It was never meant to be this way.
Of Monsters and Men formed almost by chance, debut album 'My Head Is An Animal' written and recorded in a matter of weeks. The ease of their origin, though, is matched by the scale of their success – two years later, the Icelandic group have toured the world several times over.
All of this leaves a trace, a mark. Away from home, from family and friends, for months at a time, the band were pushed further and further. On their return, they simply needed to decompress.
“It was kind of a shock to come home, I think,” muses co-songwriter Raggi Þórhallsson. “Because you're used to a schedule, you're used to doing something at certain points of the day, everyday. Then you're at home and you felt like you should be doing something.”
“I was constantly doing something,” admits bass player Kristján Páll Kristjánsson, when he starts to laugh: “I went and changed everything in my apartment!”
This furious, nervous energy seemed to run through the entire group. Returning to rehearsals, Of Monsters and Men decided to strip apart the entire room, literally building again from the ground up. “We all did it ourselves,” explains Kristján. “With the help of our families. We were so used to this life, we needed to do something else.”
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“People were curious about what was going to happen next,” interjects guitarist Brynjar Leifsson. “What we were going to do.”
“We were asked a lot about it – how we would deal with the pressure – but we were always like, fuck it! Whatever,” exclaims singer Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir. “We figured that what was good the last time was that we were so careless, and we were doing what we wanted to do. But then, when you think about it now, you realise that you were very stressed. It was a very stressful process, and you were kind of in the middle of it.”
Iceland is, of course, one of the most perfect places imaginable to decompress. An enormous island nestling a population of just over 300,000 it's stunning views – everything from sweeping glaciers to fully functioning volcanoes – seems to project it's own unique sense of zen.
The country acts as a backdrop to Of Monsters and Men, both in a literal and psychological sense. Allowed to finally switch off after 18 months on the road, the group found themselves swept up in a creative frenzy.
“Everybody had this energy built up from tour,” says Brynjar. “Everyone was – not frustrated – but there was some energy that you were like: I can't wait to go to the studio! And then you go to the studio and it just bursts out and everybody just does everything that they want to do. It ends up in that mess.”
The man responsible for overseeing this 'mess' – as the guitarist puts it – was Rich Costey. A hugely experienced producer, the American was able to impact some order on the chaos, some refinement on the huge noise created by Of Monsters and Men.
“Rich is crazy good at sound. That's his thing,” Nanna enthuses. “He can make everything sound amazing. He knows what we wanted to hear. He knows what to get out of it.”
The producer's exacting methods, though, could reach extreme levels. “I think one day Rich and Brynjar spent the whole day trying to tune a guitar for one song,” recalls Raggi. “I'm not kidding, they tried millions of guitars – they found something wrong with each one. This one fucking chord was always out of tune!”
“Out of tune... I couldn't hear a thing!” laughs Kristján. “It was fine to me!”
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You want to share this with people...
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The aim, it seems, was to further explore that it meant to be in Of Monsters and Men. “We wanted to step out of the old album,” states Nanna. “Divert from it, but still keep our identity. I think we were able to do that. Step out from the fantasy world that the other album was, but still keep the sound.”
New album 'Beneath The Skin' certainly does that. Sonically, it reaches outward, with the band's epic live sound caught on record – but lyrically, it moves into introspective realms. Themes such as anxiety, paranoia, loneliness and depression linger prominently, with these twin directions connecting to give the album it's special atmosphere.
“It came very natural for us,” explains Nanna. “It was just something that we had to write about, I guess. It is very introverted. Vulnerable.”
“I've always been very drawn to lyrics that are very exposed and open. It fits well, I think, to my personality,” she continues. “It wasn't done in a very thought out way, but the whole album is human, it goes into those elements of being human. It's actually very appealing, I think, to see people being vulnerable.”
“I think we wanted to write more personal lyrics,” adds co-lyricist Raggi. “If you want to develop, if you want to mature as a lyricist, then I think you need to push your boundaries and step out of your comfort zone. This was a way for us to do that, I think.”
A record born from unique, once-in-a-lifetime experiences, 'Beneath The Skin' is, to an extent, the sound of these Icelandic musicians re-connecting with themselves. Moving away from vast arenas, complex stage set ups, Of Monsters and Men were able to focus on the simple aspects of what drives their songwriting forward.
“Playing in a big room makes you feel differently about the music and the way you write it,” observes Kristján. “But still, a good song is a good song if you play it on an acoustic guitar or a piano. And if it's a good song there, it's a good song on every stage, I think. We start there, we start on the piano or the guitar. So I don't think it changes that much.”
Expanding their live set up, Of Monsters and Men are able to invite several musician friends to join them on tour. Set to take 'Beneath The Skin' out on the road, the band are relishing their newfound ability to include their loved ones in what they do.
“It's kind of funny,” says drummer Arnar Rósenkranz Hilmarsson, “but it's so nice to be able to collect your friends and bring them on into this thing that we're doing. You want to share this with people.”
“I also think that because the towns are so small you get to know people who you wouldn't in a big city,” adds Brynjar. “In a big city you'd just hang around with, say, ten people who are more like you. But in a small town there isn't any other people so you just hang out with everybody. It's really nice, I think.”
Ultimately, the conversation continually returns to Iceland. The perfect springboard for the band, it's also the perfect place for them to return to; a perpetual point of inspiration, it remains a constant in the group's forever-changing world.
“I'm so happy that we're from here,” enthuses Nanna. “You come back and everything is different, but everything is much the same. Everything is super-chilled, everyone is doing their thing and you just kind of drop in. It's weird,” she says. “So, we like.”
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'Beneath The Skin' will be released on June 9th.