A Personal Connection To A Political Band: Why Refused’s Reunion Matters
Posted on June 8, 2015
June 8, 2015 | by Bryne Yancey
I was 13 years old in 1998, and like most people that age, then and now and forever, had no earthly idea who I was, what I wanted to be, what to think, how to look, how to talk to other people, the list goes on and on.
(I would come to find out as I entered my 20s, and then 30s, that for the most part, adults don’t know any of this stuff either, they’re just experts at pretending that they’ve got it figured out.) I had long, stringy hair, parted down the middle, that if it wasn’t my natural jet black, was home-bleached, poorly, into an unattractive, rusty shade of orange. I rode my BMX bike to the mall every weekend to shoplift JNCO jeans and Zippo lighters. I smoked very low-quality pot out of Coke cans and homemade pipes made from clay, which was also stolen. I didn’t care about school, but I had to go otherwise the school would call my house and my parents would know I wasn’t going, so I went, didn’t pay much attention, stalled until lunch, and drew band names and logos on my backpack and folders. I wasn’t disruptive, I didn’t get in fights or trouble. I was just a bored teenager amongst a sea of bored teenagers. I technically failed eighth grade; my middle school, for some reason, decided not to hold me back. I was “administratively placed” in ninth grade. I was, in about every way imaginable, an irredeemable shithead.
Confusion, boredom, a serious identity crisis, they’re all things experienced by people that age. I was hungry for something, I didn’t know what yet, but I knew I would know it when I saw it or heard it. Refused and The Shape of Punk to Come came into my life at an opportune time. Their music was, and is, approachably aggressive, even occasionally catchy, but at that time it was easily the weirdest thing I’d ever heard. Their politics were largely broad and without much nuance, but that was and is the point: Even though I was a Grade F middle school fuckup, lyrics like “I’ve got a bone to pick with capitalism, and a few to break!” don’t require much cognitive thought to understand. They’re punk lyrics. Refused themselves, it turns out, share a character trait with politicians, that necessity for broad messaging to try and reach as many people as possible. But compared to everything else I was listening to at that point in my life, Refused had something different to say, and a different way of presenting it. It felt exciting and new and important.
Pretty much every moment of significant change in my life can be attributed to music somehow. Perhaps you feel similarly. When I heard Refused for the first time, it helped me realize more clearly something I’d been foggily thinking for a while: That all this structure, these rules, this hegemony, it not only wasn’t necessary, it was counterproductive to much of what would come to be very important to me. That boredom, security and complacency was currency given from those in charge to those below them to keep them quiet. That if you want to do anything important in this life, ultimately, you have to do it your own damn self and scream it from the fucking rooftops. That if you witness injustice it should be pointed out, ridiculed, and rectified. That sitting idly by while others suffer is akin as making yourself a willing accessory in a fragmented society that viciously and cyclically rewards the few and disenfranchises the many. That most people are inherently good, just beaten down and held back by a society that doesn’t give a shit about their wellbeing.
Everyone knows the story by now. A few months after the release of The Shape of Punk to Come, Refused broke up after a basement show in Charlottesville, VA. (Tony Weinbender, who would go on to create The Fest in Gainesville, FL, helped book that show.) Like a lot of bands who break up at the height of their creative powers, their legend grew as the years went on. Refused were never popular while they were initially together, but eventually they inadvertently wielded a lot of influence not just in punk circles, but in hardcore, metal, even mainstream rock. They were a band almost everyone could agree on. Everyone also agreed that pigs would fly before they ever reunited. But here we are.
Refused’s reunion in 2012 was by most accounts, a rousing success, both for the band and its hungry fans. The original plan was for about 10 shows, but they ended up playing 92. In 2012, I was mostly unemployed, moving from Cleveland after what I thought would be my dream job ended up being decidedly not that, to Philadelphia, with just enough money to sublet a West Philly bedroom for a month and little else to my name. I was excited about the reunion but knew I would be busy trying to restart my life for the second time in less than a year. I wouldn’t see it. Fast forward three years, and while I’m still in Philly, my life is in a similar place: Mostly unemployed, not quite as directionless but still searching for something. Refused, after signaling that the reunion was a one-off, are unexpectedly very much alive, not just with more shows but with a new album, Freedom. The initial tour announced included a pair of New York club shows and no dates in Philly.
