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An odd couple

Icelandic electronica meets surf punk in an odd choice of billing, but they have more in common than you think, writes Charlie Carter

 

AMERICAN SURF-PUNK band Wavves and the Icelandic experimental pop outfit Múm are heading to Hong Kong for a double-header gig next week. But music won't be the first thing on their minds when they touch down.

"I want to stuff myself with all that great food in Hong Kong," says Wavves bassist Stephen Pope.

A founding member of Múm (pronounced "moom"), Orvar Smarason, is on the same track: "Food is at the top of our to-do list. We're coming to explore [the city] and, most importantly, to eat."

Though the bands have not met - Smarason says he hadn't even heard of Wavves before they were paired up for the June 12 concert at Kitec - both are obviously of the same mind when it comes to touring.

"We most enjoy going out to eat" when on tour, says Smarason, who with Gunnar Tynes formed the cult experimentalists in 1998.

"I have no idea about how the show is going to be, but food-wise I already did some Googling," Smarason says by phone from his kitchen in Reykjavik, the Icelandic capital that Múm calls home. "I saw something about a monastery where you can get good vegetarian food. Very interesting - I'm interested in tasting that."

Perhaps both bands' enthusiasm comes from the fact this is their first trip to Hong Kong - not to mention the intrigue of a show that features two very different artists. Wavves play a brash, brattish form of surf rock, replete with catchy three-minute tunes about beaches and girls.

Múm, meanwhile, are the ultimate experimentalists, creating songs that can often last more than 10 minutes and feature anything from complex melodies played on bizarre ethnic instruments to little more than static fuzz.

Having spoken to both artists, it's difficult to imagine a more unusual coupling. In their approach to interviews alone, it's obvious that there is a gulf that's more than geographical.

While Orvar speaks in measured, precise, Scandinavian-accented English, his Wavves counterpart oozes the "ums" and "ahs" of the Californian beach slacker. Similarly, Smarason is careful not to reveal what he is feeling, whereas Pope launches straight into explanations of his emotional state.

This sets the stage for what could be a rock 'n' roll version of The Odd Couple movie, with fans of Múm's classically trained musicians rubbing awkwardly against the hipster followers of Wavves' looser guitar riffs.

Fortunately, both bands don't quite see it that way. "I think it's quite easy to pair us with any band," says Smarason, who describes his fans as being as musically experimental as Múm. "We don't have a specially defined group of listeners. People who listen to our music don't come from a specific genre."

Pope, who has been a fan of Múm for years, is nevertheless less sure that Wavves fans will be won over by the Icelanders, but thinks there's every chance. "I think it's a really bizarre pairing, too, but I think it'll be fun," says the 28 year-old, who professes to have had an "Icelandic phase" (including Björk, her former band The Sugarcubes and Múm) in high school.

"I think they'll enjoy the music - I hope so. Múm are great so I hope that our fans enjoy them too."

Concertgoers next week will get, in effect, a summation of the state of indie music at the moment: strung between the two poles of arty experimental pop (from British Goth-psych rockers The Horrors to San Francisco staple Thee Oh Sees) and more traditional rock 'n' roll bands such as New York punk artists Parquet Courts and British indie band Yuck.

Múm are so avant-garde that it's debatable if they can even be called a band. They are more a co-operative of musicians and friends, drawing new members when needed. And the backgrounds of musicians joining Smarason for the show offer a hint of Múm's unorthodoxy. While Eirikur Olaffson is listed as a trumpeter, he's also on the pianette and provides "whistling". Robert Reynisson, a guitarist, has been named the man in charge of "effectuals".

Their album titles are just as cheeky: Yesterday Was Dramatic - Today is Okay and Sing Along to Songs You Don't Know.

"Our music is very open," says Smarason. "I think the biggest quality that we have is that we're always searching for something, so the music is always open to discovering new things. That's the way it works for the audience too."

Conversely, Wavves formed the old-fashioned way - one kid with a guitar gathering his friends for a jam. In this case, it was frontman, guitarist and singer Nathan Williams who set up the earliest version of the band in San Diego in 2008.

Like Múm, the band has seen a few line-up changes. Most notably, Williams broke off with his drummer Ryan Ulsh after Williams had a drug-fuelled fit onstage that resulted in their act getting cut short and being heckled by fans at the 2009 Primavera festival in Spain.

"That was when I first met Nathan," says Pope. "I was at the festival with my own band and we just met. [He] mellowed out after he came off stage."

Pope and Williams decided to get together after the former's band dissolved.

Both Wavves and Múm are promoting new albums in Asia. The Americans have just released their fourth CD, Fear of Heights, and the Icelanders' next release is set to hit the shelves in September.

It is Múm, however, who have pitched an experiment they hope will help reverse the trend of dwindling CD sales. They are inviting fans and musicians to send them suggestions online for a new song - and if Múm like it, they will record a personalised seven-inch single for release. Fans have sent in lyric ideas, soundbites and one Icelandic band has even got back together in the hope of playing on the track.

"There's so much searching going on right now to find out what can be done to keep music alive and sustainable as the value of music itself has somehow gone down," Smarason says. "This is one of so many experiments around - you have to keep sharp, stay on your toes and do different things to avoid getting stuck in a rut."

48hours@scmp.com

 

Múm and Wavves, June 12, 7.30pm, Kitec, 1 Trademart Drive, Kowloon Bay, HK$420. Inquiries: ticketflap.com

 

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