The Radio Dept. Still Have Some Love to Give
The last few years haven’t been easy for the Radio Dept. After releasing their third record, 2010’s Clinging to a Scheme, the Swedish dream-pop duo, a.k.a. frontman Johan Duncanson and bassist Martin Carlberg (formerly Larsson), sank into a series of arguments with their longtime record label, Stockholm indie-pop powerhouse Labrador. “The contracts we had signed early on, we never really looked at or understood when we were kids,” explains Duncanson, 37, who is in New York with Carlberg, 38, to do press (they originally connected with Labrador back in 2003). “We started to realize that these were really, really bad deals. Everything we wrote was owned for life and 70 years after. Working on music just kind of lost its fun because we knew that everything new we wrote and recorded, they’d own forever.”
As much as they wanted to leave (and they certainly tried, taking Labrador to court in 2011 and finally settling at the start of 2015), legally the band still owed the label and its owner, Johan Angergård, one more album. Now, six years after Clinging to a Scheme, the band’s fourth studio record and final Labrador release, Running Out of Love, will arrive on October 21. It’s an angry album, entailing the band’s ongoing frustration with, yes, their label, but also the increasingly right-wing state of Swedish politics.
For now, though, the duo can relax in the knowledge that at least one battle is over. Reclining on a sofa in their publicist’s Midtown office, Duncanson and Carlberg sip coffee and joke about how they’d originally arranged for Running Out of Love to emulate Pet Shop Boys’ 1988 six-song dance opus, Introspective, simply to get the album done more quickly (thus releasing themselves from Labrador). The agreed-upon six songs eventually expanded to 10, but the band still implemented a noticeable stylistic shift: Instead of the low-key synth-pop melodies that defined Clinging to a Scheme and its predecessors, 2006’s Pet Grief and 2003’s Lesser Matters, Running Out of Love showcases sharper dub rhythms and Madchester-inspired techno and house, which is immediately evident on the twitching, synth-strained protest anthem “Swedish Guns.”
Below, the Radio Dept. delve into why they wanted so badly to extricate themselves from Labrador, why they chose to experiment with club influences on Running Out of Love, and how Sweden’s problematic right-wing climate reflects the political acrimony within our own 2016 Presidential race.
Running Out of Love is easily the most dance-heavy Radio Dept. record to date. What made you decide to incorporate those dub and house influences?
Johan Duncanson: One reason was that I had been listening to a lot of that [kind of music]. There was also a practical reason, originally. We had been in this court fight with our label, and we had one more album to do for them. There was a Pet Shop Boys record back in 1988 called Introspective, where they made six long dance tracks, like long dub tracks around eight minutes [each]. And so we thought, rather than writing 10 to 12 shorter songs, we could get away with less songwriting and get help from club-music producers to finish six long club tracks. It was a way to get out of the record deal quicker. Then that didn’t happen. We kind of didn’t stick to that concept.
Part of the reason for the six-year gap between Clinging to a Scheme and Running Out of Love was because you took your label to court. What did you need from Labrador that you felt you weren’t getting?
JD: Well, I think we got what we needed in terms of how free we’ve always been to do what we want. Like most indie labels, they don’t interfere with what we want to do musically. I think Johan [Angergård, Labrador owner] is a very nice person when you just talk about music or whatever, but when it comes to the business side of things, it was like a wall. He became very agitated when we’d bring up or discuss issues.
Martin Carlberg: I want to underline this: For us, it wasn’t about the money thing. It was kind of the feeling of injustice. It was how we couldn’t understand each other. Like, “How can you do this to one of your bands?” It was not that we needed money. It was just injustice.
After this album cycle is complete, do you want to continue the Radio Dept. on another label?
JD: I think we’re going to start our own label.
In addition to label politics, Running Out of Love sounds frustrated by Sweden’s political climate. What specifically were you thinking about when you were writing?
