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The Thawing of Iceage: An Interview With Elias Bender Rønnenfelt

The lead singer of the Danish band discusses the evolution of their songcraft, coming up in the music industry, and their excellent new record, ‘Seek Shelter’

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

If you’ve missed the past 10 years of Iceage—if you listened to the Danish band’s much-hyped 2011 debut, New Brigade, in all of its post-punk and no-wave glory, but skipped the three records they’ve put out in the interim—then “Shelter Song” likely comes as a shock.

The lead track off Seek Shelter, the band’s fifth LP, out Friday on Mexican Summer, is a far cry from those early tracks Iceage made as teenagers, which sound like Joy Division recording in torture chamber. (This is a compliment, of course.) “Shelter Song” feels like it was crafted by an entirely different band—one who seems to have more in common with the Rolling Stones than the quartet Iggy Pop once called “the only current punk band [he] can think of that sounds really dangerous.” On the new song, they sound hopeful, almost tender. The string section—yes, Iceage now deploy a string section when necessary—swells throughout, and a choir brings the chorus to near-celestial catharsis. This is a band that named its sophomore album You’re Nothing, yet in spring 2021, at the conclusion of one of the darkest yearlong periods in recent human history, they appear optimistic, offering songs of hope and videos that double as loving tributes to their friends.

If you are a wayward Iceage fan, you’ll likely recognize one thing about “Shelter Song”: the strained drawl of singer Elias Bender Rønnenfelt, the somehow-now-29-year-old poet laureate behind one of rock’s most literate groups. (Don’t take my word for it, take Richard Hell’s.) Rønnenfelt, however, doesn’t see the turn toward hope as too much of a shock. Iceage doubled down on the aesthetic of New Brigade with 2013’s You’re Nothing, but since then, they’ve grown and shape-shifted several times over. The next year’s Plowing Into the Field of Love toyed with outlaw country and influences like Nick Cave and the Gun Club, while 2018’s Beyondless birthed the catchiest songs in their catalog—including “Pain Killer” (which features Sky Ferreira and a prominent horn section) and “The Day the Music Dies,” a riff-driven rocker that splits the difference between Old Iceage and New Iceage. Now, they’ve arrived at Seek Shelter, an album largely written and recorded before the pandemic that somehow feels like the perfect Iceage statement for a world in need of empathy.

“You evolve as a person,” Rønnenfelt says via Zoom. “As the years go by, so does the music. I’m not exactly the same person as I was 10 years ago when I was 18. It’d be a terribly sad thing if the music was.”

The signs of evolution are all over Seek Shelter: in the dense, poetic “The Wider Powder Blue”; in “Drink Rain,” which bears more than a passing resemblance to a Jacques Brel song; in the harmonica-laden stomper “Gold City.” For Rønnenfelt, the growth may be most apparent on “Love Kills Slowly,” a song that’s more naked and possibly more emotive than anything he’s ever committed to wax.

“I started writing that song when I was in love,” he says. “Before I had finished it, the trajectory of that relationship had just shifted. It became like a lament of how things can be so tender and beautiful, but that they can’t always last. It’s also as straightforward and simple as anything I’ve ever done or written, I think.”

But on Seek Shelter, Rønnenfelt and Iceage have changed in more than just outlook. They’ve also altered their composition. Before the new record, the band had consisted of the same four members for all of its existence—Rønnenfelt, guitarist Johan Surrballe Wieth, bassist Jakob Tvilling Pless, and drummer Dan Kjær Nielsen. (A group of teenagers sticking together for a decade-plus as they traverse the music industry is no small feat, mind you.) Seek Shelter adds a fifth person to Iceage: guitarist Casper Morilla, who Rønnenfelt says “became an integral part of these songs” immediately. The new record also enlists an outside producer for the first time in the band’s existence, as Peter Kember (better known as Sonic Boom of 1980s neo-psych gods Spacemen 3) helped shape the compositions. To hear the Iceage frontman tell it, Kember was instrumental in bringing the ideas in the band’s heads into the world. “He felt like a kindred spirit,” Rønnenfelt says.

Rønnenfelt spoke with The Ringer about the new record, the treacherous—but “beautiful”—sessions for it, and coming of age in the music industry during a wide-ranging interview in April.

