Archive: The Knife
As the band announce their decision to shut up shop, interviews from the archives with The Knife’s Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer
Last week, The Knife announced that the end was nigh. They’re about to play a handful of dates in the coming months in Stockholm, Gothenburg, Berlin, Manchester, London and Reykjavik, after which, per Karin Dreijer Andersson, “we will close down”.
To mark the upcoming shows (and a live show by The Knife is always worth shouting about) and the apparent end of the line for one of the most exciting and thrilling bands around, here are interviews with Karin and her brother Olof from the archives: we spoke to Karin when Fever Ray played at the Electric Picnic in 2010 and we spoke to Olof earlier that year around the time of the release of the band’s “Tomorrow, In A Day” album. Albums and videos also below.
Interview with Karin Dreijer Andersson (The Ticket, August 2010)
It’s a solo run which hasn’t ended yet. Last year, Karin Dreijer Andersson released an album as Fever Ray. Up to that point, she was better known as one half of The Knife, a Swedish duo whose crisp electronic pop and icy, pristine electronica had already produced some audacious, well-received albums.
With her Knife collaborator and brother Olof elsewhere, Dreijer Andersson took flight as Fever Ray. There were some familiar Knife strokes to the album’s fabric – melancholic, haunting atmospherics and moody electronic, folky tendencies in the main – but there were also some rarely spotted ideas teased out between striking lyrics about dishwasher tablets and caring for house plants.
Recorded after the birth of her second child, Dreijer Andersson used Fever Ray as a way to write about motherhood, a theme seldom addressed in pop.
“I never came across that much music about the experience of motherhood”, she points out. “It’s something which is quite rare to find. When you start to read about female artists who are mothers and you know what they’ve gone through, you approach their lyrics in a different way. You can find hints about what’s going on and the pressures of being an artist and mother. I wanted to reflect on what happens when you have kids because it also makes you think about your own childhood.”
Another difference between Fever Ray and The Knife was the relish with which Dreijer Andersson embraced gigging. The Knife had been famously reticent about live shows – her brother Olof has always displayed considerable apathy towards going onstage – with just a 2006 tour to their credit.
It has been a different story with Fever Ray. Dreijer Andersson collaborated with visual artist and long-time collaborator Andreas Nilsson to produce a stage-show which matched the beguiling oddness of the album.
Filling the room with dry ice and lighting the stage with lasers, Dreijer Andersson and her bandmates would appear and disappear out of the gloom clad in ghoulish masks and clobber. It was a show which sent many of poor mad-out-of-it teenage ravers in the dance shed at last year’s Oxegen, one of the most incongruous and daft festival bookings of all time, running for their mammies.
“I like the idea of using the whole room when it comes to the show because I think it gives a different experience for artist and audience”, says Dreijer Andersson. “I don’t think I’d ever been to that theatrical a show before. What we did with The Knife is 2006 was a very good start for what what I ended up doing with Fever Ray. It allowed me to try out ideas for the stage show, though I think the Fever Ray show is a little less high-tech.”
Dreijer Andersson’s inspiration for the costumes and masks came from an unlikely source. “I was influenced by the culture of the Sami people who live in the north of Sweden. They’re seen as a minority in the country, nomads who make their living looking after reindeers.
“When I was a kid, I was fascinated by the really strong colours of their clothing and I wanted to wear the same clothes! When it came to the show, I wanted to bring in some of those cultural elements and I think Andreas succeeded. It’s very colourful, it’s very direct, it’s very thought-provoking.”
Dreijer Andersson believes they’ve been shunned by some of her fellow countryfolk. “They’re people who’ve been opressed by the Swedish government and that’s something many Swedes are ashamed about. The government would like them to be part of society and send their kids to schools, but they want to keep their life the way it has always been. It hasn’t really been solved.”
However, there are sides to Swedish society which she is keen to praise. “What’s best about Sweden is that you have the mechanisms to enable both parents to share reponsibility for raising children. The government pay for the father or mother to stay home with the kids. It makes us more equal and it makes it possible and easier for me as a mother to work and also raise my family, which I know is not as common elsewhere. I couldn’t do what I do otherwise.”
It hasn’t all been Fever Ray for Dreijer Andersson in the past while. Earlier this year, The Knife released “Tomorrow, In A Day”, an ambitious double-album of opera arias based on the life and times of evolution theorist Charles Darwin. The album began life when Danish group Hotel Pro Forma commissioned the duo to write the music for a performance piece with dance which they wanted to call an opera.
Problem number one: neither Dreijer Andersson nor her brother knew anything about opera. “Olof went to the opera, I didn’t go”, she laughs. “But we did listen to a lot of opera. It was a very difficult experience for us. Opera is very focused. Opera singers learn to sing in a very certain way and there’s no space for improvision or experimentation.
“What interested me and what was the biggest challenge when we worked with the opera singer Kristina Wahlin was how we were supposed to write for her. Kristina had never sung without notes before and we don’t write music in that way so there was a communiction problem in the beginning. When it started to move and we began to understand how she worked and she began to trust us, some fantastic things happened.”
She’s unsure right now about future plans for Fever Ray. There’s a bunch of live shows to come and that’s it for now. “I don’t know about another Fever Ray record. For now, it’s going to be The Knife and I am also going to write music for a theatre play.
“We’ve already started to work on something nice-ish for The Knife. I don’t know what it will be, but we have started! And after playing live with Fever Ray, I’m definitely open to working with more people and different instruments.”
