Refused’s Dennis Lyxzén: “In The World Around Me People Were Squeezed Into This Idea Of Getting Their Sh*t Together, But I Never Did”
For almost four decades, Dennis Lyxzén’s life has been utterly consumed by music. Born in the summer of 1972, Dennis was brought up in a working-class family in a rural area outside of Umeå in the north of Sweden.
A self-described “loner and a weirdo”, he first discovered the power of music the day after John Lennon was murdered in New York City in 1980. From there, he moved on to The Beatles through his father’s record collection, and via a David Bowie detour, became enamoured with metal and, later on, hardcore.
Long before Vinton Cerf and Bob Kahn invented what we now know as the internet, Dennis relied on tape and video trading, and his tastes were shaped by recommendations from his international penpals, watching grainy VHS copies of bands like Youth Of Today and Hüsker Dü.
“It was a time when I was so isolated by the mere fact of where I was living,” explains Dennis. “There was no scene. There were hardly any punks. There were, like, eight people in the entire city who even liked punk music. I read Thrasher magazine, which had Pushead’s column where he wrote about hardcore and punk music. After a while, I started ordering Maximumrocknroll, but that was kind of it. You had to sort of guess what was reasonable or not.”
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From playing in metal and punk bands as a teenager, he has fronted several acts, most notably post-hardcore legends Refused, whose revolutionary 1998 album, The Shape Of Punk To Come: A Chimerical Bombination In 12 Bursts, was largely misunderstood at the time and ironically took on a life of its own after the band imploded during an ill-fated North American tour. Since then, he has been part of soul punks The (International) Noise Conspiracy, hardcore outfit AC4, and post-punks INVSN.
Most recently, he’s joined Fake Names, a band that would surely baulk at the supergroup tag, but whose line-up features Brian Baker (Minor Threat, Dag Nasty, Bad Religion), Johnny Temple (Girls Against Boys, Soulside), Michael Hampton (S.O.A., Embrace, One Last Wish) and Matt Schulz (Enon, Holy Fuck). To date, they’ve played just one show in Brooklyn, but more activity is planned for the future.
When we catch up with Dennis to trace a finger through his long and varied CV, it seems that the 46-year-old has put the concept of free time on the back burner. As ever, his myriad projects appear to be vying for his attention, like a nest crammed with punk rock birds.
Refused have just released War Music, the follow-up to their 2015 album Freedom, while Dennis also works on new material with his band INVSN.
It’s probably best, then, to get on with things before another project pops up to demand his attention…
After learning of The Beatles in the most tragic of circumstances, when did you gravitate to the heavier stuff?
“Well, I have to admit that I saw Europe in 1984 when I was 12. I also listened to bands like Motörhead and Black Sabbath. When everybody else kept listening to Dio and Whitesnake, I remember someone giving me a tape with Bathory on one side and Metallica’s Kill ’Em All on the other. Metallica wore punk and hardcore T‑shirts, but it was Anthrax around the Among The Living album that led me to hardcore. They talked about it in interviews and so I backtracked from there, looking up the bands they thanked on their albums. Then someone else gave me a tape with Misfits on one side and Cro-Mags on the other, and bands like Crumbsuckers and Agnostic Front really struck a chord. But the band that changed everything for me was the Dead Kennedys. I wasn’t a metalhead after that.”
Did the Dead Kennedys politicise you?
“I always felt alienated and a bit of an outsider, and metal bands were rebels without a cause. Nuclear Assault and Megadeth, to a certain extent, had a political slant. But I was blown away by Dead Kennedys’ Give Me Convenience Or Give Me Death. That set me on the path. A lot of the political issues they talked about weren’t that relevant to a working-class kid from the north of Sweden, but there’s something tangible about the way they talked about politics and the way they talked about the world. It was like someone had invented music just for me, and that I belonged to something.”
Was it difficult to discover new punk sounds given the relative isolation of living in Umeå?
