In Conversation: Refused x WAAX

WAAX frontwoman Maz DeVita was in a car with a friend when she first heard Refused’s genre-defining (and defying) opus The Shape of Punk to Come.

Released in 1998, the Swedish band’s third album set the blueprint for the next wave of politically aware punk rock innovators for decades to come.

“I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and I immediately knew that it was a game changer,” Maz explains. “I was very drawn to the completely original musicality, lyricism, and vocals. It’s the blueprint of how an album should be.”

Flash forward a few years and Maz and Dennis are having an insightful, cross-generational chat ahead of the release of Refused’s fifth full-length album War Music and a few months after WAAX’s debut LP Big Grief. A throwback to the unrelenting bite and wide sonic scope of The Shape of Punk to Come, the album lays its anti-capitalist vision on the table from opening track, ‘REV001’.

“When there’s blood on the streets, somebody’s getting paid,” Dennis sings. “Somebody’s getting paid when you’re the slave.”

Maz is in her native Brisbane when the call takes place, while Dennis is in Sweden preparing for a world tour, which kicks off in Europe.

Over the next half an hour, they discuss the importance of punk music as a conversation starter, the impact of feminism on the hardcore scene, and how the rise of fascism can be attributed to capitaism’s decay.

Maz: I just wanted to jump straight in and talk about your experience with feminism in the punk world … So what’s your experience, coming from Sweden, with women in the industry?
Dennis: I’ve been doing this for a while. When we started out it was definitely one of those deals where we were still in the era and time where people said, “Oh, there’s a girl band playing on the festival already. We can’t have another girl band playing.” You live through those times where that was something people said, and something people talked about. I remember quite early on when we started playing, the first song Refused wrote about feminism was in 1994. We started to talk about these issues – even though, I have to admit, your ideas are more advanced than your life. [Laughs] Like, you’re a feminist but at the same time you’re a dude being a dude.

In the mid-’90s I discovered the whole Riot grrrl scene with Bikini Kill and those bands. That was a hugely important thing for me. I started thinking about what feminism meant, and what the patriarchal system meant. For the last 10 to 15 years that’s been a huge conversation in my life and with the people I surround myself with. With Refused, every time we go on tour, we try and bring a support band along that has a strong female presence.

Maz: I saw that you went on tour with High Tension here in Australia. I’m a big fan and Karina [Utomo, singer] is a mate of mine. I thought that was really amazing.

Dennis: They were fantastic. I do a lot of research. I do my due diligence … Especially in the punk/hardcore/metal scene dudes look at dudes. Not in a sinister way, or anything, it’s just the way it’s structured. You get all these offers for support bands and it’s a bunch of dudes. Which is fine – you can be a bunch of dudes in a band and be great. But a lot of times people don’t actually sit down and say, “What bands are there? And how do we find bands that are amazing and have a strong female presence?” It’s something we’ve been doing. A lot of our crew – our tour manager is a woman, our lighting manager is a woman – and we try and bring people out just to show people that it’s possible … It’s our responsibility as men to fucking change our phone books and make sure we have women that can do these jobs. That’s something we try and do.

My other band INVSN, we tour with three women in the band and two guys. It’s not gimmicky – that’s just the way it turned out. We were a bunch of friends and then one day we were on stage and I’m like, “Oh wait. Actually, there’s more girls than guys.” That’s cool. It wasn’t an intentional thing. You play with great musicians and great friends, and that’s just how it is. Pretty much every night we try to talk about feminism, and what it means. What the patriarchal system means. A lot of the time we try and talk about what it means for men. I don’t want to be a spokesperson for women in feminism. I want to be a spokesperson for men in feminism.

"I don’t have a solution for that really. If I had a solution I’d be at the Nobel Peace Prize dinner, not doing interviews with punks."

Maz: Absolutely.

Dennis: Women know and women live in the patriarchal system in ways men can’t understand. So when I try to talk on stage and in interviews, I try to talk about my perspective and what the patriarchy does for me as a man. Theres a lot of roles that we’re supposed to be play and structures we’re supposed to buckle in under. I try and talk about that every night, just make the type of difference you can make as a band. I do think that if we look at the bigger picture it’s a structural problem, of course, that might take a lot of problem to even out, especially within this musical scene. Because metal and hardcore is pretty male dominated.

Maz: Definitely. I feel like in Australia, there’s been a bit of a shift, especially in our industry. Still there’s a lot of push back. It feels like some people in the industry think we’re disrupting everything by protesting in certain ways, trying to make sure there’s an even percentage of representation on festival lineups. It’s starting to get better. It’s really cool as well having male bands making that space for that conversation. Have you heard of IDLES from the UK?

