The Knife is Olof Dreijer and Karin Dreijer Andersson. They are based in Stockholm, Sweden and have made music together since 1999, released on their own label Rabid Records.
Biography by Craig McLean, January 2006
A snowfield, near a forest, round dawn, somewhere in Sweden. The Knife are art-directing the shoot for their new press photographs. They are wearing long black coats, long black wigs and masks that make them look like crows. Why?
‘If we could choose not to do any photos at all, we would,’ says Karin Dreijer Andersson. ‘But it’s quite impossible. Because I don’t think it has anything to do with the music. So we use the photos now to show what our music looks like.’
‘It’s very cold and dark and suggestive maybe,’ says Olof Dreijer of the duo’s new ‘image’. ‘We feel like that if we had been there with our plain faces, that would destroy the illusion of the music. So we tried to dress up as the music. Occult and dark but at the same time, funny.’
This is the world of The Knife: precise, particular, dark, occult, funny-peculiar, funny-ha-ha. This Swedish brother-and-sister duo work mostly on their own in splendid isolation; they release music on their own label, licensing it to selected partners around the world, so they have to answer to no one. They have only ever played live once because they’re still wrestling with the old conundrum of how to present ‘computer music’ in an interesting way on the stage. Within the steely electronic pop of their last album Deep Cuts lurked songs about women’s rights and the duty of good citizens to pay their taxes. For their last set of pictures they dressed as gymnasts.
The Knife don’t do anything by half, and they don’t do anything twice. Compromise is the enemy, repetition a cop-out.
Advertising? That’s a tricky one. The Knife wrote Heartbeats, the song covered to achey-breaky affect by fellow Swede José Gonzales in the Sony Bravia ‘bouncing balls’ commercial. Yes, say The Knife, they had to think hard about allowing their music to be used to sell stuff. ‘It’s the first time we’ve said yes to a thing like that,’ says Karin. ‘The only reason we thought it was OK was it wasn’t us performing. It’s not fun to sell music for commercials but it gives you money – to help our label.’
Video? Ah, that’s a different matter. The Knife like making videos. They’re an extension of the music Olof and Karin painstakingly construct at home in Stockholm. They’ve made a short film, When I Found The Knife, and last year released it on DVD alongside a collection of their beautiful videos.
For their new single, the Massive Attack-on-the-autobahn Silent Shout, they’ve worked again with Andreas Nilsson, director of the video for their original version of Heartbeats and provider of the visuals for that one live performance (at London’s ICA last February). For the chilling clip for Silent Shout, the title track of The Knife’s new album, Nilsson drew on the work of 1930s German animator Oscar Fischinger, and on Charles Burns’ graphic novel Black Hole. The latter tells the story of a sexually-transmitted plague raging through teenagers in Seventies Seattle. Which again begs the question, why?
‘We told Andreas we wanted something very dark and surrealist. When he came up with this idea it was perfect. Silent Shout is one of the songs that feels most …’ Karin stops for a think. ‘It’s very near what kind of music we want to do. We have been making music for seven years and with every year you are getting close to what kind of music you really want to do. I think we are pretty close. In that song particularly: because it has all the elements that we like – it’s very sad, but hard and beautiful at the same time. And it’s cold, but it’s warm. A lot of qualities!’ she laughs.
The Knife began making Silent Shout, their third album in March 2004. Recordings commenced in an old carbon-dioxide factory, then moved to the vaults beneath The Grand Church in Stockholm’s Old Town. Olof and Karin planned to build a permanent studio underneath the church. But 15th century medieval brickwork and future-sounding art-synth-pop proved incompatible. ‘We had to move because of the poor sonics of the room,’ says Olof. ‘But mainly because it was so old the walls were falling apart so we had brick dust in our lungs.’
Retreating to the health and safety of their respective home studios, then a Stockholm studio complex, The Knife finished the album just as the huge exposure for Heartbeats was introducing the craft and magic of their songwriting to a worldwide audience.
Silent Shout is an astounding achievement, intriguing and bewildering, enigmatic and engaging, and never less than compelling. One Hit is a gothic sea shanty, Still Light an electro/a capella hymn. Neverland is a thumping dancefloor anthem with a punchy lyric (‘I’m dancing for dollars for a fancy man’). The twinkling starscapes of Na Na Na could be the work of a sci-fi Sigur Ros. The ghostly fairy tale atmospheres of From Off To On are utterly hypnotic, while the kinetic menace of Forest Families is frankly frightening. ‘They say we had a communist in the family, I had to wear a mask,’ sings Karin, to hair-raising effect.
Throughout, her voice is manipulated and transformed every which way, a cacophony of vocal styles evoking the myriad characters peopling these songs: solitary sailors, a hermaphrodite, a sickly person or two, male-bonding groups in crisis, TV addicts, a scared housewife and, The Knife say, ‘a biologically weighty citizen that desperately tries to get to know his body’.
Karin says it’s the ‘scared housewife’ who is singing Na Na Na but she’s unwilling – unable even – to provide too much more detail. In contrast to the overt political content of Deep Cuts, for Silent Shout she wanted to do something ‘more under the surface. It may take a little bit more time to see what we say. But I don’t know how to separate art and politics. You make art about what’s in your head. It’s difficult not to think about what’s happening around you.
‘I guess many songs are about looking for something to spend time, and to fill the body, to avoid loneliness and the physical functions or dysfunctions of the body. It’s one step forward and one step back.’ ‘And the Silent Shout title, it’s like when you dream and really want to scream something, nothing comes out.
She’s more forthright on the subject of Marble House. One of the best songs on the album, it begins with the synthesised sound of castanets before evolving into techno-ballad in waltz time.‘We wanted to do something between The Sabres Of Paradise’s Wilmot and the movie The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. And the lyrics may be performed by somebody who devotes herself to anything, just to have something to fill up her time.’
We Share Our Mother’s Health, as well has having the best title ever, is a burbling electro groove, like Chicks On Speed managed by Malcolm McLaren. Karin views it as a ‘sick’ song, but also a counterweight to the more ‘serious’ Marble House.
‘It’s a very hysterical and mainly a panicked kind of song,’ says Olof, who admits he often has no idea what his sister’s paper writing lyrics are about. ‘I can only relate to the harmonics. But the sounds are… like a new rubber material.’
The inventing of new sounds was another of the guiding precepts behind Silent Shout. ‘I learnt a new synthesis, the FM synthesis, and we have featured that on every song,’ says Olof, acknowledging that his inner geek is really also his outer-self. ‘You can find that on the Yamaha DX7 and some others. But what I use is software for that – it can make very fragile and sensitive sounds that change during the period that you hear them. I started to use it because Plastikman uses it,’ he adds cheerfully.
‘It’s also a way to make sensitive sounds that are also very cold and physical also – that can feel physically like they go into your body through certain frequencies. That’s good too,’ says Olof with a chuckle.
We wait for someone to make the obvious joke about The Knife’s music cutting deep into the listener. But no one does.
Silent Shout is more focused than Deep Cuts, and not just because it features 11 tracks where its predecessor had 17. The songs are rich with detail, thoughts and ideas and innovations piled hard on top of each other. It may not make you want to dress up as a crow in the snow. But its jaw-dropping fusion of technology and emotion, circuitry and the soul, melodrama and melody, will leave you gasping.