New Noise: Refused and The Shape Of Punk To Come, 23 years on
‘This is the pulse. This is the sound. This is the beat of a new generation.
This is the movement. This is the rhythm. This is the noise of revolution.‘
The Refused Party Program
On October 27, 1998, Swedish hardcore quartet Refused released what might just be the single most influential rock album of the past 20-plus years. The band’s third full-length album, The Shape Of Punk To Come drew upon free jazz, electronica, Situationist politics, Beat literature and spoken word samples, to deliver a torching of the punk rock rule book, a revolutionary call to re-imagine the form in the face of mainstream assimilation and scene orthodoxy. Fiercely idealistic, militantly left wing and (seemingly) utterly convinced of music’s power to engage, empower, educate and liberate, Refused created a non-conformist manifesto for the genre’s future. ‘How can we expect anyone to listen, if we are using the same old voice?’ sang vocalist Dennis Lyxzén on New Noise, the album’s key note.
Ironically, in offering a blueprint for punk rock’s continued relevance and importance, Refused tore themselves apart. Even before police shut down the band’s final show, in a suburban basement in Harrisonburg, Virginia on October 6, 1998, the group were splintering. Following their dissolution, they issued a final communiqué, a calculated earth scorching. “We will never play together again and we will never try to celebrate what was,” the statement read. It’s title was emphatic: Refused Are Fucking Dead.
“We were a super-radical band, so of course when we broke up it was going to be radical as well,” laughs Dennis. “I love that communiqué!” Far from being fucking dead, the reformed Refused have since released two LPs in the form of 2015’s Freedom and 2019’s War Music, and the vocalist is in fine spirits as he looks back upon an album that he now freely and happily admits will forever define his band.
In interviews for your ‘posthumous’ DVD Refused Are Fucking Dead, guitarist Kristofer Steen stated that the band had already decided to break up during the writing of The Shape Of Punk… Was that a joint decision, and a decision you were happy with at the time?
“You know, I’m not sure that’s entirely true, though obviously we all have different perspectives on that time. Maybe Kris and David [Sandström, Refused drummer] had talked about it, and our lack of communication was definitely a factor in our eventual break-up. The writing of that record was certainly a horrible process for most of us, and there was certainly a point during the recording where they thought, ‘We don’t want to go through this process again.’ It was just too excruciating. We weren’t really getting along, and once we started touring, actually at one of the very first shows we did in Sweden, I remember me and David sat down and we said, ‘Let’s give this year, and then take an indefinite break.’ I think I wanted to give it two years, but we didn’t last anywhere near that long! It was not a good vibe, we were not in a good head-space. We had different ideas about what the band should represent, and what it did represent.”
By the end of touring 1996’s Songs To Fan The Flames Of Discontent were you personally already tired of the orthodoxy of the hardcore scene?
“I think we all were. The biggest catalyst for that whole record was the sense of disconnect with what the hardcore scene had become, and what we felt it was. There was a definite ‘fuck you’ attitude going into the record. We toured the States in ’96, and I remember I was so excited about going over there, but all political people that I related to didn’t want to touch us because we were on Victory Records then and we were kinda metal-sounding, and then the people who liked our music hated our politics. So I remember coming home from that tour feeling like we didn’t fit anywhere, because our politics were more in sync with the PC punk world, and our music was metalcore. We had a strong sense that we needed to do something different to what we’d become and what the scene had become. Stuff like that feels very important when you’re 23 years old!”
For you personally, what influences and inspirations were shaping your artistic voice and your lyrical and political outlook at you started worked upon the album?
“I was super into politics. I was that guy who’d come to the practice space and say stuff like, ‘I don’t really care about the riffs that much, music should just be a vehicle for the revolution.’ I was that guy, completely hopeless to be in a band with! I’d discovered the whole Situationist movement, and Dada and surrealism, the more artistic side of political art, plus I was really into the whole Mod thing and soul music, things that weren’t very hardcore. You can tell that by our look in the New Noise video, that was all my idea and direction. We wanted to do something different from what the punk world was into.”
Was there a collective vision for the album at the outset?
“I don’t think we had a collective idea, and maybe that’s one of the strengths of the record. When you’re four very strong minds, and everybody is pulling in different directions, there’s only special, small moments of time where you collect everything in one space. The minute the record was done, it was over, basically. Yes we toured, but I mean, in our minds it was already over. We managed to make a coherent piece of work, but even six months later that would have been impossible. To a certain extent you’re always compromising when you’re making music with other people, but I think that we all felt that our needs were met at the time in that record. The more political aspects I wanted in there are definitely on the record, and Kris’ big ideas and Jon [Brännström, guitar] got his beats and electronic parts in there, so I think all four of us felt like we’d created something that we could really back up. But the minute it was done, we all looked at one another like, ‘This is not going to work out in future.’”
What do you recall about the actual recording of the album with producers Pelle Henricsson and Eskil Lövström? Weren’t you supposed to be in the studio for three weeks, but it expanded to six?
“Yeah, that’s right. It was rough. Kris and David were working 24/7. I’d show up and do my vocals and then I’d leave, because the vibe in the studio wasn’t exactly welcoming, it was very intense. I remember Jon was in a room editing drums, with a super early version of [music program] Logic, and it was a very fragmented process, it wasn’t four guys in a room banging out songs. I had massive tension headaches the whole time!”
