"We're a feminist, anti-capitalist rock band, but that's a big conversation."
That's Refused vocalist Dennis Lyxzén talking about what his band stands for in 2019. Which is no surprise, given that it's exactly what they stood for when they got together as teenagers in Umeå, Sweden, in 1991. As politically motivated punk pioneers, they cranked out two highly regarded metallic hardcore screeds in This Just Might Be…The Truth and Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent before dropping their electrifying magnum opus, The Shape of Punk to Come, in '98. Upon which they promptly broke up, an event commemorated by Lyxzén with an open letter entitled "Refused Are Fucking Dead."
They remained in their self-imposed grave for 14 years, before reuniting for a world tour in 2012 and releasing a new album titled Freedom in 2015. For that record, they tracked in Los Angeles with hotshot producers Nick Launay and Karl "Shellback" Schuster, the latter known for his Grammy-winning work with notable non-punks like Taylor Swift, Adele and Justin Timberlake. Refused's latest, War Music, was recorded in Sweden and features zero Hollywood/music-trophy flash factor. And though the physical circumstances of War Music were markedly different, the attitude behind Refused's rabble-rousing and serrated-edge songwriting remains the same.
"From when we started the band, our core values, the ideas we had as young kids, hasn't changed that much," Lyxzén offers. "The first line of The Shape of Punk to Come is 'I have a bone to pick with capitalism — and a few to break.' That's how that record started, and it's still kinda the same."
YOUR NEW ALBUM IS CALLED WAR MUSIC. WAS THERE A PARTICULAR MOMENT OR EVENT THAT CRYSTALLIZED THAT TITLE FOR YOU?
DENNIS LYXZÉN Not really. It was one of these deals where you're creating the music and after a while you start to notice the direction you're going in. We knew it was going to be a pretty abrasive, wild ride. Then you start thinking about titles, and it was actually David [Sandström, drums] that came up with it. He sent me, like, 20 different titles, and War Music was the one that stuck out. There was something very fitting about it, and also that it's the exact opposite of a record called Freedom, which we released a couple years ago. So it just made sense.
THAT'S NOT THE ONLY THING ABOUT THIS RECORD THAT'S THE OPPOSITE OF FREEDOM. FOR THAT ALBUM, YOU WORKED WITH BIG-NAME PRODUCERS AND RECORDED IN LOS ANGELES. THIS TIME YOU DID EVERYTHING YOURSELVES AND RECORDED IN SWEDEN. WHY THE 180-DEGREE CHANGE IN APPROACH?
Yeah, it's very much the opposite — and that's very much the way we work as artists or musicians. I guess a lot of people find a formula and stick with it, but we're the type of creative people that always wanna try something new. After working with Nick Launay and coming to L.A. and working for six weeks, we felt we had to do something very different this time. The way we approached the music — and the band, really — I wouldn't say it's the opposite of Freedom, but it's very, very different than that record.
IN COMMENTS ONLINE, MANY LISTENERS ARE SAYING THAT WAR MUSIC REMINDS THEM OF THE SHAPE OF PUNK TO COME. DO THE TWO RECORDS SEEM CONNECTED TO YOU?
I'd say yes and no. It's true that Refused made that record, and Refused made this record, so obviously there is a connection there. [Laughs] But there are also a lot of connections in the sense of who we are as people and what we represent. We don't have a huge back catalog, but we do have one, so a lot of times when you're working on songs you can reference your own material. You'll write something and think, "This reminds me of something from Shape," or "This reminds me of something from Songs to Fan the Flames."
So there is always a connection with your past. But Shape is this sprawling, weird record with all these interludes between the songs. War Music is very tight and economical, very efficient. In that way, it might be more reminiscent of Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent, with the relentless energy that we put across. As I said, we are the people creating this music, so that will shine through in everything that we do.
WHY WAS KEEPING THIS RECORD LEAN AND ECONOMICAL IMPORTANT TO YOU?
With Freedom, there was a lot of experimentation. We wandered down a lot of different paths. When we started putting this record together, it was about efficiency and tightness. I think subconsciously it was about subverting expectations of what people might think Refused would do. If we would've put out another record with weird interludes, it would've been, "Oh, that's what Refused does." So we did none of that. There's no nonsense.
