Little Talks: Of Monsters & Men

"We weren’t really doing it for anyone..."
Of Monsters and Men.jpeg
Of Monsters & Men are a tricky group to interview. The band initially released their debut album ‘My Head Is An Animal’ in Iceland last year, and its insidious effect has already witnessed American audiences falling at their feet. Yet they’re arriving in the UK as relative unknowns, forced to answer the same questions that were initially put to them 18 months ago.

Throughout, though, the band are courteous, polite displaying the kind of youthful innocence which can’t be faked. Clearly enjoying every moment of their surprise success, ‘My Head Is An Animal’ was seemingly developed in a haphazard, extremely natural way. First came Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir, and gradually the band formed around her. “I was just a girl writing music, playing pubs and stuff. Nothing serious, just playing around with friends” she explains. Shifting from solo status to working within a band format meant that the singer had to let go of certain traits. “It’s very different, for instance, performance wise. When you’re alone you rely on yourself and if you fuck up then you fuck up. But also it gives you freedom to go, if you feel like doing something at that particular moment it’s just you. The energy with the band is very cool. You rely on each other’s energy”.

Winning a battle of the bands competition in their native Iceland, Of Monsters & Men were given the encouragement to begin work on their debut album. Writing in a casual, unhurried fashion the band matched a folk, Americana vibe to a palpable pop touch – all with an epic, widescreen feel” Ragnar "Raggi" Þórhallsson remembers. “The songs came naturally and we weren’t in a hurry back home after we won the competition. We didn’t even think we would be in this position. We were just cruising, playing small gigs in pubs and writing songs along the way. When we had enough songs we decided to go into the studio”.

It’s here that Of Monsters & Men really came into being. Working with producer Aron Arnarsson the band were able to match their live energy with a lust for making each part bigger, larger, stronger. “ I guess when we were making the album we were in a much more chilled environment, we were taking things very slow but that has definitely changed” says Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir. “Everything that we’re doing now has to be done right now! It’s different. We weren’t really doing it for anyone. We didn’t know if anyone would listen to the record, except our friends”.

Ragnar "Raggi" Þórhallsson agrees. “There were no expectations. We knew we wanted to make the songs big. I think while we were recording that was an idea we had, to make the songs big. We recorded in a big hall altogether to get the live sound, to get everything mashed together. We recorded in a big room, but we didn’t think we would play in a big arena. That would be cool, someday”.

Picked up by Stateside radio, ‘My Head Is An Animal’ has already entered the American consciousness. Now it’s Britain’s turn: released last week, the album flew into the charts at number three. Clearly, the solid, empirical growth the band have enjoyed hasn’t come from nowhere and in a way it’s a demonstration of the sway American opinion holds over a British audience. Chatting to Clash after a show at the Scala, the band point out an unusual coincidence. “Last night at the London show there was like one crazy guy.. of course when talked to us he was American” states Arnar Rósenkranz Hilmarsson. “That’s the perfect example of an American audience, because they just lose their minds” insists Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir. “They’re just jumping around.. they get very into it and they are very sweet so it’s great for us to be onstage and see people react that way”.

Attempting to maintain a draining tour schedule, Of Monsters & Men are often away from their friends and family for months at a time. Not that they have all come prepared, as Ragnar "Raggi" Þórhallsson explains: “I packed nothing. Only two jeans and a good mood. Just one pair of shoes, and they’re not even my shoes – they’re my grandfather’s shoes. I have like 19 pairs at home, but no – I take my grandfather’s. And some sunglasses. I wanted to make the bag light!”

As ever, Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir is the calm voice of reason. “You always have to enjoy it” she says. “We’re in a strange position, we’re very lucky – we’re young. You have to keep perspective, you have to remember to enjoy it. Sometimes it gets hard and you start thinking you want to go home, but you get through it and keep perspective”.

It’s exciting, for sure – what band wouldn’t want to be in that position? – but it does mean that the group are struggling to fit in time to write new material. “We are making our soundchecks shorter because we always save after every show our set up, our settings in order to get time at the soundcheck to write new music” explains Ragnar "Raggi" Þórhallsson. Arnar Rósenkranz Hilmarsson adds: “We’re all in our own separate corners, trying to do our own thing. We try it during soundcheck, when we’ve got a good sound onstage. Hopefully it will turn out good”.

It’s difficult to get across just how infectiously funny Of Monsters & Men are in person. Musing on their new material, Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir offers the following anecdote: “A really great artist from Iceland told me, I was asking her whether or not she could write on the road and she said she could – although it was hard – and when she came back she had all this inspiration. She took everything with her and then came back with these inspirational ideas”.

At which point the conversation dissolves into giggles. “She kept them in her backpack!” “Her inspiration back pack!” “The back pack of inspirations!”

Listen closely, though, and Of Monsters & Men have an introspective side, with each swirling vocal line hiding a lyric draped in melancholy. “It’s like Icelandic candy” says Ragnar "Raggi" Þórhallsson. “They have this candy in Iceland – we have this liquorice which is chocolate covered so you get a little bit of salt and a little bit of sweet. That’s the best thing in life, to mix the two together. I think it’s similar to us, do you understand? It’s an analogy. Is that a word?”

It certainly is. Perhaps Of Monsters & Men aren’t so difficult after all...

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'My Head Is An Animal' is out now.

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