Johan Duncanson is an extremely nice guy, and his band The Radio Department have a stellar record out called Clinging To A Scheme. He took a minute to talk to me about the band's longevity, their simple style of working, and their knowledge of a certain intimate secret in American cinema.
Clinging To A Scheme, the third LP from Swedish rock outfit The Radio Dept., has been called a multitude of things by pundits, including one particularly overwrought word currently woven tightly in the fabric of talking about independent music. The attention is perhaps due to their limited interaction with the American market, coupled with a patently stellar collection of pop rock assembled in a style similar to current "indie" acts like Pains of Being Pure At Heart and Toro Y Moi (although more rock, less chill). The noise is aesthetically displaced; a 1980s sensibility with washed-out, almost disinterested sounding vocals. Normally the stock phrases shelf would provide a music-journo the perfect word for this package, but after talking to Johan Duncanson, the singer and main songwriter for the group, I'm enticed to spend more time thinking about what that word might be. Let's start with his thoughts on the subject: "The shoegaze thing that a lot of people refer to with the Radio Dept. is just plain wrong."
Like the title of their album, their music is easy to process in a variety of ways, ultimately leading to the confusion of its origin. "Scheme" can refer to a schedule of sorts, but here, it refers to a nefarious plot. "We wanted people to get the impression that we're up to no good" Duncanson told me over the phone. Hard to believe when the album in question, while discussing youth culture and its corruptibility, is also just a sh*t-load of fun to put on. Even less suggestive of no good- almost nothing has changed in the recording process of the band. They still use personal homes as a base of operation, and they still deny their label the ability to mettle in the process, whether it's with outside opinions or producers. Duncanson said "I have a very hard time compromising, it took me years to be able to compromise with [the band]". It makes sense, considering the Radio Dept. as we now know it had its inception at his hands, sprouting from a series of songs he wrote on the side and subsequently presented to future bandmate Martin Larsson.
Nine years (the band formed in 2001) and "quite a boring story" later (Duncanson's somewhat biased words), the formula is still working. Duncanson asked me to dream up an interesting origin to replace their linear, predictable rise to fame... a demo, which led to the first single and a deal with Labrador Records for a full album, critical acclaim, etc. But I'd contest that the whims of blog bumps, weird situations, and fame as luck are inherently less credible than a simple, easy to follow process of talent being appreciated over a period of time. It took three albums for the band to break into the credibility circle of tastemakers in America (unfortunately still led by the mighty, miserable curmudgeon known as Pitchfork). Today's buzz act would kill for that kind of longevity... once guarenteed by multi-record deals, now a pipe-dream fulfilled only by the flukes of the music world (think Vampire Weekend and Justin Bieber).
But all this is kind of moot, considering Duncanson's stance on consuming journalism related to his band. "I read a lot of music journalism," he said, "just not the the bits about us. Sometimes you have a weak moment when you are in front of the computer and you type in The Radio Department and see whats out there, but I try not to." Opinions, especially on the internet, seem to snowball a young act into fame and eventual implosion. In the case of the Radio Dept., it's been both slow and deserved. And the best part, not necessarily expected; "It's been taking us forever to finish this album... we thought that no one would care". Duncanson likes the attention but isn't looking to blow up. "We like small venues, 100-300 people in capacity. We prefer to keep it small in a way but it'd be nice to live off it." Luckily for this goal, apathy is clearly not the default setting for music fans when the Radio Dept. is concerned.
And yet people insist on watering the whole thing down. "The shoegaze thing that a lot of people refer to with the Radio Department is just plain wrong. Nowadays at least. You can hear the influence but it should be apparent to people that we're into other kinds of music." The band listened to a lot of admittedly "really badly recorded music" from the 1980s, some of which they shared with me, almost none of which I recognized. And while their music could be categorized as the proper soundtrack for staring at one's laces, the blanket term of "Shoegaze" is more like a Snuggie: it covers more surface area while looking terribly stupid. A band with such longevity, not to mention raw songwriting talent, deserves a better terminology.
They aren't totally untapped by the American market, a fact that is probably overlooked by new fans (but not the band's Wikipedia page). Duncanson told me the story... a year before Marie Antoinette, Sofia Coppola's music director Brian Reitzell tapped The Radio Dept. to contribute an original song. And the Swedish boys aren't unfamiliar with us either... they agreed to do two, on the condition that Reitzell reveal what Bill Murray whispered to Scarlett Johansson at the end of Lost In Translation. Reitzell said "three and we've got a deal". Of course they were sworn to secrecy. I'll just gaze at my shoes on this one.
Back to the question at hand: what is Clinging On A Scheme, if not "Shoegaze"? Duncanson told me about some of the broader categories of influences (general, but at least not the Snuggie definition): "For this record, a lot of other music... early nineties, a lot of commercial music. I have friends, record collector friends who play a lot of old school music, and I search for musical experiences through them." Thumbing through old recordings usually means influence is impossible to pinpoint... but the alt-rock scuzz of the 80s certainly is not the end-all of their sound. Currently Duncanson is listening to an act called Dislocation Dance, active in the eighties and recently reformed and working on new material. "Maybe that will affect the next album, we'll see. I've already started recording some disco tracks."
One thing is for sure: you can't stare at your shoes during a disco record. -joe puglisi