Sometimes the thing that draws us to a band is the very thing that scares us most about them. When Refused guttered out amid police sirens at a basement show in Harrisonburg, Virginia almost 20 years ago, the seal was set on a compelling myth. A matter of months after releasing ‘The Shape Of Punk To Come’, these days a modern classic, the band were, to borrow their own phrase, fucking dead. And people loved them for it.
They became legends in absentia. Dennis Lyxzén has estimated that less than 50 people were present for their final throes, but word spread. The intervening years found ‘…Shape’ becoming an ever more frequent touchstone in hardcore, its fearless compositional quirks and radical leftist politics oft-imitated but never bettered.
In 2012, Refused lived up to their reputation as provocateurs and reformed, the doomed romance of their demise struck from the record. But, even as they took to the stage at Coachella that summer, few could have predicted with any degree of certainty that their dramatic Lazarus act would result in new music.
New album ‘Freedom’ represents a bolt from the blue and, given that it royally undermines the go-out-with-a-bang story that captivated so many, places the band at odds with sections of their fanbase. That it is also a direct, fiercely individual album with little in common with its predecessor makes it precisely the sort of move Refused would consider fitting. They’re still not in this for a quick buck.
“It’s a problem, the whole nostalgia circuit,” guitarist Kristofer Steen says over the phone from Seattle, where the band are a few dates into a US tour. “I feel really weird about being associated with something like that. That’s not really part of our expression as a band. We’re still searching and finding our way. Your fanbase tends to want you to sound exactly like you did last record. Be different, but in exactly the same way. You have to take risks. That’s part of the DNA of the band.”
"We’re not really concerned about the myth."
— Kristofer Steen
As a result, ‘Freedom’ will twist melons. Complementing Lyxzén’s spiteful shriek are horn arrangements, gospel-tinged backing vocals and washes of acoustic guitar, with Nick Launay, of Nick Cave and Arcade Fire fame, and Shellback, hardcore kid turned pop hit machine, nestled among the production credits.
It’s driven by a desire to experiment, but it’s a collection that mines classic rock and pop for inspiration in place of the ever-shifting time signatures, jazz inflections and brazen fury of ‘...Shape’. From the moment Lyxzén laid down vocal tracks on instrumentals put together by Steen, drummer David Sandström and bassist Magnus Flagge, though, it could only fly under one banner.
“We could tell there was chemistry,” Steen says. “The first time we got that was when Dennis made vocal lines for a song. He presented it and we were like: ‘OK. This is Refused.’ There was no doubt about it. We worked our fingers to the bone, and it takes forever and we went crazy arranging everything, but on the other hand it was really natural.”
There’s little point in skirting around the fact that ‘Freedom’ is going to make a lot of people angry. That Lyxzén has been more Mick Jagger than Ian MacKaye for years won’t matter. That anyone has the right not to be defined solely by statements made in their 20s won’t matter. This is punk rock and iconography is king. Refused’s sticky end has, for those who weren’t there to see the vitriol and anguish that fuelled it, become public property.
“I can totally understand the appeal of that narrative, that grand myth,” Steen says. “I understand that people want to print the legend. So much of punk, rock’n’roll and popular culture in general is based on fiction. Everyone knows that it’s a fiction. No band can live up to that myth-making. We’re a bunch of guys who love to make music. We’re not really concerned about the myth, even if we’ve benefited from that myth.
“We can’t worry about that kind of thing. We get thrown on by the fact that we have a passionate audience that expects a lot. That’s a privileged position to be in, to have people anxious about what you do. That’s our crowd, they are very opinionated and have very specific ideas about what we shouldn’t do. I think that’s cool, when people aren’t on board.”
Discussing the record with Steen is a good time. He’s clearly excited by every note of it, proud of each bold move. With, as he puts it, a “right wing plague” spreading across Europe, there’s every chance that ‘Freedom’ will make an important mark, too. He comes back to one sentiment a few times, and it’s Refused in a nutshell: “Punk should be about the present tense.”
Taken from the July issue of DIY, out now. Refused’s new album ‘Freedom’ is out now via Epitaph.