The Radio Dept talk politics, ’90s techno, clashes with their label, new LP ‘Running Out of Love’ & more in BV interview
Sweden’s The Radio Dept have always worked at their own pace, but even for them six years is a long time to go without a new album. After taking their label, Labrador, to court over royalties and other life stuff, the duo of Johan Duncanson and Martin Carlberg are finally set to return with Running Out of Love, which is very much a State of 2016 sort of record (State of Sweden, specifically), with their most politically charged lyrics to date. The LP, their last for Labrador, is also their most overtly dance-oriented set of songs yet, drawing on early ’90s techno and house, as well as pop like Soul II Soul and Inner City. The latter is an admitted major influence on new single “We Got Game,” an ultra-catchy club banger that aims its sights at “racist goons / the kind of guys you wouldn’t like to spoon.” You can listen to that single below.
While the finish, lyrically and sonically, may be new, The Radio Dept. remain expert popsmiths, and Running Out of Love has no shortage of big hooks and winning melodies. Duncanson and Carlberg were in NYC in September for sightseeing and dreaded album publicity, and I met them at their publicist’s HQ one early Thursday morning to talk about the new LP, what took them so damn long to make it, not minding sounding like The Stone Roses, their 2017 tour (dates below) and what’s next.
BrooklynVegan: So, I was listening to your album on the way here, and as I was walking through Herald Square, “Swedish Guns” was on. I’ve listened to it so many times in my apartment, and when the automatic weapon sample hit, I just, unthinking, did a little gun gesture to it… then stopped myself and thought “that’s a dumb thing to do in the middle of Herald Square at 9 AM.”
Johan Duncansson: Yep! (Laughs) But nothing happened?
No I don’t think anyone noticed, honestly.
Johan: It’s a dangerous dance move.
I do like that moment in the song, but I also like that it only happens once. It doesn’t become the hook, like M.I.A. Was there any worry of that?
Johan: Yes, of course, and we were talking about not having it at all. I originally just put it in as a fill-in, like a drum fill, and was thinking “we’ll add more of this” but then we changed our minds. We did decide to keep that little bit because…it’s funky. (Laughs).
I think the shell drop at the end is a nice bit.
Martin Carlberg: Ah, you know it’s a shell drop. I actually thought it was those little finger cymbals or something, but then I realized it’s the shell dropping.
So how do you two work these days? I know you live in different cities. Is it trading files via the internet?
Johan: No, we tried that once or twice but…
Martin: It’s easier when we meet up and make music. When we work separately it doesn’t end up being used.
Johan: I do work on stuff on my own, but I prefer working with you [Martin]. We take turns traveling to each other’s homes. Martin comes to Stockholm more often but I’ve been to Malmo many times. I stay at Martin’s and we record there . We’ve always done things at home but in Stockholm we have a rehearsal space and we record there now. Martin can stay there, it’s like a small apartment. But when it comes to songwriting it differs from song to song. Sometimes it’s just a beat that starts things, and sometimes it’s very traditional with a guitar chords and melody.
There’s not a lot of guitar on Running Out of Love, but do some songs get written on guitar and then become a more electronic track?
Martin: A lot. It’s so much easier for us to just play guitar — that was the first instrument we both learned.
Johan: We definitely, at the start, considered The Radio Dept as a “guitar band” but slowly changed over time. This time, actually, we wanted to ban all string instruments. It was strictly going to be a dance, clubby album. Not like Avicii and Swedish House Mafia, that EDM stuff. It was going to be anti-that. But then other influences needed room and then we let the guitars back in, some bass guitar too. Here we are.
I was talking to a couple friends about the new album who were like “I don’t like the electronic stuff, I wish they’d just keep making music like This Past Week.” What do you say to those people?
Johan: I say, “we might end up there again.” I don’t know. We have have to do things that are exciting and fun for us, otherwise…If we made that kind of record right now, and it wasn’t inspired at all, I truly believe even those people would be disappointed with that album.
You have to make the record that is interesting to you.
Johan: I think people can tell. Changing, for me, it’s like when you have a new haircut or a new sweater, you’re still you, but you’re a new you, and suddenly death feels very far away. Reinventing yourself, in a way.
You gave fans of that early Radio Dept sound something to enjoy with “This Repeated Sodomy.” Was that just a song you liked that didn’t fit with what you knew the album would be, and wanted to get out there?
Martin: Pretty much. Johan did it [snaps his fingers] really quickly, and then we tried to finish it quickly as well and just release it. We knew it wouldn’t fit on Running Out of Love. There were also lyrical references to what was going on in Greece and Germany and we didn’t want that to get stale.
Johan: Also, we were just so tired of everything taking so long. It was fun to do something really really quickly and put it out, just to remind ourselves that we still could do things like that.
