Iceage are a threatening band. They're threatening because of their chaotic, metallic, shambling mass of sound. They're threatening because their latest album, You're Nothing is thirty minutes of ice cold cathartic destruction. They're threatening because they seem to have appeared out of the ether. They're threatening because people can't quite wrap their heads around them.
In some ways, this threat has caused the band to be thrust in the spotlight. Just why are these 21 year old Danes making such a berserk racket? How could dudes so young have the ability to write from such a detached distance? But in other ways, the threat has caused Iceage strife. Allegations of the most vile sort has been launched in the band's direction.
To see why the band is so threatening to some people and to get behind some of their imagery that is so powerful yet so mysterious, Punknews features editor John Gentile recently phoned up Iceage guitarist Johan Wieth, where they talked about You're Nothing, emotions themselves and whether or not they are part of a secret fascist cult.
When I talk to Iceage guitarist Johan Wieth he comes off as very Scandinavian. Perhaps allaying such a tag on the twenty-one-year-old is small-minded or bigoted of me, but for all the descriptions I've heard of people from Denmark, he seems to fit the bill. When I telephone Wieth, he is extremely mannerly. He thanks me for the interview with a short genuineness. The thanks aren't so long that they seem false, nor are they so short that they seem to be a conceit of discussion. In his, "Thank you so much for the interview" he seems genuine, but not necessarily warm. His speech is metered and steady, his grammar impeccable. And as with many Scandinavians, his pronunciation of the English language is either charming or disconcertingâwhile he enunciates like a radio broadcaster, his tongue seems to be perpetually flattened across the floor of his mouth when he speaks. (It need not be mentioned that I am entirely ignorant on how to speak Danish.)
His polite demeanor never falters, even when we are discussing topics that weigh heavily on his mind. In fact, he's so polite that halfway through our interview, I realize that as with so many Northern European-American conversations, the politeness acts as a wall to prevent me from really digging down inside of his mind. NOFX's Fat Mike might be a rude jerk sometimes, but at least you're getting how he truly feels when you speak to him. Eugene Robinson of Oxbow might tell you that he's going to kick your ass halfway through a recording, but at least you know you're about to spend two to six weeks in traction.
That's not to say that Wieth's politeness and unerring, measured thoughtfulness is meant to frustrate transatlantic communications. Rather, because Iceage have lyrics that are equally cryptic and clever, and because they are a band of young men too young to drink in the U.S., and because they hail from a country that a lot of people can't even find on a map, and because they have shot to top of the music blog and printed mag consciousness in a short matter of weeks, the band suddenly find themselves being allayed with all sorts of labels that are either misleading, reductive or even outright slanderous.
"Hipster punk." "Hype band." "Racists." All those tags have been tacked to the band and each one is entirely incorrect, so you can't blame Wieth for guarding himself through a fence of reserved, but mannered speech. Because we North Americans can't quite fit Iceage into one of our neat little boxes, we squish them into the nearest one, even if if the categorization is totally faulty.
"We're very dependent on each other," Wieth says, referring to his bandmates, all under 22 years old. The past year has been especially trying on the band due to their rapid rise in popularity and the attendant blowback. While this would cause the ties of many bands to fray, by contrast, Wieth's relationships with his bandmates have grown stronger. "We were friends before we were anything," he says. "I think for our specific situation, if we didn't get along as well as we did, we wouldn't be able to do as well as we do. Friendship is a big part and contributes a lot to the process."
Iceage's rise wasn't exactly meteoric, but it was darn quick. After forming in 2008 when they were but 17, they put out a few small releases before unleashing their debut LP New Brigade in 2011 on the small Danish label Tambourhinoceros. New Brigade was an exciting, if not earth-shattering debut; a twenty-four minute onslaught of sloppy, clanging guitars and distanced wailing, the album shot to the top of many critic's lists for the year. Even The Washington Post took notice of the band's nastier exterior, calling New Brigade "a reminder of how powerful a noisy, new band with something to prove can sound."
But only after signing to larger indie Matador Records, home of other forward-thinking punk bands like Fucked Up and Ceremony, would Iceage go from being a "buzz band" to a band that was splitting the punk and indie scenes in their respective halves.
You're Nothing is a noisy as hell, abrasive record. The guitars are jacked up to 10, maxing out the amps so they become a distorted mass of sound. The strings screech and whine as much as they cut riffs. Meanwhile, the bass and drums muddle themselves together into a flinging unit that is constantly tearing apart at the seams. In the middle of it all, vocalist Elias Ronnenfelt sings halfway between a wail and a scream with lyrics that could have only come from a young man, in the best possible way. But unlike most punk records where vocals reside at the top of the music, Ronnenfelt's voice is buried about two feet down in the siren-music, so that it sounds like he's either struggling to get to the top or purposefully drowning in the sonic molasses. Although the emotion is as potent as any red hot punk kicker, the whole piece feels like it is glazed with ice.
Take "Morals," for example. A mid-paced number, the song is propelled by what sounds like a military execution march, while a minor piano drones in the foreground. Ronnenfelt calls out "To be someone like you / unable to face basal demands / to be someone like you / unable to carry life's weight." Suddenly, Wieth's guitar appears from nowhere, covered in military cadence and speeding up the procession, eventually drowning out Ronnenfelt as if he is pulling up (or down) into an unfathomable bright light. After Wieth's extraction only the steady march remains, revealing that it was there all along and perhaps suggesting that Ronnenfelt was never there in the first place.
The album's mix of noise and distance, emotion and coldness, abstraction and abrasion has led many critics, fans and detractors to try to define the band through comparison. They've been likened to Joy Division, but while Ronnenfelt's despair is akin to Ian Curtis' own death wail, Iceage's music shatters more quickly and more violently than most Joy Division tracks. They've been compared to Fucked Up, but other than the fact that both bands ignore the unspoken but oft-respected boundary between "punk" and "indie," the comparison ends there. Really, Iceage are what Iceage are.
