Coming into the light
On the first proper sunny day of summer at Kaffi Álftanes, a small café on the outskirts of one of the many adjoining towns of Iceland’s capital, I am joined by two of Iceland’s biggest pop stars. Even though we are sitting outside, sipping our cups of coffee by the town’s main road, these superstars are completely free from harassment
While they confess their fans sometimes line up outside their hotel when they are on the road, waiting for hours for the chance to catch a glimpse of them and get a signed autograph, here a stone’s throw away from their studio they get to enjoy sans protection the gentle summer breeze and the picturesque landscape with horses grazing on a nearby field and majestic blue mountains off in the distance. With the exception of one patron who gleefully listens in on parts of the interview, nobody pays these stars any mind and we are only interrupted by the waiter when he tells us a fresh pot of filter coffee has been made.
I’m with Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir and Ragnar Þórhallsson, Of Monsters And Men’s two frontpeople. The multi-platinum band has been on an extended break crafting Fever Dream, their third album. When we meet the band is in between practicing sessions and is gearing up for a three-month tour of North America and Europe. The duo is quick to share their excitement to be touring again.
“There’s nothing better than being on the road, playing for so many people, and being back on the bus,” Nanna says. Ragnar chimes in: “You sleep so well on it. Whenever we finish a tour and come back home I get so irritable in the evenings, because I feel like I should be doing something, like I should be playing. You get so used to it.”
Nanna interjects: “You get addicted to performing,” before Ragnar continues. “It’s like smoking. Whenever we’re back home, there’s this sense of withdrawal where I feel like I need my fix and to be back on the stage. I’m really looking forward to playing again.”
Nanna jovially agrees. “Now we’re rehearsing the album live and putting together our show and the visuals. It’s a lot of work, but it’s fun.” Ragnar nods along. “It’s like a jigsaw puzzle, but a fun one.”
From the outside it may appear that Of Monsters and Men shot to fame overnight, but in reality it involved a combination of hard work, opportunity, and a lot of luck.
Nanna is from Garður, an old fishing hamlet today best known for its two illustrious lighthouses. She says from an early age she became interested in music. “I don’t come from a family of musicians, but I found myself really drawn to music. My mother didn’t understand what was going on, but I quickly learned how to play the guitar. Shortly thereafter I was writing, playing, and singing my own music. Then I started playing in bars when I was way too young.”
Asked how young, she replies laughingly: “Like fifteen or sixteen. I remember playing at Ráin in Keflavík to a group of drunk older men that kept asking me to play Bryan Adams covers. It was a really sweaty bar, and I have no idea what I was doing there, but it was great experience for my first foray into music.”
It was when Nanna moved to Reykjavík around the age of 19 or 20 and started working at a video rental store that she met Ragnar. He was raised in Garðabæ, one of Iceland’s most conservative towns, and had from an early age been artistic, but until the two of them met he says he had not at all been musically inclined. “I had mainly been painting up until that point,” he says.
At the time he had recently dropped out of art school and Nanna asked if he wanted to join her band Songbird. “I remember my first gig with you,” he says. “I had terrible stage frights when I was younger; it was so bad that whenever I had to give a presentation at school I’d call in sick. I had such a hard time getting on stage when we played, so I ended up standing all the way in the back, my face a fiery shade of red. I was trying not to look at anyone and just play my melodies. I’ve come a long way since then,” he says and grins.
Songbird played off-venue at Iceland Airwaves 2009. Ragnar says that they started writing more songs together around that time and developed into more of a band than Nanna’s original solo project, at which point they decided to create a new outfit that would eventually become Of Monsters and Men. “We had struggled for months to decide on a name,” he says. They almost became Hachikō, named after the beloved Japanese dog that waited for its owner at the train station for over nine years after he had passed. “We were really interested in those kinds of stories,” Nanna adds. “But then Ragnar suggested the name and it just all clicked together.”
A pivotal moment for the nascent band was the last-minute decision to sign up for Músíktilraunir in 2010, Iceland’s annual battle of the bands competition. “We literally signed up two minutes before the deadline,” Nanna says. Ragnar retorts: “That’s so typically us.” Nanna laughs, before continuing: “Yeah, so much us. We were like ‘so, should we? Sure, why not,’ and signed up. It proved to be so important for us and our development. It provided us with the support network we needed to really get started. We got so much out of it.”
