Feature: The Knife interview

A brother-sister duo finds their fire on a vanities-bonfire of a new album

Music Feature
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In December 2012, The Knife uploaded a 42-second video that hinted at the concerns of their fourth album, Shaking the Habitual. It depicted the siblings on playground swings in Barbarella-meets-ABBA metallic blue jumpsuits with flowing wigs and full make-up. An auburn-haired Olof Dreijer stood unsteadily in platform heels, shell pink to match his manicure. Accompanying the video was a short text: “Music can be so meaningless. We had to find lust. We asked our friends and lovers to help us.”

“The word has to be ‘lust’ because it is stronger and much more urgent than other words,” says Karin Dreijer Andersson, speaking to Dazed with her younger brother Dreijer via Skype between rehearsals in Stockholm for the band’s forthcoming live dates. “Sex is a very political thing, and I think nowadays it’s even more important. Everything is so sexualised but at the same time women are not allowed to have a sex life.”

It’s one thing for an album campaign to involve drag, sex and pissing in the street (more on that later), but quite another when it’s one of the most anticipated releases so far this decade. The Knife occupy an oddly prophetic position in modern music, and have carved out their own weird niche in a world flooded with imitators. Apart from Richard D James, it’s hard to think of anyone else who has created such a distinct sound and aura within the electronic music landscape without compromising their artistry. Yet, unlike AFX, they are rarely imitated, because, let’s be honest, how could you? The Knife have always considered themselves political, but Shaking the Habitual is a change in approach. As Dreijer says, “In the past we’ve worked with how structures in society affect us on a psychological level, but we’re trying to be a bit more clear this time.”

This is very political. It’s very important to show alternative ways of being in our more and more homogenised world.

The Knife’s new directness is partly inspired by their involvement in a politicised and art-focused branch of the queer community in Berlin, where Dreijer has lived for seven years. “It has been a great eye-opener,” says Andersson, who often visits her brother in the city. Among the duo’s friends there is Marit Ostberg, the Swedish-born feminist porn director who directed the video to the new album’s mindblowing first single, “Full of Fire”. Ostberg’s ten-minute film depicts various forms of erotic play on the streets of Stockholm, including bondage atop a Triumph motorcycle and a pick-up at a political protest, with an appearance from Andersson and Dreijer as a bourgeois couple that winkingly literalises the lyric “liberals giving me a nerve itch”. At one point, a well-turned-out woman squats in the gutter between two parked cars and urinates through her tights.

Were they ever worried that “Full of Fire” was a step too far? “No!” exclaims Andersson, bristling slightly before bursting into laughter. “I think it’s quite a nice video actually,” says Dreijer. “It has so much generosity and playfulness.” For the director herself, the lustful larks contain an important social critique. “It is very political, of course,” Ostberg says from Berlin. “Sex can be a great activist tool. When I started to make queer feminist porn films, I discovered how I could use images of sexuality as a continuation of my feminist activism.” Andersson has collaborated with Ostberg previously under her solo guise of Fever Ray, soundtracking the publicly funded 2009 erotic short-film series Dirty Diaries. (Ostberg’s contribution included an anal scene with a dildo.) “(My work is) about female and queer bodies that take their sexuality into their own hands,” Ostberg says. “This is very political. It’s very important to show alternative ways of being in our more and more homogenised world.”

As with any political thought, to enact a true difference requires working with like-minded individuals. “After doing the opera album (2010’s Tomorrow, In a Year, a collaboration with Mount Sims and Planningtorock) we thought it really fun to work with other people,” says Andersson, and The Knife do so on Shaking the Habitual’s pulsating protest-hymn “Stay Out Here”, which features incendiary vocals from Shannon Funchess of Light Asylum and lyrics by visual artist Emily Roysdon. “We asked people to do what they like, but people who share similar interests,” says Dreijer. “Feminists and socialists, for example. It’s a fun and rewarding learning process, and I think the collaborations and the process itself at times become the meaning of why we work with music.”

But not everyone’s idea of social critique would include a lyric like “I got the urge for penetration”, which Andersson moans on the strikingly direct ballad “Wrap Your Arms Around Me”, in a radicalisation of lust that is quite distinct from the numbing commodification of sex in the media. “One reason (for the directness) is because we have been going deeper into feminist and queer theory and post-colonial studies,” explains Dreijer. He cherishes the work of Judith Butler, the poststructuralist American thinker who argued in Gender Trouble (1990) that gender is a culturally determined “performance” rather than being determined by the pink matter between your thighs. “She’s amazing,” enthuses Dreijer. “So important for me, and really inspiring. Many people believe that lust and desire is steady, rather than something that can be played around with.”

Andersson, meanwhile, has observed the gender inequality inherent in the Swedish educational system as a mother to two small children. “The laws say that there should be equality between gender in school, but it’s not like that in practice,” she laments. “It’s still just a theory. I feel it’s the same way as when I went to school 30 years ago, and there’s still such a long way to go there. It’s really sad. I find it so strange how the right-wing and Christian Democrats in Sweden believe so strongly in building our society based on family structures. To me it’s a bit insane!” She lets out a hollow laugh before continuing. “In ‘Raging Lung’, there’s a line that is borrowed from Fugazi’s ‘Blueprint’ – ‘What a difference a little difference would make’.

