Turn your ears towards Denmark, something is bubbling. The Scandinavian country may be more known for its design credentials than for its musical contributions, however a new wave of musicians are proving that Denmark as a hotbed of exciting new talent. Stretching a broad range of genres and sounds, COPENHAGEN RISING is our portfolio of those musicians standing at the vanguard of Denmark’s rising scene. First, we speak to Iceage and Marching Church frontman Elias Bender Rønnenfelt.
As his band moniker Marching Church eludes to, there is something almost ecclesiastic about Elias Bender Rønnenfelt’s performances. Master of ceremonies, the Danish musician commands the stage, conjuring soul-wrenching croaks, groans and croons as if the result of a demon-invoking laying on of hands.
These limits of Rønnenfelt’s larynx are his strength, strains revealing a vulnerability and abrasiveness that punctuate each sentence like the swing of a jackhammer. Having first appeared on the music radar as frontman of three-piece Iceage, in 2010 Rønnenfelt carved a new identity via Marching Church. What began as a vehicle through which he could experiment, has since grown into the tightest of bands – featuring members of Lower, Dirty Beaches, Hand of Dust, and his Iceage bandmate Johan S. Weith. Pulling from the same wavelength, Rønnenfelt’s formidable crew enable him to execute his vision with uncompromising results.
The release of their sophomore record, Telling It Like It Is, sees that freer, more exploratory bent extend to Rønnenfelt’s lyric sheet. Here, stream-of-consciousness tales of gritty urban milieu come laced with shrewd and cynical humour. Here is Rønnenfelt, telling it like it is.
Elias Bender Rønnenfelt in HEROINE 6, photography by Lasse Dearman. Shirt by ACNE STUDIOS SS17; vest by RANDY SS17; jeans from LEVI’S.
“Now that we have this kind of unruly, wild chemistry that happened when these musicians came together, we tried to see what would happen if we boxed this wild sound into a more fixed format, something more controlled.”
Alex James Taylor: You’ve just got back from touring in Asia, how was that?
Elias Bender Rønnenfelt: Yeah, we just got back about a week ago. It was interesting, we went to Thailand and China and Japan. I’ve been to all those places before, but what was new this time was that we went to some ‘smaller’ Chinese cities, which still had populations of around seven million or something like that. We saw part of China that was closer to the idea of a modest country and we drove through these vast fields of 40 story concrete plantation buildings. We also saw part of China which is more poverty ridden and destroyed. That was really interesting – to see the contrasts. Everybody was extremely friendly and the audiences were great.
Alex: How do you find your music translates from country to country?
Elias: People brought us lots of flowers, that was nice. I think it’s some sort of tradition, but I don’t know.
Alex: Telling It Like It Is sees a fixed band accompanying you. I’m interested in how this relationship has evolved from the initial Marching Church releases to now?
Elias: The first record was very much just placing a handful of musicians in the same room without many restrictions or rules, and then just seeing what sound would explode out of these minds meeting. Everything was recorded live in a room, even the vocals, the outcome of that was this chunk of sound and energy. Now that we have this kind of unruly, wild chemistry that happened when these musicians came together, we tried to see what would happen if we boxed this wild sound into a more fixed format, something more controlled. We did a lot of stuff after the band had played together, we wanted to make a studio record and experiment a lot with sounds juxtaposed next to each other that maybe created an unnatural sound.
Alex: How much of that was improvised then?
Elias: I would say that there wasn’t so much improvisation, it was more a question of getting to the studio and performing this thing that was written and then, in the context of the studio, finding out that certain things didn’t work, and then trying to split things apart and put it back together and seeing what we could create. We tried to form very thick song structures, yet having very little regard for them. Nothing was sacred, everything was subject to change.
“When I wrote these lyrics I sort of just barricaded myself in my room for weeks and didn’t really see a lot of other people and just sort of drank a lot of red wine and shut myself in this tiny little world. That created this sort of resent for the outside world and sent me a little bit mad there. “
Alex: I read that when you recorded Plowing Into The Field Of Love with Iceage, you purposefully booked a short amount of time in the studio so you could feed on a sense of urgency.
Elias: Yeah. With this album we booked three nights in the studio in which the whole band together laid down all the ground tracks, which is an extremely short amount of time. But then we spent two months on and off in another studio just fucking around with the ground material and taking away and stripping down and building each track again. So, for the groundwork we had limited time in order to create that urgency, but then we tore the whole thing apart and built it up again in a long timeframe. But this was necessary in order to create the sort of record this needed to be. For sure, it came with a few crises, and going a bit insane sitting with these tracks… Once you tell yourself that everything is subject to change, then you could potentially sit there forever and keep messing with it. So we tried to maintain some sort of focus.
Alex: You can hear that contrast in the album. It also has a great sense of proportion, certain sounds have distance, whilst others are right at the forefront of the track. For me, it conjures a cityscape, that contrast between vastness and intimacy.
