The Knife: “There were many ways to question what we had done before” (Interview)

With their new singles Full of Fire and A Tooth for an Eye and the accompanying videos, Olof Dreijer and Karin Dreijer Andersson aka The Knife have already made very clear statements about where they are heading right now: Their approach in their own sounds, lyrics and artwork has become more opently political, more radical, and less easy to consume. With the full stream of the new album “Shaking the Habitual” on the duo’s website it is now finally possible to experience the consequences of their new turn in full force: Many of the songs on the record are longer than 10 minutes, most of the tracks have no clear song structure and are full of unidentifiable sounds and noises, the lyrics are full of open statements against heteronormativity, capitalism and patriachy.
After the interview I did with Olof and Karin for the German Intro magazine a few weeks ago I was really impressed by how hard the duo has questioned not only their whole project, but also the structures under which they’ve been working as artists and musicians in the past. I’ve rarely met artists in the pop industry that have so radically rethought their work and transformed it into something new and more reflected. This English transcript of the interview published below was edited by Sean Dunn, the German article I wrote about the interview and my experiences with the new album can be found on the website of Intro magazine. All pictures were taken by Alexa Vachon.

In the note you submitted to journalists to read before the interview you mention that you started working on the new album by reading together. Tell me a little bit about this, how did you do it?

Olof: I was in Stockholm at the time at the Gender Studies Department and we both decided to study more and read more theory around the issues that we had already been into, like feminist theory and queer theory. We wanted to learn more about colonial history and anti-racist theory. We hadn’t studied so much theory so both of us were into learning more. So we kind of read the books from the field of Gender Studies, both of us, and wrote down many common interests that we wanted to learn more about and gather books on. And started a common ground, a good equal starting point.

Karin: Olof came to Stockholm and I’ve been in Berlin a lot as well in the past years.

Can I ask what you read?

K: First it was the literature list from the Gender Studies Program, like Mohanty’s “Feminism without borders”, also Franz Fanon, Judith Butler, Foucault, Spivak and some of Wendy Brown. Some fiction as well, I’ve been very into Jeanette Winterson… Olof, did I forget anything?

O: Well, there is so much, but I mean we’ve also read a lot of Swedish post-colonial feminists who are really good at summarizing different international thinkers and talk about intersectionality. Are you familiar with this term?

Yes I am…

O: … kind of how to use that. And that’s been really important for us. It has really helped us understand many things, like limits in feminist activism for example.

You’ve involved other artists into your most recent work, both the video and the album. At least four of them queer women – you worked with Shannon Funchess and Emily Roysdon on the song „Stay out here“ and with Marit Östberg and Liz Rosenfeld on the video for „Full of Fire“. Is the Gender Studies background the link to these artist, is this how you approached them and why you chose them?

K: First and foremost, they are friends and I think they are people who work with the questions and issues that we are interested in as well. I think many of them work intersectionally. Liz and Marit, who work in Berlin in the queer community, their way of working has been very inspiring – the way they are creating their own “safe zones” and they’re creating their own communities and supporting each other and building their own collectives. It has been fantastic to work with these people, because they show it’s possible to be autonomous and to create your own kind of space in which you can be active.

“Questioning The Knife”

When you started reading and thinking about writing new songs and working on The Knife again, I feel that this note kind of implies that you were not 100% satisfied with what you had done with project before, or what it was. Is that why you wanted to start a new chapter?

K: One thing is that we have been very interested in feminism for example, and we have worked with feminist questions in our lyrics, but when we started to work on this album and started to kind of reevaluate what we had been doing in the past it was very obvious that our way of organizing ourselves hadn’t been feminist…

O: … We worked with mostly male technicians on the tour and only male video directors. These were not necessarily people who worked with feminist issues either – they were into other things that we thought were interesting, but now we want to work with feminists and mostly women. So we’ve put together a great collective in Stockholm that is working with us on the live show and put together a predominantly female tech crew for the tour and I think that’s one really big difference from how we worked 7 years ago. And I also think after finishing the last record, or at least starting this record, we felt we needed a more fun process also, like having a more joyful time in the studio. So all the studying and the reading was one thing, but we also started to jam a lot, which we never had before. Before that, we usually sat, the two of us, by the computer and constructed the music, and now we jammed with acoustic and electronic instruments, and I think that that was quite important.

