Article originally published in HERO 19.
When a band hits that gut-punching formula of power, passion and timing, it’s a sweet spot with the capacity to devastate. In 2011, when Copenhagen four-piece Iceage released their debut record, New Brigade – all power-drill discord and teenage combustion – this magical trilogy clicked, crystallised and left us shattered. Just when guitar music was in dire need of direction, these four antiheroes proceeded to rip it a new one.
Taking the knife to that initial bolt of angst and hacking at the raw edges, what followed was a triumphant triptych – through 2013’s You’re Nothing, 2014’s Plowing Into The Field Of Love, and now, the group’s latest sonic chapter, Beyondless – that has seen the band refine their sound. Where before the band traded on bludgeoned riffs and brimstone, now they come armed with lurid dissonance, irreverent bites and spiritual yarns.
Another musician who knows a thing or two about cutting an uncompromising vision is rock iconoclast Jennifer Herrema – from Royal Trux to Black Bananas through RTX; always on her own terms. Here, Iceage frontman Elias Bender Rønnenfelt and Herrema connect between Copenhagen and Los Angeles
Jennifer Herrema: Sorry I’ve not combed my hair yet so I’ve got a dirty face and dirty hair.
Elias Bender Rønnenfelt: My mother just cut my hair an hour ago.
JH: Yeah, you look like a proper school boy.
JH: So I was listening to your new record and it’s fucking sick, I hope it sells a million copies because the production is so un-commercial, and I mean that in the best way possible. How long have you guys known each other?
EBR: I’ve known those guys since I was like eleven or twelve. Dan [Kjær Nielsen], the drummer, went to the same school as me and we were both just misfits and, you know, there’ll be that other kid who you meet on the stairs and you sort of lock eyes and there’s something strange that draws you towards them. Without even having a conversation you’ll notice that you both have a similar sort of outlook on the world, and it’s the same with the other guys. We’re from the same neighbourhood and just gravitated towards each other. Since then we’ve been a tight-knit group and there’s always been something strangely telepathic between us. We were getting into trouble together a long time before we picked up an instrument, so the music isn’t really the base of our friendship.
JH: I feel like sometimes you can know somebody better from what they don’t like rather than what they do like.
EBR: I definitely think that, at the beginning, we hadn’t really discovered what we liked yet, but we definitely knew what we didn’t like, so the common ground was based on some sort of negativity, or at least a dissatisfaction with life around us.
JH: Negativity is good, there’s a lot more intensity in it and I feel like it’s a much more propelling force. I’ve only interviewed a few people; John Lee Hooker, Keith Richards and you. So that’s pretty good company.
EBR: That’s great company. You interviewed John Lee Hooker?
JH: Yeah, right before he died. That was amazing.
EBR: I listened to him on BBC’s Desert Island Discs in the 90s and he had one of the smoothest speaking voices I’ve ever heard in my life.
JH: Oh he was so smooth. Did you work with a producer on this record?
EBR: There’s this guy called Nis [Bysted] who put out our first 7″ back in the day and we’ve recorded every album we’ve done since with him. So he’s always been like our right-hand guy, but we never had that discussion of anyone being an actual producer. I think it’s such a gross term, that somebody calls the shots or has some superior knowledge and is supposed to come in and give an ‘expert view’ on what a band might need. It’s a terrifying thing to involve a person like that.
JH: Usually producers work for the record label, they’re the guys who want to reign you in to make it something that people can get their heads around, and I don’t think there’s any linear sense to it at all. When I listened to your record it didn’t sound like anything else I’ve heard, but there was a familiarity that made me settle in and pull references out of my own head. I was hearing all kinds of cool shit and I don’t know if you were even thinking of it. The song Under the Sun is one of my favs, I was hearing Led Zeppelin’s Good Times, Bad Times, and Aerosmith’s Sweet Emotion, and yet it wasn’t that at all..
EBR: It’s interesting that you mention Zeppelin because I’ve always despised them, it’s just one of those bands that struck a raw nerve with me, and then you tell somebody and they’re like, “Well you just haven’t heard the right record,” and they play you an album and you still think it’s fucking terrible. But when I was writing the lyrics for this album I borrowed a place in a tower [one of the tallest buildings in Copenhagen before the new high-rises were built] and in there was this record collection, a player, a desk, a typewriter and pretty much nothing else. I found whichever Zeppelin record has Stairway to Heaven on it and I listened to that in breaks when I couldn’t write anymore, and in that tower that record just sounded like the most incredible thing I’d ever heard, so I’d listen to it almost everyday. But then when I wrapped up the writing, a bunch of the guys came over to my place and I played it outside of that tower and it sounded fucking terrible again. So I don’t know if that’s some subconscious thing coming out. It’s funny, when I was around sixteen I played in this other band and I’d go to their house and they’d play me Royal Trux records while we chain-smoked, lit joints and smoked tea. Royal Trux are one of those bands where you’re like, “It reminds me of a hundred different things at once, and yet it sounds completely unique.”
