Mugison

A Song for the Guilty Hero

Music Features Mugison
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Paste joins the bearded troubadour in Reykjavík as he prepares to carry his bizarre musical truth to American shores.

"The chicken is one of very few birds / That never can fly / But even with his head chopped off / He’ll still give it a hell of a try / How beautiful is that" - Mugison (from “The Chicken Song”)

“I have the murderer’s name on my desk” claimed the headline published in an Icelandic newspaper in December 1974. The man responsible for the quote—the chief investigator in what would become the most legendary criminal case in the country’s history—meant only that he had in his possession a roll containing the names of all 220,000 Icelandic citizens. His protracted inquiry into the alleged murder of two men who’d mysteriously vanished in unrelated cases that year would eventually, however, whittle that collection of names down to just one: Sævar Ciesielski.

The trial produced a staggering 10,000 pages of court records, mostly due its complicated nature. The prosecution charged Ciesielski with double murder even though the bodies of the two men never surfaced, nor did a murder weapon or forensic evidence of any sort. The trial lurched forward, propelled by a convoluted series of guilt-shifting testimony.

Despite the case’s somewhat dubious proceedings, Ciesielski—a 20-year-old hippie who’d already gotten in trouble for smuggling hashish and defrauding the Icelandic national phone company before his implication in the missing-persons case—would spend the two years leading up to the trial in solitary confinement. During his incarceration, which included routine torture and forced sleep deprivation, he proved unable (or unwilling) to point investigators to the location of the bodies he and several accomplices had allegedly buried in the crater-marred volcanic plains outside the capital city of Reykjavík.

Public opinion—and everybody seemed to have one—was split. Many felt he’d been wrongly accused. Still, others saw this young hippie as Charles Manson’s Icelandic equivalent, a frightening byproduct of the drug generation, a hippie burnout whose brain chemistry had been permanently and dangerously altered.

I wouldn’t learn all the details of Ciesielski’s trial until returning home from Iceland; tonight, in the flesh, he’s just another drunk in a too-big leather jacket and frayed jeans, a woman hanging on his arm. It’s well past midnight and I’m sitting in a bar called Rökkurbarinn (“Dusk” in English) where Icelandic singer/songwriter Mugison and an assortment of his friends and local session players are celebrating the recent completion of his soundtrack to Baltasar Kormákur’s film, A Little Trip To Heaven. Mugison—the 29-year-old musician who walked away from this year’s Icelandic Music Awards with Song of The Year (“Murr Murr,” written with his good friend Pétur), Album of the Year (Mugimama! is This Monkey Music?), Best Artwork (again, Mugimama!) and Performer of the Year (decided by the public)—leans over and discreetly informs me who’s just walked through the door, as I’m the only person in the room who could possibly fail to recognize the notorious ex-con.

Mugison’s bar of choice hosts an unsettling collision of light and darkness. It’s a modest-sized room, located on a side street that runs parallel to Reykjavík’s downtown shopping district. The atmosphere is spacious and brightly illuminated with polished, blonde wood flooring. Sketches of historically significant Icelandic men grace a far wall (when I ask my neighbor at the table, Sammy—who fronts local funk band Jagúar and played trombone on Mugison’s soundtrack—whom the portraits depict, he quips, “Just bums like everyone else in this place”). The bathroom, typically the sketchiest corner of any drinking establishment, sparkles like it’s been detailed with bleach and a toothbrush.

All the while, however, Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” blasts from the jukebox, David Byrne’s voice flatly advising everyone within earshot to “run run, run run run away.” Guns N’ Roses are on deck. The wrinkled woman tending bar carries a severe look on her face; her movements are twitchy and unpredictable. Ciesielski hardly looks out of place among the bar’s male clientele, the majority of them disheveled and draped in leather jackets and emptying glass after glass, thirsty for oblivion.

Over the din of our table’s banter and Axl’s wounded screeching, I ask Mugison, “What do you like most about this bar?”

“Everybody in here has a guilty conscience,” he replies, smiling good-naturedly and turning back to the fray. Someone at the opposite end of the table says something in Icelandic and the party ripples with laughter.

Over the course of spending several days in Iceland with Mugison, whose given name is Örn Elías Gu?mundsson, the idea of conscience surfaces repeatedly in a variety of contexts. His eyes betray hints of mischief but hardly a threatening sort. He laughs easily, his disarming grin widening behind a neatly trimmed beard. When considering an answer to your question, he tugs absently on his erratic, dirty-blond mane, rubbing small tufts between his fingers until they spike in odd directions.

