Fever Ray: Bite Back

© Ninja Hanna

Words by:

When Karin Dreijer showed her sister a trailer for her new album, Plunge, she didn’t get it right away. The short visual features an alien woman – a kind of monstrous feminine, played by Dreijer, with skin painted arsenic-white. She’s fielding a phone call from a stiletto telephone, dressed in Japanese bondage rope and white rubber; in her hand, a speculum. Flanked around this character is a row of polythene-sheeted objects, suspended from butchers’ hooks which, according to Dreijer, represent the old Fever Ray costumes. But her sister wasn’t buying it. “She said, ‘they look like dead bodies!’”

The symbolism won’t be lost on longtime followers of Fever Ray, Karin Dreijer’s solo project. It’s been eight years since Dreijer hung up her druid robes for real, and few were expecting a return. In fact, the last glimpse many of us had of Dreijer was on screen, in drag, as part of The Knife’s extraordinary final tour. That was in 2013, when Dreijer, along with her bandmate and brother Olaf opted to bring the curtain down on their celebrated synth pop project with pre-recorded music and high concept production. A kind of Godspell meets Gender Trouble, bowing out in a blaze of postmodern theory and spandex. The Knife’s widely-publicised, divisive curtain call has effectively raised the stakes for the forthcoming Fever Ray live show, which kicks into gear this month.

As audacious as The Knife’s final statement was, it pales in comparison to what came next. Plunge, the long-awaited follow-up to 2009’s Fever Ray, landed in late October. It’s an album so profoundly surprising that the least surprising thing about it was its surprise release. Dreijer, who is 42-years-old, even surprised herself. “You know, I’ve made a track with 17 ‘fucks’ on it. I’ve never said that word in my whole life.” She laughs at this, her normally steady voice suddenly pitching upwards, in disbelief, or perhaps shock. She’s not the only one.

“Change happens when you take money away from the people who oppress us”

Hey, remember me?” teases the opening line on the lead single, To the Moon and Back. “I’ve been busy working like crazy.” But it hasn’t been all work – Dreijer got divorced from her husband five years ago and, to use her own euphemism, has spent the time since then “being curious”. The result is a record which teems with freedom, an abundance of queer desire and subversive sex. You don’t need her sister’s gift for semiotics to work out what’s going on in the video for lead single To the Moon and Back; a delightfully twisted coming out fable inspired by the cult 80s movie Liquid Sky which begins with a cryogenic reawakening and ends with a woman – dressed as a kind of X-rated Mr. Incredible – well, doing what hasn’t been done in pop music since Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Relax video. But that wasn’t the most shocking part: at the very end of the track, which marries percolating synths with a hyper-catchy major key melody, lies a tonal tripwire, a lyrical shake in the habitual: “I want to run my fingers up your pussy”.

“The ‘pussy’ thing, it’s super important,” Dreijer readjusts her specs (they’re those hip ones, with see-through frames) and laughs at my botched attempt to cite the line. She’s talking to me from her Stockholm home over Skype, the laptop balanced on her knees which gifts our talk a strangely intimate complexion. “It’s like a super primitive, super decisive way of just wanting to be free,” she clarifies. “I think To the Moon and Back is probably the happiest track I’ve ever done. I think it’s so full of life. It’s, like, super horny.”

Revisiting the first album, Fever Ray, you’d be hard-pressed to find any ‘fucks’, and certainly no fucking. Arriving between The Knife’s 2006 breakout album Silent Shout and Shaking the Habitual, Fever Ray anatomised the cosmic alienation of new motherhood. The distinctive sound, a kind of penumbral synth pop, leaned hard into pop’s darkest recesses, all pitched-shifted vocals and synths that thrummed with a rheumatic loneliness. It wasn’t a happy record, but it wasn’t a happy time. “I had children with a man… a male person,” she self-corrects. “And experienced all the structures around having a kid and what’s expected of you when you become a mother. You’re not expected to be an artist. You’re not expected to do anything.” There was one line in particular, from Seven, which stood out on that record – perhaps because it distilled this kind of domestic, dogmatic reprogramming: “Accompany me/ By the kitchen sink/ We talk about love/ We talk about dishwasher tablets, illness/ And we dream about heaven”.

For Dreijer, whose sharp-fanged, feminist politics were clear to anyone who had listened to Silent Shout (sample lyric: “I’ve got mace, pepper spray/ And some shoes that run faster than a rapist rapes”), the situation was untenable. The tipping point came when she became concerned about the effect it was having on her children, now aged 10 and 14. “That’s not how to be a role model for your kids,” she says, adding, “That is not the way I – or anybody – is supposed to be.”

