Words: Miljan Milekić
Rise Against, Enter Shikari, Architects, blink-182, AFI, Linkin Park, Papa Roach, Glassjaw, letlive., Sum 41, Paramore, Touché Amoré, Frank Turner. That’s just a tiny portion of bands and artists that were influenced by the Swedish hardcore giants Refused. Back in 1998, the band wrote their name into the history of music with their classic album ‘The Shape of Punk to Come,’ using bold, blood-red letters. Even now, 21 years later, the album is still talked about, and still huge. However, there is much, much more to talk about when it comes to Refused, including their brand new raging monster of an album called ‘War Music.’ And we did just that. We caught up with singer Dennis Lyxzén for an interview. It’s a long read, but it’s worth every moment. Check it below.
First of all, congrats on the new album! When Refused got back together in 2012, did you have any idea that seven years later, you would have two new records out, and be bigger than you ever were?
Dennis: No, not at all. (laughs) When we got together in 2012, I think that we thought that was gonna be it. We thought that the 2012 tour was going to be through, and then life is going to go back to normal again. And then, here we are, seven years later, two albums later, just still touring and releasing music. It feels very unexpected, but it’s also a lot of fun.
Once again, you went all-in on ‘War Music,’ creating a raging, screaming monster pointing out every fucked up thing that’s going on right now. Does it get frustrating to see that some of the things you were screaming against back in 1998 or 1995 are still here, still present, and still as fucked up as they were?
Dennis: Yeah, of course. I mean, you wish the world was making progress, and that you wouldn’t have to worry about some of these things anymore. I legit remember, in the 90s, we’re all fighting against racism. And then one day we were like, oh, that’s done. Like, people are not going to be racist anymore, and that’s great. And then, here we are – the world’s more racist than ever. The rise of fascism and the neo-Nazism, I would say it’s incredibly frustrating. On the other hand, if you look at the world today, there is the awareness of feminism, the awareness of the environmental aspects of our planet, and stuff like that. Some aspects of what we talked about are moving forward, and some aspects seem like they’re moving backward. So it can be quite frustrating.
The one thing I don’t get in society today is that despite all of the information, all of the knowledge available to us, we have let ourselves have people like Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, or Jair Bolsonaro take the power and lead this world. What do you see as the reason for it, and what do you see as the most important thing that can lead the change?
Dennis: I think that the biggest reason why people like Boris Johnson or Donald Trump, or even in Sweden we have a really huge right-wing party, the reason why that is happening is because of the failure of capitalism as an idea, and as a system. A lot of these people that are voting for this populous sort of right-wing people, they’re also people that are very fed up with the way the world looks. They’re very fed up with the political-economical situation. They’re fed up with their jobs being taken from them, so on and so forth. I attribute all of this to the failure of capitalism. I attribute all of this to the fact that we all live in a world that’s very unsustainable for human beings.
Unfortunately, that also means a lot of people are scared. You can play on that fear, and that’s what populism does. It plays on people’s fears, and it plays on people’s insecurities. And then, a lot of these people that are working-class people, that are regular people, they shoot themselves in the foot when they vote for someone like Boris Johnson or Trump, or something like that because the rich and powerful’s interests are never gonna be in line with normal people’s interests. I mean, we can talk about this for hours. (laughs) But I would say that the failure of capitalism has given rise to a huge populistic sort of idea, and people are looking for easy solutions to very, very difficult questions. And someone like Donald Trump, or like everything that goes on in Europe, they’re providing very easy answers to very difficult questions. And that’s kinda what people want.
And with all the knowledge available, there’s like an overload of impression. There’s so much going on when you have everything at your fingertips, that people never dive deep. And then you can play on people’s fears, and you can play on their lack of knowledge. I think that’s one of the things – we live in a world that’s so shallow that we have all the information available, but we pick out headlines, we pick out very basic ideas, and we never go deep. And I think that’s also a problem. People are not very educated today. I think people are very uneducated, and get a lot of their education from Tweets or from bullshit, horrible news outlets, and so on and so forth. There’s a lot of problems with our world today.
And since you mentioned it, do you feel like social media can sometimes kill the intensity of the social commentary? Do you think that sometimes people who would possibly channel their anger in recording a song, writing a book, or starting a protest, now may have a quick release in a form of Tweet or Facebook status instead of its accumulation and explosion into something deeper?
