The humanity in Of Monsters and Men

The band talks their new album and playing shows back home

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Meredith Truax

Images of mythological creatures and fanciful creations move through a sea of clouds in the music video for “Little Talks,” the chart-topping single that catapulted the Icelandic indie-pop band Of Monsters and Men into the U.S. mainstream in 2011. But with the release of their second album earlier this summer, the band draws more from the experiences from their last several years of touring than the imaginary world.

“We wanted to have it a bit more personal,” says co-lead singer and guitarist, Ragnar “Raggi” Pórhallsson about the new album Beneath the Skin. “Having toured and played the older songs for awhile, I think you just naturally have to do something else. We kept some things that were important to us, but then we just had to do something that’s new to us and that we were excited about it.”

With Beneath the Skin, Of Monsters and Men employs the same lyrical storytelling their fans have come to love, but in a much more intimate and thought-provoking way. Where the first album left plenty of room for interpretation as the music energetically danced around semi-foreboding lyrics, the second album is much more ominous.

“On our new album, there are a lot of issues that it deals with at a global level and at a personal level,” Pórhallsson says.

Take, for example, the song “Thousand Eyes.” As the band chants, “I lie awake and watch it all diffuse,” the strings and beating drums threateningly build up without ever dissipating before the song ends abruptly. A few songs later, the band comments on humanity’s responsibility for the environment in “We Sink.”

Nature is a consistent theme for the artists, as they are inspired by the expansive, mystical and unique landscapes of their home country. “We Sink” is about “nature and what we are doing to it,” says Pórhallsson, who co-wrote the song with lead singer Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir and drummer Arnar Rósenkranz Hilmarsson. “But it’s written from our standpoint. For me at least, I’m criticizing myself about how I could be doing some better things.”

And this sentiment is the true idea behind the band — and the origin of its name.

“When we started out with the name, it was more about how we as humans can sometimes act like monsters. We were reading a lot of stories about people doing horrible things, kind of shocking stories that are hard to read,” he says. “It was more a play on that, how a human being can behave.”

Pórhallsson says being out on tour gave the band experiences to write about for their second album, traveling to places they never expected to go, like South America and Japan, while touring almost non-stop since their U.S. debut at the 2012 South by Southwest festival in Austin. Since then, they’ve hit every major music festival multiple times, as well as playing smaller shows at more intimate venues.

“The smaller shows are usually the ones that I really remember,” Pórhallsson says. “Something special can happen in those kind of shows.”

They played the U.S. festival scene this summer before recently returning to Iceland for a couple of hometown shows in early September.

“It’s always different playing at home. It’s more nerve-racking than anything,” Pórhallsson says. “It’s different because I look over the crowd and I kind of know everyone, which is weird for me.”

The band recently returned to the U.S. and during the current leg of their tour will play a mixture of festivals, intimate theaters and larger venues like the 1stBank Center in Broomfield on Oct. 13.

Despite the constant traveling, cramped quarters of the tour bus and the mixture of different musicians, Pórhallsson says the band gets along well and doesn’t really fight like the rock-bands you see in movies.

“That’s how I imagined being in a band might turn out to be like,” he says. “I would think there would be more friction with being so close to people for such a long time.”

Pórhallsson admits Of Monsters and Men isn’t immune to the pressures that come with being in a band, mostly group decision making while touring and writing together. But like any situation in life, an attitude of civility, rather than disrespect goes a long way.

“It’s easy to disagree on stuff, but I guess it’s how you go about it that matters.”