In lockdown on the island of Iceland Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir and Ragnar Þórhallsson of Of Monsters and Men talked with QRO. In the conversation, the singer/guitarists discussed their new single “Visitor” (QRO review), it’s cinematic video, possible 2021 material, how Iceland’s doing during all of this, playing from Radio City to Roskilde, familiar isolation, contact-tracing their own band, Vitamin D, haircuts, and more…
QRO: How are you all holding up, with everything that is going on?
Ragnar Þórhallsson: Pretty good.
Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir: Yeah.
RÞ: Iceland, there’s not a lot of people, anyways. A lot of room to move around, anyways. So, it’s a pretty okay situation.
QRO: Is it better or worse to be on an island when all of this is going down?
NBH: I would say it’s better, probably.
It’s easier to monitor. You come in, and you have to quarantine for five days. Anybody who comes in, you do swabs, two times.
RÞ: It’s kinda easy to track the virus, and keep track of it. It seems to be at least an okay situation.
QRO: And how are the rest of your bandmates doing?
RÞ: Pretty good. It think everybody, life kind of just slows down a bit, and everyone is kinda keeping to themselves a bit.
NBH: Meet sometimes in the studio, but like everyone is pretty calm. [laughs]
RÞ: Just, you know, painting their houses & stuff like that… [laughs]
QRO: When did you make “Visitor”?
RÞ: We made a couple of times… [both laugh]
NBH: We’ve been working on “Visitor” since our last album, Fever Dream (QRO review).
RÞ: And it never quite, you know, ‘landed’ for us. It was never quite correct.
NBH: And then, at some point, we were like, ‘Okay, it doesn’t really want us right now? It just wants us to leave it alone for a bit.’ So, we just did.
And then after we had released Fever Dream and we had toured a bit – before the pandemic hit, we toured for like five, six months or something?
RÞ: Something like that.
NBH: Yeah, so we toured a bit, and got some distance from like writing an album and everything. And then it just really came naturally. We just wrote a new part to it.
I guess it just need a different environment, a different time.
QRO: So, you did it all before the pandemic?
NBH: Yeah, we went home to Iceland, to our studio here. We’re just playing around there.
QRO: What’s it like just making one song?
RÞ: At that point, we had just been living with the song for a long time, so we had a mission.
We had gone on a writing trip to just outside of New York, and kind of figured out the song there, the outro part. And it kind of opened up the song again for us.
So, we went in the studio with purpose, because, you know, we had the vision mapped out.
We’ve been going to the studio now, and we’ve been writing a lot at home, separately, sending, doing everything over e-mail and stuff like that. It’s cool.
We’ve been working on “Visitor” since our last album, Fever Dream.
QRO: So, are you working on new music?
QRO: Have you gone back into the studio since the pandemic, since “Visitor”?
NBH: Yeah, we have gone to just kind of play around.
RÞ: We’re slowly starting working on ideas together.
This is a great time for musicians to just buckle down and write.
NBH: There doesn’t feel like there’s much pressure, right now. Which I think is like the number one thing that you need when you’re writing or making an album, not to feel pressure.
RÞ: At least us…
NBH: I can’t – I just “Ugh!” Go into a ball… [heads over head, laughs]
QRO: Can you socially distance in the studio, or is socially distancing not as big a thing in Iceland (because you’ve handled the pandemic better)?
RÞ: We have a two-meter rule, that goes down to a one-meter rule, when we have cases in Iceland, it goes down to one meter. Sometimes it goes away, but then, you know, the government…
NBH: ‘Today, two meters’… [laughs]
RÞ: We wear masks & stuff. We just keep track of each other in the band.
Our drummer [Arnar Rósenkranz Hilmarsson], his child got exposed, so they just quarantined for how many days they needed to. And we didn’t meet him during that.
So, we just kinda stay in touch with each other, and know if someone is near that danger zone. We say, “Stay at home…” [laughs]
QRO: I imagine, with a band your size, it would be difficult. I don’t know how big your studio is…
RÞ: Pretty big.
And we’re not hugging as much anymore, you know…
We’re not hugging as much anymore, you know…
QRO: Why did you decide to release “Visitor” as a stand-alone single, as opposed to waiting to have it be part of an album?
