March 26 2013 05:34 PM

Copenhagen punks are open to interpretation

From left: Johan Surrballe Wieth, Elias Bender R?nnenfelt, Dan Kj?r Nielsen and Jakob Tvilling Pless
Photo by Kristian Embdal

In this day and age, over-sharing is the norm. Thanks to Twitter, we can memorialize every horny, late-night drunken thought better left to fizzle in a walk of shame, or see via Instagram just how unappetizing everyone's meal really is. On Facebook, friends and family can now let each other know their true feelings about gun control or gay marriage long before Thanksgiving rolls around. 

Some performers choose to embrace such openness, whether it's Fiona Apple sharing a heartbreaking note about her ailing dog or Grimes challenging a "stifling patriarchy" via Tumblr with thoughts about Mariah Carey and PSY. But others, like SBTRKT or Burial, choose an entirely opposite tack—near-complete anonymity.  

And then there's Copenhagen punks Iceage. Maintaining a healthy level of ambiguity, they never reveal too much at once. 

The band—guitarist / vocalist Elias Bender Rønnenfelt, guitarist Johan Wieth, bassist Jakob Tvilling Pless and drummer Dan Kjær Nielsen—has flirted with fascist imagery (Wieth has a tattoo of the logo of controversial industrial band Death in June), and they tend toward conversational brevity: When Pitchfork recently asked Rønnenfelt what he valued most in music, he simply replied, "Honesty."

In a polite phone chat with CityBeat from his home in Denmark, Pless is careful not to leave himself too exposed.

"I don't care what it is that makes us write the way we do," he says, when asked about the external factors that contribute to the band's songwriting. "It's hard to explain the way the songs turn out." 

On the band's new album, You're Nothing (released in February via Matador Records), the songs are both raucous and melodic. Moving beyond the brutal punk template of the bandís 2011 debut, New Brigade, this effort finds them opening up their fiery post-punk style to incorporate an even broader palette of sounds. 

Falling somewhere in the triangle of Wire-style punk minimalism, Wipers-style anthemic abrasion and the artful dissonance of Sonic Youth, You're Nothing is 28 minutes of precise, cathartic throttling. "Wounded Hearts" features some of the catchiest riffs the band has ever written, while "Coalition" is a careening punk rave-up. "Morals," inspired by "L'Ultima Occasione" by '60s-era Italian balladeer Mina, even features some somber piano. 

The members of Iceage are all in their early 20s, and they've progressed a lot since their first album. 

"We started writing these songs just after we recorded New Brigade," Pless says. "And we wrote the last couple of songs just before recording. So it was written over a long period of time. We had a lot of plans for the album, but they changed over the year that we were writing it. It just turned out that way.

"Usually when we write a song, we change it a lot over time," he adds. "It changes a lot when we play it live. And, naturally, the changes are to make it sound better. So we make sure that we have time to play something live first." 

Though the messages are still oblique, the lyrics on You're Nothing seem to delve into a realm more deeply personal than before. The chorus of "Ecstasy" has Rønnenfelt shouting, "Pressure! Pressure! Oh, god, no." And there are hints of sexual frustration in "Coalition," which begins with the line, "She gives me signals / But our hearts are not the same," and ends with a scream of "Excess!" 

It's a slightly clearer glimpse into the often-hazy mystique of Iceage—but only slightly, and Pless says the band prefers to keep it that way.

"I think our lyrics are open to interpretation," he says. "A lot of people ask what our lyrics are about, and it is really just personal stuff—feelings, impressions you get living your life. And we're not interested in getting any further into it than that.

"We release records so that people listen to them," he adds, conceding that the band wants listeners to enjoy the music on their own terms. "There's not anything in particular that people should get out of it. We don't want to make them feel anything specific."

What's important is that Iceage's music seems to be resonating with audiences and critics—there's an unhinged, manic energy that erupts at their shows, which always seem ready to erupt into total chaos. Yet the songs contain both strength and nuance, with a melodic sensibility that's earned the group widespread acclaim.

The success has led them to trade a small indie label (What's Your Rupture?, which released New Brigade) for a much bigger one (Matador). The band will have spent most of the first half of 2013 on tour. Curiously, it's in the minutiae of this day-to-day band activity that Pless begins to open up a little, even sounding joyful. 

"We only do this because it's something that we want," he says. "We like touring, seeing new places, meeting new people. There's not really anything else I'd rather do at the moment.

"The most important thing about it is doing things with people you care about," he adds. "The people in this band are like brothers to me."                  

Iceage plays with Milk Music at The Casbah on Sunday, March 31. 


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