Putting the Punk in Cyberpunk 2077: Why Refused is the sound of the future
© Tim Tronckoe
CD Projekt Red and Refused have teamed up to bring Cyberpunk's in-universe band, Samurai, to life. Mike Pondsmith and Dennis Lyxzén talk about the importance of punk in this grimly prophetic world.
“It’s not just the philosophical attitude of the punk scene and it’s not just the music – everything about punk inspired Cyberpunk originally,” says Mike Pondsmith, R. Talsorian Games founder and creator of the whole Cyberpunk universe. “There is an inherent type of personal rebellion that is so specific to punk, and that’s what inspired me most”
A cursory look at any Cyberpunk project immediately reveals how the ethos of the punk subculture inspired Pondsmith – from the aggressive, DIY visual aesthetic that characterised the scene in the 70s to outspoken views on personal freedom, Cyberpunk is (and always has been) an artistic extension of the subculture.
“Listen to Sex Pistols and at a certain point you’ll realise it’s not about them talking about the world, it’s about how they relate to the world at their level,” explains Pondsmith. “That’s important. Their anthem isn’t ‘let’s save the world, we’re all friends’, it’s ‘you got in my face motherf***er’ followed by a headbutt.”
That attitude, Pondsmith argues, is important if you’re going to be parading about the city in black leather covered in spikes, sporting neon mohawks, carrying weapons in open sight. In his head, Pondsmith believes that the punk attitude affords you the right to be aggressive, to challenge the societal norm. To rebel.
The upcoming game based on Pondsmith’s work, Cyberpunk 2077, is all about rebellion. Set in a US megacity in the ‘Free State of North California’, the world is a grim take on globalistation – a thought experiment asking what would happen if what we see as late-stage capitalism is simply the gateway to something even worse. The wealth gap has widened, country and state law is meaningless, the police force is corporate. Cyberpunk’s world used to exist in the far-flung reaches of imagination, but its socio-economic dystopia is getting more real every day.
But there’s hope. Against every culture exists a counter-culture. Night City, on the surface, is defined by corporations going toe-to-toe for market dominance, and gangs cruising the streets to fight for control of the underbelly. But there are still regular people – humans trying to live their lives – that exist in this dismal reality. And they have their own voices, their own opinions and their own take on the world around them.
“Music is how you look into a culture’s head,” Pondsmith explains. “People always have a thirst for new stuff. New music, especially. I don’t think that’s ever going to change.”
The [Sex Pistols' anthem] isn’t ‘let’s save the world, we’re all friends’, it’s ‘you got in my face motherf***er’ followed by a headbutt.
A voice of the rebelling populace in Cyberpunk 2077 – a band fuelling that world’s hunger for music that represents them – is the ‘chrome rock’ outfit, Samurai. The once-fictional band has been brought to life by for the upcoming game by Refused, a Swedish punk band that’s been a key part of the hardcore scene since 1991.
You can’t make fictional music without a real band doing the legwork, and Refused have been hired by developer CD Projekt Red because – essentially – the studio knows the band has foresight. The band’s third album, The Shape of Punk to Come, asserted that the purity of ‘punk’ was dying – that the mainstream had co-opted so many punk ideals, aesthetics and sounds that the once-vibrant counterculture was now a tattered parody of itself, held together by nothing but safety pins.
Refused, it can be argued, inspired a new wave of hardcore music – music that encapsulated the anti-establishment ethos of punk, but modified it with new elements: post-hardcore, techno, jazz… these modifications combined to make something wholly new, whilst retaining the kernel of what punk has always been about.
“Being punk has always meant being the outsiders – you come in from the outside, armed with an anti-establishment sentiment,” says Refused vocalist and lyricist Dennis Lyxzén. “That’s the main thing we wanted to keep for Samurai, as well as this DIY aspect of punk rock, which I think fits in with this whole future Cyberpunk 2077 is going for”.
