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Refused’s David Sandström and Dennis Lyxzén: The Changing Shape of Punk

on June 23, 2015, 12:00am

Refused was, at one point, the most dead a punk band could be. After a successful one-off Coachella performance led to more tour dates, their renewed chemistry and creativity has led to a new album, Freedom, due June 30 on Epitaph Records. Creating a sequel to 1998 opus The Shape of Punk to Come couldn’t have been an easy task, and some fans voiced concerns that the Swedish band was tarnishing its legacy by returning to the spotlight 17 years later. Vocalist Dennis Lyxzén and drummer David Sandström recently chatted with Consequence of Sound before a Brooklyn show about how fans’ resistance to the album actually inspired them, the beauty of Slayer and Fugazi, and Sandström’s lesser-known soccer career.

There’s already a lot out there about how you didn’t plan another album and how everything came together. I think the first song does a good job of doubling as a political and musical message by saying, “Nothing has changed.” Do you feel the musical landscape of punk has changed since The Shape of Punk to Come?

David Sandström (DS): The way we consume music has changed a lot. We were always prolific listeners and very eclectic in our tastes. I think these times fit us better because you can listen to and explore stuff on Spotify, and there’s a resurgence of vinyl, listening the way it was “supposed to be listened to.” But as far as punk as a musical style? I think me and Dennis, specifically in this band, are pretty conservative when it comes to punk. I listen to Lower East Side avant-garde or noise music or freeform jazz music. But when it comes to punk? We like old school. I like Minor Threat. As a punk band, we just wanted to sound like that.

Dennis Lyxzén (DL): We’d like to be in Minor Threat. Any punk band of mine should sound like [famed punk label] SST’s stuff. Punk was this rebel music and really a force of nature when it came out with ’70s punk and early ’80s hardcore. The late ’80s, that New York hardcore scene was very powerful. But then punk, as anything else, became expropriated by the forces that be, and the meaning of what it was became diluted. There are still DIY scenes. There’s still people doing awesome. But as far as a grand ideology and musical style? Punk nowadays is not that interesting.

A lot of people have name-dropped The Shape of Punk to Come, from instrumental bands like Strawberry Girls to that whole “pop emo” scene of the past 10 years. Do you reject those bands claiming you as an influence?

DS: It’s a hard thing to really get into because you can never hear it. But what I thought and still think makes us stand out, as a heavy, riff-oriented band, is we write pop songs. Every Refused song starts as art music. [Guitarist Kristofer Steen] brings in a weird riff, we work on it, and towards the end of the writing, we try to turn it into a fucking pop song.

It’s sort of like plumbing. You try to weave this energy through the song. You let some steam out here and there, but you save enough to carry it through the entire body of the song. That songwriting commitment, I have not heard that in so many bands that claim to be influenced by us. But maybe it’s just impossible for us to hear.

DL: In our minds, we collect inspiration, and it’s hard to be seen as the object of inspiration. It’s very removed from who we are as people. Maybe what you conceive as awesome about our band is not what someone else sees as being awesome about our band. So sometimes you’ll hear “I really love The Shape of Punk to Come, and it really inspired me,” and then you hear their music, and it’s like … I don’t see that? But they took something else.

DS: The same thing happens with bands we came to be influenced by.

DL: Yeah! I’m sure Born Against would be like, “They sound nothing like us. They’re horrible.” [laughs]

DS: I’m sure Sam McPheeters knows about us. He knows about us: He hates us. He would consider us the antithesis of what they did, and I agree with that. But we are incredibly influenced by them. There’s a certain irreverence and a certain swagger about them that inspired what we do. And it’s a beautiful thing. Fugazi changed my life. Napalm Death changed my life. Butthole Surfers changed my life. It’s an unbroken line if things work out with our new record, to inspire another generation. Hopefully.

Do you think your view of punk and politics has changed from 1998 to 2015?

DS: In a sense yes, and in a sense no. It feels like when we started the band, in the fall of ’91, our perspective was similar to what it is now, although I was 16 at the time. But I’ve read numerous books and lived a lot more since then. From the perspectives I now have, we’re still doing the same thing.