“The isolation meant we had to create our own fun and our own scene, and sort of dictate our own terms. I got into punk in ’87 and it wasn’t until years later that a band came to Umeå who I really liked. So we were limited to many years of seeing local bands only. I had to travel to Stockholm to see shows, but it was interesting that it took so long for a band I liked to come to our hometown. In ’92, me and David [Sandström, Refused guitarist] saw Fugazi play a little café in front of 40 people.”
Did you always want to be a frontman?
“I was the bass player in my first punk band, because I couldn’t really play guitar. In Step Forward I was the singer, and that led into Refused. But never in my life was it my ambition to become a musician or a singer. In the back of my mind, I thought, ‘This is something I’m going to do for a couple of years and then life will catch up to me. I can’t live on noodles and record collecting alone.’ I had to get my shit together, but it never happened. It just kept on going. I mean, here we are and we’re doing the story of my life. In the world around me people were squeezed into this idea of growing up and getting their shit together, but I never did.”
Can you remember the moment where playing music became more than a hobby?
“My first hardcore band’s first show was at a youth centre. There was a weird indie rock band, a cover band, one punk band and a death metal band. That’s how close you got to playing a punk show. We talked about it before. Like, ‘No-one’s going to really understand or like what we’re doing, so let’s go crazy.’ I went off and our guitar player smashed his guitar. The show ended with our drummer throwing the cymbal stand into the fuse box and the whole place shut down. I thought, ‘I’m going to stick with this,’ because people got really into it.”
Refused’s The Shape Of Punk To Come… turned 20 last year. What are your memories of recording that album?
“It was very intense. We started touring in 1993 and never stopped. In ’97 when it came to record, we were so burned out from touring and each other. There was no harmony at all. It was very dysfunctional and we didn’t really get along – sometimes that makes for great art. I’ve always said that The Shape Of Punk To Come… was four people going in different directions for a brief moment in time. We managed to put all that energy in one place and that’s why the record is so weird and beautiful. For a long time, that record carried more bad memories than good ones, and I didn’t like it. I didn’t like that part of my past.”
What led to the band splitting up during the subsequent tour of North America?
“It was a nightmare from start to finish. We had a plan to tour from February ’98 for 12 months. Before we went to the States, we had a band meeting where we cancelled an Australian tour which a friend of mine had set up. I was biting my tongue. I’m like, ‘Fuck, this is bullshit.’ We went to the States and Jon [Brännström, guitar] didn’t even bring a guitar over and he was so bummed. There were all these horrible vibes and we broke up after three days. We didn’t have any money, so we had to play shows to get back to [Washington] DC, so we could fly home. It was a weird week.”
You announced the break-up via an open letter entitled Refused Are Fucking Dead, which urged media outlets to destroy any press materials relating to the band. What was your mindset then?
“I felt great. I know some of the band weren’t fans of that, but I thought it was a worthy send-off. It’s a bit tongue-in-cheek, but it still had the ideas that we were playing around with on Shape…; situationist jargon and radical political thinking. It was funny, because in Sweden, the more intellectual pop people, who always thought we were straight-edge nerds, wanted to interview us after that.”
Was it weird seeing New Noise pick up so much traction after the band parted ways?
“It was surreal. I don’t rest on my laurels and I already had an idea about a band in the back of my mind. When I came home from the States, I moped around in the house for a week, then I called some people and said, ‘Let’s start practising for The (International) Noise Conspiracy.’ When we started getting momentum, the New Noise video was on MTV. It was the strangest thing to be an outsider viewing your work taking off.”
How much did the hardcore scene change during the ’90s?
“I can only really attest to the hardcore scene where I’m from, because that was kind of always our focal point. I had a record label and released local bands. We played at home a lot and yeah, it changed. In the mid-’90s, we had a huge hardcore scene. We had 300 to 500 people at every show and it was pretty intense. Then it all died down in ’99 and became a very different sort of underground, DIY thrash-meets-hardcore scene. Anything that has that much power can never sustain for long.”
Did you feel that change coming by the time The Shape Of Punk To Come… was released?
