Inspiration Through Disgust With Elias of Marching Church
When Elias Rønnenfelt strolls into the bar, he’s wearing a sport coat, his shirt is unbuttoned most of the way and his tousled hair is in his face. It’s 6PM, but he mutters something to the effect of “just waking up” and shuffles to the bar to grab a pint. There is a quiet cool — a je ne sais quoi — about him, a magnetism that is downtown-chic and brooding all at once. The cool comes off a bit distant, but despite the Marching Church frontman's reputation as a hard nut to crack, Rønnenfelt is relatively chatty, opening up about mutual friends, recent NYC escapades and Japanese hardcore.
Rønnenfelt is here to discuss Telling It Like It Is, the new Marching Church LP due via Sacred Bones on October 28. The effort is a bit of a left turn from Rønnenfelt, who also fronts Iceage and here collaborated heavily with a large array of musicians, including Iceage bandmate Johan Wieth. Check out Marching Church's new video for "Lion's Den," as well as our conversation with Rønnenfelt below.
The new record Telling It Like It Is — the ideas on it are so grandiose, and it's a lot more focused than the last few records. It seems like you really went in with it and had a lot of ideas. Coming into the new LP, how did you want to do things differently?
I think the first record was — straight songwriting wasn't really the focus of it. It was a very new band, so I think the first one was very much the sound of all these musicians together and seeing what will explode out of it. Now the elements have been established, so the building blocks are there and we can start building more riffs and stuff with this new element that we created for ourselves. So, the attention has to do with ... very strict, stringent songwriting.
Marching Church includes one of your Iceage bandmates, Johan Wieth. Do you think it maybe feels more cohesive maybe because of a familiarity there? A musical language between you and Johan?
I mean, he's always been a person that has been extremely good at taking my ideas and making them better. Yeah, of course I was really happy to have this input this time around.
This time you have a larger band with you, with more instrumentation. Do you think there is a creative freedom to working with all of these other people and getting these other ideas, or is it more restrictive? Is a lot of it coming from your direction?
I'd say everyone is completely essential for the outcome. I'll bring an idea that's maybe not fully thought out yet, and I'll send it to all of them at once, and they'll take the idea and translate it in another way that maybe I would not foresee. Then these unexpected new turns come to the initial blueprint of the song, and then eventually it seems like it always ends up where it was meant to.
Do you do any redirection?
Yeah, I think it's very essential to [do that]. A band with this many people ... I think we all kind of agreed that if I perhaps say, "Why are you doing that? Can you try to do something else?" then we try it. If it's one big consensus, we'll never get a song done.
The last record was barely any overdubs whatsoever — I was doing the vocals live with the band in the studio, so it was kind of just the sound of the room, the sound of the band playing. It was very loose and everybody was free to improvise, and we wanted to do the complete opposite. We wanted it to sound like a studio and the instruments, as if the studio became a member of the band. We didn't want it to sound like a realistic live band playing; it should be kind of juxtaposed in different places, so we kind of agreed at the beginning of this album that maybe we would do a band recording and then get rid of all the guitars and do something completely different on top of that. That was kind of subject for the studio to have the final say in what it turned out to be.
Iceage started as this thing that was very much in the post-punk realm, and then you guys went in this whole other direction — you even incorporated country and a hundred different styles going into that last record. Was there a certain kind of aesthetic that you were going for specifically?
I became quite obsessed with glam.
Glam in what sense? Slade?
Well, not so much the music, but glam and disco — the idea of the discotheque and poppy things. Those are just very loose things that we're talking about.
Taxi Driver was a running theme. While we were staying in our space making up the songs, we would play a song and go, "Okay, how could we make this sound so it would go better with the opening shot of Taxi Driver?" With the smoke coming out of the rainy streets.
I usually find that I set my mind on doing a simple kind of thing, and then in the end I don't have much control. The ideas that present themselves, I mean, of course you can move the ideas in a stylistic direction that you want to get in, but ultimately, it's hard to put your mind to it and say, "I want to make this record," and then it's going to be the record that you initially set out to make.
I'm really curious about your involvement in the opera. How did this come together?
The artist Elizabeth Peyton and Kristian [Emdal], who plays bass in Marching Church, got permission to do this three-minute-long film that they have made for the beginning of opera season. So, they were doing a movie that was loosely and sort of abstractly inspired by part of the original Tristan & Isolde story — ideas before the opera. They asked me to be the Tristan guy. It's been playing in Times Square for all of December, three days a week.
