Nothing says punk quite like getting told to leave a hotel bar due to one of you eating a vegan burger from another restaurant. But this is all just another day in the life of Refused.
Over a decade since they first emotionally departed, it’s as if Refused knew that 2019 was going to be a year that would need them. The day Upset meets frontman Dennis Lyxzén and drummer David Sandström in London, it’s uncharacteristically sunny, which marks a significant elephant in the room, as all across the globe climate change protesters take their stand.
A perfect enough coincidence given Refused have always been the wicker fuse for change; only ready to ignite when necessary. As plainly proven by the massive gap between their hiatus to 2015’s ‘Freedom’, and now ‘War Music’. They were never going to do an album for the sake of an album.
“Since we started, it’s a different world. Some things are great, some things, some advances are fantastic for our lives,” singer Dennis reasons. “But a lot of stuff is horrible. And I mean, especially the political climate has never been as bad. The political discourse has never been as hollow.”
Of course, Refused being one of the premier punk bands retaining all that is good and holy about the genre – counter-cultural and a screaming voice that’s ready to champion any cause for good – means that eyes of the alternative world are upon them since they’ve never been ones to ignore what’s happening around them.
“‘366’ on the last record was about refugees in the Mediterranean,” David says. “When we wrote that song, it was not being talked about. Within a year of the record coming out, [you had] the picture of that child that came out that suddenly they were doing like huge concerts with huge artists trying to raise awareness. But when we wrote that song, it was not on the news. It was being ignored.”
While their return to the world came in an album called ‘Freedom’, their next move is one that’s not so seemingly peaceful. Along with ‘War Music’, the two titles may have an on the surface effect of disjointed similarities, but when you’re a band like Refused, nothing is ever surface level. Well, not immediately anyway, as Dennis explains.
“It didn’t dawn on us until a while after we set the album title. A lot of this is a reaction to both good and bad. It’s funny that we subconsciously named the record the complete opposite as well because it wasn’t the intention. It wasn’t like, ‘What’s the opposite of freedom? It’s war.’ It just fit with the music, fit with the themes of the song, the energy. ‘We’ll call this ‘War Music’ because it has an urgency, has a feel. And then a couple of months after we were like, ‘Oh, yeah, that is the opposite of freedom!'”
David interjects, disagreeing. “I like this narrative, but I don’t agree. I don’t think it’s the opposite. I think both words are inadequate.”
“Which is why we mean ‘Freedom’ is freedom,” Dennis says. “Yes. It was a mind fuck to people like, what does that mean? What do you mean with that?”
“No one knows what it means!” David adds.
“And on that record, we sing about freedom; I think four or five different places in totally different contexts every time. It’s definitely like chaos.”
“War frees you from accountability in a lot of cases,” David continues. “So there’s alot of freedom in war because you can get away with everything. Chaos. There’s a line on an early Bjork song she goes, ‘I thought I could organise freedom, how Scandinavian of me.'”
Indeed, the lyrical components to music are always most likely to be put under a microscope, in search of any deeper meaning. With bands like Refused who hold a mirror up to the world, providing a look back at what’s going wrong, the parallels between groups that speak up, and the politicians who sought as the correct route to fighting the wrongs are palpable.
“[But as artists] we’re so unregulated,” David says recognising the similarity. “So some of us lose our minds and become like [Bob] Dylan suddenly becoming a Catholic. We’re not institutionalised at all. We’re the least institutionalised people in the Western world. And so there’s a danger to that because you’re unmoored. You have the business of keeping yourself in line, and maybe your friends.”
The ability for Refused to “keep themselves inline”, has been a gift granted by the vicious trials of time. After their explosive exit all those years ago, the issues stemming predominantly from the fact that it was just non-stop. “In the 90s, a part of the big problem was that Refused was our entire lives twenty-four-seven, three-six-five. It wore us down,” Dennis admits.
“The nice part of Refused now is that it’s not all of our lives. But when we do it, you have to focus on it differently. We used to just show up and play – and that’s fine. But now when it’s time for Refused, you know, now I have to step up, and I have to get my shit together to fucking be ready for it.”
The critical factor of taking care of themselves, not just as a band, but as people, is the main reason Refused are gearing up to release a new album in 2019. The self-care is evident, but it’s also because they know they have a responsibility as a band with a platform to develop themselves so they can truthfully establish the ideas that fall into a troublesome world.
“A big part of our job description is to walk around at home all day, thinking about these things that other people have no time to think about,” Dennis muses. “I mean, that’s the reality of the situation. With people; they work, they get home, they feed the kids, and then the day is done.
“My days should be walking around at home, thinking about the state of the world. Then it’s trying to get that into music and out to people. Because that’s a part of what we do as artists, it’s a very strange thing to do. And it’s a very strange thing to have to continually dive into words of the world, order the words of yourself because that’s what you do as an artist, and you make your own-“
“Curriculum,” David interjects. “And that is the positive aspect. I have a few books ahead of me, definitely a few books behind me, but I want to go through all of [British historian] Eric Hobsbawm’s entire body of work. And, at some point, maybe when we die, we have done that part of the job. That’s why we have those quotes in the booklet of the record. You vacuum, literature and journalism and more and more music.”
It may all sound rather grandiose for something that could be as simple on paper like rock music, but it’s what artist give back to the world that genuinely instigates change. Bands are taking a stand, with the climate change protests that are taking place today being attended by a vast majority of musicians.
But the issues that can hit far closer to home will always be where any bands journey begins, and Refused have not only not forgotten that, but they’ve created an ode to it on ‘War Music’; ‘Death in Vännäs’. It’s not only about being an outsider; hence it being titled after Dennis’ hometown, but it’s also their origin story of sorts.
“It’s about having ended up in on the outside of things,” David explains. “The other kids listen to different music and then being able to have a band and start, you know, go on tour and play squats all over Europe and then making records and finally making make a pretty good record, and going on in this fashion.”
Perhaps more importantly, it shows that Refused are very much self-aware. They know that they hold a unique perspective, one that helps their energised fury take form.
“At a certain point, you’re just beyond the rescue. You’re forever on the outside looking out,” David ends. “And if there’s to be a point to people like us being in society, it’s that we have this perspective that’s not the mainstream perspective. What we read and what we choose to read and what we’re looking for; we can find stuff there and bring it into what we’re doing. Then there might be some point to our existence.”
Taken from the November issue of Upset. Refused’s album ‘War Music’ is out 18th October.