DL: The motivation and the reason why is pretty much exactly the same. But of course your political views evolve, and your view of what punk means to you evolves. It’s quite interesting because there are certain things you carry with you. There’s shit that I carry with me that’s going to define me as a person for the rest of my life. And one of those things is punk rock and hardcore. That’s a cornerstone of the person I am.

Another one of those things is Refused. No matter how much we tried to get away for 14 years, it was something that was going to define me for a long time. Hardcore and punk. Even though we don’t look or talk like punks or act like punks, it’s still a huge defining factor of why we’re here. I used to collect hardcore 7-inches that were ridiculously expensive. I still go to shows! Every time there’s a show in our area, I go.

You still go to basement shows?

DL: Yeah! All the time. David can vouch for this. I go to every fucking hardcore show in our hometown. Most of the time I’m kind of disappointed by the lack of ambition in bands, but I still go; it’s still a part of who I am as a person. But then when I create, our ambitions are definitely higher than when we started our first bands. It’s always going to define us as people.

It’s interesting because our points of reference are so eclectic. The way we talk about music, it’s pretty limitless. We can talk about John Sworn to Butthole Surfers to Rush. There’s this wide spectrum of music because music is so limitless.

Is that what led to the unexpected horns on “War on the Palaces”? Where can Refused go after the last album that’s not previously explored?

DS: We make decisions from song to song, really. “What does this song need?” Kris had written the riff to “War on the Palaces”, which is a great riff; it’s strange because it has a strange time signature. We try to play it like it’s a straightforward, Stooges-type thing, but it’s actually super weird. If people don’t notice and just think “this is a straightforward rock ‘n’ roll song,” we’re very happy because the core of the song is this weird thing. The Stooges would never do that.

DL: They could never have pulled it off.

DS: But then we thought of some good horn sections. [imitates the trumpet on “Get Ready” by the Temptations] So we thought we should try it. It took a while for the horn players to figure out how to play it, but they did.

DL: That’s the thing about Refused, though; at the end of the day, we want it to be like, “Fuck yeah. This is destroying everything.” We have a lot of weird time signatures, but we make it sound like it’s not that weird. A song like “Electro”, we thought, “That riff, what a cool riff.” Then I started singing to it and thought, “This is not straightforward at all. I don’t know where the downbeat is.” It took about a month of practice. People hear it and say it’s quite generic, and it’s just not.

I always felt that way with the intro to “The Deadly Rhythm”.

DS: That whole song is in four!

But the beat simplifies it. If you took out the drums, I’d wonder, “What the hell is this?”

DS: Usually about one song per record we play in other rhythms, but usually it’s just in four, and we make it sound more complicated.

DL: And now it’s the other way around. It’s a labyrinth, but we make it sound like a path.

DS: We like to work with contrast. The fabric of the song is usually one ideal, and we try to combine it with the polar opposite. Kris’ ideas are always like that; every riff is some strange juxtaposition.

What happened with Jon Brännström in the studio?

DS: He was never in the studio. We did the reunion tour, and we kicked him out.

DL: He just waited for a year, and I think he knew that we were recording without him.

DS: I mean, we told him we wanted to do a new record, and we didn’t want him in the band. It’s just one of those things that happens in bands. He wasn’t committed. The thing with Refused is that we’re all performing at a pretty high level. We like a good challenge. He really doesn’t sacrifice himself for anyone else, so he couldn’t be a part of it.

But for some reason, he just kept control of our Facebook page. [laughs] He was just trying to sabotage us for some reason. It was weird; he was kicked out of a band that was supposed to be broken up. So we’re like, “Yeah, how do we deal with this?” So we just left it up. But he knew why he was kicked out. He was just pissed.

DL: It wasn’t really a big deal. He’s just pissed.

DS: It was a year since he was kicked out, but he still had the Facebook login. I had no idea.

DL: It’s one of those things that we talk about a lot, the internal dynamics of the band. The second you start to air that, it becomes ugly. It didn’t work out, but that’s just part of any work relationship. But we do take it seriously when people are like, “He was a part of the band for so long — what happened?” You have to take it seriously.

We get upset every time they kick Dave Lombardo out of Slayer. Why? He’s so badass! But we don’t know about their internal dynamics. He might be a crazy person. Every time he gets kicked out, we get upset, though. We’re not comparing Jon to Dave Lombardo or Refused to Slayer, but you get it.

