Q&A: Iceage On Snakes In The Music Business, Violence At Shows, And Plowing Into The Field Of Love
Iceage are currently trekking across the United States (and a bit of Canada) in support of their excellent new album, Plowing Into the Field of Love. The album, the band’s third, shows them moving away from the brutish punk pummel of their first two albums and expanding their sonic palette to include things like mandolins, violas, and discernible lyrics. Even though Plowing isn’t necessarily a feel-good record (or even a pop record, as some have called it), it does feel like a deliberate step forward for the band and a move toward a kind of more accessible songwriting. Tracks like “Abundant Living” and “The Lord’s Favorite” have more in common with old school country music than hardcore, and Iceage’s videos flirt with a kind of ambiguous sexuality and, dare it be said, amorousness that would have been hard to imagine if you’d seen the band play live a couple of years ago. And while there was definitely something to be said for the punishing nature of New Brigade, there’s something equally compelling about frontman Elias Bender Rønnenfelt stepping out of the shadows and commanding the listener to, “Come here and be gorgeous for me now.”
Having interviewed the band multiple times, it’s interesting to see the ways they have grown up (or, at least, grown more comfortable) over the past five years. Whereas once it was hard to get anything more than a one-word response from any one band member, the foursome now seem slightly more relaxed and open to discussing what it is they do together. I had the opportunity to sit down with the entire band (fresh off a plane from Copenhagen) last week in NYC. Their only complaint was that no one would let them smoke inside the building.
STEREOGUM: I first saw you play in Copenhagen back in 2011, just before New Brigade was about to come out. I was doing a story for a magazine and I came to your show with a brand new camera to take some pictures. You walked on stage and less than two seconds after you started playing someone threw a full beer into my face and my camera got smashed onto the ground. That being said, it was still a good show! The last time I spoke to you was just before the release of You’re Nothing last year. At that time, you mentioned that you were already deep into recording the next record, which would be this new one. Is that how it usually works for you guys? You finishing something and then it’s immediately on to the next thing?
ELIAS BENDER RØNNENFELT: Yes, that’s often the case … but not this time. We were pretty creatively drained by the time we finished this one, so we haven’t started writing any new songs yet. It’s a bit unusual for us.
STEREOGUM: What made the experience of making this record so draining? Did you work differently than you have in the past?
JAKOB TVILLING PLESS: We started writing songs immediately after we finished the last record, some of which made it onto this new one. Most of the songs were written over the course of a year though, with a few being finished just before we went into the studio.
RØNNENFELT: The lyrics were a bit different this time around as they were all written in the span of about two weeks, rather than being written across the span of the year. I tried to change things a little, create a bit more of a narrative in the songs. As for the studio, we heard about this place in Northern Sweden in the middle of the forest that some hippie in the ’70s had created in order to make psychedelic music or something like that. He still lives up there. So we drove all the way up there and stayed in this old wooden house that used to be a school. There was a little town next to it with a church and a bunch of inbred-looking Swedish people who looked like they wanted to kill and eat us or something.
STEREOGUM: Sounds like my kind of town.
RØNNENFELT: We specifically booked too little time there so we could create some sense of urgency about finishing things. There wasn’t time for us to be sitting on our asses. It was more like we didn’t have time to even sleep, we had to be working constantly or we would have run out of time. So the recording process was pretty intense as a result.
STEREOGUM: There are a lot more kinds of sounds on this record as well — pianos, mandolin, viola, organs. Did adding that stuff to the mix make things more complicated?
JOHAN SURRBALLE WIETH: It actually came quite naturally.
RØNNENFELT: We had the songs pretty much worked out ahead of time, so we knew where everything needed to go. It kind of felt like the songs just sort of asked for whatever extra thing they needed. It felt very natural. It was never like we were sitting around and trying to figure out what extra thing we could add to the music.
STEREOGUM: Over the weekend I listened to all three Iceage records in a row, which was interesting. People have made such a big deal about the direction of this new record, but I think it sounds like a pretty natural progression. Was there ever any conversation among the four of you about needing to change things up somehow this time around?
PLESS: We actually never talk about that kind of stuff. I don’t think it happened entirely by chance, but we never really discuss it.
WIETH: We’ve all been playing together for so long now that we kind of just follow each other’s lead without having to talk about it much. There is some kind of transcendent thing that happens, mostly because we’ve all known each other for so long.
RØNNENFELT: Good ideas don’t really come that often or that easily, so you kind of have to just embrace those twelve or so good ones that you have throughout the year and hope that you can get them onto the record.
STEREOGUM: How long have you all known each other?
DAN KJÆR NIELSEN: Some of us have known each other for … sixteen years? We’ve all known each other for at least ten years.
STEREOGUM: Most of your lives, basically.
STEREOGUM: The lyrics for this record are not only more discernible — placed up front and center in the mix — but they are much more direct as well. Was that important to you this time?
RØNNENFELT: Yeah. I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the lyrics on the first two records as a whole. There were bits and pieces that I liked, but I didn’t think it all really held together that well. So I tried to keep notebooks this time…and then I borrowed a friend’s apartment in Berlin in January and then wrote the whole thing in one go. I think the lyrics make sense together for this record — it’s better than before.
STEREOGUM: There was such a huge amount of attention aimed at you after the release of your first record. I know you went from playing pretty small punk shows in Copenhagen to suddenly touring the world and playing much bigger venues. Was all that attention weird for you? How did you deal with it?
