Of Monsters and Men Explore their Human Side

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Published June 8, 2015

ABOVE: NANNA BRYNDÍS HILMARSDÓTTIR. PHOTO COURTESY OF VIðAR LOGI KRISTJÁNSSON. 

Downsizing from a six-piece to five core members, Icelandic indie folk band Of Monsters and Men returns tomorrow with the release of Beneath the Skin—their first compilation since 2012’s multiplatinum debut LP My Head Is An Animal, which included the chart-topping song “Little Talks.” Throughout the album, the band looks inward, telling stories through a more introverted and personal point of view. Take for example, “Black Water,” on which Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir sings, “In the deepest depths I lost myself / I see myself through someone else / The strange silence surround me / Grows closer / Feels colder / but I’m ready to suffer the sea.” These themes echo throughout the album’s lead single, “Crystals,” as well as “I of the Storm” and “We Sink.”

While they lyrical components have evolved, sonically, the band maintains their familiar folk rock aesthetic, featuring Hilmarsdóttir’s vocals and guitar, intermixed with the talents of co-singer and guitarist Ragnar Þórhallsson, bassist Kristján Páll Kristjánsson, dummer Arnar Rósenkranz Hilmarsson, and guitarist Brynjar Leifsson. Beneath the Skin also includes the glockenspiel, melodica, and accordion, so what often begin as soft singer-songwriter melodies, quickly build into loud, rock-tinged tracks. Prior to tomorrow’s release via Republic Records, Hilmarsdóttir caught up with Canadian producer, musician, and artist Grimes (neé Claire Elise Boucher), who asked about everything from video games to the band’s fashion choices.

GRIMES: Hey! Is this Nanna?

NANNA HILMARSDÓTTIR: Hi, yes it’s me!

GRIMES: Someone showed me your stuff a couple weeks ago and asked if I wanted to do this. I thought it was awesome, so I wanted to. First of all, do you do the visuals yourselves or is there an artist you work with? Because those visuals in those music videos are really crazy. I feel like they’re all done by the same person, but maybe not.

HILMARSDÓTTIR: I think you’re probably talking about videos for “Little Talks” and “King and Lionheart”?

GRIMES: Yeah, except for the new one, [“Empire,”] which has a dude in it.

HILMARSDÓTTIR: We work with an amazing team called WeWereMonkeys for the animated videos. For the other ones, we had the idea of making lyric videos, but [wanted to] take it a step further and bring in, like, 50 people—just bring their emotions in front of the camera. We’ve done two of them and we’re going to continue doing them.

GRIMES: A lot of it really reminds me of Shadow of the Colossus or even some indie games, like Limbo—even Final Fantasy or something. But the fact that it’s so stylized really reminds me of these super-stylized modern games. I was wondering if you guys play those or are interested in that at all? Or if it’s totally random?

HILMARSDÓTTIR: I love indie games. I’ve been playing Valiant Heart lately and I really like it. We play Mortal Kombat on the bus and I play Tekken a lot. I actually don’t play Final Fantasy, but you do, right?

GRIMES: Just the big creatures, that kind of shit—very fantastical, but in a folk-arty kind of way. Speaking of…a lot of your music is folky in a way, like American folky, but obviously you guys aren’t from America. Are you interested in country or American folk? Is there a legacy of European folk that I have no knowledge of whatsoever that you guys are into or grew up on?

HILMARSDÓTTIR: It’s funny because our first album is very much creature-y maybe, fantasy, but then the album we’re doing right now is quite the opposite. It’s very personal; it’s human. But in Iceland, it’s definitely a lot of stories—I grew up on ghost stories a lot, so I’m obsessed with all that kind of stuff. It’s definitely where we come from.

GRIMES: Are you into modern fantasy? Do you like Game of Thrones?

HILMARSDÓTTIR: Yeah, oh my god, we love it. We’re all obsessed with Game of Thrones.

