There’s something very special about seeing a band in their imperial phase, at the top of their form. It’s a wave only some bands manage to catch in their careers, that electricity in the air around them, that extra layer of meaning in everything they do, that sense that great music is coming easy to them, and its something that sees them putting out the best records of their career. And it’s a groove that Iceage have found themselves in in recent years.
Iceage have always stood out. Even from the early days as teenage Copenhagen punk band, they had an aura about them, a mix of charisma and menace – White Rune, from their 2011 debut New Brigade, is a song I’ll never forget hearing for the first time, struck by the strange malevolence that burns through it. Over the years, the punchy violence of their earlier sound bloomed into sprawling, poetic rock music, although they’ve never lost their ability to send shrapnel through your ears. 2018’s Beyondless sounded like a culmination of everything they were trying to do in those early years, an album of burnt-out beauty, dark and desperate songs lit up by the band’s thundering, thrilling music.
And now they have to top it. Seek Shelter is the name of Iceage’s fifth album, and ahead of its release, we’ve hopped on a zoom call with singer Elias Bender Rønnenfelt and drummer Dan Kjær Nielsen to talk about it (and as well as that, inspired by single Vendetta‘s slithering groove, we asked them to make us a guestmix. You’ll find that after the interview). First up is personnel and place – the band are now a five-piece, having added Casper Morilla Fernandez, also of Less Win, on guitar. And making Seek Shelter saw the band head down to Lisbon, and the studio of Spaceman 3 legend Sonic Boom, who was to be their first external producer, working alongside long-term collaborator Nis Bysted.
There’s a new figure in the band, Casper, why did you feel it was time to add a new member, a new guitarist?
Dan: We’ve been playing with different instrumentalists live, we’ve had a saxophonist and a viola player, but I think we figured that we’d never actually tried with an additional guitar player. So we tried it out. He was our first choice, and it worked really well.
Elias: I think initially when we invited him in, it was mainly to just do live concerts. I played guitar in the studio, and so we wanted someone to fill that role live. But as we started rehearsing, he’s just such a creative guitar player. You couldn’t really give him a song and ask him to just play it, because he’s the kind of guitar player who will start interpreting a song. And as we started writing new songs, he became part of the fabric of those songs, because he’s very creative, and we started feeding off each other, in a way. So after a while, it wasn’t even a question anymore about whether he should be a bona fide member of the band.
The second question about new personnel, is that this is the first record you’ve made with an outside producer, apart from Nis Bysted. So why did you feel that it was time to bring in an external influence in that department?
Dan: We hadn’t made an album for quite a while, and we were talking about how to do it, and what we could do to make it a new kind of process, to try out something different. We weren’t really sure what to expect, whether he would just sit there and push the buttons or whatever, we didn’t know what it was like to work with an outside person. But he was mostly there to give us advice, and make us try stuff we hadn’t thought of ourselves.
Elias: It was also because a friend of ours pointed us in the direction of an interview he did, where he said he would like to produce for us. And with us all being big fans of his work with Spaceman 3 and stuff, it just seemed like it would make sense. We weren’t really looking for someone to come in and tell us what to do, or to take the lead of the ship, we just wanted another madcap sort of mind to throw ideas into the room, and he was very much like that. He became a sparring partner.
You went to Lisbon to make this record. So what was day-to-day life in the studio like during the making of this album?
Elias: Get up early in the morning. Personally, I ate the same triangular, little samosa-esque Portuguese pastry every day [what Elias is referring to here is probably a Jésuita]. It was an eight-minute walk from where we were living to the studio, and it rained every day, so you would usually get soaked on the way there. And so we started early in the morning, and we worked meticulously until late at night. At some point, maybe drinks would start appearing as well. When we were deteriorating, we would go home and sleep for a little bit. So just repeat that for twelve days.
With your earlier records, you said you limited the amount of time you spent recording to keep a sense of urgency. On the last album, and on this one, you’ve taken more and more time for the recording process. So is it the case that these days, you’re giving yourselves more time to think, and experiment, test things out, make decisions more slowly?
