“It bores me so much to talk about the Icelandic sound,” says Örvar Smárason, his eyes flashing. “I have an insane dislike of the word “krútt.” He pauses, breaking into a joking-not-joking smile. “I don’t wanna see that word anywhere in the interview.”
Despite his strong opinions on the subject, Örvar could be seen as one of the architects of the sound that put Iceland’s music scene on the map in the early years of the new millennium. He was a founder member of múm, whose lyrical, whispery electronica would become synonymous with the Reykjavík music scene.
Since then he has been a constant and prolific presence, including stints in FM Belfast, Slowblow, Singapore Sling, Benni Hemm Hemm and, more recently, a three-way collaboration with Sóley and Sin Fang. But, over the years, he has rarely taken centre stage, until now.
Örvar’s debut solo album, and the first to bear just his name and face on the cover, is called “Light Is Liquid.” It was a long time in gestation—in order to kick the process into gear, he booked a solo show at Sónar Reykjavík in 2017, forcing himself to make speedy decisions and arrange the new material. “It was a self-inflicted crisis,” he laughs. “I decided to do that show to make things happen, and good things came out of it. It helped me finish the album.”
The result is a slick and easy-going record, with strong melodies, textural electronic flourishes, and a lighter-than-Air feel. It’s also characterised by heavily Vocodered voices. “When I was writing the album I made these computer voices as placeholders because I didn’t want to listen to my own voice,” says Örvar. “It wears you down to listen to your own voice—it becomes a voice in your head. So I made this computer voice to write melodies and lyrics without having to listen to myself.”
The voices ended up staying, and even taking on a life of their own. “They became weird characters,” says Örvar. “I feel like they’re two women… I don’t know who, or where they came from, and I don’t think I’ll do another album with them. But they were good for this.”
Örvar has been making music for almost as long as he can remember. He started out on his parents’ computer, then bought a guitar when he was 13. “I had a paper round and saved up for it,” he says. “I was into hair metal, so the guitar was white with black lightning on it. Then I got a computer with my confirmation money, and made music with that.”
It was in college that he was “shanghaied” into his first band, Andhéri. “I hadn’t thought of being a musician,” he recalls, “but the guys were starting a band, and they wanted a frontman who was loud and attention-seeking.” He smiles. “Maybe they got the wrong person.”
The bass player of Andhéri was Gunni Örn Tynes. “In the middle of recording the second album, we started this electronic side-project,” says Örvar. “And then, that blew up.”
Finally we are someone
That project became Múm, whose first album was ‘Yesterday Was Dramatic – Today Is OK.’ It was released on TMT, a sub-label of Icelandic electronica and techno label Thule Records, before being picked up in the UK and receiving a 5/5 review in The Guardian, who said it was “unique, passionate and gorged with special talent.”
The album still stands up today. It’s a subtle collection of lush, crystalline electronica that sounds ”like fresh air,” I posit. “There wasn’t much fresh air involved,” laughs Örvar. “We created those electronics and that sound in Gunni’s parents’ basement. It was really cooped up, with closed windows and no air at all. We spent a year down there trying out different things, and somehow came up with this sound. I think it still sounds fresh, like a fresh salad is fresh. It’s crispy.”
Do it yourself
Örvar is reluctant to admit that múm’s early output was influential musically. “I don’t really care about the sound of the aesthetic—we made these albums, and they are there,” he says. “But like a lot of bands before us in Iceland, we had a do it yourself attitude. Maybe that part of it, we can be proud of.”
Múm are still active today, on a project-by-project basis. Since their last album, ‘Smilewound,’ they’ve created the film score for the acclaimed Icelandic film ‘Svanurinn,’ and the ‘Menschen am Sonntag’ EP, which evolved from an improvised score over a silent film. “Doing projects like that suits the mind space we’re in now more so than doing albums and promo tours,” says Örvar. “I personally get more out of these kinds of projects.”
‘Light is Liquid’ was made during an “avalanche of things” that included the múm projects, and working on the ‘Team Dreams’ LP with Sin Fang and Sóley. The three toured the album around Europe recently, with four dates in China coming up soon. Their show opens each night with three conjoined twenty-minute solo sets—an organic and low-pressure way to take the solo project on the road. “I don’t think I would do a headline tour for this record,” says Örvar. “It would feel like starting over again.”
The album still has a marked collaborative element, with vocal contributions from Sillus, JFDR and sóley. “This ‘solo project’ thing is weird because every music project you do has a different level of collaboration,” Örvar explains. “I worked on it with a lot of friends. It’s not a statement album—it’s the things that were running around in my head at that point, and found that way out, instead of something else.”
Örvar is still getting to know his solo album—a process that, for him, usually takes years. “I still haven’t been able to assess what this album is, but I’m very happy with it,” he finishes. “I’m just watching the dust settle after this crazy year and seeing where all these songs from last year are landing. With the múm albums, it’s always three or four years later that I find the meaning of the lyrics. On this album, there’s a lot of references to physics—a subject I really don’t know anything about. I’m really looking forward to five years from now, when the lyrics make sense to me.”
‘Light Is Liquid’ comes out on May 18th. See Örvar perform at Iðnó on June 1st.
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