While mixing the new soundtrack’s commercial release one afternoon in Sundlaugin (Sigur Rós’ studio located just a short drive from Reykjavík in Mosfellsbûr), Mugison comments on the difficulty of balancing his career with domestic responsibilities: “It’s a rough balance—the Ms. and the music. Plus, I’ve got a kid now so I’ve got to fight the woman and the guilty conscience. Because music doesn’t feel like a real job. I’ll be messing about and she’s like, ‘Change the diaper!’ [Feigns indignation] ‘I’m working! I’ve got a brilliant phrase here.’”

Any full-time musician with diapered tots can relate to that dilemma, but Mugison is sensitive to the fact that conscience extends well beyond morality and the occasional guilty knot in your stomach. It also governs your core values, ethics—how you live your life on a much broader level. These elements, of course, depend largely on the environment in which you’re raised, as different societies and regions cultivate their own unique set of values, Iceland being no exception.

Later that night, while his girlfriend Rúna and 7-month-old baby boy sleep soundly upstairs, we stumble upon this thread once more, sitting around the kitchen table in his loft apartment. The room is dimly lit and Gillian Welch’s Time (The Revelator) plays softly in the background.

“There is an American conscience and an Icelandic conscience,” Mugison explains. “For instance, America believes totally in the hero which is really beautiful. But all your heroes are spotless—it’s really funny—like in a Superman kind of way. You can’t criticize them; they’re just perfect. You present yourselves as a spotless nation and you won’t accept that we’re weak in a way, that every human being’s got their little devil in them.

“But in Iceland we just always kill the hero. We’ve got rich literary sagas of the ancient times and the spotless guy always gets killed. It’s nearly like a fascination with murderers, misfits, the lowlifes—they always win. They don’t win in that everybody loves them. But the stories always conclude like, ‘Yeah, he’s the winner,’ even though he had three wives, was a bad father and went bankrupt 20 times.

“In this one story, ‘The Story of Ale,’ at the age of six [Ale] killed his first man. At age 11 he was an advisor to the king of Norway. He’d killed bunches and bunches of people. He was an immensely angry old man and he drank like a pig. But he’s the biggest hero Iceland’s ever had. And he’s just a total f—up.”

Over the past several years Mugison, too, has become something of a hero in his native Iceland. And while the man’s music and personality hardly approach Ale’s towering foibles, he certainly embraces the notion that human beings are equal parts darkness and light.

He admits to once running out of money in a bar and jumping beneath the tap in order to let a stream of free alcohol pour down his throat for several seconds until bouncers pried him off the counter and threw him outside onto the asphalt. But he’s also just as likely to trumpet his devotion to girlfriend Rúna and their young child. In fact, his heartfelt duet “2 Birds” was written about the night his and Rúna’s friendship turned that nervous corner into romance.

“I was afraid I was going to turn into too good of a friend, you know. One night we went out onto the balcony of where I lived for a cigarette—I smoked back then—and there was this really awkward silence. We were just smoking and saying nothing. It was really intense; it was one of those moments where you feel like you have to shout.

“Then out of nowhere two swans flew past our balcony—their wings were really big and they flew straight into the moon. It was like a cartoon and we just burst into laughter, like, ‘If this isn’t a sign, what the f— is it?’ Anyway, that broke the ice and from then on it wasn’t hard to go to the next level. Everything in cartoons seems so unbelievable, ’til it happens to you.”

Fittingly, Rúna’s lilting voice accompanies him on the recorded version of “2 Birds.” And when he performs the ballad solo on tour, a projector at the base of the stage beams Rúna’s face onto the body of his guitar (see p. 8) while her tender, sampled lilt floats out of the PA, evoking the candlelit acoustic pathos of a Damien Rice/Lisa Hannigan duet.

His latest album, Mugimama! is This Monkey Music?, covers every last inch of the emotional spectrum. In addition to the aforementioned ballad, you can detect hints of Thom Yorke’s unhinged croon (“I Want You”) and Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s star-gazing-from-the-gutter resignation (“I’d Ask”). “Sad As A Truck,” far and away the most arresting (and assuredly polarizing) track on the album—Mugison swears he originally conceived the song as a throwaway bluegrass ditty—offers a throbbing techno-funk collage that sounds like Prince and Trent Reznor collaborating on the soundtrack for a hypothetical porn flick called Bed of Nails.

With its varied, something-for-everyone approach, Mugimama! debuted at #1 on the Icelandic music charts upon its 2004 release, holding steady for two months. And it’s bounced around the Top 20 ever since. To date, Mugimama! has sold nearly 8,000 units in Iceland, which doesn’t sound very impressive until you take into account that 5,000 is a gold-selling record and there are only 300,000 people in the entire country. “It’s amazing,” says Mugison. “Usually a good record over here will sell about 2,000 copies.”

