Steen recently got turned onto Gibson ES-335s and has really enjoyed playing them live because, "It howls, screeches, barks, and gives me everything the Les Paul can and more sometimes. It has a full, thick, rich tone that is just a different flavor than the Customs. " Steen is seen here with his 2000s ES-335 during a sold-out show in Chicago's Double Door on May 31, 2015. Photo by Chris Kies
When did the music start to happen again?
After we got those intriguing offers from festivals and tour promoters, David and I decided to start jamming. Not in a Refused or reunion context, but just to play guitar and drums together because we wrote a lot of the band’s material and we have a musical bond. I ventured up to his place and we started out playing really, fast, aggressive, thrashy Slayer-type songs. We had an absolute blast.
After a few jams, I asked him if he wanted to try something a little different, and he was really excited to hear it. What we fleshed out that day turned into “Elektra,” our first single. We probably came up with that four or five years ago.
The whole process was really organic. Had it felt forced, I don’t think I’d be sitting here talking to you about Refused or Freedom. I remember having a conversation with David while on our North American reunion tour in 2012. We acknowledged that all the time we’d spent playing together back in Sweden, when we thought we were jamming heavy, thrash songs for a new project, we were really writing Refused material. After that conversation in Toronto we actually went and wrote, “Thought is Blood,” for the new record, too.
Since David was in touch with everyone, did he let them know you guys were rocking out again?
Well, I had told our original bassist, Magnus Flagge, that David and I were working on something different together. Later that day Magnus texted me and said he’d just bought a new bass and wanted to jam with us. I remember thinking that I never really asked him to be in the band [laughs], but we got together and it was just three old Refused members hanging out and playing like old times.
A few years later Coachella came knocking again and the three of us had been jamming and rebuilding our chops, so it felt much more doable and not so desperate. Plus, we really felt this second-generation chemistry, so we just wanted to get out there and perform. We got Dennis [Lyxzén, singer] back into the mix, and we just figured, why not? So once we played a few festivals, it was obvious to us all that we should write a new record because we had so much fun performing the old stuff, but we truly enjoyed being around each other again. That re-bonding environment was really beneficial in creating Freedom and catalyzing the comeback. The money’s nice, but it’s not worth it if you hate what you’re doing or whom you’re doing it with.
Before the most recent reunion you were pretty loyal to Gibson Les Paul Customs, but when I saw you this May in Chicago you were playing an ES-335. Why the change?
No joke, I’m playing the Customs again.
Well, what did you like about the 335?
I really enjoyed its sound—especially live. I recorded mainly with the Customs and other solidbody guitars, but when I feel like fighting, I’ll bust out the 335 onstage because that’s where it comes alive. It howls, screeches, barks, and gives me everything the Les Paul can and more sometimes. It has a full, thick, rich tone that is just a different flavor than the Customs.
A lot of our music has really fast, dynamic tempo shifts and tight breaks, so the Les Paul is great for recording because you can get really quiet, really fast, whereas tracking with a 335 in our style of music causes things to sound sloppy or me to miss my cues because of its feedback. But when I play the 335 live, I really feel the extra noise and howling adds to the chaotic frenzy we produce onstage during a performance.
So did you track mainly with the Customs?
I used so many guitars, but I’d say the bulk of Freedom was done with my No. 1 Les Paul Custom from the ’90s.
I’m hearing some funky single-coils on “Servants of Death.” What did you use for that song?
For the clean, chk-chk riffing, it’s a Stratocaster, and for the distorted rhythm parts I actually used the 335.
What were you going after in that main clean riff?
Honestly, I just wanted to make Nile Rodgers proud [laughs]. He’s a one-man orchestra with that Hitmaker Strat. He’s the best. What I envisioned the guitar to sound like for “Servants” was a heavier, funk-guitar part you might find on Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall. Trust me, when I started playing around with that riff, I was very concerned not to come off as some white European who’s horribly trying to play funk guitar. You balance on the razor’s edge when you make any sort of funk music with a bunch of white Swedes [laughs]…
you just don’t want to look like assholes.
You guys like being out of your comfort zone.
Well, not all of us, and not all of the time. There’s usually one or two of us that is apprehensive about a lyric, or a breakdown, or instrumentation, but we usually talk it out and convince the unsure parties that everything will turn out and we’ll still sound like Refused.
What was an example of this during Freedom?
I remember with “Old Friends/New War” we had a lot of initial eyebrows raised. I had the idea of the completed, tracked song in my head, but when you’re at the rehearsal space it’s just guitars, bass, drums, and vocals, so it was hard for me to express everything I heard and saw being put into the final song. I knew all along that the drums would sound different, that we’d start with a modulated-voice intro, we’d have some extreme synth parts, and Dennis would have really dramatic vocal breakdowns. Everyone was kind of tepid about the song because it felt like a generic rock song and that’s definitely not us, but I convinced them that this will work out and to please trust me.
I think that’s what makes it one of my favorite Refused songs, period. How it turned out is almost identical to what I envisioned from the start. It was honestly a bit surprising how everything fell into place and it sounds like my idea. That usually never happens just because other people add better ideas, or halfway through you realize you can’t use that drum sound because it’s too harsh or distracting.