Words by Dan Ozzi
Photos by Chase Stevens
Presented by NOISEY
None of this seems real.
I’m sitting in the back of Refused’s tour bus—not a van, mind you, but a 45-foot luxury bus, a massive beast of rolling comfort. It’s equipped with two Sony TVs with DirectTV, a shower, mini-kitchen, wi-fi, and leather upholstery. The members are all asleep in their bunks, drained from a 26-hour trip from Europe. I’m awake, flipping through a notepad full of questions to ask them over the next few days. Nearly two decades ago, the Swedish punk band was quite explicit that this would never happen.
“We will never play together again and we will never try to glorify or celebrate what was,” they wrote in their final, scathing manifesto, “Refused Are Fucking Dead,” after their song of the same name, which they issued shortly after their spectacular implosion. One line in particular stood out, being in capital letters: “WE WILL NOT GIVE INTERVIEWS TO STUPID REPORTERS.” There was another line in caps: “WE THEREFORE DEMAND THAT EVERY NEWSPAPER BURN ALL THEIR PHOTOS OF REFUSED.”
Yet here we are—Refused, playing together again, about to embark upon a 13-day tour of the United States to promote a new album, Freedom, their first in 17 years, and me, a reporter of questionable intelligence tagging along. I’d be lying if I said that a small part of me didn’t think this was all a ruse, an elaborate trick by the outspoken anarchists to leave me stranded in the middle of the Nevada desert. I’m haunted by nightmares of the bus screeching off, leaving me standing there on the side of the road, dumbfounded in its dust. “Abolish the press!” they’d laugh back at me out the window while flipping me off. “And long live Refused!”
And maybe they will get around to that when they wake up. I can’t say their reputation precedes them because I’m not sure what their reputation is, exactly. There are two versions of Refused, depending on whom you ask.
One version celebrates them as heroes—the punk prophets of Umeå who took a dead genre and breathed new life into its festering, bloated corpse. They are the pioneers who singlehandedly gave birth to an underground music scene in their small hometown and then went on to spread the fire to the rest of the world. Eventually, they became the martyrs who fell on their own swords for the greater good of their counterculture, the infallible model on which all modern activist music is based.
The other version casts them as traitors—Sweden’s scumbag sellouts who preached anti-capitalism only to return to reap its rewards. They are the hypocrites who spent the better part of the 90s shoving their radical politics down the collective throat of the hardcore scene and then sold their music off to be used in major movies, TV shows, and video games, and finally took a half-million dollar offer to play at Coachella in 2012—the gold standard for irony among bands who have cashed in on the reunion trend.
Whoever they are, we are all speeding down Route 15 together, through the power lines and soulless hills of Las Vegas’s barren desert, past billboards featuring pictures of aging comedians and unconvincing Elvis impersonators, advertising gentlemen’s clubs and loose slots. In Sin City, a town where vices find you in the night, where wide-eyed optimists journey from big cities and small towns to risk their very last dime, Refused are placing the biggest bet of all. They’re taking a gamble on the future of their legacy.
The Swedes are coming, blue-eyed and jetlagged, barreling into town in a steel tomb powered by diesel fuel and Starbucks coffee. It’s 2015 and, love it or hate it, Refused are fucking alive.
So, where do we go from here?
Around 9:15 PM, a lighting bolt tears through Las Vegas and lights up her dark, parasitic skies.
The Murder City Devils, another band that’s been enjoying the fruits of a successful post-breakup second life, is on stage in front of the remaining people in attendance at Punk Rock Bowling, an annual mohawk-friendly music festival in a blacktop parking lot two blocks from the casino lights of Freemont Street.
Within seconds, mid-note in the intro to their song “Midnight Service at the Mutter Museum,” the power to their instruments is cut. The festival abruptly falls dark and silent until the audience starts groaning. A festival worker with an unenviable job comes on stage and takes the microphone. “We’re just going to take a break and wait for this lightning to pass,” he tells the crowd. More groaning. I think I even hear someone yell for him to go fuck himself.
The sky is now opening up and making plans to wash the city clean. I walk backstage to Refused’s tent, and the drops become fatter and louder as they hit the cement in the silence of an eerily quiet music festival. It smells, well, like you might expect 7,000 wet punks to smell. The members of Refused are sitting on their couches warming up when I tell them what happened.
