Iceage Talks Brash, Jazzy 'Beyondless' & Denmark's 'Embarrassing' Treatment of Immigrants

Steve Gullick
Iceage

At one end of the of the narrow gallery and performance space that is Brooklyn’s Secret Project Robot, I’m backed up against a giant wooden ice cream cone, surrounded by other storybook-styled carvings—clouds, a giant mushroom—and flanked by two built-out wooden balconies. At the other end of the room, on a stage festooned with silver strips, one of the most unfailingly thrilling bands of the past decade holds forth. Iceage are back, after too long gone.

And on this, the final night of a four-show New York residency to showcase their audacious new album, Beyondless, it’s a tight squeeze for the Danes. Besides guitarist Johan Surrballe Wieth, bassist Jakob Tvilling Pless, drummer Dan Kjær Nielsen and perpetually brooding, charismatic frontman Elias Bender Rønnenfelt, there are added players crowded onto the small stage—a keyboardist and viola player, and a saxophonist—the better to do justice to Beyondless’ expansive new sound.

If Rønnenfelt has to scale back his usual serpentine performance on this night due to space, he’s as woozy, scabrous and captivating as ever, tearing through a set that’s heavy on new songs, with a sprinkling from earlier albums New Brigade, You’re Nothing and Plowing Into the Field of Love. Also in attendance at the venue is Sky Ferreira, the alt-pop star who surprised many last month by turning up on backing vocals on Iceage’s “Pain Killer,” a driving standout from Beyondless, and a track that opens with a Tusk-worthy fanfare of horns—another bold move from a band whose brash exploration only grows with each record.

It was on their last LP, 2014’s Plowing, that Rønnenfelt and his mates served notice that -- as gripping as their first two albums of feral punk were -- Iceage were more than a one-trick pony. Cow punk hoedown “The Lord’s Favorite” was a revelation—without question one of the breathtakingly great singles of that year and the sort of track that made you rethink everything you thought you knew about this band. After a several-years hiatus during which Rønnenfelt indulged his soul, free jazz and experimental pop impulses with second band Marching Church, Iceage’s own creative mojo returned, with more no-rules abandon than ever, doubling down on the strings, piano, trumpet, trombone and sax. The less an orthodox punk outfit Iceage become, the more punk they are. Beyondless might well be called Boundless. A rush of a record, Iceage’s fourth is Iceage’s best.

Rocket-fueled album opener “Hurrah” barrels through lyrics that are as close to political as Rønnenfelt gets, musing on our seemingly irrepressible love of war: “We can’t stop killing/ And we’ll never stop killing/ And we shouldn’t stop killing/ Hurrah,” he growls. The sacred and profane lie together—as they so often do for the singer—on the dramatic, cinematic “The Day The Music Dies.” “Performed an exorcism on myself/ Cited prayers and rites of deliverance” he declares, before concluding he’s “still possessed”—there’s piano, driving rhythms, tambourines (in fact, tambourines for every band member in the recently-released video for the song) and a wall of brass over which Rønnenfelt is “fondling the thighs of forfeit.”

The most unabashed fun on Beyondless can be found in “Thieves Like Us,” a rollicking, honky-tonk cousin of “The Lord’s Favorite,” complete with references to Stockholm Syndrome and “pre-Raphaelite scaffolds,” which stumbles into a drunken “Ah-ooo-ooo-hoo!!” coda. “Plead The Fifth” is similarly wobbly, and delves into artist-as-whore terrain, Rønnenfelt’s Jean Genet-like fascination with the seedy in full effect: “Line em up in the toilet stalls/ Open mouthed, backs against the walls/ STD’s on the tip of my tongue.” And so forth. Giving and taking are a subject of some preoccupation for the singer, on “Catch It,” “Take It All” and title track “Beyondless,” while the truly eccentric outlier is “Showtime,” which moves from sludgy rock to a bring-in-the trombones finish that’s best described as punk vaudeville. The idea that Iceage and jazz hands could ever cross paths tells you how far this emboldened band is willing to go these days. And Rønnenfelt isn't shy about poking fun at himself: “A bright young singer is the lead of the show” he sings in  “Showtime,” “He’s got that certain kind of je ne sais quoi.”