DS: We give up every time they kick him out and then see Slayer live and go, “They’re pretty good.”

DL: We’re playing in Canada in a couple weeks with Slayer.

DS: Are we playing the same night?

DL: We’re gonna be there both nights, hanging out. We’re gonna be there.

DS: We gotta be there.

You’re going to hang out with Slayer?

Both: No!

Why not?

DL: There’s some people you don’t want to hang out with.

DS: I don’t want to know if Tom Araya or Kerry King are very reasonable, sweet guys.

What do you want them to be?

DS: I don’t want to meet them! I like listening to the record. I don’t want to have a personal experience with anything that’s really important to me.

You want to keep them idolized?

DL: Yeah!

DS: I don’t want to be distracted by this memory of Tom Araya being nice.

DL: “Do you remember when we were hanging out with Slayer and Tom lent me his jacket?” No thanks.

DS: It’d be an aberration to enjoying Slayer. I don’t want to sing along to “Disapprobation, but what have I done?/ I have yet only just begun to take your fucking lives!” and remember him being “Hey! How are you? I like Refused!” [laughs]

DL: But we’ll see them live for sure. Slayer’s great. They’re the musical glue of Refused. It’s one of our rare common grounds.

DS: This whole thing started, our other musical projects and friendships, when Kris, back in 2009, was sort of down on his luck, and I gave him a guitar. And he was like, “I think I have a riff.” We were just playing, but for a long time, we just did the Slayer sound. All early Slayer speed metal, in Swedish. And at some point we moved on.

Are you thinking beyond on this tour at all? Another record after this? And how will Slayer influence that?

DL: It will definitely be Slayer influenced!

DS: We had a song on one of our records called “The Slayer”, so if they knew about us, it’s there.

DL: Dave Lombardo knows about us for sure. We were in Australia, and our tour manager just came from Slayer. So he texted Dave Lombardo “I’m on tour with Refused,” and he replied, “I know Refused. Heavy band, great drummer.” He almost started crying.

DS: Until I have a kid, it was the greatest moment of my life.

DL: To answer you, when we did 2012, it was a reunion. “Let’s get back together and play these songs.” Then “10 shows, and kill it.” Then “this feels good, maybe we should do more.” We ended up doing 82 shows. That was the only ambition then; no thought beyond 2012 or new music. Then we thought maybe there’d be a continuation.

DS: It started with us having a couple songs we’d been working on for a long time. [Bassist] Magnus [Flagge], Kris, and I, we were going to do it without vocals as a trio for fun. At a certain point, with Dennis killing it on tour every night, we thought maybe he could guest vocal. It ended up being “Destroy the Man”; we just thought Dennis could do a great job on it. We asked him to guest, and he said yeah. Then we thought maybe that was Refused. A very slow process overall.

DL: And then Monkey Joe walked into the picture.

DS: This guy, Monkey Joe, walked up to Kris — and Kris is a sensitive guy — and goes, “Oh man, I love your band, you’re great. You’re not making new music, are you?” and Kris is like, “No.” And Joe goes, “Good. I think that’s smart. Don’t fuck with perfection.” So then Kris got drunk and later that night was like, “Let’s just write one Refused song, and just put it out there for free, just to fuck with them.” He was so provoked!

So we wrote the song that became “Thought Is Blood”, thinking of it as a Refused song, and we finished it. It became something immediately; it felt great. We asked Dennis to hear the music, and we realized, not only are we able to play better than we were in the ’90s, we actually work a lot better, too. It’s incredibly open; there’s very little ego. Everyone’s ideas are flowing. We work hard. We felt we were making the best music of our lives.

DL: We were a reunion thing, but we think of ourselves now as a contemporary band. Record, then play, record, then play. Who knows for how long, but our ambition as a band is to be a band. There are no new songs or riffs written.

DS: Yes there are.

DL: Well, there are some riffs, but we want to continue. That’s the ambition.

DS: There’s a lot of stuff we want to treat lyrically, but we’ve barely scratched the surface of what we’ve been talking about.

Freedom

Is there anything people don’t ask you that you wish they did?

