Text: Koen Ruijs
Photos: Mishael Phillip
A drizzly Wednesday morning and a Zoom connection. In this setting CHAOS Music Magazine talks to Iceage frontman Elias Bender Rønnenfelt. On May 7th the fifth studio album of the Danish post-punk band was released. Enough reason to chat about religion, leakages and the attractive side of taking risks. To kick things off, Elias nonchalantly lights his first cigarette of the day and then looks at his laptop screen with a questioning look.
How do you get through your days leading up to the release of your upcoming album?
Lately I’ve been in the rehearsal room a lot. Besides that, I’m still at home a lot. Although recently the first cafes and restaurants have opened here, bringing back some of the normal city life in Copenhagen. Something everybody here was longing for after a chilly, Scandinavian winter in lockdown.
For artists, the past year has been bleak and lacking in perspective. How do you keep finding the energy to be creative in such a period and make new things?
In my case, it is almost involuntary. Writing new music gives me a goal. It gives me the feeling that I can attach a meaning to the world around us. I write because I want to know how I feel about myself. Human thoughts are often one big chaos. By writing down thoughts, you get a more concrete feeling for them. The inner need is so high that it really feels like I have to repeat the process every day.
What do you allow to feed your chaotic trains of thought? In short, what makes you write?
In my case, writing goes hand in hand with the feeling that I have nothing to say. This leads to a situation where I am staring endlessly around me with a blank sheet of paper.
When I sit down for a while, things in my surroundings change. I interpret these changes in my own way, which sets my pen in motion. The result is a description of my image of reality at that moment. I write down my interpretation of reality in notebooks every day. It is a source from which I can fish out themes for songs and where I can tie stories together. Two different people who I have written about can become one new character. The situation I want to describe in a text doesn’t have to be the same as the reality, of course.
With ‘Seek Shelter’, do you have one or more messages you want to express?
We are not really a band that wants to express a question or a message in a song. I don’t think music is so much about concrete questions or conclusions. I think messages are just too simple and therefore one-sided. I personally like things that are complicated and illogical. I want to make a painting with facets that can refer to different things.
Maybe a strange question, but if you don’t have a concrete message you want to express, why do you keep making new music?
A work of art doesn’t necessarily have to have a well-founded reason for existing. If I see or hear things that attract me, it is because it keeps reverberating in me. Why it keeps reverberating, I cannot give a rational answer myself.
As human beings, we have emotions and we can share them. Emotions are a raw and pure form of energy. There is usually no thoughtful reason behind them. I am also a little reluctant to explain texts to people. Because I think the most important information is just in the words and in the music itself. My view on this is not so relevant. The most relevant thing is the image that the lyrics create in the mind of the listener.’
In your music, references to religion appear regularly. Where do these religious texts come from?
I come from a Catholic family and I always went to a Christian school, so I grew up with that religious view. Yet, when I write texts, I do not consciously refer to religion. It’s ingrained in me. Whenever this happens, I immediately feel in my underbelly: ‘Oh shit, here we go again’. Although it’s not necessarily wrong, of course. Religion makes themes extra-terrestrial or inhuman. It lifts things out of normal life into a spiritual, intangible environment. Something that fits with the feeling we try to evoke with our music.
On ‘Seek Shelter’ you can hear that a choir lifts your music even more. How did you come into contact with a gospel choir?
Initially, we didn’t know how to reach a gospel choir in or around Lisbon, but we eventually got in touch with the ‘Lisboa Gospel Collective’. They came to the recording room on the last two studio days. Me and the rest of the band had done 12 full days of studio, often working through the night and only getting a few hours of sleep. After 12 days in a studio, we were at a point where we went crazy. You just get claustrophobic when you spend so much time together in a small space.
When the choir came in, I was a bit nervous at first. Purely because I have no experience of working with a choir. I also have no idea how to make a choir arrangement. I was also afraid that they wouldn’t understand the music we were making and that the process would get bogged down. But when the choir members came in, they only radiated positive energy. They dealt with the situation very well and were very inventive in coming up with their own singing parts in the absence of any choral arrangements.
