“Two years ago, on culture night, this guy passed the stage where we were soundchecking and recorded what he heard onto his phone. Throughout his stay in Iceland, he kept hearing our song over the radio and in the end he e-mailed the clip to his friend who was the programming director for this radio station in Philadelphia and they started playing the song too.”
This is how the very young-looking and curly-haired Brynjar Leifsson, guitarist from Of Monsters And Men, describes the humble beginnings of their success. ‘The song’ is called “Little Talks” and it is one of the best-selling singles ever to have come out of Iceland: quintuple-platinum in Australia, nearly triple-platinum in the USA and a full-triple platinum in Canada. Three and a half million copies sold in all. Sold—as in paid for with money, a rarity when it comes to music these days. One wonders how many tens of millions have actually heard their music and one’s head starts to rapidly spin.
Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir, the somewhat Björk-looking lead singer and front of the band, nods in confirmation of Brynjar’s story. “It’s pretty absurd thinking about the fact that if we wouldn’t have played that very concert, things might not have turned out this way at all. Luck is definitely a factor in success, being the right person in the right place at the right moment.”
Call it what you will, but the fact remains: Of Monsters And Men have played 230 shows in the last eighteen months. This includes performances at Glastonbury, Coachella, Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, T in the Park, Roskilde and every other damn festival in the world, and their own shows to crowds as big as 12,000. They’ve travelled all over and cite Japan and Brazil as the most otherworldly destinations. They’re big. These people are famous. Their manager even accompanies them to the interview at a Reykjavík downtown café.
Nevertheless, Brynjar and Nanna are very down to earth and have interests outside of music. Nanna Bryndís is an amateur photographer and Brynjar has been learning how to fly. Even with their music careers budding like crazy they say they’d perhaps like to pursue these other avenues or even go back to school in the next few years. Just like anyone.
That’s not to say that they don’t feel the fame. “By now, we’ve met a few of these ‘superfans.’ It’s pretty strange. They know things about me that they really shouldn’t and may have dug up pictures of me from some party I attended when I was sixteen,” Brynjar says.
“This girl came up to me and asked me to write a quote from one of our lyrics onto her arm. Later, she sent me a photograph of the quote tattooed onto her arm, in my handwriting. It’s pretty weird to have written something onto someone’s arm and know that it’s going to stay there forever. But it looked pretty cool,” adds Nanna and continues:
“I’m starting to realise a bit now that I must keep my guard in a way. For example, I really like Instagram, just posting fun photos. And I have a three-year-old sister that I just want to take photos of all day but I’m coming to understand that it may be a bit strange for some John in America to obsess over photos of my baby sister.”
(At which point Brynjar relates his anecdote of rubbing shoulders with the stars. “Josh Homme [from Queens of the Stone Age] tried to throw me out of a bar. He didn’t believe that I was 22 and yelled at me across the place. But he was chill once he got to know the truth.”)
Not all of the interest generated online and in the media is positive. “I used to read what’s written about us but I don’t anymore,” Nanna says. “It’s so odd for some dude downtown to have an opinion of you even though you never met.”
Brynjar agrees. “There was this guy that just crapped all over us on his blog. He’s entitled to his opinion but he doesn’t need to be nasty. That shit is online; we’re reading it, you know.”
“If people say they don’t appreciate the music that’s cool. There’s a lot of music out there that I consider garbage. It’s when things get personal and people talk about something completely different from the music. You just want to be everyone’s friend, but I guess this sort of stuff comes with the job,” says Nanna straightforwardly.
Of Monsters And Men are home. They’re playing a free outdoor show in their hometown Garðabær on Saturday, August 31. “We played a free show in Hljómskálagarðurinn last summer and loved to see how many people showed up. It was really fun so now we want to play this show as a way of saying thank you for all of the support.”
There are a few gigs scheduled abroad but they’ll spend most of the coming months writing and rehearsing before entering the studio next summer or fall to record their second album. That must be stressful.
“I think the album will suffer if we stress ourselves over making it. We made our last record out of complete innocence and then it became something we never could’ve imagined. We want to hold on to this feeling of innocence. Of course there is pressure: There are people waiting for the album and they will be critical. They’ll say: ‘that’s not what I wanted to hear’ or ‘that’s not what I expected’ or ‘what were you guys thinking? ’But if you’re listening to those voices you’re being fake. As long as you do what you feel like and stay true to your own conviction, you can be happy,” Nanna says.
Brynjar echoes her sentiments: “I wouldn’t exactly die if everyone hated our next album. Yeah, it would suck, but there are just so many things you can’t control.”
I ask them whether they feel any pressure from their label, Universal Music, in terms of the sound on their next album, being as it is a major label that has invested copious amounts of money in the project.
“That’s an interesting point,” Nanna says and admits to never having thought about it. “But I think we’re too stubborn to let that affect us. Then, of course, we’ve never recorded with a label before. We were without a contract when we made our first album. We recorded that album without much help and that worked out pretty well. There seems to be an understanding between us [and the label]. They trust us.”
Of Monsters And Men are now well known for their folky sound. But that may be changing soon. “At least we say we’re going to lay the acoustic guitars to rest. The whole band’s got an electric guitar now.”
“There’s only going to be feedback,” Brynjar says and laughs. “When we started out we were more shy. The music has changed a lot. There’s more overdrive now. More rock’n’roll.”