By Ken Scrudato; photos by Tova Rudin on April 3, 2013
With their lavishly exalted third album, Silent Shout, The Knife decisively entered the international consciousness in 2006, just prior to the worldwide financial apocalypse. It was notable that they hailed from that putative bulwark of profuse social enlightenment we call Sweden, which would, shortly following Barack Obama’s 2008 election, become a demon icon of progressive values. But as Fox News blathered on about our new and dangerously socialist president and his evil plan to turn America into Scandinavia, the brother-sister duo of Olof Dreijer and Karin Dreijer Andersson—awash in impenetrable enigma and grandiloquent artistic gestures—had been otherwise busy with the business of taking on a swelling post-millennial artistic malaise.
Indeed, with Silent Shout’s mostly unclassifiable musical hybridizations, a hallucinatory stage show and the dense 2009 nouveau opera Tomorrow, in a Year (based on the writings of Charles Darwin), The Knife stood decisively athwart the lackadaisical cultural archetypes of the new century.
Forward to 2013…and simply nothing could have reasonably prepared you for their latest release. In fervent opposition to the Teutonic coruscations of Silent Shout, Shaking the Habitual is vigorously, stunningly primitive. Opening tracks “A Tooth for an Eye” and “Full of Fire” exhibit relentlessly tribal and militaristic rhythms, overlaid with Karin’s hauntingly affected, exquisitely stentorian wailing. It’s a chill-inducing commencement, which then leads into “A Cherry on Top,” eight-plus percussion-free minutes of what could only be described as gothic Japanese folk music. Even such a pretty gem as “Wrap Your Arms Around Me” has something of the unsettling funeral march about it.
It’s all then shockingly broken up by 19 minutes of glacial, ambient desolation, intriguingly dubbed “Old Dreams Waiting to Be Realized.” Elsewhere, song titles like “Raging Lung,” “Fracking Fluid Injection” and “Oryx” (a species of endangered African antelope) bear out the record’s sweeping ideological scope. And a well-considered guest appearance finds Light Asylum’s Shannon Funchess trading vocals with Karin—with words penned by American artist Emily Roysdon—on the exhilarating “Stay Out of Here.”
Most significantly, in an age of torpid postmodern pastiche, they are amongst those rarest of musical creatures—along with maybe Björk, Crystal Castles, MIA—in that they create art that is not only imperative and urgent, but also fascinatingly difficult to codify.
FILTER was granted a rare opportunity to parley with Karin and Olof, effectively ending a seven-year press silence; it was no insignificant privilege. What followed was a rhetorical treatise on the looming demise of Western ideology and hegemony, which is likewise encoded in the very DNA of Shaking the Habitual. The duo’s social and political vantage seems to fall somewhere between the sardonic Marxian dialectics of Gang of Four (where everything from dating to housework to driving a cool car has far-reaching implications) and a more hopeful sort of Gaia Theory connectedness (which posits that every action by humanity fans out and alters the condition of economics, environmentalism, gender and sexual equality, et al.).
Oh, and in case you were wondering…The Knife do not want you to put their songs in your commercials.
Bands don’t seem to have all-encompassing ideologies anymore. Yet The Knife ostensibly exist within a total gestalt, if you will. Is there a larger philosophy at work?
OLOF: That’s a big question. There are so many things that could be said around that. One could be that when you choose how to present yourself, it is a quite a political situation, involving many things; and we try to use that to deal with the issues that we are interested in. We perform gender identity, aesthetics…
KARIN: I wouldn’t call it a philosophy. I think we just wanted to combine our political interests with this work of making music.
The Knife would appear to create based on these seemingly primal urges; everything seems urgent. Having taken seven years to make a proper new studio record, what was the imperative behind it?
OLOF: The Knife is one out of many projects. The last two years we have been working on this record, and it was an acknowledgement of a common interest to combine music and politics in a more explicit way. We started to read a set of books that would take us deeper into these issues we were already interested in. For instance, the gender studies, the feminist theory, the queer theory. And from these readings we found a common ground.
What were some of the ideas that resulted from your explorations that then inspired the songs?
KARIN: There are a lot of different themes that the songs work around; a few commonly pop up. For example, Sweden is a monarchy. The head of our country is inheriting the power by blood; this is a constitutional thing. At the same time, Swedish people have been talking about us as such a democratic country, as an anti-racist country and a country of equality, with a very social…
KARIN: Yes, and all while our leader inherits by blood. That’s an idea that goes throughout the album, this thing about constructing society and constructing families. Family politics in Sweden are still very much focused on this sort of hetero-normative idea, building families by blood. It’s very, very dangerous to have a society built upon bloodlines. It makes it very hard to change things.
I’m intrigued by your lyrics “poverty is profitable” and “a tooth for an eye.” Why do you think it is that people refuse to see capitalism as possibly defunct, or in great need of being reimagined?
OLOF: Well, I think most people I know believe capitalism doesn’t work and has terrible consequences—poverty, unequal distribution of money, bad working conditions…I could continue forever. And we have learned to believe that there is no alternative.
