of monsters and men on their shimmering sophomore album
photo by alisa kalyanova
Of Monsters and Men commune with the winter of their discontent on a shimmering sophomore album.
A few months ago, in the dead of winter, Icelandic quintet Of Monsters and Men left an ice- and snow-filled Reykjavík for two months to record in Los Angeles. The trip was successful, insomuch as it produced the group’s sophomore album, Beneath the Skin. But to hear primary songwriters Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir and Ragnar Þórhallsson tell it, the band (which also includes Brynjar Leifsson, Kristján Páll Kristjánsson, and Arnar Rósenkranz Hilmarsson) was disappointed to leave without an important souvenir—a tan. “We went to L.A. and stayed inside for two months,” Þórhallsson declares, chuckling at the irony. “We were in the studio, closed off in a tiny box,” adds Hilmarsdóttir.
Of Monsters and Men’s debut album, My Head Is an Animal (featuring the seemingly ubiquitous single “Little Talks”), was written piecemeal as the band formed around Hilmarsdóttir’s solo work. The album was a soaring piece of folk-rock fusion, its emotional swells enhanced by Hilmarsdóttir and Þórhallsson’s sun-dappled vocal harmonies.
You won’t hear any Mumford and Sons-esque abandonment of stylistic trademarks on Beneath the Skin. Lush choral harmonies, layered guitars, and enough instruments to stock an entire high school orchestra dot nearly every track. The sea of sound crescendos to euphoric highs and Hilmarsdóttir and Þórhallsson once again share vocal responsibilities, trading off duties over the course of a single track.
Still, both say that their thought process going into the writing and recording sessions was much different. Instead of concentrating on one song at a time (13 times over, in this case), they wanted to work as a unit to craft a full album that flowed from start to finish.
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photo by alisa kalyanova
“If you’re going to go deep into it and explain every single song, you’re kinda ruining the point,” she notes. “Bands like The National, I feel like, lyrically, sometimes [their songs] don’t make any sense. But you know that they make sense to the writer.”
But before they could commit to writing, recording, and releasing a new album, Of Monsters and Men first had to cool off from a seemingly endless string of international tour dates, including high-profile festivals (Coachella, Lollapalooza, and Bonnaroo), TV appearances (Saturday Night Live and Late Night), and a spot on The Hunger Games: Catching Fire soundtrack.
Self-described introspective kids (“I was a very big daydreamer—my mother was worried about me!” says Hilmarsdóttir), the songwriters found that it was crucial to step off the musical treadmill and embrace home life—lest they fall into writing the dreaded second album about touring, a cliché that makes musicians cringe. For Þórhallsson, that meant extended periods spent at home, sitting in front of the computer or with his guitar, and just zoning out. Hilmarsdóttir recalls long walks through downtown Reykjavík, stopping for coffee and window-shopping. It felt restorative to “do nothing,” she says, until she realized she was doing it four or five times a week. Although she laughs now, jokingly calling herself “a bit sad,” she also admits that the feeling of reverse culture shock was disorienting. Even if it ended up informing her work in unexpected ways. “You have to be alone,” she explains. “You have to feel uncomfortable with it. You have to think, ‘Why am I uncomfortable with it?’ for things to surface. And then you write about it.”