Some hardcore fans of Refused have argued that the band’s decision to appear in a videogame is akin to selling out; that masquerading as the band Samurai flies in the face of the scene the band helped expand. Lyxzén chooses to see it another way, though; even when you’re being anti-establishment in a fictional world, you’re still rallying against the injustice and inequality that suppresses the populace. You’re just doing it through a different lens.
“The type of band Refused is – with our political agenda and the scene and the background that we come from – it's quite interesting to write for something fictional,” Lyxzén explains. “Most of the time you write from your own perspective, and you write your reality and you write how you see the world. Now, we have to write from someone else's perspective in a fictional reality… it's interesting to sort of immerse yourself into that situation.”
Refused worked with a composer from CD Projekt Red to ensure the sound was in line with the studio’s vision for Samurai, and trained with a vocal coach in order to better represent the American twang in-universe frontman Johnny Silverhand (played by Keanu Reeves) would sing with. But none of that presented the biggest departure from the band’s usual way of working. No, the biggest change for Lyxzén, at least, was in the song-writing itself.
“I've had huge problems in the past with the storytelling aspect of songwriting, or writing from someone else’s perspective. You know, the whole Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen idea that you tell a story from another pair of eyes. You have a dystopian future where people have to fend for themselves – and with that perspective, you see how punk rock is quite obviously inspiration for this fiction where people kind of take control of their own lives and their own identity. So, after understanding that, making music in this world just kind of made sense to us.”
For me personally to be able to say to people 'I'm Keanu Reeves singing voice' – that's pretty f***ing awesome.
But does that mean the music is inauthentic – that what Refused is doing here is a world apart from what it would usually create as a band? Not at all; in fact, some of the Samurai tracks you’ll hear in the game are reworkings of demos and ideas that didn’t quite make the cut for the band’s last album. And it shows when you listen to the music, too. Granted, there’s an element of the Samurai tracks being toned down a bit compared to what you’ve come to expect from Refused, but the songs are – without doubt – punk.
“We come from the punk and hardcore scene, you know; we come from that world. Whatever type of band we are now – a rock band or alternative rock band, a punk band or hardcore band, or whatever – it's interesting to be a part of a subculture,” Lyxzén notes.
“Being in a game like this… it’s an idea that's very far removed from our origins, and from our background. It's fascinating because this is not who we're gonna be, and this is not what we're gonna do in the future, but it's fascinating to sort of dip our feet into this fiction. This is a game that's probably the most anticipated game for the last couple years. To be part of that, you can’t help but be proud.
“And for me personally to be able to say to people “I'm Keanu Reeves singing voice” – that's pretty f***ing awesome.”
Listening to the work Refused has done as Samurai after understanding how much of a deviation this has been for the band, you can’t help coming away impressed. The music itself, with its broad anti-establishment vibe, its raw sound, its catchy hooks – it all plays into what Refused itself said punk should be: a statement on the world, utilising new tools and components to make your point.
“When I wrote Cyberpunk, I intended it to satisfy the fantasies of a lot of people: you’re gonna be badass, you’re gonna be wearing a lot of leather, you’re gonna be carrying big gear and doing crazy things,” says Pondsmith. "And I’m gonna do that in a context where you’re not superhuman. The fantasy I intended was 'it’s bad out there, but you can handle it… if you’re badass enough'. That’s punk, and that’s the roleplaying I wanted to get out of people: the attitude, the nerve to face off against this future.”
Refused, in playing Samurai and nailing the tone of the music in a world 50-plus years ahead of ours, sums up that ideal perfectly. The band has created a soundtrack to a rebellion that rallies against the mainstream – whilst actively being part of it! If even a fraction of the game’s players come away from Cyberpunk 2077 having internalised the meaning and the inspiration behind Lyxzén’s lyrics, then the band has succeeded.
Cyberpunk 2077 is coming to Xbox One, PS4 and PC on November 19th, 2020.