The night before he leaves for tour, Elias Bender Rønnenfelt is sitting in a bar in Manhattan, drinking white wine. The other three members of his band, Iceage, are sipping on assorted cocktails and sharing booth space with a few representatives from their New York record label, Matador. Two days ago, the Copenhagen-based rock band released their third album, Plowing Into the Field of Love, an artfully crafted retreat from the grim, grating textures of their sophomore effort, You’re Nothing. Since they came out of the gate with the teenage viciousness of New Brigade three years ago, their songs have matured into something melodically brighter, structurally broader, and literally longer. With lines like Grazing peacefully on the plains of functionality/ And then suddenly breaking free, with snorting and fiery breath, the new record also contains some of the most spiritually complex poetry that Rønnenfelt, frontman and chief lyricist, has penned to date.
Iceage has spent the last couple days in New York, squeezing in a bit of press, going to the opera with renowned portraitist Elizabeth Peyton, and drinking with Brooklyn friends, of which they have many. This outing, at Temple Bar on Lafayette Street, was ostensibly arranged because Rønnenfelt and the rest of band have a well-documented reputation for being guarded when interacting with journalists. Though they’ve been more open in recent months—they’ve agreed to let me trail them on tour for a couple of days to report this story, for one—the label still thought a brief, informal introduction might diffuse some of the awkwardness, so they invited me out for a drink.
At the bar, I squeeze in at the end of the table and introduce myself to Jakob Tvilling Pless, the band’s bassist, and Dan Kjær Nielsen, its drummer, who tell me that they live as roommates in Copenhagen. Although he’s presumably the person I need to plan out the next few days with, I only land face-to-face with Rønnenfelt by accident, after a smoke break. Up close, I notice that the frontman’s face, objectively handsome and framed by a few strands of messy brown hair, looks much older than when Iceage first broke out a few years back. When I introduce myself, he looks at me icily for a couple of seconds. I stare back at him, instinctively, because it’s the kind of nerve-racking eye contact that you don’t want to be the first to break.
Still, there’s something indescribably endearing about him. For a little bit, we discuss the abundance of cars in Los Angeles, where a mutual friend of ours lives. "It's weird that there's a place where a person's two legs aren't enough to get around," he says, his Danish accent thick but not obstructive. "It doesn't seem real." When I try to talk about the story—how I’ll be following the band before, during, and after their shows that weekend in Baltimore and New York—he looks bored, but agrees. Later, though, he wonders if we can make an agreement. Speaking softly but clearly, he asks me to promise that if anything happens that I might think the band wouldn’t want appearing in a written feature, I would ask for permission to include it. I can’t tell what sort of thing he means—drugs? controversial opinions?—but as he waits for a response, his unblinking stare takes on a sad intensity. I’m not sure if it’s because I want him to be able to trust me, or if he’s somehow already won me over, but I look down at the ice cubes in my glass of whiskey, and tell him that sounds okay.
The next time I see him, two days later, he’s sitting in the foyer of Metro Gallery, the small, square-shaped venue in Baltimore covered in bad art where Iceage will perform the second show of their 24-date North American tour with Helm, aka Luke Younger, the British solo noise artist the band has picked for direct support. Pless, who I later learn works part-time as a janitor at a Kindergarten, is stretched out on a black leather couch, his attention split between a paperback copy of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and his cell phone. Rønnenfelt is sitting upright on the other couch, absorbed in Memories of my Melancholy Whores, a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel about an older writer who falls in love with a young prostitute. The sleeves of his blood-red Comme De Garcones sweater are covering half of his hands. If there’s a twinge of recognition in his gaze when he looks up at me, I can’t detect it. He shakes my hand, then continues reading.
“I think we accomplished making a fantastic and very important piece of culture.” - Elias Bender Rønnenfelt
We don’t speak again until after soundcheck, when Rønnenfelt suggests checking out a little club named The Depot up the road. With its long bar, neon lights, and gaudy murals, The Depot has a certain desperate charm to it, one to which the entire band seems magnetically drawn. “If only you could have a cigarette in here,” Rønnenfelt says, looking around. After we grab drinks and shovel a few dollars in the jukebox, I ask if I can switch on my recorder, and we talk a little about the album’s lyrics. Rønnenfelt came up with most of them in Berlin, where he holed himself up in a borrowed apartment for a couple weeks, finding inspiration in things like Werner Herzog films and Ernst Jünger’s novellas. When I ask him about “Forever,” the stormy, slow-building Plowing track that feels—to me—like some sort of emotional centerpiece, he’s quick to point out that my interpretation is too literal. “It's not about a split personality,” he says between sips of a Miller High Life. “It's about how the world will look one way in a state of bliss and one way for the opposite. It's written from the perspective of the opposite—longing for the other one."
The conversation seems to be going fine, but it suddenly takes a tense turn when I ask about the band’s caginess during interviews in years’ past. While explaining his dislike for journalists who don’t do their research, Rønnenfelt starts getting a little worked up. “They ask to talk with us, so they're wasting my time,” he says, his face contorting slightly, his tone growing sharper. “I have better shit to waste my time on.” He stands up abruptly to buy another beer, and our interview mostly falls to the wayside from there. 15 minutes later, though, I overhear him telling Younger that music journalists are “the laziest people on earth,” generalizing that they’re accustomed to dealing with artists who are overly eager to speak candidly about their artistic process, therefore limiting the writer’s need to get to know the work before an interview. Choosing to go on this rant while a reporter is sitting next to him feels like a calculated move, less a backhanded insult and more like a warning: “This won’t be that easy.”
