When Dazed was invited to put questions to The Knife for the release of their Shaken Up remix album, we had no idea we’d be taking part in the Swedish outfit’s final interview. In fact, we didn’t think we were taking part in anything at all — with questions lodged with the band in June, a frustrating silence ensued as we were left to assume the line had gone dead.
Finally this morning, some answers were returned, with the startling nugget contained within the transcript — “We will close down, it’s our last tour. We don’t have any obligations to continue.” The band’s PR confirmed the news that following their latest round of tour dates, The Knife would officially be no more.
On reflection, the announcement isn’t really so shocking from a group that have never exactly been beholden to expectation. Formed by sibling duo Karin Dreijer and Olof Dreijer in 1999, the Swedish synth-pop duo abstained from touring until 2006. Word of their peculiar magic spread through third album Silent Shout and a cover of an older song, ”Heartbeats”, by José Gonzales that cracked the UK Top 10. (The only other song bearing their name in the credits to reach the UK Top 40 is Robyn’s ”Who’s That Girl?”, a #26 hit in 2008).
The band’s reputation continued to grow through a period of relative inactivity — there was Karin’s acclaimed Fever Ray LP in 2009, and an opera album, Tomorrow, in a Year, recorded with Mt Sims and Planningtorock the year after that — but fans would have to wait until 2013 to hear their next studio album proper. Shaking The Habitual divided critics with its uncompromising approach and rather forbidding, opaque passages of instrumental music, but contained some of their most ambitious work to date. Likewise, their tour for the record attracted its fair share of controversy: blending in anonymously onstage with a community theatre ensemble, the Dreijers seemed to question the very notion of The Knife as a band in the conventional sense.
It’s a question that’s been answered today with news of their split. Here, the duo talk us through their past 12 months on the road, and what the future might hold for them after The Knife.
Have the past couple of years re-energised your interest in The Knife as a project generally?
Karin Dreijer: For me, The Knife is anything and nothing. It can be whatever you want. At the moment, The Knife is 25 people touring and even more people documenting the process, making videos and helping us out with different things. When we finish the tour now in November we will close down, it’s our last tour. We don’t have any obligations to continue, it should only and always be for fun.
You spoke around the time of Shaking The Habitual that “music can be so meaningless”, and how you had to try and find some sort of animating purpose for writing the record. What was the ‘meaning’ of your recent remix album Shaken Up, broadly speaking?
Karin Dreijer: We wanted to find a way to combine different interests, like politics, activism and how to make music. I think now music can have a meaning, a purpose, to stimulate, to make room for free thinking, to criticise the norms. It can start critical thinking.
Why did you decide to rework so much of your material for your recent live shows?
Karin Dreijer: We wanted to make a dance show so the music had to be dancier.
Olof Dreijer: I think in these big venues we play in (1500 to 4000 capacity), it's the more celebratory and dance-y tracks that work best. I'd say we kind of acknowledged that and worked with the context. It's more powerful I think, to give a feeling of us and the audience moving and doing something together. Also, I see music as giving myself and others energy, and to help us through heavy times. and to achieve that, I need rhythm.
Are you fans of remixes in general? Do you think they perform a useful function?
Karin Dreijer: I think it can be interesting to hear other musicians’ interpretations of your music, it’s good to hear how you can see things in other ways. It’s like discussing an idea from different angles. Also the dancier ones I like a lot, because that’s not what we were aiming for when we did the originals.
The shaken-up version of "Without You My Life Would Be Boring" comes with a video directed by Bitte Anderson. But why is it set in a hospital? And the poo-stained sheets... really?!
Olof Dreijer: When asking Bitte she was just finishing her Dyke Hard movie, a lesbian rock n roll adventure. We simply loved the trailer for it. Our only request when asking Bitte was that the video should feature dance and take place in an environment that represents a part of the public sector. We have elections coming up in September in Sweden and the welfare system is being dismantled through privatisation. And regarding the shit, Bitte has a background in splatter comedy, so bodily fluids are a natural part of her expression. As representatives of the norm, Bitte likes to put white guys in symbolic positions such as being the only ones playing with poo and having to clean up their own mess.
