Iceage on growing up: “The longer you live, the more nuance gets added to the palette”

The Danish punks' fifth album 'Seek Shelter' is their most diverse and complex yet. "We fire our guns less pointed in one single direction now," Elias Bender Rønnenfelt tells Mark Beaumont

“If you’re back at land, you start… itching,” says saturnine Iceage frontman Elias Bender Rønnenfelt, gazing into his Zoom screen with the thousand-yard stare of a landlocked mariner. “You start not really knowing how to cope with just being in a place. After two or three weeks you’d be like, ‘Where’s the next place that I’m going to?’. You had to take that cold turkey and learn how to exist just here in Copenhagen.”

He ruffles his hair into ever more stylishly unkempt angles, then reminds himself that he’s supposed to be appreciating the personal time, space and distance of being forced off a decade-long road for a year. “It’s the only time in the past 10 years that I’ve experienced being roughly static in a place,” he says. “And there’s been a few lessons in there.

“I’ve had a tendency in the past to, geographically, run away from things and that option has not been there, so you had to take a cold, hard stare at what’s in your immediate vicinity. The nature of getting something taken away from you is that you’re left with what you still have. So there’s been a lot of appreciation, I think, and some gratitude that was good for me to take away from this.”

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It’s a pertinent moment for Iceage to take a breath. 10 years ago, their raging debut ‘New Brigade’ detonated like a nail bomb in the Copenhagen underground – the sound of four nihilistic teenage punk malcontents lashing out cold and wild, in all directions at once, at everything and nothing. “An adolescent, reptilian sort of thing,” Elias self-reviews. “We pretty much hated everything that was going on around us. We couldn’t relate to anything in the mainstream, the indie world or the underground. Nothing really spoke to us. So subconsciously that’s why we set out to create it ourselves – we were doing it very much in spite of everything else. We wanted to be a thorn in the side of all that.”

Since then, via such sonic breakthroughs as 2014’s elegantly dank, lurid and expansive ‘Plowing Into The Field Of Love’, Iceage have matured into a sophisticated, multi-faceted band, as evidence by fifth album ‘Seek Shelter’, their most adventurous and exploratory record yet. “The longer you keep living, the more nuance gets added to the palette,” Elias muses. “You fire your guns is less pointed in one single direction. For something to be urgent or feel important to you, it’s more true to the variety of life if you’re not just frenetically pummelling in one direction.”

Rønnenfelt’s last major outside-world excursion took him to Lisbon’s leakiest studio in December 2019 with producer Pete ‘Sonic Boom’ Kember (once of Rugby alt-rockers Spacemen 3) – and his van full of bizarre instruments – to create the new album.

“It’s a ‘60s radio studio,” Elias says, recalling sessions where their instruments had to be protected from rain leaking through the ceilings, “in a neighbourhood just outside of the centre that’s just council estates from the ‘60s. Everything was dilapidated and falling apart a bit; it had a lot of cracks in there and I think that’s part of the reason why we chose it. I by no means want to make it sound like I’m slagging off the studio, but we definitely prefer atmosphere to functionality. When some things don’t quite work according to plan, you have to come up with off-the-cuff solutions, and that’s often where you find a space for spontaneity and that unforeseen magic to happen.”

Unforeseen magic indeed. ‘Seek Shelter’ is a suave yet sprawling beast of a record taking in twisted Clash gutter rock, evil tech funk, post-punk Americana, Velvets cult fuzz, haunted nightmare pop and vaudevillian Parisian chic. When it’s not emulating Primal Scream’s darkest, druggiest ‘90s albums, it’s desecrating grandiose string sections, gospel choirs and classic spirituals en route to new sonic pastures.

A solid seam of psychedelic drone rock tracing its way through the album suggests that Kember’s influence buried itself within Iceage’s permafrost. “Pete just has an extremely unique sensitivity on sound and sonics that is completely his own,” says Elias. “There’s a few people out there that just have some kind of imprint that belongs to nothing but them. But we by no means wanted a producer to go in and tell us what to do or lead the way as to what kind of record we were trying to make. We just wanted a partner in crime.”

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Kember did bring along one guitar haunted by rock history, though. “It’s the one he used for all the early Spacemen 3 recordings,” Elias says. “I think it’s from the ‘60s, and has these inbuilt effects… these delays and tremolos and things. I just strummed the guitar and in an instant I got a shower of shivers. All these recordings that have been following me from my teenage bedroom to now were inside this piece of wood. That was a wild Spacemen 3 moment.”

After a decade of growing into adulthood in each other’s pockets, Elias maintains that Iceage’s gang mentality has endured – “I don’t think there’s anybody else filling the gap that we stamped for ourselves and I do see us as outsiders to a certain degree” – but individual focusses have shifted and the band’s musical outlook has become “less singular”. Is that how they ended up with such a diverse album?

