"Most musicians have nothing to say. They're not very interesting, and they're not very smart": Refused's raw, radical politics return for the Bernie Sanders generation

Salon talks with Dennis Lyxzén about working with Shellback, the band's radical politics, and new album "Freedom"

Published May 28, 2015 10:57PM (EDT)

Refused      (Epitaph Records)
Refused (Epitaph Records)

It's easy to get the wrong idea about Refused. When the Swedish hardcore punks announced their reunion in 2012—fourteen years after they had split originally—they landed a slot at Coachella and played sizable U.S. venues. During the band's initial tenure, however, things were quite different; in fact, Refused announced their breakup in 1998 with a manifesto that very succinctly expressed their perceived failure at having moved the cultural needle: "We were hoping that we could be the final nail in the coffin of the rotten cadaver that was popular music, but unfortunately the reification was too big for us to succeed with our feeble attempts to detour this boring discourse."

Still, time would prove at least part of that screed wrong: After their dissolution, Refused's final LP, 1998's "The Shape Of Punk To Come," became a massively influential album, its scorching socio-political commentary and music—a scabrous hybrid of metal-flecked punk and hardcore—inspiring legions of fans and bands. Wisely, on the forthcoming album "Freedom" (due June 30 via Epitaph), the band (frontman Dennis Lyxzén, drummer David Sandström, guitarist Kristofer Steen and bassist Magnus Flagge) are hellbent on continuing to push boundaries—legacy or precedent be damned.

Produced by Nick Launay (Gang Of Four, Public Image Ltd.) "Freedom" maintains their erudite politicized stance, but splices in sonic curveballs: Shrill horns stomp through "War On The Palaces" and slurring robotic keyboards slink beneath "Old Friends/New War," while "Servants Of Death" is throat-shredding disco-punk with corrugated funk grooves. Two songs—the frantic "Elektra" and "366"—were even produced and co-written by Shellback, a Swedish musician known for his work with Taylor Swift, Maroon 5 and Pink. (He also happens to be a huge Refused fan.) Either way, "Freedom" is absolutely uncompromising and still ready to throttle the status quo: On "Elektra," Lyxzén screams, "Nothing has changed!" and he's as infuriated by this today as he was in the '90s.

Lyxzén checked in with Salon on a recent afternoon from Sweden, and discussed how they approached the new album, flouting expectations, how Shellback came onboard and what's different about Refused in 2015.

I love this quote from David Sandström in the press release: "Nobody wanted us to fuck with the image of the band who makes a great album and splits up. Nobody wanted us to dilute it. That actually provoked us.” Because when i listened to the album, that's exactly what I thought: You guys are totally provoking your past, your music and any sort of expectations people might have had for you guys.

Yeah, it's sort of a pre-emptive strike almost. [Laughs.] You get stuck in a strange situation where you wrote this music and you were this band, and you live it. And then we broke up, and we left for a whole lot of years, and people sort of take over, and they make our band into their own band. Which is fine and very flattering, but it also puts a lot of —I won't say pressure, but it's really strange. You get really disconnected from your work. In 2012, we started doing a tour, and we started to take our work and our name and our—I won't say fate, that's a bit pompous, maybe—but to take ourselves back. It is a weird process. And then when we start writing new music, you do fuck with the formula of what people loved about your band. It's quite rewarding to do that. [Laughs.]

Absolutely. And there were different things that would come up on "Freedom," like the horns on "War on the Palaces" and "Servants of Death" has that cool funk edge. It's nice listening to a record and being surprised by it. It's hard to find records like that now.

There was a time when music was considered an art form. Musicians and artists and painters and poets were [cut from] the same fabric. Now music is turning into some sort of "X-Factor," "American Idol" bullshit. Most music, even the popular rock music you listen to, it's rehashed and done a thousand times. People play it safe because in a time and age where we don't sell records, we have to rely on the public's goodwill to keep us touring and so on and so forth. So people play it really safe, and they re-release the same record over and over again. I never work that way; I'm too curious and too restless. I also want to try new things. And when I get together with Dave and Kris and Magnus, you can take that restlessness and that curiosity, and amplify it by a hundred. That's what Refused is.

We seriously thought no one [was] going to like ["The Shape Of Punk To Come"]. We were proven wrong. And then if we ended up doing a new record, we [knew we] had to go in at it with the same approach and the same sort of relentlessness. It's part of trying to create music that has lasting meaning and has a sense of purpose. It's not easy—a lot of times people do go into creating with an ambition, and we all fail at times. Hopefully this will not be one of those times. [Laughs.] But you never know; the record's not out yet. The jury's not in on this one.

In between Refused's two tenures, you were in the groups (International) Noise Conspiracy and INVSN. Were there any major ways those influenced how you approached Refused music?

