Imagine: you join a band, right? And then, in true teen-movie style, you play in a battle of the bands competition. And, in true teen-movie style, you win. And off the back of this soaring triumph, within two years you get a world-wide record deal, global media exposure and an international touring schedule. And then imagine: it’s not a movie, nor a fantasy – it’s real life.
This is exactly what happened to the six-piece Of Monsters and Men, who grew out of the solo project of founder member Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir to become Iceland’s biggest musical export since Sigur Rós. If, perchance, you’ve heard their single ‘Little Talks’ – and odds on bet you have – you will know that its infectious trumpet riff and raucous shouting are pure brain-Velcro. We were lucky enough to grab five minutes to chat to guitarist Ragnar “Raggi” Þórhallsson about the band’s Nordic homeland, politics in music and having the world at your feet whilst trying to escape it.
The band has been in the UK this week for gigs both in Brighton and the Electric Ballroom in Camden. “We’re very excited, I don’t think we have played there before.” Not that their diary needs livening up. Of Monsters and Men just came back from playing Outside Lands festival in San Francisco: “It was so fun. I have never seen so many people in my life. It was crazy.” No doubt. After being dubbed “the new Arcade Fire” by Rolling Stone magazine, how can things not seem just a little bit crazy?
“I don’t look at the pressure.” Raggi explains, simply. So, no “how did I get here” moments, then? “I think we are handling it quite nicely. We are very comfortable with each other, you know. We didn’t know that everything was going to happen” but not much has changed, except that now “we are playing for the world, not just for ourselves”. That’s a pretty bold statement – but you can’t deny it, after a whirlwind of success, they’re not in Kansas anymore.
Or rather – they are all over Kansas, and just about any of the other 49 states you care to name, having peaked at number 6 in the Billboard 200 and topping both the Billboard rock and alternative album charts in the US. To be precise, they are not just in Iceland anymore. And that’s a big deal: “As a musician in Iceland, it is harder to get your name out there. The Icelandic scene should be recognised globally. Bands like Mugison – one guy with a lot of albums – and Ancient Fresco deserve recognition. I hope that more people can do it like we did, through the internet. “ For Raggi, the hope is that the digital music industry will do great things for artist working in his of his home country . “There’s this great thing called Gogoyoko, it’s a bit like Spotify… you can listen to music and buy it, it’s got almost every album on it”. So, there you are then – you know where to go if you ever want to discover the next Bjӧrk.
You might sniff a hint of their Nordic heritage in their fearsome, Viking-like ‘hey’-ing and their sometimes sinister but consistently bizarre lyrics. Would they say they have a taste for the surreal? “Yeah, we do. But it’s not on purpose. We like writing stories together. We work as a team. Maybe it’s a bit different for Nanna and me, because we write the lyrics together.” A process in which the two of them “disguise their own meanings”, coming from different perspectives, and “kind of connect in one story”.
And strange stories at that – all about whales with houses on their backs and men fighting grizzly bears. For Of Monsters and Men, music is about a disconnect with reality: “It’s definitely about escaping real life. Or maybe not escaping… it’s about escaping things like politics and creating another world. I don’t like thinking about it [politics]. I don’t like mixing the two together; I think they should be separate.”
That said, much you might want to escape the real world – it’s not that easy to forget where you come from. “We have a lot of support from back home,” Raggi admits, “and I definitely feel like we are representing Iceland in a way.” (They wave an Icelandic flag on stage at the end of their live show.) It might be tempting to lump Of Monsters and Men in with the Nordic invasion that seems to be sweeping Britain at the moment in the form of TV and books- but to label them Nord-wave (get it?) would be a mistake. They might be flying the flag for their home nation, but they are in no way limited by it. Quite simply: “Our music works everywhere in the world”.
- Katherine Travers