During the 2012 edition of the SXSW festival, Of Monsters and Men played almost every venue they could. The Icelandic indie rock group had traveled far — some 4,000 miles — and made the most of the captive audience they’d found in Austin, Texas. “It was one of first times we had ever really played abroad,” remembers singer and guitarist Nanna Bryndis Hilmarsdóttir. “It was definitely a big change from how our lives were before,” adds singer and guitarist Ragnar “Raggi” Þorhallsson. “Up until then, we’d mostly been playing bars in Iceland.” In their early twenties, it was the band’s first big US showcase, buoyed by the release of their first full-length album, My Head is An Animal the year before. Next year marks a decade since the album’s release and everything that’s come since.
After SXSW, the 5-piece — Hilmarsdóttir and Þórhallsson along with guitarist Brynjar Leifsson, drummer Arnar Rósenkranz Hilmarsson and bassist Kristján Páll Kristjánsson — quickly went on to play almost every other major festival, from Lollapalooza to Coachella, Glastonbury to T in the Park, winning over fans with each dynamic live show. “The album hit and we toured for 2 years straight,” Þorhallsson tells American Songwriter. “It was a crazy time!” Before My Head is An Animal, Of Monsters and Men, which grew out of the ashes of Hilmarsdóttir’s solo project, had released an EP, and it’s to that format they return next year, as they prepare to release a small collection of songs to mark the milestone anniversary.
At the beginning of September, the band put out the single “Visitor,” one of the songs that will be on that EP. Although it was recorded before the pandemic hit, its lyrics about disconnection and being on the fringe of change seem to be eerily on point for what many fans have been feeling during this time. “It’s about seeing everything you once knew disappear,” says Hilmarsdóttir. “It’s about how we all ‘change rooms’ in our lives. There’s the part in the chorus about becoming a visitor at your parents’ house, which is something that most of us, we have that transition. The overall feeling of the song is just this new role that you have to kind of come to terms with it, but also just this disconnection that you feel to people or circumstances; this isolation.”
Playing further on the theme of isolation, the music video, which was also shot just before the pandemic took hold of the world, in early February, shows beautiful but post-apocalyptic scenes of Iceland while the band performs. It’s directed by local filmmaker, Thora Hilmars, who the band also worked with on the music video for “Wild Roses,” off of Fever Dream.
The new EP follows on from Fever Dream, which was released in 2019. For each album, the band has played around with its writing style and how the members come up with songs. “With the first album, we played the entire album for people in shows without ever recording it,” says Hilmarsdóttir. “So it almost felt like you were forming the songs with the people.” As Þórhallsson adds, it was like performing songs for inadvertent focus groups, and the band would try out things in front of their audiences and then tweak the songs after show. “Like, ‘oh this part felt so great to play, we should play it longer,’ ” says Hilmarsdóttir. They then took that show and made their debut album out of it, recording it as it had been played, to crowds at bars, mostly trying to get their attention over the noise.
For their second album, Of Monsters and Men went into the studio to make Beneath the Skin, each democratically providing their input. “We didn’t have that crowd interaction, and I think we really missed it. We had a hard time without it,” says Hilmarsdóttir. For Fever Dream, they shook things up again, and worked on songs individually before sharing them with each other. “We always like finding different methods of doing it,” says Þórhallsson. “Pick and choose what’s worked before for us.”
The band now has its own studio, which morphed out of the building that was used as a rehearsal room, and they’ve have been spending a lot of time there together. Both Hilmarsdóttir and Þórhallsson say they have, over the years, learned how to flow more with their songs and to sink into their voices. The earlier days were spent creating music around “being in a bar somewhere, where a bunch of drunk people are all having a good time and you have to have a better time,” as Hilmarsdóttir puts it. The more fans they gained, the more they were able to command their presence as a band beyond stadium folk choruses. “You don’t always have to be super intense — that comes from when you get older as well,” says Þórhallsson.
The EP also sees the band return to the DIY aesthetic that informed their earlier days — a result of time spent alone during the pandemic. Hilmarsdóttir and Þórhallsson painted the cover for the EP, and the artwork for “Visitor” is made from their drawings too. “That’s how it used to be — both of us were constantly making art,” says Hilmarsdóttir. “The band took a lot of energy and space from us.” Adds Þórhallsson: “Just the speed of the world, of being in a successful band — you’re always onto the next project.” Indeed, the past 10 years has seen the band achieve a list of awards and accolades, including becoming the first Icelandic group ever to hit 1 billion streams on Spotify and a cameo on Game of Thrones. “I hadn’t painted for 8 years. I was always flying around from Denmark to Iceland, back and forth, touring, and was never just with myself,” says Þórhallsson. “The art of being bored is amazing. It’s amazing what comes out of that.” With the EP coming early next year, fans will soon find out.