“It would be such a motherfucking bummer if there was a storm,” says David Sandström, tapping away on a pad on his knee, trying to get his elbow loose, as drummers of a certain age need to do before performances. David has a predilection for Panama hats which accentuate his beard and brown-framed glasses. He has the word “Gods” inked in script on one side of his neck and “Punks” on the other.
Robin, the band’s tour manager, enters. She is tall and blonde and terrifying in her efficiency. If it doesn’t clear up within 30 minutes, she tells them, the festival will have to cancel Refused’s 10 PM headlining set.
“Should we move the show to the casino?” she jokes.
David pauses his drumming and looks up at her stonefaced. “Yes.”
“I was kidding,” Robin says, realizing as the words left her mouth that somewhere, somehow, a Refused show is happening tonight, so she’d better start figuring that out.
The tent opens again and it’s Brett Gurewitz, owner of the band’s long-running independent punk label Epitaph Records, wearing a sports jacket over a Ramones T-shirt. “There’s been a drought for months,” he says as he plops down on the couches among them. “What are the fucking chances?”
Finally, after nearly an hour of waiting backstage for the lightning strikes to grow fewer and farther between, at 10:48, the band’s massive backing lights illuminate the dark stage and the band is off and running with a new song, “Elektra.” This being a punk show in 2015, a sprawl of smartphones rises up to take photos. “Nothing has changed!” frontman Dennis Lyxzén screams in the chorus, but looking at the ocean of lit-up screens, I can’t help but think otherwise.
He whips the microphone around like a yo-yo, then launches it straight up into the air. It hovers high above him for a split second before the cord snaps it back to Earth. Instead of catching it, he extends his arms out, puffs up his chest, and lets it thud against his sternum.
Dennis is energetic and wiry and rarely seems to ever have both feet on the ground. He projects a playful aggression, commanding the room with a grin rather than a fist—very atypical of the macho male violence often associated with hardcore frontmen. He has the theatrical showmanship of a magician, whirling his hands and presenting them in a ta-da! motion to punctuate a guitar riff or a drum fill as if the band is revealing a trick. David described his mannerisms as “a mix of a bull fighter and a ballet dancer.” Mish Way, whose band White Lung is opening up the tour’s West Coast run of shows, likened him to “somewhere between James Brown and a stripper.” She’s not far off. Dennis used to keep a microphone stand and old James Brown videos in his bedroom and would mimic The Godfather of Soul’s latently sexual stage moves in his spare time. Later on this tour, at a show whose aftermath would leave behind a stage with a Hello Kitty thong thrown on it, I find Dennis and David backstage laughing about something in Swedish. They catch me nodding along awkwardly in a vain attempt to understand. “Oh, um,” David says, pondering the proper translation to offer me. “He said that… he just had sex with the audience.”
For an hour, Refused deliver the hits to the Las Vegas crowd with two more new songs thrown in. They’ve got to be mindful not to have too much of their album, which won’t be in stores for weeks, leak on YouTube, a new enemy of Refused as a band in the digital age.
“You know when you’re a young person, you say shit that will haunt you for the rest of your life, right?” Dennis asks the damp, cheering crowd. “The problem with this reunion is that that’s what it’s gonna be—people are gonna scream at us ‘Refused are fucking alive!’ Well you know what? We’re gonna play a song taking back everything that we said. Fucking starting over.” They launch into “Refused Are Fucking Dead.”
The last notes of their set ring out, and Dennis stands at the front of the stage. He kisses his fingertips into a peace sign, holds them up above him for a minute, and smiles. He is dripping with sweat and yet his shirt hasn’t even come untucked somehow.
As the festival’s crowd clears out, I stand beside a superfan whose old T-shirt is so worn down the middle that it just says RE USED. A grizzled man with a large gray beard passes me by with a beer in one hand and his old lady in the other. “Eh,” he tells her. “I still don’t get ’em.”
Aside from a lead singer taking his own life or a tour van crashing and burning in a fiery blaze, Refused ended their existence in the most poetic way a band can do so. Right in the middle of their final show, down in a very unremarkable basement in a very unglamorous Virginian town, the police, punk rock’s most notorious archenemy, marched in and shut everything down to the dismay of a disgruntled crowd. The band wrote their suicide note in the form of their final manifesto and went their separate ways.