I had to go, right? I couldn’t really afford it—a responsible adult would’ve sat at home—but ultimately, that shit doesn’t matter, does it? I told myself this year I would try to spend more of what little money I had on experiences, not things, and this, Refused in New York, in a 600 cap room when they could (and have) easily sold out a room five times the size, was an experience I know I’d regret passing up forever. So I pulled the trigger on a pair of tickets, bought bus tickets to New York, and waited with anticipation.
I’ve been to New York City a bunch. It’s almost everything everyone says it is, loud and excessive and crowded and usually fun, but I don’t know that I could ever live there. Something about paying an exorbitant amount of rent to live in a shoebox with five strangers just outside all of that loudness doesn’t sit right with me. Everything happens there so much. Whatever romanticism people have about that way of living is lost on me. Every time I visit, I end up drinking too much expensive beer to calm my anxiety, I get lost on the subway, I lose my keys, something bad always happens is the point. Only events, and a handful of its people, draw me there. Everything else cool that’s in New York, despite what many would have you believe, exists somewhere else, and it’s usually cheaper and there’s a shorter line.
Lest this turn into a Why I’m Never Moving To New York counterpoint essay to every Why I’m Leaving New York essay, the date for the show came, and we went. Wandering around Brooklyn in the hours before the show, and drinking $8 five-ounce pours of beer, I was checking twitter and BrooklynVegan tweeted about Refused playing a second show that night at Saint Vitus, a 200 cap metal bar. 12:30 a.m. doors, $15 tickets. Finally, that social media addiction was paying dividends. We surely couldn’t afford this too, but we had to do it, right?
The Music Hall of Williamsburg is a fine venue, laid out nicely and with a top-notch sound system. Refused’s set there felt like the perfect Molotov cocktail of adolescent, angst-fueled nostalgia and a grown-up rebirth. Songs like “Liberation Frequency,” “Refused Are Fuckin Dead” and “Refused Party Program” resonated with a newfound pomp and energy. The band, calculated as they were, seemed to be having fun, substituting Slayer’s “Raining Blood” breakdown in place of the quiet interlude in “The Deadly Rhythm.” Dennis Lxyzen was quite the showman, dancing entertainingly and provocatively around the stage, routinely using his mic and its stand as a willing partner. New songs like Freedom’s title track and even the weird, chanty, vaguely funky “Françafrique” sounded just as huge as the band’s classics. Lxyzen and the rest of the group seemed genuinely humbled about their newfound success.
That was half the fun, though. After arriving at Saint Vitus, Refused decided to essentially throw out the set list, the rulebook and have a glorified open practice onstage. A few originals crept into that set, like “The Shape of Punk to Come,” “New Noise” and new song “366,” but for the most part it was raucous covers: A pretty heavy, faithful rendition of Black Sabbath’s “Fairies Wear Boots”; a passionate take on Fugazi’s “Bed For The Scraping”; a driving, ridiculously fun version of Judas Priest’s “Freewheel Burning.” And the moment the band dove into Black Flag’s “My War,” it felt like the floor was going to collapse. Raw, sweaty, exuberant, impromptu, as great as the regular Refused set was earlier in the evening (it was really, really great), that experience, screaming “Myyyyyyy war! You’re one of them! You say that you’re my friend, but you’re one of them!” at the top of my lungs, getting knocked around, covered in other people’s beer and sweat in addition to my own, well, that was the real New York experience I was looking for, there.
There are plenty of loud critics of Refused’s reunion, of their new album Freedom featuring collaborations with the same guy, Shellback, who’s written songs with Taylor Swift and Britney Spears (I hear you, by the way, I just don’t care). But seeing it firsthand, I’m probably more excited about Refused in 2015 than I ever was about Refused in 1998, as crazy as that sounds. The punk world is a lot different now, full of jadedness and cynicism and a race to the bottom to see who can be the first and the snarkiest on social media. But they still hold a pretty important place in it, personally and politically. They even seem above it in a way. It’s great to have them back.