I was watching a video interview with you, Johan, from around the time of Clinging to a Scheme, and you said “hopefully the next record will not take three or four years.” And here we are six years later… (Laughter) but there have been some extenuating circumstances.
Martin: I’d like to think so, yeah. There was some personal stuff, life happens, but we also took our publisher and label, Labrador, to court.
Johan: It was a frustrating time. It wasn’t a fun thing to do. We would have bursts of inspiration, that still happened, but as soon as we did something we really liked…we knew this would be another of those tracks that we give them and they then own forever. So as soon as we got happy, creatively, we immediately got angry. A very weird time.
And then you released a single, “Occupied,” that was specifically about the court case with Labrador…and you released it on Labrador. I can’t imagine what that is like, turning in that song to the label.
Johan: (Chuckles) Yeah that was…weird. [Martin laughs a lot.] But it was also fun. We lost that court case so, in a way, that was the only thing we had to get back at them, you know? We lost everything, tons of money that we didn’t have, and so we had to get some kind of revenge. Actually, at first [Johan Angergård, Labrador’s owner) just thought “hey great track!” and he never thought about the lyrics. Then there was some journalist we had an email interview with, he asked for the lyrics and that went through the label. So he read it then, and then got what it was about, but not till weeks later. Now he laughs about it. Our relationship with him now is actually quite good.
Also from that video interview, you said that when you were making Clinging to Scheme that you had over 100 songs or song fragments going into it. Did a similar thing happen this time?
Johan: Yes, but not as many. We had a lot of sketches for other stuff, but it wasn’t near as… [Martin shakes his head] Was it as many?
Martin: Yes it was just as many.
Johan: Okay, fine.
Martin: Though a lot of them were just an idea we played with for half an hour, toying around with a sampler — “oh, this is a good beat” — and then you name it and file it away. It’s a lot. [Laughs] I went through all of them and tried to do a backup a few weeks ago. It’s extensive.
Johan: [Laughing] Okay, okay. We should finish some of that!
Martin: It’s not like finished songs or anything.
Johan: Some more than others, though. there’s that [sings a little hook]…
Martin: Oh yeah, there’s a lot of good stuff in there. I’ve found quite a few.
Did any of those unused songs from Clinging to a Scheme make their way back to Running out of Love?
Martin: Actually some of them did. “Committed to the Cause” was one of them. The bass riff from that song…it started as this almost ambient song, we thought it might end up as a b-side. But then we just took the bass from that and made an entirely new song out of that. “Can’t be Guilty,” too, those two.
I really like “Can’t Be Guilty.” I don’t know if it’s about something very specific, but to me it speaks to apathy…
Johan: That’s it pretty much.
I like songs, like this, where the lyrics are very pointed and dark but it’s this super poppy melody. It’s like that Go-Betweens song “The Streets of Your Town.” It’s very “La la la” but also “this town is full of battered wives.”
Johan: We love that sort of juxtaposition. When we first got together, in the late ’90s, we listened to a lot of Belle & Sebastian and they did that a lot back then. I don’t know why they dropped that thing, because they used to be really, you know, “We’re socialists” and that kind of stuff. “If you ever go lardy, or go lame, I will drop you straight away / That’s the price you have to pay every stupid thing you say.” Pointed lyrics but very…
Martin: “La la.”
Johan: Yeah, pretty melodies. That’s the combination: hard lyrics, pretty music.
The whole album is pretty pointed, lyrically. You’ve said in the past that you’ve been threatening to make a political album…this is it right?
It’s a very 2016 kind of album.
Johan: I hope so. We claimed to be a political band in the beginning, but we had very little to show for it, apart from talking about it in interviews. I couldn’t really write lyrics that were good on topics like that. Because of the Swedish and European political climate… globally, really, but we see a lot of it with our neo-fascist, racist political party Swedish Democrats who just keep getting bigger and more popular…it’s really close to home. These are scary times, and not just in Sweden, with Trump over here and everything. It’s hard to not write songs…
Martin: Johan said something yesterday, where you would try to write about other things but you just couldn’t. This stuff blocks everything out. For politically interested people like us, it’s a very dark time. We’re actually scared for the future, more scared than we’ve ever been. You think about when we grew up…
Johan: I remember thinking, naively, in my teens that the world world was actually getting slightly better all the time. But it’s not.
Martin: Some things are better — Apple TV or something — but I’d trade it any day. Really, who needs it?
With lyrics so specific to what’s going on in Sweden, do you worry “Will our international audience get it?”
Johan: I don’t think people have to get the lyrics. We will always be a pop band first, so if we meet someone who really likes us but never listens closely to the lyrics, that’s okay with me. I actually prefer that people who just want to talk politics all the time. Other people do that better, maybe. We’re not politicians, we just react.