How has the past year been on you creatively?

Creatively, it was very difficult in the beginning because there’s readjustment that comes with this blanket that swept over the way you usually had mobility, and I often find inspiration roaming, that I need to get lost. Every time I do a record, I have to go out and search for something, but it’s been hard to know where to search when you’re so stuck in one place. It’s not until recent days that those kinds of juices become active again. You do have to look inward rather than to the outer world to find these things. It’s so difficult to talk about because while we’ve been in this for a bit more than a year now, we’re still in it. I think we’ve got to get to the other side of this to truly, really know what way this has affected us, or are affecting us.

At what point did the new record start coming together?

It’s kind of a pre-pandemic record. We recorded the base of it in December 2019. It was written, coming together roughly a year leading up to that. It’s very much a record that takes place in a world that you could still venture into and get lost. It’s called Seek Shelter. It’s a record that takes place out in the storm, so to speak. In the pandemic, we’ve had not much more than shelter to lean on. I think it’s a record that could only really be formed by the world before.

Did you have the name set before the pandemic?

Yeah. It’s funny, really, talking to a lot of these journalists, as I do these days. A lot of them have thought it’s a record that came about within the pandemic, but things have a tendency to appear a bit Nostradamus-esque when the world changes like this. I know that there is a lot of vivid imagery on this record. I think as people, when we gather in culture, we have a way of applying these things to our immediate situation. Like when you’re heartbroken, every damn song in the world feels like it’s tailored specifically to you. It seems from people I’ve spoken to that there are things within this record that they apply to their existence the past year, through this pandemic. But the record itself knew nothing about no pandemics.

Around the time of Beyondless in 2018, you told an interviewer that Iceage had a “high-octane sloppiness” and that the band had never been one to rehearse much. With Seek Shelter, however, it feels like you’ve polished some things, and added more correction. Do you still identify with that earlier quote?

I would say it’s still at the core of it. There’s something about the way that we play, specifically Dan [Kjær Nielsen] and Jakob [Tvilling Pless], the bass player and the drummer, where they don’t really adhere to a tempo that makes sense. Instead of staying on the beat, they’re waving around it. It’s not a calculated thing, but it’s because we’re so not technically brought up. We don’t play to a click track, for example. We couldn’t because there’s this kind of mutating sense around the tempo that I think will always be there. It has evolved so much, and it isn’t necessarily sloppy, but there’s something in the foundation that is still there from when we were essentially playing four different songs at four different tempos at once when we were trying to play a concert.

What was the process like recording Seek Shelter in Lisbon at Namouche, which has been described as a “dilapidated wood-paneled vintage”?

We essentially had all the songs that we needed to do written. We had 12 days to get everything down and executed. We knew that it was a bit dilapidated and not state-of-the-art sort of equipment-wise, but we were surprised at how cracked and haunted it felt. That wasn’t really a disappointment to us. I would recommend it to any musician.

It’s definitely one of those places where you’re not always going to be able to do things the way you want to do them. Things are gonna fail or not pan out, so you have to search for ways to get to that place you’re trying to go. When you can’t have it the easy way, there’s a magic within that. We always choose atmosphere prior to functionality. It was raining down from the ceilings, and we had to place the gear around buckets with pieces of cloth over so that the raindrops wouldn’t go into microphones and these kinds of things.

That sounds magical and maybe a bit frightening.

It was almost too perfect. You see this beautiful disaster and you’re like, “OK, this is exactly why we are here right now. This seems meant to be.” People have always also pointed out how water goes through the album, different kinds of imagery of water. Of course it was raining from the ceiling.

Is that where “Drink Rain” came from? Or did you already have that song?

Already had that. It’s perfect. When you set out to do things, even though I believe that they’re not, they can very much feel predestined, as long as you set yourself up for a chance for it to happen—these kinds of failures, the successes, or whatever they are. It’s funny how it all comes together.

What is your writing process like these days? I’ve read that you do the lyrics essentially in one shot.