JD: [Sweden is] getting more and more conservative. In a scarily rapid way, it’s moving to the extreme right. A lot of people vote for this racist party that we have — a fascist party called the Sweden Democrats. It’s a lot about that, but there are statements against right-wing politics in general, as well. It’s about the Swedish weapons industry, against racism; there’s a lot of issues [about] that, even though we’re not even close to an election — we’re in between right now. It’s a very political time in Sweden and in Europe. So, when I wrote the lyrics, I couldn’t write about anything else, even though I tried.
It’s funny because, to Americans, Sweden is the gold standard for lot of the social-minded programs we lack, such as free health care, paternity leave, free day care.
JD: But all of those rights that we still have, like day care, are things that were decided on long ago, when some things were better. I’m even more to the left than the Social Democrats, but they were in power for about 80 years. They pushed issues like that and changed our society drastically. I guess they were very progressive. But now even that party is tired. They’re in power now, and they do good things as well, but not with energy. Their people are against them. I’m scared for the future, but hopeful as well. Because I have to be.
You take on the Swedish weapons industry on the album single “Swedish Guns.” Are you aware of America’s issues surrounding gun control — or the lack thereof?
MC: It’s kind of hard for me to [understand]. The weird thing for me is that there are big countries that have these problems and have a solution. They made those changes and they worked. Obviously, you have the Second Amendment and the problem with that. People will feel robbed of their rights … I can really see that problem.
JD: I can’t see that. I can’t see on a personal level why anyone should own a gun.
MC: I agree, but I can see the problem with taking away someone’s rights. It depends on what your relationship with the government is. And how you feel like you’ve been treated before. For me, it’s kind of obvious. Australia is a great example. They had mass shootings, and then in 1997, they banned weapons. And [mass shootings] dropped.
Have you been following the U.S. election at all? Do you see parallels to what’s happening with the far right in Sweden?
MC: Yeah. It’s the same rhetoric. It’s the same analogies. It’s the same fear.
JD: It’s the same kind of groups in [Swedish] society that go for these right-wing, populist, almost fascist — or sometimes purely fascist — politicians. It’s extremely scary.
Would you say those groups have something in common with those who voted for Brexit?
JD: Exactly. That’s why people voted to get out of the European Union. Because they’re racist. But personally — and I think Martin agrees — I can see Sweden leaving the European Union. But for very different reasons.
Back to the record for a minute: I read that you had to scrap a whole collection of songs prior to recording Running Out of Love.
JD: Well, we didn’t have to, but we decided to. I don’t think I’d written any of the lyrics, but the songs were basically there for a whole album, and we decided to not finish it, but to do this instead. We’ll make six dance tracks, it’ll be fast, take a couple of months. And it took like two years, because we live in different cities [Duncanson lives in Stockholm and Carlberg lives in Malmö] and sometimes there were months in between.
Was there a reason why you kept “Occupied,” which appeared on last year’s EP of the same name, for the record?
JD: It belonged on the record — the record was made around that track. It was the core idea. Had this album been pushed six months into spring next year, we would have had to remove “Occupied” from the album because it would’ve been too old. But I think a year is okay.
What makes you want to continue with the Radio Dept. after 15 years?
JD: We’re old friends. It’s not that we haven’t thought about or talked about calling it quits, especially during the dark period of the court case. But when I write a new song, Martin’s the one I want to call and talk about it and play it to. Who else? I have quite a few musician friends, so it wouldn’t be hard to call someone else, but Martin’s the one I want to call.
MC: [Smiles] That’s nice.
JD: And also, if you look at our output, there have been singles and EPs in between each album. This time, though, because of the court case, we kind of lost the will to do that. Everything we did would be owned by Labrador. And they didn’t even count the singles. They just owned them. They didn’t bring us closer to the end of the contract. We could give them like a hundred singles; they would own them, but it wouldn’t matter. So, we stopped, and I guess a lot of people thought that we’d gone away. So, this is not a comeback. We’ve been around. Just silent.
How does it feel to finally be on the other side?
JD: It’s a great feeling to be done — and to be able to say that we have a good relationship with Labrador. If we forget the politics for a little bit, there’s a lot of reasons to be feel pretty good right now. Unfortunately, politically, it’s really horrible. You have to take the good with the bad.