It is a Monday, in March, in London, which means it is shit. I am sitting outside in the smoking area of a Hackney pub, at 3.20PM, and the weather is cold-ish in the way that only really happens at this time of year – not winter, not spring, just grey stillness. At this particular moment, I’m writing a name onto a notepad belonging to the musician Elias Bender Rønnenfelt, one of my companions on this weird purgatory of a day.
I spell it out in my spiky scrawl: “Wilfred Owen.”
Wilfred Owen was an English soldier in World War One, and he died in service at age 25. He is remembered today as one of that war’s great artists, and remains highly regarded for his ability to frame sour ugliness with edges of quiet beauty; for the gentle stroke with which he wrote squalor, his words a warm light shone on the curdling horror. Rønnenfelt, who fronts and writes lyrics for the Danish post-punk band Iceage, makes me think of Owen. At 26, he too has a knack for a descriptive turn of phrase and an artful sense of pessimism. To me, he feels a little like a spiritual descendant of this great soldier-poet.
I mention Owen during our conversation – which is about the band and their new album Beyondless, their guitarist Johan Surrballe Wieth also joining us – because I feel sure that he’s influenced the words to the album’s opener “Hurrah”. The song takes war for its subject matter, with Rønnenfelt’s lyrics wringing with his usual wryness (“Heading for last roundup / Hardware at hand / I was told to protect and serve / But I'm here to supply a demand”), and their resigned, nihilistic approach brings up some of the same feelings as Owen’s sonnet “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” wherein dead boys are compared to cattle, undignified and disposable.
When I put the comparison to him, he tells me that he’s never read any Owen, but is taken by the link anyway, and asks me to write down the poet’s name for his future perusal. It’s probably the best received of the many musical, artistic and literary references that I make over the course of our conversation. The two band members are, at best, ambivalent to parallels – things that give their project grounding, lenses through which I might glean knowledge about their motivations – and are instead, understandably, deeply interested in the restless, vital, visceral energy that floods their music, and which makes it feel unique as the output of a band of their size and following.
For the ten years that they have existed, Iceage have mostly resisted definition and categorisation. Generically they can be filed under ‘post-punk,’ but within that, they have barely taken any consistent form at all. Their move from the hardcore and noise inflections of their earliest output, to the almost country-style touches on their last full-length record, 2014’s Plowing Into the Field of Love, feels as natural and inevitable as the growth of a human. And now, on their upcoming fourth LP, the rock pastiche Beyondless, Rønnenfelt’s snarling narration takes the listener through what feels like the most realised experience of the band yet: as Daniel Stewart of the Australian garage punk band Total Control puts it in an essay accompanying my copy of the album, “They have finally caught up with their ambition.”
Because of all their shape-shifting, Iceage are better characterised by a feeling than they are by one genre: their music hums with a wordless, driving energy, and live, they are a brawl of a band – thinking about the times I’ve seen them play, I’m put in mind of a cartoon scrap, a forward-barrelling cloud from which only arms, legs, sweat, and rage are discernible when you’re at a distance. And for a band like this, it’s quite clear that stasis does not feel like an option.
“We’ve never been interested in stagnating or creating the same thing,” Wieth says when I suggest that Beyondless feels like a broadening of Iceage’s landscape. Rønnenfelt concurs: “I don’t think that we will ever really be able to settle,” he tells me. “It would be terrible if you felt like one day you wrote your magnum opus, and then you could just throw the towel in the ring like ‘I said what I had to say.’ It shifts and then hopefully we keep on moving.” I am struck by the notion that if Iceage did not keep on moving, then the band as we know it would cease to exist.
So, move they do. Beyondless is a giant album, its sonic scope looming tall above the band’s previous releases, and both Wieth and Rønnenfelt note that in terms of technology and resources, they had fewer “barriers and boundaries” this time, with a great deal of trust put in them by their label, Matador. Rønnenfelt adds that the band felt “a great sense of freedom” creatively, and it shows. Its most notable leap forward is the introduction of extra instrumentation on top of their usual setup, particularly horns and strings, which contribute to the record’s sheer largesse (observe the heft of the horn-heavy intro to the Sky Ferreira-featuring “Pain Killer" above, for example) and grow the band’s propensity for forcing opposites together.
A calling card of Rønnenfelt’s as a lyricist has always been his eagerness for juxtapositions – abstractness and specificity, beauty and ugliness. As early as the band’s first record New Brigade, say, on the track “Broken Ankle” (“Broken ankle / See the end following you”), he moves from physicality to existentialism in the time it takes to breathe between lines. As he puts it, Rønnenfelt is interested in facilitating a place “where grit and something pretty can form some sort of bond together,” and I wonder whether the added orchestration on Beyondless seems to have allowed this “bond” to creep from the lyrics into the music, where grandiose horns and sighing strings now war with the band’s usual guitar, bass, and drums, which always seems to have one foot in total chaos. Rønnenfelt agrees, telling me that these repeated clashes “create a space that I always felt to be a core of our music. And there’s something in the nature of our band that thrives in grey areas and contradictions, and that’s been elaborated more.”