PLESS: I think we are pretty good at adapting to whatever situation we are placed in, and we’re not easily impressed by things, perhaps. We never had any dreams to become well known, it just kind of happened.
RØNNENFELT: It wasn’t like we were thinking, “We’ve finally made it, now let’s go show them what we can do!” It was more like we were just four bored teenagers and it was cool that someone wanted us to come to the States and play shows. It meant that we didn’t have to find something else to do with ourselves. We became pretty disillusioned with all of it very fast — all the fans and the press and the snakes in the music business. Everybody loves you, and then everybody has it in for you for some reason. We generally have pretty good noses though; we can sniff out the bad people pretty quickly.
NIELSEN: We hated New York when we first came here. There was so much hype around those first shows and it was like everybody wanted to buy you a drink — and then you realized that everybody was working for someone, everybody wanted something.
PLESS: People couldn’t wait to tell you who they worked for.
RØNNENFELT: It always felt like you had fifteen different hands pulling you in different directions. After that we became very mistrusting and didn’t really talk to people as much. Eventually we made some really good friends here, but it took a while.
STEREOGUM: Maybe it’s better to err on the side of mistrust. I have seen so many young bands — so many of my friends, actually — get really mind-fucked by this business. It can be so weird. Did any of that experience — the crazy touring and press for those first two records — eventually filter in to what Plowing Into The Field of Love became about? The record seems to vacillate between moments of euphoria and total despair.
RØNNENFELT: I don’t know. Touring in general isn’t very inspiring.
WIETH: What was happening around us — in our own lives — influenced the record, but it wasn’t about touring or about the band, really. It just happened that we were touring a lot during that time.
RØNNENFELT: I hardly ever write anything on tour. It’s very hard.
STEREOGUM: There is a saying among older bands that when you find yourself writings songs about life on the road, it’s time to get off the road.
RØNNENFELT: “On The Road Again” is a pretty good song, though.
STEREOGUM: One of the most exciting things about seeing you play — especially early on — was that the shows were so wild. I mean, aside from getting my camera smashed, seeing you play that tiny club show in Copenhagen was really exhilarating. There was this very genuine and borderline out-of-control energy about it. Still, I wondered if that also could wear on your after a while. Not just the feeling of being on the receiving end of that all the time, but dealing with the expectation that the shows had to always be this crazy thing. Did you ever feel like maybe the kids turning up at the shows weren’t really hearing the music?
PLESS: A lot of people would show up expecting to mosh and go wild and then, as our music started to change and maybe become a little complex, you’d see people who would start to mosh at the beginning of the show and then stop, as if they were confused by what we were doing. Some people show up with certain expectations of it being something it isn’t anymore.
WIETH: It’s interesting to see. As the music becomes more dynamic and more complicated, you see people who come to the show to mosh and they still try really hard…but it just makes no sense. You see the confusion on their faces sometimes. There is this weird disappointment sometimes. It’s like, “Oh, I guess I should actually watch the band and maybe listen to the music,” instead of just, you know, trying to knock other people down or something.
RØNNENFELT: I’ve been really annoyed by it for a long time now. People would talk about us like we were a hardcore band, which I never understood. And then you’d see people coming to shows and doing all of those kind of generic hardcore moves — like, hardcore dance moves — which I found kind of insulting. I don’t want to be playing for people who are there just to go through the motions. People may very well be moved to start beating each other up, but it should be inspired by the music. We played the States last May and we only played new songs — the crowd didn’t know any of them — and you could see the people who were actually there to investigate the music. The people who showed up just to go through the motions — the ones looking for an excuse to go somewhere and mosh and be violent — would make a couple of vague attempts and then just look really disappointed.
WIETH: I always found it a bit awkward to watch, to be honest. Even at our earliest shows it sometimes seemed that the people behaved that way because they thought that’s what they were supposed to be doing, like an approximation of what they thought a punk show was supposed to be like.
STEREOGUM: And what is it like to be on the receiving end of that kind of energy from the crowd?
PLESS: I don’t know. It doesn’t necessarily feel like you are receiving anything, but more like you are giving something.
RØNNENFELT: You want to just lose yourself. You want to forget that you’re on a stage and just lose yourself in the music. If there’s a lot of motion — a lot of things flying around — it can kind of help you do that. It can be a real catharsis. I’m not against movement at shows, I just don’t like when it feels forced.
STEREOGUM: How does it feel to be playing these new songs?
PLESS: It feels really good.
WIETH: We’re a much better live band now than we used to be. We’ve always been pretty good at playing together…
NIELSEN: Ahhhhh, I don’t know….
PLESS: I’d say that three years ago we were a shit live band about 50 percent of the time…
RØNNENFELT: And now maybe we’re a shit live band only 10 percent of the time.
PLESS: We know each other so much better now. And it’s a lot more exciting to play these new songs where there’s a lot more stuff happening in the music.
RØNNENFELT: It’s not just the same old 1-2-3-4 aggressive thing. There’s a lot more drama to it now. You can create a much different kind of experience.
STEREOGUM: Have you been surprised by the reaction to the new record?
RØNNENFELT: Journalists are always very interested in asking us about what other people seem to think about the record. We don’t care that much. Its kind of interesting that it has split the waters that much — there are people who like it and there are people who really hate it — but it doesn’t matter. We feel like the record is immense. We felt like we had won when we finished this record. That’s all that matters.
WIETH: Our own expectations were the highest and I feel like they were fully met.
Plowing Into The Field of Love is out now on Matador.