Elias Bender Rønnenfelt playing his beloved Hagström Kent before it was stolen in Chicago. “I just became obsessed with that guitar,” he says. “Ever since I lost it, I haven’t felt ownership of a guitar. These days I hardly even keep track of what models I use.” Photo by Jordi Vidal
A group of then-teenage friends from Denmark, Iceage achieved international praise in 2011 with their debut album, New Brigade—a 24-minute collection of tight, urgent songs based in the hardcore tradition and recorded without overdubs. Iceage also became known for playing short concerts—not much longer than 20 minutes, the combined length of the band’s entire repertoire—and for the brutality of their shows and mosh pits. The band’s blog has displayed photos fans submitted of their injuries sustained at Iceage concerts. And then there was the group’s curious merchandise, like knives and locks of their hair.
As Iceage’s members—singer and guitarist Elias Bender Rønnenfelt, guitarist Johan Surrballe Wieth, bassist Jakob Tvilling Pless, and drummer Dan Kjær—entered their 20s, the group’s sound evolved, the songs became more expansive, and the merchandise more conventional. Starting with its third studio album, 2014’s Plowing into the Field of Love, Iceage began looking outside the confines of hardcore and post-punk, adding nonstandard instrumentation like viola, mandolin, piano, and trumpet—without losing its fierce edge.
On Iceage’s most recent album, Beyondless, the quartet continues to experiment by augmenting its core lineup with brass, woodwind, and string players, resulting in a compelling set of sonic tapestries. But that’s not to say that the guitar plays a subservient role—quite the contrary. From the blues-heavy riffs on “Catch It” to the fiery single-note lines on “Pain Killer,” Wieth and Rønnenfelt together build a massive wall of sound throughout the proceedings.
Premier Guitar recently chatted with Wieth and Rønnenfelt, who were open and thoughtful about their approaches to music-making. They revealed some unlikely influences, talked about the processes at work in Iceage, and spoke of the joys of analog recording. And, in what’s perhaps an unprecedented reveal for a PG interview, Rønnenfelt explained why he no longer owns a guitar.
You grew up in Copenhagen, Denmark, in the 1990s. What were your formative years like?
Johan Surrballe Wieth: I went to school with Dan, Iceage’s drummer. We became friends at the age of five, and our intro to music was Kiss. We were very obsessed with Kiss, though maybe we didn’t listen as much to the records as we collected the little figurines and T-shirts and posters and stuff. And then I started out with my dad’s record collection, which was quite respectable with albums by Jimi Hendrix and Iggy Pop and Lou Reed and all that stuff. I started on guitar at 11. I was actually supposed to play bass with a cool kid at school who needed a bass player. But after I played my mom’s guitar, I realized that the guitar was a much better fit for me than the bass.
Elias Bender Rønnenfelt: I didn’t have a lot of training in guitar, but when I got to the point where I had a few basic lessons that would lead me on the way, I found you could place your finger in places that the guitar teacher hadn’t told you, but that created valid chords. You could just move your fingers and discover there are certain combinations of notes on the guitar that make sense. Ever since I started playing, I’ve always been a big fan of using the open strings on the guitar. Maybe you just put down two fingers on the fretboard, move them around, and you just see what happens when the notes get mixed with the open strings.
You both seem to make the maximum of minimal materials on the guitar.
Wieth: Playing guitar was—and is—for me a very simple thing. I still haven’t really figured out the instrument. So every time I pick up a guitar, I’m still kind of confused as to what to do with it. And I think perhaps sometimes that comes out for better and for worse. Sometimes I’m fed up with it, but I always return to it. And yeah, I’m still very much learning exactly how to approach it and sometimes something very good comes out of that.
How often do such accidental discoveries happen?
Wieth: Oh, all the time. Actually, Nis [Bysted], the guy that produced our record, taught me very early on that when you’ve made a mistake, at first you go, “We have to do it over.” But then as you listen over and over to the mistake, you realize perhaps you should just go with it. It’s kind of like the John Coltrane thing: If you play a wrong note once, it’s a mistake. If you do it over and over again, it becomes a path. And I think that happens quite a lot on the record as well.
TIDBIT: Iceage recorded their fourth studio album, Beyondless, exclusively to tape using a vintage 16-track Ampex. “It just happened to be there,” says Wieth, “and it happened to really work for us.”
Speaking of Coltrane, what, if any, impact has jazz and improvised music in general had on the way you play guitar?
Wieth: Oh, a big impact. Because my technical knowledge is quite limited, improvising has always been kind of difficult for me, but I try anyway. I think it’s extremely important to improvise, especially if you’re playing something that seems old and you’ve overplayed it. Improvising can be a very big help to look at a piece from a different perspective. So improvising is definitely a big part of the way I play. And with our music and with the way I play, the urgency and the immediacy of being there in the exact moment is very important.
Rønnenfelt: Sometimes you can pick up a guitar and you’re looking for an idea and every set of notes you play feels banal and generic and like something you’ve played before. But then in a certain moment, you’ll pick up a guitar and you’ll find three notes or a set of spontaneous patterns you move your fingers in that, in that moment, feel significant. So you have to have some sort of mindset that’s right for you when you sit down. And sometimes that takes a great deal of slaving away on the guitar. And then some days, you just pick it up and straight away the first thing you play just screams of possibility.
Johan, how do you maintain that immediacy and urgency? Especially in the studio when there might be distractions, like the clock ticking.
Wieth: I think the clock ticking is an important thing. In fact, we always make sure to give ourselves not enough time. You always have the taste of blood in your mouth and your head is only one place. There are no distractions. There’s just the playing and nothing else. So time constraints are very much a way to keep urgency.