This was in 1998, seven years and 12 bassists into their career, just after they’d released The Shape of Punk to Come, an album that would eventually come to be regarded as their masterpiece. The record, the band’s third, completely revolutionized the straightforward brand of hardcore they had been playing since forming together as teenagers in their small Swedish hometown in 1991. The band grew up during the Reagan 80s, when vocally combative bands like Dead Kennedys, Minor Threat, D.O.A., and countless others thrived. Refused relit those fires in the 90s, a time when the thriving economy helped the genre grow tamer as it became more commercially viable and had increased visibility on MTV and in chain music stores. Shape stood at the nexus of modern punk, incorporating all of its subgenres into one scattered but neat package. Dispersed throughout were extended jazz interludes, monologues rallying against capitalism, mournful violins, the sounds of a radio dial manically flipping through stations. It was a cathartic patchwork of ideas and sounds that somehow fused together perfectly.
But at the time, it fell deafeningly flat, selling an abysmal 1,400 copies in the States the year of its release. Little media coverage, little fanfare—even some of the band’s diehard fanbase turned on them, puzzled as to why they’d paid good money for a hardcore record with techno beats jammed into it.
The band’s collective disappointment over the album’s stale reception, combined with a mysterious inner turmoil, brought a full-on shitshow in its wake. “We were sick of each other’s scents, sick of each other’s voices,” remembers David. On a hellish month-long Scandinavian tour, the fabric of the band was publicly tearing at the seams. During one show in Sweden, a fist-fight between Dennis and guitarist Jon Brännström broke out on stage. At the end of another, in a moment of pure frustration with the band’s inability to properly perform the songs from Shape in a live setting, David threw his entire drum kit down a flight of stairs, repeatedly stabbed the heads with his sticks, and ran off into the night.
“One important factor with Shape is that we had decided it was the end when we were making the album,” guitarist Kristofer Steen told me. “Even though it wasn’t really discussed then, but it definitely came with an urgency.”
For some unholy reason, only four months later, the band came to the US to embark on a six-week fall tour with DC hardcore band Frodus. When they touched down on American soil, Refused were a walking corpse. “They should never have come here,” remembers Frodus drummer Jason Hamacher. “They were just not in the headspace to do it. Here’s a perfect example: Jon showed up with zero equipment. No guitar, no amp, no nothing. Didn’t tell anyone he needed ’em. They were done.”
In Atlanta, they made the decision. Refused would be no more. They agreed to play the next eight dates and then fly back home to Sweden from Washington, DC. After the initial stages of anger, frustration, and grief, there was an oddly peaceful sense that a burden had been removed. The dark cloud felt lifted, and the band could at least revel in their funeral march.
By the time the band got to Harrisonburg, Virginia, where they were scheduled to play on October 6 in a small basement, word had gotten around that this would be the final Refused show. People traveled from miles away to pay their respects. Around 75 people crammed in down there, their feet so close together that there was no room to move.
“I wish I could say there was something special in the air that night,” David told Kristofer in a documentary about the band’s demise they would release years later. “But I can’t remember anything apart from you and me looking at each other before the show.” The camera zoomed in on Kristofer’s face as he was playing guitar, his furrowed brow projecting a hollow, confused look.
“It was a strange look that I doubt you can exchange many times during your life. We couldn’t offer anything to each other, no comfort.”
Two songs into the band’s set, officers from the Harrisonburg Police Department showed up to the house and threatened to shut the show down. Realizing their time on Earth was about to forever come to a close, Refused commenced their swan song, their last act of defiance. The floor began to rumble with the unmistakable guitar-chugging introduction to the fan favorite “Rather Be Dead.” Chaos erupted. People surfed atop the small sea of heads, banging against the ceiling. Guitars were swung like axes. Flying kicks and fists came from every direction. Somewhere in a pile of bodies, Dennis screamed the lyrics which had a newfound prescience in that moment:
“Rather be dead than alive by your oppression.
Rather be dead than alive by your design.”
But before they could finish the song, the power cut off. “The cops literally pulled the plug out of the wall,” remembers Matthew Strugar, who lived in the house on South High Street at the time. “Just pulled the surge protector right out.” He and a few others were arrested.
The glow of the officers’ flashlights filled the room. The crowd grew hostile, surrounding the cops and booing. But the members of Refused exhaled a sigh of relief. For them, the lights looked like the heavens opening up; the uniformed angels had come to guide them home.
Kristofer turned around to find a cop right in his face, demanding to see his ID. He handed it over and never saw it again, as if the band left their identities right there in that basement.