Elias: Nah, we still try and give ourselves what we estimate to be too little time. It’s just that with our greater ambition, and knowing the studio more, it takes more [time] to still be too little.
You still want to avoid overthinking, and keep a sense of urgency?
Elias: Yeah, it’s a way of trying not to get lost in decision-making. There are endless opportunities when it comes to making a record. So you’ve got to be a bit brash, and learn to trust your gut instinct, before you walk way too far into a forest that you can’t get out of.
“It’s about not keeping hold of the reigns too tightly”
When moving between albums, Iceage have never ripped up the floorboards when it comes to changes in sound. There’s always been a gradual growth into a new skin, and Seek Shelter is no different. Beyondless was the most open and melodic the band had been on a record before, and Seek Shelter takes that further – with sonic touchstones in country, blues and gospel, as well as their usual rock, it projects Iceage’s sound onto a scale bigger than anything they’ve touched before – songs like the opener Shelter Song soar, and lift the listener along with them. Even on songs that stay close to the band’s earlier sound, like album’s closer, the grand cathedral of a song, The Holding Hand, still blow it up into something bigger, more colossal. The record is also cleaner and softer in places, like on the ballads, the starfall of Love Kills Slowly and the dainty Drink Rain, and elsewhere Vendetta and The Wider Powder Blue they embrace a guttural, strutting grove beyond anything we’ve heard from them before.
If you look at how your sound has progressed over the years, you start off with this very tight, steely, tense sound, and gradually it loosens up over the albums, you embrace more melody, and then you come to Beyondless, which has a bigger sound, more melody, but keeps that sense of messy, raw power. This record is different to that, I feel. It’s got a cleaner sound, it’s less messy, and it strips back some of that power and raw muscle that you had before. Did you intentionally want to move in that direction on this record?
Dan: I don’t think we talked about moving intentionally in any direction. It’s more about letting ourselves go a little bit, and not keeping hold of the reigns too tightly, and trying out what sounds natural. Without having to box in it.
Elias: Yeah, you’re really trying to work with the ideas you get, not the other way around. It’s hard to really decide what kind of record you’re going to make, because you only get so many good ideas, and that’s kind of what you have to work with. It’s almost like something is pulling you in a direction that you’re not really choosing yourself, you’re just trying to facilitate whatever comes to you.
Is it something you notice when you’re making a record? That say, ‘this is less heavy’ than the songs you’ve made before, that it’s kinda cleaner?
Elias: I mean, I think it’s just that the range is broader. It’s also something that comes with time. We do get a better grasp of how to make a fragile moment more powerful. Earlier [in their career], it was easier to just be at full power constantly, because perhaps at that time, it would have fallen apart if not. But it seems like the more we play, we learn more and more about range.
Dan: Yeah, and about dynamics as well. And giving ourselves the room to do that cleaner sound. And with that in mind, giving the power to the right moments.
That’s interesting I think. So you mean that before, you felt that for a moment to have an impact, you had to have that extra power or aggression in the sound, whereas now you feel like you don’t need that, to have the same impact?
Elias: Yeah, or we get to pick our moments. When we started, I think we had to play at that volume and that pace, in order not to completely deteriorate. We still have that way of playing – we don’t play like fucking session musicians – it is this weird entity where it kind of has a mind of its own, outside of ours. But back then, in the beginning, we would play at four different tempos, maybe two different songs, you know? [Laughs]. So we didn’t really have the will or the opportunity to be quieter. But you know, when you do things for a while, you have to explore new things.
A lot of the songs on the album go on very clear musical journeys, they start off very small, and then gradually build up and bloom in the course of the song. So did you spent a lot of time in the studio building them up like that, growing them out in that process?
Elias: Sure. Those kind of dynamics get worked out as we work with the songs, and practise them.
