On Beyondless, Iceage Keep Evolving

The members of Iceage. Photo: Steve Gullick/Courtesy of Iceage

Just before the release of Iceage’s fourth album, Beyondless, frontman Elias Bender Rønnenfelt is in Los Angeles for a few weeks. He’s at the beginning of the press cycle for the album, and is just entering the weird headspace of having to unpack his band’s latest record, its influences, and why it exists. But one thing he doesn’t need to ease into are his feelings about the contemporary conversation regarding rock and roll.

“[Our music] is informed by hundreds of years of culture,” he says over a Budweiser at the 101 Cafe in Hollywood. “The whole discussion about musical relevance and people that give a fuck about whether guitar music is alive today or not, it’s boring and it’s beside the point. This is the only possible outcome that this record or the last one could sound like.”

It’s hard to blame him for being annoyed; few bands have so doggedly and consistently affirmed the ongoing relevance, utility, and ingenuity that remain in rock music than Iceage. Hailing from Copenhagen, Denmark, and comprised of guitarist Johan Surrballe Wieth, bassist Jakob Tvilling Pless, and drummer Dan Kjær Nielsen in addition to Rønnenfelt, the band’s 2011 debut album, New Brigade — released before any of its members had turned 20 — heralded the arrival of a group that fused a punchy, aggressive heaviness onto a surprisingly sleek and agile frame, like a bunch of Vikings who moonlighted as Burberry models. It was definitely punk rock, but even then, the tunefulness stood out: just listen to “White Rune” now and try not to be caught off guard by the guitar breakdown that kicks in about two-thirds of the way through the song; or to Rønnenfelt’s vocals on “New Brigade,” which have the surprising melody of a chant breaking out at a soccer match.

That being said, the general attitude around the band seemed to be one of surprise and interest, but also skepticism: punishing 24-minute debuts from a group of 18- and 19-year-olds just as often dissipate under the force of their own energy as they evolve into something else. Iceage evolved: You’re Nothing, their 2013 follow-up, was at times both more dissonant and more hooky than its predecessor, and the band’s pace had become its weapon of choice. Album leadoff “Ecstasy” is built on shifting velocity, oscillating between hard-driving, distortion-addled punk rock; swaggering, swinging hardcore; and thudding interludes, which accelerate again without warning. The song is a testament in particular to the control of the band’s rhythm section.

“I think it’s this thing that goes on especially between Dan and Jakob: they have this strange sync where a tempo can sort of be wavy, and somebody is constantly almost getting out of sync and then the other one follows — it’s this strange way of surfing on the tempo,” Rønnenfelt says. “It was one of the first things that I recognized that was unique to our playing.”

Their third album, Plowing Into the Field of Love, took their distinctive approach and introduced a more diverse host of stylistic touches, including country, blues, piano, and Nick Cave-y crooning. Lead single “The Lord’s Favorite” features Rønnenfelt boasting of his status among the elect over a rhythm section and guitar line that feel plucked straight out of a honky-tonk, in a dialectical style that’s reminiscent of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street. But while that song was a notable departure for the band, Rønnenfelt thought the Americana narrative ended up getting overplayed.

“A lot of people did that, and I think it’s tacky as fuck,” he says. “I mean, there’s plenty of American influences, from fucking Motown to roots music to some country — I mean, we’ve only done one country song, really. It’s soaked in American influences: America created modern music as we know it, you know? But it’s not in a Route 66 roadside sort of way, it’s not a costume. Everything from the Stooges to Motown to fucking Arthur Russell can influence you, but it’s not so much that we’re trying to do something American-inspired, it’s just that American music is a large part of our musical understanding.”

“Forever,” for example, might be a better example of the band’s uniqueness. It’s a song that’s at once menacing and beautiful, a cinematic slow-burner elevated by Rønnenfelt’s sharp writing: “I always had the sense that I was split in two / It seems so complicated / To shift between existence / To long for the better one.” Doubles are one of the lyrical tropes he tends to revisit, along with decadence, oblivion, ecstasy, and, naturally, God, who is a presence in Iceage’s music in the same way lovers tend to be for most bands: as both a subject to address and a thematic context for all the emotional upheaval.

“Whenever I write for a record, throughout the year I keep notes, and then I wait until two or three weeks before we have to go to the studio, and I find a place where I can sit and I write the whole thing out in one go over a few weeks,” Rønnenfelt says. “So even though there’s not a deliberate theme, it’s all written from the same frame of mind.”

