For years now, Mammút have been one of the bands to watch in Iceland’s music scene. Having started over 10 years ago — then an all-female trio, a rarity in Iceland at the time — when all of them were just teenagers, Mammút both garnered early acknowledgment via winning Iceland’s Battle Of The Bands competition and also wound up growing up as a band in the public eye. Their name translates to “mammoth,” and it’s appropriate: Mammút’s sound has often been elemental, and onstage they conjure up anthemic, churning alternative music that seems to exist outside of any particular scene or time or genre.
Their new album, Kinder Versions, is their fourth total and first for Bella Union as well as their first written in English instead of Icelandic. For people who have been to some shows in Iceland, Mammút is part of the establishment; their Saturday night show at this year’s Iceland Airwaves was so over capacity that I had no chance in hell of getting in with my press wristband, and even the mayor of Reykjavik got turned away. But elsewhere, they’re still a relatively unknown or up-and-coming name, an artist that’s always seemed just a few steps away from an international breakthrough. Kinder Versions may turn out to be the beginning of that, an album of intense, ethereal alt-rock that becomes even more muscular and overwhelming when you see these songs live. During Airwaves, I met up with two of Mammút’s founding members — frontwoman Katrína Mogensen and bassist Ása Dýradóttir — to talk about the Icelandic music scene, everything they’ve experienced in over 10 years of being a band, and the new explorations of Kinder Versions.
STEREOGUM: Since you started Mammút when you were teenagers, you’ve already been doing this for over 10 years. How have you seen the Icelandic music scene change over that time, especially with Airwaves getting bigger over the years?
KATRÍNA MOGENSEN: It’s our 11th Airwaves. We only missed one since we started.
ÁSA DÝRADÓTTIR: This year is smaller, I like that. It’s a breather. It was getting…to me, it was too much. For the last five years, we were playing so many shows each Airwaves, I would just go home after. You’d hide in between your gigs.
MOGENSEN: But the music scene in general…It has changed a lot. Back in 2004, when we started, it was just this rock scene. Indie rock and hardcore.
DÝRADÓTTIR: The metal scene was huge also.
MOGENSEN: Huge. We were the only the band that had girls in it. There was another, but that was more of a performance, like the girls wearing wedding dresses. Humor, performance, “We are girls.” We were the only real band with girls in it for the first two years or something. That’s a very interesting thing to have witnessed.
DÝRADÓTTIR: It’s like 50 percent now or something.
MOGENSEN: It grew so fast after 2010, 2011.
STEREOGUM: Did people react a certain way, considering it was rare for women to be in bands and you were so young?
MOGENSEN: We were 14. We won this competition called Battle Of The Bands which is big and respected here in Iceland, so for three years we heard we only won because we were girls. We didn’t earn it, it was just a political thing because we were girls.
DÝRADÓTTIR: Some guys were envious. There was just a small number of idiots, but most people were very supportive.
MOGENSEN: I think that had a big impact on us, in a way. For the first years, we were never wearing any makeup, and just trying to be —
MOGENSEN: Yeah, very genderless. Not because of trying to be a boy, but trying to make sure that nobody would be like, “Oh, that singer’s so pretty!” So it would not overshadow the talent.
DÝRADÓTTIR: You also didn’t want to be a girl who dresses like a boy. That’s a “type,” too. You didn’t want to be cute. [turns to Mogensen] It ended up with you wearing what looked like a potato sack.
MOGENSEN: Yeah! I mean, I have big tits and I was very much like, “Well, I’m not going to show them off!”
DÝRADÓTTIR: [laughs] But you were actually in a potato sack.
MOGENSEN: Really, I was. I thought I was cool, though. But then the fourth wave of feminism came along. We get to be everything that femininity brings with it. That had a big impact, too, and that was interesting to see. This seems very faraway from the situation we were in. Girls who start in a band now…
DÝRADÓTTIR: Now young women have role models everywhere. They know that this has been done and this has been said and people have tried that.
MOGENSEN: I’m not taking a big credit for it, but I think Mammút had something to do with the fact that, in Reykjavik, a lot more girls came to play. Because we were playing out, always, everywhere.