Dan: I guess that’s what we were saying before, about letting the right moments come at the right time. It’s not like we sit in the studio and think this part needs another track of violin or whatever. But as the song gets born, one way or another, you can see where there’s space for stuff, and what makes sense for the progression, and where you can grow things in the song.
You brought in the Lisboa Gospel Collective for a few songs on this record – the songs, even without that, have these naturally big choruses and big sound, so was that a way of complementing and adding to that epic quality the songs have?
Elias: I think it was just that we could hear that kind of sound in the songs. When we have that base arrangement for the songs, with the drums and bass and guitar, you start hearing the empty spaces in the songs, and you look for what should fill it. A choir just seemed to be the answer, for those particular songs. We had an idea of what we wanted, and then there’s the lucky coincidence of getting the unexpected. So when the Lisboa Gospel Collective came into the studio, we were a bit like… because we’re not very technical in our know-how, and how to explain things. So we didn’t know if they were going to look at us like we were kind of amateurs, which we are in a sense. But they were extremely intuitive, and started harmonizing in all kinds of directions, and it was just a really uplifting experience.
“There’s definitely that looking for solace”
I took The Holding Hand, as a first step and a way into the themes of the record. I interpreted that song as being about old securities and old certainties falling away, gods crumbling, the things you took for granted as gone. And then a lot of the rest of the songs feature the brutal and hard forces of life, you use the phrase ‘the invincible politics of crime’ with Vendetta, these forces that crush and overcome the individual, and that the album is generally about looking for shelter, looking for solace, looking for respite from these forces, and finding it in love, faith, whatever. A respite from the brutality of the world. Do you think there’s any value in that explanation of it?
Elias: Yeah, I think it’s a completely valid explanation. I don’t think I can even confirm or deny that. Once it’s out there, you don’t even have ownership of it, and the meaning of it might even transform, from what you yourself meant initially. It’s been funny talking to journalists through this, because a lot of people have a tendency to relate to these songs as a commentary on the pandemic and 2020, whereas in reality it’s a record from before that [Seek Shelter was made in 2019]. So context can kind of shift with songs like these. But yeah, there’s definitely that looking for solace, and maybe there’s a commentary about being in and out of control of things I guess. But I don’t want to [spell it out too much], my take is not really important.
Something that struck me is the comparison with Beyondless. Beyondless, you can take from its name, it’s an album about the edge, the furthest point you can go. And I think that was reflected in the contents of the songs, there’s this nihilism about them, the sense of being indifferent to oblivion. This album I felt is more hopeful. The characters are a little bit more hopeful about it. They have more connection to the world than the characters on Beyondless. They’re looking for something in the world, whereas the characters in Beyondless had given up on it.
Elias: I hadn’t thought about that at all, but I kind of like it. It’s interesting to think of Beyondless as venturing into some kind of oblivion, but with Seek Shelter, you find yourself in oblivion, but there’s a need to retreat from there. That’s interesting.
It feels like the Beyondless characters had given up on the world, but the Seek Shelter ones are still looking for something in it.
Elias: Yes, it’s interesting. I hadn’t even thought about this record in relation to the last one, because you know, perhaps the subconsciousness is more revealing than you would like it to be sometimes, but yeah, it makes sense.
The presence of the Lisboa Gospel Collective means that gospel is an obvious influence on Seek Shelter, but even outside of that, the record, with its themes of respite, salvation and devotion (“what you have lost, I will provide” sings Rønnenfelt on Gold City) hums with an almost religious energy, with Rønnenfelt borrowing from a preacher’s mastery of emotion and intensity in his vocal presence on the record.
You interpolate the hymn, Will The Circle Be Unbroken, on High And Hurt, and it’s not the only touch of religious imagery on the album. When you talked about what you wanted to achieve with your lyrics, you said you wanted to take “ordinary emotions and blow them up”, and I think that’s something that religion and music have in common, they’re both about that process of taking ordinary emotions and blowing them up to seem bigger, to seem grander. Would you agree with that?
