|WITH JESSE PEARSON
|JESSE: The singing on your upcoming album is kind of a new thing for Múm.
ÖRVAR: The record comes from an imaginary place maybe there's a valley, a swimming pool, some hills, a tunnel it's not clear what goes on there. It's open for interpretation.
GUNNI: We wrote the music in this really isolated lighthouse. We had to take a little rubber boat to get out there.
JESSE: You're kidding.
GUNNI: No, I'm serious. It's called Hog's Lighthouse. It sounds better in Icelandic. It's between two mountains, and one of them is called "The Hog."
JESSE: Is the mountain shaped like a pig?
GUNNI: No. It's an odd name because all of the mountains in that area are exactly the same height and shape. [laughs]
JESSE: You recorded one version of the album in Icelandic and another in English. Do people here look down on bands that sing in English?
GUNNI: Some years ago it was kind of kaput to sing in English. But I think Bjšrk changed that. Now the feeling is, "Of course it's okay, because you want more people to understand what you're saying."
KRISTÍN: Lots of people in Iceland speak English very well, and some even think in English.
GUNNI: A lot of people, but not us. [laughs]
JESSE: For many Americans, Bjšrk and Iceland go hand-in-hand. It's sad but true.
ÖRVAR: When you come from Iceland, she's just a girl with a really special voice who makes really good music. Years ago, everybody used to hate her, back when she would show up on TV with her pregnant tummy sticking out.
JESSE: Do you guys know her?
ÖRVAR: It's funny. She came to our last record-release concert, and afterwards all these people were saying, "Congratulations, Bjšrk was here! She seemed to be enjoying it."
JESSE: Like you'd really made it. Electronic music performances are often just a person standing on stage with a laptop. It's about as interesting as watching someone do their taxes. You guys are much more active, you switch instruments and move around.
GUNNI: Most electronic music is about detailed sequencing. Prior to a performance, you sit at your computer and lay tracks down, manipulating them until you're happy with the way they sound. So when you play live, there's not much to do but fiddle with a button or two. Örvar and I tried that kind of performing a couple of times in the beginning, before Kristen and Gyda were in the band. But we always ended up laughing, faking like we were doing something, so it felt stupid. We decided it would be better to layer live instruments on top of electronic components.
JESSE: Last night you performed live accompaniment to Eisenstein's 1925 silent film, Battleship Potemkin. But since Orvar and Kristín recently moved to Berlin, how were all of you able to collaborate on the score?
ÖRVAR: We composed by correspondence. Kristín and I made some stuff in Berlin, Gunni made some stuff here, and we sent bits back and forth by e-mail until the whole score was sort of glued together.
KRISTÍN: Probably a bit more than half was preprogrammed. The rest was improvised.
ÖRVAR: We've done live music to accompany a few other silent movies, too. Last year we did F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu, Laurence Trimble's Pandora's Box, and Luis Bu–uel's Andalusian Dog.
JESSE: Seeing the performance last night, in a rundown old movie house, was really nice. Have you played in any other unconventional venues?
GUNNI: We've done underwater concerts.
JESSE: What? How did that work?
GUNNI: We found a swimming pool, and we borrowed a special U.S. Army underwater speaker, which the city of Reykjavik owns.
KRISTÍN: Your ears have to be under the water's surface to hear the music. People got in the pool and swam around to the soundtrack, or they just floated.
GUNNI: It's a tiny speaker, but you can hear it quite well. Sound travels much faster through water than air. There's very little bass, but it sounds really good.
JESSE: Do you have recordings of those performances?
ÖRVAR: No, we didn't have an underwater mike. But we did write the songs especially for swimming. Some of those concepts made it to our new album it has two swimming songs on it.
GUNNI: But they're not complete until you listen to them underwater.
It's a mission.
JESSE: Múm used to be represented by an Icelandic label called Thule. Why did you leave?
ÖRVAR: There are lots of reasons. The biggest is that they sold one of our songs to Sony and never told us. One day a friend of ours called and said, "Hey there's an ad on TV, and it's got your music in it."
GUNNI: It was terrible. We really don't want to get connected to ads.
KRISTÍN: Some months before that, Nike had approached Thule about another one of our songs, and we refused to let them use it. So when the Sony ad came up, the head of the label must have decided not to ask us at all. He gave them the song and took the money himself, thinking we would never find out.
JESSE: That's so wrong.
