International Noise Conspiracy Interview
O n May 20 major label recording artists and radical leftists, the International Noise Conspiracy, began their very first headlining tour across Canada. The band is from Sweden and their first stop was in Vancouver at the Plaza Club. They formed in 1998 and their music has been described as “punk rock played like 1970s hard rock or the other way around, with lyrics straight from the heart and straight to the point.” I caught up with singer Dennis Lyxzen to discuss the bands inception, rock and roll, punk rock, politics, art, the affect of capitalism on music, and challenges faced in advancing social change.
CHRIS SPANNOS: The band’s first tour and record deal was in China, one year after your inception in Sweden. How did this happen?
DENNIS LYXZEN: Our first couple of shows were actually in Sweden. A friend was there and his friend was this kid that lived in China. We started talking and he said, “I have this record label. You guys were great. Do you want to put out a record?” We were like, “Yeah, if you bring us over to China to tour.” We both kind of laughed at the prospect. Then a couple months later we were in China and we had a record out on his label and we were touring.
We went there in 1999 so rock music was still fairly new to China. So it was cool to go there because when you tour the rest of the world, there’s always a preconceived notion and idea about how rock bands are supposed to be and how crowds are supposed to react. Coming to China they didn’t really know how to respond. They didn’t know what to think of our band. It was a very refreshing experience.
Your music seems to be mostly rock n’ roll in the tradition of 1960s and 1970s, which back then had a libratory affect. What role do you think rock n’ roll plays now?
Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s as potent as it used to be. One of the problems is that rock music, and music in general, always coincided with big social movements and social changes. Today there’s no real big social movement happening.
It’s one of those deals where when you play in a band, like us, you want to have a purpose to what you’re doing. You want to be a part of something that gives you this purpose. For a while there was the globalization movement, or antiglobalization movement if you will, and we played a bunch of shows and did a bunch of demos. But after 9/11, all that kind of died down. A lot of times we feel kind of alone in what we do. So, unfortunately, I don’t think it has the role it used to have in the 1960s and 1970s or even the early 1980s in England or with the early hiphop scene and stuff like that, which is kind of a shame.
A lot of the album titles, songs, and videos contain phrases and slogans from the Situationists, who were agitators in the May 1968 Paris uprising. What role have they had in influencing your music?
We all come from a radical leftist background. The Situationist movement, when I started to read about it, was a very rock n’ roll kind of movement and it’s very well suited for sloganry. They were experts in that. But it’s also a very interesting movement because it’s right at the breaking point of modernism and postmodernism; where you have modernism with the black and white schematics of the world, the big solution to the big problem. Then you have postmodernism which is very, “There’s no answer, there’s no solution, there’s no wrong or right.” I think the Situationists were interesting because they acknowledged the fact that it’s not as easy as having the big solution to the big problem, but they also still had hope in wanting to change the world.
Also when they first got together, they were not academics or politicians, but artists, poets, painters, and writers. Then they kicked all the artist elements out of the group. But as far as their initial take on politics, it was a very unpolitical take on politics, which is very inspiring. That’s how we got into politics. None of us got into politics because of politics. We got into politics because of punk rock music.
I grew up in a small working class community in the north of Sweden where people lived their politics because it was a working class town, but it wasn’t something people spoke about. I didn’t really even know anything about politics until I was a teenager and I got into punk rock music. I always felt like an outsider and kind of alienated.
When I started listening to punk music, I was like, “Wait, first of all these people are telling me it’s okay to be an outsider, you can find strength in being an outsider,” and then they tried to explain why you felt like an outsider and what you can do about it. When I first bought a Dead Kennedys record and the minute I put it on, I just had this feeling that nothing’s ever going to be the same again for me. I instantly knew that, this is everything, in the 15 years of my life, this is everything that I’d been waiting for. It was kind of intense and that’s how I got into politics.
Also, it’s one of those deals where I liked the freedom of being an artist that talks about politics. Because every time you become an academic or a journalist or a politician you have to cover your flanks. You have to really think before you speak. I like the whole concept of just speaking your mind and exaggerating or saying things that are not necessarily… it doesn’t always have to add up, know what I mean. Everything I say, I don’t have to mean it the way I’m saying it, which is a beautiful thing about expression. I love that I’m not interested in politics in the “political” sense.
Many of your songs have references to Emma Goldman, Buenaventura Durruti, and Angela Davis. How do you communicate their ideas into your music and into action for social change?
I think the most important thing for me has always been that everything we do is set up to inspire other people. Our goal and our mission is for people to feel the same way we felt the first time we heard the Clash or the Dead Kennedys or whatever punk band inspired us. That’s our goal, to inspire people that way. But I think it’s also up to the people being inspired to actually do something creative with their life. For me, the political thing I did was that I started a band. That’s how I transformed these political ideas into action. Like being on stage or doing interviews or doing benefit shows or writing lyrics about this. But then it’s up to other people to find a place, a space, or setting where they feel they’ve got something to give.
