Interview: A 'little talk' with Of Monsters and Men
MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – There's something about rock band Of Monsters and Men's anthemic songs that evoke expansive, magical landscapes, and perhaps, adventure. The thumping drums have a sort of primeval quality, and the guitar strumming is rugged and spirited, like a hike up a mountaintop.
Behind their huge sound are vocalists/guitarists Nanna Bryndís Hilsmarsdóttir and Ragnar Þórhallsson, along with guitarist Brynjar Leifsson, drummer Arnar Rósenkranz Hilmarsson, and bassist Kristján Páll Kristjánsson.
The five-piece hails from Iceland, the country which gave rise to the offbeat and iconic stylings of Björk, as well as the ethereal hymns of post-rock band Sigur Rós. The references to these two Icelandic greats often crop up; however, Of Monsters and Men sticks to their own guns: a rousing folk sound as well as a penchant for otherworldly storytelling through their lyrics.
"Critics across the world always say they can hear 'the landscape' in Iceland's music, be it the crystalline adventures of Björk, the cool minimalism of laptop bands such as Ghostigital or Sigur Rós, who are generally followed by words like 'epic' and 'glacial,'" writes Kate Mossman, the arts editor of the New Statesman, for The Guardian. To this, Nanna responds: "Everyone is sculpted by their surroundings but I don't go and sit on a mountain top."
Of Monsters and Men's sound is more akin to that of the artists coming from the United States or the United Kingdom. However, their inspirations are eclectic as well – from the likes of Bon Iver, to Arcade Fire, Feist and more – as vocalist Nanna tells Interview magazine.
Their debut studio album, My Head is an Animal (2011), includes one of their biggest hits to date, "Little Talks." While the record showcases their signature expansive sound, the lyrics have a folkloric element to them. Take for example the track "Dirty Paws," which goes, "Her dirty paws and furry coat / She ran down the forest slope / The forest of talking trees / They used to sing about the birds and the bees."
Ragnar explains to The Guardian, "We write the songs together, and we found we could bond better by telling each other fairytales than writing about real life. I couldn't say, 'Hey Nanna, come and write a love song about my girlfriend.' It just wouldn't work."
Beneath the Skin (2015), their sophomore effort, takes a more realistic approach. "Our first album is very much creature-y maybe, fantasy, but then the album we're doing right now is quite the opposite. It's very personal; it's human," Nanna tells fellow musician Grimes in Interview magazine.
We caught up with lead vocalist and guitarist Ragnar "Raggi" Þórhallsson (pronounced Thorhallsson) through email before the band flew out to Manila for a concert last May 12. Here, we discuss not only their music and their homeland, but even their fantastical music videos – and Game of Thrones. (IN PHOTOS: Of Monsters and Men rocks Manila)
Can you tell us about how you all met and formed the band?
The band started from Nanna’s solo project. She was writing music and performing alone. Brynjar started playing with her, then I joined them.
In March 2010 Arnar joined and we entered a Battle of the Bands competition in Iceland called Músíktilraunir. That’s where we performed for the first time under the name "Of Monsters and Men" and the band was officially born. Kiddi [Kristján] joined later that year and things started to roll after that.
What’s your favorite thing to do together as a band when you’re not touring, rehearsing, recording or doing anything related to music?
Just hang out. When we’re not doing those things you mentioned we’re usually very tired after months of hard work so the best thing to do is just meet up and chill.
There was a fantasy element to your music videos – especially the ones for "Little Talks," "King and Lionheart" from My Head Is an Animal, and the lyric videos that followed. How do you conceptualize the ideas for these?
For those two videos we worked closely with a director duo called We Were Monkeys. They’re wonderful people and their vision for the videos matched well with what we where thinking. We worked closely with them in the creative process but we also gave them a lot of space to work out their ideas.
Can you tell us the backstory behind one of your most popular songs, "Little Talks?" Also, how did you come up with the idea for its music video?
Little Talks started out in Nanna’s living room. Her friend was dyeing her hair red and Nanna started singing about her friend and what she was doing. That’s where the verse melody was born.
We then worked on the song for a long time and it’s hard to remember all the specifics. It was quite a long process but some songs are like that. The music video was our first music video ever for our first single ever.
Looking back, I feel like it was almost like a glimpse into the future, into the adventure we were about to start.
Beneath the Skin has a more realistic vibe to it. We see this even in the music videos for "Empire" and "Wolves without Teeth." Why is there a shift in tone from your previous album?
For us it was all about capturing that same feeling we felt when creating our first album. Not visually or musically, but more that feeling of doing something that feels exciting and new to you.
Our first album was very outgoing and adventurous and the videos mirrored that. The lyrics on BTS are way more honest and introverted. They’re more about us and we wanted the videos to mirror that.
We heard you guys are fans of Game of Thrones. We also heard that you’re set to appear in season 6. How do you guys feel about it?
Nervous but excited. Our parts are minor and I’m sure people are going to have a hard time spotting us but nonetheless, it was a great experience and an honor to be a part of.
When people here in the Philippines talk about Icelandic music, usually Björk or Sigur Rós come to mind. Aside from your differences in sound, how do you see yourselves in relation to them? Are you fans of their music?
We definitely look up to them. They’re the ones who made us all think "maybe this is possible." They’re so important to smaller Icelandic artists and a big inspiration. And yes, Sigur Rós is definitely one of my favorite bands and Björk is great as well.
Can you tell us about growing up in Iceland? Maybe tell us about the music that you grew up listening to, as well.
Growing up in Iceland was great. Lots of nature and not a lot of people, which is always a good mix.
I didn’t really listen to a lot of Icelandic music growing up. I mainly just listened to whatever my older sister listened to. A lot of hip-hop like the Wu-Tang Clan, 2 Pac and Biggie then later came Blur, Placebo, Silverchair, The Cure and a bunch of other stuff.
We get a lot of British and American music so that’s mainly what I was listening to.
Has touring influenced the way you write songs?
In some ways, yes. I think it just opens you up for new experiences and makes you think differently about the world around you. In some ways you get more sinister but you also see a lot of beautiful things that inspire you as well.
Can you recall any favorite or funny moments from touring around the world?
From the top of my head, a couple of us just did a helicopter ride above Rio de Janeiro in Brasil. It was so beautiful!
What are you most excited about when you come to the Philippines this May?
I’m very excited to play there. I’ve heard great things about the crowd there so that makes me excited. Also, I’d like to get some beach time (I’m very pale).
Banner photo by Meredith Truax/courtesy of Karpos Multimedia