INTERVIEW

Iceage are no fans of giving interviews. Fearing the worst, Peter Yeung traveled to Paris to meet the Danish band that seem so at odds with promoting their records. He found the experience pleasantly surprising

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A scorching September afternoon in Paris – in itself an ominous meteorological oddity – turned out to be the first of several surprises that occurred during my encounter with controversial Danish quartet Iceage. The genre-resistant, post-hardcore-cum-no wave band have a fearsome reputation for becoming rapidly vexed and belligerent during interviews: a past exchange with Pitchfork lasted all of three minutes. The fact that the group’s PR coterie advises me to turn up liberally early only stokes my concerns of a traumatising ordeal.

As it was, I emerge out of the metro in Belleville, a neighbourhood characterised by its working class and immigrant underpinnings, to unusual hubbub. Not only is there the bustle of la rentrée, the frenzied French post-holiday return, but it also turns out to be La Fête de la Lune, with many of the local Chinese population attempting to flog me small moon-shaped pastries. Even so, for all this cosmic goodwill, I can’t help but conjure up images of hapless journalists ruthlessly discarded along the boulevards en route. However, by the time I arrive at Matador’s French offices – based in an ex-1930s tennis kit factory – I’m ready to play hardball.

Two skinny, shabby-chic figures shuffle in and take seat. They are frontman Elias Bender Rønnenfelt and drummer Dan Kjær Nielsen. Even for young skin, they look well-worn. Where are your other half, I ask. “I think the label are trying to spare some money and only took two. An economy visit,” volleys back frontman Rønnenfelt, in typically cynical style. I sense tension.

How does the relationship with Matador work?

“They come with suggestions, but they don’t have a say in anything. I think we had a bit of a hard time last time with those guys. But they’re more aware of who we are, and we’re more aware of ways around it.”

These don’t appear to be the seeds of a solid relationship, I suggest.

“Let’s just not talk about it. I don’t want to talk any more bad things about them in interviews.” So, we move on.

The upcoming ‘Plowing Into The Field of Love’ is Iceage’s third LP – and second album with Matadorfollowing 2011’s pulsating energy-bomb ‘New Brigade’ and 2013’s tar-black, dirt-punk sophomore ‘You’re Nothing’. This latest instalment sees the band keep their gritty, volatile, self-produced edge, but now the songwriting is more spacious and considered (as well as the piano, the mandolin, viola, and organ have been added to the band’s repertoire). “The songs we were writing back then didn’t have space to add anything,” explains Rønnenfelt. “We had conversations about where we wanted to take our music: something more open, so there was room for other elements. But we always had the desire to add other things to the songwriting.”

‘Plowing Into The Field of Love’ is twice the length of its predecessors: 48 minutes, compared to 24 minutes and 29 minutes respectively (“When you’re listening [the length] makes perfect sense” pipes up Nielsen, on a rare interjection), perhaps thanks to their choice of location. “We heard about this old hippy guy that bought an old red wooden house in a Swedish forest back in the ’70s, built a studio and has been living out there. During recording, he came over and we cooked food for him sometimes. He would tell us how he used to record – how it used to be.” Compared to ‘New Brigade’, which was recorded in a city, the temptations and distractions of life were minimal. “[In the past] we’d book recording time, and then maybe someone’s hungover and doesn’t show up, so we’d have to record a song without them,” says Rønnenfelt.

The band have only recently made it into their third decade, aged either 21 or 22, and yet there is a tangible maturity (and cynicism) to Iceage’s demeanour, especially when compared to their emergence as limb-swinging teens. Rønnenfelt once spoke about the progression of each Iceage album as like a flower gradually opening on its way to full bloom. How would he describe the state of the flower with this album? “It’s just a metaphor,” he states, dodging the self-evaluation. Instead, he offers a rather cryptic tale: “I have heard that there is some secret room in the botanical gardens in Copenhagen, where there’s an Iceage flower. I haven’t seen it.” What sort? “I hear it’s a big, big voluptuous red one.”

Rønnenfelt’s atypical, gnomic lyrics are a prominent feature once again on ‘Plowing into The Field of Love’. ‘You’re Nothing’ was supposedly in part inspired by readings of transgressive French novelists Georges Bataille and Jean Genet, and on the latest album we hear of disenchantment, inner turmoil, alienation; even mythological people who lived in perpetual darkness. “I don’t care whose house is on fire / As long as I can warm myself at the blaze / Of burning furnish, cherished photographs / Unrelated hell” chimes the vocalist on the opening track, ‘On My Fingers’. A more mature sound, perhaps, but Iceage’s nihilistic streak remains.

There are flashes of vulnerability, too. “You’re probably the only one, though it is hard to admit / That can save me / And I never liked to ask for a helping hand / But I do now” read the first lines of incongruously upbeat track ‘The Lord’s Favourite’. The song is not a million miles away from the sloppy virtuosity of – whisper it – The Libertines’ indie ballads. But topics take a darker turn as the album progresses: ‘Forever’ speaks of a nihilistic self. “It’s not so much about actual split personality, which is something I’ve been going into on a bunch of songs,” elaborates Rønnenfelt, “it’s about how you can achieve these periods or moments of clarity, when the world has such meaning and bliss to it. Then there’s the other one where everything is a bit meaningless and it is hard to find a purpose to it with life in general. It’s about acknowledging that, and it’s written from the latter perspective, longing to get back to that. But it’s such an impossibility, because you can never calculate or project yourself into a state of lucidity.”

