Interview: The Radio Dept.'s Johan Duncanson

We’re right in the middle of summer, which in New York means our cup runneth over with frozen drinks and free concerts — so many that it can be tough to separate the wheat from the chaff.

But one thing we can say definitively: the Radio Dept. show at South Street Seaport tomorrow evening is definitely not the chaff. The Swedish indie rockers followed up 2010 career high-water mark Clinging to a Scheme with this year’s Passive Aggressive, a singles collection that documents just how consistently brilliant the band has been for nearly a decade at crafting smart, catchy pop music of all stripes.

Their overwhelming recent success, though, has hardly turned frontman Johan Duncanson into the archetypal rock star. He’s reluctant and often apologetic when discussing himself and his band, especially regarding self-promotion and publicity: “Sometimes I start answering questions without really knowing what to say because I know there’s an answer expected of me,” he says, “but that’s the way nervous people work I guess, and nervous people should be allowed to start bands too.” But he’s also willing to make his more polarizing sentiments public — his dislike of most Swedish music, for instance, or his vehement protests against Sweden’s centrist Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt.
Nonstop Sound spoke with Duncanson about stage fright, the band’s increased touring volume and how to avoid becoming the enemy.
You’ve done more tour dates in the last year than ever before. Are you enjoying it more now, or at least getting used to it?
"It’s something that’s just happened, not something that we were pursuing really. There’s a lot more people asking us if we want to come and play nowadays. And we’ve accepted most of the offers that we got. I think it has almost been a little bit too much; not that we don’t enjoy playing live, but I really want to start recording again and it takes a lot of time away from that." 
"We have a lot of new songs and ideas that we want to try out. We have some time off, a couple of months, coming up, and we’ll hopefully start recording. But the past 12 months have been crazy; we’ve been to North America couple of times, and we’ve been to Asia … we’ve been keeping busy."
Has all the touring made the Radio Dept. into a tighter live band?
"We’ve been doing shows for nine years now and we never really get used to it; I still get really nervous. But if we’re in the middle of a tour and we’ve been playing every night for a week or two … it’s easier to remember the lyrics. And to not be scared of the audience."
You wrote more than 100 songs in the sessions that led to Clinging to a Scheme. Was there anything special about the 10 or 12 you ended up recording? 
"A lot of them, what they have in common is that they were recorded very quickly. We didn’t have time to get insecure or grow tired of them. We get bored very easily. For us, it’s always better to finish something very, very fast. It’s surprising too, how often you seem to get things right the first time." 
So I’m guessing you don’t have much interest in revisiting any of those demos?
"Sometimes we find a song that we’ve forgotten about, that we really like, but it’s rare that we do something with it." 
Why do you think Sweden has become such a hotbed of musical talent?
"I can only speculate, but Swedes have a history of being fast when it comes to adapting trends from around the world — or so I've been told. With a little bit of knowledge you get a little bit of confidence and then you might try things that you feel modern music is lacking, instead of creating bleak copies of what's happening in London or New York. And all of a sudden there's a scene, living its own life on its own conditions. A scene I happen to loathe, but still a scene."
Pet Grief, was, as you've said, a very cleanly produced album, and Clinging to a Scheme seems something of a reaction to that -- less electronics, more guitars, more uptempo. If/when you start recording new material, do you think you'll again move toward a different aesthetic? And if so, what might that be?
"When we recorded Pet Grief, we wanted it to sound luxurious. Our aim was to make an album that was far from our noisy and distorted debut. When we did Clinging, we reacted against what we saw as the boring calmness of Pet Grief. I don't feel like speculating too much about the direction of our next album, we've only just started recording songs, but there's definitely an identity to it already. I'll be able to say more once it's finished ... It will also be recorded in my living room."
Without a producer…
"We’ve actually talked about trying it. We don’t know who yet, but the experience might be fun — having someone to make decisions for you. I’ve had huge problems with authority and control my whole life, and maybe it’s time now to try [relinquishing some of that]. Not be in control, for once. That’s one reason we’ve wanted to keep things very indie, because we can make all the decisions ourselves and not answer to anyone."
Publicly, you’ve been pretty ambivalent toward Labrador, your record label. Do you all have any plans to move on to a new label, or to start one yourselves? 
"We have to do one more for Labrador before we can do anything. The next one will be the last one for Labrador, definitely. We’ve been thinking about starting our own, but we’re really bad at the bureaucracy that comes with having your own company, so I think it would be better to sign with someone." 
Do you struggle at all with separating the artistic success that you've justifiably achieved with the commercial success that comes along with it?
"Unfortunately, we are a part of the capitalist process, whether we like it or not. Claiming anything else would be self-delusional. But of course, we don't want it that way so it's a struggle for us. It's been the subject of an ongoing discussion in the band since we started the Radio Dept. How do we avoid turning into the enemy? I don't have a simple answer to that question, but we feel it's important to keep addressing these issues constantly and make decisions with this in mind. Also, being easily embarrassed has been very helpful for me because whenever the feeling of overwhelming embarrassment hits you, you know it's time to pull the emergency brakes. So we say no to most things, because we find almost everything we're asked to participate in extremely embarrassing."
Any more developments on the oft-rumored collaboration between you and Jens Lekman?
"We talk about it every now and then and I'm sure something will come out of it at some point, I just don't know when. Sooner rather than later, hopefully. I've got a song that would be perfect for Jens. I kill it but his voice would be perfect for it."
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