By Philip Runco.
“We will always be a pop group first and political agitators second,” Johan Duncanson told Pitchfork late last year.
The Radio Dept. singer was making this distinction because his band’s latest record, Running Out of Love, is its most politically agitating to date. “There’s nothing gracious about our kind” are the first words out of Duncanson’s mouth on opener “Sloboda Narodu”, and it’s all downhill from there. There’s an entire song dedicated to the Swedish arms industrial complex. There’s a dismantling of the country’s “racists goons,” who “if in power, one whisky sour, and everyone I love would be jailed within the hour.” There’s a fantasy to “shoot up the stock exchange.”
It’s dark stuff. These are dark times. Of course, if you’re not listening closely, much of this is likely to sail over your head. Such is often The Radio Dept.’s M.O.: softly spoken resistance dressed up as pop music.
Last week, I reached Duncanson in The Radio Dept.’s Sodermalm rehearsal space on a blisteringly cold Stockholm afternoon. Prior to departing on a North America tour, he discussed Running Out of Love, YouTube deep dives, and the reality of a Trump presidency.
Have the politics you’ve expressed in song ever gotten you in trouble or attracted unwanted attention?
Not yet. [Laughs] I was actually expecting some hate mail and some angry phone calls after this album, but so far nothing has happened.
We’re not a big band, not even in Sweden, so I don’t think we reach a lot of the people that we criticize in our lyrics. A lot of the time, we’re kind of preaching to the choir.
I thought that a song like “Swedish Guns” would provoke a reaction from nationalists and patriots, but we’ve been spared so far. I’m kind of happy about that.
Is the magnitude of Sweden’s arms industry not something that’s widely discussed at home?
I think a lot of people know about it. I don’t think people mind, though, because most people assume that we only sell weapons to very democratic countries for defense, and that they very, very rarely – if at all – get used in combat or real warfare. That’s what people believe, I think, so a lot of people don’t really mind. I’m just guessing here. That’s what I’ve picked up when I’ve talked to people about it.
As someone who’s sensitive to what’s happening politically, and has seen a neo-fascist, anti-immigrant party gain power in Sweden, what’s been your reaction to what’s happening in the United States?
Well, it’s scary, of course. I don’t what else to say. It’s horrible. I honestly didn’t think that it could happen, so I was really surprised.
My impression is that it happened very quickly, as well. We’ve had these problems in Sweden for a couple of years, and we didn’t think it could happen here, either. But it’s happening. And then, suddenly, Donald Trump appeared, and everyone was kind of laughing about it, and then just two years later, he won. I remember waking up that day and putting on the radio, and I couldn’t believe it. I turned off the radio, and I went back to bed, and I slept for four more hours.
It was just… yeah. Maybe I shouldn’t say a lot of these things because I’m scared that we won’t be let into the country to do this tour that we’re gonna do. I don’t know.
How did the sonic palate for this record come together? It’s the most indebted to dance music, but at the same, it’s the Radio Dept.’s darkest material yet. There’s no real burst of sunlight that we’ve come to expect.
A lot of making this record was about being inspired by different types of music, and not wanting to repeat ourselves too much, I guess. All of the lyrics came afterwards, so it was purely a musical step that we decided to take, really – it just happened – but I’m glad that it did. I’m sure that I can still recognize us in there, but I think I hope that you’re right in that it’s a step to the side for us.
We also tried to make a more minimalistic record than we’ve been able to before. We’ve had this argument for a long time about how much to add to the songs. In the beginning, when we started out, I wanted a lot of instruments playing at the same time. But then I kind of got tired of that, while Martin [Carlberg] still likes it that way. We’ve kind of argued about that for more than ten years – how much to add. I was very, very stubborn this time. If we were aiming for something, I wanted to use as few ingredients as possible to get there.
After a dozen years, what’s has changed about how you two approach your music? You’ve talked about deep dives into YouTube as a means of sourcing inspiration, which is obviously something that you couldn’t have done in the earliest days.
I would say that’s the major difference, because everything looks kind of the same when we record. When we started out, we recorded on a four-track cassette thing, and then we found computer programs that kind of worked like a four-track, so we kept doing everything the same way. Although our influences might have changed throughout the years, the process is very much the same.
But when it comes to inspiration, those YouTube playlists that I’m able to make nowadays are something that I couldn’t do in the beginning. It’s very helpful. You don’t even have to remember the titles of songs or names of the bands – as soon as you like something, you can save it. I had playlists for each song. For “Swedish Guns”, I would have 25 tracks in a playlist. Sometimes it was just, like, “I love this snare sound” or “I like this bass sound.” Sometimes it was a vocal effect or whatever. I find it very convenient. It’s a fun way to create.
I’m old to remember how it used to be. I bought a lot of records at the end of the ’90s, and I stopped doing that about ten years ago. It was very expensive to keep in touch. You almost had to choose a genre, stick to that for a while, and then move on. Now, I get to be all over. I still listen to a lot of guitar music, pop music, indie music, but I’m also very much into dub and reggae dance and whatever. It’s cheaper. But that also means that band don’t make any money. [Laughs]. That’s certainly true for us. It’s had its downsides, too.
What does the completion of your Labrador contract mean? Does it free you to release more music – or, at least, more quickly should you chose to?
It certainly allows us to put out singles and EPs in a way that we didn’t feel we could do for many years. Well, we could release singles, but the contract we’d signed with Labrador didn’t count them. The label owned them, but they didn’t bring us any closer to the end of the deal. We could put out a thousand singles and still be in the same spot. We had to give them albums to come out of that record deal.
Now, it’s different. It’s our ideal to put out shorter records, like EPs and singles. So, I guess that’s what we’ll be doing now. Then maybe we’ll collect them on albums every now and then.