NBH: We’ve done this a lot over the years, where we have a song, and then it needs a moment, and then it just kind of falls behind an album. But then, once you make another album, that song has become old.
RÞ: To you.
NBH: To you. It doesn’t feel new anymore.
RÞ: So, those in-between songs that you write in between album cycles…
NBH: They constantly fall to the side. We have realized sometimes that’s a shame. Cause, it feels right at the moment. It’s an exercise for us, I think, to be a bit more loose with it, you know, flexible, when it feels right…
It’s actually gonna be part of an EP. It’s kind of fluctuating right now, how many songs there will be.
RÞ: At least that one.
NBH: That’s what’s nice now, to release music, and kinda just have something out there.
RÞ: We couldn’t tour Fever Dream that much, and we wanted to tour. We had a whole year planned. We were going to visit countries that we love to go to, and meet our fans.
So, it’s kind of nice to have time to work on music, so we can release something.
QRO: QRO caught you at the Radio City Music Hall show last year.
NBH: Oh, yeah, yeah. Wasn’t that like our second show playing for like two years or something? We’re like, ‘Alright, Radio City Music Hall – no pressure…’ [laughs]
QRO: I’m in New York, so I never know if other people know about places like that (QRO venue review)…
NBH: That’s a place for us.
RÞ: Radio City, I’ve been to concerts there.
It was made very clear to us that selling out Radio City was a very big thing.
NBH: We can sometimes be a bit clueless, cause we’re just from Iceland.
Like, the biggest thing, for us, when we were growing up, and when we were starting out, if you played Roskilde [Festival] in Denmark. Was like, ‘Oh my God, you’re playing Roskilde!’ That was the height, you know.
That’s a great festival, and we played it, and it was so fun. But then you don’t know about a lot of the other places.
RÞ: Sometimes just finding out as we go.
But being a ten-year-old band, now, we kinda know…
NBH: We know nothing! [laughs]
RÞ: We know the landscape now.
But first, when we started, our manager was just like, you know, ‘This is amazing! This is it!’
NBH: ‘Is it Roskilde?!?’ [laughs]
QRO: I could imagine American bands playing Roskilde and not knowing…
RÞ: Yeah. That’s the final destination for Icelandic bands…
Of Monsters and Men’s video for “Visitor”:
QRO: How was making the video for “Visitor”?
NBH: It was really fun. Because we worked with this director that we worked with before, Thora Hilmars. We just get along really well.
She’s really into this kind of horror movie aesthetic, which is really good for us, because we love that.
We shot it in February, like right before the pandemic.
RÞ: I remember the news, when we were shooting it, there was news spreading that the country was going to close.
Our bass player [Kristján Páll Kristjánsson] was very, ‘health nervous’, I guess, is the word? He’s on top of his things. He was just Googling a lot of stuff, as we were shooting. He was following the news, constantly.
But it was very fun. We shot it in a very old – not ‘old,’ let’s use the word, ‘very cold,’ airplane hangar.
NBH: The whole thing was cold, but really, really great.
RÞ: My mom is in the video. For the keen fan, if they can spot my mom… [laughs]
QRO: I remember that time, in February, when we all were hearing about the virus in China, like it was the opening news footage in a post-apocalyptic movie…
NBH: Yes. Oh, completely…
I feel like, with the video, it was on that line, right before the pandemic, but there is feel in it that is very post-apocalyptic, ‘What the Hell just happened?’
And in the video, there’s this moment with the light, always playing with the light, and how the light it coming.
So, the idea is that it has been dark for a very long time, which is something we know very well here in Iceland.
When we have winter here [in Iceland], and the summer’s about to come, people have really become like a bit crazy.
When we have winter here, and the summer’s about to come, people have really become like a bit crazy.
RÞ: They get a bit like cabin fever or something. Cause we don’t get the sun, and then, all of a sudden, the sun comes, and it’s like this “Whoosh!”
RÞ: Vitamin C, or Vitamin D – I definitely lack both… [laughs]
NBH: Everyone take their vitamins… [laughs]
QRO: Why did you decide to make a video for “Visitor”? Did you just want to get out of the cabin?…
RÞ: Just felt like a fun song to do a video to. Why do you do videos?…
NBH: I don’t know. I love doing videos.