Elias: I think it has a sort of metropolitan feel. I spend all my time in metropolitan cities and barely ever see nature [laughs]. But I remember when we were still rehearsing these songs and arranging them Taxi Driver was a big reference. We’d work on a song, do a demo take on it and then put it to the opening sequence of Taxi Driver and if it didn’t work we’d change it again. You know that sequence with the smoke coming up and the streets in slow motion?
Elias: So we definitely wanted that city feel, but it’s also just part of being city rats.
Alex: The only real references to nature in the album are when you talk about the sky. So it’s reminiscent of a tall city such as New York, where looking up at the sky is the only escape from the busy, man-made construction around you. I feel like your lyrics have become more narrative-based. In terms of the characters and places you describe in your songs, how much of it is your own experience and how much is your imagination?
Elias: When I wrote these lyrics I sort of just barricaded myself in my room for weeks and didn’t really see a lot of other people and just sort of drank a lot of red wine and shut myself in this tiny little world. That created this sort of resent for the outside world and sent me a little bit mad there. But it still draws from a lot of experience from the outside world. I keep notebooks and use that as source material for when I finally sit down and bang it into lyric form. The roots of it are based in reality but then it’s blown out of proportion and enhanced into these twisted realities, it often ends up saying a lot more about reality than if you try and do something that is just on a one to one scale with life. There’re a lot of subjects in there that I repeatedly use, such as longing and love, but the change is that I wanted to make something that is slightly more cynical and a little more about the exterior world than perhaps I usually do. It’s a bit more social commentary as well, I think in these times it’s hard not to veer in that direction and reflect on what’s happening outside of your own little bubble.
Alex: Absolutely. On Heart of Life you sing, When one can’t belong/one feels the urge to ruin. I feel like that’s a pretty poignant line in terms of today’s fractured political systems.
Elias: That’s true, but that line doesn’t necessarily have to do with politics, it can also be a social thing. I mean, it’s a horrible and quite destructive way to think about things, but it’s a tendency I think a lot of us have.
Elias Bender Rønnenfelt in HEROINE 6, photography by Lasse Dearman. Shirt by RANDY SS17; ring ELIAS’ own.
“Even when I try and create something very serious, I will always project some sort of distorted little joke that I just can’t resist.”
Alex: Do you find songwriting cathartic?
Elias: When I do have to sit down and get into the process of finishing the lyrics, there is an element of having to allow yourself to go into these places that are sort of dangerous for your own psyche, I think. That can allow for something that is both very giving, but also possibly damaging. It feels like once you finish a project there is some sort of recovery phase that comes after.
Alex: Both psychically and mentally?
Elias: You’ve completely invested yourself to this process and given your mind, body and soul into this narrow little project. Then once you wrap that up you almost feel like you’ve traumatised yourself a little bit and it’s hard. Every single aspect of yourself is invested in this little thing, then when you don’t have it anymore to project yourself into, it’s more than mildly confusing to figure out where you place your voice and self instead [laughs].
Alex: If you don’t feel that way after finishing a record, would you deem it to not be a successful project?
Elias: I mean, I’m sure there are multiple ways to go about it, but I tend to need to take the difficult route because it’s not easy for me to write music, it’s not something I can do off the cuff all the time.
Alex: With Marching Church, especially live, it feels like a blend between yourself and also a certain persona or character you’ve created. Would you agree?
Elias: I don’t know if it’s so much a persona as much as it’s a caricature of some things within myself. The lines are most often very blurred and quite hard to point out because I use myself and then I build a character on that. Then you also find, which is something to be careful of, that it becomes something you almost engineer for yourself and you push yourself in these directions and you can get trapped in these things. Julius Caesar has a great quote that says one cannot create a persona without becoming it to a certain extent, if people believe it.
Alex: And making it believable creates interest.
Elias: But I’d say that there’s a fair amount of humour in there as well, for me. Even when I try and create something very serious, I will always project some sort of distorted little joke that I just can’t resist.
Alex: You recently performed with a string orchestra, which must have been pretty amazing. What would be your ideal venue or situation to perform your new album in?
Elias: We have this dream that we would like to get a gig as a bar band for like a week or something, where we would play for a seated audience who wouldn’t necessarily be there to watch the show. It’d be sort of like a lounge act, so we’d play for half an hour and then take a break, play for half an hour and take a break, and do that for a week. Then anyone who wants a drink or wants to hear music can just turn up. We’d love to do that if somebody gave us the opportunity. We also did a recent collaboration show where people were seated with tables and I really loved that. It was a place called National Sawdust. The room itself looked sort of staunch, but I loved the whole idea of people being seated.
Alex: Which is a huge contrast to your Iceage gigs, which are known for being crazy, raucous affairs.
Elias: With Marching Church it’s not quite as mosh-able as some of my previous endeavours. I think the band has the capability to take people through an emotional joyride over the course of an hour that could have multiple ambiguous destinations.