There are plenty of bands that only put out one album. Foreign Monkeys appeared to be one of those bands. After releasing π (aka Pí) in 2009 they played some shows here and there, but for all intents and purposes disappeared. Their Facebook page went radio silent in late 2012 after the release of the single “Zoology” and it was another four-and-a-half years until we heard from them there again, when the band revealed a new banner that showed a brand new album… and then promptly disappeared for another 13 months. But eventually we got the long-awaited follow-up to Pí, the nine-song Return.
We picked up Pí at Iceland Airwaves in 2009 and I fell in love with it right away, especially “Los”. There was a lo-fi-ness to the vocals but a strong structure to the music that appealed to me. The album had a certain familiarity; while elements reminded me of other bands, taken as a whole Foreign Monkeys were doing something entirely their own. Mostly rock with just a touch of hip hop for flavor, the songs were built around a straight-forward rhythm section with guitars and vocals combining to provide nuance. For years I was bummed that we’d never seen them live, and as more and more Airwaves went by I’d pretty much given up hope that we’d ever get the chance again, let alone hear any new music from them.
But earlier this year Return came out in a limited edition vinyl pressing of 300 copies, so I immediately reached to to my
vinyl pushers friends at Reykjavik’s Lucky Records and asked them to put aside a copy when it became available. Because postage from Iceland has become insane I had to wait a few months until I had enough other items on hold to make it worth sending a box across the Atlantic. (♠) But it was well worth the wait.
I caught up with guitarist and singer Gísli Stefánsson and had the opportunity to ask him some questions about Foreign Monkeys and their new album.
When Pí came out in 2009 it felt like the perfect sonic mix for the time – a hard rock base, lo-fi vocals, and maybe just a hint of hip hop for good measure. How did that album come about?
We need to go all the way back to early 2005 when we were starting out. We wrote the first numbers “Bibi Song” and “Love Song” to be eligible for the Music Experiments (the young people’s Battle of the Bands in Iceland). Me and Víðir Heiðdal the drummer had taken part in the competition in early 2005 in another band and we had taken it pretty seriously. We didn’t make it to the final and got kind of a bad critique: “Great band but very boring”. We where devastated so it was really an escape when we got the offer to play in Foreign Monkeys. We then went to the Music Experiments in 2006 with Foreign Monkeys with no hopes of getting anything out of the competition. We only wanted to have fun.
Then we won the competition, quite unexpectedly, and were really forced into writing new music together, which hadn’t been on the agenda. We had no plan after the Music Experiments. We wrote the rest of the drums, bass and guitars of Pí in 2006 and early 2007 but then everything went sideways for a while. Our singer back then, Bjarki, parted with the band. When we think back we could have handled that differently. There where some things we could have done better and others we thought we had control over but really didn’t, but anyway we made a decision and decided to stick with it. At one point we almost quit but in the end we hired another guitarist, Leifur Björnsson, and me and Bogi Ágúst the bass player took up the singing. Bjarki ended up singing one song on Pí, “Los”. The lyrics in the title track, Return, on the new album tells that story in a way.
The main influences on that album were Queens of the Stone Age, The Eighties Matchbox B-line Disaster, Deftones, and Faith No More.
Ten years is a long time between the band’s first and second albums. What were you guys doing in the years between Pí and Return? What got you back together to record again?
We actually started writing and laying down the Return tracks in 2011 and then released “Zoology” which was supposed to be the first single of the new album. It worked pretty good. It got some attention on the radio and when we put on a show we had a good feeling about the new stuff. Then Leifur decided to quit the band and focus on other music he was working on. He felt he wasn’t able to contribute enough as he didn’t live in the same town as the rest of us and it was understandable. Then life took over a little bit and the spark we had faded away. I had few kids and all of us finished education and started our working carriers. We met a few times and “rehersed” to try to get it rolling again but the spark wasn’t there, not yet at least.
Then in early 2018 we decided to give it another try. We went straight into the studio this time and finished the album. We did not set any other goal other then to finish it. When it was done we found the spark again, played few shows where we saw lots of familiar faces as well as some new ones, and that felt really good.