STEREOGUM: Speaking of the accolades you’ve received, you also won a big Icelandic award for your third record. Did you feel any pressure going into Kinder Versions as a result?
DÝRADÓTTIR: It was just really exciting to do something different. With that album, we got the highest award you can get in Reykjavik. So, it was like, “OK, this part is done, what are we going to do next?” It was really nice to win that.
MOGENSEN: It wasn’t pressure. It was more…
MOGENSEN: It was more like the Icelandic music scene was opening this door like, “OK, now we respect you as artists.”
STEREOGUM: After 10 years.
MOGENSEN: [laughs] Yeah, now you are respected.
DÝRADÓTTIR: We lost some doubt in our mind. We could continue more easily.
STEREOGUM: This is the first record you’ve written in English. I’ve talked with other artists about the fact that you can’t really get out of Iceland if you’re singing in Icelandic. Had you wanted to write in English anyway, or was it a really conscious attempt, saying like, “OK, you’ve won this award and now it’s time to scale up and try to become bigger internationally”?
MOGENSEN: It had been a conversation for a long time in the band. We were going to write our third album in English —
DÝRADÓTTIR: It didn’t work.
MOGENSEN: We didn’t even try it. It just didn’t feel right at the time. Then I started writing lyrics and they were in Icelandic and we were happy with that. We’ve been singing in Icelandic for so many years and we’ve played a lot abroad. We see today in the music scene that people can sing in any language, like Sigur Rós. But when we started writing Kinder Versions, the idea had stuck.
DÝRADÓTTIR: I think it happened very naturally, we were surprised.
STEREOGUM: Beyond speaking in a different language, I was curious if it changed your writing. Icelandic is a very different language than English in its rhythms. For example, did you find yourself approaching melodies in a new way?
MOGENSEN: I think I started to write differently, but I’ve always written lyrics with the sounds in mind. Sometimes a sentence is just formed by the line in the melody. But yeah, I think I started to dream in English and everything was in English. I wasn’t writing anything in Icelandic at the time. You have to totally switch.
DÝRADÓTTIR: It’s easier, though, being an Icelander and writing in English rather than any other language, because we’re used to hearing English songs.
MOGENSEN: Also the decision we made doing it in English was because English is so close to us.
DÝRADÓTTIR: It’s our second language.
MOGENSEN: I didn’t have to look for a deeper vocabulary than I already had. I just used what I got.
STEREOGUM: Did you find yourself writing about different topics then, as a result?
MOGENSEN: Ah, yes…I don’t know if it was the English or the time that had passed since the last album. But I found I could be more direct in a way, and let myself go into clichés and still be very confident. I don’t know if it was English or being older and knowing what you do is what you do.
STEREOGUM: My personal favorite song on the album is the title track. There are a lot of songs that do surprising things on the record, but that one in particular is really a journey.
DÝRADÓTTIR: We did that one with our friend who isn’t in the band. We did a country song and it was just called “The Country Song” for some months. Then our friend and our guitar player were playing with some synths with it, and then we put more stuff on top of that—
MOGENSEN: Then we put the beat on top of it —
DÝRADÓTTIR: We were playing with it for months. It was a really fun process. It took a long time but it was very open. It was more like an art piece.
STEREOGUM: Did you always know that would be the title track, or was it just this six and a half minute epic you kept playing with?
MOGENSEN: No, the title of the song and the lyrics and the album came later. The lyrics always come afterwards. When we write the songs together we’re just all in the music process. When we’re done, I go and write lyrics, so they always come out of the music. The melodies always come before the words, which then maybe come along with the melody.
STEREOGUM: You’ve played America and other places a bit. But now that you’ve signed to Bella Union, released a record in English, and are operating with a slightly heightened profile, do you find people are reacting differently? Are more people finding their way towards Mammút now?
DÝRADÓTTIR: We feel a way different response in the States now. We went to Seattle and back to New York. People are coming, the places are packed. We love going.
MOGENSEN: When we record our album, it’s always our best one yet. Besides the lyrics in English, I think it’s our best one, so that has a lot to do with it also.
DÝRADÓTTIR: We made a pact that if we ever do a record that’s not as good as the last one, we’re going to quit.
Kinder Versions is out now via Bella Union.