Refused on First Album in 17 Years: 'F--k What People Expect of Us'

Swedish hardcore band's new record, 'Freedom,' is funky, furious and co-written by Taylor Swift producer Shellback

Refused singer Dennis Lyxzén says that with 'Freedom,' the band's first album in 17 years, the group is trying to "create our own music and create our own destiny." Credit: Dustin Rabin

"You know, to create new Refused music, it was not on my list of things to do," says Dennis Lyxzén, phoning Rolling Stone from his home in Umeå, Sweden. The 42-year-old singer is discussing his band's new album, Freedom – the existence of which is as much a surprise to him as it is to the legions of Refused fans who were caught unexpected when an announcement came, two weeks ago, that the Swedish four-piece were releasing their first new material since their seminal 1998 disc, The Shape of Punk to Come.

That effort, which exploded the band's coiled, live-wire attack and leftist sloganeering with techno beats, jazzy instrumental wanking, ambient soundscapes and a general feeling of anything – and everything – goes, seemed to rearrange the very DNA of hardcore punk itself. At the time, of course, almost no one noticed, and Refused broke up just months after The Shape of Punk to Come's release, while in the throes of a disastrous U.S. tour. Their final show, in front of a few dozen kids in a suburban basement in Harrisonburg, Virginia, on October 6th, 1998, was cut short when local police raided the premises. And with that, Refused, to paraphrase the title of one of the album's songs, were fucking dead.

But their story was, in a way, only beginning. Even as the band members splintered off to work on different projects (Lyxzén was the most visible with the [International] Noise Conspiracy) The Shape of Punk to Come gained new life as influential source material for the wave of post-hardcore bands that sprouted up in the early aughts. When Refused finally did reunite, in 2012, it was not in front of a handful of punks in a cramped basement, but rather for thousands at Coachella. The band has been touring on and off since, though new music always seemed just out reach. But, says Lyxzén, "the cool thing about life is there's these weird circumstances. Things happen, other things fall into place, and then all of sudden you're in L.A. recording a Refused record and you're like, 'Wait, how did this happen?' Because two years ago it was, 'This is never gonna happen.' But now it seems it was the right thing to do."

Listening to Freedom, it would seem that it was very much the right thing to do. From the explosive, off-kilter rhythmic blasts that open leadoff track "Elektra," to the musically assaultive and lyrically raging "Dawkins Christ," to the proto-punk barnburner riffing of "War on the Palaces," Freedom is quite possibly the band's most electrifying and propulsive record to date. And while it's perhaps not as sonically schizophrenic as The Shape of Punk to Come, it is as expansive and adventurous, employing glistening synths and electro-funk rhythms ("Servants of Death"); atmospheric strings ("Useless Europeans"); and pitch-modulated vocals and electronic drums ("Old Friends/New Wars") to wide-ranging effect. "We've always of the mind of, 'If it feels different, let's try it," Lyxzén says by way of explanation. "The Shape of Punk to Come, that was a very eclectic, kind of weird record. We were all over the place on that one, and so we figured that, if we're gonna do a new Refused record, we can't be afraid of where the music's gonna take us."

But as much as Freedom is an example of Refused following the music, it also represents a means by which they can take that music back. "People have these expectations and beliefs that they pin on us," Lyxzén says. "There are some fans who have lived with The Shape of Punk to Come for their entire lives and have decided that's all we are. But now it's time for us to decide what we want our legacy to be. And this album is a good start-over, so to speak."

Is Freedom an album you ever thought would happen?
No. Well. . . for the last two years, since it has been happening, yes. But before that, a definite no. When we got back together in 2012 I was very confident that that was gonna be it. "We're gonna do 10 shows," you know? But then we wound up doing 82, and somewhere down the line we ended up talking about creating new music together. But before that it was pretty unthinkable that this would ever happen. But I think that was partly a matter of history, and sort of the legacy of what Refused was. A lot of people think, "Oh, those guys, their last record was The Shape of Punk to Come, they can never fuck with that." So it's very unexpected to people that we decided to actually fuck with that. 

Did that sort of thinking – that you might be tarnishing your good name – factor into your decision about whether or not to record a new album? Did you personally have any desire to revisit the music-making process with Refused?
Before the reunion I had no desire whatsoever to revisit Refused music at all. I was done. And the reunion was just going to be this one-off kind of thing. But what happened was, Kris [guitarist Kristofer Steen] and David [drummer David Sandström] and Magnus [bassist Magnus Flagge], they actually had a band – I think they started playing together in 2010 – and they were doing this weird instrumental avant-garde metal music. And while we were doing the reunion thing, Kris once asked me, "Do you want to sing on one of these songs we're writing?" And I said, "Yeah, I can do that." And then Kris and David started talking about, "Maybe these songs we're writing could be Refused songs. . . " So at some point they asked me if I would be into the idea of creating new Refused music. And my initial reaction was, "I'm not sure this is a good idea." Then they showed me some music and I said, "Yes, this is a good idea!"

