Iceage: Something Rotten from the state of Denmark
Confrontational young singer Elias Rønnenfelt on the Danish band’s new album, ‘Beyondless’, and why he won’t tolerate inattentive fans using their mobile phonesat gigs
Iceage: “You feel you are putting a knife to your heart and bleeding all over and they might as well be watching a fish tank at a Chinese restaurant”
The last time Iceage played Ireland, things got a bit chilly. The band’s wavy-haired frontman, Elias Bender Rønnenfelt, was emoting his heart and lungs out at the edge of the stage when he noticed a punter gazing into his phone. Into the fray waded the pallid singer. A frank exchange of views ensued.
“Standing in the front row and looking at your phone – that’s very rude,” said Rønnenfelt in his flat Scandinavian accent, prompting the concert-goer to sensibly flee for the wings. He can probably count himself lucky. Rønnenfelt had previously been known to grab or even kick away phones from fans paying less than 100 per cent attention.
“I like the idea of the idiot singer,” says Rønnenfelt today, asked about his attitude toward indifferent crowds. “Sometimes people are just unshakable. You feel you are putting a knife to your heart and bleeding all over and they might as well be watching a fish tank at a Chinese restaurant. Luckily, that’s not the case very often. Of course, if that is the energy in the room you can feed off of it. You can play the concert out of spite.”
Rønnenfelt’s willingness to confront audience members has earned him a reputation as wilful and brattish – a frontman who isn’t afraid of being disliked.
There was, of course, a time – a golden era that probably ended in the mid-1990s – when this sort of combative stance would have been entirely unremarkable. Outrageous is what lead singers were supposed to be. They were meant to be dangerous, unpredictable, with a lock-up-your-daughters (and/or your phone) swagger.
But in an age when Ed Sheeran can become the world’s biggest pop star despite looking like the boy next door – indeed, looking like the boy next door probably has a lot do with his success – Rønnenfelt and Iceage, a post-punk quartet from Denmark, stand apart as awkward, glorious throwbacks.
The bad gigs, the singer says, can be as memorable as the ones where everything catches fire. It’s all energy – something to absorb and throw back.
“Even a horrible show may have a magic quality to it. Sometimes it is probably plain terrible – but you can also have a transient experience, where it’s all about the now.
“Touring is taxing on mind and body,” he continues. “The live show is the thing that hopefully ends up justifying it all. Regardless of whether you are at a point of complete exhaustion, you have to muster whatever you need to get it out there. If you don’t put that kind of care into the concerts, it’s a meaningless existence.”
Much like the unfortunate gig-goer with the attention-grabbing phone, Iceage have spent their career at the edge of the spotlight. But now there’s a sense they are finally about to step into the full glare. Releasing this weekend, their fourth album Beyondless is a gothic barnstormer: Henry’s Dream-vintage Nick Cave crashing headlong into The Stooges and Sisters of Mercy, with a glaze of Nordic melancholy poured all over.
It’s angry yet coherent and, more importantly – and notwithstanding Rønnenfelt’s often feverishly impenetrable lyrics – feels as if stands for something bigger than itself. The number of young bands it is possible to truly, sincerely believe in nowadays is infinitesimal. Iceage are surely chief among them.
They’re a vitriolic throwback who, with bared teeth, wild eyes and – just as crucially – fantastic hair, look like Duran Duran if Duran Duran were four glowering punks from contemporary Copenhagen. You could get into Iceage as a misunderstood 16-year-old and not be embarrassed about it 20 years later.
Across its 10 tracks Beyondless, moreover, vehemently refutes the dangerous idea that rock’n’roll is a middle-aged concern – one bad Coldplay record away from its dotage. That’s more than journalistic hyperbole – though Iceage are one of those bands for which journalist hyperbole could have been invented. Among their fast-expanding fanbase is New York punk figure Richard Hell, who recently addressed his love of the group in a gushing homage.
“I can totally imagine myself as a kid,” he wrote, “lying in my closed-door room in the dark, listening to this band and getting what I need, the way a band can make a person feel seen and bring confidence, sometimes even represent an ideal.
“The music,” he continues, after pausing to imbibe smelling salts, “[is] pure emotion, the strong emotions of youth—anger, sadness, contempt, longing – as well as energy and sex.”
“It’s difficult for me to comment on,” says Rønnenfelt, slightly embarrassed. “I’d like to think what I do isn’t complete rubbish. Who am I to say?”
Iceage’s rise hasn’t been all rosy. Circa their second album, 2013’s You’re Nothing, there was a ludicrous suggestion the group were covert standard-bearers for the extreme right. An article in the Guardian asked: “do the hipster Danish band really sympathise with xenophobic white supremacists?” (as opposed to the non -xenophobic variety of white supremacist, obviously).
The evidence presented feels less than convincing today: “teenage doodling” by Rønnenfelt in his blog, the sighting of a badge trumpeting a notorious death metal band. Ironically, half a decade later, the story has come full circle, with critics in the US hailing Beyondless as a left-wing commentary on Denmark’s struggles to deal with the migrant crisis.
Cultural turmoil certainly formed part of the context in which Beyondless was recorded, allows Rønnenfelt. However, this isn’t a political album in any conventional sense.
“We don’t address the state of the world in a direct fashion,” he says. “Of course, it can seep in through the cracks. It [Beyondless] is created in a world where there is a certain climate. Maybe indirectly [that was an influence]. It is saturated in the world. It’s not the message in the album.”
Rønnenfelt has a reputation as a difficult – occasionally hostile – interviewee. This is based on a handful of unflattering write-ups – including a notorious/hilarious piece in an American magazine where a journalist is told he will be joining Iceage on tour only to find himself immediately blown off by the group.
We were a bunch of pretty cynical kids at the beginning. None of us had any s*** going on in our lives
Yet in person he’s shy rather than snarling. Rønnenfelt quit high school to front Iceage at aged 16. You wonder how long it took him to feel entirely at home in the spotlight.
“You get more and more comfortable in that position,” he says. “When we started I was a teenager. I had no awareness of body language whatsoever. Then, through the sheer relentlessness of doing something hundreds of times, you discover you can play around with things.
“We were a bunch of pretty cynical kids at the beginning. None of us had any s*** going on in our lives. We thought we might as well live on the road. We remain pretty skeptical about a lot of this, the whole hype thing especially. Major labels have approached us. Were we wined and dined? Not in the literal sense. We didn’t go to dinner with anyone. But we could have. ”
Beyondless is out now. Iceage play Dublin Workman’s Club in September