With a conceptual drop of LSD, The Knife have come to Shake Your Habitual
‘Everybody is always desiring already imagined things’ goes The Knife’s battle cry. A snippet of Shaking The Habitual’s potent philosophy, it epitomises in one sentence their distaste towards the endless homogenisation of our musical, sexual and socio-political sensibilities.
As part of a plethora of incendiary media, this album set the path for one of the most provocative music-oriented projects of recent years. Setting out to quash such structures with cunning and vehement showmanship, the latest output from the seminal Swedish brother/sister duo surged into our consciousness, encouraging us to reassess our own entrenched value judgements. The Knife were back, shirking fictive mythology for blatant politics.
From the glistening electro-noir of Silent Shout to their own modern classic Heartbeats, Olof Dreijer and Karin Dreijer Andersson have long walked a tightrope between pop sensibility and avant-garde experimentalism. Notorious for using music as a reflexive, ungendered space, The Knife’s work often facilitated the warped manifestations of Karin’s voice into an androgynous, post-human drawl, switching gender narratives and relocating the listener into the surreal. After a six year hiatus – with Karin performing her hugely popular Fever Ray project and Olof working on his own techno productions in Berlin – the pair agreed to work together again. Only this time, just as they’d used the pop-leaning textures of 2003’s Deep Cuts to access a wider audience, this time they vowed to utilise their project’s growing scope. With this communicative responsibility in mind, Olof took a Gender Studies course, and Karin borrowed his reading list. Inspired by post-structuralism and post-colonial feminist theory, The Knife set out to deconstruct your preconceptions.
Shaking The Habitual is extremely ambitious, yet the chaotic and at times unsettling album fell, on the most part, to rapturous acclaim. Its 98 minutes thunder with cacophonous textures, incommunicable drones, gamelan-style drumming and an undertone of playful mischief. While some defining features of their previous work arise, embellished with calypso tinges, on the whole the sound is fluid and, as it fluctuates, habitually indefinable.
In replacement of an insincere, slickly-written press release was a biography for the album and project as a whole written by poet Jess Arndt, holding a distinct focus on the complex relationship between the internal and the social, the head and the body. They screamed with raging lungs to outline their gripe with ‘manufactured knowledge’, patriarchy, the class system, environmental degradation; ‘a blood system promoting biology as destiny’. Then came the videos, with A Tooth For An Eye and Full Of Fire both acting as political forays, focusing on those more commonly left out of the media spotlight: the elderly, the queer, the empowered young female. The accompaniment to Full Of Fire, described as a ‘short film’ by friend and feminist porn director Marit Östberg, featured a pick up at a political protest and a woman urinating in the street.
In typically subversive fashion, the album itself explores physicality by turning it on its head, creating human sounds with non-conventional means and vice versa. Fracking Fluid Injection commonly gets a mention as just under 10 minutes of indistinguishable yelps and stabs created with an old bed spring meant to convey a sense of the ground, crying. 19-minute ambient noise track Old Dreams Waiting To Be Realised embodies the outcome of hours editing resonant feedback from a PA system in an empty boiler room. Shaking The Habitual’s seductive manipulation of sound pulls at the strings of the structural fabric, one by one snapping as it breaks through.
These dense and unsettling notions were accompanied by an equally challenging live show. The wholly vibrant and exhausting experience saw The Knife’s expansive team surge and leap, uncloak their hoods and lose their masks, revealing a sweaty haze of glitter, pinks and orange, like a smudged watercolour. The show was met with a mixture of intrigue, bewilderment and frustration. For The Knife, this only affirmed the enduringly conservative framework for performance, and a music history written by the ‘privileged white male’.
With the industrial yet organic feel of the album, the intense bodily presence of the live show and the new collective of writers, performers, choreographers and so on that became The Knife, they broke down the evocative sense of mythology that had surrounded the band in the seven years since Silent Shout. In doing so, they flooded tangible physicality into a world they saw increasingly constantly masked by commercialisation, indifference and fandom.
Their old masks down, The Knife are a world away from the inscrutable mysticism that previously clung to the duo. On introduction, they ask cheerfully how we’re doing. They welcome us into their world, as if to break down some preconceived ideas about artist idolism or press relations. Karin and Olof are two forward-thinking individuals who admit their own “experiment” is an open-ended and constantly evolving project.
For this interview you wanted to speak to someone with an awareness of feminism and gender relations. What role does this play in the larger message you’re trying to get across?
Olof: Initially when we released the album, we asked the label to find interviews with people who were interested in discussing these issues that the album touches upon. Then we had a situation with almost only guys, and one or two female journalists and so we reacted upon that, asking to talk to feminists, basically.
Karin: It’s much more interesting to have a conversation where you don’t have to start from scratch to describe what you think feminism is about. There were so many situations we ended up in where feminism was questioned and solidarity, socialism, etc was questioned and we never came to discuss what the show or the music was really about because there were so many, especially male, journalists who ended up not understanding these terms.
