Icelandic band Of Monsters and Men took America by storm back in 2012 when their single, “Little Talks,” climbed the musical charts and was played across all major radio stations. Now on tour in the United States, the five-member band is promoting their most recent album, Beneath the Skin, which many argue is an interesting departure from their more folk-focused first collection, My Head is an Animal.
Here, we chat with lead vocalist Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir and guitarist Ragnar "Raggi" Thorhallsson about writing and singing in English, their artistic influences, and the changing music industry.
Your participated in a music competition back in Iceland, which eventually catapulted you to fame. Tell us more about that.
Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir: That was our official first show. We had been playing together for a while before that [but] that’s when we took on the name, that’s when we became this band. It’s a competition in Iceland. It’s basically just a very cool way for your bands to get to play a show in front of a lot of people. It goes on the radio, so people can listen to it.
Ragnar Thorhallsson: It’s just for young bands. If you ever made an album, you can’t participate.
NBH: It was also cool because I know so many bands that have come from there. It encourages young people to make music.
There’s five of you in the band. Is it hard to balance everyone’s sound and everyone’s opinion?
NBH: I feel like the least amount of problems [come up] when we are in the room together playing. I feel like that’s not a problem for us. I think we all know that we all have our weaknesses and we just kind of know that.
RT: Yeah, it’s just about everyone. If you’re doing something together, everyone has to have their voice and feel like they are contributing and being heard. I think that’s very important.
You guys write your own songs, correct?
I know you guys write your music in English. How come?
RT: I think it’s one of those things that it’s so common in Iceland [to write in English]. I think people just do it, I don’t know why. We learn it from a young age.
NBH: There are so many things you get inspired by, so many things you were listening to, lyrics [that you know], that are in English.
That’s interesting because even your music sounds very American.
RT: Yeah, we get a lot of influences from Europe, Iceland, and also from America... so it’s in the middle. We’ve grown up listening to all the same bands as everyone in New York and in Europe.
Who are your musical influences?
NBH: When I was a teenager, I used to listen to The Cure and that kind of stuff. Now I’m more into the singer/songwriter thing.
RT: When we met, we kind of listened to Bon Iver a lot, Talisman, and Arcade Fire. That’s kind of how we bonded over music, I think. Now, it’s kind of whatever. We listen to a lot.
Your latest album, Beneath the Skin, sounds very different from your first. What sparked the change?
NBH: I actually think it is an evolution of our sound. When we were making the first album, we were kind of just discovering it. We were kind of figuring ourselves out.
RT: The band was growing while we were writing the [first] album. As for this album, we already toured a lot and, with a full band, had to grow into what we are.
How is the music business different in Iceland?
NBH: With a record label in Iceland, there’s one person. He’s the guy that started the record label and he’s the only employee.
RT: It’s very much [like], if someone wants an interview with you, they can just look you up in the phonebook and call you and say, “Hello, is this you?”
Given the advent of the Internet and the streaming business, do you find the music industry changed?
RT: We’re a fairly new band so I think [that, as we released] the first album, things already started to change and digital sales were much higher than physical sales [already].
NBH: Kind of in-between finishing our tour and writing this [new] album, Spotify became really, really big.
It feels like more people can now discover your band or other bands but less people will download your music, no matter how much they like it, because it requires an extra step.
RT: Yeah, they just stream it, and that’s cool. I just think there needs to be a bulletproof plan and a way for that to [work well]. I mean, there’s definitely money coming in from streaming and people are getting paid but I think they’re still trying to figure out how the best way is to get some of that to the bands. But, for artists, this is something we can easily not think about just think about the shows and the album.
NBH: We don’t really think about the record sales that much and maybe that’s why we think about the live shows a lot. Getting people to come to the shows.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY SETH OLENICK