Refused—The Personal and the Political

Swedish punks Refused came to be during an interesting time in punk rock during the early nineties. Seattle rock was king as Nirvana dominated the charts, then California had a comeback in the middle of the decade with Green Day leading the pack as the latter part of the era needed a jolt. That’s when Refused’s third album, The Shape Of Punk To Come, provided what was needed when it came out in the fall of 1998—just before they broke up that same year, with the quote “Refused Are Fucking Dead” signaling the end. In 2012, front man Dennis Lyxzén, drummer David Sandström, guitarist Kristofer Steen, and bassist Magnus Flagge got back together for a reunion tour. They proceeded to go full-time again a couple years later, and two albums followed suit with War Songs being their most recent, with The Soundtrack Of Our Lives’ Mattias Bärjed becoming the band’s official second guitarist.

As part of their North American tour, Refused are going to be taking over Brooklyn Steel on February 22. The band has been known for their energetically raucous live performances with Lyxzén’s fearless and engaging way of being on stage. His role in the band came from his lack of skill in a particular instrument and taking a job no one else wanted.

“In all honesty, me becoming the front man for Refused was due to the fact that no one else in the band wanted to be the front man,” he says on what made him want to get on the mic. “In my first musical venture, I played bass and then I figured that I had to sing because no one else wanted to sing. Then in my second band I just sang because I was kind of a shit bass player, so I ended up being that guy. While growing up listening to punk and hardcore and being in the scene, you would mask the fact that you were not a great singer by just going apeshit. That’s what I did, and I became pretty good at that, just the idea that if you were an explosive front man people would ignore your singing being off pitch.”

When it comes to the screaming technique, there’s always a danger of a singer blowing out their vocal cords. Practice is definitely key to train the voice for the onslaught it’s about to take and Lyxzén is definitely aware of that.

“It used to be when you were young, you just went for it,” he mentions about the way he sings. “You started singing and then one day you thought you should scream more, and I started screaming and I was pretty good at that, but it wasn’t something that I really practiced. As you get older and you start to notice your body’s limits, I would go to the practice space a couple times a week and scream, basically. We would have instrumental tracks of songs and I would scream along to them to work up the vocal cords. It’s a muscle so the way you’d use a vocal cord would be like running a marathon without any exercise.

“I need to prepare,” Lyxzén adds. “I need to get in shape physically and mentally along with getting my voice in shape before a tour. There’s a lot of preparation that goes into being able to do this for an hour and twenty minutes every night.”

Along with releasing War Music last year, the band also got to provide new music for the soundtrack to the role-playing video game Cyberpunk 2077 that’s due out in April. It was the first time the band ever got to do anything like this, and it all started with a message on social media.

“It was interesting, it was one of those weird things because I’m not a gamer, so I don’t really know anything about that world,” Lyxzén talks about the band’s involvement. “Someone wrote me in my Instagram DMs about wanting me to sing on this video game they were making. I thought it was crazy and I shot the question off to my management and they were like ‘Wow, this is a really big deal.’ We got into conversation with them and they’re huge fans of Refused so they wanted to have us do it as a band. First they just asked me to sing and then their budget increased and there’s this band called Samurai in the game who were modeled a bit after Refused.

“It made sense for us to get the whole band involved,” he continues. “It was very different because usually Refused takes a long time to make a record so we’re very meticulous, but this time we recorded a bunch of songs in less than two weeks. We also had to write lyrics that made sense in the game so there’s a lot of references that we had to tweak. It was fun, challenging, and something different. Sometimes when you’re a band you have to try the unexpected and I think it turned out pretty cool.”

Actor Keanu Reeves has a starring role in the game as the character Johnny Silverhand who is also the front man for Samurai. Lyxzén’s vocals being used for Reeves’ character was mind-blowing for him when he found out.

“That is pretty amazing,” he mentions. “It was a big operation, so we didn’t really know anything about the game. When they introduced Keanu as being a part of the game and our music is in the background, someone texted me to tell me that I was singing his vocals. I never dreamt about that but it’s also like a dream come true. It’s cool to be voicing Keanu’s singing voice.”

War Music explores both political and personal views. For example, “Malfire” is about refugees during the rise of fascism and Nazism across Europe, while “Death in Vännäs” is about Lyxzén growing up in Sweden as a kid while being into punk rock and feeling like an outsider. He finds multiple relationships between the two views due to how he sees things.

“For me personally, I see very little difference between the personal and the political,” he says of the album’s songwriting. “When I sing that song about me growing up in the north of Sweden, there’s also a political element as well. Growing up in that area you are affected by the economic, cultural, and social structures that define you as a person, and it turned me into the man that I am today—which I find to be a very political way of viewing the world. I am one of those guys that even when I write a love song, it’s rooted in the political idea of how I perceive the world. I don’t really see that much of a difference, I think you can approach politics in different ways.”

“You can have this ‘destroy capitalism, burn, burn, burn’ kind of approach, or you can also approach it from the fact of what this world does to you on a personal level,” Lyxzén adds. “It’s [about] how do you feel affected and disconnected from this world of perpetual growth and so on and so forth. That’s kind of how I approach it, sometimes the more personal songs are more deeply rooted in the problems that we have. For me, there’s not really a difference but there are different aspects in the way we approach songwriting and approach politics.”

Refused has a lot of touring in store for 2020, but a couple Lyxzén’s other bands will be putting out new material in the coming months. He’s psyched for what should be a very productive year.

“Most of the year we’ll be playing shows, touring Europe, jumping on festivals, and working the record,” He mentions. “I have a project called Fake Names that’ll be putting out a record in early May and the post-punk band I’m in, INVSN, has a record coming out this summer. So it’s going to be a busy year for me which is really exciting.”

Be sure to catch Refused at Brooklyn Steel on February 22!