Dennis: Of course, yeah.

Maz: They do a great job. A lot of their songs explore masculinity. That it’s OK to address your emotions, that it’s OK to feel isolated. I feel like things are getting better. Do you think there’s been a change over time?
Dennis: It’s still an ongoing thing, but in the last couple years there’s been a huge shift. Sweden has been one of the forerunners in feminist theory basically. There’s a bunch of festivals in Sweden that has a 50 percent split between men and women. But I also think that with some festivals it’s easier because they’re not heavy music festivals. With pop or indie I think it’s easier, but there’s definitely been a shift. That conversation is definitely going on. And, yes, there is push back for a lot of reasons. First of all, if you lived your life in privilege – as we men have our entire lives – some men feel threatened by the fact other people are eating up the space. For me it’s an old idea that we’ve been indoctrinated with the fact that we have to live in a hierarchical, patriarchal system. So that means there’s only room for a couple people on top…

But if we want to look at the world in a different light and say, “More women doesn’t necessarily need to be less men. It should just be more women.” It’s something we’ve been so indoctrinated into saying, “No, there’s only room for a few people on top”, but that’s just the capitalist way of thinking. That it can only be like that. In the future, if there are five huge bands that are only composed of women, that’s not to say there won’t be five huge bands that are only composed of men. That shouldn’t be a problem. I do see things going in the right direction, and spaces opening up. If you look at the patriarchal system and everything that goes on, one of the things men have to deal with is our role in that patriarchal system. And how does that play out for us and women we interact with. That’s definitely a conversation that’s happening to a much larger extent than it was a few years ago.

Maz: I agree. It’s definitely getting better and I’m seeing more women at shows as well. They’re feeling more comfortable to enter the space. You touched on the capitalist mindset and the system. I noticed you addressed that on the new track ‘Blood Red’. Is that the theme for the new record? Is it a sketch book of songs?

Dennis: Every song on the record – there’s 10 songs – and they all deal with capitalism. What it means to the world, what it means to people, personal reflections on it, and also maybe – to a certain extent – what we can do without capitalism as a structure and as a socio-economic cultural idea. We didn’t set out to make a theme record, but it’s almost a themed record on what capitalism does. It’s definitely a call to arms against capitalism. There’s a song on the record called ‘Damaged III’ and it’s what capitalism does to the male identity. It’s a song we felt we had to write.

Maz: Well, it feels like we are at the peak of something about to break. It’s getting really terrifying how messed up society has gotten because of capitalism. There has to be a breaking point, right?

Dennis: It is really rough out there. I’ve been singing songs about politics my entire life. It’s not like it’s better. Some aspects of it is – the feminist aspect is definitely improving, people’s awareness of the environment and maybe people have stopped eating meat. Things are moving in the right direction. There’s a lot of pushback, and capitalism as an entity is immensely strong. We’ve been brainwashed into thinking this is the only viable option. It’s just what we’ve been told our entire lives. But, as you said, you look at the world right now and you look at the climate disaster, and a huge aspect of that is perpetual growth in a capitalist economy. That’s a huge problem. And then you have the rise of the right wing, the alt-right, nazis, fascism – whatever you want to call it. I think it’s an effect of the failure of capitalism.

A lot of the populist agenda has to do with people longing for a past that’s never been: when every small town had a school and factory and you felt safe. Capitalism got rid of that. It’s not a moral or conscious idea. It’s just economic, it’s just numbers. If your factory is not doing well then it’ll move to another country and your small town will be decimated. You will feel scared and alienated. The rise of the right wing is an effect of the failure of capitalism.

Then you have young people today in metropolitan cities. They work two jobs, they live with three friends in a shitty apartment outside of the city – because that’s all they can afford. That’s a failure of capitalism, too … I get it. In the ‘50s and ‘60s and ‘70s, that generation went straight out of school and had a house and a job. Everyone’s like, “This is great.” But it’s not like that anymore. There’s all these things that are happening. There will be a breaking point where people say, “I can’t deal with this anymore.” The sooner, the better I would say. [Laughs]

Maz: What role do you think the government is playing in all this? For example, in Australia our system is so geared for short-term solutions. They’re not looking for anything long term. They’re so concerned about getting votes. Everyone is so short minded and we really need some long-term solutions. The way that our government’s built, it’s really hard because everyone is trying to tow the party line. And anyone that wants to get stuff done is dragged down by the rest of the party. Our government and system at the moment is all over the place.

