In Conversation: The Radio Dept. on 10 Years of “Clinging to a Scheme”

Johan Duncanson looks back on the Swedish duo’s shapeshifting breakthrough LP.
In Conversation: The Radio Dept. on 10 Years of “Clinging to a Scheme”

Johan Duncanson looks back on the Swedish duo’s shapeshifting breakthrough LP.

Words: Tim Gagnon

photo by Andreas Olsson

April 16, 2020

There was always a restlessness in Johan Duncanson and Martin Carlberg’s listless songs. 

From the moment Duncanson began murmuring above the jangly fray of “Where Damage Isn’t Already Done, The Radio Dept. endeared themselves to wistful Discogs users and movie montages of sunlight passing through trees, but their music continually defied being preserved in amber. In retrospect, their 2003 debut Lesser Matters was a record caught between times; its achingly sincere sketches of post-grad aimlessness and bus commutes could easily pass for lost demos sent to Sarah Records, its blasts of staticky shoegaze and chintzy synth drums engineered for Bandcamp’s lo-fi crowd had the site not launched five years later. 

Their follow-up, 2006’s Pet Grief, refined the band with Angelo Badalamenti–approved synths and Italo disco drum loops, but Duncanson’s voice remained at the center of their orbit like a semi-lucid, all-knowing voice delivering angsty truths through a buzzy intercom. Despite landing a whopping three songs on Sofia Coppola’s soundtrack for Marie Antoinette later in 2006, The Radio Dept. kept to select gigs around Europe and releasing one-off singles, letting the internet do the heavy promotional lifting for them. By the time their next record was on the horizon, The Radio Dept. were either modern ambassadors of saccharine dream pop or approaching a decade of being perpetual underrated, depending on who you asked.

Clinging to a Scheme, released ten years ago this week, didn’t become the band’s most quintessential album out of a seismic change in approach. If anything, The Radio Dept. seem to embrace on Clinging that they’re a band most comfortable being pulled in at least five different directions sonically.

In an age where bands dabbling in different cultural sounds started getting clocked more often for problematic pastiches, Clinging squeezed in dub aesthetics (“Never Follow Suit”), early ’90s hip-hop-indebted production (“David”), and a foreshadowing of their own techno ambition on 2016’s Running Out of Love (“Four Months in the Shade”) with reverent precision across a tight thirty-four minutes. The album’s lead singles, “David” and “Heaven’s on Fire,” are such towering examples of indie pop’s crossover potential in the 2010s, no one would fault you for missing that they’re about closeted gay lovers and the destruction of capitalism, respectively.

Dream pop bands and teen movies suffer a similar compulsion to pigeonhole themselves with tired tropes and aesthetics in service of their target audiences, but Clinging to a Scheme set a euphoric potential for both great dream pop records and coming-of-age documents by nailing the balance between heart-on-sleeve lyricism and telling ambience. “Do I love you? Yes, I love you, but easy come, easy go,” Duncanson lilts in a nod to The Blue Nile on “A Token of Gratitude.” A guitar loop jolts to life at the reference and, for a few seconds, you’d think “Gratitude” could’ve been the platonic sync for every scene on The CW featuring two people making eyes at each other from across a party. Instead, “Gratitude” decomposes into hiccuping lo-fi house that sounds like leaving a party early and mulling over missed opportunities as the music muffles outside.

“Gratitude,” appropriately enough, was inspired by an impassioned fan letter the band received during recording, but there might not be a better way to explain Clinging to a Scheme’s endurance than a song about music fandom that could be eulogizing love itself. The Radio Dept. will likely always be by and for passionate record collectors, but Clinging made it clear that a band’s reputation of warmly evoking nostalgia didn’t have to be synonymous with settling into predictability. For The Radio Dept. itself, it opened the doors to making a dance album against fascism and even potentially ditching traditional album cycles altogether. For fans, though, Clinging to a Scheme became a modern dream-pop classic by evoking the subgenre’s emotive extremes along with an unbridled eclecticism that became an expected standard for indie bands in the decade that followed it.

Ahead of its tenth anniversary, we spoke with Johan Duncanson on the actual story of self-doubt, countryside escapes, and eleventh-hour songwriting that went into the making of Clinging to a Scheme. The band’s latest single, “You Fear The Wrong Thing Baby,” is out now on Just So!

A lot of the press around Clinging to a Scheme made it out to be the band’s attempt at a breakthrough moment onto a more international stage, which felt odd considering your band has never seemed very concerned about music industry games or becoming festival darlings. 

We didn’t think of any of those things. We were so deep into the recordings that by the time the album was finished, we didn’t know what was good or bad anymore. That’s usually the case for us, but maybe even more so with Clinging. After mastering it some four times over, I remember telling Martin, “Let’s just release this crap now, turn the page, and make a new, really good album quickly,” but then people seemed to really like it, so we didn’t have to. 

What was it like when you started realizing it was landing with critics and fans?

It was just such a relief. We needed a break. But I want to do that some time; instead of going on the road after releasing something, just head back to the studio and make another album. It would be a much quicker process, I think. Even if you start fresh with new music, you’re not starting from square one, not really. And you’re not tied down by the songs you’ve been working on anymore. You’re free, but with skills.

You’ve said it’s hard to finish songs because you get bored and just write new ones. What was it about the songs that made it onto Clinging that held your attention enough to finish them?

