Bob Dylan, Male Strippers, and Children's Books: A Conversation With Vår
We talked to Vår, the side project of Iceage's Elias Rønnenfelt.
Asking a musician questions about his or her music can be like coaxing a child into telling you why he or she is crying. They're reluctant to offer up more than a few moody words as explanation for their emoting, and simultaneously kind of resent you for asking. Not so with Vår. When I spoke with Elias Ronnenfelt and Loke Rahbek earlier this month they had been drinking outside all day and were not short on thoughtful responses to my questions, nor were they bummed that I asked. These dudes’ limited time rotating the sun, 21 and 23 cycles respectively, has clearly allowed for enough opportunity to develop a thorough sense of what they are doing out there in the world as artists; a proper ethic, if you will, and not a bullshit-y one either. Vår is the project that Elias and Loke formed several years ago in high school. Yes, high school—well, the Danish equivalent, Loke qualifies—still sounds like an intense time to be doing this shit (I was shotgunning Bud Ice in the woods with the other idiots in high school, not making records). Since then they have turned Var into a proper band with their friends Kristian Emdal (photographer and member of Lower), and Lukas Højland (“party boy” in Loke’s words) and have begun to build an ethos and community around the group in Copenhagen. This month they released their first full length, No One Dances Quite Like My Brothers, on Sacred Bones. It was at the end of a long day of Hvidtols and spirits were high, so it was hard to land them in the same place at the same time (there was a lot of wandering off). I spoke with Elias first about cowboys and OMD, and then with Loke about the new Vår record, as well as the reality of French fries, male stripping in Peru, and the pivotal role of a children’s book in Vår’s very not child-friendly world.
NOISEY: As aggressive as much of your music is, I always hear a real appreciation for more classic singers in your songs, and an appreciation for ballads as well. All of your music is sung with a kind of ballad approach, I think. Crooners have more of a hard sound than most people give them credit for, and I feel like you highlight that quality in your singing.
Elias Ronnenfelt: Thanks a lot Damon, nobody ever said that to me before.
Do you feel an influence from more classic singers? Who in particular?
ER: Every time I have consciously taken on influence or tried to sound like someone, I feel like I failed miserably, in that it never really comes out right. I think it’s a good thing, cause by the time something transcends from inspiration into a finished piece of work it will have shifted into something completely else than its original influence. I admire classic singers with divine voices like Jim Morrison, Scott Walker, David Bowie, Tiny Tim, and Serge Gainsbourg.
And I feel like the stoicism that comes from these types of singers’ approach also comes across in your onstage persona.
Last time I saw you in New York you mentioned your growing appreciation for a Western aesthetic, which is similarly pretty stoic. Does this apply to Vår as well?
ER: Sadly not.
What era do you like in particular, classic John Wayne period or more 60’s-70’s Clint Eastwood/Warren Oates? What is it that you like about the cowboy aesthetic?
ER: I really like all strong stereotypes. It’s not so much about Warren Oates or John Wayne as it is about my own twisted idea on what a cowboy is. I’ve been really into Lee Hazelwood these days though.
Do you like Bob Dylan?
ER: I’ve never looked into him that much. I’ve always been a little repelled by him.
What would you say are the main influences for the new Vår record, musical or otherwise?
ER: With Vår, writing and recording is pretty much the same process. With “No One Dances…” we hadn’t prepared anything before going into the studio, so we kind of had to make it all up on the spot. We recorded at Heaven Street, which is a record shop that our friend Sean built a studio in the back of. During breaks from recording we would listen to records in the shop, and I think some of those records seeped into ours. I can remember the OMD record “Dazzleships” and some Der Blutharsch record gave us some ideas. The book “Brødrene Løvehjerte” (Brothers Lionheart) by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren was also a big inspiration. Initially the record was supposed to be a concept album based on that book, but it turned out otherwise.
What were your first few musical influences or idols? And what kind of music did you first start making when you were a kid?