Mugi-manic fans must approach him on the street every time he leaves his downtown Reykjavík apartment.

“Not unless they’re drunk. They would do that to teenage stars. I know my sister’s really into a performer named Birgitta. She has difficulty going around town without teenagers taking photographs of her on their mobile phones and stuff. I had that happen to me on the airplane the other day when I was coming home from Paris, but that’s the first time that’s ever happened. Teenagers and people leave me alone so, you know, I’m not that kind of star.”

Mugison’s right—he’s not that kind of star. Instead of sitting idle in the heavens, soaking up energy from people’s fickle admiration until his ego burns itself out in a pathetic flickering hiccup, he’d rather hurtle forward comet-style into uncharted regions of the musical cosmos.

You don’t have to spend much time digging into Mugison’s personal history before realizing that—given such an utterly bizarre cache of life experiences—he was bound to develop a singular artistic voice.

During early childhood he spent about six to nine months of every year in Cape Verde—a small cluster of islands in the North Atlantic off the coast of Senegal. Iceland’s Foreign Ministry dispatched his father, a veteran fisherman, to Cape Verde as part of the United Nations’ program to help developing nations, tasking him with showing the local fishermen new machinery and tactics, as they were still rowing small boats out into the ocean to catch fish. Mugison remembers the period fondly.

“As a kid, it was fun for me, living in Africa. I had a pet monkey. I didn’t have to go to school. We weren’t rich and we lived on a normal kind of block. There was no luxury apart from the monkey. And that’s just ’cause I [worked] for it. There was a sailor there who’d bought the monkey while he was drunk, but it was ruining his apartment. So he said if I cleaned his apartment—there was shit and piss everywhere—I could keep the monkey. It took me like one or two days to clean the apartment. I had to put Old Spice in a cloth and cover up my nose because it smelled so bad.”

Does the childhood pet account for the “monkey music” portion of the album’s title?

“Not really. I just didn’t want a serious title. The first part, ‘Mugimama,’ is maybe serious [because it refers to my mother] but the second part of it is very humorous. I don’t like people who take themselves too seriously. It’s entertainment; it’s a way to make time pass. If you see a soul album it just makes you feel better. It’s got nice colors on there, the album titles are always funny: Soul Jam, or whatever. I’d like it if people didn’t know what my album sounded like and just thought, ‘Monkey Music—that’s gotta be funny.’”

As a teenager, Mugison followed his father’s lead and began working in the fishing industry, in fish-processing plants and out at sea for long stretches aboard fishing trolleys that skirted the Russian coast.

Both settings exposed him to some amazing “characters,” as he affectionately calls them. Fifty-year-old ladies in the fish factory who could tell jokes “that in some places they’d give people heart attacks because they were so crude.” An old fisherman on one expedition who recited bawdy limericks from memory for 63 straight days without repeating a single verse. These are the characters who’ve filtered into Mugison’s unconscious—people whose minds sprouted Technicolor wings in a desperate attempt to flutter above the repetitive chores their hands carried out below.

In the summer of 2001, Mugison’s parents divorced. So when Christmas arrived, he traveled from London—where he’d begun taking classes at SAE Institute (School of Audio Engineering)—to Malaysia, hoping to cheer up his father who was stationed there working on a project similar to the one in Cape Verde. Mugison stayed five weeks and they spent time traveling around small fishing villages on different islands.

“My Dad is a really good guy, big and fat, and he has a bass voice. The people there had never heard a voice like this before because they all had high-pitched voices. So we’d get to drink free most of the time. We’d draw in such a crowd that the owners would be like, ‘Don’t go!’

“So we were getting silly drunk every night and people would cheer for him. His nickname is Mugi and the people would scream ‘MU-GI! MU-GI! MU-GI!’ to get him to do more songs. Then, when he finished, he’d introduce me: ‘Here’s my son, he’s going to do a few songs.’ So after a few songs, they’d come talk to me, calling me ‘Mugi-son.’ I thought it was just brilliant.”

A few months after returning from Malaysia, Mugison decided to record his debut, Lonely Mountain. To be able to afford to quit his job as a messenger boy for a stockbroker and work full-time on the record, he broke the lease on his London apartment and couch-hopped for about four months (“Most of my time was spent sorting out which friend I should piss off”), recording in various friends’ living rooms while they were vacationing in Spain with family for the holidays.

That summer he managed to put the finishing touches on both Lonely Mountain—a crudely recorded laptop masterpiece that pays stylistic tribute to Yo La Tengo, The Beatles and Tom Waits—and his final thesis for school, which he worked on simultaneously. But even though he’d finished the record and found a label to release it (U.K.-based Accidental Records), one last endurance trial awaited him.

