“I simply think you get the best pop lyrics when people write and sing about things that really matter to them.”
Interview by Ekin Sanaç
The Radio Dept.’s new album Running Out Of Love focuses on faltering of love for the world and existence. Opening with the line “There’s nothing gracious about our kind…”, the band’s first full length in six years is a follow up to the instrumental single “Death to Fascism”. The single was a call by Johan Duncanson and Martin Carlberg, united in different languages right before the Swedish elections in 2014. The following year came “This Repeated Sodomy” and then “Occupied”, which relayed the band’s manifesto in a dark dance-floor hit.
The crimes against humanity of recent times leaves Sweden and the world with little to boast about. Running Out Of Love as a collection of songs define these dark days, as society begins to boil over with increasing racism and the loss of love.
Came out on October 21 and marking the band’s last release through Labrador Records, we joined hearts with The Radio Dept.’s new album and caught up with Johan Duncanson.
Frustration over the current state of things – in Sweden and the world – is what defines “Running Out Of Love”. In what way is this frustration a motivation to write?
I think frustration of some kind is a must for me to be able to write lyrics. It doesn’t have to be political frustration but I need to react against something, however big or small that thing is. So I can almost welcome the it sometimes. But of course, the kind of frustration that inspired this record is the kind I’d rather be without, because that would mean the world would be a better place. Or that I’d be too unaware to care, is probably more likely.
Still, I don’t think bands have an obligation to write about politics or society in any way. We would get a very boring pop scene if bands and artists started writing songs with political content because of some imagined responsibility to do so. But it’s also very boring with bands, and people in general for that matter, that are super scared of ever saying something serious. I simply think you get the best pop lyrics when people write and sing about things that really matter to them.
We are curious about the story of the warrior on the cover of the new album… One can see frustration, loss and emancipation at the same time in her expression.
I looove that picture! It’s by Geli Korzhev, a Russian painter who passed away a couple of years ago. He painted this one in the mid 70s and it’s called “Before a Long Journey”. I found the image very late one night when I couldn’t sleep. I had searched for “socialist art” on the internet, just scrolling past endless rows of boring paintings portraying Lenin and Marx et al when suddenly very different images started to appear. Realistic pictures, portraying common things, but full of emotion and poetry. And this was my favorite. I became so obsessed with it that i didn’t feel like putting out the album if we couldn’t use it. Before even knowing the title of the painting you can tell from her gaze that she’s leaving, probably never to come back. Just one last long look in the mirror and then away. It’s truly heartbreaking, I so want good things to happen to her. I should ask someone good to paint a sequel, where she’s surrounded by friends cheering and drinking champagne. It would be extremely tacky but I think i need some closure. Some hope. I’ll be thinking about her and wonder what happened to her for the rest of my life.
You would be nervous about being jailed (or fear for your life) if you were a pop band in Turkey writing a song about “Turkish Guns”. Do you get hate messages or things like that in Sweden?
Not personally. Not yet, I should probably add, because hate messages, death threats and hate crimes are much more common in Sweden nowadays with the rise of racism and fascism that we’ve seen during the last six, seven years. Politicians, journalists, writers, bands and artists are the usual targets. Some have had to move and hide, others need police protection. Most of the victims get no help at all. The day of the release of Swedish Guns my phone rang in the afternoon and I didn’t recognize the number. “Ok, here we go” I thought and took a deep breath before answering. Wrong number. Phew. I was really expecting a harsh reaction from the nationalistic right wing but it’s been quiet. And those idiots whine about everything that they see as “anti-Swedish” so my theory is that our song hasn’t reached them. We’re still not a very big band, even in Sweden so in a way we’re still just preaching to the choir. The choir of left wing indies.
But! The Swedish weapons aren’t being sold by the Sweden Democrats (the racist, fascist nationalist party), these decisions are made by the social democrats and before them the liberal right wing. It’s horrible. But at least those people and their voters don’t make death threats. They leave that to the moronic nationalistic thugs.