ER: David Bowie was the first big music idol I think. The first few bands I played in were noisy teenage punk bands, but I also liked to record on my own. I think I got into Throbbing Gristle when I was around 14. A couple years later I started skipping school all the time to hang out in this record store called Repo Man. My friend Klaus worked there and he started playing me Prurient, Whitehouse and stuff like that.
What have you been listening to lately?
ER: Nico’s “Marble Index” and “Desertshore," Pulp, Francoise Hardy, Charles Manson, Brainbombs “Obey”, '70s African jazz music, the new Dirty Beaches record, Flux of Pink Indians, David Bowie…
So, Loke, you have been in bands in Copenhagen for some time now, but in the summer of 2011 you and Elias started Vår. Where did the idea to form Vår come from?
Loke Rahbek: I was playing in a band called Sexdrome at the time, and it came about that Iceage and Sexdrome would play shows together all the time because no one else would want to book us. So that’s how I first met Elias. For a while we went to the same school, and me and Elias had this agreement that every Thursday we would skip classes and go to the rehearsal space and record music, one song every Thursday.
This was in high school?
LR: The system is a bit different in Denmark, but something similar to high school.
So if no one wanted to book you, there must not have been many bands making that kind of music in Copenhagen at the time?
LR: Around that time, both of our bands were misfits to the punk scene in a way. We were too aggressive, and they were too…I don't know, maybe aggressive [laughs]. But if their friends came to a show we played, and if our friends came to a show, it would be enough to have a crowd. But now it has become a very positive environment to do this kind of thing.
What are the inspirations, musical or otherwise, for Vår? I hear a lot of Dernier Volonte, early DIJ, a mellower Test Dept., bands like that. At what age did you get turned on to Industrial, Martial, and Electronic music?
LR: We definitely were exposed to these kinds of bands, but in the beginning it was just me and Elias and a 4-track, and we never talked about what we were going to do. And for the new Vår record we did the same thing; we didn’t have a single song written before we went into the studio; just coming up with stuff as we went along. It was kind of scary being flown out to NYC and never having rehearsed. So it came from several places – the martial-industrial scene, post-industrial music – but the only real guideline we made for making this record was this children’s book “Brothers Lionheart” by this Swedish female author. We said, “Everyone read this book and watch the movie as well, and if all of sudden we don’t know what to do, lets think of this and see what happens.” Like a helping hand, in a way. It was very helpful since we all come from different musical backgrounds. I come from industrial music, noise, experimental music, and Elias comes from punk, or whatever you would call Iceage, rock music I guess, and Kristian is foremost a photographer, and Lukas is foremost a party kid [laughs]. The book deals with nostalgia and being young and brothers and boys, and we took that into consideration, being young and a boy… Also, we all grew up with Eurodance music, so when we kissed our first girl, or first boy, or whatever, it would be with the soundtrack of Eurodance music, so I think that should definitely be credited, if any genre is. And as terrible or wonderful as it might be, that’s in some ways where we come from.
It’s funny because I was going to ask you…Vår feels distinctly European to me. Do people react to Vår differently in the US than in Europe? Do you feel like people in Europe might have grown up more exposed to this kind of music and therefore get it more?
LR: For our generation, we had Eurodance, like you had rap music in the US. You can talk to anyone in America, from those playing Black Metal or Power Electronics, and they would have all been raised on rap music. The same thing goes for our generation in Europe. No matter what you end up doing, we’ve all had our first burning affections to Eurodance. I still to this day…my heart trembles when I hear the right song. It reminds me of smells, of all the first girls I kissed and the first time I got drunk.
Themes of nostalgia then?
LR: Well, nostalgia is the wrong word, for that’s longing for something that’s not there anymore. In many ways it’s the first piece of grateful music I’ve been a part of making…It's very…I don’t know what the word is…appreciative of what we have, and is very much a product of what we have in Copenhagen now. Kind of like, “Let’s see how long this party will last.”
How has the party been so far?