The label had farmed Lonely Mountain’s cover artwork out to a high-profile design firm, but when it came back Mugison balked at the finished product. “When I got the artwork, it was nowhere near my kind of thing. I felt like, ‘That’s not me—that’s some design office.’ It didn’t feel right. So I called up the label and said, ‘There’s no way you guys are going to use that thing. The artwork is representing me.’

“And the label went like, ‘WHAT?! We spent so much money on it and you’re just a cocky guy living in Iceland somewhere in a remote bay.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, it’s my music so I’ve got a final say in this.’ So they were like, ‘What do you suggest we do? We don’t have any more budget for this.’ So I said, ‘I’ll do the whole thing myself.’”

And that’s precisely what he did. For the next two months he camped out in Ísafjör?ur (a small fishing village in Iceland’s West Fjords), hunched over a sewing machine for anywhere from 12-16 hours a day, stitching together a mountain of whimsically decorated cardboard album sleeves—10,000 to be exact—with miles upon miles of crimson thread. Two sewing machines met their demise along the way. But you can’t hold the finished product without feeling you’re in possession of something special. The thread along the bottom edge—at least on my personal copy—veers off course and corrects itself, resisting perfection. Just like the human being responsible for its creation.

When I ask Mugison about his stubbornly self-reliant work ethic, he revisits the notion of the Icelandic conscience: “Fifty years ago in this country you’d just have your baby on the floor. The husband might grab a dustpan and shovel the blood into a trashcan but no doctors came. If there’s an Icelandic conscience, it comes from that kind of toughness people taking care of themselves. Like Björk. She’s really in charge of her own career. And Sigur Rós have their own studio. If everything goes wrong, they’re still OK. And that’s part of the Icelandic mentality. It’s like, ‘I am my own boss. I just want to have this small boat. I’ll get fish. I’ve got a couple of sheep.’ Those small farmers are just totally reliant on their own skills and always prepared to go solo.

“Like Björk, [folktronica outfit] Múm and myself—we all engineer, produce and record everything on our own. We just do the thing and deliver it. If you have an idea for an album or something, you just do it. It’s so easy, if you think about it. Designing the Mugimama! cover was just a dinner party. We ordered pizza and had beer and finished it in one night.”

Whether it’s easy might be debatable, especially considering the effort it took to scale Lonely Mountain, but it’s inspiring to see such brazen self-confidence in an artist.

“Someone told me, ‘The most important thing is just doing it.’ That affected me greatly. It shouldn’t matter if you get a record deal. If people are doing music, they should just record it and make it available themselves. They shouldn’t be waiting. There are too many people wasting their time just hoping and dreaming, ‘Yeah, that’s not possible because nobody wants me,’ just waiting for someone’s permission.”

In December 1977, the court found Ciesielski guilty as charged, sentencing him to life in prison. A 1980 Supreme Court appeal upheld the conviction but reduced Ciesielski’s sentence to 17 years. Ciesielski, who served more than eight years before being granted early release, aggressively maintains his innocence to this day. In the late ’90s he even lobbied (unsuccessfully) to have the trial reopened so he could clear his name and force the prison guards—who forgot “guard” means protect—to account for the inhumane treatment he suffered at their hands.

The name “Sævar Ciesielski” may whiff faintly of dried blood, yet he sits here in Rökurbarinn with his lady, enjoying a cold beer and smiling like he’s got a winning scratch-off ticket buried in his pocket. No one here is perfectly innocent. There isn’t a spotless conscience in the room. Everyone is just doing the best he can. And to win a moment of undiluted happiness like tonight is to really win big. Even our buddy Axl on the jukebox is knockin’ on heaven’s door. Who knows, they just might let him in.

I strike up a conversation with an affable sound designer across the table named Kjartan who managed the sound effects and final mix for Kormákur’s film. (Meaning: his job involved politely doing battle with Mugison over how prominent his music could be in any given scene.) At one point Kjartan takes a long sip of beer, describing the artists gathered around our table as “stupid kings of a small country where anything is possible.”

Long after boarding a plane and returning home, that two-word phrase “stupid kings” lingers in the back of my mind. I recall the meaning and people behind it—a crowd of hungry artists who’re just foolish enough to believe they don’t need anyone’s permission to accomplish heroic feats. Now with Mugimama! finally being released in the U.S. on Mike Patton’s Ipecac Records, one of those artists will set his eyes on a much, much larger conquest. But there’s no reason for Mugison to be intimidated. Remember, it’s just monkey music.

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