I can remember with a nearly surgical clarity the first time I heard Of Monsters and Men
. I'd been assigned to review My Head Is An Animal
in 2012 when I was a Baeble intern (oh, the halcyon days of youth). Before the old Managing Editor (we miss you, Joe!) gave me the deliverable of the record, I YouTubed the band, and, of course, "Little Talks" showed up. And my love affair with the band began immediately. I've seen Of Monsters and Men twice since those first listens to their debut LP (once at Bonnaroo in 2013 and again a couple months ago at the Hammerstein Ballroom
), and when I had the chance to chat with Ragnar, I was understandably excited. We talked about their new record, Beneath the Skin
, that released last month, what it's been like to experience so much success so quickly, and their creative process as a band. For all Of Monsters and Men fans, it's a necessary read.
It's been three years since My Head Is An Animal was released here in the United States and to say that your popularity has exploded in the interim would barely scratch the surface. You've played major festivals; your songs have been featured in television and movies, and the global anticipation for your second record is massive. What's it been like adjusting to this swift rise in fame and recognition?
Ragnar þórhallson: I mean, I've kinda just been going along with it. I haven't really adjusted too much, just kinda gone along with the storm, I think. Yeah, but it's been going great.
One of the things that your fans really love about the first record, as well as the new single "Crystals," is this streak of sort of fantastical and surrealist imagery in your lyricism. Where do you all draw from for the storytelling in your music?
I mean, it's hard to say. I think the inspiration for the last album was more about our home country Iceland and more about getting away from Iceland and exploring what was out there. That's more what we wrote about on our last album and I think this one is more, after having traveled the whole world, I have a lot more imagery in my mind and I have a lot more things that I have seen, so I think of course we draw a lot from that. I also think on this album we're speaking of more of what's on the inside rather than what's on the outside; it's much more personal, so I think [our] inspirations maybe draw from relationships with others and the people around us.
You all toured America and the world very heavily in support of that first album, what were some of your favorite memories from the road?
I have a lot of memories. I guess some of the best was in America when we were kinda gaining recognition and didn't really know what we were expecting. So when we played Sasquatch, when we saw all the people come and watch us play, we never really saw a crowd like that. I think it was really a potent memory in my head.
I got to see you guys play at Bonnaroo in the summer of 2013 and you guys did a really great job. I can remember how excited the crowd was for your set that day.
Oh yeah, that was great as well; I loved that too.
It's so difficult to pin down the band's specific musical influences because Of Monsters And Men...you guys incorporate so many different sounds: from communal folk to arena rock even...in a very specific sense of the word. If you had to name your biggest influences as songwriters and musicians, who would they be?
It's hard to say; we all listen to different stuff and we all come from different backgrounds and we all have a big say in the way the music sounds. So, I couldn't speak for any others, but for me, I like a lot of acoustic stuff and folky stuff as well. I think it's always hard for me to answer this question because most songs at least have like three writers on them; we all write together a lot, so it's hard to say.
Often when a band or artist releases a debut record as massively successful as your first one was, there's a lot of pressure on them to release a sophomore album that is even bigger and even easier to package to the public, often at the cost of what made that band special in the first place. How have you all been dealing with that pressure to kind of continue to grow as a band but also stay true to the things that people love about Of Monsters And Men?
It's always hard with second albums I think, because you're always growing as a human. I'm four years older now so I want to do something different, but, also, I understand what we did on our last album was...people liked that. We don't want to change totally but it's almost like we can't win in this situation. Some people, they will say "Oh, they developed too much; their sound is too different," and others will say, "They stayed the same." So, you're kinda screwed in a way. What we just wanted to do -- we had this discussion when we started doing this album -- we just wanted to write songs that we really like and we are proud of. If we could do that, then we could play them and be happy and proud. That was our main goal just, to be happy and proud of our songs.
You all initially rose to prominence after winning a national battle of the bands contest in your native Iceland. After having several years now to reflect on that initial wave of success, what's some advice you might have to young artists who are striving to make in the industry, but then might find themselves suddenly rapidly thrust into the spotlight like you guys were?
I don't know...just enjoy it. Just enjoy every show and be true to yourself, I think. It's hard work, but you just gotta keep playing shows and keep writing songs. If you like it, then that should be no problem.
You've kinda already answered this question a little bit, but "Mountain Sound" and "Little Talks" and "Dirty Paws," "King And Lionheart," those were kind of the smash hits off of My Head Is An Animal; but that album also had a lot of kind of slower but very personal tracks like "From Finner" and "Your Bones." Can we still expect those sort of intimate numbers on the new album?
Oh yeah, definitely. Even more intimate, there are a lot of slow and more upbeat songs like our new song "Crystals," so you can expect that.
Speaking of "Crystals," what was the inspiration for the video of the man singing and dancing along to Nanna's voice like that?
I think it was mainly capturing that human element. You know...when you're in front of the mirror in your bathroom and you're singing along to your favorite track; there's something very human about that. It was just about capturing that moment.
Speaking of singing, there's such an element of raw emotion to both your voice and to Nanna's voice. I wouldn't necessarily call it theatrical, but it's very dramatic. Does channelling that much emotion in your live performances -- which your live shows really up the emotional element of your music significantly -- does it ever kind of take a toll on you?
Not in a bad way, no. I think just putting emotion and believing in what you're singing...I think it only helps. It makes me feel better and it makes me feel better about singing my songs.
Your new record, Beneath The Skin, is due out here in the States in June; do you have any last message that you want to get out to your fans to get them excited for the new record?
Oh, I'm just very very excited to come to the States and play these new songs for all the people that are going to come to the show and all our fans from last time, and hopefully some new ones. I can't wait.