LR: It’s been absolutely magnificent [laughs]. I think all of us are …don’t know if shocked is the right word…but it has been great, and still is. The only problem now is everyone has such busy schedules that we rarely have time to sit down together and get loud. We did that today or are still doing that today, and its wonderful now when it happens.
Are you working on new material?
LR: In a way I don’t view Vår as a musical project. The music is a soundtrack for something else, other projects were working on. Everyone always makes the mistake of talking about stuff that hasn’t fully bloomed yet, and whenever I read people talking about stuff that’s not done you always get the feeling “why would you talk about that now, you’re just cursing it.” I think its better to talk about what is happening or what happened, rather than what will happen. You always ended up cursing it. Though it sounds abstract, I’ve been experimenting with social relationships.
I really like the video for “In Your Arms,” and when I hear you talk about social themes, and this general idea you’re talking about for the band, I feel like it’s very much present in that video. Can you tell me more about the idea behind it?
LR: What made that video was I met my old friend who I hadn’t seen since I was in my mid-teens; the guy dancing in the video. He had been traveling all over the world, specifically in Peru working as a male stripper. He came back to Copenhagen and we had these long chats, and I realized that what we’re trying to create with this utopian music, building a universe where everything makes sense and you get to decide who wins the battle and stuff like that…meeting him again I realized he didn’t do that. He’s not making music, he’s not writing, he’s not concerned with all of these things, but he’s building his own utopia wherever he goes. He’s bringing what I’ve always considered a fantasy world into real life. It was a very big moment for me, and then I introduced him to the band, and me and Elias and Kristian shot that video together. We thought, wow you can actually do this. You don’t have to sit and imagine this in your studio, you can just go and live it. That was an incredible eye opener. So we asked my friend if we could film him, and he came to my store in Copenhagen and we asked him to dance, and there were like 15 guys hanging out there, and we couldn’t catch our breath, like “this guy is dancing without a care in the world in front of this horde of young punks.” He made the video more than us.
What kind of clubs did he work in Peru?
LR: He went to Peru to study a culture that is no more and then got mixed up with this thing, and I think he’s been doing everything from dancing in villages to dancing in big clubs.
Regarding the idea of trying to bring a fantasy world into real life, who else come to mind?
LR: There are examples, like Genesis Breyer P-Orridge’s work with his wife was interfering with reality, breaking down barriers between fiction and reality. Or a guy like Yukio Mishima, the Japanese writer. In his work he was imposing, or forcing, the world to act according to his fetish. If anything that’s what were experimenting with now…That’s a field we are interested in now, crossing between reality and fiction and what you can do there…what happens if you make your life an art piece. Does that change the whole concept of a human being? Its still very abstract and difficult to discuss…and I’m not talking as someone who knows but someone who is interested to find out. I’m not gonna turn myself into a girlfriend of mine or take down a military base with a Samurai sword, but the idea of bringing your fantasy into the real world and making the real world like that must be the most interesting thing you can achieve. I don’t know if that’s possible, since most of the people who tried doing that died.
Yeah, you hear a lot of performers talk about becoming their fantasy onstage or in performance, but having to protect their normal life on the outside…so it is dangerous to fully adopt the character.
LR: It’s dangerous but its wildly exciting, isn’t it? And if you’re making genuine art it’s not really a character, since it’s something deeply rooted in you. And there are all these real world limitations. Like even if you’re heart broken, you might feel the need to eat French fries. You can never maintain the perfect picture, and if you do it would be destructive. But I’d be curious to investigate to see if it might be possible to find some middle ground where the work never stops…
I wonder if there is a middle ground.
LR: I’m gonna try and find out…
Let me know how it goes…Thank you for being such a good interviewee. Most people are not so reflective.
LR: No? That’s a shame isn’t it? Makes everything so terribly dull (laughs).
Yeah, people can be very straightforward.
LR: Even if I want to, I’ve never been very good at that.
Nor have I.