The Radio Dept

Clinging to a Dream (Musical and Social):
The Radio Dept. Make Their New Album Good, But Not Too Good

For those who question whether something as trivial as pop music can carry a political impact, consider the Radio Dept.’s cunningly catchy new track “Swedish Guns.” Johan Duncanson never raises his voice, crooning gently over a reggae-tinged club beat. His words are subtly caustic (“You need a helping hand/ Get Swedish guns/ Secure a piece of land/ Get Swedish guns”) and could easily be overlooked on a dance floor. Sweden, with its reputation of Nordic tranquility, is also the world’s third largest arms exporter per capita, trailing only Israel and Russia. I was blissfully unaware of this statistic before researching some statements made in interviews by Sweden’s Radio Dept. Mission accomplished.

“Everyone here knows we’ve been exporting weapons for a long time, but it’s not really something being talked about,” explains Duncanson by phone from his home in Malmo, Sweden. “You’ll read a critical article about it occasionally, but we keep doing it and people don’t seem to care that much. We’re into music, that’s our thing, but it’s nice to be able to say something, to get some message across. Especially nowadays.”

New LP Running Out of Love, the band’s fourth, isn’t the Radio Dept.’s first foray into political waters; 2008 single “Freddie and the Trojan Horse” offered a pointed commentary on Sweden’s then Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt and what the band saw as a ploy to sell him as an ally of the workers. Again, the message could easily be overlooked by those not steeped in Swedish politics – the song’s title (and its mellow vibe) made me think of Belle & Sebastian’s “Judy and the Dream of Horses.” Then just in time for the 2010 elections came “The New Improved Hypocrisy,” its theme a bit harder to miss.

Duncanson finds those concerns rather quaint today. “The thing with the extreme right populism is that they’re actually saying what they want to do and people still go for it. They don’t even have to lie. We had a moderate right wing government for about eight years until recently; and they kind of paved the way for this. When poor people get poorer and rich people get more rich, they tend to go for easy solutions.”

But enough politics. The Radio Dept. began transmission in early 2003 with its much-loved (particularly in Europe) debut album Lesser Matters, which had a scruffy indie guitar veneer that drew comparisons to the dream pop of early My Bloody Valentine, although strains of the likes of Broadcast and Stereolab were discernible even then. Passage of time and a fairly radical stylistic shift to a synth-based foundation stalled the band’s momentum, which picked up again with a slew of well-received singles and 2010’s excellent Clinging to a Scheme only to succumb to another period of extended dormancy.

While Lesser Matters became an indie pop touchstone overseas, the Radio Dept.’s first heavy dose of US exposure came via the soundtrack to Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. Even there, things for the band were not as they seem on the surface. “We were contacted and asked to write music for the film,” Duncanson says. “They made a test cut using our older music while we were working on it, and they eventually decided the older stuff fit the film better.” The band reworked the bypassed compositions for later releases.

Although Duncanson and Martin Carlberg have comprised the band’s core from the start, they’ve always presented themselves as a four-piece in live settings (originally known as Martin Larsson, the latter married the bassist from an early band lineup and took her name). While Duncanson functions as the frontman onstage, Carlberg covers bass plus the occasional guitar and pads.

“Don’t you play any keyboards?” Duncanson asks, setting off a hilarious, good-natured exchange.

“Not this time,” Carlberg responds.

“Oh – whatever.”

“He doesn’t care as long as the sounds come out,” Carlberg laughs. “I stand behind him and he can’t see what I’m doing.” The banter is all in good fun, as the two seem fully in lockstep. Unlike most bands that prefer to divvy up the drudgery of press duties, this pair was adamant about doing our interview in tandem and clearly enjoyed it, contrary to their reputation for general slovenliness and sporadic touring – the current US swing is only their second significant stateside foray, and their longest.

Given their interest in immigration and border conflicts, it would be reasonable to assume their new song “Occupied” would be about refugees or police states. Instead, the tune represents the band’s public response to its recent label troubles. Soon after releasing Clinging to a Scheme Carlberg and Duncanson learned of aspects of their contract with Labrador Records they considered unusually onerous.