It’s about this point that the band offer me a beer, after consuming a few during our discussion already, and I feel it would be impolite – neigh, unprofessional – to decline their gesture of hospitality. “I don’t care. We didn’t pay for it,” the pair assuage my hesitation. The thing is, Iceage’s reputation as a sadistic group of hellraisers is far from the truth. The only time that Rønnenfelt bristles during the interview is when discussing genrification and generalisation: “I’ve always preferred if people could keep ‘punk’ as a term out of the conversation with regards to our band.”

The rest of the time he is eloquent, even gregarious, taking considerable pauses to locate the correct response, as if a librarian searching through his bookshelves. Meanwhile, Nielsen is leg-fidgetingly eager to contribute though somewhat laconic. It doesn’t seem to all add up: it can’t be a performance, they seem too open; too bluntly honest. So what do they make of this daunting reputation that precedes them? “I find it really hard to put myself in the mind of the listener. I’m way too attached to the things I hear from an objective mindset,” professes Rønnenfelt.

Iceage’s thrilling, bloody live shows are certainly not uncommon amongst bands of their ilk, along with the masochistic fans in tow, but the decision to sell knives as merchandise did raise eyebrows. “It’s not our intention to make Iceage a puzzle,” says Nielsen.

The trouble is that Iceage have often been described as exactly that: enigmatic. Then, last year, Australian site Collapse Board thought that they had discovered the truth, claiming that Iceage were xenophobic, white supremacists. The music blog pointed towards Klu Klux Klan-like hoods in music videos, a tattoo of notorious neo-folk band Death In June, and Rønnenfelt’s teenage doodlings, amongst other examples. “It was a really sensationalist, pathetic attempt at creating a scandal,” enunciates a frustrated Rønnenfelt, “and you could tell that the journalist must have done a fair amount of research, because they had found all these things, but they completely ignored everything to the contrary.” The fact that drummer Dan Kjaer Nielsen is Jewish, for example. But why not address these accusations head on, à la Dead Kennedy’s ‘Nazi Punks Fuck Off’?

“It was so damn low that we didn’t want to reduce ourselves down to that level of conversation. With journalists like that, I don’t think you can win. It’s better to just brush it off.

But if people have come up to us in real life at shows, making accusations, we’ll take them aside and shoot down their argument. But we won’t answer every single attack that comes our way.”

It seems that the overzealous, below-the-line fervour has calmed, I suggest, as a pool of spilt beer creeps towards my notepad. Has your relationship with the media become more palatable? “Sitting around talking about yourself for a day isn’t so bad. It’s not like we’re cleaning the streets,” points out Rønnenfelt, level-headedly, but issues still remain. “There’s a limit to what we will put up with,” says the singer. “The last journalist tried to read YouTube comments to us, and get us to comment on the comments. We had to say: no, you’re not bringing us down that road. But at least we got the fascist thing out the way now.” Rønnenfelt concludes refreshingly: “There’s an art form in turning a bad question into a good answer.”

The band have recently returned from an eye-opening tour through Russia and the Balkans, and that sort of optimistic comment is indicative of the new eyes that the four Danes look at the world through. “Every night, there would be some completely unforeseen experience with very depraved, but interesting people,” recounts Rønnenfelt. “In one week, we went from playing in Belgrade – where I got attacked by a junkie who cut open my eyebrow because he didn’t think we played long enough – to Croatia, where a man drinking at a gas station was telling us about the troubles of his sex change. The next day, we were in Budapest, hanging out with the son of Italy’s third richest man, who had the worst cocaine addiction I’ve ever seen in my life.”

In previous interviews, the band have always seemed a little reticent in committing to Iceage in the long-term. I wonder if they have any plans, such as university, for the future. “Johann floated the idea of studying Theology, but that never happened,” replies Nielsen. Rønnenfelt takes some time to mull it over, eventually divulging: “I always had a really hard time in school. I dropped out of high school, and I would like to say for myself that I think I had the brains to understand everything, but the idea of getting information forced upon you … my interests can only be fuelled out of lust.

“Music might be a dried-up well of inspiration [for us] in a couple of years, but it might last for the rest of our lives. There’s really no way of telling. We’re just lucky that we’ve been doing an album, and then had some more ideas for another: so we had to make that. Then we had more ideas [for another album] so we had to make that. I think it’s important to act on those very natural impulses that tell you to create a particular idea. You can’t force it.” Then, out of nowhere, Rønnenfelt tells me something that could put Iceage fans on to high alert: “I haven’t had a single idea for a song since we finished this record. So, it might possibly be the end.”

By the sounds of it, however, it would be wise to take the frontman’s words with a pinch of salt: I doubt that Rønnenfelt’s creativity will be drying up any time soon. No matter how erratic and mercurial Iceage may at times appear, they are a band – on the evidence of their new record – who are on an upward trajectory, yet to reach the peak of their powers. Now, on the eve of an extensive 23-date North American tour, the young men that emerged from the Copenhagen DIY scene, with all their devil-may-care charm, are set to thaw out the hearts of even their most cold-hearted detractors, with an album that’s more dynamic than anyone is expecting.

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