The recordings took place in Lisbon you say. How did you end up in Portugal as a Danish band?
Whenever we record an album, we always want to escape Copenhagen. We want to isolate ourselves in a place that is out of the ordinary. Lisbon is a city I have always been attracted to. As soon as we were there on a tour, I felt a certain mystery about the city. I felt like there was something hidden in that city that I should discover one day.
Pete, the producer of Seek Shelter, lives in Portugal. He knew a studio in Lisbon. In the end, everything pointed to the fact that the album had to be recorded there.
Can you tell us about the studio and the time you spent there?
The studio was in a suburb of Lisbon. It was an old, worn-out building. During the recordings, it was raining every day in Portugal. The roof of the studio was so weak that it started to leak. It almost felt like it was literally raining in the studio. We were forced to shield equipment using plastic bags and pieces of canvas. This was not the situation we had outlined beforehand, of course. But in my opinion, every obstacle is a new and unique impulse. It forces you to think outside your own plans and expectations.’
What was the toughest moment of the recording process?
The whole process was tough man. Recording a record is not meant to be easy or straightforward. That’s why I find it hard to name one thing in particular that was the hardest for me. Going crazy mentally in a studio, banging your head against a wall. That may sound heavy, but I think that’s also the fun of recording a record. I love it when there’s a risk that the project could fail. The risk that the songs we’ve written are completely messed up in the studio. This creates an urgency that hopefully can be heard on ‘Seek Shelter’.
Urgency can certainly be heard in your music. The tone you strike when you start singing plays an important role in this. Is this way of singing something you had to search for a long time in the early years of Iceage?
When we started Iceage, someone had to start singing. And that was me. I had no idea about style or sound beforehand except to open my mouth and see what would come out. By continuing to do it all these years, I naturally developed a sound of my own. I think of myself more as someone who absolutely couldn’t sing, but now I’ve been singing long enough to be able to make it sound like something of my own.’
Apart from the vocals, the reversed reverb on ‘The Holding Hand’ and the dance drum groove on ‘Vendetta’ are notable. Choices you haven’t made before on your previous albums. Can you tell us something about that?
The inspiration for the reversed reverb in ‘The Holding Hand’ comes from the song ‘Planet Caravan’ by Black Sabbath. When we started messing around with that, it resulted in something completely different, namely a reversed reverb effect on the vocals. But the cause of this choice came from listening to Black Sabbath.
The drum groove in ‘Vendetta’ has another origin. When I started writing the first version of ‘Vendetta’, I borrowed an old toy keyboard from my sister. After clicking through the library of drum loops for a while, my ear caught the beat ‘Dance Rhythm Free’. I switched on the drum loop and started to work on the song. In the end we sampled the groove from the keyboard and you can hear it in the background of the version that’s on the album now.
You have an extra guitar player in the band. Why did you add a fifth member to Iceage?
That’s right, Casper Morilla! He’s an old friend of ours. We played with his former band once. We wanted to have an extra guitarist for the live shows. This way I have a bit more freedom on stage and we can still sound as great as on the record.
When we started rehearsing for the live show, he added his own interpretations to songs. Parts that are not on the album. These extra parts add an extra dimension to the live show, making him a valuable addition.
Are there any tour plans now that you have rehearsed a lot for the live show?
We are doing some small shows in Denmark in the coming months. In early 2022 we have another big tour in the United States. Apart from that, it’s hard to make tour plans because nobody knows where the world is going at the moment. I myself would like to do some travelling through Europe. Just get lost in cities and share moments with people from that city.
It’s the second COVID summer in a row. As a musician, you are used to travelling and sharing your art with others. Last summer I spent a whole summer at home, waiting for the measures to be relaxed. I’m just really done with that. I can’t bear it for another summer. The only thing that makes sense to me now is to pack up a guitar and go on a trip.’
‘Seek Shelter’ is available on vinyl, CD and on all major streaming services from May 7.