Coming off a debut album that produced a pair of hit singles and sold nearly 1 million copies, one might think the easy thing for Of Monsters and Men to do would be to make a second album that gave fans more of the same buoyant folk-pop music that clicked with radio and music fans.
But guitarist/singer Ragnar "Raggi" Þórhallsson says doing a similar second album would not have been taking the easy way out. In fact, it wouldn’t have been a realistic — or rewarding — option.
“I think it has more to do with the time between writing those two albums,” he said. “I guess it was like four years at least. So, there was a lot of time, and it’s also that time in our lives where you grow a lot and are introduced to a lot of new things. Just by being in this band, it’s a business really, and all the pressure and the responsibilities that you take on by doing this, I think you just grow a lot as a human, and therefore you write different music. I think it would have been harder for us to actually try copy the last album. We weren’t in that place, in that mindset, anymore.”
The group brings its monster sound to the Grand Sierra Resort and Casino's Grand Theatre for an 8 p.m. April 14 show.
Þórhallsson readily admitted that the group felt the pressure of expectations going into the recently released second album, “Beneath The Skin” – something that didn’t accompany “My Head Is an Animal,” which was made in 2011 when the band was virtually unknown outside of its home base in Iceland.
The band – Þórhallsson, lead singer/guitarist Nanna Bryndis Hilmarsdóttir, guitarist Brynjar Leifsson, drummer Arnar Rósenkranz Hilmarsson and bassist Kristján Páll Kristjánsson — formed in 2010 in Keflavik, Iceland and got its big break later that year by winning Músíktilraunir, a leading battle of the bands competition in that country. The group then became an from-out-of-nowhere success story when “Little Talks,” the lead single from “My Head Is an Animal,” became a world-wide hit (topping “Billboard” magazine’s Alternative Songs chart in the states). A second single, “Mountain Sound,” topped “Billboard’s” Adult Alternative Songs chart and went top 5 on another pair of charts. Meanwhile, the album cracked the top 10 on the “Billboard” album chart and went platinum.
The success changed the backdrop for the writing and recording of “Beneath The Skin.”
“I think it was a different environment in creating this (second) album than the last one,” Þórhallsson said. “The last one, I don’t even remember it. There was no pressure. There was nothing happening.
So we were kind of just doing it in our off time and basically just chilling and making an album and it just happened.”
The only thing chill about approaching “Beneath The Skin” might have been the temperature in Iceland. But the band quickly took expectations out of the equation in writing the second album.
“We felt that pressure in the beginning, definitely. You put that pressure on yourself,” Þórhallsson said. “You know that people are expecting something. But you don’t want to just do something people are expecting and you don’t want to try to find out what they are expecting. You want to do something that really means something to you. That’s why you do this. So, we just quickly figured that out. We talked about it and we just wanted to do something that we’re happy with.”
Pop to not
And “Beneath The Skin” is not “My Head Is an Animal 2.0.” The first album got Of Monsters and Men lumped in with the likes of Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers as part of the new wave of folk pop acts. To a point the label fit (especially on quieter songs like “Lakehouse” and “Love Love Love”). But songs like “Little Talks,” “Mountain Sound” and “King And Lionheart” also had an anthemic feel in their big choruses and sunny melodies that was decidedly pop.
“Beneath The Skin,” though, is a different musical animal (pardon the pun). The sound of the album is denser and notably darker than on the debut disc. There are expansive anthems (“Human,” “Crystals” and “Slow Life”), but they are more pensive and don’t have the sunny sing-along moments that made “Little Talks” and “Mountain Sound” radio-ready hits. Meanwhile, ballad-ish/mid-tempo songs like “Empire,” “Thousand Eyes” and “Organs” aren’t at all folky, as the acoustic guitars are downplayed and the songs are built around layers of keyboards, strings, guitars and synthetic textures.
Þórhallsson said he feels the second album comes closer to capturing the true sound of the band, which he feels is closer to Arcade Fire than the Lumineers.
“I think it is more the way we are on this album than the first,” he said. “Even with our live shows, if you listened to the album, our live show was more rock and had more power to it than the (first) album. So, I think mainly there was a lot of acoustic on the first album. There’s a lot of acoustic on the new album as well, but it’s not as noticeable.”
Another contrast is in the lyrical tone and style of “Beneath The Skin.”
Having spent three-plus years touring, lyricists, Þórhallsson and Hilmarsdóttir were able to open up more, resulting in a more direct and vulnerable set of lyrics.
“I always say this, but a lot of that (first) album was personal for me and Nanna, but we just kind of disguised it in more of a story-telling way, by creating characters,” Þórhallsson said. “But then, everyone was asking me if it was like fairy tales inspired by Iceland because it made sense like that. It really wasn’t. It wasn’t really about Iceland or stories from our childhood or anything like that. It was just like a way for me and Nanna to communicate over something we thought was interesting. We created these characters that we could both bond to and we could write something personal without maybe talking that much about it.
“We were asked in like every single interview about fairy tales and Icelandic myths and Icelandic old stories and stuff like that,” he said. “We kind of just got sick of that and thought to ourselves maybe we should just kind of go to that uncomfortable place with each other, just talk about what we wanted to talk about, write lyrics about that and have them more direct and not as disguised.”
The thicker sound of “Beneath The Skin” figures to sound more visceral live, and it prompted the band to expand its former seven-member touring lineup to nine.
“I guess you create albums and then if you get crazy in the studio, there are a lot of things that you put on the songs, a lot of things you have to re-create live,” Þórhallsson said. “People use playback and stuff from that, but we’ve kind of been staying away from that. We want to be live. We want to be playing together. And for our new album, ‘Beneath The Skin,’ we started rehearsing it and we kind of felt like we needed some extra players to fulfill that sound we were creating on the album. Like the brass arrangements are much bigger on this album, so we added a trombone player. And then there’s a lot of percussion, a lot of extra guitars that we don’t have hands to do. So we have an extra percussionist-slash-guitarist-slash pianist, a jack of all trades kind of guy just running around and filling in those little things we need.”