The duo continued to record, but fell mostly inactive in terms of live performance. Poised for once to deliver on a quick turnaround between albums, progress instead became mired in lawsuits and staredowns. Along the way word emerged of a nearly completed album being scrapped. “We had all the songs – the melodies and chords, and were halfway into the production, but I had none of the lyrics, apart from maybe one,” Duncanson estimates. “So we still had a bit to go.”

Carlberg and Duncanson ultimately lost their court case, but then reached a form of détente with Labrador that got the duo comfortable with returning to the studio. With lines on “Occupied” referring to “the illusion of shared goals and values” and back-slapping foils counseling “no need to spend time on the documents, boys,” most would assume the wounds are still festering. Yet the band claims its extended turmoil is water under the bridge and amazingly, they sound sincere about it. “We’re friends,” Carlberg shrugs. “There’s still some resentment, maybe, somewhere. But we have kind of a healthy relationship.”

So why the decision to rip it up and start again? “It became too good for our label,” they laugh in unison. “Every time we felt really good about something we did creatively…” Duncanson trails off. “But eventually I think the album we did make for them was even better.”

So perhaps that next record will come out on Labrador after all? “No,” Carlberg replies tersely and they both laugh again before Duncanson adds, “It’s kind of out of the question – we want to do it ourselves. It’s not that big a record label, so they’re kind of limited in what they can do for us.”

The Radio Dept. began a tentative return in late 2014 with a pair of singles. One, the cheerily titled “This Repeated Sodomy,” sounds like a nod to the band’s early guitar-driven days and will likely send Smiths fans’ hearts a-twitter. “It’s very easy for Martin or me to write a song like that,” Duncanson explained. “We love a good pop song, and I had a short period where I listened to a lot of guitar music like that again. But we prefer to do something more challenging. It came to me quickly, and we recorded it quickly – we might do something along those lines again.”

It’s the other, “Death to Fascism,” that sounds more like Running Out of Love’s precursor, both thematically and musically. It feels like a club remix, the only vocals consisting of a woman’s sampled voice repeating “sloboda narodu,” the second half of a Yugoslav phrase that translates as “Death to fascism, power to the people.” The same sample returns on Love’s captivating opening track, now with a full set of Duncanson’s English lyrics and that foreign phrase (a World War II-era Partisan battle cry) serving as its title. Duncanson explains that the album version developed much later. “We kept the same chords, but it’s a new song with a vocal melody. I knew I wanted to keep those ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ bongos, and as it came together it seemed like a good opener. I wanted to put out ‘Death’ as a 7-inch, but we needed a B-side. We haven’t ruled it out yet.”

Given recent circumstances the Radio Dept.’s previous release, 2011’s two-disc singles collection Passive Aggressive, seems like a label strategy to bide time during a contract dispute. The duo insists that’s not the case, however. “That was actually us – we liked the idea. The label owns your songs, they can put out whatever they want.” Labrador decided it was time for a singles collection from this EP-happy band, “but we have so many B-sides that people don’t know about, we thought it would be more fun if we included a second disc. They love putting out records, so it didn’t take much convincing.” One of those B-sides, a cover of the Go-Betweens’ “Bachelor Kisses,” is both a Radio Dept. homage to a favorite artist as well as an effective bridge between their early and more recent sounds – just as it was for the song’s Aussie originators.

With that jettisoned “too good” album already in a relatively advanced state and perhaps fueled by their own newfound sense of freedom, maybe this time we’ll finally enjoy a short interval between Radio Dept. releases. But don’t count on it – with only four proper albums over sixteen years, Carlberg and Duncanson seem to abide by their own internal clocks. Here’s hoping they become an early case study for my theory that current worldwide political turmoil will inspire the best protest music since the Reagan and Thatcher Administrations, and that the Radio Dept. will construct a few more of their own Trojan horses.

Photo by Mia Kerschinsky.