by Interviews

The legendary Refused are now back to full capacity, having released their new album War Music in 2019. So, Punknews' Tyler Barrett met up witht he band to talk about the new release and, what else, but politics. Check it out below.

“Stepping inside the Refused tour bus…” is a clause I never thought I’d be writing for a number of reasons, the least of which being given the opportunity to interview Refused frontman Dennis Lyxzén. I’d perhaps be more likely to question why a Swedish hardcore punk band of self-described “Pinkos” is crossing the United States in a luxorious tour bus instead of a hobbled Econoline. The thing is, five-plus guys sleeping on multi-layered bunks lining a cramped, narrow aisle is decidedly less ritzy than its exterior suggests. It reminds me more of a mobile hostel than a Winnebago.

Sitting in the back, ankle resting on a knee, Lyxzén is cheery, affable, and loquacious. Åh min godhet is he ever loquacious. In thirty straight minutes of conversation, I’m forced to abandon half my questions simply because we don’t get to them. In the interest of transparency and steadfast dedication to objectivity, I’m including the entire transcribed interview, unedited aside from minor clarifications of intent.

So in a post-fact world of spin and subjectivity, doublespeak and disinformation, This just might be…the truth. Has Refused played Minneapolis before? I have [with (International) Noise Conspiracy] but I don’t think Refused has. I mean…we played almost everywhere in the U.S. on that Snapcase tour in ‘96 but that’s kind of a vague, foggy memory at this point. But Refused, since we got back together, this is our first time here. I played First Ave a couple times with Noise Conspiracy--twice, I think--and some other venues but it’s the first time with Refused.

Having the high Scandinavian population we have here, does it feel anymore like home or does it feel like anywhere else in the U.S.? I haven’t thought of it that much. But I just remember the first time we played here with Noise Conspiracy, we played at First Ave to like 40-50 people, it was a small show. I went on stage and said, “Hey, the real vikings are here now! We’re the (International) Noise Conspiracy from Sweden.” And someone came up to me after the show and said, “That’s a cool image, pretending you’re from Sweden!” And I’m like, “What? No!” [laughs] But I’ve never really thought of it but I guess there are communities in Minnesota that are still very Swedish, and still speak Swedish, which is pretty crazy. A lot of people from Sweden settled in this area, which I don’t understand. It’s like, you have all of America to choose? I guess it reminded people of Sweden…that’s probably it.

Did you have any hesitation coming back to the U.S. with Refused or any negative feelings associated with playing in the States since that’s where Refused fell apart back in 1998? Not really. It would have fallen apart no matter where we went. It was just that time. It didn’t have that much to do with us being in America. We just burned out on each other, burned out on life. I guess crossing the Atlantic and what’s at stake when you do a tour of the States added to the tension of the time. But, I mean, I toured the states in between ‘98 and 2012, I must have toured the States 14 times with Noise Conspiracy so I’m quite comfortable touring here. There’s no connotations in that sense, like, “Can we really go to America again?” It just felt good coming back over here in 2012 and actually finishing up a bunch of stuff we didn’t do in ‘98. It was our second tour of the States and I was really looking forward to it and we were gonna hit a bunch of spots that we never played on the Snapcase tour. And we broke up after like three shows and then played another five or six shows and then we flew home. So it was like one of those unfulfilled dreams so it’s just nice to be able to come back and do that with Refused and have people see us play.

What were the feelings coming back--not just to the States--but coming back in general with Refused after breaking up in ‘98? Were there expectations and pressure? Was it easier or harder than you expected? I think the most amount of pressure we put on ourselves. Obviously we knew people’s expectations of what they wanted us to be. And it’s hard because being away for so long, you become a myth of yourself. And it’s hard but at the end of the day, we figured if we go into this and really focus and really put in the hours, it’ll be fine. At first, when we started talking about the reunion I wondered, “How are these songs gonna hold up? How are these lyrics gonna hold up?” The certain energy output you have in Refused…I mean, I played in a lot of bands but Refused is definitely the most extroverted, violent band I ever played in [laughs]. So I think a lot of that was like, “How can we do this and make it feel relevant?” But as soon as we started practicing and as soon as we started playing together it was like, “This feels insanely natural.” Which was a bit unexpected because we hadn’t played together for so long. But once we actually started playing it just felt like, “Yeah this makes complete sense.”