Dennis: Yeah. And I think that a lot of people use social media as their own platform. Like, if you have issues with your own life, you can use social media as a platform to be angry. It is a very good platform to be angry at. And I think it is highly problematic because people don’t really dive deep and people don’t really see the structure, see the connections. But it’s a great place where you can be like – fuck you! It’s a great place to be angry, but it’s also a great place for the right-wing. I mean, they managed to use social media very much to their advantage, where they make it seem like there are thousands and thousands of people that believe one thing when they all have like fake accounts. The right-wing and populism is very good at playing on people’s fear and they’re using social media in a way that’s… scary, to be frank.
It’s scary because there are definitely advantages to social media. But I also think that if you want to have a political conversation, or you want to have an intellectual conversation, social media is not the place. And unfortunately, a lot of our political discourse has been moved to social media. It also means that the political discourse becomes very shallow and, as I said, people can’t go deep. And I think that is problematic, but I also think that if you’re an angry person, social media is great for you. You can get rid of a lot of anger and frustration, and there will be no consequences. I mean, if you would act like that in normal life, go around telling people that they suck, or you know, whatever, (laughs) it would not be good for you. But on social media, you can do that. They wouldn’t do that in real life. It’s a very strange tool, and it’s sometimes very disheartening because you want to believe that people have actually thought about these questions before they post about it. But I don’t think so. A lot of times, people just post in anger, in frustration, in jealousy, or whatever it is, and it becomes a very poor climate for communication.
During the 2016 election in the US, there were a lot of people, mainly coming from the right-wing side, saying that artists and musicians should stay away from politics, and social commentary. Do you see that kind of attitude as some sort of fear, and kind of evidence that what you are doing has a point, and that music can affect the people and their views? In some weird way, do you feel like it’s kinda flattering?
Dennis: I mean, to a certain extent, I think it is, but I don’t mean to say flattering. If people were not afraid of what you’re saying, there’s a bit of a failure in what you do. I think everything that happens is a way of people wanting to control the narrative. And when you go out and say – oh, musicians and artists, they shouldn’t talk about politics; they shouldn’t talk about things they don’t know anything about – most people that say that, know nothing about politics. Like, they have no clue about politics. It’s a way of controlling the narrative, ’cause they know that if more artists and more musicians and more people would speak out, that would have an impact. If we got together and we said, we have enough of this populist bullshit, we want to live in a world where we actually take care of each other, that could be a powerful thing. And, as a way to control the narrative, they say – oh, you know, you shouldn’t mix music and politics; you shouldn’t mix sport and politics. It’s a way of controlling people.
And as I said, most people that say stuff like that, they know nothing about politics. I think more than ever art should be a beacon of hope and something that really talks about politics. ‘Cause, if you are an artist, and you don’t reflect the world around you, then what are you? You are an entertainer, you’re not an artist. That is something that has always been really important for me, to see the world reflect that back and, write songs about what happens around you. When there’s so much political distress going on, I think artists could make a big difference by actually reflecting and mirroring that, and talking to people about that. I think it’s a good time to be a political artist in any type of field, and that now more than ever, we need to talk about politics.
But on the other hand, saying that you know nothing about politics, saying that Tim from Rise Against knows nothing about politics, that guys from Bad Religion or Anti-Flag know nothing about politics is just ridiculous.
Dennis: Yeah. (laughs) I mean, for me, was when I was a young person, I got into punk. I didn’t know much about politics, honestly. I mean, you are a young person, and you learn. And the thing is that you learn by talking to people, you learn about saying stuff, you learned about singing about these things, and then during it educate yourself. A lot of people don’t know about politics, because they base their political ideas on emotions, and not on actually reading about it or seeing the structure and facts about it. Being a singer of a very political band I did educate myself. I spent a lot of hours, a lot of time learning about political ideas just because I am the person that I am.
And as you said, a lot of these bands that you mentioned, they’ve dedicated their lives to talk about politics and to sing about politics. And of course, they know about it. Maybe they’re not professors in political science, but then, you know, who is? Even if you don’t know that much about politics, you shouldn’t be afraid to speak out if you feel that there’s something wrong, you should not be afraid to speak out if you feel that there’s something happening around you that you don’t agree with. It doesn’t matter. We should all talk about these issues. We should all talk about the world around us, and say what we feel is wrong.
And how come that you as a band, and you as a person got so much into politics, coming from a country that was pretty much always neutral?
Dennis: I think for me, it started with a personal sense of alienation, personal sense of feeling like an outsider. And then you discover punk music, you discover politics, as an explanation and as a tool to sort of, figure out what goes on in the world around you. And I mean, when you start looking at the politics – we are from Sweden, it’s a pretty decent country, but one of the things is that if you are in a position of privilege, you can look at the world and you can take the time to learn about politics and talk about politics because you are in a position where that is possible. Sweden, like any other Western neo-liberal country, in the last 15-20 years, has been plagued with privatization and the selling out of the common good. It’s been not slowly, but rather quickly shifting to the right for the past 20 years.
