Five years ago, Elias Bender Rønnenfelt first introduced himself to the world as the lead singer of confrontational Danish band Iceage. Though just a teenager when their debut, New Brigade, was released, Rønnenfelt sang and wrote with an intelligence and authority that made his more seasoned peers look lazy.
Iceage has gone on to record several more albums, including 2014’s acclaimed experimental outing Plowing into the Field of Love, but despite the band’s prolific output, Rønnenfelt has still found time to busy himself with other projects. Originally the name for his home recordings, Marching Church became a full-on second project with last year’s This World Is Not Enough; their new album, Telling It Like It Is, out October 28 on Sacred Bones, finds Rønnenfelt and his bandmates (including members of the experimental outfits Lower, the Stargaze Orchestra and the Choir of Young Believers) pushing things even further, adding layers of lush strings and horns. Sumptuous orchestral folk is an unexpected look for Rønnenfelt, but he makes it work, sounding downright suave while telling tales of being unimpressed with living life as a nonstop party.
With the video for “Lion’s Den” (embedded below) premiering this morning, we thought it would be a good time to ask Rønnenfelt about fearing stasis, using the studio as an instrument and what it means to be, in his words, “fist-fucked by destiny.”
You’ve done at least one album a year, either through Iceage, Vår or Marching Church, since 2011. Do you get restless easily?
I would say more than restless; I would say I panic if I don’t have something to work on. Whenever I find myself completely stripped of ideas, I’ve always gone wrong and taken actions to distract myself. So I prefer to have something to work on.
Marching Church started as you solo, but with last year’s This World Is Not Enough, it became a full band, right?
Yeah. You could say it’s a completely different project that just shares a name with the recordings from back then.
You released a Marching Church album last year. What made you decide to immediately make another one rather than a new Iceage album?
The last album created all these new elements to work with. The band sort of formed with the purpose to make that album, and all these people got drawn into the project. There was suddenly this set of people who became building stones for each other. And that album curated a new ground for somewhere that we could take my songwriting. It sort of made sense to take these new bricks and build something out of it.
While you were working on that album, when did you realize that this was its own entity?
I would say it’s become a bona fide band, and I think that’s pretty obvious by now. In the beginning, it’s always just ideas forming. And the ideas, you don’t have much power over. You take what you can get. I find it very hard to sit down and try and write a particular kind of song. It’s always just what comes. But we did have some thoughts about the atmosphere of the album, we were thinking a lot about glitz and glam—not as in the music genre. The look of a discotheque, but not the sound of a discotheque.
This new album is the most ornate thing you’ve done. What were you guys listening to and thinking about while working on it?
We talked a lot about records where the studio became an instrument on its own, and the production sounded like something that couldn’t possibly be created live. We wanted it to be a studio record, much more so than anything we’ve done before. Nothing was sacred after we did the ground tracks. We spent so much time in the studio overdubbing tracks, which is the complete opposite of anything I’ve ever done before, which is usually capturing one moment. I had to take my usual way of working and turn it completely upside down.
“I think a lot of people didn’t like that last album, and I kind of like that.”
Does Iceage have a credo of no overdubs, few takes and keep it as live as possible?
Yeah, we’ve always had a philosophy of having too little time in the studio. It creates a paranoia of not making it in time. Also, the last Iceage album was pretty much the sound of the band live in the studio. Even the vocals were tracked live with the band; there was barely any overdubs. On this, there’s a million.
When you made your first album, New Brigade, you had a harsh, confrontational vocal style. Here, you’re practically crooning on some of these songs. Have you gotten more comfortable with your voice?
I think we did New Brigade five or six years ago, and it was pretty much a collection of the first 12 songs I ever wrote. I hadn’t really gained a lot of self-conception to how I write songs then, and having continued to do nothing but that since, of course, you develop and you discover things that were there. At the same, it moves along as you grow as a person. I’ve been making records constantly since I was 18, so it’s become a moving document along with these years. Each album stands as some sort of totem pole of where I was in my life at that particular time.
What has the fan reaction to Marching Church been like?
I think a lot of people didn’t like that last album, and I kind of like that. I like the feeling that some people will hear this thing and be repulsed by it or have a feeling that this is something wrong or disappointing, and other people will get it. I’ve always wanted my music to have some element of being unlikable to some, at least.
So you’d be disappointed if everyone liked it?
I wouldn’t put anything out if I didn’t stand by it, so if some people don’t like it, it’s really not any of my concern.
So you have a song on here called “Up For Days.” What’s the longest you’ve ever gone without sleep?
Three days, possibly?
Wow, what happened?
I’d rather not get into that.
Fair enough. Both this and “Heart of Life,” with the lyric “treasures of this misspent life,” it seems like there’s a theme on this album of being burnt out on the things you once enjoyed. There are lines about sex running through the streets like a sewer.
Yeah, there’s an element of a world that you found yourself deeper into that is at once very endearing and perhaps also a little repulsive.
“Heart of Life” also has the lyric “fist-fucked by destiny.” I don’t even have a question about that, I just wanted to congratulate you on a striking turn of phrase.
So what was going on while you writing this album? It sounds like a guy who’s burnt out, in a way.
The way I go about writing is that I’ll keep a journal, just for spontaneously wanting to write something down. When I actually want to put together lyrics, I do it in one week or something, and I draw on elements in these notebooks. So a lot of these elements get compiled and put into different contexts—a passionate or desperate moment that might make you grab for a pen. And that one, in particular, I remember it was written somewhere in Belgium, but I’d rather not get too detailed about things. And also, there’s at least a subtle humor in the way you can be a bit.
You aren’t doing everything with a straight face.
Well, I might be doing it with a straight face, but I’d be laughing on the inside. But nothing is a joke to me, don’t get me wrong.
You have the song “2016.” A lot of people, especially in America, would say this is the worst year in quite some time. What was your aim with this one?
First of all, I think it’s been a while since anyone wrote a song that was titled after the year that they’re in. It is kind of about this unresting of feeling, that while things are always somewhat wrong in the world, it just got a lot more present recently. And while I never really dealt much writing about politics or anything that goes beyond my personal life, it just became hard not to.
Let’s back up a little bit. How old were you when the first Iceage album came out?
I think I was 17 when we recorded the first Iceage album and 18 when it came out.
It got a lot of buzz and pretty soon you were playing shows all over the world. What was it like to go from being a high schooler to being on the world stage?
It was sort of fun, because we had no dreams about success or grandeur or anything like that. We didn’t really expect anybody outside of Copenhagen to really pay attention to it, and I didn’t really care or pay attention to the music world that embraced it. Somebody wrote me and told me “Oh, Pitchfork Best New Music, that’s a big deal!” My first question was “what is Pitchfork?” I didn’t know about this shit. Suddenly we were able to go to America and pretty much the entire world and play for crowds. It was strange of course, because if it were what we really wanted and we finally got our break, then our mentality would have been very different, but we were probably a bit more cynical than anything else. Which might not be a bad way to go into that hype world. The lucky thing about it was I discovered that I very much like writing music, and it became what I primarily do. And thank God for that.