The Knife On 'Shaking' Expectations
The Swedish siblings Olof Dreijer and Karin Dreijer Andersson released their self-titled debut album as The Knife in 2001, and in the dozen years since then, have upended expectations on a regular basis. Their second album, Deep Cuts, included the song "Heartbeats," a perfect, if slightly corroded, pop song. The 2006 album Silent Shout doubled down on digital manipulation and foreboding. A solo album by Dreijer Andersson, performing as Fever Ray, followed, as did collaborations with other musicians and music for an opera by the pair based on Charles Darwin's On The Origin of Species.
Last spring, the duo released Shaking The Habitual, one of the most layered, complicated and challenging albums of 2013. At more than 90 minutes, with long instrumental sections that abandoned the dance beats of previous albums (like the 19-minute icy windscape of "Old Dreams Waiting To Be Realized") and lyrics that constantly question dominant power dynamics, Shaking The Habitual came off like a concept album about making the musicians' personal priorities an explicit part of The Knife's music. If you wanted to engage with them in 2013, you had to do it on their terms.
This wasn't a surprise for followers of the band, who rarely give interviews, didn't perform live until 2005 and only appear in publicity photos behind masks, wigs or makeup. Shaking The Habitual itself was accompanied by a manifesto, a satirical comic titled "END EXTREME WEALTH" (Bill DeBlasio would be proud) and videos that made the band's commitment to challenging norms — particularly around gender and power — impossible to miss.
A couple of months before the album was released, we were contacted by the band's press representatives, who asked if we would be interested conducting an audio interview — the only one the duo would agree to for this album. At NPR, audio is our medium, and the idea of an unfiltered portrait of The Knife was exciting (even if, as we were told, the band would want to approve the written transcript of the interview, to avoid, as they feared, being misquoted).
Ann Powers (in Alabama) and I (in New York) recorded the interview with the band (in Sweden) via Skype as well as three separate higher-quality recording to be combined later. The pair were as deliberate and thoughtful in their answers as they are in their recordings, and as dedicated to practical applications of feminist, queer and academic theories. After about a week, we received The Knife's recording, only to discover that Olof and Karin had masked their voices with pitch-shifting effects.
An "unfiltered" portrait was something we never should have expected, but, honestly, we were thrown for a bit of a loop. After a few weeks of trying to figure out how to present the interview, we gave up. I went on paternity leave. But when we got to December and looked back on the year, there was something about this uncompromising, challenging, complicated interview that felt like a perfect representation of these two musicians and their album (the fact that it took nearly nine months — from conception to publication — to gestate felt kind of undeniably appropriate as well). With that in mind, we're pleased to finally offer it to you now. You can read the transcript (approved by the band) below, or listen to the interview — finally — at the audio link on this page.
Jacob Ganz: Your music can be very seductive, but there's very often something between you guys as performers, as the musicians, and the listeners: like that filter over the vocals or masks when you're performing or just the very effect of all the noise on this album. It's like music is there to draw listeners in but also to keep them at a very specific distance. How do you tell where to strike that balance?
Karin Dreijer Andersson: I don't think we're trying keep a distance. I think we're very curious about finding out ourselves what we are doing, and since a lot of the sounds come out from studies of different objects, I think it's more of asking questions instead of delivering so many answers ... so maybe you feel that as a distance.
Ann Powers: Another way you can think about the distance is Bertolt Brecht's concept of alienation, which was about always about making the person absorbing the art, the audience, aware this is a performance, you know? That you challenge their identification, and you want them to identify and feel emotional, but you also want them to realize that this is a performance just as in your music you talk about identity as a performance and I wondered if you thought about that idea at all.
Olof Dreijer: Thank you for saying that, that's really great. I think, yeah, you're really on point there. Actually, we don't talk too much about the listener while working, and we don't take the listener too much into consideration when we are actually doing the music, but I think we are really interested in making it very clear that there is not any authentic sound or way to do things or there's not an authentic way to sing, or there is not one way that certain instruments should sound. So I think that, if you like, is maybe the conceptual drive to some artistic decisions. But, also, in the very process of working, we also just want to have fun and kind of jam and have a joyful process, and in that very moment all kinds of things can happen. But then one has to decide what tracks should stay and which tracks should be left.
