The Knife's Karin Dreijer Andersson: "I think norms and standards are really dangerous."
The Knife (due Monday, April 21, at The Fillmore Auditorium) from Stockholm, Sweden, is an experimental synth pop duo comprised of Karin Dreijer Andersson and her brother Olof Dreijer. Since the project's founding in 1999, it has explored unusual rhythmic ideas. Its 2003 album Deep Cuts garnered the group an international audience, and the band toured on the strength of 2006's Silent Shout. Known for a theatrical performance style and costumes designed partly to obscure specific personal identity, The Knife is one of the few pop groups of recent years to have maintained a certain mystique. That has only enhanced the impact of its music.
But on the 2013 album Shaking the Habitual, The Knife challenged its long-held methods, both in terms of making music and also the visual presentation of it. The album is also the outfit's most directly political to date, so perhaps Andersson and Dreijer felt that even superficial barriers between itself and its audience, to the extent practically possible, were best left behind. Recently, we had the rare opportunity to speak with Andersson about the ideas behind Shaking the Habitual, how The Knife has applied its ideals on tours and her commitment to questioning established norms.
Westword: What are some ways in which you have tried to offer an alternative perspective on the core problems of neo-liberalism with your new album? For example, with the phrase "End Extreme Wealth."
Karin Dreijer Andersson: That phrase, "End Extreme Wealth," we contacted this illustrator and cartoonist, [Liv Strömquist] who studied political science at university. One thing that is often discussed is how we have to end poverty and that poverty is the problem.
We sat down and talked about why the rich think that poverty is the problem. She just wanted to turn that concept upside down. We started to read a lot of books about this symptom called "affluenza." I hadn't heard of it before. It was written about like it was a disease, almost. We just thought it would be fun to turn it the other way around and talk about how the real problem is that there are a few people that live really well out of a lot of people being poor. That's how we came up with that.
We wanted to work with people that worked with similar ideas we had but in different art forms. Liv Strömquist was one of them. We worked with a video artist named Marit [Östberg] and she did the first video, "Full of Fire." We also worked with Emily Roysdon who, at that time, had just been to Occupy Wall Street. She was in New York at the same time we were working on that track and she wanted to write something out of what was going on at that time. Now it's been a year since we released an album and when I look back upon it I see that there are a lot of different issues. It was like an explosion of ideas going in many different directions.
In Europe, as well, I think there has been an explosion of racist and extremely right wing [political] parties. And I think the left wing was not been prepared for that. I think two or three years ago, when we started to work on the album, there were many things that seemed really urgent. But I think, at least in Sweden, there have been [counter] forces gathering to try to deal with this problem.
When you were working with Emily Roysdon did her concept of "ecstatic resistance" inform or otherwise influence your thinking for the album or in general?
I'm a little bit disgruntled with myself for not having had the time to delve into her work. But I have seen some of her pieces that I find really inspiring and I would like to spend more time with it. She's actually a professor now at Stockholm University.
Why did you commission Liv Strömquist specifically to do the illustrations for End Extreme Wealth, and did you collaborate with her on the text of the piece?
Album artwork is often serves some kind of commercial purpose. We just thought it would be fun, and a good idea, to invite someone who would want to use this space to talk about their ideas. That's why we asked her.
Did you collaborate with her on the text of the piece?
Well we were sending it back and forth and discussing it. Mainly it came from her and we were just discussing a few details and some of the topics.
When you were making the sounds and music for what would become Shaking the Habitual you challenged yourselves to create your own sound sources, to make your own instruments, to use conventional instruments to make unconventional sounds and to use unconventional sound-making objects and methods to make traditional sounds. You have talked about creating with no real rules with this album, but did you in any way impose restrictions in order to force yourself to create in ways in which you were not used to? That can be a way to create fruitfully by forcing yourself out of established instincts and patterns.
I think when we started we sat down and talked about things like, "If we are going to make music together, how do we want it to be?" One very important thing was to have fun. It can easily become mechanical when you have been working together for a long time. In order to have fun I think we wanted to combine our political interests and ideas with the music. After that we made a long list of experiments that we wanted to do. It was like putting amps in a big room and putting microphones in the room and record and see what happened. For the first six months or so we were just making sounds. We also had a long reading list. So we were creating sounds and discussing political ideas.
Was your reading list mainly political works or was it a wider variety of texts?
It was a big mix. A lot of post-colonial history and gender studies. We were brought up with a very radical left wing dad. We had that already. I think class was a thing we talked about a lot as kids. In Sweden the left wing parties have totally skipped the thing about sex and gender and race and so on. The old traditional left wing parties were very conservative. I think now there is so much more a variety of ideas and discussions. I think it's an exciting time now.
You probably read authors like Frantz Fanon.
Yes, that was also on the list. Sweden hasn't talked about its [own] colonial history at all. That's nothing we read about in school when we were kids and so on. The anti-racism movement in Sweden has been very limited. It's more like everybody is equal and then that's it. But I think now, this year especially, it has kind of exploded in terms of people of color having talked about race in the media. It's very sad that it's happening so late but it's good that something is going on regarding those issues.
Which protest music of the 1970s inspired you most?