Musically, Freedom explores somewhat uncharted territory for Refused. I'm thinking, for starters, the dancey, funk vibe of a song like "Servants of Death."
Well, with Refused there's never been the idea of, "Let's try to explore this." It's always been more that we write songs and we write music, and we follow that wherever it takes us. And there are some parts of this record where it was almost uncomfortable, like, "What is this?" But, you know, why not try it? With "Servants of Death," Kris wrote the riff, and Kris and David really like music like Daft Punk and Michael Jackson. So when you look at it, it's kind of a Refused song, but it has this weird beat to it that's very rhythmic. And it is a bit, dare I say it, funky [laughs].

Two songs on the album, including the first single, "Elektra," were produced and co-written by Shellback, who has made his name working with people like Taylor Swift, Pink and Maroon 5. Not exactly Refused-type artists. Did collaborating with him feel like an odd pairing to you?
Yeah [laughs]. It did. But I have to say, we met Shellback at some weird thing and we started talking, and he's this guy who used to play in hardcore and metal bands. He learned how to play drums by listening to Refused. And he's not on the record because he produced Taylor Swift records – he's on the record because "Elektra" was a seven-minute-long, super-weird song, and David played him the demo and then he took that demo and made it into a three-and-a-half-minute song. He sent that to us and we listened to it, and Kris, the mastermind of the riffing, called me up and said, "Yeah, that's a better version than ours." We'd been working on the song for two years, and Shellback made a better version. So we said, "That's fantastic, let's let him produce the song." But I don't really care about things like who he's worked with, or how many Number One records he's made.

Do you think your fans care about those things?
Well, if they do then I think it's also another way to just fuck with people's heads. Like, let's take this song that's one of the hardest songs on the record, and have a guy that's worked with Taylor Swift and Pink produce it. And then we did it in Max Martin's studio in Stockholm! That should piss people off even more. But we've always been about saying, "Fuck what people expect of us." That's how The Shape of Punk to Come became the record it became, and that's why Freedom is the record it is. We don't really fit into a scene and we don't really care what people's expectations are. We want to create our own music and create our own destiny. Working with somebody like Shellback is a great way of saying, "We control what we do with this band."

Since Refused got back together in 2012, you've enjoyed a level of success far beyond anything you experienced in the Nineties. Even with The Shape of Punk to Come, you were playing in basements to handfuls of people in the U.S. Now you're performing at Coachella and headlining multiple nights at 3,000-capacity venues like New York City's Terminal 5. In August you'll be playing Madison Square Garden as the support act for Faith No More. It must be jarring to witness the level of fandom that blossomed around the band only after you no longer existed.
It's strange. It's like winning the lottery in a weird way. We broke up and everybody went and did their own things – and then we became a big band. And, like you said, in the U.S. we were playing in front of, like, 50 people. In Europe, it was maybe a little bit more – 200, 300 people. Which, in our world, was fantastic. But then we do nothing for 14 years and all of a sudden we're playing Coachella in front of 15,000 people. And I remember when we got back together in 2012 there was this air of surrealism about the excitement people had when we announced we were back. We were really, I would say, a bit tweaked out about the attention. We had all these theories, like, "Well, maybe it's because most people never got to see us live. . . " And it took us literally three weeks of practicing and talking about why people were that excited until someone in the band said, "Maybe it's because The Shape of Punk to Come is a good record." It never hit us! But I guess because of that, we had transcended the hardcore roots of our band and had become this, like, weird, big rock band. It's a strange position to be in but you just have to go with it. 

The band's effectiveness always seemed to stem largely from the urgency and sense of purpose in your music. Is it easy to still capture and project that feeling 15, 20 years on?
Yeah, it is. I was surprised in 2012 just how relevant a lot of these songs still felt to me, and especially how lyrically on-point I was with a lot of things. One of the biggest challenges for me, I think, is that when you write music as a young person there's this youthful, naïve energy being directed into everything, and that's what makes a lot of the hardcore and punk music we love very explosive. It has that drive to it. So how do you maintain that level of intensity and madness when everyone in the band is now 40-plus years old? The answer is we have to adapt what Refused is to 2015, and not say, "We have to be like what we were in 1998." And if you listen to the new record, it's a pretty intense record. It's not like we've gone old and soft. That was fairly easy to achieve, because Refused in and of itself is this entity that when we play together, that's just what happens.

In the 2006 documentary, Refused Are Fucking Dead, someone in the band makes the statement that, back in the day, Refused was not a very warm or friendly environment to be. How is the environment now?
It's very good. I mean, it's always tricky because the band, we broke up in 1998 and a lot of us haven't really hung out that much. But it's a very good vibe, very supportive. I think in the Nineties we were a band where everybody wanted to be a frontman and everybody wanted to be the leader. Now we know there's no prestige in that. We do what's best for the songs and what's best for the music. We don't let our egos interfere with what Refused is. I think that's a good thing.