Jacob Ganz: There's a lot of stuff around this album — the sort of manifesto that came out, and the album art, and the comic that's on your website — that seemed like they're clues for the listener to sort of help access the album... maybe help understand some of the subtext of the lyrics or some of the text in the lyrics. You said you don't consider the listener very much while your making the music, but do you think about how they might experience the album if those clues fall away? If it's just a piece of music by itself?
Karin Dreijer Andersson: I just think that these things like the text that Jess Arndt wrote and also the comic that Liv Stromquist made, I think it's people who we have invited to have this kind of collaboration with. It's more of being able to work with these people who normally work with the same kind of issues, and share the same kind of political issues that we do, so I think that's it's more of dealing or seeing and discussing the same issues from different perspectives and through different medias. It's kind of a way for us to be as inspired and to be able to continue discussing these things with other people through different kind of art forms.
Ann Powers: I'm sitting here at my computer looking at a screen saver I have which is a painting that Jean Smith of Mecca Normal made of Pussy Riot. I wonder if you were at all inspired by what Pussy Riot did in terms of opening up their very identities so that others could others could speak through them, the idea that we could all be part of what they did. With the Jess Arndt piece particularly, which wasn't initially signed — in other words it took some people a little while to know that Jess had written it — I wonder if you're all kind of all sharing a collaborative identity through this process?
Olof Dreijer: Do you mean if everybody is sharing the same kind of will to collaborate?
Ann Powers: You've made the music but you've made this even bigger work with all of the wonderful films that you've already made, when you've perform live you'll wear certain costumes, or people are doing your set design, or writers. Are they all part of The Knife?
Olof Dreijer: There is so much to be said. Many times working with just the music can feel a bit meaningless, and it is in the collaboration and in the process around it that a possible meaning, I think, can be found. When we are together with other people and working with queer and feminist issues, I think that becomes some type of meaning and I think that when we can learn together and think together, I think that is really great. I feel very privileged to be able to do that at work.
Ann Powers: That strikes me as a very radical feminist way of thinking of making art.
Olof Dreijer: Yes, definitely. They have been there before us, coming up with great ways to work.
Ann Powers: That's definitely true. Your music and your work makes me think of everyone from Yoko Ono to Kathy Acker to riot grrrl, Kathleen Hanna, and on the album itself you refer to Jeanette Winterson, to Margaret Atwood. How important is it for you as artists to connect very strongly to a particular lineage and also how do you try to be immediate and accessible to people who might not know that linage who might not be familiar with the artists and writers and thinkers you're referencing?
Olof Dreijer: It's a very difficult question, but we think about that a lot.
Karin Dreijer Andersson: I think it's so important. When you want to work in a feminist process, it has been so important to create these collaborations to not feel so alone and also to have these kind of autonomous areas where you can work with your ideas and not have to struggle with the patriarchy on the outside, kind of, but to have this autonomous safe zones. And I think a part of that also has been to understand history. That is something that has been discussed a lot in many feminist areas as well — that we have to rewrite history because there is so many people missing in history — and that is also a part of this idea that there has been so many people there before us.
Ann Powers: When you mentioned autonomous safe zones it made me think of the writer Hakim Bey. He wrote about temporary autonomous zones — that even in the midst of capitalism, of a world where the commodity rules, you can create these spaces that are safe spaces that might not last forever, but they kind of float and travel and go under the radar, and that seems to be what you're doing with your community.
Olof Dreijer: I mean, I see different communities who succeed in that very well. They do art and they create the possibility for themselves to work with the ideas and I think that is really inspiring. In the past, I think we've had this idea about infiltration as a way to act against a lot of things like the structures around us, but at the same time I think it's like banging your head to the wall a lot of times and in the end you need to find a way to gain energy while [you] continue working. So I don't really believe in that way of working. Not for me at least. It eats you up.
Jacob Ganz: Is that why you try not to think about listeners when you're making the album?
Olof Dreijer: No, I think we when we work in the studio it's really just our process. It would be difficult to have an idea of the listener because the listener can be anyone.
Karin Dreijer Andersson: And also, I think if you should think about the listener, you also have to think about the result of what you're doing and that is not a good thing to think about while working. We have had such a long list of ideas of how we wanted to work and what things we wanted to try out, and it was a lot of experiments and very concrete ideas like putting up a P.A., running a noise through that and seeing what happens. When the idea is a question, you don't know the result and you don't know anything about what the listener might think.