If Plowing Into the Field of Love was Iceage’s foray into genre, though, Beyondless is the record on which the band goes for an Oscar — a simultaneous deepening and broadening of their appeal. Lead single “Pain Killer” opens with a burst of horns, and Rønnenfelt is joined on much of the track by Sky Ferreira, who lends his lyrics about a woman-as-drug a resonant, reinforcing echo. “Catch It,” meanwhile, has a tambourine-accented lurch that evokes the Velvet Underground, and “The Day the Music Dies” is funky — a word that could not, under any circumstances, have been applied to the band’s early work. Beyondless’s achievement is that it preserves what made Iceage powerful and unique while allowing that character to mature into a sound that feels older, wiser, and more emotionally expansive. It might be the first Iceage album that could properly be described as fun, and not fun in a drunken bar-fight kind of way: actually fun, joyful, exalting in the many possibilities of rock and roll music that are still available to an enterprising band with the gifts to marshal them.

To get to this point, the band took four years between their third album and this one. “There’s a lot of reasons why it took a while before we got around to making this one,” Rønnenfelt says. “One is that we were satisfied with the last one for a longer time than we usually are — we got dissatisfied with it eventually, but with the other ones, we almost immediately upon finishing it started seeing faults in it, or how it was a diving board into whatever we wanted to make next.”

Instead, the band toured, waiting for “nature to take its course,” as Rønnenfelt puts it, adding, “we needed for whatever we were doing to have a need to get out.” Eventually, that came in the form of a desire to make a true lizard-brain rock and roll record, one stripped of a more nuanced emotional spectrum. However, once they started writing, they found that that limitation produced a surprising result.

“We all discovered that, by trying to have a blueprint or an initial idea that was very simple, it gave root to something that was more complex than anything that we’d ever done before,” he says. “It was this fight between trying to do something that was really simple-minded and all these other ideas that came in later and created this strange duality.”

The name of the album came from Samuel Beckett’s unclassifiable novella Worstward Ho; Rønnenfelt says he was attracted to the notion of something that doesn’t have a beyond, as well as to a nonexistent word with a clear, perfect meaning. He borrowed a workspace from a friend, a tower in Copenhagen; and holed up in it with some books, a record player, his notebooks, and a typewriter. In contrast to the process that accompanied the last album, which involved some writer’s block, he found that the words came pouring out readily.

“I think a common thread on it, and I discovered it early on, is — the best word I have for it is lucidity, these moments where life takes on another lens and everything looks different or clearer,” Rønnenfelt says. “There’s no formula for getting there, and it’s hardly anything you can chase, even. I feel like some moments stand out in a different way than others even though the moment might not have any external special thing about it.”

Musically, the band found that their search for simplicity led them to embrace approaches that they didn’t feel like they could’ve gotten away with in the past — a simple three-chord progression with a steady beat, for example — because they realized that, within those more familiar frameworks, their unique musicianship would stand out even more. Rønnenfelt attributed part of that growth to the members’ experiences playing together, and part of it to what they brought in from the projects they would pursue outside of Iceage.

Rønnenfelt sees Beyondless as a very modern record, in that it’s an album that could only have been made by the band at this time. While it absorbs a host of influences across many decades and genres, it rejects kitsch or retro fetishizing, instead working to synthesize these elements with the punk rock that Iceage made its name on. Part of its charm, and modernity, seems to lie in a certain timelessness — good things remain good when they’re put to skillful use, and the horns, keys, tambourine, and more tuneful song structures blend nicely with Iceage’s intensity and charisma, not to mention the enormous sense of forward motion that has always elevated their music. Same goes for the writing, which deals with subjects that were just as relevant in the ’60s and ’70s — or, for that matter, any other decade — as they are today.

“I think it’s so boring, the whole social media thing, that if the social media tendencies of our day and age spilled into my lyrics, it would just be so insanely boring,” he says. “It’s not something I’m ignoring, but it’s not something I’m trying to comment on, either: I just think it’s so tremendously boring. It’s a silly part of existence.”

Nothing might embody this attitude better than Iceage’s decision to host residencies in New York, Los Angeles, and Kyoto/Tokyo during the months of March and April. It’s a decidedly real-life, old-school thing to do, playing night after night in the same place; Rønnenfelt says it comes out of a dream the group members share of spending time as a bar band. It points to a pronounced interest in the notion of authentic experience that enlivens Rønnenfelt and his bandmates; one that clashes, in a fairly obvious way, with the idea of self-conscious social-media performance. Even if rock and roll is certainly a performance of its own, it’s a performance with a history, a tradition, and a culture — and before he departs the 101 to go scope out a used bookstore, Rønnenfelt offers another testament to this concept of realness.

“I still see 12-year-old boys skateboarding in the rain,” he says. “So maybe things aren’t so bad.”


On Beyondless, Iceage Keep Evolving