“We’ve never been as excited to share something with people,” says Ragnar Þórhallsson, smiling broadly as he sips his coffee. Ragnar—better known as Raggi—is referring to ‘Fever Dream,’ the forthcoming album from Of Monsters and Men, the band in which he sings and plays guitar. It’s clear he’s almost bursting with excitement for the world to hear it.
The band’s other singer and guitarist, Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir, is no less enthused. “Fever dream,” she states simply. “That’s what these two or three years have been while writing the album. That’s what the process was like.” She pauses. “For us, it’s a fever dream.”
The dream team
The two burst out laughing at the cheesiness of using the album’s title in such a lofty statement. It’s just the way Raggi and Nanna interact. They talk with a familiarity more common among siblings, finishing each other’s sentences, peppering their thoughts with inside jokes, and ripping on each other in a way only those who’ve spent too much time together can.
It’s easy to imagine why. Over the past ten years, the two, along with their three bandmates, have achieved something most can only dream of. They’ve travelled the world, had a number one single, made a name for themselves internationally as one of the foremost bands in their genre, and they’ll bring the show to their homeland’s premier festival, Iceland Airwaves, later this year. With an uncanny ability to mix the Icelandic krútt sensibility with earworm melodies, Of Monsters and Men found a niche that has captivated listeners around the world.
Now, after a three year writing period, they’re back and ready to enter the next stage of their takeover.
Finding their people
Of Monsters and Men grew out of Nanna’s solo project, Songbird. Originally from the small Reykjanes village of Garður, Nanna began playing guitar and writing songs at age 13. “I don’t come from a musical family,” she says. “So it was a bit of a random thing that I was interested in learning guitar and songwriting.”
When asked what type of music she was listening to at that time, the songstress immediately blushes. “Oh Jesus, at 13? I don’t even know,” she laughs, only to be immediately interrupted by Raggi. “Avril Lavigne?” he interjects with a grin. “Yeah, probably,” she replies, with a shrug.
Raggi, on the other hand, is a born and bred city boy. “I started playing music really late,” he says. “I played around with the guitar, but I only started writing when I met Nanna at age 17 or 18. She and [OMAM guitarist] Brynjar [Leifsson] were playing together and they needed…” he pauses, doubling back on himself. “Well, they didn’t need anything.”
Nanna rolls her eyes. “We wanted,” she states firmly. “I had seen him at parties. He’d be playing the guitar and singing something.”
“Something horrible probably,” Raggi interjects.
“No, no,” Nanna chastises him, always, of course, with a smile.
Nanna asked Raggi to join them onstage for her Airwaves 2009 off-venue show. The trio clicked and decided to form a proper band, calling themselves Of Monsters and Men. In 2010, just one year later, they entered and won Músiktilraunir, Iceland’s national annual battle of the bands, which kickstarted their career.
Battling for a platform
Winning Músiktilraunir afforded the group the opportunity to record a demo. “That’s the great part about Músiktilraunir,” Nanna explains. “The platform they give you.”
The two still keep up with each year’s winners, and admire how the contest elevates musicians of all genres. “It’s very cool that a metal band can win one year and then a rap group can win the next,” Nanna says. Of her recent favourites, the songwriter names Between Mountains as particularly inspirational.
Raggi, meanwhile, gives his stamp of approval to this year’s winners, metal band Blóðmör. “They were just playing recently by my house in Kópavogur. I could hear them through the window,” he grins. “They’re good.”
With the studio time furnished by Músiktilraunir, the band recorded two songs before the 2010 Iceland Airwaves on a handmade CD. One was called “From Finner.” The other was a 4m 24s minute track entitled “Little Talks.”
A “little” song
The track would go on to gain more than 400 million Spotify streams and 270 million YouTube plays. It remains, even today, the all-time highest charting single on the Billboard Top 100 by an Icelandic artist.
“Little Talks” was a kingmaker; one that set the band on a two-year journey of touring, interviews, and fame far beyond their wildest dreams.
“It was crazy. It just happened,” Raggi says, clearly still somewhat shocked by the whole experience. “We got signed. We got a manager. We started touring, but the song just got bigger and bigger.”
“We were always catching up to the song,” says Nanna. Raggi nods. “We were booking venues and then kept having to upgrade to a bigger place. Every time we planned something, ‘Little Talks’ got bigger,” he says. For the next year, the band spent their time racing after the ever-growing fame of their little song.
“Looking back, it was such a cool experience, but it was definitely very strange and foggy,” Nanna says. “Every morning we were doing a session at a radio station or doing a little concert, then we had soundcheck, then another concert,” Raggi relays. “Interviews, no sleep, loading in and loading out,” he adds, sardonically. “Yes, it’s very fun.”
My head is a hit
The release of their debut effort, ‘My Head Is an Animal,’ cemented their legacy as bonafide stars. Chock full of whimsical, heartfelt, sing-a-long tunes, the album’s folksy duets and soaring harmonies resonated with people. There was something attractively wholesome about the group; something authentic that grabbed people of all ages and backgrounds. ‘My Head Is an Animal’ managed to musically bridge the gap between childlike sincerity and adult understanding, and it has since gained a place as one of the canonical indie-folk albums of recent years.
“‘My Head Is an Animal’ has an energy to it that is very innocent and wide-eyed,” says Nanna. Her eyes sparkle when she talks about it. None of that innocence has been lost.
For Raggi, the album evokes a coming-of-age. “You’re always trying to figure out who you are,” he interjects. “Also who you are as an individual trying to write songs and your place in the band and what that is at that moment. Thinking about that, we wanted the album to be very cheery.”