Karin Dreijer’s politics, it’s safe to say, were shaped early. She grew up in the suburbs of Gothenburg, some 400 kilometres away from where she lives now, in Stockholm. Her mother was a librarian, her father was an architect who was also active in the communist party – but, Dreijer hastens to add, that was pretty common on the West coast of Sweden in the 70s. The upbringing instilled a strong sense of social justice in her. “I learned very early that it was very unjust that some people have money and some people don’t. I think when I meet new people, that’s my biggest interest still,” she says. And it shows – she’s at her freest when talking about the current state of politics in Sweden, railing at the Social Democrat party, or the school system.

Growing up in Gothenburg, even among a left-leaning family, had its challenges. “Gothenburg was a very strange place. It was very much [beholden] to the old Social Democrat fear that everything should be the same: a family looks like this, everybody will also get this much money from the government, but then you will create a family like this.” Furthermore, despite being outwardly progressive, Gothenburg was small-C conservative. “I didn’t know what feminism was. Until I was, I don’t know, maybe 20 or something,” she reveals. “The left in Sweden, they were very homophobic – it was not a place for any queerness.”

© Ninja Hanna
© Ninja Hanna

She got out as soon as she could, making a break for Stockholm, where all the “queers and weirdos and freaks” were, and set out to become a visual artist. “I applied for so many art schools but they wouldn’t let me in!” Settling on music instead, she formed her first band, Honey Is Cool, in 1994. She soon found her ambitions hemmed in by a backwards music industry that wrote them off as a girl band, despite Dreijer being the sole female. “But at the same time,” she remembers, “there was this DIY idea of doing things – that you could start your own label, produce your own music.” She and Olaf set up Rabid Records in 1998 as a way of buying themselves some freedom. The Knife was formed the following year, and they became one of the most influential bands of the early aughts, garnering international success and winning a succession of Grammis, the Swedish version of the Grammys. They were invited to countless award ceremonies. They refused them all.

Affecting a pointed distance, The Knife cloaked their identity in elaborate costumes and alienation tactics, once submitting an interviewer to the indignity of asking his questions via vocoder. The vestiges of this evasive performance art can still be read in Dreijer’s love of elaborate, often transgressive costumes and visual hallmarks. But now this gallery of characters reveal almost as much as they obfuscate. The cover of Plunge, for example, is a close-up of Dreijer’s face. But it’s covered in a spidery, Gothic lettering spelling out Fever Ray. According to Martin Falck, the album’s creative director, it’s a play on the paradox at the heart of heavy metal: hyper-masculinity and make-up.

Intriguingly, as part of the album roll out, Dreijer released an album teaser called Switch Seeks Same – terminology that many will associate with LGBT culture and BDSM. She also released a manifesto, co-written with British artist Hannah Black, that declared her desire to find, “a girl who stands 10 feet tall and has teeth like razors; I’m looking for a girl who could play the bored receptionist in the lobby of the afterlife”. Does she want to elaborate? “There’s an Instagram account called Herstory Personals,” she says, by way of explanation. The cult account offers a space where women can place hook-up requests in the faux-naif style of 90s personals – “Leggy Femme ISO Her Rachel Maddow”, that kind of thing. “It’s amazing. I was reading that lot, and also exploring a lot of different dating sites,” she smiles a tight-lipped smile. “But… I’m not convinced.” When pressed further as to why she’s yet to be swayed by the promises of online dating, she closes down. “I think that’s a bit too private.”

“I've experienced all the structures around having a kid and what's expected of you when you become a mother. You're not expected to be an artist”

Talk, instead, turns to her IRL experiences in Berlin. Olaf moved there 12 years ago, and she’s been visiting the city since, exploring the intersection between anarchism and queerness that thrives across the city. “I’ve never experienced anything like that. It never happens in Stockholm, those parties and conferences and workshops.” She leans in, describing the unique atmosphere of trust fostered within the community. “Within BDSM there is this idea about consent and negotiation. Where your limits are. Then you can do almost anything.” It’s not hard to read these ideas percolating throughout the album which, at times, takes on the complexion of a make-believe safe-space. On Wanna Sip, for example (“Wanna do it? If we do it, it’s my way”) or A Part of Us (“No disrespectful gaze/ Centre of attention”).