And even though we still have a lot of social safety net sense of security, it is definitely a country that’s pretty much plagued by a huge surge of right-wing populism. It’s a country that’s very much plagued by sort of the neo-liberal idea of what capitalism should be. So I mean, it’s not that different from most other European countries. Growing up there, as I said, we were privileged enough to grow up in a place where you could take the time to look at the rest of the world, and see how the way we were living and the luxuries of Sweden, how we used the rest of the world to have these luxuries, and how we used the rest of the world to be privileged. And I think that’s what we did, that’s how you learn, and that’s how you see the world. I mean, we’re a band that tours and travels internationally. So a lot of the politics that we talk about, they’re not just true for Sweden, they’re true for everywhere, you know?
Speaking of the position of privilege, it seems like it’s often used by right-wing activists as a reason to degrade the opinions of people who say anything against their agenda. Like the most recent case, I can think of is Greta Thunberg – most of the criticism is against her as a person, and not against the things she’s saying…
Dennis: I think that’s also a tactic. If you can disarm someone by saying like – oh, look at her, she’s so angry, or looking at her she has a handicap… I mean, I’ve had this a lot in my days. Not as much as Greta, of course, ’cause she is like a phenomenon. But if people can pick a hole in the way you live your life, they feel that they don’t have to listen to what you’re saying, which is a very common tactic of control. Our common thing is that we say we’re against capitalism, and then someone says – oh, they sell T-shirts, so I don’t believe in anything they say. And you’re like, what? It’s an easy way for you to not listen to what we’re actually saying. And I think it’s the same for Greta, people just want to find dirt on her because then they don’t have to listen to what she’s saying. Even if what she’s seeing is correct.
But, if you don’t want to listen to her, the best way is to find dirt on her, and be like – oh, it’s a contradiction, or she sold out. Then you don’t have to listen to what she’s saying, even if what she is saying is accurate. I mean, we get that sometimes too. You know, we talk about these issues, and people go like – I’m not gonna listen to them cause they make money. And I’m like, yeah, we make money. We have to pay our bills, we have to eat food, and we have to pay for the tour bus to be able to go on tour. So yeah, we make money. We still hate capitalism. We still think that capitalism as a system is completely faulty and corrupt. We’re still a part of it. I mean, there’s nothing outside of it. But then, if people look at that, they’re like – oh, we don’t have to listen to them cause you know, they don’t live as they learn.
I like the way you described your music in one of the interviews you did. You called it “violent pop” music. There is a fraction inside of punk and hardcore community who see every sign of writing a catchy song or trying to take your music on a bigger stage as selling-out, and losing the core of what you do. On the other hand, having more people hearing your music means more people are exposed to the messages you share. What’s the perfect balance? Where is the line?
Dennis: That’s a struggle that, as a band, you fight every day. As you say, where’s the line? How do you find the balance in being a big rock band and tour the world and you know, actually make your living from playing music, and then how to balance that with your political ideas. But I mean, I think you’re right. I think that if you are honest about your political ideas, you want to reach as many people as possible. That’s just the way it is. If your agenda and your goal is to be a DIY punk person, then I understand. You don’t want to tour the world, you don’t want to be in the big arenas with the big buses. You want to keep it DIY. I understand that, and I sympathize with that. But if your political ideas are valid, and if you feel your political ideas are something that we need to talk about, then yeah, the more people that listen, the better.
You know, I remember in the 90s when Rage Against The Machine was like the biggest rock band in the world, I thought that was super exciting because there was a band that represents my political ideas on MTV every day. I’m like, that is fucking amazing. And I still believe that. For us, punk was a tool to educate ourselves. Punk was a tool to find a language. To find a way forward. But the ideas that we have are much bigger than punk, the ideas that we have are much more important than any sort of underground community because these ideas could, hopefully, affect everyone. So, if you want to keep your band underground, keep your band underground, no one’s forcing you to do differently. But if you have political ideas that you want to get across, do everything you can to get those ideas across, even though sometimes you do have to compromise and sometimes you do have to contradict your ideas and sometimes you have to play a festival sponsored by some bullshit corporation. But that’s, that’s just a part of that world, you know?
I’ve seen a lot of criticism of both ‘War Music’ and especially ‘Freedom,’ often from the people who wanted some kind of ‘The Shape of Punk to Come’ part 2. How do you look at that, and do you feel like it’s simply ignorant, having in mind that ‘The Shape of Punk to Come’ itself was a result of not wanting to repeat yourselves as a band?
