“What is Iceland like?” I asked a sea-faring friend of mine a few hours before I was to see a performance by Múm. “Imagine the hippest part of Brooklyn,” she replied. “Now picture it stranded on a tiny island in the middle of the north Atlantic.”
20 Aug 2003: Bowery Ballroom New York
When the band took the stage later that night, I found that her analysis was spot-on. One of the boys in the band donned a mesh-backed trucker cap, while the other sported a fashion mullet and a Guns N’ Roses T-shirt. There was a rather heavy-handed irony to hearing Múm’s delicate, understated music being generated by someone with the words “Appetite for Destruction” emblazoned on his back.
Múm’s music is impossible to describe without reference to the electronic/organic paradigm that they bridge. Granted, it’s now commonplace for indie bands to combine rock and electronic forms, and there are heaps of post-millennial bands that simply sing pop songs over drum machines. But what Múm does is subtler, more intrinsic to the nature of their project. While the most important instrument on the stage might be the band’s Macintosh laptop, it would be nothing without the accordion, trumpet and string instruments which accompany it. Múm’s diversity of instrumentation, along with their peculiar sense of melody, prevents them from being just another boring laptop act. In fact, the Múm iBook is a perfect symbol of their entire aesthetic. Its surface has been covered in wallpaper with a fake woodgrain veneer—cold technology swathed in an organic cloak of earthiness. When the lights go down between songs, the apple warmly glows through the paper in the dark.
The band garnered the most enthusiasm from the crowd when they slipped into songs from their 2002 album Finally We Are No One. First the band performed “We Have a Map of the Piano”, a sad and sweet lullaby that interweaves bits of accordion, piano and guitar. Cheers abounded as they launched into the recent single “Green Grass of Tunnel”, which twinkled and jittered. The final song of the main set was the dirgelike “Now There’s that Fear Again”, the arrangement of which was dramatically reconfigured. While the recorded version meekly fades into nothingness by the end of the track, the band put forth a more traditional rock gesture in performance, reassembling the fragmented elements until they finally culminated into an un-Múm-like Big Finish.
Just prior to Múm’s set, as the sold-out crowd was pressing eagerly toward the stage, I overheard a headphone-collared young man make a suggestion to his friends: “I found the perfect activity for listening to Múm—kite-flying. If you listen to Múm while flying a kite it makes so much sense, it’s just perfect.”
He was undoubtedly speaking of the band’s somewhat spacey aesthetic—the delicate vocals, the sparse but sweet melodies. Even their band name and song titles imply a certain quietude, or anonymity—finally we are no one, mum’s the word, and so forth. Then again, that interpretation requires a mispronunciation; Múm rhymes with womb, not bum. In Icelandic, it’s not a word with meaning, but pure sound. And ultimately, to my ears, the band is not particularly synonymous with such skyward aims as, er, kite-flying. Múm’s element of choice is not air, but earth—they are more telluric than ethereal.
When I had asked my friend to tell me about Iceland, it was because I had been wrestling with how to talk about Múm without dwelling on their nationality, and wondering whether Iceland was deserving of its mythic persona. For whatever reason, it seems that Icelandic bands are constantly characterized by their very Icelandicity. The country has a certain hold over the imagination as a mysterious land of fire and ice—the exotic place where no building developments can be made without asking permission of the fairies.
But there’s a problem in defining a musician or an artist according to their country of origin—the danger in falling into what Borges called the “cult of local color.” In trying to celebrate the particularities of a certain culture, we often end up oversimplifying and restricting our conception of what they’re capable of. (“Shakespeare would have been amazed if people had tried to limit him to English themes, and if they told him that, as an Englishman, he had no right to compose Hamlet, whose theme is Scandinavian…” from “The Argentine Writer and Tradition”, Labyrinths.
Despite all this, I must confess that it’s hard to escape this tendency in the case of Múm. In concert, their soundscapes spell out landscapes of a particularly Nordic variety. The vocals aren’t so much childlike as elflike, all hushed and lilting. Piano notes suggest bells or raindrops. Ever present is the hushed white noise of skipping records, or footprints in the snow. The beats and sounds mimic the gurgling of hot springs, and the tectonic shifting of landmasses in the process of being born.