IT MAY HAVE BEEN ALMOST TWO DECADES SINCE THE RELEASE OF THEIR ICONIC RECORD ‘THE SHAPE OF PUNK TO COME’, BUT NOW REFUSED ARE HERE TO SHOW EXACTLY WHY THEY’D RATHER BE ALIVE.
WORDS: SARAH JAMIESON. PHOTOS: SARAH LOUISE BENNETT
“They say that the classics never go out of style, but they do.” The first words uttered by Dennis Lyxzén on the opening track of Refused’s undoubtedly seminal album have always stood as a potent, taunting opening gambit. Yet, with almost two decades between then and now, if time has taught us anything, it’s that perhaps on this occasion Dennis wasn’t entirely correct.
Seventeen years ago, a punk band from Umeå, Sweden unleashed their third album into the world. They would find their successes in playing to rooms of a few hundred people, but remained unsurprised when they arrived in North America to perform for a fraction of that. Then, just as soon as it really began, it all fell apart. The legend of Refused was born.
The show that went on to become Refused’s final live set – taking place in Harrisonburg, Virginia back in October 1998 – has safely gone down in history. An already fraught band – one, some would believe, were already broken up – were infamously greeted by police sirens just a few songs into their set. It was there that the young group decided to call it quits and mean it.
Since then, bands have come and gone but Refused’s presence has always been felt in the background. While ‘The Shape Of Punk To Come’ began its life as a failure in almost every right – doomed to die in that same Virginia basement – it’s since gone on to become the inspiration, the lifeblood, of some of modern day rock’s biggest bands.
Luckily that’s no longer where the story ends, but rather, where it all begins once again.
“It’s not easy to sometimes comprehend that something we did a long time ago holds that much meaning, and means so much to so many people.” Dennis Lyxzén is sat amongst his bandmates, having just – quite literally – completed a US tour and hopped on a plane to London. Not even jetlag or lack of sleep is stopping the four-piece this time around. “You become disconnected, you carry on with your life and once in a while, you’d meet someone who’d say, ‘Hey, I liked Refused’ and you’d be like, ‘Oh that’s cool’, but it’s hard to grasp the reach of that record. Once we came out and started playing it, it was like… From being a band who was quite happy if 200, 300 people showed up to go to playing in New York two nights in a row and selling 4000 tickets like that,” he clicks his fingers, “it’s quite surreal.”
At the start of 2012, the rumour mill went into overdrive; Refused were making an unprophesised comeback and it was a real second chance to give their record the airing it deserved. What the band didn’t expect, however, was for the reaction to be quite so overwhelming.
“We knew there was interest, of course,” offers drummer David Sandström, thinking back to three years previously. “Everyone had been telling us, but it was impossible to know how big it was. People that we know sort of laughed and said, ‘Oh, you’re so detached, you have no idea,’ because we were so surprised. I think, actually, everyone was surprised that it was so intense.”
“We’re also kind of dismissive when it comes to our own music,” continues guitarist Kristofer Steen, who was also the mastermind behind their infamous 2006 documentary ‘Refused Are Fucking Dead’. “More than most artists,” he assures, “we’re sort of hyper-critical, I would say. I think when we disbanded the band we, in a way, dismissed the record. It was quite fresh,” the album was less than six months old by the time Refused split, “and it was a failure, commercially. We felt like, ‘Okay, it’s over’, so it was a bit of a shock because it was our music and we have our own attachment to it, but we had been so actively dismissive of it that it was almost weird to meet the people and see how passionate and insane they were.”
“I remember the day we posted the picture of us that said ‘Refused 2012’,” Dennis thinks back. “I was sat at home and just the response on my Facebook [looked like it] was about to explode. I was like, ‘Oh, people are gonna get excited,’ but I had no idea how that was gonna spread. At that point, I don’t even think we had started practicing!” he laughs. “The response was so overwhelming, I got super nervous. I was sitting at home like, ‘Holy fuck, this is out of control!’”
The months that followed saw the band reignite a flame that fans once believed extinguished. Performing live across the world, the quartet played close to eighty shows, including slots at Coachella, Primavera and Download Festival, and proved that they were more than capable of picking up where they had left off so many years previously. Yet, at the same time, they weren’t the band they had been in the 90s, and that was something they didn’t want to overlook. The shows were about showcasing the most present version of Refused, even after almost two decades away.
“I think people tend to fall into that category when they do reunion stuff,” Dennis considers, “they put on the t-shirt they were wearing twenty years ago because they want to emulate what that was. I mean, yeah, we played the songs and we were true to the music and we were true to what Refused were, but we want to be true to who we are as people. I think that’s an important distinction. I think what people saw immediately, this wasn’t just gonna be nostalgia. It’s a contemporary thing that’s happening, and even more so now we have new music and new songs. It’s not nostalgia and it’s not repeating something or trying to relive something. We’re trying to do new things.”