Meanwhile, the crowd grew more ornery. “Rather be alive!” they chanted. “Rather be alive!” Louder and louder. “Rather. Be. Alive!”
And that was the end of Refused.
It feels ironically fitting that Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” is playing over this restaurant’s speakers as Kristofer and David tell me about the American tour that brought about the death of Refused.
David, who is usually affable and the most loquacious of the group, is at a rare loss for words. “This is stuff that’s kind of hard to talk about. But… it got bad. For me. For both of us.”
He and Kristofer sit across from each other. Kristofer is the most unassuming looking of the band, with his short-cropped hair and plain T-shirts. He is quiet but sharp-witted, the kind of guy who drops the smartest one-liner in a conversation but mumbles it under his breath.
“There were a lot of weird vibes,” David says. “A lot of passive aggressiveness. A lot of acting out. Sometimes when I think about that stuff, to me, it’s pretty simple, I was just depressed. I couldn’t feel. I was in a really bad place in my life.” He was 23 at the time. “I just sort of shut down. I disappeared. I guess it was just personal problems.”
Kristofer chimes in. “’Personal problems’ is a bit of an understatement, considering.”
Considering what, I ask. Was there a specific situation?
Kristofer half-laughs. “There was definitely a specific situation.”
“He and I were…” David pauses, and his eyes scan Kristofer’s for a moment, seeking a sign of approval to continue. He gets it. “We were sort of involved with the same woman.”
We sit in silence for a second in front of our lunch. As someone who, like many, has always regarded Refused as an enigmatic, idealistic force, this is an incredibly humanizing revelation. For the first time, I don’t see them as members of some shadowy, elite anarchist cult from the Arctic Circle, but just as two men, sitting together somewhere in California, eating a fried chicken sandwich called the Hot Mother Clucker.
I remember something Dennis told me, which seems relevant at the moment. “Refused is two things,” he said, “an entity and an idea. People subscribe a lot of value to us and what we should believe. On the other hand, Refused is just four people playing music.”
“It really poisoned us,” David goes on. “It poisoned the atmosphere. It really brought everyone down—the whole vibe, and the band. It had a really ruinous effect.”
“It was hardest on Dennis because he wanted to keep the band going,” Kristofer remembers of the split. “I think he really took it to heart.”
“None of us did anything else,” David says. “This was all we had. It’s quite obvious when you listen to the record—these are people who are totally immersed. And when you’re that young, when you’re 22 doing that kind of stuff, it’s obvious that other things have to pay for it. You can’t be a balanced, reasonable 22-year-old and make that type of record. It just doesn’t make sense. I crashed and burned. It’s just now beginning to feel worth it.”
“I get bummed out talking about it. Now, we’re in a great place,” he says, looking at Kristofer. “We realized that we were different people. Most of what was troubling us would, today, just be a couple conversations, and it would be cool.”
There was one more awkward conversation they had recently, and it was with their former guitarist, Jon. “Jon was the one who was…” they both try to put this diplomatically. “He was being difficult.” Jon, who had been a member since 1994, was part of the band’s initial reunion tour in 2012 but was fired from the band before they started work on Freedom. When reached for comment, Jon responded, and I’m quoting here, “I’m very uninterested in participating in anything that has to do with those assholes. Thanks for the offer though.”
It takes the three of us the better part of ten minutes and three separate trips from the waiter to split our $36 tab. “Making money is not something we’re used to. None of us is very good with it,” David admits. “I just this year started putting money into a pension. At 40.”
“They say that the classics never go out of style… but they do, they do.” So goes the now-iconic spoken introduction delivered over the traffic noises of passing cars on The Shape of Punk to Come. The album projected a radical sense of immediacy from its very first line: “I’ve got a bone to pick with capitalism, and a few to break.”
The phrase “ahead of its time” gets thrown around a lot in regard to classic albums, but in the case of The Shape of Punk to Come, whose very title foreshadowed the notion, the numbers back it up. After the legend of their infamous last show started to spread, so did the record’s popularity. The year after its release, sales of the record shot up from 1,400 to 21,000 copies. And 28,000 the year after that. To date, it has sold over 180,000 copies for Epitaph Records in the United States alone, making it a hardcore phenomenon.