Indeed he does. And three days before the Secret Project Robot show, the man and his je ne sais quoi sit across from me in a booth at a hotel in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, pounding ice water—apparently it’s a morning for hydrating—and I’m reminded that he’s not big on idle chitchat. In a typical Iceage show, the most talk you likely get from Rønnenfelt is a song title. Anything more would likely strike him as phony, performer-y stuff in which he has no interest. Likewise, as I’ve discovered in past conversations, he’s not big on dissecting his own lyrics. In an essay about Iceage for the new album’s release, punk veteran Richard Hell writes of Rønnenfelt’s “contempt” for “people who try to understand him.” At the risk of riling that contempt, I tried. And sure enough, he would only go so far.

I last saw you with Marching Church maybe a little more than a year ago, and it seems like you went right into this Iceage record soon after that?

I definitely think we started working on this record after that last Marching Church record was finished. I don’t think I could work on two different records at the same time. But there’s never been a problem differentiating what goes where. But it’s something that sort of sneaks up upon you. We hadn’t been writing with Iceage for a while because the urge wasn’t there, and we would never want to force anything upon ourselves or on our listeners. But then in some sort of unexplainable way, something started brewing and ideas started coming and after a while we just knew that there was something happening, and it was something that felt invigorating, and something that wanted to get out. And then we just started getting loads of ideas, and not something that felt like old ground revisited, but something that felt like we were in the right sort of place to push ourselves onto something that we didn’t really know what it was. And that’s how we like it.

And you guys debuted a lot of the new songs at a show in Russia last summer, which took a lot of us by surprise.

Yeah we’ve never been a band that’s sort of tactical when we start playing new songs. When a song is finished we just start playing it. We can’t really rely on the older stuff, when you have something in your repertoire that excites you way more, then that’s what you play. And even when songs aren’t quite finished yet, we’ll play half of sketches of songs sometimes, cause that’s sometimes where the song sort of gets knocked into shape, by testing it live.

With the first Marching Church album you told me that you’ve always liked the idea of folding in jazz or orchestral elements into what you do. And there certainly seems to be even more of that now. There’s horns and piano all over this record. Were there any particular influences this time that sort of impacted the record?

I have my favorites that have always been there when it comes to the idea of marrying a rock band with these other elements, such as Serge Gainsbourg’s Histoire de Melody Nelson [1971], Scott Walker records, Love’s Forever Changes [1967]. I mean I’ve always really enjoyed the jazz and soul music in general. It’s something we’re all sort of into. And I think there’s something attractive in how it can be done so wrong! And that challenges you even more to do it right. It can sometimes be really appalling bringing those things together, I think.

With each successive record I think you sense that you guys feel this freedom to try something new and really explore. 

I think it’s just sort of one discovery leads on to the next. And you keep on taking liberties that maybe you didn’t see yourself being able to pull off earlier. And there’s always been something that’s quite attractive to me in seeing if you can pull something off. Like, risking failure.

You once called “The Lord’s Favorite”—which is so phenomenal—your “ridiculous country song.” And now you go in even wilder places, like “Showtime” which ends up as neo-vaudeville. Is that an example of something where you might feel like, “Am I possibly pushing this too far?

Well, that one is different in that it tells a sort of straight story from beginning to end and kind of plays around quite a bit as well. I just had this title, “Showtime,” and I thought, “Well what the hell could that be about?” you know? And I think I kind of read it chronologically, from beginning to end, just trying to describe about musical theatre at the start. And then the idea of the song ending with the singer offing himself on stage didn’t really appear to me until it rhymed with the previous sentence!

I feel like I keep coming across lyrically this idea of giving and taking throughout the record, like “You reel it in and then you catch it” in “Catch It” or the idea of being taken by another, or seizing one another, in “Take It All."

I don’t know, that’s interesting. I haven’t analyzed it that much myself, so I hadn’t thought of it. Maybe, I think there’s definitely a lot of catharsis and a lot of reverie in the lyrics, and the idea of being led by something, from the inside or the outside. And I think in general the way I write is something where there are always sort of dualities within a song, sort conflicting emotions pulling things back and forth.

The way you write has evolved so much from the first couple of records. Lyrically what you do is so much denser and even ornate now.

