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...
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.
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?
“I’m not sure!” Arnar laughs. “At the moment there are five people in the band, and we have two session players as well. I think, yes, by record five we will probably have a huge symphony. Maybe next we’ll just have three girls playing violins, that would be a nice touch! We used to be very quiet. When me, Nanna, Raggi and Brynjar were all playing together, we had one acoustic guitar, one electric. Then me and Raggi were playing glockenspiel and melodica. People were always louder than us in the audience! They would be chatting away. We had to get louder than them, so we started adding stuff to the songs.”
The way Arnar tells it, the songs “usually start out as very quiet, acoustic ideas” and come from Raggi and Nanna. Part of their power lies in their simplicity.
“I don’t know if I could write a complicated song!” Raggi admits. “I’m very simple! But you can always add to a simple song.”
This set-up which finds himself and Nanna sitting down, eyeballing each other and seeing what happens means that songs that get too awkwardly personal are avoided in favour of mystical imagery and imagined narratives. The results tap into the notion that all Icelandic songwriters take their inspiration from coffee mornings spent in the company of elves and... Björk.
The two exchange glances and start trading jokes in their native tongue.
“Well, there are no elves,” Raggi giggles, finally, “But yes, that storytelling gets played out a lot. Every lyric is a story. For me and Nanna, it’s a good way to write together because then we have a common ‘thing’.”
Arnar slaps his knees. “Maybe the next album should be inspired by elves! But yeah, it would be weird if the two of them were writing a love song together. Or a break-up song.”
“We’ve been trying,” says Raggi. “It just means that we have to get closer and closer. Be able to tell each other stuff. Which would be a good thing, writing more intimate songs.”
Arnar pulls a face: “Like... the theme song for the next Titanic? Y’know, maybe the ship comes back up and hits another iceberg. Titanic 2!”
Clearly not taking themselves too seriously, this is a band that never aimed for the big time. The album was recorded just so they would have a ‘memento’, something to hold in their hands.
“I think we’ve handled it well so far because we didn’t expect it,” nods Raggi. “We just go along and learn our things. We’re not losing our minds.”
Iceland is known for its healthy artistic community and spirit of collaboration, but Of Monsters And Men admit they kinda came from nowhere.
“We were basically unheard of, just doing our own thing. And then in a very short while, people knew us and we got a record deal. Straight away we went out of Iceland.”
When they get home, is there any ill will, musicians muttering that they’ve gotten too big for their boots?
“I mean, probably. But those people just have problems. Usually most people are happy for us.”
“How do you say? We were like...” ventures Arnar, employing hand gestures, “A mole? You know, when you’re walking along, ‘da dada dada’ and then all of a sudden, a mole pops up!”
We all nod at our shared cultural understanding of how a mole generally acts. So what’s next for the band after The Olympia and the rest of the tour?
“We recently got a rehearsal space,” says Arnar. “We hadn’t had one for a while, so we’re going to make that a cosy place. A good environment for making music.”
Raggi giggles. “It will be an Extreme Makeover: Home Edition kind of experience. We need that hyperactive guy from that show.”
“Oh, you know him!”
Well, once you’ve seen that gravel-voiced, bandicoot of a handyman, it’s hard to forget him. We all sit in silence.
Well, at least we bonded over the mole.
My Head Is An Animal is out now on Republic Records.
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