One of my favourite music pieces is a 1999 interview from Mean Magazine in which Jay Babcock speaks to Ginger Baker about the Cream drummer’s time with Fela Kuti in Nigeria. Noting Baker’s reputation as an “imposing” interviewee, Babcock seems on safe ground when he writes, “At his wife’s recommendation, I called Ginger at his South African home at 7am,” but then ominously adds: “interrupting his morning bath.” A passage in which Babcock asks Baker about a stint standing in for a sick Tony Allen in Kuti’s touring band is reflective of how the conversation goes:
How did that work out?
It was terrible, I got fired every night, they threw eggs and bottles at me and told me to fuck off cuz I was a white man.
What do you think?!? No, of course it was FUCKING ALRIGHT! OTHERWISE I WOULDN’T HAVE DONE IT!
It’s awkward, even cringeworthy at times. But it is also tremendous – far more revealing than half an hour of shared jokes and polite conversation ever could have been.
Iceage don’t like doing interviews. I’m conscious of this fact as I await the phonecall, but not too concerned. I wouldn’t mind a Ginger Baker moment; twenty minutes of discomfort would be alright in exchange for results like that.
When the call does come, from Johan Surrballe Wieth, the guitarist’s mild manner throws me off a little. “I’m good, thanks,” Surrballe Wieth says when I ask. He is tired – the band have just finished a day’s rehearsal in advance of their European tour – and I get the impression he could do without a lengthy round of interviews (mine is the first of several). But we talk, and it’s fine.
It is a few days after the release of Iceage’s second album 'You’re Nothing', a release that marks a notable progression from their debut 'New Brigade'. There is as much ferocity as before, but 'You’re Nothing' displays a much fuller sound, with a more prominent hardcore influence adding directness and muscle to the gothy, post-punk of their debut. Already, however, it seems Iceage are expanding their scope to a point where the word punk combined with a few contrasting adjectives will no longer do the trick of describing what they do.; ‘Morals’, a reworking of a 60s ballad from an Italian chanteuse, marches judderingly through piano-backed verses; the unsettling ‘Interlude’ is an icy, noxious fog that creeps between ‘Coalition’ and ‘Burning Hand’.
Lyrically, too, You’re Nothing is more articulate, displaying an openness that was not a feature of New Brigade’s short, sharp lyrical bursts. “I think Elias [Ronnenfelt, the band’s frontman] as a lyric writer has developed into something more discernible,” Surrballe Wieth says. Lyrically, 'You’re Nothing' is “more clear definitely, it’s not swept in these mysterious metaphors as much as the first one was.”
This raises an interesting point. A few days before I speak to Surrballe Wieth, the debate over Iceage’s aesthetic and political identity had flared up again, with articles by Everett True and Scott Creney condemning the band for at least flirting with a Fascist aesthetic, if not espousing a far-right ideology. It seems surprising that these questions have arisen now, given how apolitical You’re Nothing’s lyrics appear to be. While it is difficult to discuss anything in any real depth during a strictly timed telephone interview slot (I’m given a five minute warning before we even get to the subject), I do put one of True’s accusations to Surrballe Wieth, that Iceage “deal in a currency of nastiness.”
“Sorry – we deal in a what?” he asks, either because he doesn’t hear me or because he is taken aback by the statement. “I think in the first case New Brigade was really misunderstood and of course it bothers us that people are kind of digging this stuff up again,” he says. “We’ve said time and time again that this stuff is not true. If you really, really want to find something, if you want to find something so bad, then you’ll find it – but I can’t see it really.”
There is certainly nothing wrong with the kind of vigilance that has lead to these accusations. It is also fair to say that certain actions on the band’s part have added fuel to the debate; selling an Iceage-branded knife at gigs in the U.S., for example – albeit with a “No Stabbing” warning – could be read in several ways.