Had you maintained those relationships throughout the years or did you have to reach back out? When we broke up we didn’t talk for a long time. Especially me and the other guys maybe more so than the other guys [among each other]. It was twelve years. And after a couple years me and [drummer] David [Sandström] connected. And that was fairly easy. I mean we’ve known each other coming up on thirty years now, that we’ve been friends. So when you’ve known someone that long, it was fairly easy to reconnect. David was kinda the guy that was doing projects and hanging out with everyone. So he was kinda the mediator. So when the offer came, David was kinda the one that reached out to everyone and was like, “Are we gonna do this?” And I hadn’t really spent time with any of the other guys in the years in between. I did my own thing and they did their own thing. But then we got together and we sat down and talked. A lot. A lot of talking first. But it felt good. David was connected to everyone and was playing music with everyone so when the offer came it was fairly easy. It was like, we are connected already. We live in the same city. We’re all connected, we’re all kinda hanging out so it was fairly easy.

Did the (International) Noise Conspiracy have to die for Refused to come back? I don’t think so. Noise Conspiracy, we stopped playing in 2009 so it was a couple years, and I did other stuff. My band INVSN started back in 2010, 2011 is when we started playing. So I don’t think so. I do think sometimes that when there’s a “Refused year” in the making I know some of my other projects will have to step aside because now we’re doing Refused. But I think I would have been open to the idea of Refused anyway. When you’re young, you can be quite categorical in how you approach things. Like, “Now this is over! It’s fucking done!” [laughs] But as I grew older, [I realized] it makes no sense to close doors. You can do a lot of things at the same time and still have focus. When you’re young, I think you perceive it like if you have two bands, one of the bands might be jealous of you having another band. But now, we all have different projects, we all do other things, and it’s very natural for all of us.

That said, do you see any future for the (International) Noise Conspiracy? I mean, here’s the thing…my door is always open. If there’s a reason to play with Noise Conspiracy, I would do that. But I don’t see us as ever becoming an active band again. I could see us play shows again. Like if there’s a reissue of some vinyl and then play a couple shows. More like that. But I mean when Refused is active it’s a pretty full-time operation. And INVSN is my other full-time band. We have a new record coming out hopefully late this year. That’s a band that whenever we’re active we do like 120 shows for a record. So I’m quite busy. But I’m always open, as I said. My door is always open for any of my projects if there’s a reason and people are excited, I’m open to play shows.

Refused and (International) Noise Conspiracy are for the most part, rather distinct. Later Refused records have had some songs that almost sound like they could have been Noise Conspiracy, so I’m curious if there were any Refused songs that became Noise Conspiracy or vice versa? Well when we broke up we were working on a Refused song called “Just Give Me a Black Mask” and that ended up being the first Noise Conspiracy song. So I had those ideas, I had the lyrics and it was supposed to be a Refused thing but then we broke up. So I just moved it over [to Noise Conspiracy]. So that one and there’s an early Noise Conspiracy song called “Abolish Work,” which was a title I was working on with Refused. I felt that musically, Noise Conspiracy was one of those things where I had to take two steps back to be able to take a step forward. With Refused being as complex as it is and so grandeur, when I started with Noise Conspiracy I wanted to make it really simple garage rock. Start over and do something radically different.

The reason I ask is because I really like the Noise Conspiracy’s Live at the Oslo Jazz Festival and I feel like I can hear shades of that in Refused’s last two records. Yeah, there’s a song on Freedom called “War on the Palaces” which has kind of a Noise Conspiracy-esque feel to it. But the thing is, I was really against having that song on the record [laughs].

