In Conversation: Refused’s Dennis Lyxzén Is Still Writing War Music
Lyxzén discusses the politics of the Swedish post-hardcore band’s second new album since 1998’s classic Shape of Punk to Come.
That Refused titled their new album War Music tells you almost everything you need to know about it—and if this were any other band caught up in the worldwide dystopia of 2019, it might be conclusive. For Refused, though, things are slightly different. The second record the political agit-punks from Sweden have released since they returned in 2012 after a fourteen-year break is a musically and ideologically ferocious call-to-arms for revolution and change—one that’s a definite response to the state of the world right now, especially in the U.S. But while many artists have been compelled to write more political songs in the era of Trump, Refused have always been a band who kick back against the establishment.
Staunchly anti-capitalist and uncompromising ever since they formed in 1991 in Umeå, the five-piece—vocalist Dennis Lyxzén, founding drummer David Sandström, guitarist Kristofer Steen, bassist Magnus Flagge, and (relatively) new guitarist Mattias Bärjed—helped redefine the sound and nature of punk and post-hardcore with 1998’s The Shape of Punk to Come. A riff on Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come from 1959, it interspersed Refused’s revolutionary post-hardcore with samples of electronica, jazz, and spoken word. And, while over the years that album did indeed reshape the sound of punk to come, the band itself imploded, breaking up midway through a tour in 1998. “Refused Are Fucking Dead,” they wrote in their break-up press release/manifesto at the time. Even as the album gained traction in the years that followed the disbanding, any sort of reunion seemed not just unlikely, but inconceivable.
And yet, it happened, though that 2012 reunion was followed by another two-year hiatus. In 2014, the band announced more tour dates, and the following June, Refused released Freedom, a brand new record that somehow avoided being dragged down by the weight of expectation. There was none—or very little—of that for War Music, because this album isn’t the immediate follow-up to some iconic record. What its songs do have to contend with, however, is the state in which the world finds itself in 2019.
This is a heavy record in terms of political themes. Why did you feel the need to make it?
I think that good art in general should reflect the times that you live in, and should be like a mirror to the world. And with everything that’s going on in the world right now, we wanted to make a record that encapsulates these troublesome times. We wanted it to be an uncompromising record both thematically in the lyrics, but also in the music and the artwork and everything. Because I think it’s what the world needs. Creatively, it’s also very much a reaction to the Freedom record and how we approached that.
Given that there’d been a seventeen-year wait for that album, was there less pressure this time around?
I think so. When we set out to write Freedom, we knew it was going to be an uphill battle. I like Freedom, and for the time and place when we did it I think it turned out great—it’s a bold and creative record where we really tried to figure out who we were. It had been fourteen years of people living with The Shape of Punk to Come and feeling a lot of comfort in what that record was and how it affected their lives, so no matter what we would have come out with, it would have been polarizing. So for us to write War Music was a bit easier and more relaxed. But it’s never an easy process to write a Refused record. It’s always tough. At least this time around there wasn’t as much pressure from the outside world—Shape of Punk to Come wasn’t hovering above us every second of this recording.
“It can be quite disheartening to have written your first political punk song thirty years ago and you think the world should change and it doesn’t change. Or it changes, but for the worse.”
There’s this idea that right-wing governments inspire good art. But what does that mean for a band like Refused, who are already so radical and political?
We want to be a band that’s driven by ideas, in the sense that we’re not just a rock band—we have ideas and we have a background in DIY punk rock and hardcore music and we come from a very leftist approach. That being said, there’s nothing in the world that I wish more than for our role as a band or as musicians to be superfluous. I would want me to not matter anymore, if that makes sense. So yes, maybe Trump will incite some good music, but I’d rather have a great world than good music. People like to find the silver lining in something like Trump, like maybe now some good punk bands will come out of this—and yes, art should reflect the times and be a beacon of hope in this messed up world—but for a band like Refused, where we’ve always been on the barricades and we’ve always talked about these issues, I think the thing we need to do is just continue. Because it can be quite disheartening to have written your first political punk song thirty years ago and you think the world should change and it doesn’t change. Or it changes, but for the worse. So I think what we need to do is just continue and try to have songs and analysis that are relevant to these times.
As someone from Sweden—a country with high wages and high taxes and a good social welfare system that takes care of its citizens—do you think democratic socialism is an answer to what’s happening in the U.S.?
One would hope so. Because America is still “We the People,” and it’s based on the idea that the people should govern the land. Honestly, I wish I could say there was an economic system that would work where everybody could be happy. I am a socialist and I come from that background and that sort of world, but in America it’s tricky, because it’s a country based upon a utopian ideal. That’s very difficult to maneuver around, because whenever something like Trump happens people say stuff like “It’s Trump” or “It’s the corrupt politicians” or “It’s the corrupt corporations.” No one ever wants to see that it’s a system failure.
But I hope that young people all over the world are starting to realize the absurdity of living in a world where you can’t afford your own place to live, you can’t get hired at a proper job because all the jobs are temp jobs, and there’s not a functioning welfare system or functioning hospitals or schools—and that’s not even talking about the environmental aspect of what’s happening in the world. And you can see in America, with the popularity of Bernie Sanders, that socialist ideas are appealing to people. We have this system set up—this capitalist dream that we want to export to Syria and the rest of the world—but people in America and Europe suffer from mental illness and fatigue and poverty. It’s a system that we can’t afford to live in, but we still want to force it on everybody.