Neither can contain their smiles when discussing the album. Those early years, while busy and overwhelming, are clearly awash with happy memories. It seems the excitement of the ‘My Head Is an Animal’ era is still with them.
In a weird place
Four years and countless shows later, Of Monsters and Men returned with their sophomore effort ‘Beneath the Skin.’
Often referred to as their introverted album, ‘Beneath the Skin’ presented a darker tone. While it still contained the fantastical lyrics and wilderness themes of their debut, it had a distinctly more adult undercurrent. The topics were more serious, exploring such themes as loss of identity and regret. It featured their first flourishes of electronic production, using droning guitars and other sounds alongside their characteristic acoustic sound.
“It was a hard album to make,” says Nanna, quietly. “We went in the opposite way. We were trying to figure things out. You have your entire life to write your first album.” Raggi nods. “We were in a weird place.”
Of Monsters and Men began making the album directly after returning from two years of touring, which proved to be a difficult transition. “For me, it was a strange thing, coming back,” Nanna explains. “When you’re on tour, everything is planned out and you get used to that. Then you come back and it’s like, alright, make an album! I got pretty lost at that time.”
Raggi had a similar crisis. “When you play every night there’s an adrenaline high, but when you get home, you don’t get that,” he says. “We didn’t know what we were getting into.”
“Overall, we wanted to get more personal on ‘Beneath the Skin.’ We wanted to be mature. More mature than we are.” He pauses. “That said, we are very proud of that album, and a lot of it translated onto the next one.”
A new angle
‘Fever Dream,’ their upcoming third album, is a coalescence of everything the band learned from their first two efforts. It continues the electronic progression started on ‘Beneath the Skin’ whilst returning to the fun and whimsical feeling of ‘My Head Is an Animal.’ A whirlwind of ethereal electronica mixed with stadium rock, with nods to their more acoustic roots, it’s a new angle for the group. It’s Of Monsters and Men at their most weird, but also at their most alluring.
“It’s playful,” grins Nanna. She attributes this to how they wrote and recorded the album, which was a drastic departure from their first two. “We got rid of how we’ve always done things, and our roles within the band. How we wrote the first two albums was writing something on an acoustic guitar and then bringing it into the space, and moulding it together. Going into the third, I thought ‘I can’t do this again.’ It didn’t feel inspiring.”
“You limit yourself,” Raggi adds. “It limits you to the guitar you have in your hand. For the two of us, we’re not amazing instrumentalists,” he laughs. “We need more time. So for this, we wrote more on our laptops.”
Nanna nods. “Instead of just having a piano or guitar, you can say, ‘I am going to make this rhythm, or loop this thing, or chop up this vocal,’” she says. “It gives you a new way to find that ‘Oh, that’s interesting!’ feeling.”
“We opened up the process,” Raggi concludes. “It opened up a whole new world for us.”
Writing separately using computer software allowed for the creation of more varied songs, and freed the band up to play with structure and tone. “There are songs with no guitar in them, because that’s what the song was meant to be,” Nanna explains. “If we’d recorded together in person, we’d say, ‘Oh, but I’m a guitar player, the piece has to have guitar.’ So it’s things like that which changed it.”
Changing up their writing process also allowed Of Monsters and Men to progress lyrically. “We separated a bit,” Raggi adds. “We’ve done a lot of the lyrics together, which is fun, but it does limit you in how deep you go personally.”
“We let each other have our own space,” Nanna agrees. “Before, I think we were always trying to fit each other into the song.” She pauses, looking to Raggi for an explanation. “It’s something that we changed,” he adds. “We’ve always believed that everyone has to be involved in everything, everyone has to have a voice.” Nanna smiles. “We’re super democratic.”
Jettisoning the idea of pleasing everyone at all times turned out to be useful. “Sometimes when you do that, everything mushes into something that’s in the middle,” says Raggi. “But on ‘Fever Dream’ there are more moments when people shine by themselves.”
A proper rock anthem
The first single from the album, “Alligator,” is a case in point. The song puts Nanna’s voice front and centre in a haze of guitars, thumping drums, and fierce, gasping vocals. To put it bluntly: It’s a proper rock anthem. With such a desperate, clawing feel, it’s hard to believe this is the same band propelled to fame by “Little Talks.”
The video is just as intense. Featuring the band in person—an unusual departure for the group, who usually animate their videos—the video features Nanna’s dismembered head growing alligator-like tendrils, while the rest of the band resides in creepy masks. Is this really the same band who used to sing about forests?
We’re actors now?
“At the beginning, we were horrible at being in videos,” Raggi admits. “We’re musicians and all of a sudden, we’re supposed to be actors as well?”
“I did act in the video though, I knocked on a door,” he continues. “What you don’t know is that in every scene in every movie, there’s like 50 people staring at the actor. Is the light good? Is his makeup good? He’s just there knocking on a door.” Raggi shakes his head. “How do they do that?”
For Nanna, the video was an equally intense and hilarious experience. “I had to crawl on the floor,” she adds, a small smile lighting up her face. “When you’re crawling on the floor in front of a camera, it’s a lot.”
Waiting with bated breath
But making the video was only one step toward what they are really excited for, which is their upcoming world tour. “We haven’t played in three years,” Nanna says, incredulous. “This album was such a process to make. It’s taken a long time. We wanted to get it really right; it feels good to finally be at this point.”
“We’re just waiting to play it live,” Raggi adds. The two look at each other fondly—the familial bond they share resurfacing as they look together towards their future. “We’ve been rehearsing.” He pauses, a mischievous look painting his face. In typical Raggi and Nanna fashion, he can’t help but end with a joke. “We’ve been playing our old songs, and we still remember them,” he grins. “So that’s a great start.”
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