Elias: Yeah. I think in music, there is a desire to elevate things higher than the mundanity of life. It wants to be more that. With High And Hurt, the juxtaposition of it was interesting to us, because when you take the lyrics, they’re quite scumbaggy really, so to throw in a hymn there kinda throws things into a different space all of a sudden. It’s one of those things where it’s too tempting to not do it.
I think it’s an interesting comparison to draw. Because I think what people look for from music, is that they want to see their own emotions beautified and dramatized and blown up to be something greater than they can imagine themselves. That’s what people look for in music. And I guess there’s a parallel to that to what people are looking for from religion. So I liked that use of hymns, and that kind of imagery on the record.
Dan: Yeah, I guess there’s a parallel in wrapping this stuff in beautiful, dramatic imagery, and stories and myths. It makes those things about life and death something grander.
Elias: Yeah, you can make very petty things live together with something that’s aching to be divine. It’s an interesting space to find yourself in.
At the end of it all, we’re left with Seek Shelter, Iceage’s grandest, biggest album to date, with some of the most open, pain-driven but warm-hearted, compelling songs they’ve ever written. It’s a sign that Iceage’s imperial phase isn’t coming to a close anytime soon, and as the band head into the future, the scope of what they can achieve is only expanding.
So to end it – it’s been roughly a decade since the first album came out, and we’ve talked about the differences, the whole journey you’ve gone on in your sound in that time. And I was thinking that the band you are today, has such a wider range of musical power and musical depth, and thematic power and depth available to you, than the band you started out as. Is that growth, and that sense of the horizons always expanding, what keeps a band going forward, what keeps this interesting for you guys? that there’s always something new to be discovered? You can always get better, and expand what you can do?
Elias: I hope you can. But so far, it’s been a question of that we haven’t reached a conclusion. There are always some kind of new questions that are begging to be answered, or places that you want to go, or places that feel undiscovered, leaves to be unturned and all that. And while that’s the case, there’s no real reason to stop. So it’s fortunate, that together, there has been a continuous course of discovery for us. And yeah, I fucking hope that songwriting, and making these records, never exhausts itself. That would be terrifying.
Dan: I agree. And I agree that it’s one of the things that keeps it interesting, that you always want to see where it can go, and where is interesting for it to go. And with bands and musicians that keep on doing interesting things for a long time, it’s because they keep on exploring new territory or angles, or whatever you want to call it. I think it’s worth doing that exploring for as long as you want or can.
Elias: Reinvention is a means of survival in a sense.
Inspired by the sawnoff groove of their recent single Vendetta, we asked the band to put together a mix for us on the loose theme of Dark Disco. What they came up with is an impeccably-curated mix of tense, nervy sleaze, glossy synths and euphoric soul and funk. Like the best mixes, it’s a real journey, and you can come along for the ride below.
Tracklist – “Dark Disco Mix” by Iceage
01. Iceage – Vendetta
02. Jackson Sisters – I Believe In Miracles
03. Bernardino Femminielli – Plaisirs Américain (Excerpt)
04. Charly Kingson – Nimele Bolo
05. Serge Gainsbourg – Marabout
06. Eddie Hazel – So Goes The Story (Excerpt)
07. Mike Vickers – Main Theme Dracula A.D. 1972
08. Thierry Durbet- Schuss
09. Andre True Connection – More More More
10. Francesco De Masi – New York One More Day
11. Miles Davis – One And One (Excerpt)
12. Dionisio Maio – Dia Ja Manche
13. Pierre Cavalli – Un Soir Chez Norris
14. Cerrone – Supernature (Instrumental CLIMAX edit)
15. Lou Reed – Disco Mystic
16. Rupa – Aaj Shanibar (Excerpt)
17. Alessandro Alessandroni – Afro Discoteca
18. Sophy – No Digas No
19. Cluster – Caramel
20. Sister Sledge – Lost In Music
21. Кино – Уходи
22. KC & The Sunshine Band – Get Down Tonight
Iceage’s new album Seek Shelter is out on May 7 on Mexican Summer. Pre-order it here.