Of Monsters and Men are Iceland’s biggest new band in years—and very likely the fastest rising stars of Icelandic music, ever. They have fulfilled that eternally elusive, almost unspoken elephant-in-the-room promise behind every edition of the Iceland Airwaves festival since it first hawked GusGus and Toy Machine in an airplane hangar; accomplishing what people hoped/bet their money on folks like Jakobínarína, Retro Stefson, Ultra Mega Technóbandið Stefán, Agent Fresco, Bloodgroup, FM Belfast and countless others would.
Of Monsters and Men’s début album, ‘My Head Is An Animal’ has received certified Platinum status in Canada and Ireland, Gold in Germany and the UK. It charted all over the place, reaching sixth place in the US for instance (in comparison, Björk’s latest, ‘Biophilia,’ peaked at 27 in the US Billboard charts). According to the latest Nielsen SoundScan numbers, ‘My Head Is An Animal’ has shifted 485,408 copies in the U.S., which means they will likely go Gold there before the year is over.
Amazon.com just released information that their users have ranked the album #1 on their Best Albums of 2012 list.
The lead single ‘Little Talks’ has received certified platinum status in the following countries: Germany, Australia, Canada, Italy, Ireland and the U.S. (and probably Iceland too, if we did singles. And certifications). In fact, the single has been purchased a total of 1,162,223 times in the U.S. alone.
They are huge. And they are currently touring the world and cashing in on all that LOVE they’re getting, at this very moment on a trek across the US that has seen them fill up some legendary venues (some even twice). We reached out to a couple of our U.S. friends and asked them to go to a sold-out OMAM show and write a little about it. In our preliminary discussions we thought it would be a nice idea to focus a little on the band’s “Icelandicness” and how, if at all, that factored in their success and stride.
Read the following couple of articles for some reflection on what it means to be a Monster-slash-Icelander in 2012 America.
The World Is Full Of Monsters
Of Monsters and Men have changed the global face of Icelandic music. So what happens next?
By Doug Levy
Among Icelandic acts, what Of Monsters and Men have accomplished is pretty much unheard of. Within the space of two years, they went from non-existent to world famous. And while Iceland clearly boasts its share of internationally renowned artists, none have emerged quite so quickly on the global stage.
Perhaps it’s not worth questioning how this happened. After all, my first exposure to the band reveals its immediate impact. It was at Airwaves in 2011, and I walked in to NASA on the second-to-last song of their set. It was after midnight, I was exhausted, and I hadn’t slept since leaving New York the night before. And yet, it only took about two minutes to catch on to how instantly irresistible this music was. A song and a half later, I was sold. It didn’t take much.
So the fact that this same phenomenon replicated so quickly as more people heard the music isn’t that surprising. Plus, not only did they have the tunes, but they also had a major label backing them almost from the outset. What is a bit odd, however, is the way they seemed to have skipped the usual path to this level of success, which involves winning over a small, devoted fanbase of hardcore music lovers, and then growing beyond that as word spreads.
Instead, Of Monsters and Men seem almost to have emerged as a fully formed headlining act, appealing to the broadest of audiences, most of whom had no idea who they were a year ago—most of whom don’t seem to have an idea where Iceland even is—and who are now hanging on every word of every song. At least, as far as the sing-alongs and singles go.
Teenagers, Wall Street types, a bevy of bros
When the band recently returned to NYC, it was already playing at one of the city’s largest venues, Terminal 5. Not only that, but it had sold out two nights in a row there. Of course, this is a venue frowned upon by many serious music lovers, mostly because of the type of crowd it tends to bring out—teenagers, Wall Street types, a bevy of bros—the type of person who waits for the music to come to them, rather than actively seeking it out.
Then again, without appealing to this crowd, there’s only so big a band can get. It’s casual music fans that drive the market, and as long as you’re making the music you love, you can’t control who listens to it. The real problem with going from an unknown band to a band of this status so quickly is that you end up bypassing the stage where you build up serious cred on the way. It makes it far too easy to fall really far, really fast, when your main support system is built on people who will have moved on to the next radio-friendly band long before your second album even comes out.
A less foreboding Iceland?