Speaking of, the opening track on the album, “Sloboda Noradu,” that same sample is in your single “Death to Fascism” and is part of a famous anti-fascist slogan right?
Johan: That’s right, it’s Croatian I think.
The opening chord of that song is, to me, odd. Like it’s the final chord of another song that has been chopped in half and left to start the song.
Johan: I’m still conservative in the sense that if there’s not a physical version of a song — like a vinyl record or CD or even cassette — it hasn’t really been released. So I really wanted to put out “Death to Fascism” as a 7″, just for myself, to feel like we’ve actually released something, that it’s not just in “the cloud” or whatever. “Sloboda Noradu” was originally an attempt at a b-side but then we thought it became too good to just use like that. It was nothing like the rest of the album, in terms of instrumentation, but it had the groove to “Committed to the Cause.” We thought it would fit, because of the lyrics, that it would be a good opener. Originally it was just a continuation of “Death to Fascism,” it’s the same chords.
Martin: “Death to Fascism” was actually supposed to be on the album, but it got too old so we didn’t feel comfortable putting it on there.
Johan: One idea was to open with “Sloboda Noradu” and finish with “Death to Fascism” and we also considered just putting them together.
You said originally this was to have been an all dance album, and there’s a lot of that still on the record. I hear a lot of 1990/1991 influences. “We Got Game” reminds me of the first Electronic album.
Johan: Yeah, I’d been listening to a lot of house and techno, and techno-pop as well. Detroit and Chicago stuff. So the opening synth stabs on that song are very Inner City, do you know them? That was a huge inspiration for that one. But then we write songs the way we write songs, so when we start singing it doesn’t sound like them anymore. I was vacuuming YouTube for a while, just trying to find obscure songs from the beginning of that era, and found really good stuff that inspired both “We Got Game” and “Occupied.” There’s song called “A Groove” by Instinct, I’d never heard it before I went down this YouTube hole, it’s a rare, early house track, very minimalistic. It’s basically where the beat for “Occupied” comes from — you should check it out.
There’s also “Committed to the Cause” which has a little Stone Roses in there.
Martin: As we said, that was originally supposed to be more ambient, but then we just used that bassline and added that beat and it became more Stone Roses. We wanted to have that ’90s shuffle.
Johan: Which we were thinking more of “Back to Life” by Soul II Soul, but with that beat and that bassline, it just became Stone Roses-y.
Martin: Maybe too much (chuckles).
Johan: No, we knew people would make that connection, we’ve talked about it, of course, but we still didn’t change it. I like it that way. There’s not a lot of bands now who sound like that anyway, so we might as well.
Martin: It’s like you said with “We Got Game,” there was a point where it became too much New Order. When you start something and you try for Inner City, and you go for those sounds, but write songs like we do…
Johan: We never tried to steer away from Stone Roses but we did purposefully stay away from New Order sounds.
Martin: We love them but it’s boring just to copy.
Johan: So we started with Inner City and ended up with…well some people say New Order, but I don’t hear it really. Though I prefer being compared to New Order any day…someone said that song sounded like Depeche Mode! I was actually very offended because I don’t like them at all. They’re one of my hate bands, along with Smashing Pumpkins and Radiohead. I fuckin’ hate those bands! Pardon my French.
There are some songs on the record, like “Teach Me to Forget,” that sounded like they began as bangers and then you took the beat away.
Johan: It started off as an uptempo song, but for the first time ever worked with an outside producer. He’s a friend of ours. We don’t really know how to make an “upbeat dance track.” With “We Got Game” we thought we did well, but this one, it just wasn’t happening. We gave it to him, he’s in this band Differnet, who aren’t “dance music” but he knows how to make beats and those sounds. So we gave it to him and when he gave it back it began to take shape. It went back and forth a few times. I’m glad it went well, I have a very hard time compromising with other people. Or even trying it.
Do you feel the same way about giving songs to people to remix?
Johan: No. Because then it’s on them, our song is there, they take the blame if it doesn’t work. I love remixes.
Have you sent out songs from this record to get remixed?
Matin: Not yet, but we’re going to.
Johan: I think as soon as we get back to Sweden, we’ll get on that. We’ve been emailing with people that we like, we’ll see if they’re interested.
Technology has changed so much since Clinging to a Scheme. Has that changed the way The Radio Dept makes music?
Matin: I would say no because our technology, that we use, hasn’t changed at all. (Laughter) We’re really conservative when it comes to technology.
Martin: Okay, yeah. We’re not that interested in learning a new program.
“I know how to use this thing, it works fine for me. I don’t need something new.”
Martin: Exactly. If we want something and we think we can do it with what we have — “we can take the hi-hat and blend it with a snare” — we try and build the sound we could easily just press a button for with Ableton or something. It’s time-consuming but it’s more fun.