It is hard. I feel like we have had moments of like, ‘This is great, and fits perfectly with the song,’ and sometimes it’s just hard.
RÞ: It always is, working with another creative. Trying to gel together your music with some vision. Sometimes it’s a hit; sometimes it doesn’t work.
We know [Thora] well enough. She worked with “Wild Roses” with us as well, and we were super-happy with “Wild Roses”. It’s fun to go into a project with people that you just gel with.
NBH: Put another layer onto your music. Another little side street, you know?
Of Monsters and Men’s video for “Wild Roses”:
QRO: When you were making it, did you plan to put it out while you were touring?
NBH: Yes, that was the plan. We were gonna put it out in April or something.
We were supposed to be on tour, ‘This makes sense’ – and then nothing makes sense… [laughs]
So, then you’re like, ‘Ehh – video…’
QRO: I really enjoyed seeing a full-fledged video, as opposed to the stuff people have only been able to make during all of this.
And because it was you guys performing in front of a crowd…
NBH: I didn’t even realize that. When people watch it now, and they will think, ‘Oh they just shot it.’ They’re like, ‘They’re breaking all the rules!’ [laughs] ‘Wear a mask! What’s happening?…’
QRO: I was wondering: Was that the last time you performed in front a crowd?
NBH: Yes… That’s true – it is the last time. In front of your mother… [laughs]
When people watch it now, and they will think, ‘Oh they just shot it.’ They’re like, ‘They’re breaking all the rules!’
QRO: Where did you find that older guy at the center of the video?
RÞ: Ingvar Eggert [Sigurðsson] is a famous Icelandic actor. He’s been in many Hollywood movies as well.
NBH: He’s amazing.
RÞ: He did a lyric video for us on the last album, for “Thousand Eyes”.
NBH: He’s just such an amazing actor, and we are just huge fans of him.
I asked him to be a part of it. You just know that he has this energy about him that’s very curious to watch.
QRO: Does everyone in Iceland know each other, or were you nervous to ask him?
In America, we have these fantasy ideas of what places like Iceland are like…
RÞ: I was kind of nervous to meet him. Not that nervous, though. He was part of the team.
NBH: I see him at my local swimming pool sometimes, like [mimes nodding hello].
RÞ: So, once you people in their swimwear…
NBH: [laughs] You’re not nervous…
QRO: [laughs] And where did you find that sparkly outfit?
NBH: Oh, that’s an Icelandic designer called Hildur Yeoman. I wore that outfit when we were on tour.
RÞ: There was a debate of me being a disco ball, but we felt like Nanna, you know…
NBH: Maybe next time, you can also. We can just be two disco balls…
Maybe all the band, everyone… [laughs]
Of Monsters and Men’s video for “Thousand Eyes”:
QRO: Are you itching to tour again?
RÞ: Yeah. I just can’t wait to travel again. Tour, travel.
In Thailand, I got sick.
NBH: When we were on tour. It was an Asia tour.
RÞ: So, we had to cancel the Asia tour, and then we just came home, and then we were supposed to go back out.
Our tour was cut short, and we’ve just been here since then… [laughs]
So, yeah, definitely, itching to play again for people again.
QRO: Is this the longest you’ve been off the road?
NBH: No, we do take a lot of time in between albums.
I think between each album, we’ve had, almost two years at home. Where we’re just writing…
RÞ: At least between the second [Beneath the Skin – QRO review] and third [Fever Dream], we had a lot of time.
NBH: So, there’s a part of this situation that doesn’t feel – obviously, it’s different with masks and people getting sick & all – but like, there’s a sense of it that I’m kind of familiar with, maybe the isolation? I feel like that we do that.
There’s this extreme, you’re so outgoing, playing in front of people, and you’re always surrounded, we’re always together, you know? And then, it’s coming home, and going into writing mode, doing that for a year or two.
Kind of trying to live a normal life after being on extreme speed for a long time, so you’re very disoriented.