Back then it was mainly Swedish music. There was a lot of songs about class and workers' struggles. There was a theater group called The National Theatre. They made a lot of plays about workers. They also made a lot stuff for kids as well that I was brought up with. It was really nice but it didn't talk at all about gender or feminism or race or anything like that. It was only about class. But that's a lot of what we listened to at home. We also listened to a lot of jazz and African pop music.
How would you say that one can create protest music these days that might be effective?
That's something we're continually discussing. How do we do this in a good way? Or in an effective way? As of now we are operating within a very commercial milieu and it's really difficult to make changes within this system. But I think we are trying to be like a Trojan Horse and get into those places and do things differently within that system. Sometimes I'm not sure that will work. I mean, that's why this Coachella will be the last festival we will ever play at because there are so many compromises to work within this super commercial, capitalist framework and spaces. Sometimes I think it's also good to be totally autonomous and create your own festivals and tours. But I guess this is just one way to try to comment on things and I suppose we will sit down and talk about how it worked when we're done.
In what ways would you say you are carrying out the tour so that it most closely or completely aligns with your political ideals outside the space of the performance?
That's something we talked about a lot. Like how the process has to follow your ideals. For example we discussed the working conditions for the performers and for the whole crew. When we started we wanted the same wages for everyone. That is totally against the whole system and how it works because it's extremely hierarchical. That was something we had to work on a lot. We also didn't want people to work too many hours on this tour. There is no union going with a band on tour. There is no safety at all for people on tour [in those respects].
This world is also very male dominated. Last year, when we started, we had an all female crew. All the technicians and so on were women. Now it's more like fifty-fifty. It's been hard to find women with the experience but we tried to bring on female interns. We have the possibility to at least decide how we do things and I think as artists you should take that responsibility. It's so easy to talk about big questions like changing the world and so on but I think it's really important how you do things. We've tried to travel by buses, mostly, and not going by plane. There are so many things I think you can do. Still, I don't know if it's really workable to do these things within this system. That's where my thinking is now.
It seems as though that one of the core concepts behind your art and your thinking is to blur the lines between dualisms like that between the strange and not-strange. Why is that important to you?
I think norms and standards are really dangerous to people. So I think a lot of things need to be turned upside down, questioned and looked at from a different perspective. Authenticity, for example, when it comes to music, what people thinks is authentic, real and good and so on is something some people have come up with and mostly it's white, middle-aged men who have come up with ideas about authenticity. That's why I think it's really important to try to question those sorts of things.
The interludes "Crake" and "Oryx" on Shaking The Habitual reference Margaret Atwood's novel Oryx and Crake. Why did that novel hold a special resonance for what you tried to do with Shaking the Habitual ?
It was a long time ago that I read that novel. But it made a huge impact on me. I think it made me think about how it's good to just to start out from where you are now in the moment and see where you should go now. Buck up and think about what is the most important thing to do now. I think it's so easy to get stuck into a routine or get stuck in an idea that somebody else made up about what you're supposed to do in life.
Like the importance of being present? And not live up to artificial expectations for your own life generated internally or from someone else.
Yes...But not to have so many prejudices and ideas about what's going on. And to be able to take in what's really there.
Oh, being open to things instead of imposing your preconceptions on things.
Yes, yes that's good.
How did you feel about the way in which the song "Still Light" was used in the film The Jeffrey Dahmer Files?
I haven't seen it and I don't know how it fits. We get requests and then we have to take a chance and then see if it actually works or not. I haven't seen how it ended up.
It seemed really well placed in that film.
That's good. Sometimes it's not.
In that video interview you released you mentioned experimenting with time. How do you feel that you used that aspect of the music to demand time and consciousness from listeners?
It's very strict if you want to have your music played on the radio. People aren't used to listening to long tracks these days. The longest people I used to listen to, like Jean Michel Jarre for example, had tracks like forty-five minutes long. I think it's a good thing to understand that you being very marginalized when you get used to this very fast way of experiencing music.
Do you present your shows and perform in a way that you feel challenges the status quo of the concert setting and the implied power and mediated experience that is so often a part of concerts? In what other ways do you feel one can transform that dynamic into something more powerful and positive?
I think we're doing that now. We have been working on this show for about two years. It has been a collaboration the whole time with a group of ten people coming from different artistic backgrounds. Everybody has been really into the political ideas we've had and there's been an ongoing discussion about how we do this in the most effective way. The process itself has been really inspiring and fun. Now we are like eleven people performing dance and music on stage. Some of us are dancers and some of us are musicians but now everybody is doing everything. It's like those who have never danced before are forced to and to challenge themselves to dance. And dancers who have never sung before do something similar. So it's mildly frightening for everyone, which I think has kept it even more fun.
We started doing the show a year ago and now it's even more exciting. A friend told us, "It looks like a communist Las Vegas." I'm not really sure about the communist part but more like socialist, I would say.
How would you say you engage with the audience that similarly challenges those notions?
I think it's very inviting and generous and it's about the dance and trying to bring the audience into it. That's what we are trying at least.
If you'd like to contact me, Tom Murphy, on Twitter, my handle is https://twitter.com/simianthinker>@simianthinker.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.