Well initially, I started writing lyrics because the songs had to have them. And then over time I discovered that it was something that I felt like I could do a lot with. And it was a process of really enjoying exploring and sort getting surprised by myself. And I think it was really over the last Iceage album [Plowing Into the Field Of Love] that I started having a real discovery that if I allowed myself to sort of really dive into it, there were worlds to be found.

With the last Iceage record you told me it was a more draining process than the first two. How would you compare this one to Plowing Into the Field…? Was it easier coming together? Less draining?

I wouldn’t say easy, but a guy I know who works in a tower in Copenhagen, he was kind enough to lend me the keys for a couple weeks. And I would go up there every night and work on the lyrics. I really enjoyed sitting in that tower. It was very silent up there, a circular room—just a desk, and a little staircase that had a little sort of balcony that seemed like you were gonna fall down it. And you could go look out the window and see the city at night, and—I just really enjoyed having that space. So even though sometimes you have to confront things in the process of writing lyrics that aren’t necessarily enjoyable, I really enjoyed the process. And of course there are times when you have to stare at a blank sheet of paper before anything comes out, but I really didn’t have to force anything. It spilled out pretty steadily really.

Anything you can say about “Pain Killer”? Obviously it’s a song that’s gotten a lot of attention recently, from those amazing horns that open it, to Sky’s voice on there, to the sort of addictive-love kind of lyric.

Yeah it’s just a desire-driven song about being drawn to a feeling that might not be good for you. And you can look at that whichever way you want. But it was sort of in the finishing stages of the writing of the song, I just thought that it would really add not only to the feeling of the song but also the meaning of the lyrics if there were two voices instead of one. And I just thought about who that might be and she was really the first one that came to mind. I could really see her doing something with that song and she agreed to do it.

Had you guys known each other in the past?

No, I really didn’t know her before that. And yeah, I think she ended up adding such a presence in the song and then really elevating the whole thing. I don’t think that anybody can really do what she does. She has such a presence. I think her approach was just exactly what I had hoped for.

Once again I notice here and there references to God, or at least somewhat spiritual imagery. And I wonder what—are you interested in religion or religious iconography? Is that of particular interest to you?

Yeah I mean like—I may not always be talking about religion when I’m talking about religion. It’s something that’s always been present from an early age.

Was your family religious?

My parents, no. My further family on one side was Catholic, so there was some of that. I went to a Christian school, with psalm singing every morning, and a lot of religious history teachings. So I don’t know if that has some part of it or not, it’s possible.

And then with “Hurrah” the whole idea of war and peace and “We can’t stop killing” and even “We shouldn’t stop killing…”

Yeah I mean the entire feel of the song, when it’s celebratory, it’s in a kind of mocking way—I hope that comes across!

No, it does!

Yeah, but it’s just about man’s sort of inept tendency to hurt your neighbor, whoever is your neighbor. Whether it’s the next city, or across borders then we will cross them and we’ve just been inclined to kill each other, since dawn. And I think it’s just something to be recognized.

Obviously we’ve been going through a hell of a time in this country for a couple of years now, but this ugly populist nationalism and xenophobia is creeping up in a lot of places.

Yeah well I mean in Denmark it’s really bad. We have a government that some of the ways of dealing with immigrants is so fucking disgusting that you can hardly fathom it. One thing is how they’ve been dealing with recent waves of immigrants, which has largely been a no-tolerance sort of thing, but also how they’re dealing with even people that were born in Denmark. They will try and make them feel like they’re sort of second-class citizens, and it’s hard to sort of get your head around how that’s possible. It’s fucking embarrassing.

For a while there you seemed full committed to Marching Church. Was there ever any doubt there would be another Iceage record?

I mean I like to think that I don’t commit to anything without doing it fully. So, you know—no there was never any doubt that there was gonna be another Iceage record because I knew that Plowing Into the Field of Love wasn’t the closure of what we had to say as a band. I didn’t know when, but I knew it was coming. And it came! But as for the future, there’s no way of knowing. You know—one step at a time. Although we definitely have ideas on where to take it next, I can’t think any further than the next step. I don’t think two or three steps ahead.

Iceage’s Beyondless is out May 4. The band begins a world tour May 2 in its hometown of Copenhagen.