Perhaps that quality comes a great deal from Rønnenfelt, who gives the band its voice and words. Sometimes, he himself feels a bit like a contradiction. On stage he is a windmill of limbs; in person, he shivers in the cold of the pub smoking area, pulling his enormous tweed coat tighter around his body. He is a striking, feline man who rarely breaks eye-contact, implying a level of directness, but at the same time he is delicate and considered. Frequently, he pauses for multiple seconds mid-sentence to conjure up the perfect word for what he wants to say to you, as if he were silently scanning his brain to find it.
The band’s lyrics, especially on Beyondless, reflect his apparent desire for exactitude, though it can feel less about providing clear meaning, and more to do with the mood the words evoke: “Catch It” is a stormy meditation on transience, and sleaze clings to the “toilet stalls” in “Plead the Fifth,” for example, but the rest is up to you. This feels pretty in keeping with Iceage’s general sense of never wanting to have their own fixed definition, and Rønnenfelt’s writing process seems focussed on making new meanings out of old ones. “A lot of the lyrical content is based around using notes that are written about different experiences throughout a wider span of time,” he says, “and sort of cutting them up and creating, not necessarily a new meaning, but clashing them together, and then they feed off each other.” He explains further: “So even though a song can be based in things that occurred, you can take reality and create some sort of enhanced reality where there are also moments that play with each other to create something new.”
Since starting out as teenagers, Iceage have thrived in a live setting. Initially, they had a reputation for being difficult and uncommunicative with the press – it was as though they said what they needed to on stage, rather than in conversations with journalists waving dictaphones in their faces. The intrigue surrounding the band, and their less-than-forthcoming approach, was facilitated by the growing wave of “mysterious guy” hardcore punk in the late 2000s, characterised by the US labels Youth Attack and a fledgling Sacred Bones, and bands like Sex Vid, Hoax, and Cult Ritual.
Iceage happened to fit in with them sonically at first, though soon grew outwards, metamorphosing over a number of years into who they currently are. And while I experience Wieth and Rønnenfelt as much more open interviewees, their affinity for expressing themselves best live continues. As Rønnenfelt puts it, “Live music or playing concerts is tremendously exciting for us. I really love that, and what you can do with it, and what you can sort of, continue to do with it. It never reaches a point of feeling tired out.” Wieth exhales cigarette smoke, nodding along in silent agreement.
This makes total sense. Of course this band, set apart by the raw energy they pulsate with, come alive in the moment – or even just in pursuit of it. Onstage, Rønnenfelt resembles a sort of drunk but highly magnetic cult leader, always on the cusp of either falling over or of a transcendent, out-of-body experience (usually both), growling low commands at the onlookers at his feet.When I ask about their hopes for playing Beyondless live, Wieth and Rønnenfelt speak to their both finding out what the new tracks they can achieve in a live setting, and aiming for something more overarching. “I think for us a great live concert is something that can transcend the sort of, generic feeling of a concert, and create some sort of compressed, immediate moment, where everything feels about the now,” says Rønnenfelt. “I can’t speak for the audience, but at least people onstage – that our names or the music hardly matters anymore, but it just becomes this immediate experience. Sometimes it can be like, a destructive embarrassment, but I think that has its place as long as it’s somehow honest, you know? I’d rather have a destructive embarrassment than–”
Wieth interjects: “An average concert.”
Mediocrity is the opposite of what the band are seeking – it’s obvious that they’d rather take total debasement than become anything akin to ‘reliable.’ “I find that walking off a stage, it doesn’t really matter if it was a positive or a negative sort of happening, but at least something got spilled out, and you were able to give out something,” Rønnenfelt tells me. “And that it felt like a worthwhile event. It’s nice when audience and band sort of submerge, and somehow goes into a whole.” He pauses one of his long pauses, a smile snaking its way across his face. “And then, sometimes it’ll just be like a rambling, sort of drunken brawl, and that can be OK too.”
Wieth concludes for him, sharing the smile: “As long as it doesn’t become another day at the office.”
Honestly, it feels almost impossible for Iceage to become anything of the sort: they are too mobile, too dynamic, and Beyondless, with its re-complicated sound, and its half-stories which invite projection into their gaps, is proof enough of that. Rønnenfelt sums up the band’s evolution to this point in an offhand comment he makes to me, pulling the coat tight around himself once again, looking – and, crucially, feeling – like an utter anomaly in this dull east London beer garden. “Everything, whether it’s the recording of an album or life lived, it’s a learning process. And each time you go through something like that it becomes a jumping board, to leap onto something else.”
And Iceage, I am sure, will never stop leaping.
Beyondless is due out on Friday 4 May via Matador.
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