“Epitaph, up until then, was really an extension of Bad Religion in terms of sound and ethos, and Bad Religion was basically a product of the early LA hardcore scene—Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Adolescents, etc.,” says Gurewitz who, in addition to heading the label, is a founding member of Bad Religion. “By [the 90s punk explosion], much of the punk rock, including some of the bands Epitaph was putting out, had become pretty conservative—almost reactionary. Refused put the risk back into punk and hardcore by making it unexpected again. That’s why they’re so controversial, but it’s also why they’re so cool. I learned a lot from that.”
A lot of people learned from Refused, and it wasn’t just punk that felt their pioneering touch. In 2006, FILTER Magazine ran a post-mortem tribute to the band, rounding up eulogies from notable figures in metal. Anthrax’s Scott Ian called The Shape of Punk to Come “a complete original.” Duff McKagan of Guns N’ Roses likened it to the Sergeant Pepper’s of punk rock. Kirk Hammett of Metallica said that his mouth “literally dropped” when he saw the video for the song “New Noise.” And Tom Morello admitted that when Zach de la Rocha left Rage Against the Machine, he talked to Rick Rubin about approaching Dennis as a replacement.
Over the years, Refused has been cited as an influence by a practically limitless list of bands including Blink-182, Rise Against, Linkin Park, The Used, United Nations, Underoath, La Dispute, and Grammy winners Paramore, who quote their lyrics in their song, “Born for This.” Throughout this tour, I’ve passed members of all walks of the scene—punk-turned-rapper Antwon, Nick Zinner of indie staple Yeah Yeah Yeahs, alt-porn mogul Joanna Angel, and Jeremy Bolm of screamo torchebearers Touché Amoré, to namedrop a few.
Among the faces at Refused’s show in Santa Ana, I spotted Jason Butler of the band letlive., one of Epitaph’s most popular new bands. He surfed towards the stage, screaming along, standing straight up on top of the crowd before a security guard grabbed him over the barricade. Butler himself has a reputation for being one of the most reckless frontmen around—so much so that someone has put together a compilation video on YouTube of his wild stage antics—but there in the pit of a venue where his own band once played, he was but a pauper worshipping at the altar of Refused. “They say imitation is the biggest form of flattery,” he told me afterwards, “and we tried not to imitate that band, but certainly, certainly took cues and influence, ideologically, sonically, instrumentally, and also their aesthetic—that pristine, anarchist-but-still-formulaic aesthetic.”
Refused’s aesthetic was one of punk chic. Instead of donning band T-shirts, they’d often wear dark beatnik turtlenecks or slim-fit suits, with dyed black mop top haircuts. “When we started, we were wearing baggy pants,” David noted to me. “Then everyone started wearing baggy pants, so we wore thrift store suits.”
“They were anarchists, but they looked good,” Frank Turner, a folk-punk singer who has released albums on Epitaph and Interscope, told me in Vegas. Turner launched his musical career fronting a UK hardcore band called Million Dead, a name taken from a Refused lyric. “They sounded good, and they had style. No other hardcore bands had style.”
Refused’s influence seemed to know no bounds. There’s even a video on YouTube of “New Noise” being covered by America’s most shirtless rap metal bro-band, Crazy Town, though I cannot in good conscience recommend you look it up.
Even if you’re unfamiliar with Refused, you’ve probably heard “New Noise,” the centerpiece of Shape, which the band told Decibel Magazine was written independently of the rest of the material. The song’s arena rock-style intro, which they readily admit to being a shameless attempt at out-riffing their former Victory Records labelmates Snapcase, has been de facto high octane music in various soundtracks. It’s been used most notably in the high school football drama Friday Night Lights as well as the Jason Statham action flick Crank, not to mention TV shows like 24 and video games like Tony Hawk’s Underground.
But despite the momentum the album picked up years after their demise, Refused was a distant memory to its members, who were already on to other things. Most were still working in music in various capacities, though some of their projects were vastly different from that of Refused. Kristofer began working on operas in Sweden, for example, and has directed a production of La Bohème.
Meanwhile, over the course of Refused’s retirement, band reunions have grown to be a bankable booking strategy, especially on the festival circuit. The last five years alone have seen comebacks from The Replacements, At the Drive-In, Quicksand, Rocket from the Crypt, Judge, and a near-endless list of other respectively beloved acts. It always felt like a Refused reunion was just around the corner. The occasional offer would pop up for the band to reunite, and they’d shrug it off for one reason or another. Then in 2011, Coachella came knocking on their door, and they started considering the opportunity to play on their 2012 festival. The 500-grand payday didn’t hurt. That gig, combined with performances at a dozen other festivals including Groezrock, Hellfest, and Primavera Sound, plus a full year of worldwide touring to large clubs, made the members of Refused independently wealthy. It took the world over a decade to catch up to it, but The Shape of Punk to Come finally got the credit it was due.