Dennis: Yeah, it is interesting because the people that wrote ‘The Shape of Punk to Come’ are the same people that wrote ‘Freedom.’ We went into it with the same idea, we just wanted to create music that’s exciting. We’re trying new things, we’re experimenting with all these things. We hadn’t done a record together for a long time, so ‘Freedom’ was a record for us to, sort of, reclaim whatever the band was. And it was a very experimental process. And it is funny because ‘Freedom’ is an experimental record, but then people are like – oh, but it’s experimental in the wrong way. But that’s a subjective feeling. Also at the end of the day, when you heard ‘The Shape of Punk to Come,’ and that was a long time ago for most people, no matter the music that we create now, we cannot recreate you being young again. We cannot recreate that feeling.
Like someone came up to me the other day and he said, oh, I was into Limp Bizkit and Korn, and then I heard ‘New Noise…’ And I’m like, that’s amazing. But that feeling, he will never have that feeling again, no matter what type of music we put out. So sometimes it’s hard because, your nostalgia and emotions that you have, are also things that compete with the music. So it’s not only about the music, it’s about your life and where you were when you heard ‘The Shape of Punk to Come.’ So for us, it was a necessary record to make because we wanted to create a record that we needed to create to be able to move forward. And I think ‘Freedom‘ is one of those records that are like a stepping stone to get to where we are now because I think ‘War Music’ is a sensationally good record. I think ‘War Music’ is definitely, one of the best records we ever made. I think that you have to understand ‘Freedom’ in that sense because, as an artist, you create to move forward. And sometimes, you need to take a step to the side to be able to take a step forward. If that makes sense.
It really does. And going into the recording of the post-reunion albums, did you feel like being under the microscope or in the shadow of that album, and expectations from it? Do you ever feel the pressure of your own legacy? I remember you talking about having a hard time to move on from that expectation even with your other projects, especially The (International) Noise Conspiracy.
Dennis: Yeah, of course. You do feel bad. Especially with ‘Freedom,’ it was very much as you said, we were put under the microscope, and everyone wanted to compare and take notes of like, how is this different, or how is this the same. It’s a bit frustrating, but I have to say, at the end of the day, to be able to be a part of a record where 21 years after we released it, we are still talking about it, that’s a huge deal. Even though it can be frustrating with the weight of that record, it is still an amazing thing that we can still talk about this record, and that we’re still excited about this record. That’s a huge compliment, and that makes you very happy. Even though sometimes it’s frustrating. (laughs)
And how do you approach the writing process at this point, especially with such a diverse record as ‘War Music?’ Do you have the “everything-goes” mentality, or you still have some boundaries at the very beginning?
Dennis: No, no. I think when you start a new process, you just want to create something amazing. And then after a while into the process, you notice a direction, and you notice the feel of it, and then you can sort of be like – okay, this is the type of record we’re making right now. Refused has its own language, there’s a way that Chris plays the guitar, the way that David plays drums. There are all these components that are very Refused. So, when you start writing songs, you know quite quickly if this is going to be a Refused song or not. Then a bit into the process, you’ll know – okay, this is going to be the direction of this record. And then at the end, you kind of tighten that up and make that the record. But we just want to create great art. We just want to create great music. We don’t want to put boundaries on it. We just want to do things that we feel are exciting.
OK, I could go on for hours talking with you about so many things, but I have to end it somewhere. You were involved in a project called ‘Cyberpunk 2077.’ How did you get involved in it? Knowing that the previous game has a cult following, similarly to your band, are you happy with the reactions to it?
Dennis: It’s funny, they were looking for a singer for the project, and the guy that’s the producer of the game, and the guy that writes the music, they’re huge fans of Refused and The (International) Noise Conspiracy. So they’re like – oh, we should ask Dennis if he wants to sing on this game. And they asked me, and then we got into a conversation about maybe Refused can do the songs. Maybe Refused can be Samurai, how the band is called. And we said yeah, we should try it. So we ended up doing it together with the gaming company.
They had a composer that came to Sweden and was writing songs with us. It was quite interesting because it was such a different process. ‘War Music’ took us almost two years to make, and we did the Samurai project in two weeks. It turned out really cool, but it was weird to be another band that was not Refused. It was like – okay, it’s kinda Refused, but not really Refused. So, it was fun. And the response, especially for the first song ‘Chipping In’ has been really great. It has a lot of plays, and people seem to be really into it. It’s quite exciting to do something that’s kind of similar, but still, something different and people be excited about it. It’s a cool thing.
So now we’re waiting for a hologram tour. (laughs)
Dennis: Yeah. Let’s see what happens. (laughs)