This self-revelation as self-revolution takes on an extra charge in 2018. Not only has European and US politics polarised, generating an air of ambient anxiety, but the most fraught ideological point-scoring is taking place around sites of identity. Queer theory and feminism, once the preserve of academia, have been pulled into the real world, and the battlegrounds are now terrifying real: in the street, in public washrooms, or else intimate and amplified on Twitter. Dreijer, like everyone, feels it. “It’s a super effective way to oppress people. To take away their sexuality and try to blur it out.” Here she labours over the precise wording. “To shame queer sex is a way to quieten gay and queer people”. Plunge deals with the topic in typically candid fashion, “Perverts define my fuck history,” she spits on This Country, Dreijer’s vocal cadence landing like the twinge of a horrible memory.”

The heteronormative forces like people to fit in, and they are so difficult to fight,” Dreijer counters, before suggesting a means of pushing back. “Making queer porn is one way.” (Intriguingly, The Knife tapped two queer porn directors, Marit Östberg and Bitte Anderson, to have directed The Knife videos, and the band contributed to the porn doc When We Are Together We Can Be Everywhere.) “But there are so many other ways.” Like making an album which features a line, “One hand in mine, the other in a tight fist”? “I hope it helps people find freedom, yes.”

To help essay the album’s fight for liberation, Dreijer turned to a number of new musical collaborators. Some were old friends, like Berlin techno producer Paula Temple, whose eddies of steely ambient plays out like a sonic refractory period. Others came from further afield – like Nídia of Príncipe (Dreijer’s “favourite label”) who produced IDK About You, a 150bpm batida track that bristles with exposed-nerve energy. As one half of DJ duo Karim and Karam, she can often be found spinning the label’s output as part of their anarchic, global-reaching sets. Likewise, Tunisian producer Deena Abdelwahed – who contributed to An Itch – creates experimental but essentially playful music. The result, at times, harnesses the free-spirited energy of the club space, a diversity of styles reflecting a plurality of emotional states or identity in flux.

There are developments elsewhere, too. The gender-masking pitch-shifting effect, a fundamental part of both the Fever Ray and Knife sound worlds, has been junked for Plunge. Instead, vocals sit high in the mix, spiky and prominent. “Of course, that is a performative action to choose not to use a certain effect,” she points out, with the air of a particularly patient module tutor. “But I think the voices of angry women are super nice.” When asked to elaborate, she grows a little shy. “Like rock women. I’ve listened to that a lot when I was younger, and that was something I found very comforting. Like Courtney Love, her first album as Hole.” Then she changes tack again: “But. I don’t put any authenticity into that, that the human voice is more real than another one.”

The voices of angry women can be heard more and more nowadays. The day before the interview, an open letter hit the headlines, signed by thousands of female artists who condemned sexism rife within the Swedish music industry. It was the latest brick to be lobbed into the deluxe hotel suite that is structural misogyny, and it gives Dreijer pause. “I hope, I really do hope it will make a change.” She closes her eyes and gathers her thoughts. “I’ve started to think about the past much more since #MeToo and also what’s happening in Sweden.” Is it something that she has experienced firsthand? “It’s happened so much it’s hard to pick out one thing,” she bristles. “It still happens when I’m on tour now, when I go into a venue, the guys who open the doors they… ” she gives a hollow laugh. “They still think I’m somebody’s girlfriend.” Is there any cause for hope? “Change happens when you take the money away from the people who oppress us,” she offers.

As the conversation begins to wrap up, Dreijer becomes reflective. “I had a talk with a friend after I finished the album,” she remembers, eyes glinting. “We were talking about how to present it. She looked at me and said, ‘You know, you’re coming out now. Officially.’”

Dreijer looks perplexed, as if the thought had never once occurred to her. “I mean, to me, I don’t think it’s a big difference. I have always been fluid in my sexuality.” That may be. But even in a career defined by subversion, the way which Plunge weaponises queer desire feels vital. Although, perhaps predictably, it’s too much for some. “It makes me so uncomfortable,” sniffed one commenter, beneath the video for To the Moon and Back. Does that trouble her? What do you think. “No, I think that’s super good,” she grins. “It would be weird if everybody liked this. Because then we’d be the norm.”

Photography: Ninja Hanna
Creative Direction: Martin Falck

Plunge is out now via Rabid / Mute
Fever Ray appears at Melt! Festival, Germany, 13-15 July

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