Dennis: That’s the way it is. We live in a world where politics has become a popularity contest. As you said, it’s all about the votes and, “How can we maintain our power?” And then populism becomes the agenda for everyone. “What can we say that people wanna hear right now? And that’s the political agenda and the short fix. And another thing is we talk about what politicians can do. But at the end of the day, they can do things but we have no economical democracy … We live in a world where there’s no economical democracy, where the 1% dictates pretty much everything and they also dictate the politicians to a certain extent.

Most politicians are in the pockets of big corporations. Even if we wanted to change that way, politics as it stands now doesn’t have as much power as it should because power is in the hands of the economy. That’s also a huge problem. I don’t have a solution for that really. If I had a solution I’d be at the Nobel Peace Prize dinner, not doing interviews with punks. [Laughter] I’m sure there are smarter people out there that can come up with alternative options to capitalism. One of the problems with the left is for the past 20 years it hasn’t come up with an alternative to the right – it’s just been a reaction to the right. That’s a huge problem … How can we come up with an alternative that’s viable to everyone?

"I don’t want to be a spokesperson for women in feminism. I want to be a spokesperson for men in feminism."

Maz: It’s crazy. There’s so many things to tackle, but I think as musicians, our job is to shine a light on the issue and to talk about it, and get the conversation continuing and moving forward. Just to shift the conversation for a second, I just wanted to know if there are any artists that are inspiring you at the moment, or artists that have inspired the new record?

Dennis: I don’t think there’s that many that inspired the new record that much. Because once you’re a certain type of band – we know what we want to do and we kinda know where we’re going. But there’s plenty of great artists out there that inspire me every day. I listen to tonnes of new music and I try to really get into new music and discover new songs and sounds every day. My favourite record of the year is out of the US. This artist called Lingua Ignota put out a record called Caligula. That’s my favourite record of the year – she’s amazing. There’s a lot of good music out there. I saw this band called HYDE the other night. It was super crazy, aggressive, violent. I really love the new Lana Del Rey record [Norman F***ing Rockwell] … Refused is doing a US tour, and we are bringing a band called Youth Code with us.

Maz: Yeah, I’ve listened to them. They’re amazing.

Dennis: We’re bringing them on tour with us in the States. There’s plenty of good music out there. Anytime people are like, “There’s no good music being released anymore”, then they need to look at themselves. They’re just being lazy, I think. [Laughs]

Maz: What’s your opinion on streaming services and algorithmic playlisiting? It’s obviously changed anything in the music industry. Have you felt the effects of it?

Dennis: I think so, yes. It’s hard to tell how everything is connected. In the ‘90s you put out a record and then you went on tour. I remember being on tour and the record label saying, “You’re not allowed to sell the record on tour, because you want to sell it in records stores.” Just imagine saying that today. [Laughs] It’s insane. But I have to say that with streaming services, they’re far from perfect – and a lot of the times they’re crap – but for a while in the gap between physical sales and streaming services you had the whole file-sharing thing. For a second I thought it was a cool idea. It was challenging capitalism. But as it turns out it was kids just wanting shit for free. It was the worst idea of liberalism, actually. I do appreciate streaming services in the fact that you can actually see what’s happening. You can focus on people finding your music, and so on and so forth.

Even if you’re not really getting paid, you’re actually getting paid a pittance of money at least. It’s better, but highly problematic … It’s a strange time to create music. Not only with just streaming services, but as a band you have to be the press person with your own band with social media. We’re old school people. You do a couple interviews, you go on tour. But then someone calls you up and says, “Your social media game is not strong enough.” [Laughs] That’s definitely changed too. You spend a long time as a band building your social media platform – maybe instead of practicing.

Maz: Totally. I can’t imagine operating as a band in a world where you don’t have to post about everything you’re doing.

Dennis: It was nice. [Laughter] You went on tour and we did a couple of interviews. And that was it. But to a certain extent the accessibility is [appealing]. If there’s band I like I can find their Instagram and actually like them and say, “Hey, I found your band. Do you want to support us?” The accessibility makes it easy but it’s also frustrating. I met a guy the other night. He was a young musician. He was talking about how he spent the the last two years building his social media brand as a model, so that he could eventually get his music out to people. Then he started talking about all these apps you can have, where if you like a certain amount of people’s pictures with a certain hashtag then you could direct more people to your Instagram. I’m just like, “What the fuck.”

Maz: I know.

Dennis: There’s a whole world now where people become insanely dependant on social media to even exist as an artist. It’s pretty crazy.

Maz: Thank you so much for chatting with me and taking the time. It’s an absolute joy and you’ve inspired a lot of people in my scene, including myself.

Dennis: Thank you so much. That makes me really happy. We’re planning 2020 right now and I love to tour Australia. We’ll be back sometime in 2020.

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