From Iceland — Optimistic, Hopeless, Content

Optimistic, Hopeless, Content

Published August 20, 2009

Optimistic, Hopeless, Content

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…
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

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

-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 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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