I think the problem with leftist politics is that a lot of times it tends to be this cliché about how you’re supposed to be, how you’re supposed to look, how you’re supposed to act, and, well, “If you want to be an activist that’s how you do it.” One thing I’ve learned hanging out in leftist circles in the last 1617 years is that there’s so many different ways of trying to achieve a revolution or trying to achieve a change. I think it’s kind of naive to believe that there’s only one way or that there’s a certain way to do it. If you find a way or a place where you feel comfortable, then you can actually do it better. It’s one of those things where if you’re not inspired, how can you inspire other people? A lot of times I see people and they come into the leftist movement and they’re really gung ho, they’re really radical and they’re like, “We’re gonna change the world,” and after passing out flyers for two years they’re like, “Fuck this, I’m not going to do this anymore.”
Yes, having fun is part of making it sustainable for the long run, to achieve successful social change.
I think that if people see that you’re having a good time and seeing it’s not a chore, you know, people are like, “Oh, wow, it seems cool to be in politics.” Because people’s concept or perception of politics is usually middleaged men in crappy suits talking about budget proposals and you and I know that politics is so much more, so much more every day life activities. If you show people that these activities can be empowering, they can be fun and they can be useful.
It’s one of the things I had in mind around the question of rock n’ roll as a medium. Because in many ways, especially for youth organizing for anticapitalism or against occupation and war, the culture of it can be boring and stifling, and you’re not allowed to have fun. Rock and roll subverts that.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s also what we try to do. We try to play benefits or events that show people that you can actually get together, you can have speeches, you can have demonstrations, you can have a good time with it. But I also think that there’s a certain idea about how a leftist movement’s supposed to be super idealistic. Like if you’re a radical leftist you kind of have to be like a monk almost, you know no material possessions whatsoever and you’re not supposed to have a good time. Selfsacrifice is kind of a big part of the leftist movement. It becomes very religious and I’m not very interested in that. I like to have a good time, but, when it comes down to it, you gotta do what you gotta do, but you also have to be able to live your life so that when it comes down to “you gotta do what you gotta do,” you have the strength and energy to do it.
I’ve read that you don’t think there’s any real difference between producing music for a major record label or working in a factory or grocery store. Can you elaborate on what you think the similarities and differences may be?
There are, of course, a lot of differences because as a cultural worker you have little bit more leeway, you have a bit more freedom. But at the end of the day it comes down to working for a big corporation that’s making money off your work. That’s the capitalist set up. And I think it’s pretty similar. It doesn’t matter if you’re a musician or a movie star or you work in a factory, it’s kind of the same set up, someone is making money off of your work. You know, the boss is always going to be the boss.
There’s the other angle too of how different kinds of work actually affect people’s personalities and characters.
Of course, to play in a band and have very creative work is a privilege. I have to acknowledge that. It’s pretty good work. But I was talking about the capitalist set up of the way things are. Yes, you work in a factory, there’s always someone making money off of your work. But then again, I acknowledge the fact that this is probably more fulfilling; even though at times it doesn’t feel like that, but that’s just me being spoiled I guess.
Do you have any thoughts on what the implications of those insights might be, the balance between creative work and regular factory work and more rote jobs, I mean it provides insight into the division of labor of all work.
Yes, I do think about those divisions and I do think about what it means. I think that, at least at one time or another, we have to attack the fucking weird notion that people who are creative are people that write books or play music and are some kind of super people, and there’s only a few of us that can be that creative. But it’s also because we live in a set up where you’re not allowed to do things if you don’t make money off of it. So it doesn’t really matter how creative you are. If you can’t find a way for your creativity to be profitable, people are not going to take your creativity seriously. Which is a huge problem and I think that people are just kind of creative by default. But we live in a system that set it up so that there are only a few people who trickle through and actually make a living off of their creativity; which is like telling the rest of the people that they can’t become as great as these people. It’s the whole idol, genius myth.
It’s one of the things we think about a lot because regardless of how political we are and how much of a “Fuck You!” punk attitude we have, if we’re not selling any records we’re not going on tour. In the back of your head you know that if you write songs that are too weird no one will like your songs and you won’t be able to put out records and that’s something that stifles creativity.
Just imagine living in a world where music or creative work is not defined by money… Music would be amazing. Creative work would be amazing. But right now we live in a world where the record labels dictate how things are supposed to sound and how long songs are supposed to be and how bands are supposed to look and it’s kind of disheartening.
Looking at the production of music, is the band a collective? How does the musical process unfold?
We’re very much a collective. We’re one of the few bands I know that, if we’re not all four of us actually practicing together, we can’t really make music. Usually it’s like someone has an idea or two and we pitch it and then we’ll do what the bands in the 1970s did—we just jam. After an hour we usually have a good base for a song. But that’s always how we’ve done it. We always get together, all of us, to work out these things together. We don’t have a songwriter. Sometimes we wish we had someone who actually wrote songs and it would be like “this is what we’re supposed to play,” because with this jamming, if you have a good day it’s great. But if you have a bad day, you feel like you’re the crappiest band in the world.