There are so many brilliant lyrics on the album: have you got a personal favourite line?
“I still think that ‘I got a bone to pick with capitalism… and a few to break’ is a fucking great way of opening the record. The other guys were practicing a lot and I was writing lyrics to the side, in a way. I remember I met a friend and I said something like, ‘Yeah, there’s a couple of the new songs I don’t really like,’ and that got back to David and Kris and they came to my apartment and were like, ‘We need to talk.’ They were really angry and upset with me and they said, ‘We heard you were talking shit about the new songs.’ It was really intense. I distinctly remember David screaming into my face, ‘You don’t understand [jazz legend] Charlie Parker!’ Actually I seem to remember he said Charlie Mingus, but he says it was Charlie Parker, so whatever. But yeah, it was intense. I said, ‘Look, okay, I don’t really get all the riffs, and I don’t really like all the riffs, but I’m going to write the best lyrics I can to complement the riffs.’ I remember being told I had to get my shit together.
“And when we got back together in 2012 I was surprised by how many of the lyrics I felt had really stood the test of time, which made me very happy, because I could still back them. And I’ve seen so many lyrics from the album tattooed on people. ‘Rather be forgotten than remembered for giving in’ [from Summerholidays Vs. Punkroutine] is a very popular one. It’s kinda absurd but flattering. When you write a record, you’re in the moment, and in your head you imagine in a couple of years’ time it’ll be just another record, so for that moment in time to matter so much to people that they’re willing to tattoo it on their body is pretty wild.”
I wanted to ask you about one song that isn’t on the record. You gave Peek A Boo to a 1998 Burning Heart Records compilation called Still Screaming, and it has lyrics such as ‘Fuck you for pissing on me’ and ‘Fuck you for selling our ideas so cheap’ and ‘Somewhere along the way this became a one man crusade’. Were those lyrics aimed at your bandmates, and was it recorded at the same time as the album?
“No, it was after the record, it was the last song we recorded, two months before we broke up. And yes, it was aimed at the guys. I was really bummed out, because I felt that the band was important not only musically, but politically, and at that point I felt like there were people in the band who were like, ‘I don’t care about the politics, I just want to rock out!’ That was very disheartening to me, and it made me very frustrated. Of course, to write a song that says that the other people in the band are idiots is maybe not the best way to communicate your disappointment in them! But we were young kids, we couldn’t communicate that great at that age. But it makes for a good story, it fits the narrative of the insanity of the band!”
The title of the album is obviously a nod to Ornette Coleman’s 1959 album The Shape Of Jazz To Come. On one level, it’s a fabulously cocky, and entirely prophetic title, but given the circumstances in which the album was being made, was there a certain bitter irony in choosing that title?
“I think so. We were just so fed up of the hardcore punk scene, and so fed up of the expectations of what you were supposed to be, and so it was a ‘Fuck you!’ We could have called the record Fuck You. There was a lot of… contempt in that title, and it fitted the vibe of what we were trying to do, which was to break free from the constraints of the scene.”
Two weeks after the band split, you started a new band, The (International) Noise Conspiracy. Was that a very conscious attempt to let everyone know, ‘This is done, there’s no going back’?
“Yeah, it was. As I said, we’d had that talk about splitting, so I knew things were coming to a halt, and so I was already thinking that maybe I should start to take a look around for new people to play with. So, yeah, I had all the …Noise Conspiracy people lined up already. When we broke up in America I flew home, I moped around for a week, and then I called everybody and said, ‘Okay, let’s do this.’”
I interviewed you pretty early on in the T(I)NC days, and I remember bringing up Refused in the conversation, and you had a look like, ‘Really? We have to talk about Refused again?’
“That sounds about right! A few months after Refused broke up MTV started showing the New Noise video, and excitement started building around the band… too late! And so by the time …Noise Conspiracy started touring, it was becoming pretty obvious that The Shape… was having an impact on people. And so I was going out introducing my new thing and in every interview people would go, ‘Great! I love Refused!’ Every time. I wanted to move on from the past, and so in the beginning it was very frustrating. With every review of every …Noise Conspiracy record it was, ‘It’s not The Shape Of Punk To Come.’ But after a while, as you grow up and mature, you get a different perspective on things. I know now that The Shape Of Punk To Come will forever define me as a person. In 20 more years, it’ll still be the able that people talk about, that’s just a fact. Once you accept that, you’re like, ‘Yeah, that’s pretty cool.’ ”
Famously, the final Refused communiqué urged against nostalgia. You’ve kinda answered this in part, but with the passing of time, are you pleased that people are still talking about this album in respectful, indeed awed, terms?
“Yeah, not many people get to be associated with an album that’s considered a classic, so that’s pretty amazing. I’m still proud of that communiqué too, it’s one of the most brilliant things I ever wrote! I was super angry then. But it’s such a fucking honour to be part of something that means so much to people. People have told me that their music tastes changed because of that record, and that’s humbling and cool. I’m glad that the music is still alive. Every time we play New Noise it’s exciting, it never gets old, and I’m eternally grateful for that.”
This interview was conducted in 2018 for the album’s 20th anniversary.
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