Photo by Magnús Elvar Jónsson. Produced by Biel Parklee.
It was at Iceland Airwaves that Of Monsters and Men got their start, and it was to Iceland Airwaves that the five-piece pop band returned to close out a year-and-a-half long tour in support of their latest album, Beneath the Skin. In 2010, Of Monsters and Men won Musiktilraunur, Reykjavik’s annual battle of the bands competition, winning them a prime slot playing the festival. It was their breakout moment, before their hit “Little Talks,” even before the band’s lineup was secured. (They added drummer Arnar Rósenkranz Hilmarsson and bassist Kristián Páll Kristiánsson just before Airwaves.) Their slot this year was, naturally, even better than in 2010: a prime set time at the legendary Nasa theater in downtown Reykjavik. More than an hour before they were slated to go on stage, the queue to enter Nasa snaked around the block; audience members slowly trickled in to the packed auditorium to the benefit of Glowie, who played just before Of Monsters and Men.
Clad in black, the band prowled onto the stage and tore into “Thousand Eyes.” Their sophomore album was the darker, angstier sibling to 2011’s My Head Is an Animal; the monochrome looks and grungy venue befitting the darker, brasher tone of the material.
As part of Of Monsters and Men, frontwoman Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir has only played three Airwaves festivals, but as is the wont of most Icelandic musicians, they’ve played many, many sets at each festival. Even the buzzier acts like the Icelandic band Gangly and American act Frankie Cosmos tend to play off-venue, daytime shows before their official Airwaves sets in the evenings. This year was no different: The morning after their Nasa show, Of Monsters and Men announced a second, surprise show — an enchanting, seven-song acoustic set at Frikirkjan, a historic church overlooking Tjörnin, a lake in the center of Reykjavik.
Some songs, like the mournful "Hunger" (played immediately after "Love Love Love," Raggi described "Hunger" as "a hate song"), easily adapted to the stripped-down arrangement, but they adapted even their most anthemic hits into driving folk melodies; "Little Talks" reimagined as a kind dirge with Hilmarsdóttir's voice intertwining with co-vocalist and guitarist Ragnar Þórhallsson, or Raggi, is an entirely different track, haunting and melancholy. Festival-goers unable to nab a ticket earlier in the day lined up outside the church, watching through the windows.
As the performance drew to a close, Raggi introduced the final song: “We’ve only got one more. Very short,” he said. “It’s because we don’t know how to play our songs quietly.” They finished out the seven-song set with the final track off Beneath the Skin, "We Sink."
Of Monsters and Men has always thrived on the energy emanating from their live performances; their debut album was something of a focus-grouped effort, a collection of songs they selected for recording in Iceland based on their success during a live show.
“With the first album, we had a lot of immediate reaction because we would go on stage with a new song and play it and nobody had ever heard it,” Hilmarsdóttir said. “It was very audience interaction-based.” The darker second record was the product of months spent in the studio. Before they went on tour, nobody had heard the songs off Beneath the Skin. They toured with the album for just over a year before taking a break from the grind in the lead-up to Airwaves.
“When you play at home, it feels really, really stressful,” she said over coffee in downtown Reykjavik. We met up so I could bring her a disposable camera, her weapon of choice to document backstage at the music festival. “You know so many people and suddenly your mom and your dad are showing up to the show and you’re like, ‘Oh, my God.”
Hilmarsdóttir grew up in Garður, a town just five minutes from the Keflavik airport (population: 1,200). She’s since relocated a few miles up the road to Reykjavik, but she returns home from time to time (most recently, to shoot a music video at the Garður lighthouse for her recent track with Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds). Hilmarsdóttir had been bopping around her adoptive hometown since August, reveling in the unscheduled days that follow the end of a tour.
“I’m in limbo right now,” she said. Even while ostensibly on a break, she’s already writing the next Of Monsters and Men album: “I don’t want to say too much, but I feel like we’re approaching it a little bit differently.”