An Extreme Form of Clarity
“I did give up, I gave up music, I gave up life. I gave into society, I worked at a real estate company. It’s because I tried the alternative, the normal life, that I realized that this wasn’t meant for me. I tried really hard to fit in, worked really hard to save money, and take care of my parents. I feel really lucky.”
Introduction by Adria Leeper-Sullivan
Interview & Photographs by Theo Constantinou
Iceage is a band whose music deserves no labels, but only the praise of being full of life. Elias Bender Rønnenfelt is the vocalist of this young, in-the-moment band from Denmark. He chooses the energy of spontaneity over planning and gauging. There is no interest in fame, acknowledgment, being musicians, or being much of anything but moving, and fighting for self-interest with this band and its members. In a world of people trying to predict their futures, it is refreshing to find amazing musicians who spit on the concept of over-thinking. Touring with the young rebels is Alex Zhang Hungtai known as Dirty Beaches. Alex’s insights into the need to relax, experiment, and travel are an inspiration for anyone who is looking for confirmation that there are always solutions. Life is nothing, but one obstacle after another so deal with it. Here are a pair who let nothing get them down, and allow everything to lift them up because realizing death, and hardships are inevitable only rationalizes doing whatever you want.
Anaïs Nin, a famous French-Cuban author said, “Life is a process of becoming, a combination of states we have to go through. Where people fail is that they wish to elect a state and remain in it. This is a kind of death.” Do you agree that life is a process of becoming? By going through these certain ‘states’ do we become who we are? Do you agree with her idea that electing a ‘state’ and remaining there is a kind of death?
Elias Bender Rønnenfelt: I feel like the same person I was when I was six years old, I don’t think I’ll ever change but I get to unfold my person during my life.
Do you ever think, if you got to that stagnant point would it be similar to death?
Alex Zhang Hungtai: Yea but that’s the cycle of life. I don’t think the question is to doubt. It’s kind of like the question of faith where it’s not about believing, the question is to try and not doubt. It seems very hard for people if they try to believe in something that’s very positive whereas the act of not doubting is much simpler. At least for me. I think that’s what keeps me as a solid unit, my own state of being. I don’t see it as a bad thing. When I was working in kitchens and shit, whatever, that’s part of living life. That’s who we are and what we do, and now I’m doing something else. So that alone explains the nature of how everything comes in cycles. It’s a circle I don’t think of it as a square box where you’re just stuck at a fucking dead end, and you can’t escape. It’s more like, you’re here now, but you know in ten years, or five years, or two years, or six months you’re going to be coming to that same spot but you’re going to be faced with completely different situations, and scenarios, new challenges, new problems.
Elias Bender Rønnenfelt: I think that the only time you could compare to death with this is when your mind shuts down, and you stop sensing what’s around you.
Alex Zhang Hungtai: Like the state of being, because it evolves.
Paulo Coelho said, “That is why it is so important to let certain things go. To release them. To cut loose. People need to understand that no one is playing marked cards; sometimes we win and sometimes we lose. Don’t expect to get anything back, don’t expect recognition for your efforts, don’t expect your genius to be discovered or your love to be understood. Complete the circle. Not out of pride, inability, or arrogance, but simply because whatever it is no longer fits in your life. Close the door, change the record, clean the house, get rid of the dust. Stop being who you were and become who you are.” I’ll ask this question more specifically towards you (Alex) because we kind of chatted about this briefly before the show. How do you feel about that statement and how do you relate it to your music for the second time?
Alex Zhang Hungtai: First of all Theo, you’re dropping some heavy shit man. I mean, I just think of life like you just do what you do, just do what you can, and work with what you have. For me I try not to over think it, I try to be flexible, and bend with the tides.
Elias Bender Rønnenfelt: I can agree with this statement in the way that I think it’s like trying to be in a relationship. It’s not quite the same but what you put out may be fake emotions, because you want the same thing back. She only expresses compassion, it could be hate, it could be love because you want to put that to another person not because you want them to feel the same way. It’s a nice thing to do. I don’t know if this makes sense.
I guess I always felt like you said Alex, like cutting loose or you have that situation where you’re like fuck it, it wasn’t meant to be, I’m stuck here, I just have to let all of that shit go in San Francisco. Start anew. You did. Again, life has destroyed a lot of people who haven’t had the courage and tenacity to do what you did again.
