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.