In Conversation: Iceage’s Elias Bender Rønnenfelt Blasphemes a Limp-Wristed God
Rønnenfelt discusses his band’s new record Seek Shelter, as well as the influences of Danish noir fiction, German cabaret, Scott Walker, and more.
Iceage’s discography is a 12-year thaw. The Copenhagen quintet has always played fiery live shows, but on their earliest records, released while all five members were still teens, they kept a chilly remove from their subject matter. A reflexive adolescent irony pulsed beneath the surface of the songs, bolstering the group’s Northern European chic. Frontman Elias Bender Rønnenfelt wrote angsty lyrics and gave antagonistic interviews, perpetuating the band’s reputation for ennui.
Their visual aesthetic hasn’t changed much (see above image), but Iceage’s music has grown warmer and warmer through the years—lusher, more confessional, and closer to the blues they draw on so heavily. While other artists from Europe’s frozen climes—think Stockholm’s Viagra Boys—take a sneering stance toward their American musical ancestry, Iceage has come to engage with its roots with what seems like real compassion. The band’s penchant for vaudevillian melodrama and cabaret camp still runs deep, but Rønnenfelt seems far less concerned with signaling his distance from his lyrical persona than he used to be.
Case in point: “Lockdown Blues,” released at the start of COVID, is a state-of-the-union address with a message of perseverance: “The only way out is through.” Of course, this song isn’t nearly as nuanced as the tracks on Seek Shelter, an album written and recorded before the virus was born. But the new record has plenty of unchecked sentiment, too. It’s about power and revenge, but also our eternal search for comfort and co-dependence as the world spins off its axis. We spoke to Rønnenfelt in late March, a day after his birthday, about the new record, Danish noir fiction, German cabaret, Scott Walker, and God.
Happy birthday! How does it feel to be 29?
I don’t know. I’m not one of those people that dreads their birthday. To be honest, I feel like I’m the mayor of the universe every time it’s my birthday. So it’s a bit of a gray slap in the face to wake up and have it not be my birthday anymore.
On your past few records, it feels like you’ve brought back the trend of young European bands returning to the roots of ’n’ roll—American blues and country—sort of in the way the Stones did back in the day. Has your relationship with this music gotten more earnest as you’ve grown as a band?
If there’s an irony there ever [in our music]…I would say most of the time that there’s not. We like to play the joke with a straight face. But also, I sometimes find it hard to differ between something that’s blown out of proportion and something that’s within proportion. It’s kind of the same thing to me.
I know you’re a big reader, and I think that’s clearer on Seek Shelter than on any of the previous records. What have you been reading during lockdown?
Honestly, not much. The past year has been the year I’ve read the least in quite a while. I’ve been trying to do more writing that’s not meant for songs, and having created more of a routine with writing has left less space for reading. The last thing I read was the play Amadeus.
“I sometimes find it hard to differ between something that’s blown out of proportion and something that’s within proportion. It’s kind of the same thing to me.”
I’ve been reading a lot of weird, semi-apocalyptic fiction from Northern Europe, and the lyrics on your new album bring to mind a lot of that sort of writing. Are there any authors from your part of the world who you draw from?
One of my favorite Danish writers is a guy called Tom Kristensen. His book Havoc—I don’t think it’s very well-known outside of Denmark, but it should be. It’s a classic to me, up there with the best of them. It’s about a newspaper columnist who meets this raving, fearless, drunken poet who lures him into consciously making the decision that he’s gonna go to the dogs; he’s just gonna throw his life away and start drinking.
You have some really striking, unusual descriptions in your lyrics that sometimes remind me of French Impressionism, and other times German Expressionism. Do you identify with either of those literary movements?
I don’t really think about them that way. If I thought myself to be an impressionistic writer, there would be a boxing in. I really just try to write, and whatever blurts out comes out in the way that it does. But English is not my native language, and I’m more free from my mother’s tongue. I find it sometimes difficult to write in Danish because I talk with the lingo of the neighborhood I grew up in, with the slang that filters through talk between friends, and it’s often not pretty, to put it mildly [laughs]. As I progressively got better at English, I would expand my English through literature, and the writing became a language of its own that wasn’t shackled by the patterns that blurt through everyday speech. It’s easy to break the rules of language when you don’t know them, I guess.
When I listen to New Brigade or Plowing Into the Field of Love, I hear traces of Brecht (also an Expressionist) and of the German cabaret culture as it’s portrayed in old movies. The way you amp up the camp—playing the joke with a straight face, as you said—reminds me of Marlene Dietrich and Lotte Lenya.
It’s just a proclivity I have. I don’t really know where it comes from. That’s a dangerous thing to touch because you can very easily get pastiche-like. I hope I can dance around those pitfalls. But after having done music for a bit and coming into the public sphere, you realize that the persona that gets created around you is something you can manipulate and meddle with in a way where it becomes hard, even for me, to distinguish between truth and fiction. But you can push things, control the narrative a bit.
People often align Iceage with the ’80s Madchester scene in London, or with the Britpop and New Wave movements that were happening there around the same time. Do you have any favorite artists from that era of British music?