Of Monsters and men ended up winning the competition and getting free studio time to record an EP. Asked where they would be if they hadn’t signed up to Músíktilraunir Ragnar hypothesises of a much harder time getting noticed: “We would probably have written the same songs; we recorded ‘Little Talks’ with our studio time, but you never know. To be successful you have to believe in what you’re doing as well as be good at it, but a lot of other things outside of your control also have to happen. Músíktilraunir just put this perfect series of events in motion for us.”
Further hypothesising, Nanna says bereft of opportunities she might eventually have given up on her music and continued working her job. Today she could be working in the only remaining video rental store in Reykjavík. “Maybe I’d be running it now. I had also started going to The Reykjavik School of Visual Arts, so I might have pursued that path.”
Ragnar counters: “I was into my final year of the Iceland University of the Arts, so maybe I’d have gone back and ended up painting nude on the beach.” Nanna yells “Yeah!” before Ragnar continues. “Or I’d have gone into graphic design. Or maybe furniture construction. Who knows?”
The duo say their first big break came through the unlikeliest of places, from a message on Myspace after Músíktilraunir. “We somehow won that competition, and then we got a message from Heather Kolker, who today is our agent,” says Ragnar. “She’s married to an Icelander and somehow heard of us.”
Nanna continues the story. “She sent us a message on Myspace, back when that platform was still active, and said something like ‘Hi, I really like what you’re doing, are you playing any live shows?’ We said, yeah, sure, and put together a gig for her.”
"We’re just such weirdos. We’re getting better at that and promoting ourselves. But with regards to the fame, in many ways our band is a lot more famous than we are as individuals." - Nanna
They booked Café Rosenberg, a revered and now defunct venue, and put together a concert. “For all we knew, she could have been a complete lunatic,” Ragnar says laughing. “Yeah, and we gave her a private show,” Nanna adds. “Thankfully she turned out to be a genius.”
From there on the band started getting booked overseas and released their debut album My Head Is An Animal which proved to be a worldwide success. “It was pretty surreal,” Ragnar says. “When we started touring ‘Little Talks’ was beginning to be played. At first we were booking small venues, and as the song grew in popularity we got bigger venues. And then all of the sudden people were singing along with our songs, asking for autographs, and coming to see us at festivals. I don’t think we really grasped how famous the band had become at the time.”
Nanna nods along enthusiastically. “It was so hard to see it when we were in the moment. But when we got to play on these shows like Jay Leno and then it really dawned on us.” Ragnar says that was definitely his wow moment. “He was like my TV grandfather, I’d watch him every night as a teenager late at night. The whole thing was so unreal. Even now we’re not really good on those shows… So many Americans are very open and loud when they speak at you, but we just stare at the ground.”
Nanna laughs. “We’re just such weirdos. We’re getting better at that and promoting ourselves. But with regards to the fame, in many ways our band is a lot more famous than we are as individuals.” Ragnar comments that while people often greet him thinking he’s a distant relative, Nanna is by far the most known member of the band. “Really?” she asks. “I don’t know, people in Iceland at least play it cool around me. I don’t get harassed that much by fans. But it’s really nice for us to live in Iceland where people leave us alone, where we can also head out to nature and recalibrate ourselves.”
Ragnar agrees, saying: “We disappear when we’re here, which isn’t generally how the music industry is run these days. Everything is moving really fast and everyone’s in a rush to get their newest hit out there, staying visible and in people’s minds. But we’re not like that.” Nanna animatedly chimes in. “When we’re touring we’re really visible and put ourselves out there. I always feel like that’s one life, and then after that we get home and live a completely different one. But we need to have this time between being out there to compose ourselves and to write and practice new music.”
Before meeting with Nanna and Ragnar I got a chance to listen to Fever Dream a number of times. My immediate reaction was that the album felt a lot more confident than sophomore album Beneath the Skin, as if the band wasn’t trying to prove anything, broke free from the constraints of folk music, instead just crafting good pop music with a hint of darkness. When I share this feeling with the two leads they nod their heads in agreement.
