Nine Songs: Iceage
Elias Bender Rønnenfelt has a taste for songs that unearth romanticism in unexpected places.
The Iceage frontman has a poetic temperament. He shares tales of drinking with his friends late into the night but channels his artistic radar to explain why he’s possessed by the music he loves. Talking with Rønnenfelt about the pivotal songs in his life is to hear tales of his life in Copenhagen juxtaposed with the nature of the human condition, where sadness and happiness coexist. Accordingly, the songs that inspire him delve into his psyche as much as they provide a soundtrack of his life and the transformative power of music.
Iceage’s fourth record Beyondless grabs a little piece from each of the songs he’s chosen, specifically in terms of their artistic attitude. With Beyondless Iceage have created their own vision of post-punk that moves beyond the established tropes of the genre, where they mix duets with Sky Ferreira on the brass-infused "Pain Killer" with the elongated modern Blues of “Take It All.”
At the heart of it all lies Rønnenfelt’s lyrics, words that could stand as prose in their own right. As well as his love of the groundbreaking musical expression of John Coltrane and Velvet Underground, poets such as Shane MacGowan and Leonard Cohen also hold an immovable place in his heart.
“I don’t remember when I first heard ‘A Pair of Brown Eyes’ but for the longest time everyone in Iceage really bonded over The Pogues. It was their songs with sadder melodies in particular and this is a song that evokes such beautiful and sad imagery that it just swallows you up and then lifts your head up a little bit. It’s the kind of music that can deal with sadness as an uplifting, good thing and in a way that’s not necessarily a negative.
“Shane MacGowan is one of the best lyric writers of the last hundred years in my opinion. There’s an effortless sense of romanticism in his lyrics, where he can evoke imagery that’s so bonkers and beautiful but in a way that never ever seems forced. You get the impression that it spills out of the man and I’ve always been baffled by that.
“I think there’s a duality to writing and I’ve always been drawn to a way of describing impressions that aren’t straightforward. Different feelings can juxtapose with each other and create this murky, spent space where something ugly can be beautiful and something beautiful can be ugly and maybe there isn’t that big of a difference between them at all.”
“I remember the particular evening I listened to ‘Moonlight Mile’ for the first time, I was with a pair of friends in an apartment and it was very late at night. It was like we all got swallowed up by the song and it completely took charge and took a hold of me - that crushing, beautiful thing of describing a great pain but making it seem like it’s there for a reason and maybe it’ll be alright. Those lonely songs of that nature have an ability to be a comforting hand on your shoulder, no matter how you feel.
“It’s that thing where a song can come to you at the right moment and it will always be attached to a tender moment, where everything that was opaque ended up elevating a moment in time, where you can’t really differentiate the song from the moment and that can be a good thing. Or maybe a song can hold a traumatic value for you, but sometimes you find the right song at the right time and it keeps you together.
“Not all music can do that, but I’ve definitely experienced certain songs that mean something to me in a period in my life and then later on, when you go back and listen to that music again, it automatically triggers a part of the brain that takes you back to that certain time. I had 'Moonlight Mile’ tattooed on my leg.”
“’Fisherman’s Blues’ is a song that I’ve played to a lot of my friends in Copenhagen. We’d roll down the shutters at the after-hours bar where our friend worked, stay all night and dive deeply into the available bottles. It was a singalong and a common sound for a lot of my friends, it’s a melancholy song but at the same time it’s also an anthem.
“I remember seeing a clip of The Waterboys playing live on some British television show in the ‘80s. At the end of it the singer does one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen with an acoustic guitar, it was this drastic spin around, one of those things that makes you go Damn’. It has some of the best dancing I’ve ever seen from a violin player too.
“For me, at its best a live concert becomes a transformative experience, somewhere where you have the opportunity to create an elevated experience, where the feelings involved or your name doesn’t matter anymore and it becomes so much about the now.
"Also, lyrically a song can be tied to a certain time or a certain place and you read the thing as a city and a song is based on that city, coming back to it and forming it. It’s knowing you’ve transcended whatever experience that made you pin that thing in the first place and made you feel a personal victory.”
“You could take ‘A Love Supreme’ as just a song, but whenever I listen to this album I listen to it in its entirety, it’s an eye-opener in terms of understanding musical language. When I first became exposed to ‘A Love Supreme’ I found it very abstract and I didn’t fully understand it, but there was something in it that I just wanted to grasp, because you could tell that something was there. So I kept on listening to it and slowly it just developed and I become familiar with it more and more, but never totally familiar with it.
“I could listen to A Love Supreme once a week for the rest of my life and I think it would still seem as alive to me, because every note that’s played in it seems meaningful and vital, but in such an immediate kind of way. There’s a great spirituality to John Coltrane and this speaks of the kind of heights you can reach with music when it’s done right.”
