Of Monsters and Men Interview

Little Talks with the Icelandic folk-rockers

Words: Dylan Muhlenberg | Photographs: Nick Gordon

Even if you’re unfamiliar with the band Of Monsters and Men you should have by now heard their brand of indie/folk/pop, which usually starts off as soft singer-songwriter melodies and quickly builds into loud, anthemic walls of sound that often come complete with a handclap and a 'HEY!'. These songs serve as the soundtrack to the zeitgeist and have been featured everywhere from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty to the iPhone 5's introduction.

With Superbalist sponsoring this year’s Sowing the Seeds Festival, The Way of Us had the opportunity to chat with just under half the band earlier this week. Sitting in the Expresso Morning Show’s studios it’s evident that the best part of having a big band is that you can split up and get through your press obligations a lot quicker than if you were a solo performer. After fighting through a clutch of journalists, PR people, managers, record label execs and other hangers-on, we finally sat down for our allotted 20 minutes with Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir and Kristján Páll Kristjánsson – two names that are a cinch to pronounce if you’re able to get your tongue around Eyjafjallajökull.

The five-piece band from Keflavik in Iceland formed in 2010 and after winning a national battle of the bands competition the subsequent debut album My Head is An Animal sold over a million copies, led to invitations to play at festivals all over the world and saw comparisons made to Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers. So, to kick things off, would they compare their break to those people winning Pop Idols and The Voice?

Kristján: Well that competition that we did was more about song writing than just performing. It’s made for young bands as a platform to push them into doing something greater.

Nanna: We had to write three songs and it’s more about being a band and playing your instruments well, and less about the vocals, because I was really, really nervous. I’ve also heard rumours about how these other competitions make contracts with the artists and how it’s more about owning them than providing a platform for them. I’ve heard about people who go into these competitions and sign these contracts and then don’t make it, and then they can’t release anything for six months or more and their moment has gone. And that’s kind of damaging more than anything.

Nanna goes on to explain how the battle of the bands competition that Of Monsters and Men won was not only great for exposure, but also got them studio time and the opportunity to perform at the biggest music festival in Iceland. So was winning this competition the moment that they realised they’d made it?

Kristján: Winning that competition doesn’t mean you’ve made it. It means you now have to do even more. It helps you get there, but you're definitely not there yet. It’s the start of something bigger.

Iceland is the most sparsely populated country in the world, yet it’s turned out The Sugarcubes, Mezzoforte, Björk and Sigur Ros to name just four of the more popular Icelandic acts. Something in the water?

Nanna: We’ve talked about it a lot and it’s kind of the weather, in a way. We have these extremes where the summers are really bright and, we are kind of closed people and not exactly bursting with emotions, but in the summer everyone just goes for it. Then in the winter we hibernate and make our apartments really cosy and we write a lot and do that kind of stuff. We have a pretty good schooling system also, where we teach kids music early on and I think that’s very important. 

Kristján: Icelandic people aren’t very open so maybe this music is a way to express our feelings? There’s a lot of focus on the music scene over there. We see music as pretty important. Still, it’s kind of hard being just a musician in Iceland. Usually people have two jobs. Before we got into doing music we all did something else.

Like what?

Kristján: Like everyone was doing school, I was doing a second job, working as a plumber, my dad is a plumber and I was working for him, trying to figure out what I wanted to do. Now I’m doing this and not learning anything. 

Nana: I had started art school when our manager told us to drop everything. I was also working in a video store and renting out DVDs. Lucky because I don’t think there’s a future in video stores anymore. You’re in a very good place if you’re just doing music in Iceland. We’re very privileged.

You’re also working very hard, and your tour schedule is crazy. How do you manage everything and not drive each other nuts with all the travelling you do? 

Nana: We’re so many people, a sea of people, so we don’t get tired of one another because there are so many of us.

Kristján: So if I get really tired of Nanna I just start talking to Brynjar (laughs). We’re just people who fit into this type of routine. Touring is not for everybody, but it works for us.

So what happens when you’re done playing your set – do you party with the other bands and trash hotel suites together?

Kristján: We’re from Iceland, so no.

Nanna: We’re very closed.

Kristján: I’ve heard stories from other people, like, “Yeah, that guy was trying to, like, get to know you guys, but you were all, like, didn’t greet him, or whatever." And I’m like, “Oh, did I do that? Ahh, I didn’t mean to...” Most of the bands kind of keep to themselves.

Nanna: I have noticed this. I thought it would be like this party where you go to a festival and it’s like, “Yeah, I know everybody and let's all go party together afterwards.” I feel like everyone just goes into their own worlds, its kind of weird. 

Kristján: We hang out as a band a lot, with the crew and everybody else. We’re a big family kind of thing. 

Nanna: When we have a day off we’re all on Facebook chat, like “What are we going to do today?” and will organise a dinner or partying and stuff. So there’s definitely a good vibe there.

The core band has five members but accommodate up to nine people on stage. How big are you when you include your roadies and the rest of your extended team? 

Kristján: 22 people?

Nanna: We were 37 in America though, right?

Kristján: It depends on how big the tour is and how big the concerts are. If you’re playing a 10 000 person venue you obviously need more people to help you with that. But we’re still a decent amount of people here even though we’re fewer for these short trips. We’re two busses of people usually. 

So who coordinates and runs everything? Who’s the boss?

Kristján: We have a tour manager, but we’re still the bosses… 

Nanna: We’re the baby bosses.

Kristján: Everything we want to do someone else plans for us. Because we’re not very good planners. So our tour manager takes care of everything and makes everything go as planned. Makes things work, you know? It’s very important to have someone like that when you have five people, like, “Oh, look at this, a helicopter! I want to fly over city.” 

Is there any sort of rock 'n' roll excess that you partake in? Like, what’s on your tour rider?

Kristján: We always have a really weird request, and the reason we do that is because if a band has something really weird on the rider, and you get that, you know that everything else will be there. 

Nanna: We always make up something ridiculous…

Kristján: Like a hollowed out bell pepper, to drink from. Just silly.

Nanna: And we ask the promoter to get us their favourite horror movies. And a tattoo gun.

Kristján: And if you get that, nice.

Okay, let's finish up. Which are your favourite monsters?

Kristján: There’s this Icelandic monster, Lagarfljótsormur, it’s like a really big-ass worm that lives in a lake in Iceland. Lagarfljóts, that’s the water, and ormur is a worm. 

Nanna: It’s kind of like the Loch Ness Monster. Just the Icelandic version of that. My favourite ghost story is also from Iceland and is basically a ghost lover who is trying to kill his soon-to-be wife. Pretty great story. In Iceland even happy things, like Christmas, are kind of dark for us. We have 13 Santa Clauses and they’re all thieves and really bad guys.

Kristján: And if you don’t get nice Christmas clothes there’s a cat that’s going to get you. And if you behave badly the mother of the Santa Clauses will eat you alive.

Nanna: We’re pretty grim.

Clearly. And who are your worst men?

Nanna: Right now? There are some pretty bad ones. I would say, and it may be a very typical answer, but Donald Trump is probably on top of the list.

Kristján: I’d say that as well.

Nanna: He’s just creating so much chaos right now. He’s an idiot giving other idiots voices. This guy has all this attention, saying all these things, and people think it’s okay to think and speak like that. He’s a very evil man. And an asshole.