Return is certainly recognizable as a Foreign Monkeys album, but it’s far from just being Pí Part 2. Musically it rocks harder, moving into metal territory at times, and the vocals, while still lo-fi, are much cleaner. What were the factors that helped shape the band’s current sound?
On Pí we had a producer, Magnús Øder of Benny Crespo’s Gang. Then we actually had some money to do the album as it was easier to raise funds when you had just won the Music Experiments. The new album we recorded ourselves in various locations, mostly with my studio gear. Then I mixed the album so it is as much of a Foreign Monkeys sounding album as possible. We also made some changes regarding how we had produced the vocals. I skipped the screaming I had done a lot of on the first album and sang more melodies while Bogi carried out more of the main vocals, which forced him to sing more melodies as well.
Pí was only available on CD, but this time around for Return you put out a limited edition vinyl release. Does the rapidly increasing popularity in vinyl offer opportunities for independent bands to generate more interest in their music?
In a market as small as Iceland that has moved away from the traditional CD releases to internet streaming of music it helps. Generally people like not only to listen to but also to “handle” the music, so to speak. There is always some information included in the artwork that hasn’t really found any good place in the streaming side of the industry in my opinion. It also becomes a process to listen to the vinyl. You might make a good cup of coffee or pour a flavorful IPA in a glass, put the album on and read through the artwork while you listen to the A side. Then you stand up to flip the record and listen to the rest. This is somehow nostalgic and you are treating the music with more respect. This is fashionable as-well. At least that is how I feel and seemingly so do many others as we have almost sold out the release. Our buyers and fans find it cool. Some of them didn’t even own a vinyl player when they bought the album, but have one now.
Any chance we’ll be seeing the Monkeys perform at Airwaves this year?
We have put in an application but most of the local bands won’t be announced until August. Hopefully we will be there. It’s been a long time since we played the festival. We have our fingers crossed.
Any up-and-coming Icelandic bands you’d like to recommend to our readers?
One of my favorites at the moment are Blóðmör. A classic powerful rock n’ roll trio who won the last Music Experiments. They just released an EP and are bringing around the hope that Icelandic rock isn’t only played by dinosaurs like us. Then our friends in Ottoman have released few singles and videos for an upcoming album. Fresh rock n’ roll. Then we like to mention Eldrún. The are bit heavier and darker. The have just released a promising album as well.
Return is not simply a continuation of Pí, though there are clear similarities in some of the riff structures and, to an extent, the vocals. It certainly isn’t a stretch to recognize this as being the same band. Stylistically it’s contemporary, just as Pí was a decade ago. Right from the opening fuzz of “Won’t Confess”, I’m hooked, a song that changes directions multiple times, announcing that this isn’t 2009s Foreign Monkeys. While the vocals remain filtered through layers of sandpaper and cheap booze, the slower lyrical pace of tracks like “Overrun” make it easier to understand the words and follow the thread. These are more mature Monkeys, more real, more honest in their sound.
“Omene” is probably the most familiar sounding track, one that would have been perfectly at home on Pí, but that’s mostly due to the chorus – the rest of the song is a bit gloomier and heavier than its predecessors. There are blues rock elements creeping into songs like “Hurricanes and Twisters”, while the fast tempo of “No Mistakes” borders on metal – there’s something on Return for just about everyone’s tastes. The guys definitely still know how to rock.
You can still order vinyl copies of Return from the band on their website HERE. It’s limited to 300 copies, and I don’t believe it’s available on CD – so if you want a physical copy, you’d better get on it. You can also stream it on Spotify HERE. As for me, I’m hoping the guys will get selected for Airwaves, because if they’ do you’ll probably find me right up front and center.
(♠) Normally my packages from Lucky make it here to Seattle in about 7-8 days. This time it was more like two weeks. Why? Well, it got routed through New York. Queens to be precise. Why? There are direct flights from Reykjavik to Seattle daily. I feel like that’s how prior shipments got here. C’mon USPS, let’s not make this more difficult than it needs to be.