Johan: Yeah it is. Our way is grittier, which is something I like. It’s more hands-on. In the late 90s when we started hanging out, the autumn of ’98 and the winter of ’99, we made some portastudio [four-track] recordings. I always push imaginary buttons when I say “portastudio’ — “REC and Play” — so we came from that. I got a computer a couple of years later and got a music program that sort of worked like a four-track worked, but will more tracks. We’ve just kept doing it that way.
On that same computer?
Martin: No. The computer is better with more disc space but it was the same recording program.
Johan: Up until the last album we used a program from 2001…
Martin: 1998, actually. It was called Cool Edit. Specifically, Cool Edit version 1, and we used that on the first three albums! [laughs].
Johan: And then for this album we used Cool Edit 2.
Martin: The 2000 version [Laughter].
Johan: But now we have something called Audition, which is the same program, Adobe bought Cool Edit.
Martin: It’s very visual, we can edit sounds, it’s easier for us.
What about walking around and you come up with a melody, do you record it on your phone?
Johan: Yes, often.
So that has changed.
Johan: Absolutely but it’s just like a dictaphone. I like things that are hands-on. So I’ve got a ton of stuff where I’m walking around Stockholm singing into my phone, hoping that no one notices! Though people are everywhere talking on their phones, singing is still frowned upon.
Running Out of Love is your last album for Labrador. Now you are free. What next?
Johan: Well it’s not going to take three or four years for the next album. [Makes a face] [Laughter] Well we’ll see but I’d really like to finish an album fairly quickly and release it, if not next year, then the year after. On our own label. We might license it to someone else but we’re going to start our own label.
Do you have a name for the label?
Johan: We do: “Just So!” with an exclamation point at the end.
Was there ever any thought of just doing a “contractual obligation” album, like Metal Machine Music or something?
[immediate knowing laughter]
Johan: Oh yes. We had a LOT of ideas, but… if we were a band that put out records all the time, we might have made some crazy album, just to flip them the bird. We’re very slow, though, and it would’ve harmed us too much. We had tons of ideas, though. We were going to make something called ‘Pet Grief II’ [Martin laughs very hard at this]. I don’t even remember what it was going to be, exactly, but it was called ‘Pet Grief II.’ The other was to make an ambient record so I wouldn’t have to spend a lot of time writing lyrics. Stuff like that. In the end, we came to the conclusion we’d make an album properly.
Martin: It’s hard to feel energized about something you don’t like. I think it was a bad idea, when we considered it, because it’s so much easier to work when you want to do it for real.
Johan: One other idea was to make kind of a crappy album for Labrador. And then the day after its release, we’d release the proper version on our own label. But there’s a no-compete clause, we can’t release anything new on another label for a certain amount of time, so we couldn’t have done it anyway.
You’re going to have to tour this record, too — 2017 looks to be your most extensive tour yet.
Johan: I’m really a recluse, honestly. I like to sit at home with my toy keyboard and write songs. I do like being on the road, but when I look at the upcoming schedule, it’s exhausting. I know it’s gonna be fine but sometimes I wanna just crawl back to bed, pull a sheet over my head and sleep.
The Radio Dept. – 2017 Tour Dates
1/25 – Copenhagen @ Lilla Vega
1/28 – Amsterdam @ Bitterzoet
1/29 – Brussels @ Botanique (Rotonde)
1/30 – Brighton @ The Haunt
1/31 – London @ The Scala
2/1 – Paris @ La Maroquinerie
2/2 – Köln @ Gebäude 9
3/2 – Berlin @ Berghain (Kantine)
Feb 14 – Philadelphia, PA @ Union Transfer
Feb 15 – Washington, DC @ Black Cat
Feb 16 – Carrboro, NC @ Cat’s Cradle
Feb 17 – Atlanta, GA @ The Earl
Feb 18 – New Orleans, LA @ Gasa Gasa
Feb 19 – Houston, TX @ White Oak Music Hall
Feb 20 – Austin, TX @ Barracuda
Feb 22 – Phoenix, AZ @ Crescent Ballroom
Feb 24 – Los Angeles, CA @ El Rey Theatre
Feb 27 – Portland, OR @ Doug Fir Lounge
Feb 28 – Vancouver, BC @ Biltmore Cabaret
Mar 1 – Seattle, WA @ Neumos
Mar 3 – Minneapolis, MN @ Triple Rock Social Club
Mar 4 – Chicago, IL @ Thalia Hall
Mar 5 – Toronto, ON @ The Mod Club
Mar 6 – Montreal, QC @ Théâtre Fairmount
Mar 7 – Boston, MA @ Brighton Music Hall
Mar 8 – New York, NY @ Bowery Ballroom
Mar 9 – Brooklyn, NY @ Music Hall of Williamsburg