I always just wanted to play music that I like. I always wanted to create stuff that felt heartfelt and honest to me. I realize [having] done "The Shape Of Punk To Come" and then you come out with the Noise Conspiracy, people are like, "Wow, that's like taking two steps back." But for me, it was like two steps back to be able to take one step forward. I've always done that. To be frank and honest, INVSN is the band I've been working on for the last five years. They're my closest friends; we practice a lot and we play a lot.

Refused is something completely different. It's like this old friend that comes by every once in a while, and the moment he steps into the room you're like, "Alright, yeah, this makes sense." That's more of the feeling of Refused: It's an entity in itself that you just kind of go along for the ride, while the other project I've been working on, it's a different type of work. It's a different type of—I won't say dedication, because everything is about being dedicated—but it's a different type of approach to it.

Of course, having played and sang and written and toured for the past 14, 15, 16 years, that's also going to affect the way I sing now and the way I approach the music. But when it comes to Refused, Refused is something of its own. When we start playing songs—early on, it was very obvious that this was going to be a Refused record. It shows that we made a Refused record, if that makes sense.

I love that you worked with Nick Launay. It made so much sense. Why was he the right person for you guys to work on this music with?

Because he's fantastic! He mixed a couple songs on the INVSN record, and we stayed in touch and I met him in L.A. He was like, "I love INVSN, we should work together!" And I said, "I have another project you might be interested in." And I told him about Refused, and he got all fired up. I came home and we started talking about producers, and I mentioned Nick to the other guys, some of the back catalog, and the stuff he's working on. Everybody sat down and listened to Nick Cave or Grinderman or Yeah Yeah Yeahs and everyone's like, "Wow, this guy knows his shit." And we Skyped with Launay and everybody's like, "This guy is quite the character, we need to work with him."

He's like a mad professor sort of person. You write and record, and then you record and then you get a mix. He changes stuff when he mixes it, so you get a mix and you're like, "Wait, that was not in the song when I left the studio." I love that. He becomes an extra addition to what we're creating. He truly got into the whole creative process. He's fantastic; his track record speaks for itself. He was the perfect match, I think.

I know Shellback was a longtime Refused fan. How did he end up on the record? Did he approach you guys? Did you approach him? How did that come about?

It was one of those weird things. We met him and him and David stayed in touch. David asked once, "Would you want to listen to some of these new Refused songs?" Sometimes when you're working on stuff, you get into your own little bubble, and it's hard to get an outsider perspective. We were like, "He's an old-school fan, and he's also a guy that has a pretty distinct ear for music." David asked him, "Do you want to listen to some songs?" He said, "Sure, but I can't really work with you guys," because he was burned out and taking time off from writing. He was basically on sick leave. David sent him "Elektra" in a demo version, which was almost 7 minutes long—this slow propulsion of a song that just kept going and going. Very powerful, but not at all like the "Elektra" that ended up on the record.

We were on our way to the States, and a week before we go to record, he sends us a demo of "Elektra." He was at home at his parents' house and re-recorded everything and did this short demo. It's the song that's on the record now. Kris called us up and is like, "We just got this Shellback version. It is much better than the song we've been working on for three years." [Laughs]

We tried to record it in the States with Nick—a combo of our version, the more pompous version, and his version, the more raw version. We didn't really succeed, so when we came home and we were done, David calls us up and is like, "We should re-record 'Elektra,' the version that we did in the States is not good enough." And everyone was like, "Yeah, you are right." We asked Shellback if he wanted to help us re-record it, and he said yes, and that's what happened.

Was he ever able to see you guys live originally? He's pretty young.

He's way too young. He saw us the first time in 2012. He was way too young to be a part of that scene. He's one of those kids that grew up listening to Refused and metal music, and somehow he just ended up doing pop music with Max Martin. Where life takes you.

He had a very interesting perspective. I like that he brings the fan perspective too.

Yeah, and it's cool. A lot of people got really upset that we were working with him. People saw it as a sort of a...like we were trying to cash in by working with this pop producer. If you listen to the two songs he produced on the record, they're, like, the rawest songs on the record. The reason we worked with him was not because of his number one hits—I could care less about that, honestly. Good for him, that's amazing, but I don't care. That's not music that makes me excited; I don't understand the greatness of pop culture or Billboard culture. But when he sent us the "Elektra" demo, we were like, "Wow. This is a fantastic version of a song we had been working on for three years. He nailed it." And that's the reason why we worked with him—not because of Taylor Swift or whatever names he has on his Rolodex. [Laughs.]

It goes back to expectations. People see things on the surface and see one thing, when the reality is so far different.

We're a very polarizing band. It's not like "Elektra" came out and people were like, "Eh, it's okay." It's like, "I love it" [or] "I hate it." [Laughs.] That's kind of the reaction that we got. We are just one of those bands that people have strong opinions about, because a lot of people, they love Refused and they love "The Shape Of Punk To Come," and they want us to represent something on their behalf. And they made Refused into their own, so when we come out and are like, "We got this new record out," already people are skeptical. And then if you are already skeptical and then someone says, "Oh, they're working with Taylor Swift's producer," in all honesty, I could see people being, "What the fuck? Fucking sellouts!" [Laughs.] Even before getting all the facts together. But that is fine— it is very flattering that people are this invested in music that we create. [Laughs.]

