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Sunday, March 21, 2004

Nothing lost in translation of mum music


Special to The Japan Times

It's important to say the band's name correctly: mum, which is always written without an initial capital letter, is pronounced "moom." The band itself is from Iceland, and the name has no meaning.

News photo
mum are Orvar Poreyjarson Smarason, Kristin Anna Valtysdottir and Gunnar Orn Tynes

"It's just a sound, that's all," says Gunnar "Gunni" Orn Tynes, one the group's three full-time members. A question arises: Has the group ever been mistaken for another band with a name phonetically close to theirs, like Muse or Mew?

"Actually, there's an Austrian band that's also called mum," interjects the other male member of the group, Orvar Poreyjarson Smarason. "One time we were playing in Dublin and when we showed up we saw these big posters. The name was mum, but the picture was of these Austrian guys. Later, I remember, they got booked into a festival in Portugal and we kept getting phone calls from people asking if it was us who were playing there."

They never met their doppelgangers and can't even say what kind of music they play, but Orvar, who lives in Berlin with the third member of mum, Kristin Anna Valtysdottir, knows what the word means in German. "It's something you say to a little boy to get him to stop crying, to be brave."

It's an interesting coincidence, since mum's music has a lot of childlike qualities. Gunnar and Orvar are only partly interested in this line of analysis, but their lack of enthusiasm has less to do with artistic prerogative and more to do with exhaustion. The two young men (Kristin opted not to come) have just finished two days of nonstop interviews in the cramped office of their Japanese record company to promote their new record, "Summer Make Good."

It wasn't difficult for them to line up press interviews. The band's appeal is another one of those mysterious phenomena of the Japanese pop scene. The band's second album, "Finally We Are No One," sold 11,000 copies in Japan almost completely through word-of-mouth, an amazing number for a foreign indie record, and last fall they scheduled -- at very short notice -- a Tokyo show that sold out almost immediately. Advance orders for the new album are similarly impressive.

Orvar doesn't know what to make of it, especially since the audiences they've seen here don't seem very excited. The group's sound, which is electronic in nature and pop in structure, but very much in the ambient textural tradition of fellow Icelanders Sigur Ros, is head music, not feet music, but as Orvar points out, each country seems to react to it differently. "In Switzerland people dance, in Spain they scream."

"And in England people are just generally rude," Gunnar adds sardonically. "In America they go, 'You f**kin' rock!', which is probably what they say to everyone. Japan?" He looks at his partner and shrugs. Orvar shrugs back. "They're very quiet," Gunnar concludes.

Quiet sounds like a more logical reaction than headbanging. The band's songs feature percussion and usually fall into a groove eventually, but they also reward close attention to detail. The group mixes computer programmed sounds with an attic's worth of acoustic instruments (including melodica, glockenspiel, accordion, trumpet, viola, Stroh violin, musical saw, pump organ, Chinese harp, banjo) in such a way that the listener can never be too sure where one ends and the other begins. Kristin sings in a preternaturally high voice that tends to split listeners clearly into love-'em or leave-'em camps. And though she sings in English, Orvar admits "nobody understands what she's saying, anyway." The effect of the sound is much more important than any message the band may want to convey.

"We don't write in the studio," says Gunnar. "We work on things and then give them time to come to life. The studio process is really just finishing them."

For mum creation is at least half the fun. The band actually recorded its first album, "Yesterday Was Dramatic, Today Is OK" (2001), in Sigur Ros's studio, but since then they've taken a less traveled recording route. For the new album they wrote songs in one remote lighthouse, and recorded it in another one.

"We saw the lighthouse by chance and called up the guy who owned it. It was very breathtaking, very mind-cleaning," explains Gunnar. "We didn't want to go into a studio again. We were just looking for a house, but then somebody told us about the lighthouse. And then we found another one, about 45 minutes away. That's where the recording was done. It was actually closer to [Reykjavik]. We recorded there because we had this big tape machine and all these amps. You couldn't really take all that to the isolated one because there were no roads. You could only get there by boat."

The place was cold and old, qualities that are actually made audible. Between songs and even during a few one can hear the wind, the creak of floorboards, water dripping. Because you can feel the air around the music, it doesn't sound like electronics.

"We wanted to keep it dirtier, so that you can actually hear the ambience of the house," Gunnar says. "Instead of using computers to get a certain sound we tried to change things more naturally, by pushing the recorded sound through old amps and speakers."

Though mum is technically a trio, a lot of friends contributed to the record. The communal approach appeals to them, which is why they tend to work with conceptual artists. They sometimes perform improvised scores for classic movies like Eisenstein's "Battleship Potemkin" and even designed a concert that was meant to be heard only underwater. Orvar and Gunnar came across each other "in a rock band, a garage band, actually," but they met the Valtysdottir twins (Kristin's sister, Gyda, has since quit to concentrate on her cello studies) at a college play that the two men were asked to write music for.

With artists like Sigur Ros and Bjork preceding mum as ambassadors of Icelandic pop, it would be natural to assume that Reykjavik has a vital music scene. "Yes, it does," says Orvar. "In fact, it's even more versatile than you might think. But actually, the literature scene is even livelier than the music scene, but nobody knows that because it doesn't get translated. Music doesn't need to be translated."

Perhaps because of its physical isolation, Iceland seems to have avoided the pastiche pop trend of other Northern European countries, where bands make an international impression by co-opting old American and British rock forms. Gunnar says that rock is still a big force in Iceland. Just look at Reykjavik's own nu-metal band, Quarashi, which is signed to Sony.

"They must be big here," Gunnar says, and Orvar elucidates. "We were walking through Tokyo yesterday, and someone actually came up to our translator and asked him if we were Quarashi."

Quarashi sounds pretty generic compared to other Iceland bands, it's pointed out.

"That's what makes them unique," Gunnar says.

"Summer Make Good" will be released in Japan March 26. The Japanese release will include a silent film that the band shot.


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