“It’s still kind of a mystery to us,” says Elias. “It’s very hard for me to have any decision in what comes out. You’re really just blindly trying to attach yourself to ideas, and you don’t really have anything but that thing that sits in your gut that tells you that this feels profound or like it has some sense of meaning to you. You’re working for the ideas, not the other way around… I continuously feel like there’s something to prove and that we’re standing some kind of ground but perhaps we’re a bit more developed in that line of thinking.”

Rather than crystallizing any sort of musical vision, Elias’s youth and young manhood spent trawling the depths of rock’n’roll in Iceage has rather made him appreciate his talent and good fortune.

“It’s been a multitude of things,” he says, “but I think the takeaway for me is that I’m quite impressed that when I dropped out of high school, I had nothing going on in my life. Suddenly we made a record that made it possible to go out and play pretty much anywhere. 10 years later I’m not only still doing this; I find it more interesting than ever. It’s not like I feel like I’ve arrived any place – it’s an ongoing pursuit that provides some sense of meaning, an anchor amidst all the other shenanigans that come with life.”

It’s those “other shenanigans” that draw up Elias’ guard. He’s developed a reputation over the years for being a difficult interviewee, criticising journalists to their face and rebuffing attempts to probe too deeply behind his stony countenance and abstruse lyricism. It’s perhaps the result of early years spent batting away accusations of right-wing sympathies within the group, due to their tattoos and badges of bands like Burzum and Death In June (who either flirted with neo-Nazi and white power imagery or literally went out murdering people) and Elias’ teenage drawings of masked fascists wielding knives.

With the weariness of years of repetition, he’s at pains today to point out: “I hope that it comes very clearly through that we’ve never had any right-wing leanings whatsoever – very much quite the contrary.”

But when it comes to delving into his lyrics – gleaned from his personal journals and written, as on 2018’s ‘Beyondless’, in a two-week isolation period in a friend’s work studio in a tower in central Copenhagen – for more personal revelations, his shutters come down as in a psychological bank raid.

What did he learn about himself from trawling his diaries from the past few years? “Nothing. I don’t think I learn anything in the process. You’re focused on the expression rather than the learning part. Looking back now, some truths seemed to reveal themselves within the fabric that you’re not really aware of as you’re creating. With time, once you’re not in whatever you’re trying to describe any more, you do get these like epiphanies, like, ‘This is what I was trying to tell myself’.”

“In terms of political mobility, the rise in the last year is probably the biggest since the ‘70s” – Elias Bender Rønnenfelt

Did he find struggles in there that he wanted to express? “Plenty, yeah. I lead a messy life at times so there’s plenty to take from.” A pause. “But I don’t know how juicy I want to get in, like, personal instances.”

‘High And Hurt’, gnarled and gruesome narco rock based around the line “you get high, you get hurt” – and a ragged repurposing of Christian hymn ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken?’ – could be read as a warning against drugs… “I don’t know about that,” Elias smirks. “It’s definitely not a warning or an advocate. It’s a song about being out there. Whatever you want.” And what about ‘Vendetta’, the electro-funk prowler that reads like a bus tour of Sin City, with its drugs, degeneracy and sex for sale? “Every city’s flooded with cocaine… This ain’t no place for a sightseer”: is that how he feels on tour?

“Crime is omnipresent,” Elias says. “You don’t have to scratch very much at any surface, in any community or environment to find that crime is never far away and crime is a thing that ties a lot of things together. That song is very much an impartial observation. I’ve always had a fascination with crime but it’s not so much that it’s good or bad – it’s just that it’s there; it’s part of reality.”

When talk turns to Iceage’s trademark religious imagery – which dots the album in tracks such as fuzz rocker ‘Dear Saint Cecelia’, named after the patron saint of art and poetry, and the album’s brilliantly spectral and dislocated closer ‘The Holding Hand’ – Elias is more forthcoming.

“It’s just a proclivity that I have,” he says. “I never really intend to bring that as an angle on things, but it seems that every damn time I sit down and write lyrics for an album, these analogies seem to bleed their way in there…. I have a need to express [myself] in a way that can reach for something more than just the immediate world – you remove the roof and reach further than what’s there right in front of you.”

Back down on Earth: in 2018 Elias told DIY magazine of Donald Trump’s Presidency and its divisiveness: “It’s a depressing thing to see, and it’s going to be interesting to see how much worse things might get before they get better.” What does make of how bad it got?

“It’s gotten a lot worse and it’s gotten a lot better,” he argues. “In terms of political mobility we’ve seen a rise the last year that’s probably the biggest since the ‘70s and I’m eager to see what comes from that. Obviously there’s a lot in the world that can make you feel powerless as to the general way of things, but it seems like a lot of people don’t stand for that.”

Iceage
Iceage Credit: Fryd Frydendahl

What did he make of Trump’s mob storming the Capitol? “That just seemed like the last embarrassing farce to put its dot to that last presidency. That became the physical embodiment of why that man was so dangerous.” A sign of the world becoming crueller? “I don’t know if the world has gotten cruel,” Elias insists. “It’s just that the chaos of things is more of a presence.”

And chaos is very much Iceage’s thing. Seek shelter.

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