ÖRVAR: But in a way it was a good thing, because now we can get the rights to our album back. It was a very serious breach of contract. Thule basically forged documents allowing Sony to use the song "for any purpose for two years."
JESSE: Oh my god. Did you ever see the commercial?
KRISTÍN: Yeah, it's an absolutely terrible ad for laptops. They'd been showing it for ten weeks before we found out.
JESSE: What's the radio like here?
ÖRVAR: Each radio station has to play a certain genre of music. They can't deviate at all. Also, one man owns almost every station. He owns most of the record stores as well.
GUNNI: And two TV stations and the biggest record label in the country.
JESSE: So there's no independent radio?
KRISTÍN: There's nothing like that here. But one radio station uses our music when they're broadcasting theater.
GUNNI: I heard our music the other day on the number one TV channel in Iceland. One of our songs had been used in a documentary about a Buddhist monk.
ÖRVAR: They didn't ask our permission either, but we thought it was great.
JESSE: What about the personal dynamic of a band with four distinct creative people? Like, how do you get along? I don't suppose there are any screaming fights or trashed hotel rooms?
KRISTÍN: No, we're all fairly subdued, nice people.
ÖRVAR: No trashing hotel rooms, not us.
JESSE: Not yet, anyway.
ÖRVAR: For a while, we were always together we even lived in the same house.
JESSE: Örvar and Kristín, you two were in the band together before you started dating, right?
ÖRVAR: It happened around the same time. Gunni and I saw Kristín and Gyda's old band playing at a youth center. They were covering a Pixies song. We got together pretty quickly after that.
JESSE: After your Potemkin performance last night, I stumbled across a mall that seemed so American.
GUNNI: There are a lot of things in Iceland that look and feel that way these days. With all respect, I don't think that's good.
KRISTÍN: Our car culture is very American.
GUNNI: Consumerism has really blown up here in the last ten years.
KRISTÍN: When someone like Madonna comes to perform, people get very excited, like, "Finally, we've got Madonna." As if bringing American entertainment over means we're getting more civilized.
JESSE: Are there any movements in Iceland to combat that attitude?
KRISTÍN: No, there are only a few people who find something wrong with it.
GUNNI: It's just us and our friends. [laughs]
ÖRVAR: There aren't a lot of protests here. However, Iceland is hosting the next big NATO meeting in May. So that could be interesting.
KRISTÍN: The thing is, in Iceland the government can just ban protesters from entering the country.
ÖRVAR: That's why they're having the NATO meeting here this year because the global situation is so fragile, and Iceland is an island with just one airport. So it's easy to monitor who gets in and who gets turned away.
KRISTÍN: When Örvar and I flew in from Berlin the other day, there was a group of Hell's Angels on the plane. The police were waiting at the airport when we arrived, and all of the Hell's Angels were refused entrance.
ÖRVAR: The police were carrying guns. It was very strange to see that, because we don't have a lot of guns here.
ÖRVAR: It was almost like Russia. It's crazy there.
JESSE: Have you played in Russia?
ÖRVAR: Yeah. It was wonderful, because the people were so hungry for new music. They don't get to hear many bands from outside the country.
GUNNI: And when people like Sting come, they play in very grand halls ...
KRISTÍN: Even though average people know about the performances, they can't get tickets unless they have "connections."
ÖRVAR: At stores in Russia everything is behind the counter. Even in record stores, you have to point to what you want. Every shop has a security guard with a gun even the candy shops.
JESSE: I'm curious about the standard of success in Iceland. How many units do you have to sell to have a gold record?
ÖRVAR: I think it's five thousand.
JESSE: So does Múm have a one?
ÖRVAR: Nooo. That's part of the reason we recorded in English straight off. You can't have a big audience here doing electronic music. We have to try to connect with the small groups who follow electronic music in each country around the world.
JESSE: In America, there seems to be a sort of gold-rush mentality about Iceland "If it's Icelandic music, it's got to be interesting." It actually often turns out to be true.
ÖRVAR: Well, we've always had good music here, but it hasn't always been possible to reach the rest of the world. We were just reading in a magazine about an Icelandic band, the XXXX, from the '60s. They were trying to get out of Iceland, and they had talked to two American soldiers who were here, who promised to get them concerts in the States. The band was like, "We've made it! We can play in America." But then they tried to call the soldiers, and they had gone to Florida on vacation and completely forgotten about them. [laughs] A lot has changed. But that's how things used to work here.