The history of Refused is well documented. They were largely ignored in their initial incarnation, despite recording one of the most influential and important albums in history. The Shape of Punk to Come, released in October 1998, is an album that continues to define the direction of punk music right up to the present day (and no doubt beyond). Unfortunately, the band imploded before they could perceive the impact that album would have on a burgeoning yet increasingly sterile punk scene. Their last show, in the basement of a house in Harrisonberg, Virginia, USA was unceremoniously shut down by the police. Their demise was announced via a scabrous press release (titled Refused Are F**king Dead), which made it clear that the band would ‘never play together again’.
Fast-forward to 2012 and the band announce their reformation to a chorus of voices, some approving and some dissenting. For some, it marked an exciting opportunity to see a band that they’d never got a chance to see first time around. To the dissenters, it was a band with steadfast morals and punk ideologies going against their word, a band inevitably tarnishing their faultless legacy in pursuit of the almighty krona.
Except tarnish their legacy they did not, Refused returned in 2012 triumphant and to universal acclaim, proving that they were just as vital and incorruptible as they had been back in 1998. For the band, it was a chance to reach the audience that they had deserved (but never actually had), an audience that had only come around to their twisted warping of jazz-infused hardcore art punk over a period of several years.
Refused have always been known for their political drive and anti-capitalist polemic, showing far more intelligence and concern than your average rock band. This interview, conducted a day after the band played Paris for the first time since the attacks on the French capital, seemed a perfect opportunity to ask for their thoughts on the tragedy, particularly the shootings at The Bataclan and how they affect Europe and live music.
You played in Paris last night, what were your experiences playing there so soon after the attacks at The Bataclan?
David Sandström (Drums): It was one of the more special evenings that I can remember.
Dennis Lyxzén (Vocals): It was truly a fantastic show. Some people didn't show up, which is obviously understandable but the atmosphere was electric. There was so much love in the room, it was extraordinary and very emotional. We played a couple of songs and then I said 'OK I need to talk about what happened because we're all thinking about it." And the room got dead-quiet. It was the quietest I've ever heard at a show ever. So I talked about what had happened and then we went into Rather Be Dead and the place just went berserk. It was beautiful.
David: The song has this repeating lyric ‘I'd rather be alive’ and it was an emotional release for people to just keep shouting 'I'd rather be alive, I'd rather be alive' over and over again. We made that build up a lot longer than we usually do because I could tell it was a special moment for people to have that release.
Dennis: The last time we were in Paris, we played at The Bataclan. We hadn’t seen our friends in Paris since that Bataclan show, so it was fantastic to play and to talk to them about it, to be able to share the music. Because I think there are two important points about music. The first is it’s always been a way for us to understand the world, whether that’s political or trying to analyse the structures of the world or whatever. But the other one is that music has always been a safe place for us. It's almost like a holy space that's ours! Music is escapism in that sense. The world is a f**ked up place so we'll meet here and we'll have this together. So yesterday felt like a culmination of all those things. It's truly a blessing to be able to play music when it means that much. There was never a doubt in my mind that we needed to go to Paris and play.
David: Our music is incredibly violent and abrasive, which helps people get out all kinds of frustrations. You could tell there was a lot of fear, anger and confusion. We all felt so grateful that we could play Paris and help people get those feelings out of their system. It's strange because Dennis and I started writing the lyrics for this record a couple of years ago and we were writing about events that have come to a fever pitch in 2015. There's a song called Useless Europeans about the European project and this 'new Europe' that has to begin. It's not a very optimistic song but at the end of it, Dennis sings ‘Go back to sleep, Dream a new dream.’ The old Europe is gone, it's dead and we need to dream a new dream. Unfortunately, we're totally flailing around with it, no-one's got a vision of what this new Europe is going to be. We're closing down borders and we're being stingy about it.
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Of course events like this make the idea of opening up the borders even less of a reality because of the fear that it drives into people …
David: But the intelligent response is the opposite, to try and help the situation. Because you can close the borders down and you can go and fight Isis but if we beat Isis, what's going to pop up instead?
Dennis: It's the next generation. You can draw a parallel to what happened with The Baader Meinhof gang. The first generation were kind of violent, the second generation were very violent and the third generation … super-violent. And I think it's going to be similar. Al Qaeda rose to prominence because of what happened in Afghanistan and the Palestinian and Israeli conflict, so we bombed Al Qaeda and that gave fruition to Isis. Now we're going to bomb Isis and who will rise up as a result of that conflict? We live in strange times.
It's interesting that you're in the UK now because our government are voting today as to whether we should bomb Syria or not.
Dennis: So what's their angle on bombing Syria? Because to bomb Syria is a very abstract thing! I mean, Assad was kind of an asshole but the country was stable, and then America starts giving money to the opposition, the opposition sell guns to Isis and all of a sudden, there's an uprising. Basically, America intervenes and now there's a civil war. What happened in Paris was horrible but 200,000 people have died in Syria over the past five years. That basically averages out as a Paris attack a day for the past five years. (A quick bit of arithmetic proves this to be more or less true. The United Nations estimate that 220,000 people have been killed in the Syrian Civil War between 15th March 2011 – 15th January 2015. That’s 220,000 deaths over 1,400 days (give or take a day). 220,000 divided by 1,400 gives us a rounded down figure of 157 deaths per day. In the Paris attacks of November 2015, 130 people were killed).
