Frontman Dennis Lyxzén talks exclusively to NME about the evolution and legacy of Refused, the state of punk and politics, and what to expect from their 'violent and radical' new album 'War Music'
On the Mount Rushmore of modern punk, Dennis Lyxzén of Swedish hardcore legends Refused is a face that glares down from said metaphorical structure in a way that is both noble and, naturally, impeccably groomed. Throughout the ’90s, few bands seemed as vital or as innovative as the band Lyxzén led. Few encapsulated the untapped possibilities of punk and hardcore more. And there was no-one who performed such violent music with as much sass, style or flair. When Refused disbanded, emotionally, in 1998, the void their absence left collected reverence with each passing year. Then in 2012, remarkably, they came back.
“I still love doing this. I still go out and play New Noise every single night and I still love doing it,” Lyxzén tells NME, as his band prepare to release their second post-reunion album, ‘War Music’, due on October 18. Lyxzén is in fine fettle. Happy to revisit the birth of this most special of bands, and excited to discuss the future few – even he – ever envisioned for Refused.
Dennis! When Refused reformed in 2012, it’s fair to say it was a surprise. You broke up with an open letter on your label’s website entitled, Refused Are Fucking Dead. It’s equally surprising to note that you’re now on your second record post-reformation. Presumably Refused being an active band again is going well?
“I think so! I think we’re in a place where we want to keep moving forward. When we put out ‘Freedom’ [in 2015] it was well received. We toured it. And then before you know it you have two new riffs you like and you think, ‘Well, we’re going to have to make another record now, then…’ I think if Refused are going to be a band again, then we want to be a creative band. Playing shows and doing that circuit isn’t enough.”
Even in an age where no band stays split up, people thought Refused were be a band who were never coming back. Can you understand why people were so surprised?
“Well first of all, I was one of those people! I never thought it was going to happen. I was quite happy making the music I was making [take your pick from INVSN, AC4, The (International) Noise Conspiracy] and getting on with my life. Then one day we reformed and then it’s seven years later. The prerequisite from day one was we had to be enjoying it. When you’re a young person you can go a long way on pure will. But as you get older, there’s definitely less tolerance for nonsense and bullshit. I think we’ll do this as long as we enjoy the music and each other’s company. Which we do… most of the time.”
“As you get older, there’s definitely less tolerance for nonsense and bullshit”
It’s impressive to see you back, but with the same sort of fire that defined Refused at the beginning. The new record is entitled ‘War Music’…
“Yes, well, from the beginning our band was never about making money or getting famous. The agenda was to create a platform for us to be creative and radical. We were raised on the language of punk and hardcore and it continues to be crucial to the identity of Refused. We’re privileged to be in a position where some people are interested in the music and the ideas expressed by our band and we don’t take that lightly. Both myself and David [Sandström, drums] grew up in working class families. I think in some way I still feel like nobody wants to hear what I have to say. Now I have a platform I’m definitely going to use it.”
Do you think Refused are as confrontational as they were?
“I think that in a world that is probably more fucked up than ever before and where music isn’t really always reflecting just how fucked up it is, we want Refused to always be that kind of annoying confrontational force. In my family we never talked about politics when I was growing up, and so when I found punk rock, largely out of alienation, it was so liberating for me. It told me that it was okay to feel out of step with the world. In fact it was kinda cool. I think it’s fucked up if you don’t feel out of step with the world the state it’s in. When I found punk rock and hardcore, I literally felt like someone had made a subculture specifically for me. To this day that is mind-blowing to me. I’ll carry the ideas and the rhetoric of that scene until the day that I die.”
“It’s fucked up if you don’t feel out of step with the world the state it’s in”
One of the things that really set Refused apart was that there was a certain glamour about the band. You were a band that looked good. Was that a conscious decision?
“Yes, after a while I think it was. There was a period when we started out where we were very 90’s, baggy pants, hardcore kids. And then we had this crusty punk phase which was strange. But I remember being at this show and there was this super punk dude – y’know, with the mohawk and everything – and he was passing out political flyers. But nobody would accept them, based, I think, on the way he looked. I remember thinking that was messed up, but also how Refused could present our ideas in a way where people would take us seriously. At the same time I was getting really into Mod and Northern Soul and I’d always found the machismo of hardcore stupid; I was a scrawny, androgynous kid. So I started dancing strangely and put on a suit and I could see people reacting to us differently from there.”
How much did Refused strategise? It always felt like there was a plan to how you went about things…
“There was definitely an agenda. I think we’re just all pop culture nerds, so we would definitely take an interest in how we dressed, what the artwork was saying, how we appeared in photos, it’s why we wrote manifestos… We were fascinated by details. Even the instruments. What are these guitars that we’re using saying about us? It all comes down, honestly I think, to us being nerds!”