GRIMES: On the new song I heard, it was definitely like the drums were more upfront than in the [older] stuff, but the vocals were still kind of reverb-y. I like how you guys ride in between pop music, but also other kinds of music. I guess this is an annoying question, but do you feel pressure to make more pop shit because you had such a huge song on your last record? Do you think about that at all? Or is that just totally random, and if it happens it’s lucky?

HILMARSDÓTTIR: We definitely are not pushing. I don’t think we’re trying very hard. With “Little Talks,” it was like our biggest song and we didn’t want to create another “Little Talks,” because it’s not very fun to repeat yourself. You always want to move forward.

GRIMES: Next question, and this is a singer asking a singer: is the rasp in your voice natural or do you try to make that happen—smoke or yell or anything to get that? Or is that how you sound? It’s really beautiful.

HILMARSDÓTTIR: I don’t do anything. I’ve been singing for a while, but I feel like it’s always weird that I’m a singer. When I started out, I was writing songs and really focused on writing, and I really loved that. But then it’s like, “Oh, yeah, somebody has to sing them,” and that was me. [laughs] So it’s funny. I never really thought about, “Oh, I’m a singer.”

GRIMES: I like the unpolished edge. I love when someone has a crack in their voice. I think it’s the most satisfying thing ever.

HILMARSDÓTTIR: Thanks. I was going to say, also with you, you’re writing and also producing. I just wanted to put it out that I really love your music. I’m a big fan.

GRIMES: How are you involved in the production?

HILMARSDÓTTIR: I play guitar, I play both electric and acoustic. Sometimes I play a little bit of percussion, and on the record I play the piano.

GRIMES:  I’ve never worked in a band, I have no idea what being in a band is like—do you write it all together? Or do you write stuff, and the other singer writes stuff, and then you all bring it [together]? How does that work as a group?

HILMARSDÓTTIR: The original ideas always come from one or two people. So sometimes I am writing alone, or sometimes Ragnar, the other singer, or Arnar, our drummer, also writes. We all can write in our separate corners, sometimes we work together, and when we have a finished song—the structure of it—we all bring it to the rehearsal space and make it sound bigger.

GRIMES: Actually, I was going to ask one thing that I think is one of the most interesting things about you guys—a lot of the songs start bedroom- and small-sounding, and then the chorus will come in and all of a sudden its an arena track, like it gets really big. Is that intentional? Are you going from short reverbs to long reverbs or automating throughout? Or do you completely change instruments?

HILMARSDÓTTIR: [laughs] How does it go about…

GRIMES: You don’t hear that a lot. The songs just drastically change, not even in tone, but the sound quality is completely different.

HILMARSDÓTTIR: It starts as a kind of singer-songwriter and then we bring it to the rehearsal space. That’s what happens, I think, when all five of us are in a room together and then we tend to want to make everything loud and big. We just like loud shit.

GRIMES: It’s cool because you can hear the process. [pauses] I’m so bad at being a journalist… Last question: are you interested in fashion and does that connect to your music at all? In your live pictures you’re always wearing leather shorts and a hat. I appreciate the visual vibe. Or is that not connected and not something you think about?

HILMARSDÓTTIR: I like that stuff a lot. We’ve worked with a lot of Icelandic designers and so stage-wear, we like it. We like the visuals. It’s cool to have music and then bring it up a notch.

GRIMES: I like that visuals. Normally when a band has their music videos, they don’t usually involve them[sevles]; they don’t want to have a strong visual. But I feel like with your guys’ stage presence and look, you obviously put some effort into it. Anyway, I’ll stop taking your time.

HILMARSDÓTTIR: No, no, it’s been fun! It was really nice to talk to you. We played two festivals together—I don’t know if you know this—in Europe. I think it was in Holland.

GRIMES: I think I know—like last summer, a year ago or so?

HILMARSDÓTTIR: Yeah. Maybe we’ll see each other at festivals later on.

GRIMES: That’d be awesome. If I see you, I’ll come say hi.

BENEATH THE SKIN IS OUT TOMORROW, JUNE 9, VIA REPUBLIC RECORDS. FOR MORE ON THE BAND, VISIT ITS WEBSITE.