DL: There’s a lot of things we don’t get asked. There’s an arc to our history and so many parts to our band; we get asked a lot of similar things. We’re also political people, so if we get bored with interviews, we can always talk about what we want to talk about. But no one ever asks about my football career. [laughs] I want them to ask me!

How’s that going?

DL: Pretty good. I’ve only done one game so far cause we’ve been on tour. I’m in the fifth division in Sweden.

I did not know that.

DL: No one knows that because no one wants to talk about it!

DS: We’re all into sports, but Kris, Dennis, and I are all into it. Kris is the coach type, a brilliant football theorist.

DL: David plays in an unlicensed league, more of a recreational league. But I play as a licensed football player.

What position do you play?

DL: I’m a striker, or sometimes a right wing.

DS: He’s a hard worker, exactly like what he’s like on stage.

DL: Most kids in Sweden are still playing football or hockey; just like in America, you get the jocks, the nerds, and the weirdos. We were definitely the weirdos. I hated football for a long time because of the jock culture and mentality, but then I started hanging out with Refused, and we’d play. It took me a long time.

DS: I was a long-haired guy, so I couldn’t hang with the jocks. I was a striker. I was pretty good.

DL: You got a good foot! I played with my friends for a long time and we always kept a ball with us on tour. Then about five years ago, I asked some friend in the fifth division if I could practice with them to stay in shape, and after the practice, the coach asked me to play with them. So I’ve been doing that for five years.

How do you feel about the FIFA arrests?

DL: Everyone knows it’s been corrupt. That’s the biggest problem. You’re a political person; you see the structures and the dirty world, but I see the game. It’s almost like meditation. I could watch four games in a row, but then I know the political ramifications and how corrupt it is and how much money dictates it, so do you black it out and ignore it and contribute to the problem? I just deal with the conflict: yes, that does suck, but I love the game. Those organizations are so powerful. Football is everywhere.

DS: Biggest game in the world.

DL: The World Cup final between France and Italy was watched by, I think, a third of the population of the earth that ever lived. Not just alive, but ever lived. That thought is mind-blowing.

DS: In Sweden, it’s in all levels, and in the articles, it will bring up the social aspects and corruption at all levels. You could put in the category of sports, but it’s more about social commentary. There are intelligent and reasonable forces out there, too. But we’ve been waiting for those FIFA arrests for a long time.

Do you still consider yourselves anti-capitalist?

DS: Yes, of course.

DL: It’s one of those things where, even in the early ’90s, these were just ideas of how we viewed the world. Capitalism as a structure and ideology and set of ideas is completely useless for most people. For some people, it’s great. It’s just something we as people don’t support. We still have those views.

DS: When you’re younger, you’re so stern. If anyone you know expresses an opinion, you feel you have to call them on it. You have to live up to every tiny detail of your political perspective in every move you make. Being grown men, you’re more comfortable as a part of it, even when it’s not consistent. You’re caught up in the world; it’s not responsible to stand on the outside.

DL: There is no outside. There’s no outside capitalism. Maybe if you’re Ted Kaczynski, then there’s an outside, but we’re not interested in that. We’re not going to become the Unabomber. We love to collect records and eat food and, well, dress nice. This is what we can do. We are musicians; we’re not politicians. We’re not journalists.

DS: We’re only good at abstract things. We’re not good with…

DL: …the world. There’s a common thread in our songs; we try to deconstruct capitalism and the bad of it.

DS: It’s easier with these things in the global economic crisis. People become more open to these things. The system is insane, and someone is making money off of literally everything. There are people making money off people losing what they work their whole lives for.

DL: And the world is too superfluous. Too much of everything. We’re well aware of it. There’s enough food, money, and housing for everyone to live a great life, but it’ll never be that way in capitalism. And people call us out: “You’re charging $30 to go to a show or $40 for the deluxe edition of the album.” But if you called out everyone that worked? That’s absurd. That’s what we do. That’s how people make a living. No matter how anti-capitalist you are, you have to pay the rent.

DS: We’re trying to build something and it’s hard to say what we’ll become. Knowing this, it’s probably going to be something better eventually. Right now, we’re just working for the record. We don’t want to repeat past mistakes. We want to build and try to tour sensibility and work hard.

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