O: We often get questions like, ‘how can you combine music with feminism and politics? It sounds strange, how does that work?’ I think it’s good to receive critical questions, but maybe not from the right wing or non-feminist way, but from peers who can help the conversation move forward.
What made you want to reassess your method and replace it with this conceptual emphasis of focusing on process rather than product?
K: We said that if we’re going to work together it has to be fun. We want to learn new things; that is fun. We also want to work with a lot of people; that is fun. Also finding people who share the same interests as we do to question the norms within your own profession. That’s when we put together this group for the show.
In what ways did this conceptual focus affect the production of the album, musically?
O: One thing we haven’t done before, so much, is to play the music manually with instruments and improvise with long jam sessions, which we’ve had mixed feelings about before because I have a past in jazz music and have related improvisation to the male virtuosos, which I would do a lot to move away from. So we were talking about how to go into the field of improvisation in a fun way. A lot of these tracks come from jam sessions and I think that’s what makes the arrangement quite fluid and constantly changing. We try to do sounds that are difficult to pinpoint, and sounds that can hopefully give feelings that one thing is not more authentic than the other.
K: What we have been playing with is the idea of ‘artistic quality’. There are so many ideas about what ‘quality’ music is and it’s a term so often used by music journalists who have this idea about what that is. And that makes it really fun to play with these ideas when finding sounds.
Whilst the album certainly doesn’t shy away from provocation, the live show is a vibrant, colourful experience. What lies in this juxtaposition?
O: One way of shaking the habitual and questioning the norms was questioning what we imagined the idea and the representation of The Knife is, and we wanted to go against the idea that people have agreed upon: that The Knife is a mystical act. I think the mystifying is depoliticising and disarms the political potential of someone’s actions. We wanted to try other strategies and we wanted to be critical by also getting inspirations from musicals and cabaret, which have turned out to be such a no-no for people who like The Knife to be ‘dark and mystical’.
We’re particularly interested in how you explore Judith Butler’s ideas of performativity, that all everyday acts are performance or ‘drag’?
O: The idea that everything is drag is quite crucial because it really helps us understand how we are in everyday life; that we perform a set of expressions and power manifestations like gender and sexuality. I think onstage we also think about how we can be in drag without any actual objects or certain clothes on. We are basically doing everything while exploring the possibilities of how things can be done.
K: Now we are touring and doing shows at festivals, it’s a bit surprising that it’s so very conventional, that the idea of performing music is so very narrow. I got a question from somebody giving out clothes at a festival the other day; “oh, so you’re not wearing jeans onstage? Why are you not wearing jeans?” It struck me, that is one of the most common things, that is what people think about. Festivals – Rock – Jeans. It’s very conventional, the environment that we perform within at the moment.
O: Some of the mainstream festivals can be quite violently conservative. Walking around on the festival area gives me a really strange feeling, it doesn’t feel like a safe space for queers or women to some degree.
K: And it’s extremely hierarchical. It’s very different if you’re a headlining act or if you start a festival day. It’s almost 100% men who work behind the stages, the technical crew. It’s very rare that there are women behind the stages. It’s an extreme situation.
Do you think the music industry is neglecting its responsibility to challenge existing structures?
O: Yes, absolutely. I think the norm of believing in ‘artistic quality’, for example saying, ‘we only book ‘good’ or ‘quality’ music’, ‘we don’t think about gender’. I think it’s a very strong norm, and I think it’s very hard to cut through that. I think it is the commercial environment that is the biggest problem.
K: The presence of sponsors at festivals, and also clubs but festivals especially, I think it makes it very hard for people to speak out and say what they want, they don’t want to interfere with the sponsor’s message. I think that makes music a bit … lame. There are so many people making music that don’t think they have a responsibility. When you have the possibility to speak and say things, you don’t use that responsibility, even as a civilian or a musician, because it is so closely connected to the commercial world.
Do you think that yourselves, personally, can express artistic freedom from within the constraints of capitalism?
O: We are definitely part of a capitalist system. We get paid and the money we get from these festivals is partly funded by the sponsors. I’m very hesitant about our presence in this world, it’s very problematic at many points. So we do what we can to use this environment to discuss the issues we do, like what can a concert look like, what is a show, let’s talk about gender onstage. But it is very difficult to be autonomous and I think it’s very difficult to make things that don’t get sucked up by commercial forces. It’s easy that any left wing or queer-related issues become commodified. It’s a constant struggle.
How has the reception been to the project as a whole?
O: From people I met or I know, or people who come and say that they’re so empowered, it’s so great that you don’t have to think about gender so much but rather you have this utopian situation, and people find it funny and very humorous. But then online we’ve been reading as much negative response. It’s the worst thing they’ve seen. It’s bad dance, bad costumes. They don’t think me or Karin are onstage and they just really hate it. There are strong feelings in all directions.
What advice would you give to those yet to experience the live show?
O: Bring your dance shoes. And an open mind.
Shaking the Habitual is available now via Rabid.