Though their anger is palpable throughout Shaking the Habitual’s 98 minutes, its aim is not to bulldoze, but gesture towards new possibilities for life and lust. In this regard, Andersson was inspired by the narrative of self-invention common to much feminist literature. “I borrowed a line from The Passion by Jeanette Winterson, who is one of my favourite writers: ‘I’m telling you stories / Trust me’.” The line, a recurring motif in Winterson’s 1987 novel, is equally totemic in ‘A Tooth for an Eye’, the pulsating cacophony that opens Shaking the Habitual. Andersson screams the line as if her head were on the chopping block, with the final syllable elongated into a shattering wail. It is a cry for life.

Their interest in politically charged music started early. Raised in Nacka, a municipality to the east of Stockholm, Andersson and Dreijer grew up listening to “progg” (short for “progressiv musik”), a left-leaning and anti-commercial strain of homegrown music not to be confused with the more limiting English term “prog rock”. One of Andersson’s favourite bands was Nationalteatern, a former travelling-theatre group who used their radio-ready rock as a platform to speak out against villainous “millionaires and tax dodgers”. On “Without You My Life Would Be Boring” – perhaps the catchiest track on the new album – Andersson portently intones “this piss is territorial” against a blood-curdling shriek as a jungle beat drops for the ecstatic hook, “What if we can’t make it but we say that we can / Shaking the habitual / Relate it to time”. As Dreijer says, “We’re always trying to see what political potential the music can have in a similar way.”

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For the neon-pink artwork of Shaking the Habitual, the band commissioned Malmö-based illustrator Liv Strömquist to design a comic book titled “End Extreme Wealth” that hilariously turns the right wing’s discourse against the poor on its head, painting the 1% as a culturally-impoverished and vermin-like “other”. “It came out of the idea, ‘How do we use the area of the record cover in the best political way?’” says Dreijer. “It’s about bringing focus to extreme wealth rather than poverty being the problem of the world.” It’s a far cry from the minimalist, graphic artwork of the band’s three previous albums, The Knife, Deep Cuts and Silent Shout.

The most cursory listen to The Knife’s music lends credence to Andersson’s view that the aural medium itself can jolt you into consciousness. “It is not challenging if you only listen to music where you know what’s going to happen, where you know the structure – there’s a verse, chorus and then it ends. I absolutely think that you can listen to music that starts your creativity.” And yet The Knife have a history of working within a pop framework, most notably on Deep Cuts. “But when we made Deep Cuts we had a quite different interest in music,” says Dreijer. “I believed more in the potential of the infiltrator – that you could enter a commercial pop-music situation and try to do something within that politically.” Not that the band are above taking advantage of the commercial music industry for their own gain; in 2005 they allowed José González’s schlocky acoustic cover of “Heartbeats” to be used in an ad campaign for Sony TV sets, financially enabling The Knife to start their own label, Rabid Records. “I guess I believe in being a bit more autonomous now,” Dreijer says. In fairness, it’s hard to imagine the eerie ten-minute noise jam “Fracking Fluid Injection” being pitched at an advertising agency any time soon. There is no experimentation with kitsch on the new album, either, unlike Silent Shout. “I don’t think we have ever been interested in irony,” says Andersson, witheringly.

So effective was their transformation from laser-lit techno-pop (Deep Cuts) to foreboding electro-noir (Silent Shout) that until now they’ve been indissociable from the raven-like prosthetics they wore during that period. On their 2006 tour (their first) they appeared as shadowy and carnivalesque figures in beaked masks amid an immersive light show with visuals depicting an unsettling matrix of humanoid geometry. Billed accordingly as “an audiovisual experience” rather than a gig, the intense shows were challenging yet seductive events that turned the idea of an “up close and personal” encounter with your favourite band on its head.

I mean you're putting masks of me and Olof on kids! So they are not really comfortable... It’s playing on how important it is for media to have pictures of artists who make music. So we took these old pictures and put the faces on other people.”

The duo see their ever-changing enigmatic aesthetic as a means of structural resistance and commentary itself. A case in point are these images of a female youth football team, provided exclusively for Dazed. “They’re a positive suggestion,” says Dreijer. “We are interested in making people think about different collectives. I think they’re very generous and fun.” Do they not find the images unsettling? “I mean, you are putting masks of me and Olof on kids!” Andersson laughs. “So they are not really comfortable. And our faces are also from old press pictures that we did in 2003 or something. That is part of the idea. It’s playing a little bit on the phenomenon of how important it is for media to have pictures of artists who make music. So we took these old pictures and put the faces on other people.”

But it’s a delicate balance to strike between disquieting allure and plain repulsion. Do the duo ever worry about being inaccessible? “If we were to do something totally inaccessible, I guess we would have to not put it out,” Andersson says while Dreijer sighs. “But I don’t think you should think about how your work will be received, especially not if it’s about questioning structures. If it’s inaccessible you’ll probably do something really good in the end.”

The Knife believe in a new medium for a new message. “I think it’s important for them to question the mask now,” says their collaborator Ostberg. “But just because they’ve stopped wearing masks, that doesn’t mean that what you see behind the mask is the truth. We all have many different masks that we carry around every day.” The Knife’s literalisation of the masks that we all wear may be their most radical of all, a gesture that says we may not be just one thing, but many. And they’re having quite a good time with it too. “Humour is a very good political strategy. Everything is disguises,” Dreijer deadpans as Andersson laughs. “Everything is drag!”

Shaking the Habitual is out on April 8 on Rabid Records

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