So I think people realize that we need a new world, which I also think is why the alt-right is having a lot of success right now; because a lot of these issues are super complex and intricate and it’s difficult to understand the dynamics of all these social, economic, cultural, and political happenings—and so people latch onto easy solutions. They need an easy fix for a difficult problem. But yeah, I hope that a socialist-type of system would be possible, because it would definitely benefit people way more than it would benefit power.
So when you sing that you want to watch the world burn, you’re being more metaphorical than literal? Or is it a bit of both?
It’s a little bit of both. If you look and see what we’ve done to the world—and what the world forces us to do to each other—you kind of want a clean slate. You want to start over. But how that is supposed to happen, I’m not sure. I think it depends on the day: some days it’s very metaphorical, and some days I’m like, “I just want to burn this world to the ground!” So it depends on my mood.
You’ve said before that music should be a vehicle for revolution. But you’re forty-seven now, and the old adage is that people grow more conservative with age. That doesn’t seem to have happened with you. What drives you? Is it just empathy for other people?
If you travel the world and you see the way it’s set up right now, I want it to be a better place. But it’s quite funny. I was a working class kid from the north of Sweden. I don’t have an education, so to speak—everything I learned I learned from punk rock, and I learned how to analyze the world from that perspective. At the end of the day, I’m a musician; I write songs and prance around onstage in tight pants. I also have some political ideas, which, if I boil it down, are that I want to live in a world where if I fall, you will pick me up, and if you fall, I will pick you up, and the only reason for me to be strong is to help people that are not as strong as me. That’s the kind of world I want to live in. Capitalism is an economic system that has no morals and no compassion and no conscience—it’s just a numbers game that isn’t set up to benefit people, and I don’t want to live in that world.
So to backtrack, I do believe that, for me, music is still a vehicle for change and revolution. I do believe maybe that the time when a musical movement could topple a government might be gone, mainly because of the fragmentation of pop culture and subcultures and so on. I’m not a politician, I’m not a journalist, I’m not in academia—I’m a musician who has ideas, so to be able to use the music and my art to talk about these ideas and learn about other ideas and to make people aware of the fact that there’s a different way to see the world and to live, is super important for me. I think it’s still the most powerful tool that I have. But I don’t see it as a prerequisite, that if you’re a musician you have to talk about revolution. Just for me it is. If someone will give me a platform, I’ll talk about things that I think matter. And most of the time, people know what we’re talking about and agree, but sometimes people don’t agree and that’s fantastic—because then you can have a conversation and exchange ideas.
Do you believe in violent revolution? Is that ever the answer?
I don’t like violence. I’m a very non-violent person. I’m actually pretty zen about a lot of things. But I’m also not naïve enough to believe that if we just hold hands and sing “Kumbaya,” the capitalist overlords will say “aww, you guys are nice. Let’s split everything equally.” I don’t believe in that. I believe there has to be pressure and some sort of uprising to challenge the powers that be. Because the capitalist system is set up so that we believe there’s nothing outside of it and there never can be. And we really need to challenge that as much as possible. Hopefully, a revolutionary happening won’t be violent, but it would be naïve to think the world is just going to change by itself. And I think a lot of the things that we take for granted, like freedom of speech or the right to vote or the right for women to vote, has all been achieved in part by people fighting for them.
“I’m a musician; I write songs and prance around onstage in tight pants. I also have some political ideas, which, if I boil it down, are that I want to live in a world where if I fall, you will pick me up, and if you fall, I will pick you up.”
What was it like touring with The Hives recently? You’re very different—they’re about having fun and escapism, not talking politics.
It was quite interesting. Our approach with Refused, as you can hear on War Music and if you’ve seen us live recently, is very uncompromising and unforgiving. We basically go onstage and our whole attempt is to attack the crowd with music and these ideas. It’s a way of using the music almost as a weapon. And The Hives are the opposite, because they want everybody to be included and a part of it. But it’s a super communal thing and it’s a gathering of like-minded people and it worked out surprisingly well. I mean, we’re both from Sweden, we both have extroverted frontmen who prance around, so I think it worked out really well.
It’s almost like two sides of the same coin—you’re saying, as you do in “The Infamous Left,” to “Rise up right now,” whereas they’re saying, “Don’t forget the little things in life. We still have to have fun.” And combined, they make for a complete message.
Right. But we made our bed so we have to lie in it; in interviews and onstage we talk about politics. And you can have a really clear-cut idea of what you want to say and how to present your band, but people get to choose what they love about our music. Sometimes that’s the politics, sometimes it’s the prancing around, sometimes it’s the drumming or the heavy riffs—and I think that’s quite a beautiful thing. No matter how political we are, we can’t decide what people will take from the show. Hopefully they’ll take in a little bit of everything; they love the music and the energy and they like to get sweaty and dance, but they also might have learned something. At the end of the day, we write songs, and in the dressing room we spend way more time talking about Judas Priest and Slayer than we do talking about international socialism! FL