But are people expecting too much? One side is rapt by the fact that four young men can pull off creating such sonically powerful music (even Surrballe Wieth jokes that “People are going ‘Oh wow, you do music.’ – why would something become better because the ones who are doing it are young?”); the other is perhaps attributing too much intent to their aesthetic. How surprised should we be that a group of 18-20 year olds lack a totally acceptable – or even cohesive – aesthetic?
The truth is that 'New Brigade' paints a confusing picture; even the band, Surrballe Wieth says, are no longer sure what they wanted to say. “When we think about lyrics for the first record, we look at it now and none of it makes any sense. It probably did at the time, but you know…”
'You’re Nothing' is certainly more articulate, but it still seems that there is no specific ethos as such – only songs, written about subjects (drugs, relationships, sex, insecurity) that Bender Ronnenfelt deems important. This might seem at odds with the expectations bestowed on a punk band, but then 'You’re Nothing' suggests they are increasingly less interested in even being a punk band. No doubt the debate will run and run, but for what it’s worth no one seems less interested in it than Iceage. “I don’t really hope that people take 'You’re Nothing' in any other way than people take it,” Surrballe Wieth tells me. “We did this very much for ourselves and we’re satisfied with what came out.”
A few days after I speak to Surrballe Wieth, I go to their show at London’s Electrowerkz. The first time I saw Iceage live, in a cramped and sweaty room at an old jazz club in Gothenburg, the performance was overwhelmingly chaotic. The majority of the crowd had squeezed back away from the stage. Onstage Bender Ronnenfelt shoved back at the fifteen or twenty remaining fans squirming below him, scowling and occasionally batting at heads with his microphone. The band’s ferocity was extreme – their songs messy and largely unrecognisable.
A few months later at Brighton’s Green Door Store, the band were phenomenal, their new songs sounded fantastic, as did the old ones. But at the same time there was a sense of restraint to a performance that played out in front of strangely subdued audience. It went well, but no one – on or off stage – seemed particularly inspired by the occasion.
The guitarist admits that performance levels vary greatly – though less so than they used to. “Musically we know each other much, much better. [But] it seems that we’re somehow still not quite in control. We still have a lot of bad shows, and with the bad ones it feels like we’re not in control of whether they’re bad or not.”
In London, it is hard to say how in control they are. Electrowerkz, a stark and dingy warehouse of a venue – all diamond plating, hazard tape and chipped black concrete – would make an apt venue for whichever sort of band people think Iceage are. Surrballe Wieth and Iceage’s remaining members – drummer Dan Kjær Nielsen and bassist Jakob Tvilling Pless – lurk in the background while Ronnenfelt leans out over the flailing arms in the front row, hanging from a length of electric cable that he has pulled loose from the ceiling. His lyrics, sodden in reverb, are difficult to make out, although his scream during ‘Ecstasy’ of “PRESSURE! PRESSURE! OH GOD, NO!” is echoed emphatically by most of the audience.
The set weaves frantically between chaos and often stern control, but it is when the band crossover between the two – as they do frequently – that it becomes apparent how good Iceage are becoming. “It’s not something we really strive for, this chaos,” Surrballe Wieth had told me a few days earlier. That may be true, but at Electrowerkz, the impression is that the Danes are getting better and better at utilising it. The guitar work already sounds more nuanced than it is on either Iceage record, and the aural assault wrought by the band as a unit is as sophisticated in its execution as it is impacting.
During our telephone call, I ask Surrballe Wieth if he’s pleased with You’re Nothing. “Oh yeah – very, very pleased with it,” he replies with genuine enthusiasm before going on. “But I think it seems like we did it quite a long time ago now. I think we’re already in a new place, we’re already writing a lot of new songs. We feel really great about how it turned out, it turned out exactly how it should, but we’re just moving on constantly.”
That is probably the most exciting thing about Iceage right now. They are faced with lots of things they see as out of their control, but they move onwards regardless. With this in mind, I fish for one last bit of insight, a few more valuable words from the guitarist before the next interviewer comes on the line. What next? Is there a vision for the band beyond the next few months of writing and touring?
“Not really. No.”
Words by Paul Tucker
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'You're Nothing' is out now.