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Iceage on Old Punks, Poets, and Rock’n’Roll Romantics: Jukebox Jury

MANCHESTER, TN - JUNE 11: Elias Bender Ronnenfelt of Iceage performs during Day 1 of the 2015 Bonnaroo Arts and Music Festival on June 11, 2015 in Manchester, Tennessee. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

When the Danish punks of Iceage emerged on the international scene in 2011, they looked and acted like the pissed off teenagers they were, glowering through promotional photoshoots and openly shit-talking interviewers. As their music has progressed beyond the squall and bludgeon of their first two albums, so too has their public presentation: when I meet them in a boutique Brooklyn hotel ahead of the release of their new record Beyondless, they are alternately earnest and playful, packed together on their suite’s couch with arms draped on each other’s shoulders.

They exude the kind of intoxicating fraternal energy that one imagines powered the Rolling Stones through their hedonistic 1970s, which turns out to be a likelier comparison than you might expect. Furthering the elegantly sprawling sound of its predecessor Plowing Into the Field of Love, Beyondless imagines Iceage frontman Elias Bender Rønnenfelt as a doomsday preacher at a dive bar jukebox, soundtracking his sermons with drunken Memphis horns and swampy blues guitar.

In the hotel, we listen to a collection of musicians that Iceage have namechecked as musical lodestars, or that have some spiritual connection to the literary and fiercely romantic rock’n’roll they’re currently making—including a selection of punks like them who grew up and discovered the pleasures of playing quietly every so often. Near the end of our conversation, on a whim I cue up a favorite album cut from Exile on Main Street, and receive immediate validation from Rønnenfelt, who breaks into a brief smile and says “I fucking love the Rolling Stones.”


1. Leonard Cohen – “I’m Leaving the Table”

Elias Bender Rønnenfelt: Leonard Cohen? The last album. It was one of the best perspectives on being an old man ever set to record. I’m not sure if it was meant as a send-off, but…

Dan Kjær Nielsen: It certainly works as one.

His son produced it for him, and there are stories of the two of them smoking medical marijuana together while listening to mixes, Leonard getting up and dancing in front of the speakers. A beautiful image. 

Rønnenfelt: It’s so good to see that he never ever lost that sneering, intelligent way of tapping into sadness. With a great deal of humor. He was always a hilarious man to me.

Nielsen: I love the way his voice kept getting deeper. You thought it couldn’t get any deeper.

Sometimes I prefer his vocals from the late career. 

Rønnenfelt: I read some interview from the ‘90s where he credited it to about 2 million cigarettes or something.

We played a show, didn’t we, on the night Leonard Cohen died? And then we were all at a bar after the show, and someone came up and was like, “Hey, Leonard Cohen is dead.” My instant reaction is just denial: “Hey, fuck off.” And then another person comes up, “Leonard Cohen just died.”

I don’t always get so affected when people die, but I took great comfort just knowing he was out there. We stocked up the jukebox with infinite Leonard Cohen songs. A lot of whiskey had to go into dealing with that realization.


2. Body/Head – “Actress” 

Johan Surrballe Wieth: Sounds like Kim Gordon singing. Is it Sonic Youth or Body/Head? I saw Body/Head live, or maybe it was just Kim Gordon, in Poland, and that was a really good show. I never listened to the records, and I don’t think any of us ever got into Sonic Youth.

Rønnenfelt: I’ve stumbled on songs before where they have this ecstatic way of building and building, and you don’t think they can go any further, but it keeps going. And I think to myself, “I should look into this,” but I never get around to it.

Wieth: I listened to one record, because I was performing something with some friends, a John Cage piece called Four6. And Sonic Youth did a version of that. That was cool.

Is it a chance-based piece?

Wieth: There are four players and each person picks twelve different voices that are fixed in temperament and speed and dynamics. There’s a sheet—it’s not normal sheet music—and there’s a time interval and a number that symbolizes one of these fixed sounds. It’s very difficult to play, but it’s a lot of fun.

Nielsen: Does it sound good? It doesn’t sound like something that would sound good.

Wieth: People came and said that it sounded really good. But when you do it, you’re so focused on your own thing. There’s no beat, and you don’t know the sounds of the other players, because you don’t practice it. And you’re so focused on just being there. But people said it sounded good.

Nielsen: People were being nice.


3. Lou Reed – “The Blue Mask” 

Wieth: Is this Sonic Youth?

No. It’s Lou Reed, from an ‘80s Lou Reed record.

Rønnenfelt: Lou Reed is one of those people, in your formative years of listening to music, where you’re maybe into it because of the more accessible things, and then there’s a world to be found that expands your idea of what music can be. Maybe you latch onto something like “Who Loves the Sun?” because it’s easy to understand, and then suddenly “Black Angel’s Death Song” hits you and breaks your whole notion of what a song can be about. That was really important.