David: I don't know if it's callous to say this but it just feels weird to be very vocal about (Paris). The New York Times printed the pictures of several people who died at The Bataclan along with details about their lives. I understand the reasons for doing that but there are drone strikes taking out entire generations of families in Syria every day. You don't see those people's names and faces in the Western papers.
Dennis: It's hard to keep a balance on what's happening. Of course something like Paris will feel closer because it is geographically closer. It's closer to Europe and it happened at a Rock show so for us it's real close.
David: A close friend of our guitar player was at The Bataclan that day and she came out to the show yesterday. It was the first show she'd been to since the attacks. She felt a little weird at first, a bit scared and nervous at the beginning but by the end she was very happy that she came.
Dennis: What I do think is important to point out is that these are our perspectives. We're not politicians, we're not academics, we're not journalists, we are a rock band and these are our opinions. We are way smarter than most rock bands in the world, we’re more intellectual and we're way more political but at the end of the day we are a rock band. We play music and we grew up with the idea that music could have a real meaning, that's not only political but also as art. Sometimes people look at us as if we are politicians, they want us to have the answers. The truth is, most of the time, we’re more likely to be talking about Judas Priest than we are Syria! But that said, we are also concerned people, we read a lot and we think a lot and we talk a lot about these issues because they are a part of our reality.
Rather Be Dead is a song that seems to signpost these really important moments in your career.
David: It's very direct and raw but most importantly, it’s unspecific. You know, that Manic Street Preachers song, If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next? That’s a song that anyone can sing. You could be super right-wing and say 'If we tolerate all this abortion and loose women, then your children will be next!' Rather Be Dead is the same. You're just saying I'd rather be dead than alive by your oppression, the question is, what is the oppression that you feel, that you can relate to? There's a line between knowing that the art that you make is about protest and that art being a protest and I think that’s an important distinction. I love playing that song because it reminds me of that line; you want to know where that line is but you also want to stay close to it.
It was literally used as a protest during your last show wasn't it. You started playing it as the police were storming in to break up the show…
David: Yeah and then when they did pull the plug on us, the audience kept chanting 'rather be alive' over and over again, so that's when it became an actual protest. We stopped and the audience kept going. When we reformed, the first show we played after all those years was in our home-town Umeå in Sweden and I realised that we should have just picked up from that point in the song. That only occurred to me earlier this year, we should have picked up from where we left off.
How do you feel your new record, Freedom, will fit into the legacy of Refused?
Dennis: It's our Frankenchrist (released in 1985 by California-based hardcore punk band Dead Kennedys, Frankenchrist was infamous for being remarkably different to the rest of the band’s material). It was 17 years between Freedom and The Shape of Punk to Come, so we had to re-learn how to write and what direction to take. I think once we make a new record, people are going to see Freedom in a different light, they’ll understand it more.
David: It was a record that we were writing for a very long time and it felt like every song had to prove the worth of our existence; that we deserved to be back. Every song had to be a blueprint for what we are now. So it was a very arduous process, it was very heavy going. Some of the songs fit perfectly into our set and certain songs are harder to get into the set.
Dennis: People have lived with the songs from The Shape of Punk to Come for 17 years. Freedom's only been out for 6 months and a lot of people haven't even really heard it yet, so it makes sense that some people are struggling with some of those songs. We play a lot of new songs live because they're a part of what we are now. 2012 was like a victory lap for something that happened a long time ago and people came out and enjoyed it. But the trajectory of what we are changed the minute we started writing new material. It’s harder work but I like that.
Were you aware of how influential a record The Shape of Punk to Come was during your hiatus?
Dennis: Sort of. I was touring with (The International) Noise Conspiracy, so I met a lot of people and bands who would say ‘Oh, I love Refused’. But when we announced that we were going to come back in 2012, I was not ready for the response. I was pretty blown away. I just posted on my Facebook our picture and ‘Refused 2012’ and my internet f**king broke. I knew people were excited but it was quite beyond what I expected.
And you can do things now that you were unable to do when you were a band playing to 300-400 people.
David: We were always hitting our head on a creative glass ceiling. There was so much that we wanted to do that we could never do and it drove us sort of crazy. I think there were other bands who always thought that we were too serious or too pretentious, maybe that we worked too hard but I always believed in hard work. We chose such a strange path, coming from working class families and playing weird art-y music, it always felt like we had to prove something to someone. So it's a nice feeling when you actually get some sort of validation for your efforts.
Dennis: We felt like there was a lot of stuff that we wanted to do but we couldn't because we were young and angry and we couldn't get along … now it's like we have this second chance. For the first time, we're in a position where we are a band that people pay attention to. We have a lot of ideas about what we can do. Our ambition is to be a band. We're going to tour, then we'll have some time off and after that we'll make another record. It's a big difference from when we were kids, Refused is no longer our lives 24/7, 365 days a year, which is nice. But when we do Refused, we're going to do Refused! I see us putting out a bunch of more records and just being a band. I see us sticking around for a long time.
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