Alex Zhang Hungtai: I think that paints me in a very nice picture, thank you. But the reality of it was I actually did give up, I did die once. It’s funny because this reminds me of the question that Elias asked me for his punk zine two years ago, and the question Elias asked me was: What was the worst day of your life? And it was pretty much the story that I told you earlier. I did give up, I gave up music, I gave up life. I gave into society, I worked at a real estate company. It’s because I tried the alternative, the normal life, that I realized that this wasn’t meant for me. I tried really hard to fit in, worked really hard to save money, and take care of my parents. I feel really lucky, I just feel lucky.
It doesn’t get any lighter (laughs). People are always talking to me about the past and the future, but not many people seem to focus on the present and have a very hard time focusing their minds while in moments. I still struggle with this all the time and am constantly working on it. I read a lot of Thoreau when I’m stuck in the city and I’m trying to pretend I’m in nature or something. Thoreau said, “You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this.” What are your thoughts about this and how does focusing too much of your own thoughts on the past and future and not in the present impact your life?
Elias Bender Rønnenfelt: I feel like in my life one of the things that really makes sense are the moments where you can lose yourself in the present, forget about who you are, and where you are. These are the moments where I find inspiration. Those moments are kind of an extreme form of clarity, but still senselessness at the same time. I cherish those moments.
Alex Zhang Hungtai: Exactly what Elias said, I just look at it as it’s a constant accumulation of experience so the past is very important for me, it reminds me of who I am and how I got here. It’s also going to shape you. You just got to be thankful. No more quotes or journal entries. Tell us what you think now. I’m interested in what goes on in your mind.
Too many thoughts are going on in my mind, sometimes it’d be nice to turn it off. I was just thinking about this book Morph Traits illustrated by Daniel Higgs the lead singer of Lungfish. He gave this rare interview that I listened to the other night after reading the book …
Elias Bender Rønnenfelt: I saw them play once.
Yea?! He is pretty amazing. So, he talked about this idea about how a recorded passage of time can never be the same ever again. I don’t record music but when I would play piano the way I played it would never actually be exactly the same as the previous time I played it. So, it kind of goes back to what we were just talking about, I’ve always dealt with an issue of presence in fleeting moments. When I spend time with my family, I have a million things going on in my mind related to the magazine, life, I have a million people pulling me in different directions. So for me I only have those moments with those people I care about, and it’s so hard to get the mind to be present and to focus constantly. It’s like I don’t need to be dealing with this now, it’s family time, or it’s writing time. It’s a struggle man.
Alex Zhang Hungtai: It’s not a struggle man, it’s just the way life is. Just fucking face it. I understand what you’re saying, but I don’t think … for me it’s like I had a roommate who over-thinks a lot of things and him and I, we really didn’t get along. This was like 5 years ago, because for me life is just a matter of fact and I never over-think it. A problem pops up, alright. How are we going to solve it? How am I going to be considerate for everyone from every angle, and care about everyone’s feelings like people in my family, and people who love me, and people who I love … Handle it like an adult and be responsible and solve the problem together. Whereas some people, like you said, can’t focus and this is fucking dragging me down because I’ve got real life shit, my job, my education, now family pressure then on top of that if you’re married you’re more fucked, pay fucking diaper bills, fucking feed the baby. But if you think of it in terms of, this is just a matter of fact the struggle doesn’t become a struggle, it becomes a problem solving exercise. Alright cool, not cool, but this is the fucking problem, fucking deal with it, solve it. Move on.
Elias Bender Rønnenfelt: I live with my parents, but I have a lot of shit going on in life and of course I would like to have more quality time with them and to be around them, but this rarely happens. You just have to remember to take your sister to the park, and walk around with her, and drink some coffee with your dad and you’ll be fine.
Alex Zhang Hungtai: I would love to meet your parents man. I think your parents must be pretty cool cause they did an amazing job raising you.
Elias Bender Rønnenfelt: They were both theater actors. Denmark got a new government and they were like fuck theater, let’s give all this money to sports, and all of the small theaters had to close, went out of business. Yeah they’re cool people.