When you guys went to go do the lyrics, you holed up in a hotel room with David Sandström. As you guys were talking, what was important for Refused to convey on this record?

Well, I think the lyrics kind of speak for themselves. But I think the important thing was that it was, as I said before, supposed to be a Refused record. These amalgamation of ideas that we all went at in the '90s—where are we in 2014 with these ideas? And we sat down and talked about them. We talked about radical politics, we talked about revolution, and we talked about socialism and capitalism and the way the world looks today, and what we could do [to]...at least state our point. [Have] our say. That was important.

Even though at the end of the day it is our band, it is ours to do what we will with it, there comes [with it] a certain amount of responsibility. Refused was always a radical band, and when me and David get together and we'd talk, it tends to get kind of existential and radical. We just want to put that out in the music and be like, "Let's make a record that really sort of...plants the flag of what we want to say and what we want to be as a band." That was really important.

There's a lot of topical songs on the record, but there's this red thread about a world in pretty much chaos and upheaval, and how we see structures, how we see ideology, how we see social-political constructs and what we can sort of do to combat them or right them.

It's nice reading the lyrics and listening to a record that does have something to say. It's amazing how many records you get that don't really say much. It feels like a lot of the urgency in music has really decreased. It's disturbing to me.

Yeah, but I think it's also a matter of perspective. And it's a matter of...sort of the sign of the times. I grew up listening to Dead Kennedys and the Clash, music that was really political and based the music more on an idea, than just play[ing] some chords and sing[ing] some melodies. Looking at punk and hardcore music [now], it's gotten washed out a lot, and there's nothing really tangible in it anymore.

And also there's this weird bougie idea that the musician or the artist always has something to say, when in the truth the matter is—you know this, but you will never say it, because you're a journalist—most musicians should not be able to do interviews, because they have nothing to say. They're not very interesting, and they're not very smart. But that doesn't mean they can't write good songs, and they can't perform. But at the end of the day, if you read interviews, people talk about nothing, because usually they have nothing to say.

It also reflects on the music, and it reflects on the idea of whenever you plant your feet and you take a stand, people are going to give you shit. And a lot of people don't want to get shit upon. They're like, "I just want to play music, I want as many people as possible to like my music, I won't say anything offensive, I won't take a stand"—or "Maybe [on] the most fucking non-radical issues I can take a stand." But we're not that type of band. We grew up with the fact that if you had something to say, you should fucking say it—really, really loud. That's my take on that. There's this idea that the artist is so intelligent, we should listen to the artist. But most artists have nothing to say. That's just the sad truth of the matter.

I've done those interviews. [Laughs]

That's what I'm saying, but you can't really say to people... I mean, what it is, you hear interviews where people say shit like, "Yeah, we went back to basics with this record," and they talk about recording processes and they talk about jamming. I'm like, "What the fuck, man? Look at the world. Look what's going on around you. You talk about what guitar you used in the studio? That's the most unimpressive shit I've ever heard."

You titled the record "Freedom." What is the significance of the title? You can read it several different ways.

I think that's what it was. It's sort of a mind fuck. We come from a socialist-anarchist background, where freedom means freedom for everybody to help each other out, to live in a free world without rulers, without gods and masters, etc. And it's not the sort of liberal freedom of, "I can choose which car I'm going to buy" or "I can choose which TV channel I'm going to watch" but more of a sort of radical freedom raised from the shackles of capitalism.

But the thing about having a title of "Freedom" is, it is a bit confusing. The word has a lot of connotations and a lot of meanings to it, which was what intrigued us to use that word. And also the fact that if you see the record, it says Refused "Freedom," which is also quite smart. I think we thought it was quite smart. [Laughs.] At one time, we thought it was smart enough to name the record "Freedom."

Besides the obviousplaying to much bigger crowds and doing things like headlining festivals such as Punk Rock Bowlingwhat's the biggest difference now between doing Refused now as opposed to doing Refused in the '90s?

Refused in the '90s was so much connected to a scene and movement, and was very much like we were a hardcore band, we were this punk band. Refused 2015 is not really—we're not part of anything but our own sort of idea. That is the biggest difference. Of course, it's strange to go from 150-capacity bars to playing 2000-capacity venues. But it is a strange world we live in.

We're [also] quite eponymous in our approach to everything, while in the '00s we were quite worried about, "What will our peers think? What will the other bands say about us? How will we be perceived?" And now that doesn't really bother us. We want to play music, we want to create the best music we know how to create, and then that's fine with us. That's the biggest difference. We're not worried anymore. We grew up, and we kind of know what we are as a band and what we can accomplish. I think that's the biggest difference.

By Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

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