But as soon as the band takes the Metro Gallery stage, any creeping discomfort I’ve begun to feel about the weekend immediately burns off. With the record’s clear-headed vision and expanded sonic palette, it’s easy to forget how unruly the songs can be, and on stage in Baltimore—with just a guitar, a bass, tense drums and Rønnenfelt’s tortured baritone—there’s no mistaking the band from their younger selves. They’re still producing the kind of unpredictably structured and floor-pounding punk that has always made their live shows so cathartic, only now with bigger songs and an increased emphasis on the words. When Elias wails I had a sense of utopia—of what I really ought to do on the uncharacteristically soaring chorus of “How Many,” you’re meant to understand him.
Rønnenfelt has always had a uniquely powerful presence while performing, but here, tonight, it reaches reckless new heights. He pouts his lips, strikes a sexy pose with his hand on his hip, grunts sensually into the microphone. He toys with expectations, ignoring the hand of the kid reaching out to him, then caressing the cheek of an unsuspecting other instead. Later, while singing the album’s title track, he appears to escape reality altogether: his eyes go blank and he stumbles over something, falls hard, and nearly rolls down the stage’s stairs. Unfazed and without missing a beat, he hops up and finishes out the set: I am plowing into the field of love, he cries, eyes closed, face pointed toward the ceiling.
After the show, it starts looking less and less likely that I'll be getting the story that I want, which is a behind-the-scenes portrait of four young musicians hitting the road after releasing the most interesting album of their career. When the photographer who is with me asks the band to take some photos, they decline, without really offering a reason why. While I had initially been told that I’d be getting access to the band after the Baltimore gig, they aren't sure if they're even staying overnight in Maryland. There's no room in the van, and I get the sense that even if there was, we wouldn't be invited. I don’t see Iceage again until we’re back in New York the next day, where I mention to Rønnenfelt that it feels nice to be home after a dreary night in Baltimore. “You’ve only been gone for one day,” he reminds me curtly, presumably at least partially aware that my travel experience was made stressful because I was attempting to get a notoriously divisive punk band to open up. He lights a cigarette and shrugs. “New York’s not that great.”
We’re huddled-up in the backstage area of The Bowery Ballroom: all of Iceage, Younger, plus a punk kid called Speedboat from California, who the band invited along on tour after they learned he’d hardly ever been away from home. There’s a couple of empty Tecate tall boy cans on the table. By the time they take the stage a little after 11:00, there will be dozens. I decide to proceed by sticking to questions about the new record, and all in all, it’s pretty obvious that the band is colossally proud of their new opus. “I think we accomplished making a fantastic and very important piece of culture,” Rønnenfelt says matter-of-factly, and the rest of the guys nod in agreement. Even Pless, who is lying down and transfixed by his phone again, looks up to agree. “I think there's still potential in playing the new songs live,” adds guitarist Johan Surballe Wieth, the tallest—and maybe most outwardly friendly—member of Iceage. “I didn't feel like that before.” I ask them if at some point down the road they plan to incorporate the album’s diversified instrumentation—the trumpet blasts, the chirpy mandolins, the coarse strings—into their live show. Rønnenfelt grins. “We’re not very good at down the road.”
Despite this live-in-the-now sensibility, Plowing suggests that Iceage, and maybe Rønnenfelt specifically, are at least somewhat interested in forward motion. Speaking of the album in a recent interview with Pitchfork’s Brandon Stosuy, Rønnenfelt says, “You could say that we played the whole ‘lead singer’ aspect up a little bit...and part of me wants to be a pop star.” That “lead singer” character certainly manifests in his increasingly unhinged showmanship on stage, but it also seems to spill into his interactions off of it. At certain moments, like when he’s making journalists squirm or getting loaded backstage with familiar faces from New York’s nightlife scene, Rønnenfelt admittedly seems a lot like the self-assured narrator of the twangy, whiskey-streaked single “The Lord’s Favorite,” who believes he’s positively God’s favorite one. When I ask about those sorts of egocentric statements, which pop up a lot on Plowing, he tells me that what might seem like a Messiah complex is actually masking something more complicated: “A lot of the songs sound more positive, or more forward-chested, but [they] deal with states of lying to yourself and being confused about how you're actually feeling,” he says. “You think you've got it figured out, but it's not reality.” It's unclear whether he's talking about himself in that moment, hinting that his own smug confidence is somehow a red herring for a troubled inner life, but it suggests a degree of self-awareness that I hadn't noticed before. On the one hand, there’s something unsettling about spending time with such a volatile spirit, someone who seems to act on every desire, every childish whim. On the other, that disregard for the rules of social conduct is part of what makes watching Iceage perform so intoxicating. I think it's also the reason why, despite everything, I still wanted Rønnenfelt to like me.
Whether it’s the spectators cramming in shoulder to shoulder at the Bowery Ballroom or an old friend backstage, most everyone floating in Rønnenfelt’s orbit seems to feel that way, too. Just before sunset, when we’re finally able to motivate the band for long enough to shoot some photographs for this story, we go for a walk through the cobbled streets of Chinatown. Speedboat tags along, and Rønnenfelt insists that his friend appear in the photos. I ask him if we can take one or two with just the band. “It can’t work without him,” he says. “I decide who’s in the band or not.” Walking back to the venue, Rønnenfelt hooks his skinny arm around Speedboat’s shoulders and kisses him softly on the head. “You have any hot gossip for me from LA?” the singer asks, smirking. It’s a sweet moment, and for a second I forget all about the tempestuous behavior and general unpleasantness, and just see a 22-year-old dude hanging out with his friends, eager to hear all their secrets. If he lets you in the club, maybe he’ll tell you some of his.