[laughs] It wasn’t your pick? It wasn’t my pick because it reminded me--not necessarily of Noise Conspiracy--but it reminded me of something I’ve already done. The other Refused guys were like, “Oh this is a cool song, it’s completely different.” But for me, it feels kinda like something Noise Conspiracy would have done. So yeah, that’s a song that bears a similarity, but I didn’t write that song. It’s just [guitarist] Kris’[topher Steen] riff. But I felt like, “I don’t want this on the record.” But I got voted down [laughs].

How far do you reach back into Refused’s catalog since the comeback? From 2012, we played “Pump the Brakes” a couple times. But that’s been awhile. It’s a song that’s so connected to a different time and place. And maybe we were different people. We do a bunch of songs from Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent and I think we usually play around three songs from that record. But I think we know about five or six songs that we could play so sometimes we switch them out and say, “Okay let’s do this song.” But that’s about as far back as we go on this tour. But it’s one of those things, there’s always a guy at the show that’s like, [fist in the air] “Pump the Brakes!” And we’re like how many of you have actually heard that song? And it’s just that guy and his friend.

So it’s like, “Alright, we’ll play it for you two!” [laughs] Right. When we did a Scandinavian tour in December we did not play “Pump the Brakes” but the dates we did in Scandinavia on the Freedom tour, we did play “Pump the Brakes.” Because it’s like, in Sweden especially, that was a big song for us and for a lot of our friends. But it wasn’t that big over here [in the States].

But it’s interesting because in some ways I think maybe people appreciate it now more and that style of hardcore has kind of come back in the last decade [with bands like Fire & Ice and even early Turnstile]. How much of that hardcore identity do you still carry with you? It’s one of those things that’s hard to say. Because so much of my life and who I am is so steeped in hardcore and punk. The way I talk, the language of the band and who we are. When we talk about music references…we still talk a lot about hardcore. I mean it’s a lot about metal, too. But it’s a world we’ve always had one foot inside. I still collect hardcore records. I bought a bunch of new hardcore the other day. I bought the two Fury records and L.O.T.I.O.N. So I still listen to a lot of hardcore. Maybe when I go to hardcore shows, I don’t really feel like I look like a hardcore kid that much [laughs]. But I still carry it. It’s one of three things that will define me as a person for the rest of my life. Hardcore music and what that did to me. It’s still a huge part of my life. It’s still a huge part of my identity even though I don’t look like a hardcore person or advertise it.

We very much in the 90s identified as a hardcore band. Very much of the scene. In ‘97 we were quite fed up with the scene and the politics and all the bullshit so we wrote [The] Shape of Punk to Come as kind of an assault on that. It’s kind of a “fuck you.” And then we did this weird crossover thing. A lot of our peers, a lot of the bands we played with in the ‘90s like Snapcase and Earth Crisis and Strife…all those bands are all still playing shows. But they’re not asked to play Coachella. You know what I mean? It’s weird because we did a crossover thing with that record and when we came back in 2012 we were not a hardcore band. If that makes sense. We were like some weird, big rock band. But I think as far as a band, now with War Music and where we are in life we’ve kind of accepted, like, we’re a type of a hardcore band. We’re quirky and odd and kind of our own deal but we’re not like a regular rock band. Because in our minds after 2012, it was so huge, we were like, “Oh, we’re just a rock band.” But anytime we played with rock bands, we’re like “no, we’re not really a rock band.” [laughs] We toured with Deftones and we toured with Faith No More and our music is so much more aggressive and so much more abrasive and so much more confrontational. We’re like, ”Yeah…we’re not just a normal rock band.” So I think we still identify ourselves a lot as a weird kind of artsy hardcore band. If that makes sense?