Jacob Ganz: So at what point do these questions become songs? Because throughout the course of the album the answers are clearly very different.
Karin: Obviously when you have many, many minutes of recordings — or hours — you have to start editing it down to something more effective, and I think that's what we try to do.
Olof Dreijer: I don't think we answered your question, Ann, regarding how important it is for us to share our sources or the stuff we've read and the relationship to those and people who might not know about them. I think that with the music you can create an emotional interpretation of these political ideas and theories that we've been reading and I think music can have that potential to hopefully suggest an emotional side to the political issues. I think we chose to share all these sources and have a source list in the record cover, and I think these books have helped us understand so many things that our friends and listeners would like to read them too. It's as simple as that.
Ann Powers: I appreciate that so much because I often feel that legacies can be forgotten if they are not acknowledged. Speaking of your process and what you've been saying about making your process an inquiry — a set of questions rather than a set of answers — a lot of artists who are now working in the same theoretical framework or addressing some of the ideas that you're addressing, say Matmos or Holly Herndon for example, they're working in electronic music. And of course you work in electronic music, but you turned to different ways of making music for this album. I wondered about specifically the instruments or the experiments, how did those tools shape the messages or shape the, as you said so beautifully Olaf, the emotional interpretation of these ideas?
Olof Dreijer: Where should we start? I tried to think of a good example but... for example, [on] the track we did with Emily Roysdon and Shannon Funchess, Emily wanted to talk about the experience of being in the Occupy movement in New York, because it was just around that time. Then we thought, okay, how should we work with the music? We felt like it should be dance music because we all wanted something activating and we wanted to see if we could do something like a protest song in the context of dance and also something that could be seen as something that has a mobilizing feeling. And then we went really nerdy about what musical scale and how we should make the sound, so then we had this alternative 22 note scale, because I guess we had this idea that everything has to inspire you to think outside the box and have some feeling of there is another way possible and blah blah blah. So then we got into this field of alternative tuning, and that we really tried out in many of the songs. There was a lot of different scales that we've been trying out on different songs and that has been really fun. So I guess that is one way and ... yeah, there is plenty of ways. We've been playing different string instruments and kind of preparing them in different ways and just getting to know different instruments like a zither? And we put an old bedspring into a big wooden box and tried some things.
Ann Powers: A lot of times when people think about political music, especially in America, they think about someone strumming a guitar. You know, Woody Guthrie, an anthem. Your music is very cathartic, but I don't know if I'd ever call it anthemic. Your title addresses it, you know, using that Foucault quote about shaking up our habits. Does your music connect in any way to that more conventional protest music tradition of a Woody Guthrie or a Bob Dylan? I see you in plaid shirts, playing acoustic guitars on your next tour.
Karin Dreijer Andersson: No, but I mean that's how we are brought up with, that way of playing instruments, playing in a band with guitars and singing, using the lyrics as the way for sharing your political ideas. I think it's been very interesting to dig into this to find out how you make audio political. To answer your question, I think still in the lyrics, it has, of course, more connections to the kind of lyrics we were brought up with. Some were very direct and I think they tell a lot about ideas. It's hard — if I would say they are much more concrete than the audio, it's also not right, because I think the audio is sometimes very aggressive and frustrated and looking for answers and curious and all of those things that the lyrics are saying also. Hmm. I don't know.
Ann Powers: We only have one more question. Of course, the famous radical feminist slogan, the personal is political, and also this album is a lot about identity as artists and identity as performance and gender trouble. But you also have personal identities in your own lives. You're brother and sister. Karin, you have children. I wondered if your own personal identities factor into your artistic process at all. At what point do you step out of your day to day roles or identities and become The Knife, or are they just seamlessly connected?
Olof Dreijer: Uh, yes.
Olof Dreijer: They are very seamlessly connected.
Karin Dreijer Andersson: I think it's really hard to keep some kind of distance in between. I don't know. I don't know if it would be good to have a professional self or you have your private identity as well but I think they are pretty much the same. I mean, for example, this time we really tried to organize ourselves when putting out records and the way we work more administrative. We have our own label and we choose who to work with and I think in the past we haven't been working really feminist, so it's like during the last years we've been really looking into who we hire and who we have collaborations with. It's the things we're interested in, and then I don't think there is a difference between what you do as an artist and what you do privately.
Olof Dreijer: Yes, I think everything is politicized for me.
Karin Dreijer Andersson: Yeah.