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To the Lighthouse 

Not too long ago, in a studio far, far away, Iceland's múm developed a transcendental brand of indie-electronic music

Wednesday, Aug 27 2003
So far, no one seems to be able to come up with a name for it -- and that's probably a good thing. For the time being, some of us just call it indie-electronic music.

What the designation refers to is the fusion of two sounds that were initially distinct from one another. Decades ago, while bands like Sonic Youth were carving out the sound of indie music, bands like Kraftwerk were forging the sound of electronica. One sound became the stuff of dormitories, of late nights spent crying on girlfriends' shoulders, and of a certain set of mostly college-educated, mostly corduroy pants­wearing individuals with a preference for books, beer, and thick, black-framed glasses. The other went on to soundtrack all-night, drug-fueled dance parties, its arpeggiated synth lines and dense washes of electrified warmth spreading to the most remote regions of the Earth, so that now you can go to Nepal, hike three days into the mountains, and still find a full-moon party on a remote lake where DJs are spinning trance music (this is true). One sound became synonymous with introspective, manic-depressive, self-absorbed "thinkers," the other with impulse-driven Dionysian "doers." They couldn't have been more disparate if they tried.

But I like to think that the members of múm (pronounced "moom") -- Gunnar Örn Tynes, Örvar Póreyjarson Smárason, and twin sisters Gyda and Kristín Anna Valtysdóttir, all of them multi-instrumentalists -- don't know anything about that dichotomy. You see, múm is from Iceland, the territory of both Björk and Sigur Rós, two acts whose recorded output is all the evidence you need that divine inspiration still exists in music (OK, 50 Cent counts, too). What I prefer to believe about those bands -- which is what I believe about the members of múm -- is that their homeland is nothing less than a magical realm of fairies and pixies, that it's like Peter Pan's Never-Never Land, only colder, connected to the world yet isolated from it, so that any instance of divine musicianship (my name for it) is informed by more mystical sources, not the desire to experiment for the sake of "doing something different," i.e., blending disparate genres.

Nevertheless, múm's music is the epitome of indie-electronic. It is at once organic and synthetic, cerebral and transcendent, acoustic and electric. To create its songs, the band fuses computer-crafted glitches and beats with warm, misty vocals, creative percussion, and a host of pianos, guitars, accordions, cellos, and other live instruments, some fabricated by the band. It's as if no one ever told múm about the divisions between the indie and electronic genres, which seems quite possible: This band creates its music literally in the middle of nowhere: a lighthouse, 10 hours by car from Reykjavík and another 40-minute boat ride away from the next closest town, which has, Tynes estimates, about 150 people in it. Like a child raised by wolves, múm's self-imposed isolation has fostered both a certain immaturity and a certain wisdom, and that rare combination, embodied most endearingly in the child prodigy, is what makes the band's gorgeous, pillow-soft music the stuff of genius.

The origins of múm go back about six years to when Tynes and Smárason were playing in a rock band together in Reykjavík. Influenced by Aphex Twin's seminal album Selected Ambient Works '85-'92 -- arguably the foundation on which all indie-electronic music now stands -- the duo started experimenting with electronic textures and sounds. When a mutual friend of theirs needed someone to compose music for his play, he called upon Tynes and Smárason. It was while working on the play that they met the twins.

"They were in the theater group," says Tynes, speaking in a thick Nordic accent from a tour stop in New York City, "and when we came in and asked for people who could play certain instruments, they played those instruments, and, you know, we clicked together."

While electronic equipment was scarce in Iceland, the band members managed to get by with whatever gear they could lay their hands on, items such as an old Wurlitzer piano, which Tynes discovered in his school's basement. It was this kind of resourcefulness that resulted in the motley textures within the band's music, sounds like that of a children's toy piano, a vocoder, sometimes even pots and pans.

In 2000, the group debuted its creations with Yesterday Was Dramatic -- Today Is Okay, which was widely praised by the IDM (intelligent dance music) and indie rock circles (both of which came to it due to the success of múm's countrymen, Sigur Rós). IDM fans were fascinated by the unique aesthetic the four musicians manufactured by digitally processing acoustic sounds. Indie rock fans were struck by the curious, sentimental manner in which the group somehow anthropomorphized those sounds: Spindly electronic melodies mingled together like giggles; rhythms felt like children rolling down a hill.

"It wasn't [múm's] production techniques that intrigued me," says Jimmy Tambrello, songwriter and programmer for the indie-electronic supergroup the Postal Service. "It was more the personality of the music, a really perfect balance of melancholy and playfulness."

On its follow-up, Finally We Are No One, the band developed its sound even further, incorporating more vocals from the Valtysdóttir sisters and building longer, more structured songs that featured breathtaking crescendos, like the moment in "The Land Between Solar Systems" in which a blizzard of synth warbles swirls majestically with the twins' snowflake vocals before gale-force percussion blows the whole front off the face of the Earth, leaving nothing but a quiet plane of barely whispered sounds. Even amid these more complicated arrangements, the capriciousness remains in the way the melodies, both vocal and synth-driven, play hide-and-seek within a thicket of glitchy chirps and percussion noises.

This aura of whimsy has informed the band's approach to performance as well, as in the case of múm's underwater concerts (yes, you read that right), in which the group plays in an enclosed room and transmits the show to nearby speakers sitting at the bottom of a pool.

"It's a very special experience," says Tynes. "You don't hear it outside of the water, even if you're standing in the pool, but if you put your ears underneath the surface you hear a lot. It's a nice atmosphere. People are just floating around with their ears underwater and their faces out. It's really nice."

All of these otherworldly techniques can be attributed to the fact that múm is, literally, an otherworldly band. Hence the lighthouse, where it recorded both Finally We Are No One and the songs that will be performed during its current tour and featured on its upcoming record, due for release in early 2004.

"We went there and we really liked the place," says Tynes. "We were connected to it. You get a different sense of time being there. ... It's far away from everything. There's no electricity except for a power generator, and there's no phone connection, there's no TV, there's no radio, and you have to work for everything you want to get. It kind of makes touring and having to carry all your instruments from the van and back again no problem."

There's a quality to múm's music that extends beyond the notes themselves, a sentiment that transcends the precision with which the players arrange the sounds and textures that make up their songs. To my ears, that quality is the childlike perspective the band has maintained, perhaps even nurtured, way out there near the North Pole, away from the polluting noise of civilization. It's the Zen attitude of seeing the world not as a collection of binaries -- he/she, in/out, indie/electronic -- but as one fluid thing.

"I think it's more than getting the right sound; it's getting the right moment, getting the right atmosphere," says Tynes. "That's what the place does: The right moment and doing something the right way becomes clearer to you somehow."

About The Author

Garrett Kamps


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