Of Monsters and Men (and Roller Coasters)
“I think we’ve been developing and forming with the shows,” says Of Monsters and Men co-singer/guitarist Ragnar Þórhallsson during a stop on his band’s recent North American tour. “I think we’re always finding the right balance of energetic songs and quieter songs and where they should be in the setlist. Getting the setlist to build up to something, we’re always trying to do that. I think we have a pretty good one now.” Growing out of singer Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir’s solo project Songbird, the Icelandic outfit has quickly developed into one of their country’s most successful big-band indie groups on the U.S. festival circuit. Their 2011 debut album My Head Is an Animal was a surprise Billboard success on both sides of the Atlantic and their single “Little Talks” has been licensed for a number of advertisements. Yet the members of Of Monsters and Men are also committed to crafting an energetic, grassroots live show that channels the boisterous energy of Arcade Fire and Mumford & Sons. While in New York, Þórhallsson reflected on his recent success, Of Monsters and Men’s next studio album and the best advice Sigur Rós sent their way.
You are currently in the midst of a North American tour. What have the highlights been so far?
For me, Montreal is always great. I think it’s one of the best cities in the world. I think Montreal was the best one so far.
Some of our Relix and Jambands.com readers were first introduced to Of Monsters and Men when we did a Spotlight feature on you a couple of months ago. Following up on that article, can you talk a bit about how you guys first got together? If I am correct, the band started as Nanna’s solo project, which is funny given how many members the band has at this point.
We started with Nanna [Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir] and she was just playing local pubs back home in Iceland and had a couple of songs, and then Brynjar [Leifsson] [joined] before I joined to back up to make the sound a bit bigger. Then we started to collaborate more, write songs together and it became something different. It was time to create a band. Some more members joined and now we have five. We had six members on the last tour but our keyboard player [Árni Guðjónsson] actually left for school, so we have five now.What’s he studying in school?
He is studying composing. He actually graduated. He has a Bachelor’s in composing and he wants to take it further, so we support him and wish him all the luck in the world.
In terms of your musical backgrounds, though your sound feels very in-line with current U.S. indie rock, you grew up somewhat removed from that world in Iceland. Did you grow up listening to music from over here or is it something that you discovered later when you started touring more?
Iceland is a weird mixture of Europe and America. It’s kind of just in between, so we got a lot of influences from America and also from Europe. It’s kind of 50/50. The music that I grew up listening to was part American music and also British music.
It’s definitely interesting how it’s between [Europe and America] and how you get a mixture of the two. I’ve seen Of Monsters and Men live a few times and your live show has become extremely dialed in during the past two years. Was there a point where the band really started to gel as a unit more than a loose collective of musicians?
I think we keep getting better and of course we’re always getting better as friends, so I think that we’re getting to know each other better and that shows in the show. Also for me, everything had to be perfect, [but] now when I play, I’m less uptight. As for the shows, I think Lollapalooza last summer was, for me, playing with big bands in front of 20,000 people, pretty crazy.
In terms of the setlist, have you found that as you guys have toured more and played for more people, that you’ve kind of refined the setlist or are you kind of keeping that pub mentality of just letting it be kind of be a loose show that could change in the moment?
I think we’ve been developing and forming with the shows. I think we’re always finding the right balance of energetic songs and quieter songs and where they should be in the setlist. Getting the setlist to build up to something, we’re always trying to do that. I think we have a pretty good one now.
When you’re saying that it’s something that you want to “build up” towards, [do you mean] in terms of the setlist itself building up to a certain song, or a certain suite of songs, or just the fact that the show itself will be kind of presented as more of a complete performance as time goes on?
It’s more a complete performance. It’s like it starts with one song and then it builds up, goes down again, then back up again. It’s kind of like a script for a movie.