Refused’s David Sandström

David Sandstrom
by David Ciauro

After a wildly successful string of reunion shows in 2012, Sweden’s seminal hardcore act has released its first album in seventeen years. Freedom appears to have dialed in the “liberation frequency” spoken of on the 1998 masterpiece The Shape of Punk to Come—a title that, after so much time away, somehow still applies to the group’s sound. The eminently patient David Ciauro finally gets a chance to explore the methods and motivations of the band’s uniquely raging rhythm attacker. 
If you’re unfamiliar with Refused and its drummer, David Sandström, there’s a good reason. Although the band members were confident that their third album, The Shape of Punk to Come, was a profound musical and political statement, they didn’t expect to implode before the world would catch on.
In 1998, at a basement hardcore gig in Harrisonburg, Virginia, Refused began its final show, only to be shut down by the police a few songs into its set. It was the last time the band would play until reuniting in 2012. At the time of its original dissolution, Refused was performing for crowds of fifty or so people in the States. When it returned nearly two decades later, it sold out a two-night stand at New York City’s Terminal 5.
In this exclusive interview, the media-shy Sandström answers questions that fans from back in the day have long pondered—and that hordes of newcomers no doubt hunger for as well.
MD: You’ve been on my bucket list of interviews since I first heard The Shape of Punk to Come. Despite my searching, I was never able to find any interviews with you talking about drumming, and there’s not much up-close video content of your playing from before Refused disbanded in 1998. As a result, I—like many others, no doubt—was forced to create theories based on the inklings I had about your approach to drumming.
David: I actually think our music is the most exciting aspect about us. It’s so compact, brutal, and manipulative. When I meet people, I wonder if it’s disappointing, because I’m not a very cool guy—then the next time they listen to one of our records, maybe they’ll no longer find the music as exciting.
MD: The drum sounds on The Shape of Punk to Come are aggressive yet full. There’s a poor-quality video on YouTube of “The Deadly Rhythm” from a show in the late ’90s, and you’re playing a piccolo snare with a clear pinstripe head with wrinkles in it, and yet there’s that sound. You have this ability to transmit your energy into the drums regardless of what you’re playing.
David: Thank you! That’s a huge compliment. I actually believe what you are saying, that the most important thing for me is in the playing—how you play. I don’t have any specific interest in drumsets. I can’t really even tune a drum. Back then, we had a friend who was our sound technician, driver, and tour manager, and he was also a drummer, so he made sure I had [gear] to play. I was very happy that he took care of it, because I wasn’t interested in it. These days I have a drum tech that I trust, so he decides.
David Sandstrom
MD: How involved were you in the production aspect of Shape of Punk? Was the band aware of what you all were making at the time?
David: Shape of Punk wasn’t an accident. We didn’t have an overall idea of the sound of the record, but we knew exactly how we wanted each song to sound. Honestly, for the liner notes of the album to be correct, it should really say that Kris [Steen, guitarist] and I produced the record. We didn’t know the [correct] lingo; we would just shout things at Eskil [Lövström] and Pelle [Henricsson], who ran the studio, like, “The bass drum needs to be more violent,” and they would work themselves sweaty so we would stop shouting things. They were very active technicians, but we really pushed them to get the sounds.
MD: Do you remember anything about the kit you used or how the drums were recorded and processed?
David: I know we recorded a pretty fat rock drum sound, but then we messed with it a lot on almost every song. There was an element of that Steve Albini thinking as well—there was always a room mic to pick up stuff bouncing off the walls. I think we mainly recorded on a DW drumset that Pelle owned.
MD: Freedom is produced brilliantly as well. This time around, were you equally involved in the recording process?
David: Funnily enough, I really didn’t get involved. I just let [producer] Nick Launay and [assistant producer/engineer] Adam Greenspan decide. I almost didn’t have an opinion. But that’s just sort of the way I think about it now. If I trust a producer, I look at him as an artist.
MD: When did you first start playing drums?
David: My family mythology is that I started when I was like three years old, but take that with a grain of “mom salt.” You know how moms can be, romanticizing things, like, “You never cried when you were a baby!” Apparently I used to play on the back of cookie jars, putting them in front of the stereo and playing along to Creedence, the Beach Boys, or Janis Joplin. I do know that I received my first play drumset from my granddad when I was five; there’s photographic evidence of that.
MD: You have a unique approach to the drums, and I always imagined that you were self-taught. Did you ever take lessons or play in school bands?
David: I played in the school orchestra for a while and played a little jazz as well, but I’m very much self-taught. In Sweden we have had a very brilliant system. In a city’s jurisdiction, there were music schools [you could attend] through the school that you went to.
MD: Was it free?
David: There was some tuition, but it was very low. We were a low-income household, so it wasn’t a thing that people couldn’t afford. You took lessons like every other week, and I started doing that in the fourth grade. Kris was one of the percussionists as well, so we met and were in the same percussion ensemble when we were like ten or eleven. Refused’s music is very percussive, and I think there’s a connection there with us being drummers at such an early age.
David Sandstrom
MD: Did you practice a lot on your own?