QRO: I did see some European dates listed on your website for next summer…
RÞ: We’re definitely hoping. We want to go out, if the world allows it. If the Earth allows it.
QRO: And one in Iowa, at Hinterland Festival.
RÞ: Fingers crossed…
We love to go out and play, and if the chance comes, then we will be there.
NBH: We had some shows here in Iceland, actually.
There was a brief moment where there were no cases.
RÞ: There were no cases for a long time, so we were completely rid of it, for a while.
NBH: And then things started to kind of go back. Everyone was very aware, but still it was surprising how quick the concerts started.
Björk was supposed to have a huge concert in Harpa [Hall]. Everything was kind of coming back, but then we had more cases and things kind of got worse here.
RÞ: We opened up the border more. More just tourists were coming. We got a bit more careless or something.
NBH: And then everything shut down again.
QRO: Have you played shows in Iceland since the pandemic started?
RÞ: No, we haven’t done it.
Local bands were doing it. There was a cap, I think. 50 people were allowed in, then 100. Once there were no cases here, I think, there was more.
There’s a lot of local musicians, this is really hard for them because they need the shows to stay alive. They’re not getting any money in.
So, it’s kind of finding that balance, when we have not that many cases, to allow a certain amount of stuff happening, within a reasonable limit.
Kind of trying to live a normal life after being on extreme speed for a long time, so you’re very disoriented.
QRO: Has the government been providing funds or anything specifically for artists or music venues?
RÞ: No, I think it was the musician’s union. I think they were just forming a musician’s union around that, now, to get support from the government.
It’s definitely on the table now. Musicians are having their voices heard, that they also need help.
I don’t know where it stands right now, but definitely their voices are being heard.
QRO: During lockdown, a lot of artists are doing livestreams, or releasing previously recorded material. Have you thought about doing anything like that?
RÞ: Yeah. We’re definitely looking at things like that. We’ll be doing different pieces of our stuff like that.
[Nanna] did a little acoustic performance in your living room.
NBH: That was fun. That was just kind of for Instagram session, with Gordi, an Australian musician. That was a lot of fun.
So weird, though. Cause you’re playing in front of a screen. You don’t get that reaction. When you’re at a show, it’s like you understand energy in the room. And then it’s like, ‘Doo-doo-doo-doo-doo’…
QRO: Lots of musicians are going through that. Also comedians, like those who do talk shows, they’re finding no laughter…
NBH: Oh, no! It’s awkward – it’s like it’s not landing… [laughs]
QRO: And now, they don’t have their audiences, but they’re back in their studios. So, they have the camera people, and the band – so you hear laughter, but it’s like five people! And that’s almost worse…
NBH: [laughs] That is kinda worse…
QRO: This is sort of random, but speaking of talk shows, did you know that Craig Ferguson is a big fan of you all? He used to talk up you guys on his old talk show, Late Late Show, after Letterman.
He also used to start his question for each guest by mentioning Iceland, even though the question had nothing to do with Iceland. But whenever people would talk about Iceland, he would say, “Oh, I love Of Monsters and Men”…
NBH: Oh, cool…
QRO: Also, I think there was a reference to you all on Family Guy. They were at a club, and there were like twelve people on stage, and they would all say, “Hey!” This was when “Little Talks” came out. The cartoon characters looked like you, like [Nanna’s] haircut and [Ragnar’s] beard, but didn’t say the name…
NBH: [laughs] Oh my God! That’s so funny!
If you ended up watching the show, and being like, ‘Wait a minute…’
QRO: During this time, have you picked up and/or accelerated any bad habits? Like I haven’t cut my hair the whole time…
RÞ: I feel like I only have bad habits…
Nothing that I didn’t have before… [laughs]
I’m trying to pick up good habits. I’m trying to keep busy; I’m trying to do a lot of different kinds of art, ceramics & stuff like that.
QRO: And Nanna, how is your hair?
NBH: Actually, I was going to say, like [Ragnar] had a haircut.
RÞ: I had a haircut. But I had to wear my mask at my haircut.
NBH: I haven’t. I’m going insane.
But I guess it’s different for girls, though, you know? Everyone’s like, ‘Boosh…’ [mimes with hands hair expanding]