Imagine that. The last time they’d played together was down in some guy’s leaky basement in Virginia in front of 75 people. They let the value of their band collect interest for 14 years, and the next time they performed—save for a couple of small warmup shows—they were on an outdoor stage at one of the biggest music festivals in the world. To put that into perspective, 80,000 people were in attendance for each day of Coachella in 2012. A 2010 count of the population of Refused’s hometown of Umeå counted only 79,594 people.
With the exception of Dennis, who had played the main stage at Coachella before with his band, The (International) Noise Conspiracy, this was a completely alien experience for the rest of the band. “I looked around, there were four guys that were scared out of their fucking wits,” remembers Dennis. “We were not very good at that first Coachella show because they were super nervous. It took them a while to get the learning curve going. It took them 82 shows to get the confidence in the band, that we were worth it.”
They couldn’t even get it through their heads that they didn’t have to carry their own guitars, their stage tech told me. “One woman in the audience flashed us,” recalls bassist Magnus Flagge. “We’d never seen that before. It was weird.”
But like everything Refused has done, their reunion was not without its swarm of critics. Within the circles of punk nerdery, they are one of the genre’s most divisive bands. One long-running sticking point for opponents has been their liberal borrowing from their influences. They’ve been accused of modeling their svelte punk look after DC band Nation of Ulysses. The cover art of The Shape of Punk to Come—and Refused will tell you this—is a direct knock-off of the cover of Rye Coalition’s Teen-Age Dance Session, which itself is modeled after old Blue Note jazz records.
So naturally, with this vocally anti-capitalist band suddenly being profitable, playing a festival sponsored by Heineken alongside acts like The Black Keys and Bon Iver, there was bound to be some online hand-wringing among the bitter punks. And there was. Here’s a particularly funny piece of snark I saw commented on the announcement:
REFU$ED ARE £UCKING D€AD.
But as anyone who has made a career out of punk rock can tell you, that reactive shit-talking comes with the territory. At Punk Rock Bowling, I caught up with Laura Jane Grace, frontwoman of Against Me!, who has come to terms with her own anarchist-turned-major-label career in the song “I Was a Teenage Anarchist.” “Usually the person who’s shouting the most about how revolutionary they are and how they’re anarchist isn’t actually doing anything subversive,” she told me. “I feel like I just trust the intentions of Dennis and Refused. What they’re doing is still in line with the ideals they started out with. It’s not a ‘cash grab.’”
It’s just after noon in Los Angeles and Dennis Lyxzén is holding a gun to my face.
There are piles of European-cut clothes strewn about the room—a navy blazer draped over a chair, a bowler hat on the ground. I wish, for the sake of sensational storytelling, I could tell you this was the result of some all-night drug and hooker-fueled post-gig bender that tore apart a hotel room and left a trail of smashed TVs and empty bottles of Jack Daniels in its wake. But Refused, whose members are in their 40s, are not that sort of band.
“We don’t do after-parties,” David told me on the walk back from one night’s show. “If you have the energy to do an after-party, you didn’t do your job right. You might even get yourself kicked out of the band.” I laughed, but he didn’t. Instead, the members are typically back in their hotel rooms by two every night. Magnus and his girlfriend Kati, who is sharing a bunk on the tour, usually wake up early to go for jogs.
No, the gun pointed squarely between my eyes is a prop for a photoshoot for the cover of a metal magazine. We’re at the LA office of Epitaph Records, and today is a designated media day for them. Since it’s not the only shoot this afternoon, they’ve brought several changes of clothes.
This is a new thing for Refused, promoting an album. They’ve been making the media rounds today. This morning, they did an interview with Wired, fielded some various phoners, and sat down with a Pitchfork writer by the rooftop pool in their hotel.
Given Refused’s history with albums that are ahead of the curve, it will be tricky for critics to make quick judgments on Freedom. In many ways, it sounds like the product of an alternate reality in which Refused never broke up, but rather continued a career path on a major label as the token respected hard rock band among the roster of up-and-coming pop stars. Listening to it, it feels almost like The Shape of Punk to Come being imitated by a combination of the many bands they inspired.