“We’re still very anti-capitalist, pro-feminist and the like. Sadly, I think the ideas we were talking about in 1995 are still pretty relevant today”
Do you think your politics have changed much from when you started the band?
“Of course. I think if you’re static in your political ideas, that’s not a good thing. I think the foundation, with me, is more-or-less the same though. We’re still very anti-capitalist, pro-feminist and the like. Sadly, I think the ideas we were talking about in 1995 are still pretty relevant today. I think what’s changed for me is that I don’t take every fight anymore. When I was younger I was, ‘fuck this, fuck that, fuck everything’ and now I’m older, I just can’t do that. I’m more focused in my politics now. Oh, and I dunno, when we were younger, being straightedge was very important to us because drinking was such an integral part of the culture we found ourselves opposed to. Now we’re older it’s not as important to us anymore.”
When you were younger, did you think we wouldn’t be having to fight some of the fights we are now? The world was supposed to get more progressive, not less, right?
“I absolutely feel that. I think what I’ve come to learn though, is that political change is a marathon not a sprint. When you’re younger you form a band, write a song, hand out two-hundred flyers and you’re, like, ‘Well that should do it then. Capitalism is coming to an end…’ It doesn’t really work like that. You have to keep at it. And also you come to learn that, by playing music, maybe you’re not going to be able to topple the 1%. Maybe there is a limit to what music can do. But I absolutely believe that music changes lives and can politicise people. I’m living proof of that.”
“I absolutely believe that music changes lives and can politicise people. I’m living proof of that”
Do you see new bands today that reflect the spirit Refused had when you started out?
“Oh yes. If you’re not an old conservative fart, there’s always great music out there. There’s bands out there that are maybe not quite in our style, but are certainly fed up and angry and who want to do stuff. It’s there in punk. It’s there in electronic music. I’m 47, and I don’t want to be one of those guys who are desperately trying to be down with the kids – I hear records all the time where I don’t understand what the fuck is going on, which I think is healthy! But I want to always be interested. Every day there’s a great record being released and I want to hear those records. I still go to every punk show in my city. I think the moment you stop wanting that, you’ve given up, it’s over.”
Speaking of being old, last year was the 20th anniversary of ‘The Shape of Punk to Come’, your pioneering 1998 release which fused electronic, jazz and ambient sounds with your music. How do you feel about that record now?
“Oh man, that anniversary felt surreal. Being the fan of pop culture that I am, I find it remarkable that something we did over just a few months, two decades ago, will forever be something that people like and identify with. That’s so exciting and so weird. For all the life I’ve lived and hopefully will live, there’s this tiny period of my life which will forever define me.”
You say exciting. You say weird. But is that scary too?
“I’ll be honest, for a long time it felt like a bit of a curse. When I started The (International) Noise Conspiracy after Refused broke up, all anyone wanted to talk to me about on the road was Refused. And I didn’t want to talk about it and I didn’t want to think about it, I wanted to move forward. Then the record got reissued at some point and I did sit down and listen to it again, and I realised why people cared. It is a pretty fucking good record. I just came to terms with it and I feel really quite comfortable with it all now. Not a lot of people get to say they made something that mattered to people like that record did, and inspiringly, continues to do so.”
“‘War Music’ is a violent record. It’s a radical record”
For a band who continue to look forward, we’ve been talking a lot about the past. Tell us what people should be expecting from ‘War Music’?
“Oh I dunno. I’ll try to explain the best that I can. It’s a violent record. It’s a radical record. It’s definitely a reaction to the ‘Freedom’ record, for better or for worse. I like the propulsion of music, when it feels like it’s driving forward. I guess I’ve always wanted my music to make you feel like the train on the cover of ‘Orgasmatron’ by Motörhead. The record is a punishing record; tight, relentless, economical, punishing.”
And does it make you feel like the train on the ‘Orgasmatron’ sleeve?
“It does for me.”
Refused release ‘War Music’ on October 18 on Epitaph Records.
Their UK tour dates with Thrice are below.
Saturday October 26, 2019 – BIRMINGHAM O2 Academy Birmingham
Sunday October 27, 2019 – GLASGOW Barrowlands
Tuesday October 29, 2019 – BRISTOL O2 Academy Bristol
Wednesday October 30, 2019 – LONDON O2 Academy Brixton
Thursday October 31, 2019 – MANCHESTER Academy
Friday November 1, 2019 – NOTTINGHAM Rock City