Refused’s Dennis Lyxzen: Punk Is the Idea That Anything Is Possible
Swedish punk quintet Refused blazed a trail of revolutionary destruction in the 1990s, with ‘98 cult album The Shape Of Punk To Come revered as one of the decade’s most influential punk records. The group disbanded that year, but reformed fully in 2014, releasing the avant-garde album Freedom 12 months later. New LP War Music sees the band raging once more against the state of the world, and here, frontman Dennis Lyxzen tells Loudwire of the struggles associated with writing political music, and opens up about his relationship with the punk scene he helped to shape over 20 years ago.
You’ve spoken previously about how it’s disheartening to have been writing political music for so long while the world doesn’t change for the better. Does writing for Refused feel like an uphill struggle of wanting revolution while knowing there’s always going to be something new to rally against?
Yes, it does. The alternative future I envisage for the world will require a lot of struggle in order to become an actuality. The odds are stacked against us, not only in terms of who has the power but also the structures that are in place, so it’s important to create music as a form of resistance. Of course I’d rather live in a world where we’re all equals who have the same opportunities, but I think a bit of rebellion is required in order to bring out the best in anything. In a way, it’s good to have something to fight against.
Is the process of writing political music in 2019 different to how it was in the 1990s?
Yeah. Writing these songs in the ‘90s, people thought we were crazy, but now when we talk about these things it seems to resonate with people in a way it never has before. In the ‘90s, we were part of the small punk and hardcore subculture, whereas we now have a very diverse crowd that’s not as clued up on all the goings on in the hardcore punk world. Despite that, the political message of the music is still getting through. Writing songs in this climate and with the platform we now have is very different to how it was in the past––we’re no longer talking to just an exclusive club of like-minded individuals. In the ‘90s we wrote for our peers; now, the message is more universal.
Does that mean the way in which you write music has changed, because the audience is different?
We always stay true to our ideas––we have a very defined voice. We haven’t changed the way we write to please a bigger crowd; it just so happens that our audience is more diverse now, and more people are listening. War Music is a very violent, aggressive record because we felt that’s what 2019 needed. We want the content to be intelligent, and sometimes that goes over people’s heads, so occasionally we resort to more simple political slogans in order to get the point across. Freedom was a more intellectual record, whereas War Music is a gut-puncher, and we felt the visceral nature of that was something people would relate to. Nowadays, we have to approach things a bit differently because we know not everyone in the room at our shows will have grown up on The Dead Kennedys!
We’re in an era of political extremes at the moment: in the U.S. both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have huge followings, and it’s similar in many other countries, too. What impact does a climate of political extremity have on the message of Refused?
It’s funny, because from our point of view Bernie Sanders isn’t radical at all––he’s just a reasonable social democrat. But in the wake of our polarized political world, he seems like a radical, which is fine, because I understand that, on the traditional left to right spectrum, we’re off the scale [on the left]. In order for someone like Bernie to be successful, maybe you need someone even more to the left to be present as well; Martin Luther King Jr. succeeded in part because of how Malcolm X was seen as completely off the rails. And, as Refused, we don’t mind being this generation’s Malcolm X and pushing things to the left in the hope that society may move in that direction.
It’s fascinating to me that people like Bernie and Jeremy Corbyn in the U.K., who talk about universal healthcare and investing in education, are seen as extreme. They’ll come out and say they believe in free dental care and people become outraged and are like, ‘He’s an extremist!’ It’s not like they’re advocating sending people to gulags––they just want the population to be able to afford a decent life. It’s wild how today’s neo-liberal, capitalist climate perceives that as extreme. That said, it’s a great tactic by the one percent: we fight over the crumbs while they continue to exploit the workers and get stinking rich like they always have. Division serves a purpose for these populist despots.
You’ve always been a big advocate of punk rock, but over the decades you’ve been involved with the scene, is there anything you’ve felt the punk community could have done differently in order to help foster the change you’re fighting for?
Punk remains my primary source of education; I failed miserably at school, and punk came along and saved me. It was a world view I could relate to. Punk’s biggest enemy is punk itself; when it becomes rigid, structured and more of a uniform than an idea, that’s when it can struggle. I did the whole thing of having a mohawk and acting like a punk kid, but it’s more than that: it’s the idea that anything is possible. It’s about opening your mind, and it should never be rule-based.
I’ll always love the anti-authority, rebellious nature of punk, because it’s a beautiful means by which we can make sense of the alienation we feel in this world, but I want punks to retain that sense of open-mindedness. There was so much infighting in the ‘90s, and I don’t want to go back to that. We need to focus on the big issues and the struggles that normal people face. That’s how we’ll change the world.
Thanks to Dennis Lyxzen for the interview. You can pick up Refused’s 'War Music' here.
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