WAR MUSIC WOULD PROBABLY BE A FITTING TITLE DURING ANY PERIOD OF HUMAN HISTORY, BUT IT SEEMS ESPECIALLY APPROPRIATE NOW. DOES IT FEEL PARTICULARLY OF THE MOMENT TO YOU?
Yeah, and I think that's the trick of being an artist: How do you capture what goes on around you in the world? I think the violence of the record, the propulsion of the record ... there's a sense of desperation to it, and I think it does capture the mood of the world right now in a lot of ways. We managed to put out a pretty savvy representation of the turmoil that we live in right now. While it's a good thing to capture that, it's a bit of a sad thing that we will have to continue to try to capture that. But yeah, I think it captures of the vibe of 2019-2020, for better or worse.
WHAT DOES REFUSED STAND FOR IN 2019, AND IS THAT ANY DIFFERENT THAN WHAT YOU STOOD FOR IN 1993?
This is important, because in punk rock it's very easy to say what you're against. But it's just as important say what you stand for. This record is very much an attack on capitalism and what it does to people, so the logical response to this question is that we want to live in a world where our lives are not dictated by economy. We wanna live in a world where people's needs are always gonna be above profits for corporations. We wanna live in the world where we have the same opportunities, no matter what your background or sexual orientation or ethnicity is. We wanna live in a world where health care is free, where schools are free, where elderly care is free — where we take care of the ones who need it the most. A world where economy does not dictate every single aspect of our lives. That's the elevator pitch of what we believe in.
GIVEN THE STATE OF THE WORLD, DO WE NEED REFUSED EVEN MORE TODAY THAN WE DID IN THE NINETIES?
I mean, who really needs rock music? [Laughs] But I would say yeah. We need music that speaks to the world. We need music that tries to create an understanding of the world. We need music that tries to make us into better human beings. We need all of that, and I think there are different aspects of what that means. As an angry, revolutionary, political band, we need Refused — but we also need thousands of more bands of a similar mindset. As long as we live in a world that's not designed for our needs, we need protest music.
DO YOU GET THE SENSE THAT PEOPLE ARE MORE RECEPTIVE OR LESS RECEPTIVE TO YOUR MESSAGE TODAY THAN THEY WERE IN THE NINETIES?
It's hard to tell, because back in the Nineties we were so much a part of a specific scene and a specific movement where we all kinda felt the same way. There wasn't a lot of backlash when you got up onstage and talked about politics or put out a record that talked about politics. Social media didn't exist. If we had put out The Shape of Punk to Come during the social media era, I'm sure there would have been people saying, "You guys are crazy. This is bullshit." In that sense, we were in a more controlled environment in the Nineties. That made it easier to be political without repercussions or backlash.
THAT'S AN EXCELLENT POINT. ON THAT NOTE, I'D BE CURIOUS TO KNOW WHAT FANS WHO WEREN'T AROUND WHEN SHAPE CAME OUT THINK OF THAT ALBUM REMOVED FROM THE CONTEXT OF ITS TIME ...
To a lot of people, we're just a rock band. So obviously there's gonna be a lot of people who don't understand where we're coming from or don't understand our political background or our musical background, even. That's not to put anyone down, but if you discovered "New Noise" 10 years ago and thought, "This is a killer song. I like this band," but you have no concept of who we are, you might be offended by the fact that we made a theme record saying capitalism is bad. [Laughs] But those are the people we've always been, and those are the ideas we've always had. I don't think that's as clear-cut to people now as it was in the Nineties, because in the Nineties we were part of something very specific.
WHEN REFUSED BROKE UP IN 1998, THE INTERNET WAS JUST EMERGING ON A WIDER SCALE AND SOCIAL MEDIA DIDN'T EXIST YET. HAVE THOSE DEVELOPMENTS CHANGED YOUR THINKING OR THE WAY YOU WRITE LYRICS?
Not really. When we write lyrics, they can be specific in terms of what's going on but we try not to use references to ... like, I remember in the Nineties people started writing songs about email. [Laughs] It was like, "What?" So we try not to write things that are super specific to a time and place — even though we do sing about things that are happening right now. So I don't think it's affected me that much. Yeah, there was no social media in the Nineties, but the first time I was called a sellout was in 1993, so I've had a lot of experience with that mentality. [Laughs]