The first time I interviewed you back in 2007, it was great to know that The Radio Dept. was a band who never wanted to run around in circles. You like to change, be different, put something forward and surprising with each new album. What allows you to manage to create a sound of your own and a solid style but keep on using different techniques?
When it comes to changing I think it’s partly about us just having fun with music, like we did when we first started out and didn’t know anything. We want to experience that over and over so we deliberately put ourselves in musical contexts where we don’t really belong and don’t really know the language. And then in the end it kind of sounds like us anyway, because we are who we are.
For me wanting to try different musical ideas is also about seeing what you can be. To reinvent yourself slightly to get to feel new. Like you do in a way after a haircut or when you have a new sweater that you wouldn’t have worn two years ago. You’re still you but you’re a new you. And suddenly death feels so very far away.
Running Out Of Love and Occupied EP before that have the perfect dance album feel, taking from classy club music and the best of House’s classic era. Is club music something you’ve been into recently? Is there any stuff that you recently find influential and feel surprised that you do?
When we started making Running out of Love in the summer of 2014 the idea at first was to make a dance album with six long tracks, like a modern answer to “Introspective” by Pet Shop Boys. We’d get club music producers to help us finish them and it would be our quick way out of the record deal with Labrador. Much easier than having to write ten or more shorter songs. We didn’t manage to stick to that concept though, too many other influences needed room, but there are still lots of traces of that idea on the album. I had been listening to a lot of old house and techno stuff but also contemporary bands like Factory Floor for example. Martin and I went to see them live a few years ago and it was great, that show made a big impression on me.
The legal battle with the record company must have been dark times, maybe sucking the motivation to create music. How do you feel about finally releasing your last record with the label? How does the future look?
It’s a great feeling to be free! And to know all of our previous releases will be ours again in a couple of years is also fantastic, especially considering that before the settlement with the label, we were owned for life. Plus 70 years after. I look forward to releasing our next album after this one, we’re going to start our own label called Just So!, with the exclamation point, like the Wham! logo, and put out our music that way. Maybe even other bands eventually.
You released your first EP as The Radio Dept. in 2002, and you have been recording with Martin Carlberg for over 15 years. Looking back at the history of the band, you seem to know what you are doing and what you want since day one. Is that so? Or has there been any breaking points in terms of what you want and feel for this band?
Oh, there have been quite a few! Like during our legal struggles with the label, it just wasn’t fun anymore, not worth it. We were very close to calling it quits on many occasions. And we can fight a lot with each other, me and Martin. But somehow we manage to stick together. Maybe it’s a good thing that we live in different cities because we get some time apart in between recording sessions and tours.
When we make new music we sometimes know exactly what we’re going for but most of the time we’re not sure at all, just feeling our way. “Can we do this?” and “Dare we do this?” are common questions. It’s more fun than being safe to me, although I also really appreciate just picking up a guitar and playing it like I did as a kid.
Are you planning heavy touring with the release of the album?
I guess there will be some touring, yes. But I get really tired just thinking about it. Especially the word heavy makes me want to crawl back into bed. Don’t get me wrong, it’s usually a lot of fun when we’re away but I’m really a recluse who prefers to stay home and write songs to spending weeks and weeks on the road. I’ll try to keep it to a minimum but I’m not alone in this.
Someone once told me that “peace” is to be there for something even when you don’t fully understand it. Do you have a definition for peace?
To never have to be scared. Or no: To never have to look over your shoulder. Diseases and other dangers beyond our control will always scare us but it’s horrible how many of our greatest fears concern what other people might do to hurt us, even in “peace times”. It shouldn’t have to be that way and it’s such a tragedy, what we keep doing to each other.
Where do you look for, and where do you find hope in these days of “hate, apathy, withdrawal and frustration”?
I find it in music and arts, in friends and in seeing that a lot of people still are working reluctantly against the growing hatred and for what’s good: solidarity and equality, feminism and anti-racism. I might be naive but I have to believe that we can turn this around.