In a dark corner of the offices of publicists Tell All Your Friends
, in downtown Manhattan, I sat down with Icelandic singer/songwriter and anything but conventional artist Mugison
. His accent was just barely audible, and charming, and his beard was awesome. Dressed like he just got home from barhopping in the East Village, I was pretty engrossed in what he had to say about his career, music, and connecting with fans.
Though not many Americans, especially when you go inland of the coasts, will even have heard the name Mugison, the guy is a superstar in Iceland. Which based on his picture is not surprising. Not many rock-stars have press pictures of them screaming on the shores of a lake, looking like some sort of fishing demi-god. In Iceland he might as well be, in 2004 his album Mugimama Is This Monkey Music?
got the best album nod, and one of its tracks, "Murr Murr," got best song.
This doesn’t mean Mugison is representative of anything resembling popular Icelandic music. Is there such a thing? In Iceland, you need to be different. In a country with only 300,000 people, there is little to no room for artistic imitation. "In America you can have one band in Seattle, and another in New York doing the same thing." In Iceland, if anyone tried to copy Mugison’s sound and release a record, he’d probably run into them within two weeks. It’s a totally different vibe.
But it’s an amazing vibe for new veins of creativity. Mugison himself has evolved from a one-man electronica band to a new-age classic rock legend, kind of channeling indie-blues and riff-rock while keeping it fresh. "I was getting kind of sick of myself" he said of his previous works, so he "got a jam together, and it’s basically how this album came about." And the new sound? Basically every band I can think of with "black" in it would love this guy (The Black Keys, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Black Sabbath, Jack Black, etc.).
Mugison’s latest album Mugiboogie
, is not only something completely new, it exudes cool. The opening riff sounds like a freight train, and Mugison’s energy is undeniable when he roars and comes in with the opening lines; the album has a ton of soul. And it doesn’t come in a traditional jewel case. Instead, it’s wrapped a hand-made leather slip with a booklet created from recycled Bible paper. "They’re not selling well," he said, but he has certainly found a good use for them. This was after telling me how many they hand-made: around 30,000. Creating these covers is a repeat of the last album’s artwork, which Mugison also worked on himself. He spent two months and enlisted the help of his entire hometown making the record cover, about 13,000 of them, all hand-stiched. And this one is no different (apart from the fact that it’s more folding). It is more than likely that Mugison himself has touched every single record that goes out to fans. That’s some crazy artist-fan connection.
The first thing he did was to share with me one of his infamous stories of his youth, of course involving his very eccentric father (who has always been a big influence on him). After all, his nickname "Mugison," means "son of Muggi" (his father’s name). "We were always good friends," he recounts "when he was drunk. Yeah, we got along when he was drunk at least." Mugison’s father taught people around the world in impoverished countries how to use fishing equipment, which led to him having "been everywhere." There was a time when Mugison was living in Africa with his father, when he was about seven or eight. And he remembered a particular day where his father gave him a monkey, which he had earned (I forgot to ask how anyone could "earn" a monkey). Anyway, he had just finished playing some football, and he wanted a coke (not an easy thing to find in those days in the locality). His father took him to several bars, saying "I’ll have drinks, you have coke." They then began what many might refer to as a pub crawl. When his father ran out of cash, he began to pay with the clothes off his back. There was Mugison, sitting in a pub, with a monkey and his football, drinking cokes, with his father wearing next to nothing.
So how did this lead to music? Mugison’s father gave him more than monkey’s and wild experiences; he gave him his first guitar at fourteen. But his father just laid the foundation, the catalyst was the usual story: "I had just met this girl at this fish factory I worked at…I wanted to impress her." So, he did what any fourteen year old kid should do: sought the guidance of someone he thought was ten times cooler. This came in the form of his fellow coworker, a twenty-one year old that looked a little "like Robert Plant. He had the curliest hair, big. He was a poet." He told Mugison to come to his place three times a week, to learn "how to become an artist." His buddy would put on some Frank Zappa, teach him "the right thing to say to ladies, how to drink whiskey, [and] how to smoke cigarettes;" the real fundamentals of artistic integrity. He even grew out "some Kurt Cobain hair." Interests and favorites include everything from Memphis blues, to Hendrix and even The Beach Boys. Mugison said he probably spent "more time with Tom Waits on [his] headphones than with most of his relatives." Influences are important to him.
And the building blocks are still present in his work today. Mugison puts all the booze, women and pure, unadulterated cool into his lyrics. And what’s really cool is that he isn’t trying to play to one particular crowd. "The crowds are so different everywhere" he told me, it’s like "different worlds." This means in the end, Mugison really has to just go with whatever he feels like. Sometimes its women, sometimes it’s Jesus, which according to the album is "a good name to moan."
So what is the future for Mugison? "I never know what I am going to do next," he told me, as a preface to any new works. "I might not do another rock and roll album... The next album could be cartoon music, it could be thrash metal, I don’t know." It’s whatever mood he is in. Currently, apart from promoting Mugiboogie
, Mugison is working on a side-project (of himself). It’s still a Mugison album, hypothetically, but more commercial in nature; he wants to write what could be considered more or less "background music" for small cafes and clubs. Consider it a personal interest.
"We’re quite fortunate to be doing this now" he says, about the internet culture we live in. It’s certainly made the transition to the American scene easier, allowing the entire country to access his music with one or two click. Mugison’s website
is a great place to check out free videos and clips of the album, as well as purchasing the CD and handmade cases from Mugison himself. "We make more money that way," he says, "and either me or my father are the ones to ship it out. It’s nice to hold the CD and have it in your home, and you know, people can be sure I’ve at least touched it fifty times." It’s a very personal connection between artist and fan, and a style that many American recording artists might want to imitate.
At the end of the interview, Mugison pulled a copy of Mugiboogie
out for me to take home and listen to. Aside form the seriously cool cover, and the beautifully illustrated booklet of artwork and lyrics, the music is awesome. It’s been stuck in my head all weekend. Plus, I can be sure he at least touched my copy fifty-one times. - joe puglisi
is out now, so visit the site to get your own piece of the Mugison lore.
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