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Of Monsters and Men's Nanna Hilmarsdóttir talks new album, getting inspired by Tolkien

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Meredith Truax

Icelandic folkies Of Monsters and Men returned on Tuesday with their sophomore album, Beneath the Skin, the follow-up to 2011’s massively successful My Head Is An Animal. But the group, which has often been categorized with other folk revivalists like Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers, chose not to reuse the winning formula that made songs like “Little Talks” and “Mountain Sound” big alt-radio hits.

“It’s hard making a second album—like I’ve done it so many times and have all the answers,” the group’s vocalist Nanna Hilmarsdóttir said when she recently connected with EW. “People were afraid when I said I wanted to do something different.”

Instead of replicating Animal‘s sound, Of Monsters and Men recruited Rich Costey, who’s recently worked in the studio with prominent indie bands including HAIM, Death Cab for Cutie, Jenny Lewis, and Vampire Weekend. The product is an album that retains the band’s campfire-ready vibes while focusing their stadium appeal.

Hilmarsdóttir chatted with EW about her love of classic soul music, traveling with Of Monsters and Men’s massive “posse,” and why the group’s next album might be Tolkien-influenced.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Your last record was such a smash hit. How did that influence the writing and recording of Beneath the Skin?

NANNA HILMARSDÓTTIR: It was the first time that we were making an album, so we didn’t know anything about how to make an album. Everything was happening crazy fast. There’s a certain innocence probably. This album in a weird way is very much us and very much like what we do, but it’s kind of a polar opposite, because now we’re doing it for the second time. The other album was looking out and we were curious about what was out there; for this one it’s more like we’ve gone out, explored everything, and now we just really want to go back in.

How would you describe the new approach that you’ve taken on Beneath the Skin?

We wanted to expand and make ourselves excited. You’re always excited when you’re doing something new. It’s hard making a second album—like I’ve done it so many times and have all the answers [laughs]—because people were afraid when I said I wanted to do something different. People were like, “No, no, no, calm down.” I didn’t mean “I want to make a heavy metal album” or something. It was just trying to get a new flavor. But I think we manage to balance it out. You hear that it is us, but you hear something new in it.

You’ve previously said that the name “Of Monsters and Men” just came to you and you ran with it—but it sounds like something out of Game of Thrones or the Chronicles of Narnia. Do you still think the name fits your band?

I think it does. We constantly refer to monsters and men. The last album was very much monsters. Now it’s very much men. [Beneath the Skin is about] human emotions and all that. I don’t know what we’re going to do next—maybe a theme album with [Lord of the Rings race] the ents or something.

How do you think Beneath the Skin is more human?

It’s very self-focused. It’s like you have a scope and you’re looking at everything in your body. We talk a lot about the body and skin. It’s very physical, but it’s also about the mental.

How are American crowds different compared to European ones?

Wherever we go there’s a difference in people. People in Europe are very similar to people in Iceland. They’re usually not crazy and spinning around—they’re standing there, bobbing their heads, listening. In America people are jumping around and having fun. That’s very fun for us because we get that reaction.

What are you changing up from your last tour?

We’re going to be more people on stage. We used to be seven people, five in the band and then two session players. Now we’re going to be nine on stage. It’s going to be very crowded, one big posse. That’s going to be different.

Traveling with such a large group must be challenging, what’s that like, traveling with your posse?

I don’t know of many people doing it. I think I know why: It’s pretty financially hard to be traveling with so many people. There’s a bus and we have to get a second bus and there has to be someone who’s in charge taking care of everybody so people don’t just wander off.

Has that been a problem before, that somebody’s wandered off?

No, not really! But we’ve had moments like, “Where’s this person?” It happens. I’m happy I’m not a tour manager.

What were you listening to during the Beneath the Skin sessions?

I was listening to a lot of different things. I got really into Nina Simone. I adore her. A lot of soul music—it’s so eerie but it still makes you feel so good. It’s weird!

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