And there’s multiple different worlds he opens up. There’s the Metal Machine Music, pure noise world, and then something like Berlin, which is difficult but in a totally different way.

Wieth: I remember when we were kids, he was playing in Copenhagen, at the theater, and we went and we were kind of bummed out because he wasn’t playing Velvet Underground songs, and Transformer. He was mainly playing songs from Berlin.

Rønnenfelt: At age 12, we hadn’t heard that record.

At age 12, being familiar with the Velvet Underground at all is an accomplishment unto itself.

Rønnenfelt: I was pissed off. “This is bullshit.” If I saw it today I would probably fucking be in awe, you know?

I’ve always been a fine of opening lines that, from the first two sentences, you’re pulled into a whole world. And, [“The Kids”] off Berlin: “They’re taking her children away / Because they said she was not a good mother.” Boom, you’re in pretty heavy scenery. I think he’s one of the great adult lyric writers. There’s nothing infantile about what he did.


4. Scott Walker and Sunn O))) – “Brando” 

Nielsen: I really love Scott Walker, but I kind of really dislike Sunn O))), so I don’t know what to expect.

Wieth: I’ve listened to it a bunch, and it sounds exactly like how I thought it would sound. That was a little underwhelming, actually.

Jakob Tvilling Pless: I don’t dislike Sunn O))), but I was looking forward to listening to a new Scott Walker record. And Sunn O))) was playing on top of it.

The sensibility of one artist plus the sensibility of another artist. Like the Lou Reed/Metallica album. 

Wieth: Exactly. It seemed a little too easy, you know what I mean?

Nielsen: This actually sounds really good, I think. It kind of sounds like he could have just done it himself. But with more amplifiers.

Rønnenfelt: I love the way his recent albums play with dissonance, and even silence at times. The Drift was a bit of an eye-opening record. That was one of those musical discoveries that came in later years, after you’d already discovered a lot of other music, but just came out of the blue and seemed so otherworldly and haunting. I think the first Scott Walker song I heard was “Jackie,” and it was just so bombastic and cocky and hilarious at the same time. That song could not possibly prepare you for the discovery that you’d make diving further into his catalog. He’s created so many worlds to live in for a while. His records mean a ton to all of us.

I think he lived in Copenhagen for a period of time back in the day. Scott 3 has that song “Copenhagen.” I don’t know too much about where he lived or what he got up to.

Pless: I never met him at the supermarket.

Nielsen: Maybe you did and you didn’t recognize him.

Rønnenfelt: His cap was too low.


5. The Rolling Stones – “Sweet Virginia”

This is kind of a shot in the dark but I feel like there’s a spiritual connection there.

Rønnenfelt: I fucking love the Rolling Stones. This is one of my favorites, “Sweet Virginia,” I could listen to it over and over and over.

Me too. This is a favorite track for the end of the night at a bar, just put it on the jukebox when it’s 3:30 a.m. and you’re too drunk.

Rønnenfelt: Definitely. It’s a jukebox song. Rolling Stones, when you feel a bit broken, it’s music that feels like a comforting hand on your shoulder. My favorite kind of Rolling Stones songs that do that kind of thing. Some of our friends, the guy who mixed this record, and the guy who wrote the press release, they both compared it to Exile on Main Street, which we did not consider at all when we were recording it. But when they said it, it was like, yeah OK, we see it.

A few songs from Beyondless have that bluesy feel to them. But more importantly, there’s that sense of being down and out, but also feeling romantic about the fact that you’re down and out. You guys have done that well on the last two records.

Rønnenfelt: That’s good. When you’re in a bad place, and you think nothing can pull you out of it, this will do it. And it works pretty well when you’re feeling plain old good as well. I’m not sure if I could count on two hands the amount of times that I’ve drunkenly sung along to this one in bars.


6. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – “Jesus of the Moon” 

Rønnenfelt: It’s Nick Cave, right?

Pless: What album is it from?

Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, maybe three albums ago. 

Pless:  I listened to the last one that came out. I really liked that one.

That was a devastating, gorgeous record. 

Rønnenfelt: He’s someone we’ve been compared to a lot, to the point of being more than sick of it. But he’s a great songwriter. I always think it’s impressive when you listen more to someone’s recent records than their older ones. Not a lot of people can do that.

Pless: He’s one of the people we’ve been compared to the most. I haven’t listened to his stuff that much, compared to the other stuff we’ve been compared to. It’s strange that he’s the one that keeps on coming up.

Wieth: People always talk about the early records, but the one that I listen to the most, and that I find to be one of the most horrible records, and also the best, is The Boatman’s Call. I want to listen to it, but I can’t.

Nielsen: That’s a good thing: making a record that someone wants to listen to, but they can’t, because it’s too fucking intense.