"I have to tell you," Johan Surrballe Wieth tells me by phone from his home in Denmark, "most of the things we do are not conscious. It just happens."
For guitarist Wieth and his band Iceage — leading lights of Copenhagen's current punk scene who play the Milestone on June 10 — that unconsciousness has been both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, few young bands do vintage art-punk as seamlessly and naturally as Iceage. Not No Age. Not Interpol or Bloc Party. And that's because there's something in Iceage's roiling, intense but melodic din that's more raw and honest, more comfortably uncomfortable, more noisy and unruly — and more true to the spirit of unbridled creativity in late-'70s and early-'80s punk.
On the other hand, while Iceage incorporates the right mix of guttural bass and vocals from art-punk forebears like Joy Division and Killing Joke, with the dissonance of later punk and noise ambassadors such as Sonic Youth and Rites of Spring, Wieth and company have also bought into some unfortunate early punk posturing that, in today's literal digital world, make unintended messages go viral.
For example, the band's zine, Dogmeat, includes an illustration by Iceage singer Elias Bender Rønnenfelt that shows men in hoods emblazoned with the iron bars of fascism, threatening another man who is on his knees. What's more, Iceage's runic logo also seems to hearken back to early punk's fascist flirtations. This is not pretty stuff to those of us who were around during punk's first wave. We remember the ugly side of this revolutionary music. The Nazi skinheads. The swastikas and other racist symbols. The violence and nihilism. On the surface, Iceage's imagery seems pretty terrible. But does it mean that the guys in Iceage — or, for that matter, pioneering punk bands like Crass or the Yugoslavian industrial act Laibach, or many other artists of punk's first wave who toyed with such imagery — are actually fascists?
Not necessarily. Even in the old days, there was a gray area between artists who used fascist imagery to make commentaries against fascism and those who used the imagery because they really were fascists. Crass and Laibach, for example, were virulently anti-fascist and employed imagery of violence and hatred to reveal the ugliness of the fascism that was on the rise in the Reagan-Thatcher '80s.
Iceage hasn't taken a clear stand in its music on some very real current fascist tendencies — particularly across Scandinavia in the wake of the Norwegian massacre of 2011 — and the band's attempts to explain away its imagery have largely fallen on deaf ears. It doesn't help that Rønnenfelt has been vague and condescending to curious journalists. Here's how he defended his illustration of the hooded figures: "That's a collage drawing of different things I was seeing in the news, not a pro-race-riot drawing." A legitimate explanation, but Rønnenfelt then blamed the press instead of himself for making it an issue. "If they expect something of us that we're not," he said, "it's not our problem."
Oh, but it is. To some, like veteran British punk journalist Everett True, Rønnenfelt's blame-gaming is insufficient. "If you deal in the currency of nastiness, then don't be surprised if people call you out on it," True wrote.
Wieth is more diplomatic than Rønnenfelt. "We have explained multiple times how we feel about racism — that we are not in any way racist," Wieth tells me. "And if you knew us, you would never, ever think to say that about us. So we really want to get that reputation off and away from us. It's just not true."
Fair enough. Because really, the four childhood friends who make up Iceage — Wieth and Rønnenfelt along with bassist Jakob Tvilling Pless and drummer Dan Kjær Nielsen — are so much more than a few controversial images and song titles. They were only 13 when they first began playing together in Copenhagen, still in their teens when they formed Iceage in 2008, and barely into their 20s in 2011 when their debut, New Brigade, came out. The album was a stunner, from the whiplash hardcore momentum of the title track — which calls to action the brotherhood of a new generation of punks — to the martial beat and rapid-fire bass line of "White Rune" to the anthemic closing track "You're Blessed." The band's latest, You're Nothing, is similar but even better, building on the same crushing sound but adding piano to one track, "Moral," and electronic textures to another to bring an emotional vulnerability to the militaristic stomp.
"We always talked about putting piano in and then we just kind of agreed that it would be a good idea for 'Moral,'" Wieth says. "I've always been interested in synthesizers and piano. It was a natural progression."
Does this mean an expanded Iceage might appear in Charlotte? Wieth laughs. "We won't be bringing a piano with us," he says. "The big difference between playing live and recording is that when we play live, it's not as much the whole picture as it is the very core of it. When we record, we show the whole picture, with the frame and everything."
During interviews, Wieth has name-checked not just Iceage's obvious influences, like Joy Division, but also the late-'60s psychedelic classic Forever Changes, by Love. In our chat, he talked about Brian Wilson's Pet Sounds. Those non-punk influences aren't directly evident in Iceage's songs, but the band members' deep musical knowledge is. I wonder aloud how, as 13-year-olds hanging out together in Copenhagen, Wieth and his friends were able to filter out all the bad music of the rock era and zero in on the good stuff. He pauses for several seconds. "It was my dad who kind of led me to all those bands," he says.
Clearly, dad's record collection — and the imagery that came along with it — fit Iceage like a cool vintage coat, and the boys are growing into it, whether consciously or not.