I like Suede a lot, and many of us in the band are big fans of Pulp. I adore Jarvis Cocker as a lyric writer.
“After having done music for a bit and coming into the public sphere, you realize that the persona that gets created around you is something you can manipulate and meddle with in a way where it becomes hard, even for me, to distinguish between truth and fiction.”
Are you a Scott Walker fan? I know Jarvis Cocker is, and I saw in Seek Shelter’s press materials that “Drink Rain” was sort of a Jacques Brel homage, which made me think of all the Brel covers Walker did early in his solo career.
Scott Walker has been a huge artist for me for many years now. Much like Brel, who I love as well, he plays with the idea of intent. You often have a sense that there’s a narrator who’s in denial, and this lying reveals an underlying truth. He can go very quickly from pompous joy to tragedy to something majestic, to something quite fragile and beautiful. There’s a dance to it that I really admire. I think the first song I ever heard of his was [the Brel cover] “Jackie,” and I thought it was the cockiest song I’d ever heard in my life. It’s so unashamed; it’s so brash.
Do you have a favorite Scott Walker record?
I think Scott 3 is my most played album by him, but The Drift, was a complete eye-opener for me, not just because of the shift from his earlier work, but also on its own. The way that album uses silence as an instrument… It’s some of the most menacing music I’ve ever encountered. I remember we were driving after a show, and it was completely dark in the car, and it was rather a long ride because we were in the Midwest, and a friend of ours was on the tour, and he had his iPod, and I was flicking through the artists and Scott Walker was there. I’d never listened to The Drift and didn’t know much about it. Prior to that, I’d eaten something; I can’t remember if it was weed chocolate or magic mushrooms.
Everyone was asleep in the car, and I was awake in the dark by myself, and I put it on. I was already kind of freaked out and in a not-too-stable mental place at the time, and I listened to the album in its entire duration. I remembered that music used to be something that could terrify me, and I hadn’t felt that for so long. You get desensitized, but when you’re 12 years old, a lot of music can actually leave you scared because you don’t know the limits of how far music can go. That was the first time since I was quite young that I was legitimately terrified of music.
“The Holding Hand,” which feels to me like Seek Shelter’s opus, is kind of a scary track. The intro of that song has noises that remind me of horror movie sound effects. Are you a horror fan?
When I was a teenager I was really into horror movies, especially gory slasher stuff. I still enjoy a good horror film. I prefer the ones that can actually get under my skin, but that’s rare. The first horror film I ever saw—I was probably eight years old, if not even younger, and it was night, and I was by myself in the apartment where I grew up, and I was flicking through the channels, and I became transfixed by what turned out to be The Shining. By the time I realized what it was, I was so shook I couldn’t move my hand to pick up the remote, so I was forced to sit through the entire film. My father came home late at night and found me like that. It was back in the day when TV channels stopped eventually, so I was just rocking in front of the blank screen. He put on a VHS of Buster Keaton to calm me down.
That was a tough experience to beat, but The Tenant really fucked with me, because I think that not being able to know whether the danger or the conspiracy is happening in the real world or in the lead characters head is such a frightening concept. Hereditary is a good one too. The ending of that film kind of made it so it didn’t really stay with me, but it was pretty fucking menacing until then.
The big theme I read into Seek Shelter was co-dependence in the apocalypse. Is that something you’ve been experiencing, or just something you’ve observed in the world around you?
I think I have a tendency to reject security. I often search toward things that will make life uncertain for me. Often, if things feel too safe, I’ll venture away and put myself at risk, or find myself in a place where there’s room for both good and bad to occur. On this album, though, especially on the opening track, “Shelter Song,” there’s something in it that actually longs for cover or security. You can find that in many things, but community is one of them.
“I’d like for the song to reach for something higher than what is immediately, concretely there in reality.”
There’s a lot of religious imagery on this record: the gospel quote in “High and Hurt” and the gospel chorus that appears on a few songs, the heroine of “Dear Saint Cecilia,” the “limp-wristed God” of “The Holding Hand.” Can you talk about your relationship with religion?
I’m from a partially Catholic family. I grew up in a Christian school with prayer every morning, so it was instilled in me early on. But I don’t know, it’s just another one of my proclivities. I never really intend to tackle those subjects, but every time I sit down and try to write the lyrics for a record, at some point they just seem to bleed in. It’s just how things spill out of me. I’d like for the song to reach for something higher than what is immediately, concretely there in reality.
Going back to that great image of the “limp-wristed God,” is that what you think of when you envision the apocalypse, a world where God has lost control? Is that the world you were trying to paint when you wrote this album?
It doesn’t really matter if it’s about the apocalypse. It’s just about the general way of the world. That song to me is like a landscape, like weather. It plays with contradictions and power balances, how weakness and power are not always so far apart. Part of the album’s backdrop is a world that’s spinning out of control. You have your inner life and your outer life, but there’s also a lot of stuff around us that’s ultimately not in our control. This is an album that wants things; it longs for things rather than proposing any definite answers. It’s an album that’s searching for something, and it’s more about the search than whatever the result of that search is. FL