They may hail from the land of fire and ice, but the quirky Icelandic pop band mÃºm sure play a decidedly touchy-feely, warm brand of shoegazing electronica.
Somewhat normal haircuts notwithstanding, the seven-piece band's colorful, offbeat clothing and faux-kitschy appearance do suggest a certain unconventional kinship with the legends of the north, The Sugarcubes and Bjork, the first pop act from Iceland to break out of the country's friendly confines.
Formed in Reykjavik in 1997 by then teens Gunnar Ã–rn Tynes, Ã–rvar ThÃ³reyjarson SmÃ¡rason, and classically trained twin sisters Gytha and KristÃn Anna ValtysdÃ³ttir, mÃºm was influenced by the pop experimentalism of such uncompromising artists as Aphex Twin.
"I had two older brothers growing up who were very much into music, more non-commercial stuff like Frank Zappa, so I got quite an education at a young age," Tynes told The Jerusalem Post during a phone conversation last week, as the band was preparing an October 2 launch to a European tour at The Barby club in Tel Aviv.
"Iceland national radio had a lot of good alternative music programs it was interesting to listen to; there'd be classical music then indie rock. It wasn't like your average pop music station, and it was a great source of all kinds of music. I guess when I was a kid, I watched Eurovision and things like that, but once my taste in music evolved, I quickly moved away from anything like that," he added.
What he and his band mates moved closer to and remained ensconced in musically was a sound merging both playful and haunting melodies, and a studio whiz sleight of hand integration of analogue and digital technologies. "Playing an assortment of instruments and percussion alongside some crisply programmed electronic washes, beats, dingdongs and beep-beeps as well as found sounds and field recordings, the band's talent, inventiveness and nose for musical exploration is immediately audible," commented the AMG Music Guide.
AND TODAY, while The Sugarcubes are a fond memory, Bjork isâ€¦ wellâ€¦ Bjork, and the top Icelandic musical export is minimalist post-rockers Sigur RÃ³s, mÃºm can proudly stake claim to the number two spot. Still, according to Tynes, the band's popularity and livelihood is centered outside of the country.
"There are artists that play a lot around Iceland, but it's usually pop music. We're almost never played on the radio in Iceland; our base is around the world. Anything slightly alternative or out of the mainstream is a tough sell there," he said.
"It's even an interesting thing with Bjork and the Sugarcubes who are considered the first big breakout artists here. They're definitely household names, but while everybody knows them, not so many people know the music. It's not like Bjork's the most popular artist, she's just the most famous."
Pointing to Iceland's paltry population, Tynes admitted that it's never been easy for an artist to sustain himself solely on local income. And the virtual bankruptcy of the country's economy and government in 2008 did not help the situation. But according to Tynes, tough economic times often translate into creative and inspiring times musically.
"The music scene hasn't really been hurt; in fact, it's probably stronger now. The power of music always comes out in bad times, because people find joy in making music, and people find joy in hearing it. And it has nothing to do with making money, we'd be making music anyway. It doesn't require any external stimuli," said Tynes, adding, "Before the crash, we never got any support from the government, so we haven't lost anything."
What mÃºm has gained over the years since releasing their first album in 2000 - Yesterday Was Dramatic, Today Is OK - is a steady stream of glowing press, widespread praise and an adventuresome spirit that has transported them to some interesting musical places. In addition to releasing a series of increasingly accomplished albums, they've written and performed their own soundtrack for the classic Sergei Eisenstein film, Battleship Potemkin, live performances of which have taken place in Iceland, New York and Spain. They've also composed music for a radio play on Icelandic National radio which won the Nordic Radio-theater prize, and, in 2005, they collaborated with National Dutch Chamber Orchestra to create a performance piece based around various compositions of the late avant-garde composer Iannis Xenakis.
THE BAND'S lineup has changed over the years, with Tynes and SmÃ¡rason being the only original members left, and now bolstered by guitarist/vocalist/violinist Ã“lÃ¶f Arnalds, trumpet/keyboard player EirÃkur Orri Ã“lafsson, vocalist/cellist Hildur Gu_nadÃ³ttir, percussionist Samuli Kosminen, and multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Mr. Silla. According to Tynes, the result has been an evolution of their sound, which nonetheless retaining its essence.
"We experiment a lot. Usually, Orvar and I get together and write the songs. Then once they've been born, we invite the rest of the band to take part, it's an open dialogue and they're encouraged to do what they want," he said.
"We have certain ideas of where we want a song to go, but we let the personality of the band step in. In the end, we get together and decide what goes in and what stays out."
For a band that relies so heavily on studio tinkering and effects to get its recorded sound right, mÃºm is uncharacteristically undaunted about performing live. In fact, Tynes said he feels liberated by having the opportunity to reinterpret the songs in concert.
"We work strangely compared to other bands. We write and finish our music before we go and play live. Once they're done, then we think 'how can we play this live?' It's a different approach and there are usually a lot of changes, you can do things on albums that you can't do live," he said.
Despite the personnel changes along the way, mÃºm's sound - as presented on their much lauded new album Sing Along to Songs You Don't Know - is still as identifiable as it is endearing. According to Tynes, it's a matter of approach and staying true to themselves.
"I would like to believe that our music has followed a natural progression. I think that we approach our music creation in very much the same way we always have. Of course, we have different band members now, these are different times, and we also know our instruments better now," he said with a laugh.
"We don't have a set of rules. Our next album could be heavy metal. We don't really know, we let the music go where it wants."
One place that mÃºm's music gets to is Israel, where the band's following proved to be an eye opener for Tynes.
"I was pleasantly surprised to find out we have a following so far from Iceland. It's interesting to see where your music travels once you finish making it."