The album sees the band still trying to direct attention to large-scale injustices of the world while being careful to note that they don’t have the solutions. “Someone interviewed us in Germany,” says David. “And he asked, ‘So vhat should vee do? Vhat is the solution?’ That’s not my job. My job is to ask the questions.” Dennis agrees, “If we had the solution, that would be the song.” Regardless of how critics receive it, though, for some fans, the music on Freedom will always be overshadowed by the motivations behind it.
The band spends most interviews on the defensive, fielding questions asking to them justify their rebirthed existence. Have they compromised their ideals? How do they respond to those who say they’re just in it for the money? One topic that keeps coming up is Freedom’s co-writer, 30 year old pop producer Shellback. Admittedly, it was an odd sight to see his name on the album’s press release. Shellback has produced and co-written pretty much every pop radio hit you’ve heard over the last five years. He has nine Billboard number one singles under his belt including Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” and Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger.” He’s worked with everyone from Pitbull to Avril Lavigne to Britney Spears. For most punk bands, having any sort of pop influence would be a secret best swept under the rug, but not for Refused.
“The first bio they sent us, they didn’t mention Shellback’s name,” says David. “I emailed them straight back and was adamant that they put the words ‘Taylor Swift’ and ‘P!nk’ in the bio because it just looks so funny and weird and eye-grabbing. I knew it would appeal to the salivating journalists.”
It was no accident that the two got connected. The Swedish-born Shellback is a Refused megafan who the band describes as being more knowledgeable about them than anyone they’d ever met. They say they sent Shellback the demos for a few tracks from Freedom, only seeking some critical feedback. Instead, he re-recorded all of the instruments and sent them back to them. That’s when they knew he was the guy they wanted to work with.
For fans who have been following Refused since their DIY basement days, it’s been surreal watching this long defunct and admittedly media averse band taking to social media to shill their new album, #RefusedFreedom, available on @iTunes on June 30 from @EpitaphRecords. Tomorrow, they will drop a new song via British news outlet The Guardian. They’re getting better at it, too, or at least they’re getting better at being told how to do it. Stand here. Wear this shirt. Look that way. Be a modern band.
Refused have still got a bone to pick with capitalism. Dennis is telling me so while sitting in front of a fireplace in the living room of his West Hollywood hotel suite. All of the band members and their six-person crew get their own hotel rooms when staying overnight in a city.
“In 2015, I still have to explain what capitalism is,” he says. His tone is one of confrontational patience, belying that this is not the first time he’s been cornered into this conversation. It might not even be the first time today.
“For the first time in my entire life, I’m making money,” he notes of Refused’s second act. “And people say, ‘oh, you’re a capitalist!’ No. I’m making money. It’s completely different things. Capitalism is a system. To make money does not make you a capitalist.”
Dennis’s is the most recognizable face of Refused, a fact driven home for me by all the people who have stopped him on the street for a photo or autograph this week. After Refused dissolved, he wasted no time in playing in new bands—The (International) Noise Conspiracy, INVSN, and AC4, most notably—all of which saw various degrees of success but never quite captured the unbridled chemistry that Refused had. A straight edge vegan, he was once named the sexiest man in Sweden by Elle Magazine.
He tosses his dirty blond hair back and forth a lot as he talks and wears a 60s-style shirt cinched at the elbows by sleevegarters, its open collar accentuated with a bolo tie and tremendous belt buckle at his waist. His tattooed fingers are decorated by a fistful of clunky metal rings.
Though he seems content with the path his career took after the breakup and claims that he’s not one for nostalgia, there’s a part of him that speaks of Refused like the one that got away. “I wanted to keep the band going, not because of the music, but because I had this idea that it would be an effective vehicle for a revolutionary struggle. That’s where my mind was at the time,” he recalls. “I remember the other guys would be writing riffs for hours, and I’d just come in to the practice space and say, ‘Yeah, whatever, it sounds good. Music is just the vehicle for the revolution. I don’t even care.’ And of course, when that guy’s in the band, you’re like, why are we even playing these songs?”
I play devil’s advocate and ask about the commercialization of “New Noise.” “Yeah,” he admits. “I could see how people would be like, ‘That’s kind of weird—they’re this anti-capitalist band, they have these revolutionary ideas, and then you hear them in movies and TV shows and video games.’ It’s very understandable.