JH: That is exactly the way that Neil [Hagerty] and I were working together. And yeah, Zeppelin fucking ripped everyone off, they’re really just a blues rip-off band, granted. But like you said, you were in this tower and it sounded so epic, but then in real life… I feel that way about a lot of music. I don’t think I’ve put on a Zeppelin record in years because I feel like it’s already ingrained in my head, so if I go back and listen to the songs I’m not even really hearing them anymore, it’s just taking me to that place and time when I first heard it.
EBR: Maybe I also have a personal thing against Zeppelin because once I thought I came up with a great riff and thought I was a genius, and then five days later Dazed and Confused came on the jukebox and I was like, “God fucking damn it,” because it was that riff.
Jennifer: Yeah, that shit happens. Like I say, you might not even recognise it – the subconscious is pretty intense. And people come to the music with their own baggage, right? Kids don’t. I don’t really like kids, I don’t think they’re quite human yet, but the one thing I do like about them is that they don’t know anything, they’re completely fresh, so they would never think of the things that you or I would think of because they have no history. It’s very difficult for me to listen to something and enjoy it as something completely new and not for it to take me away to another place I’ve already been before. New music rarely does that, which is why I was really excited about your new record. I was like, “Fuck, man.” I think it’d be so exciting if something that sounds like your record could sell millions and millions [laughs].
EBR: I truly doubt that [laughs]. I remember when I reached the age of like eleven or twelve and I first got a record player and started to take music into my own room, back then I didn’t know the limitations of what music could do to you – so it was terrifying. Here’s a band I also don’t really like, but I Am The Walrus by The Beatles, you know when those laughing voices come in? I remember being like physically scared in my room because I hadn’t really learned that it was just a record yet and I didn’t know how far music could take you. And putting on Hunky Dory by David Bowie, I’d do that before I fell asleep every night for so long but I’d never be able to fall asleep because I knew that the intro for the track Andy Warhol would eventually come along and that just fucking terrified me, so I couldn’t fall asleep until at least that was over – and that’s relatively late in the record. That sort of innocence…
JH: You can’t recapture that.
EBR: But that doesn’t mean it’s lost.
JH: No, it just expands your vocabulary. The more music you listen to, the more your subconscious soaks up, and over time you build up this vocabulary of sounds and ideas. When I was a kid I always wanted to be an adult, I was always like, “Kids are stupid, I want to be an adult,” It wasn’t until I was like twelve or thirteen that I discovered this whole world of music that wasn’t on the radio, and it was certainly not on my parents’ turntables. That’s when I got super excited. I discovered hardcore punk rock and I remember seeing Bad Brains when I was like twelve-years-old, I thought this music was all a secret but as I grew up I realised that it wasn’t, it was just another way of disseminating music that wasn’t on the radio or in my parents’ collection.
EBR: I remember things such as The Spice Girls and Dido and Las Ketchup and Lou Bega’s Mambo No. 5 coming out of my parents’ CD player, so that was something that contributed to that education [laughs].
JH: And whether you know it or not, that’s stuck into your subconscious. Like I’d listen to some of the most god awful shit, like Seals and Crofts, really smarmy radio stuff, like Barry Manilow…
EBR: I like Barry Manilow.
JH: I do too now, but at that time that was what only adults listened too, you wouldn’t save your babysitting money and go buy Barry Manilow records, at least I didn’t.
EBR: Barry Manilow came later on for me too. Copacabana is a great song and I think the lyrics are crazy, you know that song?
JH: [sings] At the copa, Copacabana/Music and passion were always the fashion.
EBR: [laughs] It’s about a murderer in a night club, and that didn’t dawn on me until a couple of years ago, I was like, “Shit, this is some pretty heavy imagery to hide into a song like that.”
JH: Exactly, and that’s kind of cool because that’s the kind of stuff that was playing on the radio, in retrospect it’s very subversive. It’s cool when you can slip something by without people getting all up in arms.
