Elias Ronnenfelt has just shown up, 20 minutes into a 30-minute interview. I’ve been chatting pleasantly with the rest of his punk-rock band Iceage in their lightly disheveled Soho hotel room when he traipses in, pink-faced in a light leather jacket. It's a 20-degree January morning, and he’s apparently decided on an unlikely stroll across the Williamsburg Bridge over this bit of business for the band’s new record, You’re Nothing. Ronnenfelt’s aversion to press has developed quickly since the young band’s debut, New Brigade, broke through in 2011. While standards of nippiness may vary for a strapping Copenhagen lad, the bridge air must have bitten harder than I could have.
“You can ask all of us about Scott Walker,” was his response to a question about the singer he’s cited as a constant inspiration, a famous recluse whose work is not aggressive punk, unless you get really loose and cerebral when defining your terms. I'd asked him specifically, but the band lit up en masse for Walker talk, said they’d listened to nothing much else lately, and they admired that his music had “something really grand to it.” Johan Suurballe Wieth, the thoughtful blond guitarist who’d done most of the talking before Ronnenfelt’s entrance, looked mildly hurt that I only liked parts of Walker’s newest record, the avant-garde nightmare Bish Bosch. “That’s how everyone feels,” he sighed. “I really like it.”
“We don’t exactly sound very much like Scott Walker,” Ronnenfelt admitted. And it's true. On You’re Nothing, Iceage still sounds like a gloomy European punk band and not suddenly a gang of art-pop crooners. They gained attention as precocious teen punks from a thriving Denmark scene, and they kept it by showing a better initial sense of melody than tons of longstanding hardcore bands ever develop. New Brigade was furious, choppy and brief but also brimming with effective hooks and an abundance of ideas that are often abandoned as suddenly as they're introduced. Old recordings of fledgling Wire gigs were a useful reference, but the band often looked so miserable in their fresh-faced youth that Joy Division got mentioned more. Their seriousness, their mildly exotic geography, their soured cuteness—what their new label Matador Records sees in them isn’t a mystery. Ronnenfelt denies being a fan of any of the imprint’s storied bands, but the signing is hardly some cynical aberration to its legacy. You’re Nothing is really quite good.
I’d describe the record as less fun than New Brigade but even more adamant and striking. Compared to their earlier stuff, it does indeed have something that's a little grand. The band writes lyrics in English because Danish seems too direct and preachy to them, they say. A new one, “Rodfæstet,” is the first time they’ve done something in their native language. Concerned about the implication, I asked about the viability of Danish poetry, which Wieth says “can be really beautiful, but also really shitty.” In English, their lyrics express high drama and deep, painful feeling. It’s hard to wrap your head around the idea that the howled chorus, “Broken promise, where’s your morals?” is a subtler, more florid version of that accusation.
That song, called “Morals,” is the new record’s centerpiece and probably the best thing they’ve ever done. While most of You’re Nothing is a rabid, claustrophobic pileup, that one spreads out deliberately at emphatic half-pace, adding gentle piano accents and panic-attack sighs to fill an unusual amount of empty space. It's actually a pretty old song, and the band spent a long time reworking its dynamics. The dedicated attention produced a taut and compelling post-punk almost-ballad that uses their ferocity wisely, by withholding it. You could call it pretty, even, though I might not. There’s just something sacred about a fast band’s one slow song. They play it just as fast as anything else live.
According to published reports, their show at 285 Kent Avenue the day after our interview was super short and super messy, with idiots shooting firecrackers at the stage, throwing punches in the pit, and connecting with both. Some random dude tackled Ronnenfelt into the crowd from the stage, and everyone who wrote about the incident judged both parties to be wasted beyond belief. The next night’s set at the Lower East Side dive bar Home Sweet Home was pretty quiet in comparison (though only in comparison). Margaret Chardiet’s noise project Pharmakon played as I was coming in, holding still at a pummeling, ear-breaking churn. Chilling out with a drink was not a exactly a realistic plan.
Cameras and notepads lined the low stage-front as Iceage played most of their new songs. They captured Ronnenfelt as he hung from the low ceiling, wrapped in scarves, wailing in pain. The room had a gentler edge than the music, which was even more unkempt and aggressive than the record. There was a heavy sway to the crowd, some dutiful hopping when the set dipped back into New Brigade. But it was a small room, there was a lot of carry-over from the band members’ connected art show upstairs. Folks on the guestlist don’t tend to throw elbows. (You could make it from the front bar to the back restroom at any time if you wanted it badly enough.)
Ronnenfelt is the definite focal point live, thrashing in real-seeming anguish as the other guys hammer away with downward focus. He has an unpredictable air to him, an eyeball-sucking quality that leaves you only about 85 percent sure he won’t just start punching everyone.
One of the new ones they played, “Awake,” huffs and stomps with frustration, worrying about “running out of time.” Back in the hotel room, I’d asked these guys, in their early twenties, what exactly they were running out of time for? The ability to make music with such urgency? While bassist Jakob Tvilling Pless (who co-wrote the song's lyrics) agreed that loud, angry music was tied up with ideas of youth, none of them would settle on any specific interpretation. “It’s more like feeling stuck,” he offered.
Later, over email, I asked Elias. He crafted a cryptic re-sponse: “The walls of society have grown so tall that they seem almost unbreakable by now.” Trying to hone in, I also asked if he feared age as a corrupting influence on art.
“Only if you start acting younger than you are. A 50-year old man should write from the perspective of a 50-year-old man. A lot of older guys, particularly in music, don’t seem to get this. Instead they go with imitating their 20-year-old selves.”
Photos by Ryan Muir