Refused guitarist Kristofer Steen lays into his '90s Gibson Les Paul Custom at the Ricoh Coliseum in Ontario, Canada, on August 7, 2015. Photo by Igor Vidyashev/Atlasicons.com
Fans had been begging for it since 2004. They wanted metal-fused, hardcore band Refused to think about that dreaded r-word. Sure, reunions—even the ones where you have to congregate with distant relatives and blood-tied strangers in the dead of summer—can be a good thing. But reconnecting and celebrating the past doesn’t move people forward. No, the gents from Sweden were striving for another r-word—relevant.
“We enjoyed celebrating our past during recent years,” says guitarist Kristofer Steen, “but we’re really reenergized with the release of Freedom. We’re finally able to look forward rather than back in remembrance of things we did decades ago. We feel relevant now. We’re sharing our new music with fans at shows. As a band, we feel alive again.”
When we recently caught up with Steen before a Refused gig in Toronto, he opened up about the band’s history, explained why he loves both Gibson ES-335s and Les Pauls, and revealed what crucial advice he’d give his younger self.
How have the crowds been reacting to the new music on Freedom?
We knew going into the new record that it’d probably be a hard sell for the hardcore fans from the ’90s, or fans that only like a particular side of Refused, but we’ve never really been concerned with outside opinions. With any type of art, you can’t do it for anyone else or it feels forced or generic. I’m sure we’ve lost some fans who were really into The Shape of Punk to Come, but hopefully we’ve gained a few more with the release of Freedom.
What was your goal with the new music?
Well, I honestly thought—and I really got excited about the idea of it—the album would be very polarizing. People picked apart Shape when it came out, and I think when things are polarizing, you’re doing something right. So if anything, we wanted to surprise our audience and maybe make them question our musical decisions.
Given the 17-year gap between your last two albums, is there anything you hear in Freedom that was lacking in 1998’s The Shape of Punk to Come?
I’d say, probably a musical maturation. Shape’s dynamic shifts were very black and white—loud to quiet on a drop of a hat—and we wanted to have more building, brooding parts on Freedom to strike a more dramatic tone. We’ve already done Shape and it was something we collaborated on 17 years ago, so it’s inevitable we’d deviate from that formula.
One of the motifs in the documentary you directed, Refused Are Fucking Dead, was how the pressure you guys dealt with internally ultimately contributed to the band dissolving in the early 2000s. Was there any pressure around Freedom, given the unusual circumstances with the long hiatus and surprising return?
Any pressure we felt during the process of creating Freedom was put on us by each other—we don’t worry about what other people think. Our fans are pretty diverse in what they like about our band. Some might like the high tempo, aggressive parts, whereas others might like the slowed-down, melodic journeys or our experimentation with flutes and cellos. It was actually quite liberating to write whatever we wanted and know it’d be received as Refused. Plus, we expect people are going to be annoyed with certain parts or changes to our music, and it gets us off a little [laughs].
What broke the ice and got you guys talking again and ultimately onstage in 2012?
Well, it was definitely a long process. David [Sandström, drummer] was pretty much on friendly terms with everyone, so he was the social anchor for the band. Let’s be clear, there was never any bad blood, but we never really collectively hung out or spent time together after the breakup. Fast forward to about six or seven years ago, when we started receiving offers from tour promoters and festival organizers—it really messed with our heads.
Before that we never really felt the groundswell of anticipation or eagerness to have a reunion tour or do shows, but after seeing some of the offers we got, we got inflated egos and got enticed by the dollar sign … it just wasn’t us. Our initial reaction was to be flattered, but then we were insulted—as if we could be bought out. When you have those dollar signs looking at you, it can cross up your values.
How did it feel to make a film about your band dissolving in front of the camera?
Honestly, I approached it as a eulogy [laughs]. That’s pretty dark, but I wanted to show that any group of musicians—in our case, it was five normal guys from Sweden—can have an impact on the musical landscape. The feeling of the film is very dramatic and serious, but that was who we were as people back then. We were only focused on the music and the message. Nothing else really mattered or was even on our radar.
At times I had to detach myself and remember I was the director, but at other times, I had to realize I was the guitarist for this band. It was a tough line to walk. I think we all felt it was a good exercise because a lot of the interviews were shot during our final tour, so even then we felt a sense of impending doom and finality to the band. We were like a cult. Even off the road, we only hung out with our bandmates and crew—it became insanely claustrophobic. By the end, we had no oxygen.
If you could reach back to 1998, what would you tell your younger self?
Oh man, I don’t know if he’d listen to me, but I’d probably say, ’Chill out and just relax—everything doesn’t have to be that serious.’ Back then, we had some serious delusions of grandeur. That said, I don’t know if we could’ve created The Shape of Punk to Come if we hadn’t been angry, serious, fed up, and looking to lash out.
We needed to not give a fuck because otherwise we would’ve never put cello, horns, flute, or samples on a hardcore record. We were pretentious as hell [laughs]. However, the success of the album and the empowering idea of flying the finger in front of musical convention helped lead to our internal demise.