I know you have a lot of connections to the art world. Have you ever done opera anything before? Did you grow up with any of that music?
Opera anything? No, no. I was forced to go see that when I was a kid. But no, I did not grow up with classical music in the house. Not even punk either.
What was playing in my childhood room was probably Shania Twain and the Spice Girls. That was probably some of the worse examples. I didn't really have a musical upbringing that I think influenced what I ended up doing, but then I kind of got into all sorts of things on my own.
What's going on with Iceage?
After the last record we did, it kind of became — I just couldn't figure out what direction to take it in. I would try and write for Iceage, and nothing I came up with seemed interesting enough to develop to make a direction for the new record. That's what is fortunate about how Marching Church came about; my mind was very active while writing for that and I had loads of ideas that I wanted to try out. Recently, we've found it difficult to write Iceage songs again, so we are working on Marching Church stuff again.
What's the plan for dates with Marching Church? I mean, it must be tough with a larger band.
I mean, logistically, it's a bit of a nightmare for us. Especially when it comes to money and that sort of thing, but we have some dates in November and an Asian tour; we're going to go to China and stuff like that. We'll be doing a full U.S. tour in January.
You've been out there with Iceage before? How do crowds react over there?
In Asia? Yeah. Yeah, we've been to China and Taiwan and Thailand before. Surprisingly, they're completely obsessive over there. The first China show we played was in Shanghai, and I was sitting upstairs not knowing if anybody showed up — we had no idea if anybody would come to these shows. As I came onstage — it was like a small bar — there were these little teenage girls upfront making those high-pitched screams that you hear in like, fucking Rolling Stones videos. Behind that were younger guys beating each other up, and behind that were older men that also came to see us. It was surprising.
One thing that I've always wondered is that you're all very involved in punk socially, and in some ways artistically, but your music is so much wider than that. Do you consider your music to be punk in any way?
I mean, I have a lot of friends in various punk scenes across the globe, but I don't consider what I do in any way, shape or form a contribution to punk music. That ethos is very tied up and very restrictive. It existed hundreds of years before anything was called punk, so while there might be some ideas in there that people might call punk, I don't see it having anything to do with punk.
Individual interpretation is very important to a band and a record. How an individual sees a song is important, whether that is in alignment with your creative vision or not. That said, are there any things you want to say about the record to make sure that there is no confusion?
The only thing I really want to make clear is that in the lyrics, there's more lyrical content than I've dealt with before. With that part next to the title Telling It Like It Is, I just want to make it clear that it has nothing to do with each other. I don't want the title to confuse creative content that it's made out to be me, like, this is how it really is — telling it like it is. It's a very unconsidered title that we just put it on to test, and I thought it was so gross next to my face that I wanted to keep it there. It's kind of like what a singer-songwriter would call their 13th album when they don't have it anymore.
MARCHING CHURCH on TOUR
Nov. 12 — Leipzig, DE @ Transcentury Update Festival
Nov. 13 — Utrecht, NL @ Le Guess Who Festival
Nov. 14 — London, UK @ The Victoria
Nov. 15 — Brighton, UK @ Green Door Store
Nov. 16 — Paris, FR @ Espace B
Nov. 17 — Gent, BE @ Trefpunt
Nov. 18 — Berlin, DE @ Urban Spree
Dec. 6 — Tokyo, JP @ Astro Hall
Jan. 13 — Seattle, WA @ The Sunset #
Jan. 14 — Portland, OR @ Mississippi Studios #
Jan. 17 —San Francisco, CA @ Rickshaw Stop #
Jan. 19 — Los Angeles, CA @ Echo #
Jan. 20 — San Diego, CA @ Hideout #
Jan. 21 — Phoenix, AZ @ Rebel Lounge #
Jan. 24 — Austin, TX @ The Mohawk #
Jan. 25 — San Antonio, TX @ The Monterey #
Jan. 26 — McAllen, TX @Yerberia Cultura #
Jan. 28 — New Orleans, LA@ Siberia #
Jan. 29 — Atlanta, GA @ The Earl #
Jan. 30 — Nashville, TN @ Third Man #
Jan. 31 — Asheville, NC @ The Mothlight #
Feb. 2 — Baltimore, MD @ Metro #
Feb. 3 — Philadelphia, PA @ Boot and Saddle #
# = with Bernardino Femminielli