Brendan Canty (Fugazi, Deathfix) Talks Múm’s Smilewound

The Icelandic group Múm has made a bunch of records that I can really sink my teeth into. The records have a distant, lo-fi, found-sound quality...

The Icelandic group Múm has made a bunch of records that I can really sink my teeth into.  The records have a distant, lo-fi, found-sound quality that makes them feel organic, no matter how digital they obviously were.   But I don’t necessarily register their effect on my senses until they go away — and then I’m hearing every creaking floorboard, truck rumble, or faucet drip as a potential Múm-style loop.  They take the clicks and pops of analogue refuse, turn them into complex beats,  and play them under a sea of melody and single-bit string samples, creating rhythms so intoxicating it’s hard not to see them as delusional Pythagorean wishfulness!

The overall sensation was like listening to the hum of a city from a great height, with the sound of birds chirping ridiculously loud and out of proportion to the distant din of the muffled earth below.  It exposed the drama of the infinitesimal by offsetting it against the grand myopathy of our emotional world.

All this quiet spectacle worked for me.  It allowed me to change the scale of my own perceptions.  I would use it — the chirps, the pops the clicks — to sublimate the din of my interior life.  It was a zen approach to listening that I always hoped the band shared.

I saw Múm once, in 2005, I believe, and it felt like a collective conjuring — their responsiveness to each other seemed ego-free.  I was mystified by how well they worked together in the service of the song.  It felt a bit like a collective, and I love collectives… as long as they have a great drummer.  And Múm definitely have one of the best: Samuli Kosminen’s beats are elaborate, loud and most importantly, interesting.

In 2005, I was composing and overseeing the score for Disarm, a documentary about the land mine problem.  The directors Mary Wareham and Brian Liu solicited musical elements from some of their favorite musicians who were also down with the cause.   Múm co-founder Örvar Þóreyjarson Smárason sent me a bunch of tracks that were sheer genius, by far the most atmospheric and interesting synth sounds and rhythms that I’ve ever put into a film.  His desire to contribute to the project made me love Múm even more.

Múm’s new record Smilewound is their most accessible to date, trying hard to please and communicate in very clear tones, vocals recorded as clear as a bell, loud and saturated in reverb, and some beats seemingly aimed more at the dance floor than ever before.  The old Múm could be played at cabdriver volume and it would still sound amazing; this new one, which feels a lot more produced, “wants” to be played louder.  Over a PA.  It often wants me to dance to it. (But it doesn’t know how unlikely that is!)

It seems to want to be bigger than Bat for Lashes. Hell, the opening “Toothwheels” even sounds like Bat for Lashes.  And it’s my favorite song on the record.  It starts with a small, distorted digital hi-hat sound skittering around in the corner, and some heavier distorted beats, then builds with some pizzicato strings and what sounds like a lushly orchestrated string quartet to underscore the band’s life-long mission:  to build soundscapes and change perspective on typical instruments.  The opening line, “This door will never open, why would it, we never tried to,” seems like a mission statement for a change agent.

There’s the lovely little ballet music of “Eternity Is the Wait Between Breaths.” And “Candlestick” has a stretch of perversely violent lyrics about whacking people and getting whacked — it’s like Katrina and the Waves, but on bath salts.  Love it.

“The Colorful Stabwound” is the most sonically recognizable of all the songs on this record.  It has a drummer playing drums that sound like drums in a way that people who are drummers would think, “Oh my, I do love the sound of that.  That guy can really play.  I should rip that off.” It’s busy and frenetic, but groovy.  Mostly untreated piano and bass make the vocal sit like a baby playing on her mother’s lap.  And it’s so beautifully sung, full of confession and humility: “I’ve done some things you won’t believe.”  Joy, lovely joy.  Ah, but for a record full of this sound.

But then there’s “Underwater Snow,” far too precious and out of place as a second song — it would be a great album closer, though, building as it does on big acoustic piano, thumping drums and some leftover string loops from Paul McCartney’s closet.  But the reverb on the vocal is so cloying, it ruins the entire track.  “When Girls Collide” has a very pretty vocal line that would be right at home on an early Belle and Sebastian record, and a chorus that reminds me a bit of Cocteau Twins.  Unfortunately it’s all underscored by some of the most simplistic and annoying music on the whole record.  “One Smile” is a Bollywood-inspired frantic idea, amazing accomplished-sounding, but beaten to death.  There’s some writerly goodness on “Sweet Impressions” — the chorus has a melody that sounds like Cardinal — but the refrain “You’ve got time for love” stands out as sounding insipid on a record so full of such lyrical darkness.

It’s tough, because I want to love Smilewound as much as I love Múm’s other records. But I don’t really love this record. Not yet anyway.  It has its great moments when the reverb stops for a second and you can hear them mining for the beautiful discord that is our natural life, which is what they’ve done best for so long.

But if I’m really honest with myself and my own bullshit, I guess what I am looking for could be called stasis, which Múm fortunately has no interest in.  Shit, if I don’t love this record, someone will… and the energy that they’ve created in the past will carry them forward into new realms, and then, hopefully, it will all make sense to me.  I wish Múm the best, and I will keep listening for the dialogue they spark inside and outside my head when I do, and for the way they change the way I hear my own blippy, scratchy, noisy world.

Brendan Canty is a musician and filmmaker.  He was originally a member of Fugazi and his current band Deathfix can be found here.  His film production company Trixie can be found here.