Iceage Thaw Out
The great Danes on their new album Beyondless and fumbling towards inspiration
And lo, there came a time when deep up in Heaven, the sainted Lester Bangs plied God with enough cough syrup to be allowed to create the perfect rock band. And when Bangs heard Iceage’s 2011 debut, New Brigade, he smiled, for he knew that it was good. Iceage were henceforth known as the Lord’s Favorite. And boy, don’t they know it.
There’s always been a heightened, romantic quality to Iceage. A roving gang of record-collecting Copenhagen teenagers given to name-dropping the Stooges, the Velvet Underground, Serge Gainsbourg, and all the other stuff that critics wish The Kids actually listened to, with the hooks, cheekbones, and insane mosh pits to match? It was almost too good to be true.
But somehow this group managed to win an audience beyond critics and aging crustie types to become one of the most exciting groups of the decade. Iceage rode a strong wave of buzz when they made their debut appearance at a Stereogum- and Sacred Bones-hosted showcase in Brooklyn in 2011. After signing with Matador Records, they released the post-punk influenced You’re Nothing in 2013 and the textured, ornate Plowing Into The Field Of Love in 2014, proving they held allegiance to no one’s ideas about what punk could mean other than their own.
Along the way, they developed a reputation for being, perhaps, not the easiest of interview subjects. I’ve heard stories that in their early days, the group simply hung up on journalists. But reader, I have done the Difficult Indie Men hat-trick of Bradford Cox, Ariel Pink, and Stephin Merritt. I know well the junkets where angels fear to tread. And last week at Greenpoint’s Box Hotel, I found Iceage frontman Elias Bender Rønnenfelt, bassist Jakob Tvilling Pless, drummer Dan Kjær Nielsen, and guitarist Johan Wieth to be, if not always loquacious, then at least willing to discuss their new album Beyondless in full sentences. Mostly. The day after our chat in their hotel room, the group would play a mini residence of Brooklyn art galleries, clogged places with bad sightlines and vibe to spare, with the walls adorned with artwork the band commissioned from their friends, Bender Rønnenfelt wearing a floor length coat as the band tore through the new album in full, no encores.
Beyondless is another step forward for them. But while Iceage have in the past come off as just a bit chilly and brittle, here they’ve embraced a lush, dramatic grandeur, replete with swelling horns and strings, reminiscent of Nick Cave and PJ Harvey. The result is some of the most beautiful and most foreboding music they’ve done yet. Opener “Hurrah” and “The Day The Music Dies” show they can still do full-throttle, Cadillac-on-fire rampages when they please, but they’ve also learned when to embrace restraint just enough to let things build to an explosion.
“I think the whole time it’s been an attempt to express something strong,” Pless says of the change, “whether you do it by building it up or firing it away.”
While the band blanches at the use of the term “burned-out,” Surrballe Wieth admits Iceage were “mentally and physically exhausted after touring and recording nearly nonstop since 2011 and needed a break.”
“More than anything, we were not even ready to create a new album that was dignified, and we didn’t want to force anything. I think that could become very dangerous… we were just waiting for the moment where that creative urge came back,” Kjær Nielsen says. “I don’t think we ever stopped having that need to express ourselves, but in terms of the band and paying the respect to what it means to us, we only say something when we feel like we have something to say, even though it might be abstract.”
During their downtime, Bender Rønnenfelt and Wieth made two albums with Marching Church, their jazzy side project, while the other members took odd jobs, played in other bands, and let life take over for a while (Kjær Nielsen worked at a church and had a child).
Last year the group reconvened with longtime producer Nis Bysted at Kungsten Studios Göteberg and got to work, looking to expand the intricate arrangements they first explored on Plowing Into The Field Of Love. This required some rigorous self-editing.
“Some of the songs that we’ve discarded for this album were songs that felt too much like an Iceage song to us. We need to have a feeling that we’re pushing ourselves into something new. Feeling like you’re just treading in familiar ground, that’s a difficult place to be around,” Kjær Nielsen says, noting that the process of making the album “needs to be hard and critical, and you realize that if any of those songs would’ve made it onto this record, it would have been a watered-down entity.”
To keep their music as urgent as possible, Iceage previously had a tendency to avoid overdubs and give themselves a limited window of time to record. They eased up on that a little this time around, bringing in outside musicians for the brass and woodwinds and taking time to experiment more in the studio. But while they knew they needed to change their process, the band members insist they didn’t have any idea where they would end up, and that was the point. Though Bender Rønnenfelt does admit, “we didn’t want to make another fucking three-sided record again.” He smiles, a little.
“Yeah, but there’s no single-headed goal,” he elaborates. “It’s just sort of fumbling your way forward.” The album title proved to be a mission statement. Or not. When I asked if it was supposed to refer to the idea that the band refused to be limited by genre and aesthetic lines, he shrugged. “I mean, it could also suggest something that couldn’t go any further. It just doesn’t have a beyond. It’s a pretty rich word and an unexisting one. It comes from a Beckett novel, where he breaks apart and conjoins words in incorrect ways to make new meanings. What the word suggests is a meaning, even though it doesn’t exist in a dictionary.”
Bender Rønnenfelt is naturally cagey, prone to banging two remotes together while other people talk or getting up to use the bathroom unceremoniously. His interest in discussing what inspired his new album fluctuates, though sometimes you can catch his attention. I asked him if the galvanizing album opener “Hurrah” — which contains lyrics like “An abstract notion/ That I’m flagless at last/ I’m not fighting for a country/ I’m fighting to outlast” and the refrain “No, we can’t stop killing/ And we’ll never stop killing” — was inspired by the increasingly tense state of the world. “It is and is not,” he allows. “I think the feeling that the world around you creates will somehow be present.”