It makes sense to me. And I suppose you can contrast it the other way, like your recent Australian tour with Sick of it All. They really stay with [hardcore]. So you can see you kind of fall somewhere in between. Yeah, which I think is fine. I mean as I said it’s been a huge part of shaping who I am but it’s not the only thing that’s shaped me. And it is interesting because we can tour with a band like Youth Code that’s obviously like an industrial band or we can tour with a band like the Coathangers that’s like a garage punk band and we can play with the Deftones. But we can also play with Sick of it All and Madball. It’s all homebase for us. And I think that’s a cool thing. And it’s a weird reach that we have. We don’t really fit in anywhere but we kind of have a foot everywhere. Even a lot of the festivals we play in Europe, we play metal festivals. Like there’s Obituary and Anthrax and then we play and we’re like, “Yeah, I guess that’s fine!” So it’s like, we end up being a little all over the place which is kind of cool. We play an afterparty at This is Hardcore with Strife and we’re like, “I guess we can do this too.” So it’s a cool thing.

Speaking of artsy hardcore, what kind of influence does visual art have on Refused? I’ve always felt there was an element there but it’s hard to pin down.

It’s interesting because we’re the type of kids, maybe especially me and David…we had working class parents, we’re from working class backgrounds, very simple, we were horrible at school…but punk and hardcore music and everything around it got us interested in art, got us interested in literature. It made us, not intellectuals, but it intellectualized us. And there’s something about, I mean, Kris, our other guitar player, he’s an opera director. Mattias, our guitar player writes movie scores. So we’re very much in that world. David’s an aspiring author, he’s working on his first novel right now. So we’re all in a world where all these mediums intersect. And I think it’s a cool thing. For us, I think we always felt that music was art, like a part of the art movement. A lot of the music that makes us excited was always a part of it, like the Velvet Underground, always connected to art movements. I think that’s exciting and it is something--like, a lot of the jargon I use is from dadaism or surrealism or situationism. And I bring all these art movements into my lyrics and infuse that with radical politics and it becomes something very exciting. So I mean, yeah, we’re just trying to expand our minds and think about new stuff…we’re pseudo-intellectuals, I’d say [laughs]. A bunch of pseudo-intellectuals.

Randy [the punk band from Sweden] said music is better than art, what do you think? Are they the same or can you separate them? [sings]Better than art, better than art. [Laughs] For me, it’s the same thing. But I know what they’re saying, they’re just funny. They’re good friends of mine. But I think their whole idea was kinda artsy-fartsy people think they’re above music. I think it’s insanely connected. Just the way we view our artwork. Like the artwork for Freedom was done by a really famous Swedish artist. Like, it was insanely expensive to have him paint the artwork. So here’s what he did: He heard the music, he painted it, and he said, “Here it is. There’s no changes.” There’s no like, “Okay we want it more like this.” He’s like “No, here’s a piece of art.” And then I said, “Can I have the original?” Because I would like the original painting. And he’s like, “Yeah, it’s 20,000 dollars.” And I’m like, “No, no, it’s fine, I don’t need the original [laughs]. So he’s like a proper artist. So we always--I mean, even now with War Music--we really took a lot of time and the whole booklet is influenced by a German radical artist called Joseph Beuys. So it’s very much connected to what we do, the language of the band.