"It's not that we don't want to describe ourselves," says Wieth on why so many writings fail to convey what the band actually is. "I just think that we're not the ones to tell people what our music is about, really. I think they should find out for themselvesâ¦ We have other reasons. Our lyrics are based upon specific personal experiences and that's kind of something that [can be] difficult to get into."
Though Wieth does state that if anything, the band's music is introspective. "I think it's a representation of the different states that any human can go through, every feeling that a human goes through," he explains. "Just for our sake, we just wrote the music the way we felt a specific way. I think it represents something very personal. It's just that some people find themselves in what we have done."
But a great deal of Iceage's lyrics are dark and melancholy, so what does that say about the band, if the music is so personal? "Everything Drifts" has the lyrics "My hands search for a stab / target is unclear/ substance seems more vial / for each jab sincere." Likewise, "Wounded Hearts" cries out "They ganged up upon us / straightjackets and chains / when we appeared broken/ they forced in their way."
Wieth rebuts my claim that all of Iceage's music is dark. "I don't think that it's all like that. It's filled with emotion," he says. "You might find some of these emotions, but you may also find emotions in the other spectrum of feeling. I see love and I see kindness as well as anger and despair."
Because the band is so hard to accurately convey in words, and because they are so young, many articlesâincluding this oneâuse their age as a focal point. But perhaps that isn't fair to do. Does Wieth get frustrated that people focus on him as a "21 year old artist" as opposed to just "an artist?" He replies, "I think that age does not matter ever, really. Young people have done music forever. You also have to find the music that suits your age. I think it's charming for me to do what I am dong now, but if I did it seven years from now, I would feel that I should probably move. I'll be very angry with me if I played the music that I play now when I am 27. The two things don't really collide with each other." Wieth's answer is very much that of an adult, rather than a young adult. But even in his removed take on the topic of age, he does belie his youth to some degree. He talks as if the distance between 21 and 27 is a great expanse, while those of us already past such mark know that those six years are often but the snap of a finger.
So then, does Wieth feel grown up, seeing as though Iceage have gone through quite a few changes, both socially and career-wise in the past 12 months. "Sometimes you feel like you are sixty years old and sometimes you feel like you are growing younger. I don't really know if I'll ever feel grown up," he explains. "I don't feel very grown up, but there are other parts where you are grown up. I don't think it comes with age. I feel different. I think we all feel different. We've been shaped in what we've been through the past couple of years. It is somewhat overwhelming."
One part of the band's rapid explosion has been particularly overwhelming indeed. Rumors, those jaundiced leeches, have attached themselves to the band as with many bands that have experienced a rapid rise to popularity, e.g. Andrew WK, early Fucked Up, Black Flag, and heck, even The Spice Girls or The Doors. One particularly, unfortunate rumor that has plagued the band is an accusation that they are racists, or somehow affiliated with the radical right.
As with all rumors, the allegation slithered out from a darkened corner somewhere and has no firm source of origin. While the rumor sort of floated around the band for the past two years, it wasn't until a February 15 article by Scott Creney actually formed an argument citing "examples" that the band were racist. Although Creney's article is a rambling mass of misconstrued imagery, "facts" presented entirely without citation, and wholly unrelated quotes taken from Danish parliament (that somehow show that Iceage have a similar opinion?) the damage is already done, and because of Creney and writers like him, the band find themselves in an unenviable position.
As ham fisted as my question may be, I have to directly address the elephant in the room and ask Wieth, "Are you, or is anyone in Iceage in any way affiliated or related to any racist, sexist, Nazi, extreme right wing, or fascist organization at all?"
He answers clearly and without hesitation, "No. No. No." In fact, what the pieces calling Iceage Nazis curiously omit is the fact that the band's drummer Dan Nielsen is Jewish. Of course, the articles also omit that none of Iceage's lyrics have any racist or fascist bend. So then, why have Iceage been so unfairly attacked? For the first time in our interview, Wieth's safe politeness gives way for what sounds like exhaustion and sadness. "I guess it's a story to write about. It's exciting to someone," he sighs. "When someone does well, it's more exciting to try and pull them down. That's sort of an accomplishment I guess. I don't really know why people do that." He does suggest that perhaps because the band's imagery is so strong, despite that it is in no way related to prejudiced organizations, people have trouble comprehending it. "People talk about symbolism. We have a lot of symbolism in our music. Symbols come from everywhere. They are not only bad, they can be something good."
He does reflect on the band's sudden popularity, "A negative thing can be this hype. It kind of brings along a bunch of people that don't really care. They just want to see the new thing."
As to how Iceage have combated the libelous press waved their way, Wieth seems to feel that a removed distance and time will eventually make the false fires burn out. "I don't really pay attention. The important thing is to keep your head straight and not be too influenced by what everyone said," he tells me. "That can get into your head if you let it. Some things are frustrating. Some things made me mad, but I try not to pay attention."
While the unwanted attention is unfortunate, it certainly proves at least one thing about Iceage: They are doing something interesting. If Iceage weren't doing something new, they would just fade away like so many bands on Fat Wreck Chords comps and Sub Pop Records samplers. Instead the music, which has caused confusion to so many listeners, and epiphany in so many others, is picking up inaccurate tags, both positive and negative. In a way, by being so confusing, Iceage have already met their goal: They have forced the listener to really think about what they are doing, instead of being merely ignored.
Wieth concedes that perhaps, that is one of the band's goals. "I want people to get out of our music as much as they can and hopefully influence them with some kind of strong emotion, be it negative or positive. It is up to people what they want to feel."