“Looking back, I think we were a little lost with our second album,” says Ragnar. “There wasn’t any pressure from our label or anything, but our first album had been such a colossal hit that we maybe felt like we needed to follow it up with an even bigger one. Our new album feels more like a continuation of our first one, I think. It can be so hard to see the bigger picture, and it was very intense for us to write it, so I think it was important to take the break we did. What do you think?”
Nanna responds: “Yeah, it was really important. After we made our first album, we had so many new experiences. At the time we didn’t really know anything, we had just made this very raw album. I think we were very innocent, but then when it came to making the second album we had gotten so much experience from the road. People around us had told us there was always a lot of pressure following up a successful album, but I don’t think I was aware of it until after we made it.”
Ragnar continues: “All of the sudden I felt like we weren’t making the album for ourselves; there were so many other voices and they were all expecting something from us, which sometimes made me want to do the opposite of what they were suggesting. We had played a million shows to so many people that all reacted differently to what we were doing, but you don’t ever make good music unless you’re 100 percent behind it and believe in yourself. You have to do it for yourself. But then subconsciously you struggle with finding your voice. It’s like you want to do the complete opposite of what other people are saying because you think that’s your voice.”
Ragnar pauses and ponders for a moment before continuing. “I think if I have anything to criticise the second album for—and I really love that album and the step it represented for us as a band—I think that it was too heavy and serious for us. I think you can hear it from really far away.”
Nanna nods along before adding: “I think that’s sort of how we are as a group, we always want to do something new and different from what we did before. The first album was very fun and easygoing, and then our second was super heavy.” Nanna laughs heartily before continuing.
“Now we’ve got our third one and we’re just trying to have fun with it. I feet like we tried to force the songs on the second album to work in a certain way, so when we started talking about a third album I told the band that I couldn’t for the life of me do that again. I just wanted to make an album that was fun and made me feel good, and that’s what we did.”
Ragnar says that they needed to find a new way to approach their songwriting. “The first album was mostly written by jamming together, and we could have really improved the second album by doing more of that as well as playing a little bit more around with the structure. But with Fever Dream we turned this process upside down.”
The songwriting for the album began as early as 2016. The duo says they had made around 70 songs when they entered the studio in May of 2017, but only a handful of songs like “Alligator” and “Ahay” made the cut after they decided to try a different and lengthier approach. “We were mostly alone, in our home studios, writing on our computers,” Ragnar elaborates. “It allowed us to flesh out our ideas a lot more than before, I think. You for example really developed your ideas through your songs, Nanna.”
“Yeah,” Nanna responds. “I feel like I got to fully realise a lot more of them.” Ragnar continues. “And we threw our roles out of the window, because they were stifling and counterproductive to the creative process. When we jam, we all want to play a role and do something on the song, because we feel silly just standing there. But this tendency doesn’t ensure that we make good songs.”
“Exactly!” Nanna blares. “There’s for example no guitar on ‘Wars’, and that would never have happened if we had written the song together in the studio, because we are three guitarists in the band. Making the songs separately allowed us to let the songs breathe more instead of all of them sounding the same. But as a result of this process, composing and putting the album together took a lot longer, because we were figuring things out by ourselves.”
"Every time we’re writing songs, it’s like therapy; you’re confronting your own issues, and on this album we’re not trying to find any common ground but to express what’s inside of us." - Ragnar
Ragnar alikens the old process like being at a meeting where everyone has a good idea. “But then when you try to put all of the good ideas together, the end result is terrible because no one voice stood out in the end.” Nanna nods along before adding: “Sometimes there would be a really strong idea for a song, but it would get drowned out by too many things happening at once. We stopped piling things on top, let the song breathe, made sure every sound had a purpose, and gave the lyrics a chance to really stand out.”
Another side effect of this new approach to songwriting is that the two singers allowed themselves to be more vulnerable on the album. “On the other two albums we used to write the lyrics together and we’d often hide our feelings and message behind metaphors,” Nanna says. “We’d try to somehow meet in the middle so the lyrics came from the whole band, but with the new album we wrote our own songs. This allowed me to explore my own feelings and my own experiences more honestly. Certain songs are a lot more gentle, vulnerable, and express desire and other facets of my life.”
To this journalist “Soothsayer” is a prime example of one such song that hiterto would not have been considered a part of the band's catalogue. Ragnar agrees, saying they would have obfuscated more of the song on previous records. “Yeah, the lyrics are very tender and painful,” Nanna says. “There’s a lot of desperation and anxiety, and these are all sides of me that I got to express on Fever Dream.”