Were you prepared for criticism from fans when you devised your live show for Shaking The Habitual? Have the shows this year differed from the tour in 2013?
Karin Dreijer: There were many reasons for reworking the show from the 2013 version to the 2014 version. We had about 10 weeks to create and rehearse the show and so many ideas to try out. The process was a lot about trying out ideas together with dancers, a choreographer, a set designer, and creative directors. It was a fantastic process but it needed a lot of time, which we finally ran out of. So we had to cut ideas for the first version. And when we decided to continue in the US, we made a second version, in order to realise some of the original ideas from before. For example, all of the dancers had to learn how to play instruments and sing for the 2014 version. We also listened to feedback of course. Some thought we were too introverted, whereas we were completely sure that we were as clear and obvious as possible :-) It’s very luxurious to have the time to be able to take a step back and change things. Also we wanted more of a ‘show’ feeling for the stage so now we have a stage on three levels.
Olof Dreijer: When making the Shaking The Habitual show we wanted to be inclusive. Some people who like dancing and like to look at dance really thought we were inclusive, but some people didn’t, so because what we tried to achieve didn’t happen, we just had to continue working. Now I think the show is really inclusive for more different people and it is more fun, colourful, shiny, and I would say that the collective is even more apparent because you see all of the dancers singing and playing instruments. Before, it was more dark and mystical.
Given the show’s stated aim of engaging with audiences instead of rendering them passive ‘consumers’, do you welcome the criticism in a sense?
Karin Dreijer: Absolutely. I think it’s been very good to sit down, all of us in our show-making team (about 11 performers and about six creative workers) to discuss, try out, remake and rethink.
On the other hand, has it been possible to gauge how much of a positive impact your more politicised new direction has had?
Karin Dreijer: One aim was to work towards a change within the tour worker’s field. We have tried to hire a female technical crew, we have equal salaries (following the different union salary requirements). In that sense, I know we’ve made a change at least in the area we are controlling. One important goal has been to have fun, and I think it’s important that everyone in the crew and on the performer side has good working conditions, otherwise there will never be a good tour.
“Do we welcome criticism? In a sense, absolutely” – Karin Dreijer
You recently began performing a series of shows with Europa Europa aimed at highlighting issues around migration, how did the project come about?
Karin Dreijer: It’s the Swedish art collective FUL who invited us to write music for an anti-nationalist cabaret about Europe’s migration politics. We will perform this until the Swedish elections on the 14th of September.
What shape will the performance take? Have you written music for the whole show?
Karin Dreijer: It is performed by five actors and Olof and I are the house band. It's using different cabaret forms like text, music, image, costumes and confetti. We have written almost all music but we’re also singing on top of M.I.A.’s/Bappi Lahiri’s track "Jimmy". Nasim Aghili who wrote the script has written all the lyrics.
Is immigration an issue you both feel strongly about? Is it likely to be a key issue in the forthcoming Swedish elections?
Karin Dreijer: Sweden is a part of EU so we follow the EU immigration policies and their border control organisation Frontex. Since Frontex was invented by the governments of the EU 10 years ago, more than 20,000 people have died because of the borders of Europe. It’s the greatest shame and one of the biggest human catastrophes of our time.
Olof Dreijer: Yes migration is an issue I feel strongly about. Migration issues is a part of my activism. Unfortunately no party has it as their key issue, however the party Feminist Initiative and the Left Wing Party have decently formulated migration politics.
Any idea what's next for you guys? Karin, have you any plans to work under the Fever Ray moniker again?
Karin Dreijer: When we finish The Knife’s last run in mid-November, I will start thinking about what is to come next!
Olof Dreijer: In September, I’m going to continue working with Houwaida Hedfi. I'm going to mix and produce her new album. She's a great composer and plays all kinds of percussion instruments. It’s very moving music! We recently did a gig together at the Clandestino Festival.
Follow Alex Denney on Twitter here @alex_denney