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Yet put on one of Múm's records in your bedroom after dark and you may feel as if you're entering a world in which our culture doesn't even exist. The trio--multi-instrumentalists Gunnar rn Tynes, rvar Thóreyjarson Smárason and Kristín Anna Valtysdóttir (Kristín's sister Gyda left the band about two years ago)--are part of a busy little worldwide scene set on blurring the lines between the kind of live-instrument indie pop shy college kids have been making for years and the sort of cerebral electronic music shyer college kids have been making for not as many years. (The exact boundaries of this scene are as hotly contested among record-collecting Internet nerds as any other chunk of useless arcana, but if you're grasping for context, think of bands like the German electro-pop outfit the Notwist, or Scottish knob-twirlers Boards of Canada or even American emo sweethearts the Postal Service. Or any other group from Iceland, which I'll get to in a minute. Still grasping? Consider one of those long plinky bits from a recent Radiohead record. That's pretty much it.)
Múm are great manipulators of sound. Take nearly any of their songs and you'll discover a miniature wonderland of tones and textures just waiting to be examined. Let's look at "Don't Be Afraid, You Have Just Got Your Eyes Closed," a track from the band's 2002 album Finally We Are No One. (Those titles give you an idea of where we're headed here?) We start out with a rhythmic crinkling, like a little kid trying to unwrap presents on Christmas Eve without waking anyone up; the crinkling slowly takes on sonic weight until it resembles a chopped-up drum-machine beat, at which point it is in fact a chopped-up drum-machine beat. Then a tinny keyboard figure cranks to life, a little descending line that might remind you of a music box you got one year for Christmas--the one you had to act surprised about receiving, since you'd already unwrapped it the night before when everyone else was sleeping. Right when the music-box melody is about to drive you completely insane, a mellow horn line enters the mix and complements everything else so nicely that you think, Hey, horns are nice. I'm no longer about to go completely insane. Then it's over.
I realize that what I've just described isn't much of a song. There are no lyrics, of course, so you're no closer to unlocking the mysteries of Icelandic living when you finish it than you were when you started it. And if you made a music video of the song, you'd probably be tempted to include scenes of small children unwrapping presents or leaves falling from trees or bread being prepared from scratch--sure signs of a filmmaker's overcompensation for shallow source material.
But in the way that Múm controls the sounds in their music, the way they slide them against each other, getting little sparks of friction then separating them, they create a remarkable mood of privacy in spite of itself--the kind of world you'd expect a lightning bug experiences when it's caught and dumped into an old Mason jar. So it's not totally surprising when I call up Kristín at home in Iceland during a break in Múm's tour schedule, and she nonchalantly dismisses each of the soundbites you might pass along if someone heard the band on your iPod and asked, "Who's this?" (I actually called Gunnar first, but he told me he'd been on the phone all day and wondered if I could possibly call Kristín instead and ask her questions, since she was around and not doing anything important. I said sure and punched 47 more numbers into the phone.)
Looking to avoid the high-pressure experience of recording in a professional studio, the band tried to find a house in which to set up shop to make Summer Make Good, their latest album. A friend's dad had a lighthouse, Kristín explains. They borrowed it.
Kristín is especially reluctant to supply pat explanations when I quiz her about Iceland and its musical associations--essentially, that since Björk and Sigur Rós are also Icelanders and also specialize in making music that invites facile imaginings of magical landscapes and out-of-time rituals, everyone in Iceland must inhabit the same gently hallucinatory daydream.
"I sometimes feel like journalists have this idea about the Icelandic music scene of being very serious and landscape-y," she says. "And then they talk about Sigur Rós and Björk and stuff. But for me, the music in Iceland and the people in Iceland, there's so much variety. It's not really the reality that's going on. But those are the bands that most people outside of Iceland know the best and connect to the landscape here and their ideas about the people."
Kristín pauses for a second, and I can hear the sound of dishes being washed in the background, as I have for the past 15 minutes. She lets out a little half-giggle. "I don't know if I'm making any sense at all."
In the end, the band's ethereal mystery may be impossible to crack. And that's just fine with Múm. "Some people think this record is more about sounds and ambience and not songs," says Kristín when I tell her that despite the fair amount of singing she does on Summer, it's the band's most textural record yet, its least dependent upon the kinds of precious melodies that make people think of 6-year-old tree nymphs. "And some people think we're writing more proper songs. I think I'll leave it at that. It's good that people are confused about it. "