“But it feels also like, for a long time, Refused got away from us. We broke up, and, in the ashes of Refused, a lot of stuff happened that we shrugged our shoulders about, like it was something else.
“When we broke up, for years, I looked at Refused and felt very disconnected. I remember sitting on the tour bus with Noise Conspiracy, and we’re watching a movie, and ‘New Noise’ comes on,” he says, meaning Friday Night Lights. “I was like, holy shit, what the fuck is this? I didn’t even know because I was so disconnected.”
I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up the final manifesto, so I do. I read him the line about never talking to stupid reporters, and he winces before I can even get the words out. “I wrote that. Of course,” he laughs. “We were Refused, so I wasn’t going to say, ‘Sadly, we inform you that Refused has broken up.’ I was like, fuck it, I’ll write this last manifesto, this fucking mad tirade of ideas and just throw it out there. I didn’t think it would come back to bite me because I didn’t think we’d ever get back together,” he leans forward, as if telling me a secret. “But the thing, is, I love that manifesto. It’s a big part of the arc, of the story of Refused. It was a big fuck you.”
Was it hard to reunite for Coachella, knowing you’d written those words, knowing that people would remember them and hold them against you? “No, not at all,” he smiles, noting that he caught more shit for it than anyone else in the band. “I wrote things 17 years ago that are way stupider than that. Perspective changes. You change. It’s a part of growing as a person.”
I ask the question on the minds of most longtime fans surrounding news of the forthcoming album. Are you worried about Freedom tarnishing the memory of Refused? “Yeah, of course. We could’ve just played Shape of Punk and toured on it for another three or four years. People would’ve been excited and happy. But now we’re coming out with a new record, and it’s a gamble. We’re putting it out on the line—the idea of Refused. But it’s also deconstructing the myth of Refused. This is how we decide the fate of the band.”
What’s the biggest misconception about Refused, I finally ask. He thinks on it for a second. “One of the reasons why Refused resonated in our hometown was because it was a lot of fun. That’s one thing that’s missing from the narrative. It’s always about the turmoil and the breakup and people fighting on stage.” He looks down at his hands and runs a finger across a tattoo on his thumb and smirks. “But for years, we were a fun band.
A long line of Refused fans waits outside of Vacation Vinyl on Sunset Boulevard. From our table in the vegan restaurant across the street, we watch it grow longer and longer. The band has a secret in-store performance there in an hour, and word has apparently gotten out.
There’s some question as to whether or not it will get shut down. “If the cops or fire marshal come, I am truly fucked. The fines would crush me,” owner Mark Thompson tells me, “but whatever.” He admits the first 30 people in line. Another 20 spill out through the doorway and onto the sidewalk. They stand on their tip-toes, peeking in through the storefront window. One guy climbs a few feet up a telephone pole to get a better look. A small child with massive headphones sits atop her father’s shoulders.
We make our way through the tight crowd, so tight that there’s hardly any room to move our feet. Refused pick up their instruments, which the crew has set up for them. No giant light rig for this show, no elaborate sound system. Just Refused, stripped down to their foundation.
The band plays a new song. They are promoting a record, after all. The crowd doesn’t know this one. Maybe in time, they will.
After burning through a short setlist, cracking jokes and telling stories in between songs, they announce that they’ll do one more. Someone from the back shouts a request for “Rather Be Dead.” David and Kristofer look at each other. It’s a look that I doubt you can exchange many times during your life, like there’s a shared offering of serenity between them.
No, Dennis says, they’re going to play something else, a cover. There’s some traffic noises of passing cars as they launch into Black Flag’s “My War,” arguably punk’s most iconic song. A classic. I’ve heard it said that those never go out of style.
People raise their phones and tablets high to get a photo capturing the moment. Hell, I snap one too. You never know which chance will be your last, right? There are various records lining the walls, each with its own story, each holding its place in the lineage of punk. I spot a copy of The Shape of Punk to Come among them. There’s an empty spot next to it, and I wonder to myself if Freedom will hang there someday.
The band finishes, and Dennis walks towards me. With the back of his hand, he wipes away some strands of wet, blond hair from his forehead. It’s grown quite hot in the room. He exhales a sigh of relief. “Well,” he shrugs, “we made it.”
is an editor at Noisey
Follow him on Twitter @danozzi
is a photographer based in Las Vegas
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