“There’s basically nothing you can find on this record that you wouldn’t find on a Motown record” Elias Rønnenfelt tells me. We’re talking about his band Iceage and their new album Beyondless, a propulsive collection of tracks that sees the group embracing their inner groove openly for the first time in their near-decade-long career as a group.
It’s around 11 AM in New York where Rønnenfelt is sitting in the Matador Records office on the phone for the first of what promises to be a day of interviews for the once press-shy singer. Hailing from Copenhagen, over the seven years since they released their debut album New Brigade, Iceage have become a band steeped in mythology and mystery. From their queasy, lurching take on post-punk to Rønnenfelt’s penchant for literary references and gothic imagery, Iceage have always been a band that have been hard to get a handle on.
Beyondless is the group’s latest evolution and one that sees them embrace new dimensions to their sound. At its core is the same sharp-dressed Danish punks, Rønnenfelt alongside childhood friends Dan Kjær Nielsen, Johan Suurballe Wieth, and Jakob Tvilling Pless, that made the last three Iceage records but around the edges are a host of collaborators that expand its seams, bringing in blaring horns and orchestral touches that take Beyondless far beyond the punk world Iceage are often shoehorned into. Ahead of its release tomorrow, we spoke to Elias about embracing his groove, locking himself in a tower and the evolution of Iceage.
Beyondless has been about four years in the making, what’s happened between this record and the last?
Elias: After finishing the last one and touring with it, we didn’t immediately have a desire or an outlook as to where we wanted to take things. Rather than try and force something out we had to let it breathe for a while until that urge or vision came. I recorded a few records with a band called Marching Church with Johan. Everyone’s just done little projects as experimental concerts here and there.
When did you get back together and start on the album
Around a year before we went into the studio.
You wrote the last record separately from the rest of the band. Where did you write this album?
It was written in Copenhagen but I’ve found that getting away from my home as much as possible is the better way to write. The journey from one’s bed to one’s desk might not be enough of a commute to get into any kind of headspace. A friend of mine has a work studio in a tower in Copenhagen. It’s a kind of oval-shaped room that for a few weeks I had the keys for and sat there during the nights and discovered what this album came to be about. We had an idea of which songs I was writing for. We had sketched out a thing and you tailor the lyrics and compositions together.
‘Painkiller’ was the first single released from the album and it really stands out amongst the album. Was there anything different in the writing or recording of it?
It’s about being drawn to something that’s bad for you. It’s probably the simplest thing we’ve ever done composition wise and sort of might be an indicator that we’re less afraid to lead with our hips and get a little groovy these days. We had a horn section come in this time around.
You’ve all been friends since you were young, was it strange bringing in a new group of musicians to work with you?
No, I mean all of us have experience collaborating with people. We collaborated with a whole symphony orchestra a few years back in Berlin but I think beforehand maybe, before our way of playing was so ragged and the foundation of it had this seasick groove that always characterised the way we play, we thought bringing in trained musicians would be too much of a contrast. This time in the songs we could already hear the orchestrations in there, so there wasn’t any doubt.
There’s an almost cinematic quality to a lot of the record, Daniel Stewart’s essay that comes with the album calls it ‘post-post-punk’…
I don’t know what that means.
Coming from a punk/ hardcore world do you ever have any anxieties about using orchestration?
No, we’ve never seen ourselves in any of the boxes that people have thrown at us you know? It’s always been important for us to not confine to any sort of shackle that people naturally throw your way. I’ve always been a fan of music by people like Segre Gainsbourg, records that in a really natural way incorporate soul music. There’s basically nothing you can find on this record that you wouldn’t find on a Motown record, to me it all makes sense.
That same essay mentions Leonard Cohen but this album reminded me more of Tom Waits, that sense of existing somewhere between a fight and party…
I’m familiar with Tom Waits, I’m not sure if he influenced anything on this album but it’s possible, your guess is as good as mine.
There’s also a sense of chaos through all of your records – where does that come from in your writing?
I mean, that’s a loaded question, haha. I think that’s just how it comes out and how my brain works I guess, there’s always a duality in the things that fight each other to make their way onto the paper. It sort of excites me to pick up a pen and put down these things I don’t really understand, these grey areas where I’m almost writing for an answer. There’s always been a process of impressions and subjects that fight to get their way.
While the instrumentation is quite full on, your lyrics are very poised, which can be a rarity for heavier music. How important is that process of writing lyrics and viewing them as their own thing, apart from the music?
I’m very aware that they’re song lyrics, I don’t consider it poetry but I try, for my own sake, to invest as much as I can and give the lyrics an importance. Because if you can’t at least convince yourself it’s important then what’s the point? That being said, I would love to be able to write a “do a little dance, make a little love, get down tonight’” lyric but that’s not the kind of writer I am.
Staying on the lyrics – there’s a lot of anarchy and nihilism in there, were there any themes that emerged while you were writing it?
There’s no overall message like that, it’s sort of like an abstract portrait of where my mind was at at the time, it’s not like I sat down with some truth I needed to get out, it’s a documentation of a mindset I guess. Specific songs might have more direct topics than others.
One of the songs that really stood out to me was ‘Showtime’, it’s the most narrative track on the album, where did that come from?
It’s the most linear track on the album, I don’t quite know where it came from, I think I just wrote it out in one go and I only had the title and I don’t know why but I just started writing about musical theatre and painting a picture of a show that was about to begin. I don’t think I knew the guy was going to off himself on stage until I came to that sentence and it ended up rhyming.
I was just looking at the number of tour dates you have coming up – does life on the road feel a bit pantomime?
Haha, writing it I was aware of the irony that there was there but no, playing live for us is something we strive never to do by going through the motions, it’s important to us that we keep some sort of uh, belief in the sort of transformative capabilities of a live show. Anytime I’ve walked on stage and felt sort of generic about it I’ve been afraid… it has to mean something, we’d rather risk playing a horrible show and mean it than sort of go pantomime.
Iceage’s new album Beyondless is out tomorrow, May 4th, via Matador Records.
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