As far as forward-thinking hardcore bands go, Refused set a particularly high bar during its initial seven-year run, one expertly capped by its 1998 swan song, The Shape of Punk to Come. But even legendary punks have their own powerful sources of inspiration. Refused frontman Dennis Lyxzén cites Fugazi’s 1995 masterstroke Red Medicine as not only one of his favorite records, but one that helped push his band forward both musically and philosophically. Prior to the release of Freedom, Refused’s first album of new material in 17 years, we talked with Lyxzén about Red Medicine 20 years later, “Fugazi parts,” and whether Ian MacKaye still skates.
How did Fugazi first come into your world?
I became a punk kid in 1987. In 1988, maybe 1989, I discovered Minor Threat and then started a hardcore band, Step Forward. Later in 1989, I bought Margin Walker on vinyl. We knew it was Ian [Mackaye] from Minor Threat’s new band, but it didn’t sound at all like what we thought it would. But we really loved it. Since that day, I bought every Fugazi record the day it came out basically. Being a musician in the ’90s, I’d say Fugazi was probably the most important band for me. They were fantastic, and I was lucky to see them a couple of times as well.
Photo by Patrik Häggqvist
The way Fugazi moved in such a different direction away from Minor Threat and the bands that preceded it, I can definitely see how Refused probably took inspiration from that. You guys deconstruct the idea of what hardcore is yourselves.
Yeah. I think at that time, when we were young kids, we had very little frame of reference for what things were. We were into punk and hardcore music for a bit; then Fugazi came and it was just like, “Whoa, this is cool.” It was a different take on punk, not just Fugazi, but the whole Dischord approach. That scene and the music that came out of it really impressed me a lot. I started a label called Desperate Fight Records with some friends to help release records from bands in our hometown, just like Fugazi did. Then 10 years ago, I started a label called Ny Vag Records. We released 26 records, all by local punk and hardcore bands. It was all inspired by Dischord and that DIY spirit. Musically, Fugazi was one of the first bands that opened the doors for different possibilities. Everything I’ve ever done has been influenced by that idea that punk is not necessarily a sound, but an attitude that you carry with you in life.
So much of the band’s legacy is defined by their politics and their ideals, but it seems like a lot of time that threatens to overshadow the music.
Yeah, of course. I can relate to that (laughs). Being a very political band, I think Refused dealt with a little bit of that ourselves. For us, politics was something that came through music. It wasn’t the other way around. It wasn’t like I was a political person, and I needed an outlet for my political ideas. Politics came because I discovered Dead Kennedys and Minor Threat and Fugazi. No matter how important those politics are, at the end of the day you want to create music. You want to write with your friends in a room and be a creative person. Fugazi today are still revered for their idealism, which is pretty awesome. But it was weird for us being from North of Sweden trying to be that type of band, not having our own label and the kind of resources that they had. It set the bar pretty impossibly high for the rest of us. You saw Fugazi and thought, “Shit, that’s how we want to work.” But then you find out it’s really hard, almost impossible, to do what they did. That’s maybe my only grievance with them, that they had their shit figured out way too well compared to the rest of us. It was kind of a bummer.
At least they gave you something to aspire to.
Oh yeah, totally. It was hugely inspiring in the way we try to set up our own shows and write music. It was super inspiring.
Where does Red Medicine rank for you in the Fugazi pantheon? Does that record hold any particular significance to you now when you look back on it?
It’s one of my favorites, I have to say. Fugazi is one of those bands whose back catalog is just so impressive. They didn’t put out a bad record, but Red Medicine has to be one of their best ones. It came out at a pretty seminal time in 1995. When we were writing Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent, that was one of the records we were listening to. It’s funny because I knew I was doing this interview, so I went back and listened to Red Medicine, and it’s awesome that we stole the photo collage idea from that record. I looked at The Shape of Punk to Come and was like, “Oh, well that’s where we got the idea to do that (laughs).”
What about the record jumps out at you musically? That seems to be the one where they really break out into artier territory.
I think it’s one of those records where there’s a perfect mix. I like records that are dense, where there’s a lot of shit happening. I like those kinds of records that take a few listens to get it. Red Medicine is this perfect mix of super catchy, sing-along-type songs and these noise collages. You had this really eclectic, almost free-form music mixed in with perfect pop songs. I just love that. And the production, even after 20 years, still sounds great. It’s one of those recordings where you can hear that it’s four people in a room playing together, and it sounds amazing. It’s so crisp. There’s just so much going on. The guitar parts that Ian and Guy [Picciotto] put together on that record are amazing. There’s so many cool guitar … things. I don’t even know how to explain what they are.