I spoke to a concertgoer, Weezie Yancey-Siegel, about the first of the two NYC shows, which was also her first time seeing the band. “I think the fact that they’re Icelandic is very intriguing to their fans in the US,” she said. “I heard a lot of the crowd talking about the fact that the band is Icelandic and how much they wanted to go to Iceland. My own brother, who attended the concert with me, is actually planning on going to Iceland during his gap year in the spring, because he was inspired by Of Monsters and Men and other Icelandic bands like Sigur Rós.”
Which is an interesting point. Because while Sigur Rós and Björk have represented Icelandic music on a global scale for so long, neither one has ever been populist by nature, preferring to put art above all else. Perhaps with Of Monsters and Men willingly creating music for the masses instead, it will help to change perceptions of what Iceland is to the rest of the world—to make it seem more welcoming, more open, less foreboding. Which, in turn, could continue to open the door for more Icelandic acts overseas.
It’s worth noting that the band has been bringing other Icelandic acts on tour with it as well. Last time it was in the states, Lay Low was in tow, and this time it’s Sóley. It might be a bit misguided, as audiences hungry for Of Monsters and Men’s boisterous sound frequently become impatient with more mellow, introspective openers, but it doesn’t mean their intentions aren’t good.
“The drum set actually had an Icelandic flag on it,” said Weezie, “so I had the impression that they were proud of where they were from and of representing the music scene there. Where I was standing, there was even a crowd of Icelandic people who had moved to New York, and who had come out to see and support the band.”
And really, when you think about it, one thing you can’t deny is that, in the space of this unbelievably short time, Of Monsters and Men have already changed the status quo in term of what it means to be an Icelandic act on a global stage. This may not be a true boon for other acts whose music is more challenging or less ostentatious, as OMAM fans fail to find something they can grasp hold of as easily, but at least it means more people will be listening.
And then, of course, there’s the challenge the band faces for itself. Will it fall into the trap of embracing the rapid success and simply self-replicating, as with Mumford & Sons before it? Or will it strive to push further and actually make new music that retains the spark of what made us all stop in our tracks the first time around?
Only time will tell.
Doug Levy is a New York-based freelance writer and Contributing Editor for Flavorpill.
That Sound Has Caught On
OMAM reviewed at Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club
By Cory Weinberg
The stage was set, quite literally, for a celebration of Icelandic music. The country’s flag hung from a guitar set on the left side of the stage, a mark of home from Sóley and Of Monsters and Men.
But it didn’t seem to matter in Washington D.C. that the two bands came from a haven of glaciers and volcanoes—the kind of mystical imagery that’s piqued music fans’ interests for over a decade through the rise of Björk and Sigur Rós.
The pop power of catchy choruses and harmonious handclaps from Of Monsters and Men mattered more. The sold-out show at the 9:30 Club seemed to show that the seven-piece band with an overflowing fan base has shed the “Made in Iceland” label often planted on Icelandic bands.
The band didn’t say the word “Iceland” once. There weren’t any references to “home” or stumbling through American phrases. As fans murmured between sets and after the show, conversations never touched on the country’s allure.
Instead, I counted six instances of coordinated hand-clapping sessions prodded by the band. The performance showed a tight band and a happy fan base that crammed into the 1,200-person venue from the floor to the balcony.
At least, the band seemed to acknowledge its shtick—the expectation that their sound is predictable and fun—as lead singer Nanna Hilmarsdóttir seemed to say with a wink: “Do you want to hear a love song? This song is called ‘Love, Love, Love.”
Back in March, the band played down the street at the 700-person club Black Cat. Eight months later, the group lined the 9:30 Club stage, the most popular and influential music venue in D.C. The 1,200-person venue is tucked in the U Street, an area rich with African American history where hipsters and gays now converge.
But the crowd wasn’t enamoured by the Iceland-ness of the opener Sóley. Her quaint sound was drowned out by the third song by a mellow roar of side conversations. The Seabear offshoot has earned acclaim for her album ‘We Sink’, but her short setlist was ignored by the early-arriving crowd.
“I hope you’re ready for some Sunday music,” she said as she reached the stage. “There are no discos tonight.”
But the crowd was ready for a party from the main act anyway.
Of Monsters and Men may be the first Icelandic band to truly capture the hearts of the casual music listener by catapulting up the radio charts. And it’s constructive that the focus is on the music and the hand claps, rather than their funny names and faraway home. It could just become the new normal for Icelandic bands.
Cory Weinberg is a former Grapevine intern and current News Editor for The George Washington University’s independent student newspaper, The GW Hatchet.