Well, in a fixed period of time. When all the conversations are basically finished for an album, and I know what date we start in the studio, I will say, “OK, from this day to this day, that’s where I’ll go and write the lyrics.” I’ll find a place. Sometimes I’ve gone to other cities. Sometimes I’ve borrowed a room somewhere in Copenhagen where I can just go and do that, not to create a concept but to make sure all the songs on the album come from the same mindset, that it isn’t a fractured thing that was loosely done over time, but to try and create some kind of lineage.

It’s like when you over-edit something, it can start to lose the feeling.

That’s what I’m trying to stay away from, the freedom of endless editing and the freedom of second doubt, but again, setting yourself up for potential failure and having to perform on the spot. That’s what seems to work for me.

I think it’s fair to say that each Iceage album has been an evolution from the one before it, especially since You’re Nothing. Every one sounds different from the last, to a certain extent. There’s a progression there, if you’ve been following, but I’m curious: How much of this is intentional and how much of this is a natural evolution?

It’s pretty much all natural. But it’s intentional to the extent that we consciously try to move away from the familiarity. If we’ve done an album, there’s usually a period where you feel emptied, and ideas start coming again, and you regroup in the rehearsal space, and try out riffs or ideas. If what comes feels a little too familiar or a little too safe—not bad, just a rehashing of things—then we usually discard it and go back to the drawing board. I think it’s a means of survival, in a sense, and why we’ve been a band for so long now.

To stay on “Shelter Song”—it sticks out to me as a real broadening of your sonic palette. At once, it feels bigger than everything you guys have done in the past, but it’s also very tender. It has a choir on it. Did that song feel special in the moment?

I remember Peter in the studio, every time we opened that song up, he was like, “I think you maybe should stay working on this. This feels like an important song.” What I’m proud about that song is that it actually dares to offer some compassion that I don’t think there’s been an abundance of in our prior output. It’s perhaps not an uplifting song, but only because there is something to lift up from. There’s an inherent pain in there. But there’s also nurture. Often in songwriting, that’s the stuff I’m most interested in, these kinds of dualities. You end up with a bit of a complex palette of emotion. I think it’s a great song.

I recently played a fan of New Brigade who checked out on you guys some of the songs off of Seek Shelter. Their first question was, “What did I miss in between? How did we get from New Brigade to Shelter Song?”

I hadn’t thought about that, but if you haven’t seen anything from the beginning to where we are now, that’s quite a fucking leap, actually.

So what makes an Iceage song an Iceage song if there’s so much evolution going on?

The individuals behind it. I would say that there’s some kind of internal logic to what makes an Iceage song, but it’s one that continues to break barriers. There’s a lot of things that, at a time, would have been a complete no-go for us, but also because we perhaps weren’t quite capable of at some point.

I can’t really try and sit down and calculate a song. You just sit down, you play or you write, and it’s almost like you get visited by the ideas rather than making it up from scratch. Sometimes it feels like you’re a bit powerless in terms of direction, because you only get so many good ideas, and they have a will of their own. You’re just there to facilitate them.

How do you look back on New Brigade, which feels like several lifetimes ago at this point?

It had its 10-year anniversary a few months ago. We had to go to our record label and sign 750 records, which took a while. We put it on just to be like, “OK, we’re not sure if it’s a good idea to listen to this, but let’s give it a shot.” It was like a sweet little emotional, unexpected moment between us, as the ghosts of our past play themselves. It felt very alive to me.

We’ve been through the thick and thin and lived a unified life in many ways. Looking at them and having the new record, and hearing where it started from, it’s just one of those beautiful moments. I usually cringe at past endeavors because I’m just not usually ready to face these things. I started feeling a sense of gratification or pride, which I never let myself feel. It was OK.

You were teenagers when you made that record. What do you wish you could tell yourself now that you didn’t know back then?

I think if there are mistakes, they’re all part of it. So much of how these things happen is chance and circumstance. I think that old thing, “You kill one butterfly with a time machine and suddenly ...”—I believe in that a little bit. I’d rather not give myself too much advice, because I’d definitely have been smarter about a lot of things, but it wouldn’t have been me if I had been smart.

What’s it like being so young and having the music industry demand so much of you?