KARIN: And it’s not only in economical ways, it’s environmental ways, also. On many levels, it is a catastrophe.
Well, the environment is just another commodity now.
OLOF: And we can’t solve our environmental problems as long as there is capitalism.
OK, so I live in New York, which is a city of unfettered self-interest. One week after Hurricane Sandy supposedly brought all of us “together,” I found a lost, old, blind man standing on a busy street shouting for someone to help him—and not one other person stopped. So, I was intrigued by a line on your blog: “Every morning we wake up wondering who’s kicking who on the street corner.” Do you feel that the communal is being lost to a more and more fragmented and individualistic existence?
KARIN: I absolutely agree that society has become much more individualistic. For us, it has been important to have this process where we do things much more as a collective, to really have collaborations, to build things together. That is a very anti-capitalist way of working these days, because it takes so much more time than just calling a video director who is mostly doing commercials and saying, “I want the video in a month, here is the money.” We wanted another kind of process, an alternative way of working.
In “Wrap Your Arms Around Me” there seems to be an exaltation of conventional love. Is that in earnest?
KARIN: I am very much questioning these conventional family structures that are being held very high by the right wing and the conservatives.
In “Stay Out Here,” I love the line “You have the most beautiful way of putting one foot in front of the other.” Is that an homage to motherhood?
KARIN: That is Emily Roysdon, who wrote the lyrics. It works around the situation of political engagement and activism. I think it’s more about the love of the collective. We had a lot of discussions on that topic. Me and Shannon from Light Asylum, we sing to each other, in a way. It’s also a way of supporting each other in this situation as female musicians in this industry. It was really important to sing it together with Shannon, because it gave [the song] its flesh.
OLOF: We tried to create this feeling of a collective, which is the way we organize ourselves with different collaborators.
This album seems less reliant on obvious electronics. But don’t you think it’s odd that electronic instruments are regarded as somehow less “real” than acoustic instruments? Every instrument is ultimately made and played by humans, after all.
OLOF: We were interested in presenting sound in an equal way. The instruments are presented so you don’t really know if they’re electronic or acoustic, and it’s non-hierarchical. The way we do this is to process acoustic instruments so they sound more electronic, and make electronic instruments pass as acoustic.
It’s fascinating that you say that, because I felt that I couldn’t tell where one instrument ended and another began. Even your instrumentation has a “collective” feel.
OLOF: That is the non-hierarchy, yes.
What were each of your roles, primarily?
OLOF: Everything and nothing. Regarding the lyrics, we discussed a lot and read the same books. But the actual writing of the lyrics, Karin is doing that.
Did you self-produce this? Was there anyone else involved?
OLOF: We did everything together, Karin and me.
Were there any other collaborations?
KARIN: We involved a comic writer, Liv Strömquist, to write a comic for the album cover. And we involved a film director—that has become a film, which will come out later. We have also created a big collective for the coming live show.
Can you tell us what the live show will be like?
KARIN: That is a huge secret.
How important is the visual and aesthetic presentation of The Knife?
OLOF: We don’t have a visual plan. We always try to go against [what came before]. I find that any image that has been created around The Knife has become a commodity; and if a commodity occurs, we try to deconstruct it. There will be no visual similarities to what we have done before.
Are there specific influences that you could point out, especially rhythmically?
OLOF: I listen to a lot of music! I try to find my own relationship to those sounds.
KARIN: We have been working a lot with non-alternative tunings. The 12-tone Western scale is the standard in pop music. But we have been working with scales very unknown to us. That has really put us into uncomfortable places. It’s about questioning what you know.
OLOF: We have gone back to scales that are very old. We wanted to look at things before the 12-tone scale was commodified.
Well, the West tends to cultivate and exert a cultural hegemony, where our ideas and values just overwhelm and marginalize everything else. But in this postmodern world, where everything just seems to be so much a pastiche of what came before, so many artists are perfectly fine with admitting that they sound just like someone else. Yet you’ve made a record that does seem very difficult to trace. Do you believe in your music as genuinely something unto itself?
OLOF: It is, in a way, contradictory to make music that is [intentionally] unique; it can very easily become a commodity. I am very critical towards these things. It’s not a striving to make music that doesn’t sound like anything else; it just ends up being that. But more with the motives of…well, I think music has the potential to give the feeling of a utopian situation.
Ultimately, how do you resist seeming to become a commodity? There is the process of creating, but then there is the need to put it out into the world, through the same system and industry framework that everyone else is using. Have you found this difficult?
OLOF: Yes and no. It’s a daily fight; we have to make choices every day as to how to do things in relation to the extreme capitalist system that we are active within. It is still possible; we are in a privileged enough position to be able to make choices…
Not dictated by someone else?
OLOF: Yes. In making the music, we try to put ourselves in uncomfortable or unsecure situations…and make things that are less [able to be] commodified.
KARIN: That is the discussion we have been having: What kind of music can you make where nobody wants to buy it for advertisements?
OLOF: We evaluate every choice; it’s difficult. F
This article is from FILTER Issue 51