Iceland’s folky start-ups Of Monsters and Men are in the midst of the brief moment between first radio airplay and becoming a household name. It was just a few months ago that the sextet began to consider lives without day jobs; two weeks ago, they played an MTV-sponsored show in New York with a 1930s vaudeville circus theme.
“I knew we would be wearing costumes, and we were asking the audience to wear costumes,” vocalist/guitarist and bandleader Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir said, attempting to explain the surrealism that followed. “But it was a completely different world. There was a girl on stage swallowing swords, and she took off her bra and lit her breasts on fire. That’s not a good thing if it goes bad.”
The band, which performs at the Outside Lands Music and Arts Friday and headlines a festival night show at the California Academy of Sciences Thursday, has quickly ascended the folk-pop ladder. Three years ago Hilmarsdóttir, a solo artist, asked guitarist and friend Brynjar Leifsson to accompany her on a tour of Iceland with an organization for female performers.
Some time later, her boyfriend introduced her to vocalist/guitarist Ragnar “Raggi” Þórhallsson. Through Þórhallsson, she met the remaining three musicians who now comprise Of Monsters and Men: Bassist Kristján Páll Kristjánsson, piano/accordion player Árni Guðjónsson and drummer Arnar Rósenkranz Hilmarsson.
In 2010 the band entered and won a battle of the bands competition in their homeland. That’s when momentum began to build. But it was an impromptu decision two hours before the competition that set the band’s course. Until than Hilmarsdóttir’s troupe did not have a name. Þórhallsson, a John Steinbeck appreciator, came up with Of Monsters and Men, and the name came to symbolize the band’s sound, not the other way around.
“It sounded right; it became a huge part of how we write,” she said. “In a short amount of time, we went from being a small acoustic band to trying to make as much noise as we possibly could.”
After “Little Talks” began to gather steam on the radio, the band signed with Icelandic label Record Records in early 2011 and released My Head is an Animal. An American record deal with Universal followed, and the album was re-released here last April.
The two singers split lines in the tremolo and horn-heavy first single, a conversation between two people. Hilmarsdóttir said she and her bandmates are pleased that the song has been interpreted in many ways, but she was hesitant to reveal its true meaning.
“We’re kind of trying to hide what it’s about just because it has such a specific meaning to me and Raggi,” she said. “It’s a story about old people, the older generation. It’s not a typical back-and-forth love story. It has kind of a darker, sadder story behind it.”
Although Of Monsters and Men have drawn comparisons to England’s Mumford and Sons, “Little Talks” shares more similarities with Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, with breathy male-female conversational vocals.
The band’s homeland, however, has instilled an inspiration to be original.
“Iceland is not just about Bjork and Sigur Ros,” Hilmarsdóttir said. “There’s so much diversity there. You don’t want to be copying anyone else because chances are you know everyone in the other bands. You try to be original from each other.”
Asked to describe her home, Hilmarsdóttir first speaks of its isolation. One of its best qualities makes her wistful.
“In the summertime, we have sunlight 24 hours, which is great, and I’m missing home so much right now because it’s the best time of the year,” she said.
Home will have to wait for a bit, however. It was at Austin’s South by Southwest music festival earlier this year that Hilmarsdóttir and her bandmates realized that Of Monsters and Men just might become a permanent gig.
“We had a…great response and our manager said, ‘Hey, you might want to quit your day jobs and school and just do this,’” she said. “And we were like, ‘That’s absurd, but OK, we’ll try it.’”