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Iceage‘s Johan Wieth: “You should be very careful listening to too much music when you're writing an album. It has a tendency to become a little too explicit“

Johan Wieth
(Image credit: Alessandro Bosio/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The members of Iceage were teenagers when their debut album, New Brigade, a burst of post-punk-infused hardcore, was released in 2011. “When I saw an amp I just turned everything up to full,” says guitarist Johan Wieth of his early approach. 

Over three subsequent albums the band’s sound has grown, smoothing rough edges and embracing melody without losing their emotional core. New release Seek Shelter takes that a stage further.

Seek Shelter is the first time Iceage have worked with a producer besides longtime collaborator Nis Bysted. On discovering Peter Kember was a fan they headed to his base in Portugal to record. Kember, better known as Sonic Boom of British psychedelic rockers Spacemen 3, was “more a wizard than a producer,” according to frontman Elias Rønnenfelt, and his influence finds Iceage treading anthemic, ecstatic ground. 

As Johan recalls: “We found this old public radio studio in Lisbon, where they would do symphonies and stuff. It had this really beautiful roof, but it was very worn down so it when it rained, it was literally raining inside the studio.”

In just 12 days, the band’s four longest-serving members recorded the basic tracks, but Seek Shelter was given another dimension by new recruit, guitarist Casper Fernandez, who overdubbed his parts in Copenhagen.

Johan explains: “You can’t tell Casper to play something. Well, you can and he will, but he has so much soul and spirit that he’ll make it his own. We quickly realized that was very much a part of these new songs. For me, playing with someone you’re comfortable with opens up your own playing. It makes me a better musician to play with him. You give each other space.” 

Guitarists listening to the album will immediately notice killer reverb tones. “That’s my Mantic Proverb pedal,” says Johan. “Everyone’s asking, ‘What reverb is that?’ It has such a distinct sound. A friend opened it up and it’s strange, it’s the same plates as in any other new reverb pedal. So we couldn’t really explain why it sounded different.” 

Johan sets the mix at 9 o’clock. The Numb control, which reduces the clarity of reverb, is on maximum, but the Dwell (decay time) is only at 8 o’clock. “So it’s not really dense, long reverb,” he explains, “but it’s very audible. It’s never off.”

Johan’s favoured amp is somewhat surprising. “We had a two-amp setup for this album, a Vox AC30 and a Marshall JCM800 2203. But mostly I just played the JCM800.” What, the stadium rock amp beloved of Zakk Wylde and Slayer? 

“When we had to play festivals I always asked for a Fender Twin, and I was always struggling with them. Sometimes they had a JCM800, and I was like ‘That’s horrible, I hate that sound.’ One day we were at a festival and they only had the Marshall. I said, ‘Well, whatever.’ I think I had been using it wrong, or maybe I ran into some that just didn’t sound good. 

“With the low-gain input I couldn’t get enough oomph out of it, but I switched to the high input and for some reason it just works. I will say that using a Les Paul, it becomes that very familiar sound, but using a Jazzmaster it works out perfectly. You can get a really dense sound and you can get that low end, and you can get that high without it being out of control.”

Still, you’d be hard pressed to tell that the amp that defined '80s rock is the same one on Seek Shelter. “I think maybe it has something to do with the attack. I used a Guyatone LG-350T which has these really trebly single-coil pickups. I did most clean and rhythm stuff on that. Peter Kember has a very large collection of guitars.” 

Among Kember’s weapons was a Jack White-style Eastwood Airline. “There’s a lot of Eastwood for the denser parts. I played a lot of his DiPinto guitars Peter had this Vox Teardrop guitar that is the Spacemen 3 sound, and I played that a bit. My friend has a 1974 Goldtop Les Paul that I used for some lead parts. The two guitars that are mine are a Jazzmaster and a Jaguar. It was like a gear nerd’s dream.”

I like the Rat because it’s especially extreme. I saw Jason Pierce from Spiritualized. He plays a JCM800 as well, and he was using a Rat, so I tried it

From this arsenal Johan ran into his pedalboard. “I have the gain on the amp about halfway up because I have three distortion pedals, and if I start pushing it more it becomes a bit much.” 

The two main distortions are a Z.Vex Distortron and a Wampler Euphoria, while the third is sometimes a Z.Vex Box of Rock and sometimes a Pro Co Rat: “I like the Rat because it’s especially extreme. I saw Jason Pierce from Spiritualized. He plays a JCM800 as well, and he was using a Rat, so I tried it.” 

He never has all three distortions on at once, but the Distortron and Euphoria do often run together, volume set high and gain low.  Johan’s ever-expanding pedalboard also houses a Catalinbread Echorec delay, Fulltone Tremolo, and TC Corona Chorus. “I have my most prized possession, the Wilson Effects wah. It’s kind of my secret weapon. It’s more like this really weird filter, and it has bass settings to boost low end. It just sounds like no other wah pedal. I don’t mess around with it too much, I usually just keep it in a fixed position.”

As for musical influences, Johan tries to avoid consciously having them. “My idea about going into the studio or even writing an album is that you should be very careful listening to too much music while you do it. At least for me, it has a tendency to become a little too explicit. I couldn’t really tell you, ‘Oh, I was listening a lot to this.’

“I think for our records it was not always as much about what kind of music as you were listening to as what was going on in our lives at the time. What books were you reading, what films you were watching. I think I was reading Amos Tutuola’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.” 

Despite the lack of conscious effort, British critics have unanimously compared Iceage’s recent output to the work of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. Johan is philosophical.

“It’s fine if people think it sounds like the Bad Seeds, but you get tired if you’re hearing the same the same thing over and over. I think the Bad Seeds are a good band. I haven’t listened to them in a long time. We don’t write music to make it sound like them. But it’s the first thing you do when you hear something. You don’t go, ‘Oh, this sounds like a duck crossing the road with a big head,’ you go, ‘Oh, this sounds like another piece of music I’ve heard.”

Iceage are unbothered, though, instead buzzing from their recent injection of new blood. Adding Casper Fernandez gives Iceage something they’ve long needed. In the studio, vocalist Rønnenfelt has always played rhythm guitar, and Fernandez’s arrival gives them two live guitars.

Never a band to settle for less, however, all three guitarists ended up playing on the album (“There’s at least seven guitar tracks on each song”). Johan handles lead guitar, while Casper takes the slide parts. In opener Shelter Song, you hear those two sounds overlapping.

Johan is revelling in the new energy this brings to the band. “It’s reinvigorating.”

  • Seek Shelter is out now via Mexican Summer.