Some people, I guess I would be one of them, view video games as a new medium of art. You have an important role in the upcoming Cyberpunk 2077 video game. How did that come about? I mean, I don’t play video games, I don’t have the attention span for that. My mind’s too…like…[gestures somewhere into the ether]. But so it’s a crazy thing. We didn’t know [about it]. None of us are gamers. Which is fine. I think actually, Kris, our guitar player, games a little bit. But we’re not gamers, ya know? But they hit me up on Instagram DM and said, “Do you wanna sing for this video game? We’re looking for a voice.” And I was like, “Kinda crazy…eh…” So I just forwarded it to our management and our management was like, “HO-LEE SHIT!” and I was like, “What?” We didn’t know at all. And it turns out it’s like a huge deal and they got in touch and they’re like, “Can you do it as Refused?” And we’re shooting it back and forth, like “Alright let’s try it.” And it was weird and interesting because usually Refused, we take like two years to record a record. And this was like, “We got two weeks and we have to finish this.” The guy that’s the composer for the game, he had a bunch of riffs. And we had a bunch of riffs. When I said I was interested, they said, “Okay, let’s model SAMURAI after Refused.” So they started making riffs that were kind of Refused-esque. And we had some riffs that didn’t make it to the record, and we merged everything and we had two weeks to finish everything. And we’re sending notes back and forth and writing lyrics, me and David are writing lyrics together. And the game producer is like, “No, you can’t sing that because it doesn’t apply to the future. You can’t sing this because it doesn’t apply to the game.” So it was really cool to do it quickly and with a bit of a different voice. And be like, “Oh it’s not Refused, it’s SAMURAI.” We pretended to be another band. So it was quite interesting and it was funny because we didn’t know that Keanu Reeves was gonna be like, I’m gonna sing [as] Keanu Reeves. Which is insanely weird. We didn’t know, they didn’t tell us, there was a lot of hush-hush around it. Until when he introduced the game and he came out and I’m like--I actually texted one of the guys--I’m like “Wait, Johnny Silverhand, that’s me, right?” They’re like, “Yeah, that’s you.” And I’m like “Holy sh--fuck!” You know, like I’m actually his singing voice. So there’s a dream scenario when I get to shake hands with Keanu Reeves at one point in life, I donno, it might happen. So yeah, it was a cool experience and I mean it’s a whole new world of people that might discover our band because of a video game so it’s quite interesting. It’s a huge industry, you know.

Bernie Sanders has pointed to Scandinavia as a paradigm for his vision of a social democracy. Do you think it’s a reasonable model for the United States? To a certain extent I think it makes sense because Sweden used to be a great country with a great social security network. Like we took care of people. It’s not anymore. As with everything in the world, the shift towards complete neoliberal capitalism is happening everywhere, and it does happen in Sweden, which means Sweden is facing a lot of the same problems that people in the States are facing but not to the same extent. If I break my leg, I won’t be bankrupt. I think that Sweden is wrestling with a bunch of its own problems but as far as the idea to have social democratic capitalism, because that’s what we had throughout the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s--and it was actually really well-functioning--our country kinda went to shit when we started privatizing. Like now we have different pharmacy companies to choose from, now we have different phone companies to choose from, that’s when our country actually started going to shit. So I do think it’s good, I mean with universal healthcare, having a good school education system, with elder care and all these things that actually cost a lot of money over here, I think it’s a good thing to point at that. I mean [the U.S. is] one of the richest countries in the world and you have one of the highest percentages of poverty for a developed country, it’s insane. So yeah, hopefully. It’s funny because in the news over here everybody thinks Bernie Sanders is such a radical and I’m like, “Yeah…no…” [laughs]

[laughs] Yeah…relative term. Relative term. He’s a pretty…semi-leftist social democrat. Which is, if you’re radical from Sweden, that’s not gonna cut it. For America, he is quite radical. But you have to realize America has had a bunch of numerous, really radical movements throughout the years. The union movement, and a strong Communist movement of the ‘40s and ‘50s changed a lot as far as union rights and workers getting organized and all these things. It is a country that has a strong history of that. And for a lot of young people, our parents and maybe our grandparents grew up when they had a job straight out of school. They had a fuckin’ house straight out of school. Now, young people work two jobs, they have three roommates, it’s just an economy that doesn’t function for young people. So I think that’s why so many people are attracted to Bernie. [In Sweden], if I break my leg I’ll be fine. I read somewhere that something like 48 percent of all personal bankruptcy in America happens because you get an unexpected thing that happens, and for most people it was like 400 bucks that will break your economy. And for me, that’s insane. For me, if I break my leg, I go to a hospital, it costs me probably 20 bucks to check it out, and if I have to have surgery it’s maybe 100 bucks. Maybe. That’s kinda pricey. A hundred bucks for surgery. If wealth doesn’t mean anything, if there’s no redistribution of wealth…if someone like Donald Trump says, “Oh, the economy’s doing so great.” Tell that to the people that are homeless. Tell that to the people who work three jobs. It doesn’t mean anything, or it doesn’t apply. You can’t say shit like that to most people. I like Bernie. He’s not perfect but he seems reasonable, he’s got a lot of ideas that I think most normal, working class people could benefit from.