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Hot Press meets Of Monsters & Men

Storming Electric Picnic, shaking hands with Jay Leno and hailed as hometown heroes where once they were considered outsiders, Iceland’s Of Monsters & Men have come a long way in a short time...

Craig Fitzpatrick, 08 Apr 2013

We may be a mere speck in a massive pond but, enchanting as it is, Iceland is even more infinitesimal. Sparsely populated and further adrift in the Atlantic.

So when 18,000 of its tiny 319,000 population all congregate in one national park, you know something quite special is stirring. To put that in perspective, I’ve been crunching numbers for the first time since I sat the Leaving Cert (Honours Maths, so you can trust me on this). In proportional terms, that’s the equivalent of filling Croke Park over three times. Getting over a quarter of a million Irish people to go see a homegrown band on the same night. Which is all just a long-winded way of saying that, when Of Monsters & Men played the Hljomskalagardurinn park (catchy name), they had Westlife beat. Not quite matching JP in the Phoenix Park but, at a time when there is no pope, maybe that’s proof that there is, at least, a God.

Ragnar ‘Raggi’ Þórhallsson, who fronts the band and shares lead vocal duties with Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir, is beaming in his dressing-room.

“Yeah, it was a free concert,” he begins, suggesting that perhaps Icelanders just like a bargain, “and 18,000 people showed up. Which is a big chunk of Iceland! That showed us that people are supporting us.”

You can see the enormity of it for yourself in the video for ‘Mountain Sound’, taken from debut album My Head Is An Animal. It was clearly an emotional moment for a band still in its infancy. Arnar Rósenkranz Hilmarsson, the animated, jokey drummer that will later take to the Olympia stage in a pair of frilly trousers and proceed to beat the living daylights out of his kit, puffs out his cheeks and widens his gaze.

“It was strange. I was expecting... maybe 2,000 people. The stage was very small, we didn’t really prepare for such a big crowd. So it was odd working on this tiny stage and just seeing ‘swoosh’, waves of people everywhere. We hadn’t played for a month or something, so it wasn’t our best concert! But it was good.

An experience.”

The experiences have been coming thick and fast since the worldwide release of My Head Is An Animal in January 2012. Raggi has a laundry list of ‘moments’ he can call upon when prompted.

“Lollapalooza in Chicago was one of those moments. A couple of other big festivals we played. When we did Jay Leno’s show. Just shaking his hand was, ‘wow’!”

“The House of Blues in Boston, too,” Arnar interjects. “That might have been the first big one. In front of 2,500, the biggest headliner show we’d ever done at that point.”

They’re still getting to grips with this fame thing, still slightly baffled by how quickly the world has embraced them. But maybe they shouldn’t be surprised, mining a vein of music aligned with the chart-folk of Mumford & Sons and stirring bombast of Arcade Fire. Ireland, in particular, adores them. They’ve gone platinum, hit No. 1, and wowed crowds in Stradbally.

“It was great playing Electric Picnic,” says Arnar. “Again, a surprise that the audience was so into the music.”

The connection goes further. The band have, bizarrely, been mistaken for Irish when touring the US.

“We’ve been asked if we’re from Scotland too! Our music must remind them of Ireland. We play folk music and have strange accents so we must be from ‘somewhere like that’!”

A cold rock in the Atlantic where there’s nothing to do but sit around and strum acoustic guitars. Which is pretty much how this whole thing began. They claim online that they “used to be birds” but now they’re “monsters”. Having started life as Nanna’s Songbird solo project, she brought Raggi, Arnar and guitarist Brynjar onboard and when it comes to adding members, they really can’t help themselves. By album number five, are they likely to have a full orchestra?

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