“This song was an early example of something that exposed and at the same time shattered some of my ideas of what music could be, what music could do and what makes a song. Velvet Underground is one of the greatest gateway drugs for a kid to expand their musical language, maybe you initially get drawn in by a song like ‘Who Loves The Sun’ and that’s fairly easy to grasp, but as you listen to them there’s things going on that are very experimental, but not for the sake of experimentation, it never sounds like that.
“It’s the things that you didn’t expect people to be able to do and get away with, like breaking off structures in ways that you don’t know as a kid who’s been exposed to the radio, your classmates your parents music. As a kid it’s something that you can identify with but it’s mystifying at the same time. It feels like the music holds secrets that makes you want to listen to it over and over to try and come and draw out whatever it is that they seem to hold back from you.
“Or maybe it’s that there’s something as simple and generic as four chords that can be a holding cell for something that’s a hell of a lot deeper than four chords and maybe the four chords were just an excuse, or a framework, in the first place.”
“There’s a long list of Leonard Cohen songs that have meant a lot to me, but ‘The Partisan’ was the first one that I got in to. I remember hearing it for the second time - I can’t remember hearing it for the first time because it was late at night and we were pretty drunk - when a friend of mine put on Songs from a Room. I’d always hated Leonard Cohen because of what I thought he was, I thought he was an ‘upper-middle class intellectual parent’s’ sort of music and that wasn’t what I was looking for, but actually no, he wasn’t that.
“And then I was completely baffled, I remember waking up the next morning and I couldn’t really remember what he sounded like, but I can remember how it made me feel. So I went home and put the album on one of those old little MP3 players and I went down to this desolate harbour area that’s sadly not what it used to be. They’re building over-priced condo’s there now, but it used to be a beautiful place where you could walk in solitude and you’d find a car with bullet holes in it or something. As I went through the album ‘The Partisan’ came on and by the time the female chorus kicked in it shocked me in such a way that I fell to the ground and I just kept laying there as I listened to the rest of the song. I don’t know how old I was at the time actually, but I was still a teenager for sure.
“It’s a fascinating thing at that stage, when you have the discovery that music does something to you but you have no idea what’s out there and you’re not really familiar with the limitations of music. That’s how music becomes a mystical and terrifying thing, because you don’t know how far it goes.
“I think that sense of getting taken over by something when you first discover it never goes away. Of course you’re a little less naïve and your ears mature a bit perhaps, but the core excitement? That never goes away.”
“This song is an all-time favourite. I can never get tired of ‘Down On The Street’ or the album Fun House, it just feels like the rawest music ever made. I think we found Raw Power or another Stooges record first and immediately we were sure that this was the coolest shit that we had ever heard. It’s just fucking mean and raw and filled with swagger.
“It never gets tired, you can play anything next to it and it will sound like fucking biscuits! There’s something about The Stooges in that they have no one that can challenge them. You can’t really ascribe them to a movement or to family of bands, they’re just completely on their own.”
“A lot of the music that Genesis P-Orridge has been involved in has been above our world and ‘The Orchids’ is such a beautiful thing. It’s almost frail and timid in its nature but it’s also really powerful at the same time. It sounds therapeutic and timeless in a way and I think timelessness is one of the greatest compliments you can give to any piece of art, it means you’re tapping into something that has to do with the real human condition.
“We‘ve never had a retro mentality in terms of trying to evoke some other decade, even though we’re informed by a rich musical history. That’s something that I always find very off-putting, when a musician or a band decides on an aesthetic or a sound and then forgets to throw a bit of individuality and soul into it along the way. I think what we do isn’t particularly innovative in any way, it’s highly traditional in its format, but if we ever look back, we only look back to look forward.”
“This an amazing tune and a song that builds and builds on itself, the level of ecstasy never implodes. Over the space of ten minutes you think it couldn’t possibly peak any higher than it does, but it breaks out of itself and constantly surfs on this wave of ecstasy. Then all of a sudden it’s just this moment that can evoke pain, this level of strength and beauty.
“I can’t really recall the particular moment I first heard ‘Sinnerman’ but perhaps that’s because it’s one of those songs that every time you listen to it, it works in the same way as the first time you listened to it. A lot of songs have a lifespan where you can listen to them ten times or fifty times and there’s a feeling it gives you, but a song like ‘Sinnerman’ is eternal. It has the ability to make you really feel, or whatever it gives you, the first time you listen to it as well as the two hundredth time.
“Its pure transcendence, you can’t write down a formula for that and you can’t teach that. This is music in its highest form, where it transcends formula and it becomes that unexplainable thing that evokes so much feeling. It’s one of the most powerful things I’ve ever heard.”