An audience with Elias Bender Rønnenfelt is not supposed to be an easy ride. He’s “rock’s most difficult frontman”, a scowling, sullen presence who wields paperback novels by cult writers like a shield. He’s the tempestuous frontman given to falling around on stage and howling at the heavens. He’s the dark and mysterious post-punk poet for Millenials, a modern-day Byron reveling in excess. And, above all, he has a well-documented dislike for music journalists and the endless rounds of promotion required for an album launch.
But this is not the Rønnenfelt who is sat before me. Despite this being the last of a full day of interviews, two days into a whirlwind press tour of Europe, he’s gracious and polite; the only concession he asks for is a few minutes to smoke a cigarette. He’s thoughtful too, pausing slightly and cocking his head before each answer; clearly, words matter. Alongside him, Johan Surrballe Wieth – the band’s guitarist – is a more detached presence, and one suspects he’s been tasked with responding to any lazy, unimaginative questions lobbed in their direction, the perfect foil for Rønnenfelt’s philosophical romanticism.
Does this reputation for irascibility bother him? He shoots me a quizzical look, as if he’d never considered this to be an issue. “I mean, sometimes I probably was pretty moody and arrogant. Certain people, if they are used to getting sucked up to, and then somebody doesn’t do it, they get a bit sore, but I never really viewed it as a negative thing.” Besides, he adds, their rapid ascent from just a “tight-knit group of boys…kids really” to critical darlings and being branded the ‘saviours of punk’ meant his focus lay elsewhere.
As teenagers, Iceage made their name with ink-black songs bursting with anger and anxiety, the chaos of their shows occasionally spilling over into actual violence. Their music didn’t just scorch, it spontaneously combusted in unpredictable ways; debut album New Brigade was, as one YouTube commenter put it, “music for watching buildings burn.” Such nihilism extended to Rønnenfelt’s lyrics, often undecipherable through the din: “This is a blood path” he intoned on the title track; “Cut off the tongues / Ancient revenge” he added on ‘Total Drench’.
New Brigade’s twelve tracks came in at just over 25 minutes, a direct, bludgeoning mission statement. That such buzz and hype followed so quickly left the band feeling perplexed and unsure how to react. “We hadn’t really dreamed of reaching the world like that,” says Rønnenfelt, “and we remained slightly oblivious. We went into it with a pretty deep-seated distrust of the music industry, then all of a sudden it wanted to embrace us. There are a lot of snakes around and you have to be careful, you know?”
Survival mode kicked in, the band frequently saying “no” and refusing to play along (hence Rønnenfelt’s curmudgeonly attitude). It also helped that, according to Weith, they were “pretty anti-social and didn’t embrace the flattery,” their cynicism born of a desire not to be just another victim of being given too much too young. “We were such good friends – and still are – that it would take a lot to drive us apart,” says Rønnenfelt. “That lifestyle can be hectic and taxing, but we managed to get through those times and come out stronger.”
Now on their fourth album, those bonds are indeed stronger; artistically, they function as one, despite Rønnenfelt’s role as lyricist and ringleader. It would be wrong to suggest they’ve softened their approach, but the brutal punk of their early work has given way to more varied instrumentation – strings! Horns! – and the odd delicate flourish, the band sounding more assured and articulate with each song. Such things often come naturally with age, but both are at pains to point out that no conscious decision was made to such effect; in art, how could you?
“We’re not very verbal within the group about how we’re going to do it; we just do it. For the arrangements, it was clear very early in the songwriting process that there was room for that kind of instrumentation,” says Weith. “Intuition,” adds Rønnenfelt, “and sometimes even we get surprised where that takes us. Really, it’s just a matter of what ideas you get, and it’s hard to say where those come from.”
Their various influences have been much discussed in critical circles, and it’s not hard to discern which bands shaped their sound. But whereas before the hard-bitten edge of Black Flag or Minor Threat shone through, these days they’re painting from a much-expanded palette of sounds, some of which surprise; ‘Catch It’ faintly recalls The Velvet Underground’s ‘Venus In Furs’, while elements of The Doors and Nick Cave are sprinkled liberally throughout. Is this a newfound maturity? Confidence? Not so, says Rønnenfelt.
“Our musical tastes and appetite have always been extremely eclectic, but we started out with a starting point that couldn’t have been any other starting point. Each time we do a record, we always want to leap somewhere in order to keep it interesting for ourselves and for the journey; one of discovery. So you keep on discovering things and hopefully, that will continue.”
Much has been made of the prominent role that horns – in particular saxophone – play in their new material, but there’s plenty more to pique a curious listener’s ear. There’s the slow acoustic strumming and screeching viola that pop up on ‘Under The Sun’, the honky tonk piano that bubbles away under the surface of ‘The Day The Music Dies’, and the woozy swing of ‘Thieves Like Us’. But the biggest curveball comes in the form of ‘Showtime’, a louche, late-night jazz-heavy sprawl that could well be titled ‘While My Trumpet Gentle Weeps’. It sees Rønnenfelt fully abandon the Angry Young Firebrand of his youth for the tired, wise sage propping up the bar, feral yelps and yowls replaced by an authoritative, drawling baritone.
This new character appears throughout Beyondless, but far from losing their edge, it simply adds richness and depth to their music, revealing a swooning romanticism; “Honey, you’re my medicine” he sings at one point. And anyway, there’s still much for the purists, the band more than happy to accelerate unpredictably. Who else would open with ‘Hurrah’, a breakneck rush of a song concerning warfare and humanity’s inherent desire to kill and maim? “The antithesis of John and Yoko’s ‘War is over if you want it’ sentiment,” as Rønnenfelt describes it.
He’s always been a lucid, powerful voice, doling out scorn and ire in spades. Debate rages around the role of the artist in initiating change – or even just exposing harsh truths – but it’s a subject he’s been loathe to engage with. Frustration is a common thread running through their work, and I wonder where he stands on the spectrum of art’s actual ability to affect anything. Is it a powerful tool or somewhat impotent? “I am a musician; I’m not the one to ask.” is his eventual reply, so I change tack. Is he optimistic about the future, or are we destined to be the authors of our own downfall?
“I don’t ever see a future where we all sit holding hands in a drum circle, I just don’t; I think that is against our nature. And I am not providing any solutions with this song, you know? It is really just pulling up some things.”
The sight of Rønnenfelt whipping the band into a frenzy while bawling lines like “There is always something there beneath / Shedding the sheep cloth and baring it's teeth” – not to mention the bleak chorus of “We’ll never stop killing / And we shouldn’t stop killing” – was an early highlight of this year’s Eurosonic festival. It was only the second time they’d played the new material live and, despite a muddied sound system which did little to showcase their newfound dynamics, they were focussed and sharp.
The plan for this year is to tour as a six-piece – their violinist doubles as a piano player, easing costs and logistics – and both Rønnenfelt and Wieth seem enthused about Iceage 4.0 hitting the road hard. “We still haven’t played the new songs that many times live,” says Wieth, “so it will be interesting to see where they go.” Prone to bratty outbursts and petulance in their early years, they’re now a commanding presence, playing as if out to prove they can be masterful beyond the squalls of noise and shambling carnage of their youth.
Do they have a reputation to live up to? Not really. They’re unconcerned with other people’s expectations; for them, Iceage must march defiantly forward or die. After I leave, I think back to Rønnenfelt’s answer regarding his standing as a lyricist, and whether he’s given the due his inquisitive, intelligent poetry deserves. “You always have to earn it,” he shrugged. Iceage have earned greatness on their own terms, and stand ready to make the most of it.