As far as your motivations for reuniting, some of your more idealistic fans initially wrote it off as nothing more than a cash grab.
Well, first of all, there's something quite. . . flattering, I guess, about the fact that people are that invested in our band at all. But it's the same thing with people that say you shouldn't get back together, that it's wrong. Then it's "Oh, they're getting back together? They should at least put out a new record." Then someone else says, "They're putting out a new record? That's bullshit!" People project onto us what they want us to be and what they want us to represent. But at the end of the day, we are the band. We have to make our own decisions. And I think that I would never get back together in a band just for the money. That would be a very strange thing to do. That being said, my entire life, I've been broke. So sure, after playing music for 20-plus years it's nice to not have to worry about paying my rent next month. I don't see it as a contradiction in terms to be a political bands that plays music that has meaning, and also be able to make a living out of it. So for me it's not that big of an issue, really.

In terms of being a band that "plays music that has meaning," you tackle a range of political and social issues on Freedom.
Well, it kind of ties back to everything about what Refused is as a band. We aren't. . . I wouldn't say we're intellectuals, because we don't come from that type of background. But we are self-educated smartasses. We talk about ideology, we talk about political issues, and we try to put that into our music. So when it came time to do new music it was really a matter of tapping into that radicalness. And I think this record is some of the most radical stuff that I've ever been a part of. The lyrics are smarter and more revolutionary than anything we've ever done. And that was a conscious decision, to sit down and ask, "What type of record do we want to put out after 17 years?" And then to say, "Let's make it an angry, abrasive, fucking loud record and have lyrics that tie in with that." To me, that's what Refused is.

Broadly speaking, several songs seem to examine this idea of people living out fairly insulated and comfortable lives, even while horrible things go on in the world around them. Like you sing in "Useless Europeans": "Outside your pretty walls/There's an ugly world."
Well, we try to look at structures, and something like the idea of the European, there's this notion that he's very enlightened, very privileged. But we've done nothing with that privilege. I'm speaking very generally, of course, but the fact is that we lead these safe and secure lives. The world, meanwhile, is a shit storm. And we're doing nothing about it. Because, like the song says, we've used up all our privilege. Like, we have it pretty good, so why should we worry about what's going on? But if you look at the structures – how we are controlled to think the way we think, and act the way we act; how capitalism as not only an economic system but also as a social construct creates sheep – that's something that runs through the whole record. Because that's what we are – we're followers and we're copiers. We're not people who take our own lives and identities seriously, because we're not taught to. We have very little sense of the idea of independent thinking.

There's also a lot of focus on religion in your lyrics, particularly in a song like "Dawkins Christ": "Feels like I've got Judas' heart/Dawkins' head/Praise the Lord / God is dead." Do you feel an affinity with Richard Dawkins, an outspoken atheist?
Not really. I'm not against it, but a song like "Dawkins Christ" is about the fact that we live in a very fragmented, frightening world. And we as humans have an urge to fit in in order to make sense of this world. And really, atheism has just replaced Christianity as another doctrine of how you can fit in. The song is a very complex song because it's not only about religion or non-religion, it's also about our own self-worth. It's interesting to me because I'm not a religious person, but I also don't blindly accept atheism as a doctrine. I don't think that's healthy, either. [Laughs] How many rock bands do you think have written songs about this? 

I can't think of one that comes immediately to mind.
Me neither!

This summer Refused is going out on the road with Faith No More – another band with a celebrated past that recently reunited to play live shows, only to later announce a new album.
Yeah, it's quite interesting how we've had very similar trajectories. We broke up around the same time, we both did some reunion shows and all of a sudden there's some new music. And their last record came out about 17 years ago and so did ours. So there are all these parallels. And, you know, I think most music out there is complete pap. Just carbon-copy bullshit versions of other bullshit versions. Very few bands have depth and integrity. But I think Faith No More is one of those bands that does have depth and integrity, especially if you've followed what they've been doing in between breaking up and getting back together. So I do feel like there's a certain connection there. Musically we're not that similar, but it's definitely a very interesting pairing. I'm very excited for the shows.

Since your reunion, it seems as if there hasn't been a long-term master plan for Refused. Looking forward, what type of future do you see for the band?
Well, we initially set out just to do 10 shows. But then we decided we were going to continue, and we became a band. And I think that's a big difference. At this point Refused is not on a reunion tour. We are a band – a contemporary band that is putting out a record. And it's not nostalgia or a throwback. Refused 2015 is just Refused. So that's our future. And it's gonna be intense, but not as intense as it was in the Nineties, because we'll have the time and the leverage to do other things we want to do. I mean, a couple people in the band have kids and families. I played 110 shows last year with my other band [INVSN], so that's something I'm still gonna do. Kris is an opera director. David just finished up a play in Stockholm. So there will be other things happening around us at all times. But our idea is tour this record for at least two years, and then we'll see if a new record comes out of that or if it's time for another break. But really, who knows? I mean, Freedom isn't even out yet. Maybe this record comes out and people say, "Fuck these guys!" Then I guess we'll just travel around in a van again [laughs]. Either way, I can say that the future of Refused, it's a bright one.