So is this what you mean in the press note when you talk about „questioning The Knife“? Questioning the way you work from this more theoretical or more political perspective and then looking in which ways you can change the project?

O: Yes, I think all we’ve just talked about was really about that, but also musically. We asked ourselves: Are we interested in doing the same thing again? We have so many other musical interests that we wanna try out and I think we were doing a lot of music in the beginning where we weren’t sure whether or not to release this under the name The Knife. We could even think something else, because the music was so different. But then when we had done all this music that was pretty different from what it sounded like before, we thought it was exciting to actually call it The Knife, knowing that it has the potential to change. So I think there were many ways to question what we had done before.

Did you also feel like there is some misunderstanding? That maybe The Knife always has been like a political project or band in a way, but this wasn’t so obvious and that you felt you had to make this more obvious. Is it also about correcting something.

O: I don’t think we work that much in relation to how we are perceived. But one thing that has to do with that is choosing how you present yourself in images. I think you must have received this text where we talk about this mask that we had, the beak mask, becoming an image or almost a brand kind of thing. And that was really not our intention. That is something we didn’t want to do again. Also, we had experiences that in the past only people with a similiar frame of reference understand or see the political content of what we had done. That gave us kind of the trigger to be a bit more explicitly political or be more clear with things.

K: I think it’s about being more frank with yourself, to try to translate the theorists you believe in, and find interest in music, and try to continue working with the things you are interested in in your daily work, such as making music. I think this is even more important.

“Political songwriting

I saw a lecture by Jack Halberstam recently, in which he was referring to some sort of queer anarchist utopia, and in which he talked about how he doesn’t trust the picture, the visual anymore and thinks that the audio is more important. I was wondering in which ways the music in your new album relates to this, like in which ways the music opens up something or is political. Do you see a direct link between the theoretical background and really the music itself, the way it sounds, the way you used instruments?

O: Yes. (Laughs)

K: Well, first of all its very interesting: the idea music versus visuals. Music, maybe, is not as commercialized yet as visuals are. It feels like there is still a little bit of space to be uncommercial within audio as opposed to visuals. Or at least that is something we have talked about. Like, if it’s possible to make music that would never appeal to any commercial interests, like an advertisement, something like that, if you can make such an audio. And I think it’s easier to make that kind of audio than making something visual. It’s an interesting idea or question. Olof, what do you say?

O: It’s a really big question we’ve been thinking about a lot, but I think one thing that comes through in music a lot is different ways to play around with ideas surrounding authenticity and ideas of what is good music and what is quality in music. I think these are things that we tried to react against, and the ways we’ve been trying to do this on this record, I think, would be, for example, to make sounds that you find difficult to pinpoint in terms of where they come from, if they’re acoustic, vocal, or electronic, or if it’s an animal, or if it’s a synthesizer, or whatever.

Do the drum or percussion parts, or this side of your music have to do with that as well? It’s all very percussion driven still, it’s not out of synch or anything like that.

O: No, it’s just that we like to dance to it, and I think dancing in itself is very conducive to the mind.

K: That’s something I think is a fun idea too. I think physical movement is kind of necessary to be able to open up and take in all the theories. So it is an interesting combination: dancing and reading.

It may also be a way of making people actually listen, they’re not necessarily sitting down and listening, but they are moving and approaching the music in that way…

K: It’s a way to bring the theories into their minds. (laughs)

O: And I would rather be active than passively sit down thinking about theory, that is important to me.

Coming back to the fact that you were working with queer artists recently and that you read a lot of queer theory as a basis: I was wondering if that is because it opens another view on how to criticize capitalism, because, for me, it also involves the question of changing yourself first and not everything at the same time. Did you change the people you work with out of a certain sensibility?

O: Definitely, I think you’re right. Many of our artist friends who work with these issues are people who feel the consequences of this crazy political system, and the outcome of that is a political message with an emotion. If you have experienced oppression, or an imbalance in power structures, that experience, of course, affects what you do and how you think. Says the white man (all laugh).

K: I agree. I think you have to start looking where you are yourself, and then you are able to act from there, and that is something really important. And then it might look like everything has to be dealt with at the same time, but that is also true. I mean, it is possible to deal with different questions at the same time.


The new The Knife album “Shaking the Habitual”  is released next week. You can pre-order it as a 3×12″ Vinyl, 2xCD or a download via iTunes now. The duo will tour through Europe in the next months.

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