Like much of Europe, Denmark has seen the rise of nationalism and far-right political parties and an anti-immigration sentiment. “We’ve got a disgusting government these days and suggestions for laws that comes across as so baffling [you wonder] how any politician can even vocalize such things without getting impeached,” Tvilling Pless says.
“Oh, so it’s just like America,” I reply.
“Oh yeah,” Bender Rønnenfelt replies.
“Sometimes even more so,” Surrballe Wieth adds.
“On a personal level,” Tvilling Pless says, “you can’t open a newspaper without feeling very strongly about it and being affected by it.”
As a I start to ask a different question, Bender Rønnenfelt jumps in to clarify things a bit more. “But to add to that, the subject matter … in the world you continue living your life and it’s more informed by the general situations unique to us as individuals, rather than the feeling of opening a newspaper,” he says. “It’s something created today in this world, and it doesn’t address news stories directly, but it’s the circumstances it’s created under. That stuff comes into you and might leave traces.”
If Iceage are, in their own way, looking at the outside world, they’re also opening up in other ways on Beyondless. On the second Marching Church album Bender Rønnenfelt sang of being “fist-fucked by destiny” — and Plowing Into The Field Of Love highlight “The Lord’s Favorite” and its attendant video could certainly be seen as the group winking at their glamorous-brats reputation. Here, “Plead The Fifth” has lines about “STDs on the tip of my tongue,” and on “Thieves Like Us” he mentions he has “the brains of a blow-up doll.”
“Yeah, at times there’s definitely humor. Definitely how we compose and how I write,” Bender Rønnenfelt says. “Sometimes, when you’re sitting and working on something and your brain would conjure up something, you’d be like, ‘Aw, that’s real stupid. I kinda wanna leave it in there and see if it can pull it off.'”
“Is that your way of saying ‘I know people think we’re a very serious art band, but we have a sense of humor about it?'” I ask him. “Because on the last album, ‘The Lord’s Favorite’ seemed like you were taking the piss out of rock star party mythology.”
He makes a minute shrug. “Sure.”
Iceage were once an outlet for rage and contempt. But in addition to embracing a bit of irony, they’ve also started crafting their version of love songs. In its own gnashing way, “Catch It” is the closest they’ve come yet to a song of devotion. Bender Rønnenfelt admits this isn’t something they could have done seven years ago. But it’s not so much him opening up his heart as being open, period.
“Nothing is left to coincidence, you understand. It’s all intentional, but when you’re creating musical ideas, they are coming in the dark, you don’t exactly know where the ideas is taking you, but you follow your inspiration and it sort of limps away,” he says. “And when you get a more firm grip on what it is you’re doing, you start molding it in ways that feel right. And to me, it’s always been a magical thing how the ideas seem to form themselves, and suddenly you’re left with something in front of you that wasn’t there before. That’s a mysterious thing where that comes from, but it’s great when you feel you sort of channeled something that came from somewhere.”
Bender Rønnenfelt says they “never wanted anybody to ‘produce’ us,” and they continually work with Bysted because they have a non-technical shorthand, and can hum or tell him things like “make it sound like a motorcycle” and he’ll know what they mean.
Iceage has been a tight-knit gang with little use for outsiders since they all met when they were “11 or 12,” though Bender Rønnenfelt and Kjær Nielsen have known each other since they were 5. They bonded over Kiss, David Bowie, and the Stooges, and would scour record stores and guides together. “We all had a real lust to find out what kind of music existed out there and we were always digging, always showing each other our discoveries,” Bender Rønnenfelt says. “So we have a really linear togetherness in how we grew up to understand music.”
They used to bring back suitcases full of records back home from their early tours, and still turn each other onto to discoveries, such as the “funky gospel music” Bender Rønnenfelt been into lately. They formed the band when they were all 15 to 16, and after playing their hometown every weekend, they hit the states three years later. “I don’t think we imagined necessarily being heard by anyone outside of Copenhagen,” he says. “But we also had not much going on in our lives; essentially we had nothing to lose.” By that point, he had already dropped out and everyone was fully committed. “I had no interest in school. I didn’t like it,” he said. “You can be well read, intelligent, or smart in a lot of different ways.”
Though Surrballe Wieth says they were “definitely wholly confident way before anybody liked our band,” they all admit they were surprised that anyone came to their first American show at all, and that their early MP3s had attracted a gang of music industry buzz-seekers and record executives. “It was humbling that people could identify with it, but we remained pretty skeptical to the whole hysteria to it,” Tvilling Pless says. “We didn’t want to fall prey to that whole hype. I think when a band starts believing in their own hype, then that’s an early stage of implosion.”
They sidestepped all the early potholes and have continued apace. They still navigate their careers with considerable ease, and will launch a lengthy tour this year with just enough breaks baked in to keep them sane, but just rigorous enough to live up to their relentless reputation.
“I guess you continue doing it and discover that this sort of size you’ve developed is an ongoing thing that kept on feeding you with personal discovery and that it was something that feels like it can take you into a lot of places and feels gratifying,” Bender Rønnenfelt. “So we just never saw any reason to stop.”
“Do you think that the fact that you guys don’t live in America helps you not get caught up in our weird hype machine?,” I ask.
“Nah.” He smirks one last time. “I don’t think America has the ability to corrupt us.”
Beyondless is out 5/4 on Matador. Pre-order it here.