The thing that always strikes me whenever I listen to them is how you’re constantly hearing things that you missed before, even if you’ve listened to their records a hundred times.
Yeah, yeah, and that’s hard to do. I know as a musician how hard that is to do. As I said, there’s just so much going on, but the way that they play together and interact makes it really interesting music. The lyrics are great as always, just everything on that record is amazing.
How did Refused come to cover “Bed for the Scraping?”
We love to play music. You can say whatever you want about our ambitions or what we’re trying to get done, but we love to play. We were practicing to go on tour two months ago. We were practicing old songs and the new record, and we were practicing with a new guitar player too. When we were done playing our songs, we wanted to play more music. We had a list of songs that we wanted to try out, cover songs. [Refused drummer] David [Sandstrom] just said, “We should do “Bed for the Scraping” by Fugazi.” Our whole ambition behind playing cover songs is we want to be able to do after parties. We want to be able to jump into a record store and play and make it fun and accessible. It’s such a fun song. The guitar parts are so awesome, so we just tried it. We practiced it three times and just took it from there.
Is that one of your favorite tracks on the record, or did you choose it because it suits the band best?
It’s a little bit of both, to be honest. It’s just a great song. When we play it, you can hear how we’re influenced by Fugazi, which I think is really cool. There’s a bunch of parts on both Shape of Punk to Come and Freedom that we called “the Fugazi parts.”
Even today, you still find the band getting into your DNA a little bit?
It’s just one of those things. As a band, we’re lucky enough to have our own identity. We know what Refused sounds like and what Refused is. But there are a couple of bands, like Slayer and Fugazi, that always sort of travel with us. It’s not that we want to sound like them or try to be them, but their way of approaching music has always been a part of our DNA. Fugazi has been there since the very start of Refused, and they’re a band that we’ve always listened to. I still listen to them to this day. Writing this new record, there’s these parts that just are like, “Oh, that sounds like a Fugazi part.” I know of at least two places on the record where we talked about it as the Fugazi part of the song, which is awesome.
It’s like shorthand.
Yeah, yeah. Exactly. When we talk about “the Fugazi part,” everyone in the band knows what we’re talking about. It’s great that in 2015, they’re still this influence on us.
Did you ever get to play with them, either with Refused or (International) Noise Conspiracy?
In 1992, me and David traveled six hours to see Fugazi play. They played in this very small place; I want to say there were probably 50 people at the show. Twenty of us had traveled to see the show. We didn’t know how to behave; we were just super excited to see Fugazi. Whenever they played a song that we knew, we’d jump up onstage and start trying to sing into the microphone. You could tell they were just like, “What the fuck are these kids doing?”
After the show, I mustered up the courage to go into the backstage room. They were just sitting there and were like, “Hey.” I asked them if they still skated. Ian was like, “Yeah, we still skate sometimes.” Then I just backed out of the room (laughs). That was my question. But years later, (International) Noise Conspiracy got a chance to play with them, which was cool. Ian still remembers my name, which is pretty awesome (laughs). He’s a rad dude.
Freedom comes out in a few days. Is it exciting to be back in that cycle of recording and touring behind a new record?
It’s great. It was awesome to go out and do the reunion in 2012 and play these old songs. But if I’m in a band, I need it to be creative. Writing and creating together and having a new record out, that’s the essence of being a band. You want to make music together. I love to play live, but you write and record new music so you have an excuse to go out and tour.
How did the process of making this record differ from the ones you made years ago?
It’s been different just because it’s been 17 years [since the release of The Shape of Punk to Come], so it’s been a long time. We approached it a little bit differently. In the ’90s when we were writing and recording, there was a lot of jockeying for position. One person would say, “I want to take the band in this direction,” and someone else would say, “No, I want to do something like this.” It was like this weird cock fight the whole time.
Making Freedom, it was more like “Okay, what’s going to be the best approach for this record?” We left our egos at the door and tried to figure out how to make the best Refused record possible. That was a huge difference in approach. I’ve done plenty of records over the years, but my experiences working with Refused weren’t always positive. I remember during The Shape of Punk to Come just how painful an album that was to record. Now everyone is getting along and talking and working together, and it’s not about your own position in the band. It’s been a good change.
Just with the benefits of age and hindsight?
When you’re younger, you look at the other people in your band as being in the way of what you want to accomplish. But now you look at it and see that they are the reason why you accomplish what you do together. Some of the things that in the ’90s we might have seen as weaknesses we now look at as strengths that we have. It was a very rewarding thing, making this record. That’s not a very rock and roll thing to say, but it was.