“Easy to hide. My mind needs light. I open up my mouth. My mind needs light.”
And so begin the first few seconds of Mammút’s recently released fifth effort ‘Ride The Fire’. The song—entitled “Sun and Me”—is an apt anthem for these times. Not only is sunlight getting scarce in these late-fall Icelandic days, but all of the other lights we’re accustomed to—candles in bars, strobes at concerts, the fashionable lanterns of restaurants—have been replaced by the blinding fluorescents of computer screens, which is where I meet up with vocalist Katrína “Kata” Mogensen and bassist Ása Dýradóttir.
The conversation starts—as most conversations do nowadays—with making sure our microphones work and the cameras aren’t too blurry. But so is the 2020 world.
Mammút causes chaos
‘Ride the Fire’, Ása and Kata explain, was written pre-COVID, with everything about the release planned for a world sans social distancing and gathering bans. They had concerts, tours, and more planned, all cancelled of course, but the album has found new relevance to them as they’ve spent so many months inside.
“Kata mentioned some days ago, ‘Have you listened to ‘Sound of Centuries’ recently? It’s really speaking to me this time.'” Ása says. “You have a different conversation with some of the songs now.”
Kata nods. “Like ‘Forever On Your Mind’—the first single. We put it out in November, 2019, but I feel like it’s a lot about this situation,” she explains. “The lyrics are about chaos and what’s going on so when I was listening to the album recently for the first time in a few months, I felt like it suits right now very well. When you listen to it with that [mindset], it changes.”
Trusting your partner
‘Ride The Fire’ also marked a difference in production for the band, who, as the two reiterate, always had written everything together in the same room from scratch. For this release, most was written solo and then collaborated on together from a distance.
“We live in separate countries so we were juggling ideas back and forth and it was a new method of creating, which we felt was really fun,” Ása says. “We had to trust our partners—band members—more. We talk about ourselves more like partners, not band members.”
Even though the songs were written physically separated from each other, Ása emphasises, there was still a noticeable musical thread.
“In a way, we were in a totally different state of mind and completely different time in our lives than we were while writing ‘Kinder Versions’. It was calmer? More focused?” Kata asks. “‘Kinder Versions’ was a heavy album and I think we were all coming down from that. In my mind, there was a high around that album—so much going on, both as individuals and as a band. I think this music was a result of that—the calm after the storm.”
The album no doubt has a theatrical tone their previous efforts lack, is much more ethereal and, perhaps, hopeful in contrast to the sonic weight of ‘Kinder Versions’. Tonally, it seems like a natural progression for the band—a sweet dessert after the heaviness of their last effort.
“Sun and Me” is emblematic of this shift. The group wrote it in February 2018, in a London studio. “It was rainy and depressing. I was having a huge downer after everything and we did this sketch in the studio,” Kata explains. “It’s like a desperate call for light and for the sun—for some light into life. And then with that, the light came and we did this album.”
Is dinner ready?
“Solomon” is a particularly personal song for Ása. While Kata normally takes care of the lyrics for Mammút, Ása’s demos for the track included demo lyrics written by her, which ended up on the album. “They were really personal—about weird, childhood memories,” Ása explains. “A part of ‘Solomon’ is about waiting for dinner as a child. It’s very bland. And there’s a lyric about how my brother used to lie to me and say that there were dead horses in a cabin outside of the house.”
“But that’s what you remember when you get older,” Kata responds, nodding. Ása shrugs. “That’s the stuff that sticks with you,” she interjects.
“Ása wanted to throw away these demo lyrics and I wanted to keep them, but Ása was always like, ‘You don’t have to keep them!’,” Kata says, doing an animated impression of Ása. “I put some layers on top of it, but Ása was always coming around saying, ‘You don’t have to keep the lyrics. You know that?'”
Ása and Kata often do this—answering questions for each other and explaining what the other is probably thinking. Spend just five minutes with the two and you’ll find they have a closeness that resembles siblings more than bandmates.
“I was a fan of Ása’s MySpace page,” Kata admits, when asked how the two met. The admission sends both into fits of laughter. “We formed Mammút in late 2003 and in 2006, I came into Ása’s store, where she was working and just asked, ‘Do you want to be the bass player of our band?’ And she said yes.”
“I was not a bass player by the way,” Ása interjects, which sends the two into louder fits of laughter. “[Ása] never told us and just showed up to rehearsal and she was extremely bad at playing the bass,” Kata laughs.
“They didn’t feel like telling me that I sucked so I just continued,” Ása continues. “I thought they knew that I wasn’t a bassist and this was just some way of experimenting?”
The laughter continues. “I’m very glad you didn’t tell me because I would have just said, ‘Ok, bye!'” Kata says. “But that’s how we met and we’ve been together ever since. It’s such a long history.”
At that time, Ása explains, they used to play Gaukurinn every other week and were part of the early years of Eistnaflug. Albums were written in summer cabins while the sun was setting. From how she paints it, they were idyllic years for the two.
And in this moment, you can just viscerally feel both retreating back to those early days of MySpace and bass. Back when concerts were legal and no one worried about staying two metres away from each other.
Forgetting human nature
These moments of nostalgia are not unique to Mammút. In the midst of this dreadful pandemic, the you-don’t-know-what-you-have-til-it’s-gone feeling is a universal affliction. And everyone—stuck inside—seems to be using their time looking not towards the future, but wistfully back to the past. For musicians and other artists, the art of live performance might now feel like ancient history.
“You can feel it. Especially when fall came, people are kind of giving up, which is so depressing,” Ása says. “People talk differently. They aren’t good at communicating with words. And ourselves—you need the contact of experiencing music and art together and feeling together. Singing and dancing is such a huge part of social communication and it has always been since forever. You can’t just swipe it away. People need to socially experience something together. It should be part of public health.”
Kata nods. “That’s something Ása and I have been talking about often. Our human nature has been forgotten in all this. We are mammals. We are herd animals. We need to be around each other and that’s not a theory, that’s just how it is. That’s how we work as animals, as humans,” she explains, softly and delicately. Her solemn tone stands in direct contrast to her normally-jovial one. “And this tech thing—I think it’s very serious that we’re trying to normalise communication like this. It isn’t communication. I don’t even think I would recognise you if I would see you on the street.”
For Ása, this widespread isolation is, as she puts it, inhumane. “People need touch. People dance together and attend events together to be close to each other because it’s a socially acceptable way of touching,” she says. “Dancing, hugging, seeing each other—people have not been touched since February.”
Ride the Mammút fire!
The release of the album then almost seems serendipitous. “I think the title serves this year well,” Kata says. “Let’s not just be paralysed by all this. Let’s just ride the waves that are coming and stay true to what we feel is right and not lose sight of creativity and how important human connection is,” she continues. Ása nods slowly and at that moment, it’s easy to imagine that—were the two not separated by houses and connected by but a wifi connection—they might have hugged.
And for Kata, the solution to the plight is but six words: “Let’s not forget our human nature.”
Check out previous Grapevine coverage on Mammút here.
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