Iceage: Youth, Aesthetic, and Art Bloom in the New Punk Underground
Proud adult/indie rock musician John Roderick managed to puff down some hefty straw men in his March 6 rant for Seattle Weekly titled "Punk Rock Is Bullshit": "It's time we stopped hating ourselves, our ambition, and our sincerity, guarding our integrity credentials in fear of interrogation by the secret punk police."
Though he skims off the top layer of Courtney Love, for one example, and conveniently bypasses, say, the substance of the riot grrl movement, it's not worth completely writing Roderick off as a cranky grownup. Such criticism also comes from within: Prismatic noise lifer Pete Swanson's new dance floor-inflected album for Software Records, an offshoot of über-hip label Mexican Summer, is called Punk Authority, a playfully sharp oxymoron regarding double-edged self-righteousness. The album's 13-minute seizure-house finale is titled "Life Ends at 30."
Denmark's Iceage is a quartet of kids barely in their 20s who play crooning, lurching post-punk. They're the perfect age for that kind of thing, enjoying the Kool-Aid of youth that hasn't been fermented by the inevitability of adulthood. However, the boys are seen as sincere in their conviction and as ambitious in their scope by those who champion them. They're leading a slew of multi-faceted bands and art enclaves that embody punk not as an endangered counterculture or mere aesthetic peripheral, but as a quest for shared candor among like-minded peers.
This was evidenced by the band's clattering new album, You're Nothing, released by respected indie label Matador earlier this year and at its album release show in New York City last month. In tandem with the usual music performances was a visual art show titled "Thrown Together." Among the many musically accomplished contributors were Carson Cox, singer of Tampa noise-pop trio Merchandise, and members of demonoid hardcore band Crazy Spirit. Screaming Females singer Marissa Paternoster and her partner hung all the work.
The gala was organized and curated by Graeme Flegenheimer of Enabler PR, who handles media and marketing for Iceage and laughed that the event was hardly last-minute, saying Iceage simply balked at naming the show after the new album. Though much of the work was unsurprisingly dark, he said, what united the artists was a similar approach to honesty more than any specific aesthetic parallels.
"Yes, it's dark and has occult symbols, black magic shit, whatever you want to shove at it — [but] it all comes from an honest place," he says. "They know what they're wielding."
What makes Iceage inspiring for many, while also ripe for projecting punk revival fantasies upon, is that there's no clutter in their presentation. When I get on the phone with drummer Dan Nielsen, he doesn't recall (or declines to disclose) which of them actually designed the band's simple logo, which looks like a confused crucifix, the unadorned bowsprit of an ark. He just knows they all agreed to it.
He emphasizes that the band collaborates fully on every aspect of its music and art. In previous interviews, the band has made it clear it doesn't like to expound upon that collaboration. Nielsen is hardly verbose (though he spoke perfectly fine colloquial English), but I read it mostly as shyness. It's unsurprising that many interviewers have perceived their short responses to questions as an unwillingness to show their cards combined with general annoyance at the music press, but I felt Nielsen was simply unable to speak in detail about the band's inner workings. And what 20-year-old is going to have an astute self-awareness about his band's overnight rise to bloggerati fawning, even after its sophomore release?
Flegenheimer apologizes for sounding cheesy when he says that Iceage's songs resonate because they come from the heart. "They're very direct with their message, and that's what I appreciate," he says. "I don't think there's enough of that in any form of art right now."
The only loyalty they have is to themselves, he adds. "It's four kids who have a passion for music, and it's about friendship, first and foremost. I guarantee that when it stops being about friends, that band is over," he says.
Nielsen does tell me he took up the drums when he was young to ventilate aggression, but he's been working to improve his technique. "Now, I don't just hit stuff," he says. "I make it sound good, as part of the band." Lately, he's been striving to keep his tempos consistent.
"I think that if you're going to play a concert for a bunch of people, you might as well do it as good as possible," he says. "If not, there wouldn't be a point in doing it. There's no reason to try to play bad." Heaven forbid: Punk takes practice in 2013.
Tempe punk baron Jes Aurelius, who contributed a number of works to the "Thrown Together" gallery, sees a larger parallel in Iceage's prolific, close-knit Copenhagen circle. "It's a scene pretty similar to Phoenix, where it's a small group of people, but there's lots of different projects and everyone's got their hands in different things," he says.
Aurelius is at the helm of a similarly budding minor empire. The myriad bands couched in his Ascetic House art/music collective are beginning to garner greater attention. His sacramental lucid-dream dance troupe Marshstepper played with Iceage affiliate projects Lower and Lust for Youth on a European tour last year. Tempe's Sonoran psych-burners Destruction Unit, in which he is one of three effects-addled guitar players, is slated to have its next album released by Brooklyn label Sacred Bones, the stable of contemporary psych stars like Zola Jesus and Psychic Ills. Otro Mundo and Body of Light — projects of the prolific Jarson brothers, Alex and Andrew — have shared bills with Jandek and Dirty Beaches, garnering nods from the press in the process.
Aurelius sees Iceage as one example of many punk-tinged bands that are reaping rewards after hammering the DIY circuit, including Merchandise, Olympia fuzz juggernauts Milk Music, and versatile Brooklyn post-hardcore-cum-Americana rockers The Men. Having hosted shows for all of them in Phoenix gives the appearance of a loose allegiance, Aurelius says.
He remarks on the steady rise of these acts with a bit of classic punk wariness tempered by contemporary punk indifference. "The mainstream press is starting to pick up on it," he states. "I have no idea why, but that's just how it happens, I guess."
Speaking of shows: When Iceage played in a converted South Phoenix self-storage unit two summers ago in support of New Brigade, the band performed a set that clocked in just shy of 20 minutes. Nielsen said the brevity was due to only having that much material, but also because they didn't want to overstay their welcome.
"You have to keep it interesting and not wear yourself out completely," he says. "I don't know if anyone would be interested to hear us for more than half an hour."
He remembers Phoenix being, of course, very hot, saying he hopes it will be cooler this time. I tell him the chances of that are slim, that the desert spring interval is microscopic, but he's not discouraged. "Well, it's fucking cold in Denmark, so that's nice," he says.
Jean-Paul Sartre recounts a Tuesday in Nausea: "Nothing. Existed." A headline from the TL;DR Times: "Four Friends in Fucking Cold Place Build Ark, Leave It at That."
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