Acclaimed by many as Denmark’s greatest post-punk band, Iceage is (left to right) bassist Jakob Tvilling Pless, singer and guitarist Elias Bender Rønnenfelt, guitarist Johan Surrballe Wieth, and drummer Dan Kjær Nielsen. Photo by Steve Gullick
Is the band’s writing process collaborative?
Wieth: It is a collaborative thing, though we don’t sit together in a room and then start writing a song. Typically someone has a riff or a blueprint for an idea. And then when we’re in the rehearsal space, we feel out and expand how the song should be. But we never jam over a song. We don’t talk a lot—we’re not very verbal. The language we have is molded by 10 years of playing together. The way we play and write songs comes down to the fact that we learned how to play music together. It’s always been a collective process of learning, and that’s a very big part of the way we write music.
Rønnenfelt: I’m good at coming up with a blueprint for a riff. And then Johan is the one who breathes life into the riff and makes it become something more than just a blueprint. Johan is an extremely intelligent guitar player and is naturally expansive in his way of interpreting any riff or composition presented to him. He’ll instantly look for where he can take it. I’m sort of the rhythmical foundation for him to express himself upon. And I’m good at composition—I’m good at making up the basis of a riff—but he’s the one who projects the genius onto what’s there.
I understand that Beyondless is your first analog record.
Wieth: It’s our first fully analog record. We recorded it on a 16-track Ampex tape machine. People ask if we chose the studio for the specifics of that machine being there. But that’s actually not the case. It just happened to be there, and it happened to really work for us.
Rønnenfelt: I think the kind of music we make sounds better recorded on tape. Tape has a warmth to it. It has a depth to it. We weren’t really trying to emulate the sound of a certain era. We didn’t set out to make a ’70s classic-rock record.
Did you find that the analog format impacted the way the band played?
Wieth: No, not really. But I think it did a very practical thing. When you play into a computer, you can go on forever, but when you go to tape, at some point you have to change the reel. So every now and then, the engineer has to go, “Okay guys, you’ve got to take 20.” That helps keep things refreshed. But I don’t think that it actually affected the way we played. I doubt that would be possible.
Rønnenfelt: Tape gives you a certain set of limitations that is beneficial. Having endless possibilities is not something you necessarily want in a studio. As they say, you can find great freedom in restrictions.
What guitars did you use on Beyondless?
Wieth: For this record, I played my Fender Jaguar Thinline, a goldtop Gibson Les Paul, and a Bjärton hollowbody, which is actually kind of a weird one. Bjärton is a company started by a former Hagström employee, and the Bjärton I played is one we’ve used on all of our records. I also played a Fender 12-string Strat. But live, I always just play my Jaguar. I actually have three of them. The one that I’m playing right now is my baby. I waited for a very long time to be able to afford it. It’s the 50th-anniversary model with the mother-of-pearl inlays and everything. That’s my go-to.
What is it about the Jaguar that feels like home?
Wieth: I don’t really know. People ask me often, “Why do you play that guitar?” It doesn’t quite make sense, because taming it—especially the thinline version—can be quite a struggle. It’s kind of like I’m always battling the Jaguar. I’ve played many guitars that I liked a lot and dreamed about, but for some reason, I’ve always just been most attracted to the Jaguar. I can’t really explain it.
Elias, what do you play?
Rønnenfelt: I had one guitar that was my heart and soul—the Hagström Kent, it’s called. David Bowie played one in the “Rebel Rebel” video. I just became obsessed with that guitar. I didn’t have any money and my family didn’t have a lot of money, either. One day in secrecy, my dad sold a family violin that had been passed through four generations. He sold this instrument of immeasurable value to surprise me with that guitar I was obsessed with. I played it on the first couple of albums. Then one night a friend left it in the car on the south side of Chicago. Needless to say, the guitar wasn’t there the next morning.
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. I’m sort of the opposite of a gearhead. It’s kind of like wine. I like certain wines, but I don’t keep track of the names. So whatever is around and available, I will feel it out. In the studio I just pick up one or two. I prefer a light one—usually an older guitar—just something that feels good in the hands.
Johan, on your previous album, Plowing into the Field of Love, you played a viola, and on Beyondless you’ve added even more unconventional instrumentation: trumpet, trombone, saxophone, piano, and violin.
Wieth: Yes—it’s something that we’d been wanting to do. The records I hold in the highest regard—like Love’s Forever Changes and Scott Walker’s early albums—are ones that incorporate orchestral instrumentation and arrangements. Playing with instrumentation like that, you have to think way more about what you’re doing. You have to find some space and you have to restrain yourself. And especially with the saxophone, it leaves room for me to play in. There’s more space for improvisation and doing things that I maybe couldn’t do before, when I’ve been kind of stuck playing either lead or rhythm guitar. And playing live, we’ve been using a saxophonist, violinist, and pianist. It’s just something different. I think it gives it a whole new level—our music and also the guitar.
How have you evolved as a musician over the last decade with Iceage?
Rønnenfelt: I’ve never been that concerned with improving my technique. Rather, it has been an ongoing development of the language.
Wieth: I would like to think I’ve evolved quite a bit from when I started out playing with Iceage, when we just knew four songs—all in the same tempo. I’ve definitely made peace with the fact that I’ll never be a virtuoso who can shred away and knows everything about everything on the fretboard. I think it’s important to keep some sort of mystery about it. I still haven’t figured it out, and I hope I never really will.
Watch Iceage in concert accompanied by Stargaze, a Berlin-based collective of forward-thinking orchestral musicians.