David: I never, ever practiced. I just played. I got lucky with the school lessons that I took. The teacher I had was this free-spirited idealist, communist, really radical ’70s dude who was a Zappa freak. He’d ask me if I practiced at home, and I’d say no. I just played along to records or played drum solos, so he said, “All right, we’ll just jam.” So basically at every lesson he would get behind a Rhodes piano and just play along with whatever I felt like doing. That was basically my music school experience.
A lot of technique trickled down from that guy allowing me to just play. I actually did learn a lot, but he didn’t make me learn; he let me be my own musician the whole time. It was pretty exciting. He was an amazing dude.
MD: I know you’re a big fan of Slayer and especially drummer Dave Lombardo. How did you get into metal?
David: I’m obsessed with Dave Lombardo’s playing. I was a death metal drummer when I first started playing. My first real band was a death metal band; we played covers of songs from the first Deicide record, and I would sing and play drums. That was when I was about fourteen or fifteen.
MD: After Refused disbanded in 1998, you stepped away from the drums for the most part. Prior to the first run of reunion shows in 2012, when was the last time that you played any of the old songs?
David: Our final show. After Refused split up I played a little drums in this other band with friends, just for fun, but I basically stopped playing for good in 2000 or 2001. I was playing music the whole time—guitar, composing, touring, and putting out records and stuff in Sweden. But I wasn’t playing the drums. And I didn’t think I would start again.
MD: How come?
David: When I wasn’t playing with Kris, I realized I didn’t enjoy playing the drums just to play them. So I didn’t play, because it reminded me of how great it was and how much I loved it.
MD: Was it a problem getting the chops back to play songs like “New Noise”?
David: Oh, it was a problem. It was a huge problem! [laughs] I had to actually start going to a gym just for cardio, and I sat and hit a practice pad really fast for hours a day until I had the speed up. When we did the reunion in 2012, we rehearsed five days a week for like three months. But I think that not playing for ten years actually improved [how I approached the drums].
The hi-hat thing in “New Noise” was [influenced by] Alex Van Halen. He often doubled the hi-hat to play 16ths with one hand, to create this intensity that wouldn’t be there by playing 8ths. Kris suggested the “New Noise” verse needed some excitement, so we doubled the hi-hat and some tension arose from that…it was very much a drummer’s-drummer decision.
MD: You mention the influence of Alex Van Halen and Dave Lombardo. What is it about a certain drummer’s playing that grabs your attention?
David: Being a drummer, you’re always more attentive to the more percussive aspects of music. I enjoy how programmed drums and sampled drums have seeped into people’s playing. I saw the Roots in 1999, when they came to Stockholm, and I became obsessed with Questlove. I was heading that way in my playing when we did Shape of Punk, where I wanted the drums on certain tracks to sound almost mechanical. We’d been listening to a lot of British jungle and big-beat music back then. But Questlove, he could do that strange thing where the hi-hat was real steady on the beat and the snare would be late. I love messing around trying to duplicate his playing when we’re rehearsing, but it just can’t be done.
MD: At your recent Bowery Ballroom show that I saw, in the middle of “The Deadly Rhythm,” the band paid homage to Slayer by playing the intro to “Raining Blood.” It sounded like you were playing double bass, but I wasn’t aware that you use a double pedal.
David: There are a few songs on the new record that I used the double pedal for, but they’re just not fast double bass parts. For example, “Old Friends/New War” has this half-time feel in the verse, with a hip-hop-type beat. There is bass drum on every hit, so my left foot mirrors my left hand for that part. We’re actually not playing any of those songs live yet, so the double pedal is currently just for the Slayer part.
MD: With the stellar reception that Freedom has received, what does the future hold for Refused?
David: We’re trying to take it semi-easy. We’ll be working this record long-term. We want every show to be special, and it’s impossible to deliver that when you do twenty shows in a row. That [pace] takes something out of you.
MD: I was at one of the Terminal 5 shows in 2012, as well as the Bowery show I mentioned, and on both occasions you did practically full sets at Saint Vitus in Brooklyn afterward. In the videos of those second sets in smaller venues, you were equally intense.
David: We just get so excited from playing. Coming from punk and hardcore, there are always people we know at shows telling us about a club we could just show up at and play. Things are so unpretentious in that world that we can do it on very short notice, just get in the van and do a second show. It reminds us of our roots and playing just for fun. There’ll be more of those.
David Sandstrom kitSandström’s Setup
Drums: SJC Custom in dark gray finish
A. 5.5×14 wood snare
B. 9×13 tom
C. 16×16 floor tom
D. 18×22 bass drum
1. 14″ Sabian HHX Stage hi-hats
2. 19″ Sabian HHX X-Plosion crash
3. 20″ Istanbul Agop 30th Anniversary ride
4. 20″ Sabian AAX Stadium ride
Heads: Remo, including Emperor X snare batter and Hazy Ambassador resonant, Coated Ambassador tom batters and Clear Ambassador resonants, and Powerstroke 3 bass drum batter
Hardware: DW, including 5000 and 9000 series cymbal stands and 9000 series tom holder, snare stand, and double pedal
Sticks: Promark hickory 7A with wood tip
Electronics: Roland SPD-SX