The band is obviously inspired by social movements. One of the things I get from your music is energy and inspiration. I like to have a good time, I like to listen to good music and, you know, groove or whatever. What are your thoughts on that relationship of mutual inspiration between social movements and artists?
Well, it’s like we talked a little about earlier, that you want to find a place and a setting where your music makes sense, not just on a scale of people being a bit inspired, but where there’s a purpose. For example, 2001 was a great year. We played at a bunch of protests, and we were at a bunch of protests for the antiglobalization movement. And that made us have a proper purpose for a lot of the things that we’re saying and doing. We were immensely inspired by being at these protests and demonstrations and talking to people involved in the movement. What we’ve always said, you know, playing music now is not like we’re going to be at the forefront of the revolution or anything. We’re not gonna be the vanguard elite. But when the revolution comes to town, we’ll definitely put up a stage and play when the revolution rolls in. We want to be the inspiration to these people who are actually doing this grassroots organization work and protesting. And as much as we’re part of that movement, we also want to be a soundtrack for those people to be inspired.
It’s one of those fundamental questions that we fight over, a lot. Coming from a punk rock background, sometimes it’s hard to reconcile the fact that we’re not a DIY underground punk band anymore. It kind of wears you down sometimes thinking about that. But at the same time, a lot of people wouldn’t be able to find these underground records where they live. I think it’s important for a message like the one we have to be everywhere. I think it’s important to be in the DIY punk rock underground scene. But I also think it’s important to be on MTV or somewhere where people would see it. If you’re interested in keeping punk rock underground then I’m sure we sold out about a million times. But I’ve never really been interested in that.
No matter how corny, looking back at someone like Rage Against the Machine you think, “Uh, that was kind of rap rock, what were you guys thinking?” But I know 20 kids who got into politics and learned about Leonard Peltier or Mumia Abu Jamal because of Rage Against the Machine. That’s something to be considered. I think the problem with being a bigger band talking about politics is that a lot of people look at you and they’re like, “You’re on MTV, you have a successful single” or whatever, and you talk about politics. People look at you and they’re like, “Well, I guess they’re going to set things straight.” You know what I mean? A lot of people looked at Rage Against the Machine and thought, “They’re kind of a failure because they didn’t really change the world.”
But I think that’s not really the point of it. The point of it is to be out there and to talk about ideas and hopefully they trickle down to people, you know, make room for something more radical to come about. I’d love to turn on MTV and see a bunch of radical socialists—I’d be pretty excited about that. But usually it’s the watered down version of everything. I love punk rock music and I turn on MTV and there are all these punk bands that have nothing to do with the music that I grew up with. So, we just try to be there and if someone gives us a microphone, we’ll say something that we think is important.
I belong to the Vancouver Participatory Economics Collective and we write essays, do interviews, actions, whatever. We try to create the conditions where after an event people are more empowered than they were before an event. Your band produces music, videos, and concerts—how does this play out for you and your music in the cultural realm?
We always bring the AK Press books with us on tour, we always try to talk to people and hang out and if they’re interested in what we’re saying then just talk to them. Our ambition is that when people leave the show, they’ll have this clenched fist thinking, “Fuck yeah, yeah, we can actually do something.” But then also the more concrete things are that we play a lot of benefits, we try to do that. We did a live record where all the proceeds went to the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), the movement that sends people to Palestine. We just try to do stuff like that, that’s more concrete actual work. We’ve played a bunch of shows like that in Sweden and even in the States, we’ve played at a couple of End the Occupation rallies.
Everyone in the band used to be more or less involved in political groups back home. But it’s one of those deals where we’re never home. So it’s like signing on to learn Kung Fu, but you’re only at one practice every other month—it doesn’t really make any sense. Even our bass player ran for office in our home town with the Socialist Party a couple years ago. So we’ve all been involved, but then this just became a full time job and we realized that if we actually wanted to do something we should put all our effort into the band and everything that surrounds the band. But I think it’s an important thing just to inspire people and make them feel like their part of the event. I mean it’s something you struggle with every day as a performer or artist, making people feel like they’re involved in what’s going on, and it’s a challenge. Some nights it doesn’t work out at all. Some nights the stage is too high, there’s a barrier, there’s security, or the second the show is over and everyone’s out the door.
You have this sense of communication, it becomes like a service of sorts and then after the show you’ll hang out just talking to people. Some nights it’s perfect. Some nights, you go up on stage and you talk about politics and people fuckin’ get it and they’re like “Fuck yeah.” Some nights you go out and talk about politics and people just look at you like, “This guy’s kind of out of his mind.” Some nights you go out and don’t talk about politics at all and people get it. It’s like one of those things, you never know. So it’s really hard, but it keeps it kind of interesting.
Chris Spannos is an activist and member of the Vancouver Participatory Economics Collective.