That’s where the next chapter of Refused really began for the band. After drawing their tour to a close in their hometown of Umeå after a year on the road, things began to click into place. Their thoughts soon turned to the possibility of new music.
“We’re all forty-plus now so our lives have many different ins and outs,” explains David, detailing the events which had to happen in order for the band to get to this point today. “For a thing like this to happen, a lot of things had to fall into place. One thing was that we were all living close to each other. Three of us were playing together and me and Dennis had a band that played violent punk rock so there was a vibe that was different than it had been since the band split up.” He then broaches the elephant in the room. “We have a lot of respect for our fans and we work very hard, but it wasn’t like, ‘Oh my god, the Refused myth! We’ve gotta preserve it at all costs.’ To me, I just felt like Refused was just us.”
“It’s our band, that’s the thing,” throws in Dennis. “I think, for a long time, our band was not our band. It was public property and everybody was a part of that. When we decided to come back and start playing shows, we retook some control of our band. The ball got rolling because all of these things, and why we’re here today, is because we started playing as Refused. It’s a special thing. We could play and have other bands, do other things, but once we start playing as Refused, there’s something different that happens. They had songs and they had ideas,” he says, gesturing to his bandmates, including bassist Magnus Flagge, who had begun work on a nameless project before approaching Dennis, “but all of a sudden, it became more like, ‘Maybe these songs should be Refused songs.’” And so, the band’s fourth album ‘Freedom’ was born.
“The creativity part of it was the least of our problems,” begins Kristofer, on the subject of their new album. “We always had an abundance of ideas and that was almost the problem. We didn’t have a board meeting about what the direction was; it was just natural for us to be adventurous and experimental.”
“I think we know what Refused is,” the band’s frontman continues. “I think 2012 taught us a lot about what we are and how we interact and play, so when we started writing, there was a certain idea as to what Refused is. Even though it is very diverse and adventurous and eclectic, there’s something in the way we play and the way we sound that is Refused.”
From the first pummelling guitars of album opener ‘Elektra’, the power and presence of Refused is undeniable. Stark scenes of a dystopian future unfurl as Dennis once again takes on the role of our crazed narrator, and – for a millisecond – it’s almost as though no real time has elapsed since the band last resumed their roles.
“I think the surprising thing was that,” starts Dennis, “when we started practicing back in 2012, reading the [early] lyrics, I was like, ‘oh, this is just a naive youngster saying stuff that still means a lot,’ which was quite surprising. I realised that those words kinda held up really well to the backdrop of the world today.
“When we started writing lyrics for the new record, me and David sat down and we talked about ideology and politics, and current events. We actually sat down, made notes and talked about different issues and how we should approach this. We spent a lot of hours working on the lyrics because that’s also an important aspect of what Refused is as a band. We came out of the gate with these political ideas and, [we were] coming from the punk rock tradition of, ‘If you’ve got something to say, then say it loud.’ We had always done that and now that it’s been seventeen years, we wanted to continue that tradition but write with more depth and more complexity than before, because as you grow older, you realise that’s what the world is.”
While their return to the forefront of music has been so celebrated, unsurprisingly, that’s not always wholly the case. For some, whatever Refused’s next step was set to be was doomed to disappoint and the band know that. As they joke about maintaining their “legacy” – “The record is not out, so we could still pull the plug on this one…” laughs Dennis. “Now that would be myth-making!” – they’re aware of the criticism they’re set to face but, when everything aligns and gut feelings take over, it was only ever the band themselves that could make that final decision.
“We were sort of like, ‘what is this gonna be?!’,” admits Kristofer, when returning to the idea that sparked all of this to happen. “It was a process of refinding our way into the Refused world, so to speak. I think gradually we reconciled ourselves with the past and learned how to love the old music.”
“We’ve had an incredible creative experience,” David elaborates, returning to the present day. “It was an environment that was just conducive to making interesting and brave choices. Everyone has such a huge grasp on things and we’ve listened to so much more music. We’ve played a lot and thought a lot.”
As for what they hope to achieve with their latest offering – never mind, seminal records and explosive splits, stern-worded manifestos and prolonging their own myth – their intents are simple.
“We really, really always want to be able to blow someone away,” David offers plainly. “There are people who are into us because of the intensity of our live shows and the music being powerful in that sense, people are into us because the music feels like it touches them because it’s sincere, and there are people who are into us because they’re interested in what we do in the experimentation of the rock format. I just hope that we won’t lose any of those different listeners. I hope that they find what they like about us still.”
“It’s also for us,” adds Kristofer. “I’m as much of a fan of our music as our listeners.” “We want to be representing the entire reach,” concludes Dennis, “and if we can get some people to connect with it in the way that we feel about our music, then that’s a fucking success.”
Taken from the August 2015 issue of Upset. Refused’s album ‘Freedom’ is out now.