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A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
For Icelandic pop outfit Of Monsters and Men, which formed just prior to winning Reykjavik’s annual music battle Musiktilraunir in 2010, success has been almost instantaneous.
“I guess there’s something about our sound that is just working right now,” says lead vocalist Nanna Brynndis Hilmarsdottir, 24. Two major contributors: the folk music resurgence and the Internet, which sent a 2010 live session from a living room to the viral stratosphere. That video of radio hit “Little Talks” amassed 7.5 million views and helped propel Of Monsters and Men to international acclaim, including a deal with Republic.
It was a long way from their first American show: at an Austin bike shop during South by Southwest. Although they had yet to release an album, “people were singing along,” recalls Hilmarsdottir. Their 2012 debut, My Head Is an Animal, has since gone platinum, thanks in part to 18 months of intense touring. The band further cemented its mainstream appeal with a spot on The Hunger Games: Catching Fire soundtrack.
Hilmarsdottir and her groupmates, though, already are forging ahead. “I think [the follow-up album] is going to be different,” she says. “So much has happened in the last few years, and we’re in a totally different place.”
How does it feel to have your debut album go platinum?
It’s an amazing thing. It was a good way to start the year, getting that news.
You and your groupmates have only been together for a little more than three years. Why do you think your music has transcended borders and reached international acclaim?
We’ve been asked this question a few times. I never really know the answer. I feel like I should have this formula, like this is what you do and it will be fine, but I have no idea. Sometimes, things just work out. I guess there’s something about our sound that is just working right now and people like it, which is a really great thing for us. We’ve been touring like crazy and it’s been a lot of hard work and we’ve all just been really dedicated. I guess it’s a sound people are open to right now — and hard work.
Do you consider the folk music resurgence a major factor why the group’s songs have been able to gain a foothold?
Yeah, definitely. There’s this moment of folk music that is happening right now and it’s the same with electronic music. There’s a big scene for that, so of course when you have bands that are doing that, it becomes a thing. People might like a band that is doing something similar, the same genre, it’s kind of contagious.
How long did you tour with My Head Is an Animal?
We were touring for 18 months. It was the most fun I’ve ever had in my life. I really, really enjoyed it. Now we’re back home and it’s quiet and it’s great because I think we really needed it. At the same time I’m like, I can’t wait to go back [out on the road].
Did you find people responded to your music differently as you toured around the world?
It was definitely strange going to all these places and seeing the reaction. At some places we would get this overwhelming response and we would be like, “Wow, what’s happening here.” With our kind of music we try to get people involved and we try to get them to sing along and clap and when people are responsive it’s great. We found that in really warm places people were very willing to get crazy and in the colder places, like where we’re from, people were more like, “Hang on, we don’t know each other that well. Wait a minute, I’m not gonna dance.”
Because of the Internet, your music is available to everyone. Has that helped you reach different parts of the world quicker than you expected?
Immediately when we started out, things happened really quickly for us. When we made this album, suddenly people who weren’t from Iceland would hear about us. It would be like someone was traveling to Iceland and record a show or something and suddenly people were like “Oh!” They were catching on. It was an important thing for us because we didn’t have any money to go out of Iceland. It wasn’t possible for us, we [had] so many [members] too. But with the Internet, people could see our music and hear about us and hear our music without us having to go there. It definitely did play a huge role of why we went on to tour and signed with a record label and everything that came after.
What was the strangest country you’ve heard your songs?
I was in the supermarket once in a small town America and suddenly one of our songs plays — it wasn’t even our big single “Little Talks,” it was “From Finner” or something. I was like, “Oh cool.” Then I go to the cashier and I’m paying for my stuff and the guy looks at me and he goes, “Is that you?” I’m like, “I guess so, I guess that’s me.” He was just a guy who likes our music, which is why it was playing there in the shop. That was pretty cool.
When you’re in a new city when you’re touring, how much time do you get to see the sights?
Sometimes I really want to see things and sometimes, there’s absolutely no time to do that, but I try to see stuff. We went to Paris three times, but I have never seen the Eiffel Tower, it’s stuff like that sometimes.
Do you have a favorite hotel?
The first one that popped into my head was the very first time we were in New York, we stayed at a really famous one [Hotel Chelsea]. We all had to stay in the same room and it was really fun. The hotel definitely had this strange vibe to it that I kind of enjoyed.
How do you discover new artists when you’re on the road?
When we were doing festivals during the summer I would hear about a new artist coming up and they would be playing the festival with us. In Iceland it’s starting to change a bit. We have a lot more people coming in now for shows but it’s nothing like when you’re on the road and you get to see all these bands so that’s how we discover new music.
Are there any new artists that you discovered doing the summer festival trek?
Grimes. I really like Grimes. I got to see her twice and both experiences were very different. One was during the day and the other was when people were really drunk and it was cool seeing both sides of it. And HAIM, we saw them a few times.
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