“It felt like the scene wasn’t as open-minded as we wanted to be. It wasn’t as political as we wanted it to be, especially in America. Going to the States in ’96 with Snapcase was a huge eye-opener for us. It was so different. The political landscape and what the punk and hardcore kids in America thought about politics was so different. It didn’t feel like we belonged there. With The (International) Noise Conspiracy, most of us had already played in hardcore bands, so we didn’t want to be a band that was part of any scene. We just wanted to play music and take that as far as we could, without worrying about the internal politics and bickering of punk rock and hardcore. That was a huge leap forward.”
What did playing in The (International) Noise Conspiracy, AC4 and INVSN offer you that Refused couldn’t?
“Everything I’ve done has been very different because it wouldn’t make sense to me to do a band that was kind of like Refused, but not that great. I’d rather do something completely different on my own terms with other people. I’m sure I made some weird choices, but that’s only because I just love to play music.”
Did it frustrate you that people saw you as ‘Dennis from Refused’ for years afterwards, despite you finding success with The (International) Noise Conspiracy?
“For a long time, yes, and sometimes still, yes (laughs). …Noise Conspiracy were a band for 14 years – that’s a huge chunk of my life. There are certain aspects of your life that are going to define you forever, this is one of those and you learn to live with that. I do feel it sometimes. We’ll put out a new INVSN record and it’s, like, gloomy post-punk. Someone will be like, ‘This is nothing like The Shape Of Punk To Come….’ That’s not fair. You can’t compare those two. If your favourite bands are Terror and Hatebreed, I get it, maybe INVSN is not for you. In my mind, there are two types of music: good and bad. Hopefully, I’ve dabbled with good music for the most part.”
What were the initial Refused reunion shows in 2012 like?
“It was very different. All those years later, you pick it out of the corner and it’s a completely different thing. We were like, ‘How do we play new songs on these huge stages across the world and not a living room in Harrisburg, Virginia?’ We had to try to transition everything into the Refused of the now, and it took a lot of work. But yes, to play shows where people lost their minds was interesting. It felt like that record meant so much to a lot of people, and we finally got to see that and they got to see us. It was a pretty mind-blowing experience.”
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Did you feel any hesitation about writing new Refused material?
“Not at all. Basically, we knew what we were up against. I know as a fan, what it is to live with music for 15 or 16 years; what that means and what that does to you. When someone comes out with a new record, it’s always going to be judged against that. When we started again, we wanted to write new music because we’re not nostalgic. We’re not those types of people. I always move forward. I always want to try new things. It wasn’t easy to write and record again, but the decision to was easy.”
How did Fake Names come about?
“They already had a thing going and they were looking for singers. I met Johnny [Temple, bass] because INVSN played a show with Girls Against Boys. We talked and hit it off. I met him again when Refused played Riot Fest in 2016. The next day, Brian Baker walked up and says, ‘Hey, I’ve got a new project. Do you want to sing?’ I was like, ‘You’re Brian Baker. Yes, I will sing in your band.’”
How was your debut show in New York?
“It was a bit weird, but I was trying to play it cool. It’s interesting because Michael [Hampton] plays guitar. I love The Faith, and I love Embrace. He was also in One Last Wish and in S.O.A. with Henry Rollins, but he hasn’t actually played a lot of shows. I’ve done way more than him, but I’m like, ‘Oh shit, it’s Michael Hampton from The Faith.’ We’d played most of the set and I said, ‘Listen, I just gotta say this is fucking big for a small-town kid from Sweden.’ It was a pinch-yourself moment, but life makes equals out of us somehow. You admire someone’s art and music, then you meet them and you’re peers. That’s the beautiful thing about art and music. We’ve actually finished doing the record, so we’re hoping that maybe it’ll be out sometime this year.”
During that Brooklyn show, you said the song Lost Cause was about being a lifer in music. Do you think you’ll ever stop?
“I don’t see any other way out. I mean, it’s past the point of no return at this stage in my life. Seventy per cent of the touring I’ve done has been super DIY, in front of 50 to 200 people, travelling in a van with my friends. I never did music because I wanted it to be a career. I just love to perform and I love to play music. I’ll continue to do that as long as my body can sort of keep up with it.”
Refused’s new album War Music is out now.
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