Talking About Knives and Fascism with Iceage
Sitting down with Iceage's Johan Surrballe Wieth and Jakob Tvilling Pless, it became clear that they're neither McLaren-esque media manipulators or closeted white supremacists—just a group of talented musicians who don't see the need to engage in...
Iceage appeared seemingly out of nowhere in 2011 with a flurry of ferocious, melodic anthems that skirt the line between making you want to windmill round your office punching your co-workers in the face and inspiring you to pick up a copy of Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me and get all introspective and schmaltzy. They're Joy Division had Ian MacKaye replaced Ian Curtis and demanded that Bernard Sumner destroy his collection of synthesizers.
The band's first album, New Brigade, started as an initial 500-print run intended for their local Danish scene and quickly morphed into a record that drew acclaim and recognition from all over the world. Since then, they've done a whole load of international touring and put out a sophomore album, You're Nothing, on Matador, which sees them straying slightly from the traditional touchstone of hardcore and courting 60s Italian pop ballads and piano lines.
However, despite their musical success, they've been dogged by consistent criticism and controversy, much of which focuses on the group's alleged use of fascist aesthetics—an obsession with runes and a video where they wear KKK-like hoods and set things on fire. Mind you, it’s the sort of provocation plenty of other punk groups have utilized, and the point needs to be made that there's a clear distinction between appropriating the aesthetics of fascism and actually being a jack-booted bigot yourself.
Something else that got them into a bit of trouble was the time they started selling branded knives as merchandise at gigs, which—whichever way you cut it—isn't the wisest or most responsible thing to do. But sitting down with Johan Surrballe Wieth and Jakob Tvilling Pless—guitarist and bassist, respectively—it became clear that they're neither McLaren-esque media manipulators or closeted white supremacists, just a group of talented, young musicians with a fine taste in music who don't see the need to engage in a great deal of critical self-reflection.
"Ecstasy" off Iceage's new album You're Nothing.
VICE: So how did the new album come together? How was the writing and recording process?
Jakob Tvilling Pless: It’s been long.
Johan Surrballe Wieth: We started writing just a couple of days after we recorded the first album, all the way up until a day before we had to record the new one.
Would you say your recording process has changed, or do you feel like you’ve developed?
Jakob: Developed in the sense that I think we all know much more how we wanted things to sound, and how we wanted everything to be.
Johan: And we were all more into making it. I don’t know how to explain, but we were more focused on doing it well. In some ways we’re more mature.
Do you feel like your influences have changed at all?
Johan: They’ve become broader.
Johan: There’s nothing specific that we listen to—everything is really broad.
Jakob: In the car on this trip, we’ve been mostly listening to classic rock and electronic music, and some country and stuff.
Johan: And a small bit of hip-hop.
Your sound is often described as post-punk. Are there any specific post-punk groups that have influenced you?
Johan: I think we’ve turned away from all the traditional classic post-punk stuff. I still listen to it, but it’s definitely not where I draw my influences from in writing music.
What's the state of the Denmark punk scene that you came out of right now? Has there been more attention after your success?
Jakob: There's been a lot of attention around our group of friends, yeah.
Johan: They appreciate the attention, but it’s not absolutely necessary for the bands to do what they want to do. You can do it yourself.
An Iceage knife.
What is the story behind the Iceage branded knives you were selling?
Johan: [Laughs] It’s amazing what a crazy big thing these knives have become. It was just an idea our friend in the US had that would just be a strange merch thing to do. And we were like, "Yeah, that sounds like fun."
You weren't slightly concerned that somebody might get stabbed or an accident might happen?
Johan: Yeah. But if someone stabs someone, I don't think they're doing it spontaneously. They're not just spontaneously going to stab someone with an Iceage knife.
Jakob: Also, those knives are really small. If I wanted to stab somebody, I’d probably use another knife.
Johan: You could still stab a person with it, but it’s not like you can’t get knives anywhere else.
But doesn't it concern you to be associated with weapons?
Johan: I didn’t see it as a weapon. I don’t know, I can see the stupidity of doing it; it is in some ways kind of idiotic. But we haven’t sold many of them, and we didn’t make a lot of them.
