The musical alchemists of Iceland’s múm have been concocting various mixtures of glitch electronics and warm analog sounds since the late ’90s. The band members themselves aren’t exactly sure when the group “formed,” but what they do know is that they’ve amassed a collection of compositions that haven’t received a proper release in the course of their career — and even a few that they’ve forgotten.
To correct this, they put together the compilation Early Birds, which comprises music recorded between the years 1998 and 2000, varying from avant-garde adventures like the 10-minute “Enginn Vildi Hlusta Á Fiðlunginn, Því Strengir Hans Vóru Slitnir” to the serene “0,000Orð.” They combed through their archives to find the most interesting ones. “We listened through hours and hours of DAT tape to pick the songs and more than half of it was genuinely insane music,” says the group’s Örvar Þóreyjarson Smárason, who was kind enough to let us interrupt his camping trip to tell us about the album. “Much of it was not like music at all, some of it sounded like trains on fire or cat massacres. Maybe the stuff that didn’t end up on the album was the most surprising.” Here, he fills us in on what did make the cut.
Why did you decide to revisit your early recordings?
It’s been something we have had on horizon for quite a while. Things like this just need to happen in their own time. It probably would have made more sense to release these tracks on the 10th anniversary of the band, but we have never been sure when the band was actually founded. The project also called for a right mindset for diving in to the archives, so we needed to wait for the stars to come together or the boats to sail in … or something like that.
What is your favorite song on the release and why?
The first four songs that are off the cassette demo are probably most dear to me because they are the oldest, and we didn’t have a clue how to make music.
Were there songs that surprised or pleased you the most when you revisited them?
There are two tracks on there that surprised me quite a lot, mostly because I hadn’t heard them since they were recorded. “Glerbrot” was recorded for our very first cassette demo, but we discarded it quite quickly because we felt it was too funky in its own weird way. We thought the synth line sounded like Jimi Tenor. [Laughs] But now the song just sounds refreshing for us. The other one was ”Volkspark Friedrichshain,” we had forgotten it existed.
“Hvernig á að særa vini sína” was featured on The Exploding Girl soundtrack and has since resonated with fans. What do you remember about recording it?
It has always been a tricky song for us, because it was the last song we recorded for our old band Andhéri, which was more of a traditional indie-pop band or possibly one of the first múm songs. On the recording there is me, Gunni [Örn Tynes] and current múm singer Hildur [Guðnadóttir], who was at that point the singer of Andhéri. Just before we mastered the Early Birds compilation, we decided it needed to get the proper release it never got, so we squeezed it on there. It depends how you look at it, but it’s not strictly a múm track. It was featured in The Exploding Girl because we have known Brad [Gray] the director of the film since back then. So he knew the track and asked for it, and in the film it’s credited to Andhéri, if I remember correctly. But since the film came out we have been getting emails and messages from people wanting to hear the song properly, so we are very happy we can finally give them what they asked for, even if it’s in a skewed or roundabout way.
“Glerbrot” was lost. How did you lose it and how did you find it? What did you think when you heard it again?
When we started compiling for Early Birds we started to talk about the very first recordings and we remembered that there had been a fourth song that had been discarded. We remembered it mostly because of the field recordings in the song, but we couldn’t remember hearing it since then. After going through all the DAT tapes without finding it, we had lost hope of uncovering the mystery, and were even starting to doubt that it had ever been recorded. The night before the compilation was mastered, Gunni found in his brother’s collection a tape marked “múm demo,” and track number three on this tape was the lost song.
“Volkspark Friedrichshain” was a song you had “forgotten.” Why did you name it after a park in Berlin?
When we first moved to Berlin, we lived in a street called Hufeland Strasse and we named a song we wrote there after it and it’s on the compilation. When we were going through the tapes we found a song we had written and recorded at the same time and we had completely forgotten. We liked the track so much that we decided to include it and name it after the park that we spent so much time in when we lived on Hufeland Strasse.
What do you think of when you listen to the 10-minute track “Enginn Vildi Hlusta Á Fiðlunginn, Því Strengir Hans Vóru Slitnir”?
This track is crazy mixture of different recordings. There is Gyða singing into a broke violin, a recording of drunk people arguing that our friend secretly recorded in some bushes, there is a melody of a song that later became ”The Ballad of the Broken String” on Yesterday Was Dramatic and there is a vocal exercise from the theatre group we were working with. The melody itself was written while busking on the street in Christiania [in Copenhagen, Denmark].
When you think back on these songs, what has changed the most in how you create music now?
Ever since we started making múm songs, we have had the same loose approach and random method, so maybe we haven’t grown at all in the last 14 years. Obviously many things have changed in our lives, but making intuitive music has been the rudder.
What advice would you have wanted someone to give you at the time these songs were recorded?
I wouldn’t want any; the best music comes from exploration and discovery.
Early Birds is out now on Morr Music. Stream the entire compilation below: