Death to Fascism: The Radio Dept. Are Finally Ready to Take on the World
After six years of suing their label and absorbing all the “crazy shit” that’s gone on as the far right rises worldwide, the Swedish trio are back with their most political record yet.
Photo by Mia Kerschinsky
On August 23, 2014, in the Swedish city of Malmö, a crowd of around 1,500 people gathered to protest the turning tide of their country's government. The leader of the Svenskarnas Parti—a neo-Nazi political organization whose name literally translates to The Swedes' Party—Stefan Jacobsson was set to give a speech from a square at the center of the city, but as he took the stage, according to reports from Reuters at the time, he was met with near deafening disapproval: "No nazis on our streets."
There were reports of firecrackers and smoke bombs thrown by protesters throughout the event. But as Jacobsson finished addressing the crowd, a few "provocateurs"—as local papers referred to them at the time—among the demonstrators began scuffling with the police. A unit of mounted police rode in on horses in an attempt to control the crowd, but in the process, they trampled a number of protesters, hospitalizing ten people, including five with serious injuries. Another protester was hit by a police van amidst the chaos.
For the long-running Swedish indie-pop band the Radio Dept., this was just the latest harrowing event in the baffling political turmoil that they'd watched beset their home country in the years since their last record, 2010's Clinging to a Scheme. Sitting on the rooftop of VICE's New York office a little over two years later, they identify that day as one of the many infuriating and terrifying moments that shaped their long-awaited fourth LP, Running Out of Love. Singer and multi-instrumentalist Johan Duncanson leans forward in his chair, fidgets with a black Lacoste baseball hat and attempts to grapple with the memory. "The people that came to protest weren't just Antifa people," he explains, his voice raising slightly. "But families and elderly people, you know, everyone."
His songwriting partner Martin Larsson—a taller, bigger man with an impressive mustache and a new pair of New Balances that squeak across the lobby's concrete floor—interjects, expressing his own incredulity at the police response. "These were not closet nazis—" He says ("—real nazis!" Duncanson affirms). "[Protesting them] used to be the common denominator."
In the six years since the Radio Dept.'s last album, times have changed in Sweden—and across the world—as ultra right wing ideology, xenophobia, and outright racism has become increasingly accepted in the political mainstream. Their new album tackles these discomfiting developments headon, with anxious, overwhelmed tracks that detail the ongoing reality of the Swedish arms industry (on "Swedish Guns"), the aforementioned horse trampling (on "We Got Game"), and the sense of outright anger that comes with living in a society that sees fear-mongering as reasonable means of governance. It is no coincidence that the album arrived worldwide just three weeks before the United States' own elections—"one of the scariest I can remember" says Larsson, thanks to the candidacy of Donald Trump, who ineloquently espouses the same divisive and repugnant rhetoric that the Radio Dept. have come to fear in their home country. And now, as Trump prepares to be the next President, Larsson's comments strike a wider chord—one that is difficult to even really fathom.
From their first record, 2003's Lesser Matters, the Radio Dept. have traditionally filled their records with wistful love songs of the shoegaze tradition, the sort of emoting that happens when something or someone is just out of reach. But as the title of Running Out of Love suggests, when Duncanson sat down to write lyrics for this time, he found himself unable to consider themes other than the crushing state of the world. "It was hard to write a love song," he says, pausing for a sip of beer. "It's like... the pen didn't want to do that. But I've been too occupied with this. We're between elections in Sweden, which usually means there's not much talk about politics, but now there is. It's an increasingly scary time." It took them six years, but finally they found themselves working with a sense of urgency, writing politically minded songs because as a way of coping with the chaos of the world. Just two weeks after the protesters were trampled in Malmö, they released what was then their first single in over four years, an electronic instrumental of dazed keyboard chords, sleepwalking drum machines, and a single vocal sample from the Yugoslavian politician Stjepan Filipović. It's title was simply "Death to Fascism."
Shortly after the release of Clinging to a Scheme, Duncanson gave an interview attempting to explain the lengthy gaps between each album—the three years between their debut and 2006's Pet Grief and then the four years between that record and Clinging to a Scheme. He smiles, offers that dozens of unfinished songs didn't make their third album, and that he hoped to finally get into a real rhythm and put another album out the following year.
Six years later, he offers a sheepish grin when I bring that interview up. Larsson, anticipating my question, interrupts: "What happened?"
This time, they explain, was "an exception." Shortly after the band finished their slate of touring for Clinging to a Scheme, they took a look at their publishing contract with their label Labrador—who has released all of their music to date—and realized something seemed a little strange. They'd somehow never noticed it before, but according to the language of the deal, Labrador owned the publishing rights to their songs for their entire lives—and 70 years after their deaths. "We brought it up [to the label]," Larsson says. "Like, 'Wait...this is kind of weird.' After talking to other people in the industry we realized people don't do this. That's all the time you can own the rights to a piece of music."
