The Knife

Better Habits

Jul 09, 2013 Issue #45 - Winter 2013 - Phoenix
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The Knife didn't need to make a new albumthey are clear about thatand you probably need to hang onto that thought if you're going to have the mindset needed to unravel their latest release, the sprawling 96-minute Shaking the Habitual. True to its title, the fourth Knife album is all about breaking down routines and questioning the way things are donesomething that has resulted in an album that is part hypnotic synth-pop opus, part noise collage, and part unclassifiable hybrid of every nightmare you've ever had. That said, it sounds very little like 2006's now-classic Silent Shout, the album that launched a sea of imitators and made brother-sister duo Olof Dreijer and Karin Dreijer Andersson electronic music's most eccentric outsiders, masked pop stars who had little interest in fame and little concern for expanding their cult. Since that breakthrough, they've stayed busy with their solo projects (Dreijer making albums as Oni Ayhun and Dreijer Andersson as Fever Ray) and writing an opera (2010's Tomorrow, In a Year). But if they were going to make another Knife album, it would have to be a statement. Everything would be questionedfrom how their sounds were made to who was on their tour crewand they would use the album as an opportunity to say the things they hadn't yet figured out the last time they had the spotlight. Speaking from their separate apartments in Stockholm, the duo explains just what that statement is.

[Note: These are extra portions of our interview, quotes that didn't make it into our main print issue article on The Knife in the March/April 2013 issue.]

Matt Fink (Under the Radar): So did you start the writing process for this album with any plan for how it would be different than Silent Shout?

Olof Dreijer: Yes. Where should we start? I think we really wanted to have a more exciting process, and the process itself was important for us, to start working. We started to read a set of books that created some common ground for us to work out of. We both wanted to go deeper into theories that we already had been working with before, but we wanted to learn more. So studying more feminist theory and queer theory and post-colonial studies, and we just wanted to find a way to study that work. So we read and we started to jam. I think that was it.

Karen Dreijer Andersson: Music-wise, I think we both wanted to do things that we hadn't done before, to try, in some way, to get rid of what we already knew. So we took instruments and different objects and we had long jamming sessions in the beginning.

So what, in particular, were you reading to inspire your writing and recording process?

Olof: Like I mentioned, it was a lot of theory. Like Ground Course A in gender studies at the University in Stockholm, which is not only gender studies but post-colonial studies and critical white theory and different anti-racist thinkers, and some fiction like Jeanette Winterson, for example, and also Swedish writers, writing in this Swedish context. I think this, and all the years that have passed since we worked together the last time, it naturally gave it a more interesting thinking-about-society-in-a-more-structured-way and looking at how political structures work, rather than before when we were interested in how political structures affect us psychologically and internally.

I read in your press release that this album was influenced by the political hymns of your youth. Did you approach this album as a protest album?

Olof: I guess that's something that has been around all the time when we've been working over the last 10 years. We grew up with an example of political music. It was something that was easy to relate to, and it was a possibility, and that's radical left music bands but also theater projects that were made in the '70s that our parents were into. There are different ways how this played a role, but one example would be that we've been really thinking about how a protest song of today or that we'd feel comfortable with, what that would be. I think the protest songs that we grew up with from the '70s were presented in a quite a manifest way that there is or was political goals in a modernist way. Me and Karin have been thinking about how to work with a protest song where different perspectives on one issue can exist at the same time, like being able to give this feeling of how one issue can be seen in different ways.

Karin: I'm not sure whether we have found any real clear answers to that. [Laughs] That's something that we've talked about. What is political music today and what role can political music play today? That is something that we tried to study in music, but I don't think we have any answer to that.

Do you approach writing a protest song differently, in that the goal would be to influence your listener to actually do or think something instead of just using the music as sound?

Olof: Maybe that would be the Wagner approach. Music can be very dangerous. [Laughs]

Karin: What is the Wagner approach, like making music for eight, nine, 10 hours?

Olof: No. I'm thinking that his music went well along with fascism.

Karin: Yeah, that's true. I think a way that we have made political music, it is like questioning things with music. Questioning or playing with things like authenticity and playing with expectations or ideas about certain sounds and rhythms and playing with the idea of what is quality within music and the fascination of making authentic music.

Did the songs on the album evolve much over time?

Olof: A lot. Many of the tracks have had many different sets of clothes and styles and expressions. It's all about when having a theme or a certain issue that a song is dealing with and searching for the most interesting way to present that musically and sound-wise.

These songs seem to have a very visual quality, even when it's difficult to know what is producing the sound that you hear. Some songs seem cinematic in the sense that you feel like you're inside a scene.

Karin: I think we use very visual words when talking about music together. That is something that I have learned during the past months when we have started with our live show. You have different kinds of languages when trying to have a process and work together like different people. I think Olof and I have a quite visual language when we make music. So some tracks we think of are very much telling a story and things happen and there's a certain kind of a dramaturgy in a song. I guess that's what you can call cinematic.

When you started did you have any idea of what kind of record you wanted to make, that it would be this sprawling, long release?

Karin: I think when we started we didn't know really what to expect out of the process. We talked about making a few tracks to see what would happen, but then it was really hard to just make a few tracks out of all of the reference material that we had. So I think maybe a year ago we thought that it had to be a quite long album.