EBR: You only remember the stuff about Lola being a showgirl, but by the end there’s blood and a gunshot and you don’t know who shot who and she’s drinking herself half-blind. Copacabana is a wild song. Our song Showtime has a similar theme, most of it is describing an audience waiting for a musical to happen and then by the end of it the singer shoots his brains out on stage. When I started writing that track I wasn’t planning on that to happen but I couldn’t fucking help it, I thought it’d be fucking hilarious. Often if I’m trying to do one thing, I’ll end up ruining that initial idea by throwing something left-field in there.
JH: You can’t make another record if you’re always satisfied. I’m satisfied when I’m done with a record but completely dissatisfied that I’ve actually done everything that I wanted to do, so that’s why there’s always, always another record.
EBR: I can relate to that, that would be fucking horrible to realise that you’ve done your Magnum Opus, so to speak. You might as well throw the towel in the ring and be like, “That’s it!” I hope that never happens to me. What’s your process when it comes to writing lyrics?
JH: I always come up with the melody first, I just start humming something and then the first line usually comes really easy…
EBR: I’ve always been a fan of opening lines in songs and I think that’s something that you’re often good at. Like, Some kids were crying in the driveway because they hadn’t been fed, you’ve set the scene and there’s a whole bunch of questions that come from that. Like Lou Reed’s Kids – They’re taking her children away/Because they said she was not a good mother – opening lines set a scenario in like twelve words.
JH: So tell me about your plans for the record.
EBR: Next month we’re doing a series of residencies in New York and Los Angeles where we’ve asked artists and musicians that we know and like to contribute to the event in each city. There will be everything from artwork by friends to musicians we find interesting. I’ve been told that Tom of Finland’s old boyfriend Durk Dehner is going to come over in full leather with a bunch of those boys to recreate some of the old drawings. There’s no grand idea, it’s just bringing a bunch of shit together that we’d want to see.
JH: That’s cool. I saw that Richard Hell wrote your liner notes, how did that happen?
EBR: I mean, that was the record label [laughs].
JH: You like the Voidoids?
EBR: Yeah, it’s funny when the reality from your teenage bedroom to your life now gets shattered. I’d listen to the Voidoids by myself when I was like twelve years old and when that same voice is communicating directly to you, it’s flattering but it’s also fucking strange. And when I was sixteen or so listening to your records, and now here we are on fucking Skype. It’s not something I think too much about but it is weird how these formative years of your life catch up. But I don’t think it’s any different to why me and my bandmates gravitated towards each other when we were kids, this world has a strange way of bringing things together.
JH: Yeah I totally believe in that. A lot of people think you have to always be creating or putting something out into the universe, but I think the hardest thing is to just sit still and enjoy what you have before you can move forward. I feel like sitting still is very important and as a kid, when you’re eleven or twelve you can’t drive, you just sit in your room, and those years are vital.
EBR: Oh yeah, boredom is just so extremely important for learning who you are. I feel really bad when I see children that aren’t bored, like when you see a child that gets an iPad in their hand at a young age and so they don’t have to confront those awful feelings when you can’t sleep, or when you’re bored or whatever. Not that I’m worried about the next generation or anything – I still see fucking teenagers in Copenhagen skateboarding in the rain at like eleven at night, so all’s well. But anybody who hasn’t had to go through those periods of boredom and confront their demons, it’s a terrible thing not to go through.
JH: Oh yeah. You get like little kids writing love songs about heartbreak or whatever and I’m like, “Look motherfucker, I know that this isn’t true, you’re like fifteen years old.” I’m talking about these kids on TV talent shows who don’t write their own songs, somebody just gives it to them and then these kids are talking about getting fucked up and bad relationships [laughs], it’s just fucking ridiculous. That’s the showbiz aspect of music.
EBR: But the kids that bothered me when I was younger were the sort of young creatives who thought that they were liberated, but it was all fake and meaningless, and what do they go on to become? Graphic designers or something. But the girls at my grade school who had magazines with pictures of the royal family and somehow got some sort of excitement or satisfaction out of that, I always thought that seemed kind of nice.
JH: Yeah, it’s aspiration. When I was six-years old I wanted to be Cinderella, that’s all I wanted to be, I got a tutu and a Cinderella watch for my birthday and after I got those I was like, “What’s next?” I’m still not Cinderella [laughs]. So as a child trying to emulate something, you tend to gravitate towards the tangible things – because Cinderella ain’t real! [laughs]
EBR: I just remember Cinderella breaking the news of parental death to me because when I was real small I watched a bad TV version of it where her mother dies.
Iceage’s new record Beyondless is out now via Matador.
The band play at London’s Scala on 8th May.