It’s a well-worn cliché to say that the popular music of Iceland reflects the landscape where it was born. You’re unlikely to read more than a few sentences about Björk without a comparison between her textured electronica and the country’s jagged, snowy peaks. Nor a review of Sigur Rós that fails to mention the glacial soundscapes they construct like abstract sound-sculptors.
Still, there’s a satisfying simplicity in such interpretations, and we can’t help but hear Iceland in Of Monsters and Men. The quintet’s delicate and pastoral folk songs seem to reflect the isolation of a country 470 miles from mainland Europe. But in their music we also hear the welcoming warmth of the continent’s most sparsely populated country, as simple acoustic guitar ditties build into cascades of horns and percussion, climaxing with inviting celebratory ‘hey’ and ‘la’ refrains, the sound of a close knit family unit gathered around the fireplace. ‘The ideas start really small, maybe two people in a living room,’ explains lead singer Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir, ‘and it grows from there. 'It was supposed to stay small, but when we went in the studio, we couldn’t stop trying to make it bigger.’
It started small for the band, too. Originally formed by Nanna to play open mics in Iceland just four years ago, a bedroom recording of ‘Little Talks’ by a regional US radio station began picking up heavy Stateside airplay in mid-2011. Released as a single it topped the American alternative charts, and last April the band’s debut album My Head Is an Animal was released worldwide, a year after appearing in on home turf. ‘[The album] was released in Iceland... but nothing really happened,’ remembers Nanna. ‘I feel like there are always new people discovering it.’ Today ‘Little Talks’ has clocked 75 million plays on YouTube.
While those new and foreign fans might be seduced by some perceived inherent Icelandic kookiness, there’s little distinctly derivative about Of Monsters and Men; if anything their music takes more from American folk forms than the band’s national contemporaries. Somehow Icelandic acts from Björk to Ghostigital have succeeded in sounding indistinctly Icelandic, but distinctly different from one another. It’s staggering to think that a country of just 320,000 has produced such a list of household names. But Nanna says it is just this – the country’s small size – that forces musicians to innovate.
‘In Iceland there are a lot of things happening – a lot of kinds of music,’ she tells us. ‘I feel like there’s nobody really doing the same thing. Because it’s really small everybody kind of knows each other – kind of – especially in the music scene. People are afraid to sound like everybody else. You don’t want to sound like your friend in the other band, [so] people are always trying to do something new.’
The something new in Of Monsters and Men is more than the musical combination of folky influences with twee trumpets and rousing choruses. It’s the childlike imagery of their lyrics, sung in English; fairytales of dragonflies, ghosts, owls, wolves, and lionhearts, exchanged in faint and airy whispers and chants between Nanna and co-lead singer Raggi Þórhallsson. (And no, they’re not a couple).
‘In storytelling anything can happen,’ says Nanna, at a loss to explain the album’s obscure story arc. ‘With the animals – I don’t know how it happened. A lot of things we write just sort of happened – and then you go “there’s a theme! We didn’t plan on it but there’s a theme!” 'We’re thinking maybe animals are these mystical things, that they can talk, and when you’re so involved in the story, it makes it more real.’
It’s unclear if the animals are the band’s trademark, or just the album’s. Now, after an incredible summer that has seen them perform at festivals across the globe, Nanna and her bandmates are tasked with the pressures of crafting a follow-up. ‘We’ve very much at the first stage, none of us really have a clue where we’re going,’ she tells us.
‘We made an album without expecting anything from it. I like that time, that atmosphere. I think we want to try and stay away from the pressure. We want to make an album we like, and if not, at least we’re doing what we want to do.’
It’s a line we’ve heard before, but in Of Monsters and Men, we can’t help believing it’s true.