Olof: We had a long list of ideas that we wanted to do, and we did maybe half of it, so it started to become a lot of material. We didn't have so clear a vision. It was very process-based. We did these jams and what turned out, turned out. Musically, I don't think we had decided what we wanted to do but more how we wanted to do it, like jamming and improvising rather than constructing. Can I ask you a question?

Sure.

Olof: How do you go about ideas of what is quality and what is good music and what is authentic?

That's a tough question. I suppose something is authentic to me if I believe the artist is offering an honest statement, something from the heart. What do you define as authentic?

Olof: I think the only thing I know is that there is nothing more authentic than the other, and there's no "good" music. I don't think there is anything called quality music. It's all subjective needs and in certain situations there is a need for a certain music, and in other situations another type of music can be needed. I think what people seem to see as quality has been constructed historically depending on who is in power. Often white men are seen as the quality provider. [Laughs] Looking at these structures, it seems not so solid a word"quality."

It must be exciting to be in a position to challenge all of that.

Olof: That is exciting! Me and Karin have started in the last years having lectures, and we teach at this summer camp for electronic music for girls between 13 and 18. We try to get out of our safe situation in the studio and talk with people, and that has really made us think about what we're actually doing a little bit. I don't know, really. I think maybe one simple example is that we try to use sounds and expressions that in certain fields of music, or in our field of music, are no-no's or sounds that are not seen as quality. We're playing the recorder, this flute, or 10 years ago we'd be using general MIDI as the drum sounds. I love them, but I've heard that people think they are a bit funny or cheap or something. What do you think, Karin?

Karin: We were questioning the kind of framework you build up to feel safe when you make music. That's something that you have to work on to tear down quite often. We did this summer girls' camp on electronics, and that has been really inspiring and also a way for us to evaluate and question and go through our own process. We are both feminists, and I think when looking back at our own process when making music and how we have been working, putting out records and so on, I think it hasn't been so feminist at all. That's something also that we've been trying to make change this time. So, it's a really good tool to meet with people and then you have to face yourself.

Do you think musicians should take more seriously the opportunities they have to change the ways they work?

Olof: It's difficult to say. We are in a privileged situation where we can do that. We try to make the best out of the situation and use our privilege to do these things, and it's a process that is constantly changing and hopefully for the better. But it's difficult to say what people out there do. I have friends that do think like we do and try to do the best, but it's difficult to be a feminist and act out of these issues in the capitalist system, because often it's the capitalist system that is the problem, and I think that's a reason why many artists have difficulty implementing feminist actions in their process.

Karin: I think you gain a lot of responsibility if you have the possibility to have a more equal or feminist or anti-capitalist process. If you have that possibility, then you also have a responsibility to use it. It's very hard to say what other artists should do, but I know what a lot of other artists who work in similar ways as we do.

I assume that influenced the artists you chose to work with on the album artwork.

Karin: I think for the album artwork, it is this graphic element that we have to manufacture to sell the music, so we thought of finding a visual artist who shares similar ideas and let this person to use this platform to discuss her own ideas. So we asked this Swedish comic writer called Liv Strömquist to write this comic, and we started with a lot of meetings and discussions about what kind of topics we thought were interesting. She makes very political comics in Sweden, and she has fantastic ideas. That was how we were thinking about the album artwork.

Olof: I think we thought we wanted to invite different people who have their own political practice to do what they want. For instance, friends of ours who are thinking about these issues who are feminists and socialists, all of them think about these things in many different ways. There are many different types of feminists. This was an attempt to capture all of these different feminisms. Each of our collaborators, like Liv who did the record cover which grew into two big posters and more that is coming, all of these people are working fairly autonomously with what they've done in conjunction with this record. We now have a big feminist collective that is working with us for the live show and different things.

Since you've always been very deliberate with presenting your public image in unconventional ways, how much thought did you give to that when you were thinking about this album?

Karin: I don't know if you've seen the pictures that we've done with the football team. We took old press pictures from 10 years ago of Olof and me and we made masks of these pictures and we put them on a girl's football team, and they're nine or 10 years old. I think something really interesting happens in that meeting, because there are all these artists' pictures, but they are not in a setting that you expect.

What role do you think the constant obscuring of your personal image plays?

Karin: I think mainly [to question] the role of the artist, since images are spread so fast and so widely. I think it's important, as well, to have some kind of private life.

So the decision not to show your faces is to try to shift focus off of yourselves and onto your art?

Karin: I think so, yes. But that is something that we've kept on saying all the time, that I'm using this mask to put focus on my art instead of me as a private person or an artist. That hasn't been questioned, so it's very effective.

Overall, what do you want your listener to take from this album?

Olof: I think that is difficult to answer from our position. We haven't done this so much to make the listener think in a certain way. I think it's the role of the music to say that.

Karin: I don't really think about what a listener thinks about it. When you put out an album, then it gets its own life. Then we're done with what we've been doing, and we just have to find something else to continue to work on.

www.theknife.net

[These bonus quotes originally appeared exclusively in the digital/iPad version of Under the Radar's March/April 2013 issue. The original main article appeared in the print edition of the March/April 2013 issue.]



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