They realized they'd lacked the foresight to look into the language of the contract. Duncanson was just 22 at the time that they inked the deal. Larsson says they sort of blindly trusted Labrador when they first signed. "They were indie and we were indie," he says. "We were just naive." But older and wiser, they were unsatisfied, and they took the label to court in 2012, sparking a drawn out battle that lasted nearly three years.
Confronted with the reality that Labrador would own the rights to any music they made until after their deaths, the duo wasn't particularly inspired to work on new tracks while the trial was ongoing. At first they plotted ways out, thinking that maybe they could make a joke-y album to fulfill the terms of their contract (maybe Pet Grief 2, they suggested to BrooklynVegan recently). But they ultimately decided against it, figuring that a joke would hurt their reputation too much, given the relative infrequency of their releases. So instead they threw themselves into odd jobs. Larsson mixed and sold paint and Duncanson worked at a school, first as an assistant janitor and then a teacher's assistant. Duncanson worked on some music for side projects, none of which have yet seen release, but the spark to make songs for the Radio Dept. was mostly extinguished for the time.
The duo initially lost their suit against Labrador, but in 2014 they settled as they were gearing up to take it to Sweden's equivalent of the court of appeals. They ended up back on good terms with the labelhead Johan Angergard again ("It's like it never happened," Larsson says of their current relation) and they came out of the process ready to get back to work. Call it the law of conservation of creative energy or something like that, but all those pent up songs had to go somewhere and soon they were flowing out of the duo.
Between the floodgates opening and the political ideas that were starting to consume Duncanson's mind around the same time, all of a sudden they were writing songs faster than ever. They were working with cheap gear—"toy keyboards and stuff like that," Duncanson says—in order to keep the sessions simple and brisk, to get the ideas out of them as quickly as they could, and the record feels that way. Even though the tracks still lumber at the resting heart-rate pace that marked their earliest records, there's a sense of urgency to tracks like "Occupied," which also appeared on a 2015 single of the same name, that they'd never explored before—due in no small part to the pummelling appearance of a 4/4 kick drum underneath the gossamer synth chords.
Running Out of Love, as Duncanson tells it, was initially conceived as a dance record—a forceful collection six long club tracks, as a tribute to his growing fascination with the early days of house and techno. The idea obviously morphed a bit before they got to the final project—Duncanson did end up adding those politically charged lyrics, and the final tracklist includes ten songs—but the spirit gives the record a sort of propulsion that they haven't had since their prickly early singles. The delicately pulsing drums on "Teach Me to Forget" makes what would otherwise be fairly listless ambient pop song a sense of momentum, a little bite—turning the wistful lines that give the song its title into a taunt: "Teach me to forget/Cause baby you're so good at it."
The musical concept, Duncanson says, predates the political anxiety, but Running Out of Love positions itself as part of a long tradition of dance music concerned with resistance. Like the Underground Resistances and Techno Militias that populate the history of Detroit, the Radio Dept. are presenting a version of dance music that provides a means of political activism rather than pure hedonism. "Dance music now is so white and privileged especially in Sweden," Larsson says.
"We wanted to make dance songs that weren't at all like Swedish House Mafia or Avicii or EDM shit," Duncanson affirms. "That was important."
The resultant tracks aren't like those stadium-fillers, but they also don't share much in common with the music that Duncanson says inspired the album either (Stuff like Kevin Saunderson's pop group Inner City, the Detroit techno duo Instinct, and others he can't remember because "I'm really bad with names and I also smoke some weed"). It's a bit more dazed, hazy, and insular, a collection of inward-focused tracks for when you're too afraid to leave your house.
That is largely the state of mind that Duncanson projects on these songs. Though some of the techno greats have preached the idea of taking the power back (not to mention a whole legacy of punk music that suggests, er, extreme reactions to demagoguery), Duncanson can only express sentiments that fall in line with his work to date. Instead of angry, he's sad, anxious, or apathetic, generally trying to stay afloat in confusing times.
Toward the end of our conversation on the roof—after talking about all the world's ills, the tenuous state of the global politics, and Nazi rallies in their home country—I decide to ask straightforwardly the implicit question we've been talking about, and the one that governs the harried nature of Running Out of Love.
Does the state of the world scare you?
They answer, in unison, a resounding yes. Duncanson falls quiet and Larsson continues. "I can't remember a time when I've been this scared for the future," He says. "Now [that] enough is enough, what will happen?"
Colin Joyce is the managing editor of THUMP. Follow him on Twitter.