“I remember telling Martin, ‘Let’s just release this crap now, turn the page, and make a new, really good album quickly,’ but then people seemed to really like it, so we didn’t have to.”

It all came down to making the decision to finish what we were working on at the moment instead of making new tunes and drum loops or whatever, to start seeing about a dozen songs as the album and finish it. We forbid ourselves to write new songs. If we’d made that decision a year earlier, it wouldn’t have been the same record. But, of course, you feel trapped instantly by rules like that. I remember recording “Never Follow Suit” in secret until it was nearly finished to get it on the album. If I’d introduced it at an earlier stage, it would understandably have gotten a no. We couldn’t afford to drift at that point.

There are some really sublime moments, like on “A Token of Gratitude” and “Memory Loss,” that seem improvised with how loose they are, but they keep building until you almost doubt any unintentionality in it. Were these songs more spontaneous or did some of them take a while to crack?

“A Token of Gratitude” was probably the fastest recording from scratch to finish. I had a demo and we’d borrowed a flat in the countryside for a week. During one of the days there, we recorded and mixed most of it and spent the rest of the week working on other songs. The songwriting—as in melody, chords, and beats—was quite quick for most songs, but the rest of the arrangements sometimes took many tries to get right, and some of the lyrics also took a long time to force myself to write. Martin sat in sometimes to see that it got done; we co-wrote the lyrics for “Heaven’s on Fire” and “Never Follow Suit.” I remember trying out “Heaven’s on Fire” live a couple of times before the lyrics were finished, and some of what I was singing wasn’t even words, just sounds that would hopefully sound like English.

“Heaven on Fire” is now one of the most straightforward pop singles you’ve released, but it also leads off with that great Thurston Moore quote about destroying capitalism in youth culture. What was more motivating at the time: challenging what a Radio Dept. song could sound like or writing more overtly about beliefs?

Those things were not separate to us. Using spoken word samples, for instance, was something we loved sonically and, at the same time, it was meant to send a message and to say something about us and our views.

I feel like a few points on the record also foreshadowed the heavier dance influences on Running Out of Love, namely the outro of “A Token of Gratitude,” “David,” and “Four Months in the Shade.” What was your interest in dance music like at the time?

Our first attempt at some kind of dance music, I guess, was the outro of This Past Week from 2005, but the gradual realization that we could do whatever we wanted was at a peak during the recording of Clinging, so I guess you could pick up on those and other influences easier. I mean, when it comes to influences, we were all over the place, which was one of the reasons we started doubting the record towards the end of recording it. Was it really OK to put the hip-hop style beats of “Heaven’s on Fire” and “Never Follow Suit” next to songs like “You Stopped Making Sense” or “Domestic Scene”? Would it make any sense at all? We were asking ourselves questions like that earlier in the process too, but the closer we got to our umpteenth but final deadline, the scarier it got.

What were some of the musical touchstones that helped clarify these thoughts?

Andrew Weatherall, who just passed away tragically, was a big inspiration on the more beat-based songs on the album. We revisited pop hits from our childhood, like Midi, Maxi & Efti’s Bad Bad Boys and [New Kids on the Block]’s Philly-sounding masterpiece Please Don’t Go Girl.” We listened to ’80s indie bands like Marine Girls, Young Marble Giants, Antena, [but also] The Blue Nile, Style Council, Saint Etienne, Lovers Rock compilations, ’70s folk, Marvin Gaye, Philly soul, Dusty Springfield, and tons of other stuff. We wanted the album to be eclectic, but to keep the overall feel of rehearsal space roughness as a common denominator. With Pet Grief, we tried to make our cheap equipment sound luxurious and clean. This time, we didn’t want to hide the grit, but instead let it define the record. A bit like the dirty production on [Wu Tang Clan’s] 36 Chambers or the Ciccone Youth album, but pop.

Clinging was the first time you all toured more extensively around a record. How much of an adjustment was that for the band?

“I remember trying out ‘Heaven’s on Fire’ live a couple of times before the lyrics were finished, and some of what I was singing wasn’t even words, just sounds that would hopefully sound like English.”

Even though it was more, it became easier. Some shows would start paying a bit better, so for the first time, we could afford to bring a tour manager. He would also work as stage tech, and those two things made everything way less stressful. We fought less and, after gradually learning to deal with the stage fright again, we could start enjoying it. The [tour manager], by the way, Jesper Gunge, is now the band’s manager and co-runner of [our label] Just So!

In the years since releasing Running Out of Love, you all have mostly taken to reissuing older music and putting out one-off singles. Specifically with the release of “The Absence of Birds,” you mentioned you all had ten songs ready, but how you’d release them was “to be decided from what we feel suits the songs.” What are your thoughts on the traditional album cycle at this point?

We’ve been working on an album, but a few months ago, we decided to release the songs as singles and EPs first—so we’ll be doing that throughout the year, and then we’ll collect most of it on an album in the beginning of next year hopefully. The reissues came about not so much to dwell on the past, but because we got back the rights to our earlier albums and it’s been a way for us to partly finance the making of new music.

Now that you’re self-releasing all of your music, do you feel like The Radio Dept. is past doing album cycles in the traditional sense?

That depends on what you mean by traditional. We will keep making singles and EPs primarily, but they will be collected on albums along the way. It’s just a matter of the order in which the songs are released, really. While making these new songs, for instance, the singles we’re putting out now, we’re in an album mindset. They are a part of a whole, and there’s an idea of what they will sound like together.