Ragnar waits until Nanna finishes to pitch in. “Every time we’re writing songs, it’s like therapy; you’re confronting your own issues, and on this album we’re not trying to find any common ground but to express what’s inside of us. We of course helped each other to smooth out the kinks, but my songs are more from me I think, and Nanna’s songs from her. It was a difficult thing to do as an artist, to open up so much, but I think it was easier to do it now that we are more experienced as musicians.”
Nanna objects. “Easier? I think it’s a lot harder now that we have to answer all of these direct questions.” The two then laugh together.
Of Monsters and Men was the first Icelandic band or outfit to reach one billion plays on Spotify, beating out venerable acts like Björk and Sigur Rós. When asked about the topic of crafting earworms, Nanna says people often think it’s easy to make a catchy pop song, “but it’s so much bullshit! Complete bullshit! Songs can come very naturally and effortlessly to you, and we have a few of those on the album, but that’s no guarantee they’ll be hits. I think this was by far our hardest album to make.”
Ragnar elaborates further. “It can be really complicated to write a song that sounds simple, while it’s very simple to write a song that sounds complicated. But I think it’s a complete mystery what song will or will not become an earworm. Our biggest hit ever, ‘Little Talks’ came very naturally to us. Since then we’ve written other songs that I was confident would become even bigger, which they then turned out not to be. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, sometimes you just hit a gold vein.”
"People have often been shocked whenever we’ve deviated from what they think is an iron-cast mould." - Nanna
Whether or not the album will prove to be a hit is uncertain, but Nanna and Ragnar say they can already see that the album will be divisive amongst fans, in particular those that only like their folkier tunes. “Historically people have tried to shoe-horn us into this or that genre,” Nanna says. “The first album was labelled folk, but people forget we had songs like ‘Six Weeks’ and ‘Yellow Light’ on it that are not folk at all. And people have often been shocked whenever we’ve deviated from what they think is an iron-cast mould. I’m sure we’re going to get a lot of questions about where the acoustic guitars went once the album is released.”
Ragnar laughs before sharing an anecdote. “I was recently reading comments to ‘Alligator’, the first song we released from the album, and people were really digging in to it and arguing that they could still hear the ‘folk undertone’ and stuff like that, and I’m like no, just listen to the song as it is, not how you think it should be. But that’s how people work. They like certain things, they dress a certain way, they listen to certain sounds, and that forms their identity. And people care about bands that fit their identity. Some of our loyal fans really condemned ‘Alligator’ while others said they liked it.”
Nanna nods. “Yeah, I was fascinated seeing people form opinions so quickly.”
In between refilling our cups, the topic of their first big concert comes up. Asked whether that show might have been at Iceland Airwaves 2010, Ragnar says: “Yeah, the one right after Músíktilraunir. Wasn’t that the time we played eight times at the festival?” Nanna answers: “Yeah, either it was then or the following year; we played all over the place.”
The two reminisce over the all of the buzz and attention they got, and the numerous city venues that have since gone under, been demolished, or turned into tourist trap puffin shops. “We had a lot of good shows at Faktorý before it was torn down to make a hotel,” Ragnar remarks. “Years later, that same hotel offered us a fat sum to play there, and we turned them down on the spot.”
“RIP Factorý,” Nanna responds. “I remember Christmas 2011 we took our gear, loaded it up onto wheelbarrows and played all over the place before ending at Skrímslamessa at Faktorý.”
Ragnar nods smilingly and says: “The last time we played at Airwaves was at NASA and Fríkirkjan.” Nanna adds: “And now NASA is gone. It’s like there’s a curse on us.” Ragnar confirms: “Yeah, every place we play at Airwaves gets torn down. So where should we play next?”
Both of them laugh. “I guess Airwaves will pick some place for us,” says Nanna. “But it’ll be great playing there again.” Asked what fans can expect, Nanna quips: “I don’t know, we’re still putting the show together,” and laughs. Ragnar says it should be good fun. “Yeah, for sure,” adds Nanna. “And we’ll have played a few shows beforehand so we should be all warmed up. Hopefully we’ll remember our songs.” And then they both laugh.