Interview with Olof Dreijer (The Ticket, April 2010)
As odd as it may seem at first glance, The Knife and opera go quite well together. Of course, this is not the first time that pop and opera may shared a bunkbed. There was Luciano Pavaroritti’s dalliances with U2 and Dolores O’Riordan, Catalan soprano Montserrat Caballé’s “Barcelona” duet with Freddie Mercury and Rufus Wainwright’s “Prima Donna” opera written for the Manchester International Festival. When pop gets notions, it looks for direction to the nearest opera house.
But while it may not have been a first, the “Tomorrow, In A Year” electro-opera does move in more enticing, mysterious ways than previous hook-ups. This is not about winning brownie points, making statements or appealing to new audiences – this is about producing a sound which hasn’t been aired before.
The swell of abstract noise and space-age arias from The Knife’s Swedish siblings Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer and their collaborators is quite intriguing and emotive. That it’s based on the life and times of evolution theorist Charles Darwin just underlines the audacity of the undertaking.
Now released as a double-album, “Tomorrow, In A Year” began life as the soundtrack to a performance piece. Before this project, The Knife had no truck with opera. “I’d never been to one”, admits Dreijer. “Opera for me stood for something very conversative which got a lot of government funding here in Sweden and took money from culture that was more exciting to me. I like the theatrical part of opera, though, because it stood for over-the-top expression.”
The approach to do an opera came as the duo were considering their next move. The Knife’s last album, 2006’s “Silent Shout”, was the most acclaimed release of their career. Afterwards, Dreijer headed to Berlin to work on solo techno productions and his career as a DJ, while Andersson’s Fever Ray project led to one of the albums of 2009.
The catalyst for the detour to the opera house came from Danish performance group Hotel Pro Forma. “They approached us about the music for this piece they were planning about Darwin”, explains Dreijer. “It was more about writing the music for a performance piece with dance which they wanted to call an opera rather than a commission for an opera.
“They gave us a literature list that they wanted to base the piece on and some directions on length and structure. They wanted it to be 100 minutes in length, have three singers and written in a way which was both Victorian and contemporary.”
Preparation for the work involved Dreijer taking his first and only trip the opera. “Yes, I went to see one opera, I saw Aida. But we really focused more on finding exciting ways to approach vocal techniques and studied contemporary composers who play around with vocal techniques. One of the singers on the album Kristina Wahlin is an opera singer so we talked to her about how she worked. The sound and melody had to suit her voice so we had to find a way to approach that.
“It took us some time to realise what we were about to do. It’s difficult for an opera singer too because they’re used to using the whole spectrum of their voice, while we went for a more simple approach. It was really exciting to use an opera singer in a completely different way. I think the only things in our piece that reminds me of a classical opera is that we use one opera singer and that what we’ve done is a piece of work which was the original meaning of an opera.”
One huge help was the fact that Hotel Pro Forma’s brief was quite an open one. They weren’t, after all, looking for the new Madame Butterfly. “Hotel Pro Forma are a performance art group and one reason why we said yes to this project is because what they do is so abstract and it’s very difficult sometimes to understand what they do.
“But I liked the fact that I didn’t really understand what they were doing. It felt like an interesting challenge and, as the project proceeded, I was able to grasp what they were about or I think I was able to grasp it. They’d also never worked with opera before so we were both coming from the same place.”
Initially a performance piece, the project allowed The Knife to call in some collaborators. Aside from Berlin-based electro DJ Matthew Sims and Planningtorock’s Janine Rostron, they also enlisted , Danish actress Laerke Winther and Swedish pop singer Jonathan Johanson.
Andersson and Dreijer had already begun to talk about working with other people. “Before the approach came, we were thinking about collaborating with other people which is why we took on Planningtorock and Mt Sims so early in this project. We’d like to do more of that in the future.
“In this case, the collaborations were necessary to capture the huge complexities you get from reading Darwin’s books. We wanted to capture different styles to match that complexity. Mt Sims has a more classical, poetic way of writing lyrics, Planningtorock has this unexpected and exciting orchestral sense and Karin’s lyrics are more contemporary and abstract. This mix was very interesting.”
Another challenge was the theme. Hotel Pro Forma’s reading list for The Knife had both Darwin’s original works and contemporary takes on his theories. “Before this, my thoughts on Darwin revolved around the political sense of his work and the way his theories which became hierarchial political idealogies, like the fascist movement of the early 20th century or social Darwinism. That was my entry into his work.
“But when I started reading Darwin, I realised how misunderstood he seemed to have been and that change in my views was really interesting. Because Sweden is so secular, his theories are not so controversial here, but I know it’s very different in other countries.”
The future for The Knife remains unplanned for now, though it’s obvious from Dreijer’s enthusiasm for the collaborative process that they will work with other musicians again. Andersson’s Fever Ray project continues to motor along – the act play this year’s Electric Picnic festival in September – and Dreijer continues to live and work in Berlin. “I DJ sometimes, a little less than before.”
He’s very proud of what his sister has achieved with Fever Ray, though it hasn’t changed his antipathy for live shows, which is probably partly responsible for the paucity of tours from The Knife to date.
“It’s great to see that we can have these independent projects”, he enthuses. “It was really good to see that Karin enjoyed playing with this band. But no, it didn’t change my views on The Knife and live shows. I’ve cocooned myself in the studio a lot more and I know I’m someone who prefers the studio to the stage.”