building a gorgeous, sturdy music from sweet and tender materials. It's not that you can't dance to the results; a warm shiver of pleasure just seems more appropriate."
All four original members of Múm hail from Reykjavik, the Icelandic capital that is home to a thriving alternative music scene. The Valtysdottir sisters, Kristin Anna and Gyda, met Gunnar Örn Tynes and Övar Poreyjarson Smárason at a community center in 1997, when the twins were performing songs on stage from the cult-classic American alternative act The Pixies. They were 15 years old at the time, and classically trained: Kristin had been playing piano, and Gyda the cello, for six years. Smárason had started his career as a music composer using an old Amiga computer his parents owned, and he and Tynes were by then working with samplers.
The newly formed Múm was influenced by the sound of Aphex Twin, and decided to forego guitars in their lineup. Gyda Valtysdottir sang and played cello, while Kristin also sang and utilized an array of other instruments in the group's first live performances in Reykjavik. The instruments included a glockenspiel, melodica, harmonium, and a pair of Powerbook computers. Band members often switched instruments between songs. Their first release, Yesterday Was Dramatic—Today Is OK, was released on the Thule Music label in March of 2000. From there, they collaborated with other artists on two remixes of songs from that release, titled "The Ballad of the Broken Birdie Records" and "Please Smile My Noise Bleed," both released on the German label Morr Music in late 2001.
Bands from Iceland have found ready acceptance outside of their small North Atlantic island nation, thanks to a long line of innovative music makers dating back to the late 1980s, including Björk's first band, the Sugarcubes. By 2001 fellow Icelandic acts Sigur Rós and Silt were also enjoying strong sales in the rest of Europe and North America, and Múm were quickly signed to the British label FatCat. Their second LP, Finally We Are No One, was released in 2002, and they made their North American debut that same year in New York City, at a sold-out concert at the Knitting Factory, the famed TriBeCa showcase for experimental music. The advance buzz brought out music critics from the New York Times and Rolling Stone to see the show. The Times's Kelefa Sanneh found that the band's unusual records were ably reproduced in a live format. "The songs swell up and then fade away, with melodies that are familiar without quite being catchy; this is the kind of album that can charm you without ever invading your space," the critic noted. Fricke, writing in Rolling Stone, liked "Green Grass of Tunnel," the band's single from Finally We Are No One, terming it "a single ascending sequence decked out in counterpoint keyboards and female whisper."
On their New York visit, Múm also played in Brooklyn for a film screening of the 1925 Sergei Eisenstein silent classic Battleship Potemkin, considered one of the great films of movie history. Orlov, writing in the Village Voice, called it "an inspired pairing," and commended Múm's music for the climactic final scene, an epic naval battle. Orlov termed it "an exploding variation on the Soviet anthem: digital feedback underneath cathedral organ chords, a battle-hymn for the humanist proletariat."
Múm undertook an elaborate project to write and record their next record, Summer Make Good. They went to an isolated lighthouse in Galtarviti, in northwest Iceland, and spent seven weeks working on new material, joined by friends and musical collaborators. In an interview with David Missio of the online music magazine ChartAttack, Tynes explained why they chose the retreat atmosphere. "You lose a lot of fake needs. … When you go away from everything, things naturally become more simple somehow, and that simplicity is just really creative somehow, really energetic." For the recording process they headed to the southwest part of Iceland to a light-keeper's house in Gardskagata, where they recorded both inside and out-of-doors. The sounds of nature heard in the songs—the wind and the rocking of a moored boat they had rowed to an isolated spot—were actually picked up by microphones. Tynes described the results as somewhat unintentional. "Just a certain moment that happened to end up that way and some of it really fit. I would say it's random. We work very randomly."
By the time Summer Make Good was released, Kristin Valtysdottir and Smárason, a couple, had settled in Berlin's Prenzlauerberg area. Gyda Valtysdottir left the band to return to her studies. Because of the change in lineup, Kristin Valtysdottir's vocals were far more dominant on the group's third release. Kitty Empire, a critic for London's Observer, gave the record a mixed review, noting a preponderance of "pre-modern whirrs and galumphing creaks. Atmospheric, then, but uninvolving."
Múm embarked on a European tour in the spring of 2004, and then went on to play selected North American dates for the first time that summer. They are sometimes asked about Iceland's relatively large number of innovative musical acts that gain international acclaim, in proportion to a population of just 175,000 in Reykjavik. Some think the fertile artistic ground is due to the country's mystical, mythic past: Icelanders are thought to be descended from Irish and Scottish slaves brought by Norse conquerors. The land is almost treeless, but filled with active volcanoes and hot springs. "The landscape does influence what we do," Kristin Valtysdottir once told James McNair in an article for the London Independent, "but we only noticed it when foreign journalists pointed it out."
For the Record …
Members include Gunnar Örn Tynes (born in Iceland), multi-instrumentalist; Övar Poreyjarson Smárason (born in Iceland), multi-instrumentalist; Kristin Anna Valtysdottir (born c. 1982, in Iceland), vocals, piano; Gyda Valtysdottir (born c. 1982, in Iceland; left band, c. 2002), vocals, cello.
Formed in Reykjavik, Iceland, 1997; signed to Thule Music; released first LP, Yesterday Was Dramatic—Today Is OK, 2000; released Finally We Are No One on FatCat, 2002; played one sold-out New York City concert date, 2002; toured Europe and North America, 2004; released Summer Make Good, 2004.
Addresses: Record company—FatCat Records, P.O. Box 3400, Brighton BN1 4WG, England. Website—Múm Official Website: http://www.randomsummer.com.
Yesterday Was Dramatic—Today Is OK, Thule Music, 2000.
"The Ballad of the Broken Birdie Records," Morr Music, 2001.
"Green Grass of Tunnel," FatCat, 2002.
Please Smile My Noise Bleed (EP), Morr Music, 2001; reissued, 2004.
Finally We Are No One, FatCat, 2002.
Summer Make Good, FatCat, 2004.
Nightly Cares (EP), FatCat, 2004.
Dusk Log (EP), FatCat, 2004.
Entertainment Weekly, May 7, 2004, p. 86.
Independent (London, England), March 30, 2001, p. 13.
New York Times, July 31, 2002, p. E7 Observer (London, England), April 18, 2004, p. 13.
Rolling Stone, July 31, 2002.
Village Voice, July 31, 2002.
"Múm Find Music in Strange Places," ChartAttack, http://www.chartattack.com/damn/2004/06/2107.cfm (July 3, 2004).
"Múm Interview," Whisperinandhollerin, http://www.whisperinandhollerin.com/chat/chat.asp?id=1252 (July 3, 2004).
"Múm," FatCat Records, http://fat-cat.co.uk/fatcat/artistInfo.php?id=49&FATSESS=74164c79886959c3ae2b66b05eb5b499 (July 4, 2004).
mum1 / məm/ • adj. silent. PHRASES: keep mum inf. remain silent, esp. so as not to reveal a secret: he was keeping mum about a possible move to Canada. mum's the word inf. (as a request or warning) say nothing; don't reveal a secret. mum2 • v. (mummed , mum·ming ) [intr.] act in a traditional masked mime or a mummers' play. mum3 • n. inf. a cultivated chrysanthemum. mum4 • n. British term for mom.