We were such a unit, and we were so unimpressed by the whole thing, had contempt for the business more than anything, and a complete lack of trust of people. We thought that everybody was a fucking snake that was trying to get a piece of us. The great thing about being courted by the whole music world and record labels and stuff is that when you don’t want what they’re offering, you have nothing to lose. I think it’s a healthy level of contempt for the establishment. It’s a way of protecting that core of something that hasn’t really fully developed yet, before anybody can exploit it.

I know you’re reluctant to give advice to your past self, but is there anything you’d say to a younger band that may be in a similar situation that you guys were in back in 2011?

I would just protect the thing that makes it mean something to you with all you can, even when opportunity knocks. I’m incredibly grateful that 10 years into this, songwriting remains the thing I find the most interesting in the world. It’s one of the sole things that lends purpose to life, or my place in it. If I had let somebody make music and songwriting something that I no longer cherished, then God knows what would have happened to me.

How do you keep a band together for 10 years like that, when you come up so young? You’ve maintained the same lineup. The way I hear you describe it right now, it just seems like you’re tighter than ever.

Yeah. They’re as close of a relationship that I know of. I think it’s extremely central that the friendship comes before the band, and not vice versa. I’ve seen bands crumble because they start hating each other, but they go because they have shared interests. That just seems like a really corruptive, unhealthy thing. Of course, things have been wildly dysfunctional at times within the band, but if there’s a will to fix the friendship part, and there’s an actual care for each other and keep a vigilant eye out for each other, that’s the foundation.

There is a change in the dynamic on Seek Shelter—you guys brought in another guitarist, Casper Morilla. Why that move?

We wanted to have an extra guitarist live. I usually play guitar on all the records. Casper has been a friend for many years, and we like the way he plays, so he was an obvious choice. He’s just not the kind of guitarist that you just say, “OK, I made up this part; now go play that.” He’s too creative. He became an integral part of these songs. Once you’re that involved and we get along as well as we do, it seemed like a no-brainer that he should be a bona fide member.

This is the first time you guys have worked with an outside producer—Sonic Boom from Spacemen 3. Why the decision to do that now, so deep into your career?

We never saw any reason to do it before, because we didn’t really know who we wanted to work with, and we felt like we were capable ourselves. Sonic Boom had said in an interview that he wanted to work with us, and we’re all fans of his body of work and love Spacemen 3. It just seemed like it would make sense to bring him in. In the same way as Casper got into the band, we weren’t really looking for somebody to tell us what to do, for anybody to show us the way of what this record should be or have some mastermind producer, but more to have a peer, a partner in crime, of sorts, and another mad cat with their own unique perspective on sound. He’s one of those people that has a unique imprint. There was a lot to learn there. We didn’t know what was going to happen, but we got along famously.

Are there any moments you could point to that show how bringing him in helped shape Seek Shelter?

There were a lot of instances where you have an idea of the sound that you share in yourself, and you’re trying to figure out how you use the studio to re-create that and come out of the speakers. Being not super technically minded, I often speak in imagery when I’m talking about what I want. There was just a mutual understanding where you could vaguely try to put words to that sound we were looking for, and he just kept on throwing pedals and machinery and whatever he could find our way, and turn things out until we were coming closer to that inner vision or finding those lucky mistakes that would substitute the inner vision.

In “The Holding Hand,” I remember we were trying to find some bass rhythm for that beginning of the song, and I didn’t really know how to come up with that rhythm or sound, but he just started switching on any remotely working organ in the studio until we had a cacophony of rhythms to choose from. There were lots of these little things.

It sounds like the biggest way the band’s evolved in the past decade is you’ve figured out you can’t do everything yourself. Or that things can be better when you open up the process a little bit.

Yeah. Collaboration is totally essential. I think because you can plan only so much, but if you actually want to breathe life into something, there has to be an opening for input and ideas.

What will Iceage in their 30s sound like?

The most important thing to me is that Iceage will sound like anything in their 30s. I started young with this, right? I’m still doing it. In a sense, I feel like I’m just getting started. That’s a great place to find yourself, I think. As to what’s going to happen, I can barely think one step ahead. Even thinking one step ahead is this really, really dense process. I haven’t got a fucking clue. I just hope that the excitement to do this will retain itself.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.