Assuming somebody was stabbed, even if you have faith that your audience wouldn’t do that, wouldn't you admit that it’s risky?
Johan: Yeah, but then I would also say that any fan of ours could take another knife that didn’t have our logo on it and stab someone. Are you referring to a situation where someone has bought one of our knives and all of a sudden thinks it’s a good idea to stab someone?
I’m saying hypothetically it could happen. There are gigs where people get stabbed. There was a Swedish House Mafia gig where three people got stabbed. I’m just saying, it’s a possibility.
Johan: Yeah, that’s true. I just think selling knives motivates people to stab other people. A lot of other stuff motivates people into stabbing people.
Are the laws on knife ownership in Denmark quite strict?
Johan: We don’t sell them in Denmark.
Is that part of the appeal?
Johan: I think you’re putting a lot of thought into the fact we sold these knives. We did it because it seemed like a stupid thing to do. There’s not really an appeal to it, I guess.
I just think it’s worth reflecting on these things.
Jakob: We didn’t reflect that much about it. Our friend was just like, “Hey, do you want me to make these knives for you?” And we were like, "Yeah, that’s a great idea." If someone is going to stab someone, that person is fucked up, and it’s not the knife's fault.
Johan: People are dangerous.
That's a good argument. Do you like to provoke people?
Johan: I like getting emotions out of people, but I don’t necessarily need to provoke anyone into feeling offended or sad or angry. I like to make people feel something, but not necessarily bad. Happiness would be nice as well.
Are you interested in politics?
Would you say you have any political views?
Johan: Well, I consider myself to be left wing as a private person. But it has nothing to do with my music.
Would you ever consider expressing political elements in music?
Johan: No, never in music.
What would you say to the allegations that you flirt with right-wing imagery as a band?
Johan: I would say that it's ridiculous. And hopefully we can get over those allegations with this new record.
Im not saying that you're right wing or facist, but could you not see how some of your imagery could be construed as right wing?
Johan: Mention one thing.
In the video for "New Brigade." you’re wearing pointed hoods and lighting things on fire, which resembles the Ku Klux Klan. I’m not judging, I’m just saying that it could be an aesthetic choice.
Jakob: It wasn’t intended that way.
Johan: It was just for the sake of looking like a cartoon. It wasn’t intended to make people offended or make it seem like KKK or any association with racist organizations.
Jakob: It's more about being a fuck and going to the park and setting things on fire.
Johan: It doesn’t mean anything, you know? It’s just pictures we put together of stupid things.
But you could argue that all images have some sort of meaning.
Johan: You'd say that?
I’d say that. Not to say that you’re right wing, but a lot of other bands have used the same imagery. I’m just wondering if it was a conscious decision to explore those aesthetics.
Jakob: If people get the impression that we're right wing, then that's unfortunate.
Johan: It’s interesting what you say about symbols holding a great meaning, and it's strange how different people interpret different things. It's important to take the power away from symbols.
Jakob: Also, I don’t want to explain that I'm not right wing. If people claim that I’m a Nazi, then it’s them who are the judgemental ones, not me.
Could you not see how there could be ambiguity? For example, allegedly there were fans making Nazi salutes at one of your gigs?
Jakob: No, that was also wrong.
Johan: There was one guy who we know, and he's not a Nazi. He’s…
Johan: No, the gentleman you are referring to is an alcoholic, and he’s nice, but he's a sad man. He’s not a Nazi, he’s not right wing, he's just an idiot. And he's always drunk. He shouldn’t be doing stuff like that.
Jakob: But we didn’t play when he did that, it just occurred during the night.
How much longer do you see yourselves going for?
Johan: It’s very hard to say. Until it’s not fun anymore.
Is it still fun now?
Jakob: Yeah, of course, otherwise we wouldn’t be here.
What would you say Iceage are about?
Johan: It’s about four friends playing music.
Jakob: It’s about friendship and enjoying it.
Johan: For a very long time.
Cool. Thanks, guys.
Follow James on Twitter: @JamesUbaghs
Here are some more times we've spoken to musicians we like: