The Knife Bio
In the last gasps of the 20th century, something began to stir on the west coast of Sweden. Or more precisely, in a red barn at the edge of a forest in the middle of nowhere. It was the kind of physical space that demanded nothing, which was the kind of headspace that siblings Karin and Olof needed to start making music together. There was no plan, no vision; just a sense of necessity. Olof was still a teenager. A few years older, Karin had led an indie-rock band for some time but was over it.
It was very difficult for me to make music in that format. I just wanted to do something else. I think for me to really react to what I had done before was very important. To start making electronic music and not use the usual set-up that I was brought up with. [There was] a lot of questioning what I had done before and trying to find new tools for working.
You had song ideas and you just asked me, ‘Can you help me with that?’ It was more practical. It wasn’t, ‘Shall we start a band together?’ I had just started making some music on the computer and I don’t think I knew what I was doing but we just did our best at trying different things.
They used what they had to hand: a sampler the size of a suitcase, an organ, their father’s accordion, a bass guitar. Karin wanted to explore pop in ways that cracked its conventions wide open, which dovetailed with Olof’s interest in the freewheeling composition of jazz and dance music. Following their noses, their experiments grew into a collection of curious electronic pop songs that they decided to release on their own label, Rabid Records. (Karin started Rabid with the old band and took it over when they split.)
The siblings called themselves The Knife, a name to grow into. The first thing they put out was a sonically prescient 7” in August 2000. “Afraid of You,” in particular, set the stage for the vocal mutability and brooding tones of their future work.
We decided ‘Afraid of You’ should be on the A-side because it started with an A, and ‘Bird’ should be on the B-side because it started with a B.
The Knife’s self-titled debut album followed in February 2001, a testament to the fruitfulness of those initial recording sessions. Musically, The Knife reaches out in many directions. Sometimes the production’s interlocking rhythms and shifting zones make way for industrial textures (“I Take Time”), the whisper of a panpipe (“I Just Had To Die”) or a sleepy saxophone (“Neon”). And at others they just went plain all out: “Parade” has the shiny eyed gusto of a socialist anthem, and “Reindeer” turns the ultimate in pop kitsch — a Christmas song — into a psychedelic odyssey.
The Knife’s storytelling is sharp enough to draw blood. Everything is fair game for the chopping board
If that wasn’t enough, there is more than one instance of the kind of vocal pitch-shifting that The Knife would soon make their own. A creative device with largely untapped feminist potential within the pop space at the time, it allowed Karin to inhabit variously gendered characters and sing from their perspectives. The resulting songs juxtapose images of domesticity with allusions to trauma and a burning desire for something else.
But I saw that as very temporary. I was going to become a teacher. I was planning to go back and do that, but…
While their debut album wouldn’t make it outside of Sweden for several years, it did land them a gig scoring a disquieting homegrown film about a young poet titled Hannah med H. The salary allowed them to leave their day jobs (Karin in web design and Olof in a kindergarten) and commit to making music together full-time.
But I saw that as very temporary. I was going to become a teacher. I was planning to go back and do that, but…
But then they made Deep Cuts. The 2003 album that lives up to their name. A seething dissection of the status quo dressed up in the most delicious of hooks; a Trojan Horse of a pop record that dreamt of a revolution.
I liked the idea of packaging socialist and feminist ideas in a pop format because I believe that strategy. I don’t think it’s a great idea doing experimental music that only the elite understand.
Making Deep Cuts, yes, we had quite a clear idea. It was trying to make something more modern. We decided to use plugins and programs that were cheap or for free.
On their second studio album, The Knife’s storytelling is sharp enough to draw blood. Everything is fair game for the chopping board: an abusive relationship, the patriarchy, heteronormativity, the police state. There is confidence and clarity in the album’s skewering of oppressive structures, but also admissions of severe anxiety. To survive modern day society is to dance between public and private selves; to push against conventionality and somehow still find space to heal.
Satire is the stone to The Knife’s blade on Deep Cuts, but it’s their earworm melodies that really did damage. Their sonic arsenal included serrated synths aplenty and lots of steel drums.
Yeah, we kind of liked steel drums.
Electronic plastic fake ones.
The album’s biggest hits — “Heartbeats,” “Pass This On,” and “You Take My Breath Away” — spliced their singalong choruses with an urgent queer sexuality: “I don’t like the straight way,” informs the latter. To date, their dalliances with pop’s primary currency, the music video, had circled more DIY forms. But they took a chance on something more polished for “Pass This On”’s intriguing tale of infatuation.
Yeah, it’s a fun little play. I remember the video shooting. It was the summer of 2003. I was very into [Pedro] Almodóvar movies, and his film High Heels has a drag person singing a song. I saw this Swedish performer, Rickard Engfors, and I thought it would be amazing if he could sing this song.
Johan [Renck, the director] came to us and asked if he could do a video. We were a bit hesitant in the beginning.
But then we said, ‘We have this idea with this Almodóvar film, if you want to do something like that.’
We hadn’t done an expensive video production before, and he came with those resources and experiences. I would say that he added a lot to this idea that gave the video a really interesting context.
He came up with the setting and all the other people in it. Olof is there and I am there in the background. I still think it’s a very beautiful piece.
Visibility came with a price, however. They had also shown their faces in press pictures for the Swedish release of Deep Cuts, a mistake they wouldn’t repeat.
I didn’t like being recognised. I felt like my private life was limited. So, if I would be in the street and somebody said, ‘Oh, you’re that guy in that video,’ I would say, ‘Yes, they hired me as a dancer.’ That was my way to deal with that. One time I was really drunk at a rave at five in the morning and somebody recognised me and I just felt, This is weird. I want my life on my own. So then, as I remember it, we started having masks. And we thought it was fun.
We made the masks.
We did! They are very simple, just papier-mâché…
No, but it’s a plaster start.
Yeah, the face. But the nose is papier-mâché.
The beak-like protrusion of the masks gave Karin and Olof the appearance of oversized birds, intent on peck-peck-pecking at the social order. Taking such an anti-image approach also chimed with their questioning of pop norms. When The Knife won the award for Pop Group of the Year at the 2003 Swedish Grammis, they sent friends dressed in gorilla masks and t-shirts with the slogan “50/50” to represent them. A nod to the work of feminist activist group Guerrilla Girls, it was Karin and Olof’s way of advocating for gender equality in the music industry. Not only were they reckoning with their role in the cultural landscape, they were increasingly frustrated with the stifling expectations of being in the public eye.
In Sweden, it was like, just because you make music that is popular in a certain way, you’re supposed to want to be famous and be part of talk shows and radio shows and be on TV and do all sorts of crazy stuff. And I think we were very irritated that people didn’t think that music could stand for itself.
On an aesthetic level, the exaggerated raven-ish profiles that the masks lent their faces resonated with the psyche-stalking nature of the new music they were making.
We had learned a little bit from the experience of releasing Deep Cuts, that even though we try and package these political ideas, they were often misunderstood or it didn’t really work anyway.
I think we were, and are still, interested in trying out different ways of how music can be political. We noticed that the Deep Cuts tracks were being used in contexts where the political message was a bit lost. And looking back, that was probably one of many reasons we wanted to go into a more personal, psychological sphere.
To write their third album, 2006’s Silent Shout, the pair sank deep into the early experiences that shaped their present-day feminism; a time-traveling journey that landed them back in the deep dark woods of their youth.
From when I was six to 19, we lived in the woods outside Gothenburg, on the west coast of Sweden. And there was nothing there. [The forest] was there for real but it was also there mentally.
We grew up with leftist anti-imperialist ideas at home. We learned about Marx and European colonialism, but there was no discussion about the personal sphere, gender or sexuality. This type of white left movement would talk about racism and colonial history and the imperialist U.S. but they wouldn't talk about current everyday racism or whiteness, for example.
For all its clean air, the isolated community they were raised in was suffocatingly patriarchal. The weight of gendered expectations almost too much to bear. In that context, Silent Shout is a protest album of sorts. Songs like “Forest Families” and “One Hit” gnash their teeth at the pressure that sexism, homophobia, and capitalism exert. The album’s sometimes eerie interpretation of ’90s techno and trance — a formative era for both siblings — proved the perfect foil for the stinging social realism of its song lyrics.
I think it takes time for me to understand how things feel. One way of understanding what’s going on is looking at it and trying to get an overview. Try to describe it. And then after a while, after you have been observing for enough of a long time, you can maybe start to feel things. Feelings are much easier to express in sound than in words. The words are more square, like, ‘Here is the house, here is a home,’ and then sounds and the music add the feelings.
One of the privileges that allowed The Knife to take the kind of creative risks that would make the mainstream music industry flinch was the fact that, thanks to Rabid, they owned all the rights to their music.
We always produce the music, the artwork, film, video, everything and then we license it to different labels in different parts of the world to make sure it comes out. I think that is a very important condition to not have anyone else interfere with your ideas.
While there'd always been at least a year-long delay between the Swedish and international releases of their previous albums, Silent Shout was released everywhere at once. And, for the first time, they took their music on tour. On stage, they wore black pantyhose over their heads daubed with UV paint. For interviews, they used their bird masks and altered their voices any time they were on video. They became famous for not wanting to be famous.
In the wake of so much attention, Karin and Olof both needed some space. They slowly began to carve out separate music identities that would simultaneously come to fruition with debut singles in 2008. Karin with the murkily morbid atmospherics of Fever Ray’s “If I Had a Heart,” which drew on xer experience of having children, and Olof with a sprawling ambient techno 12”, “OAR001,” under the name Oni Ayhun.
I had never put any belief in my own music. I had made a lot of music on my own, always. But I never thought anyone would be interested in hearing that. It was only when I did something with Karin or for anyone else that I finished it. To finalise my own music was a big thing for me, to choose to release it as my own thing.
Olof was only 17 when we started with The Knife. I think it was just a very natural thing that we did things on our own. I also wanted to see what happens if I make music by myself. Olof was going towards the more dance-y, techno stuff and I just wanted to see what would happen if I started these tracks by myself.
Then in the middle of fleshing out their solo projects, The Knife was commissioned to write music to an opera that would celebrate the 100th anniversary of English biologist Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which outlined his theory of evolution. Although a very different beast to pop music, they approached the opera score with the same questioning spirit they did everything.
We were invited by this Danish performance theatre company called Hotel Pro Forma to make this piece. And we knew it was supposed to be performed in the Danish Royal Opera House in Copenhagen.
The theatre company wanted to make an opera about evolution theory and Darwin ideas. And they asked if we could make music for that. We entered that project thinking, Of course, it’s important to talk about Darwin’s impact on fascism in Europe. It is as important as the colonial history of Europe — how Darwin’s ideas were misused to promote fascism. But throughout the project, it became clear that [the theatre company] was not interested in that. They were interested in biology and geology.
Luckily, Karin and Olof had asked their friends Mt. Sims and Planningtorock to write the opera with them. Together, they wriggled free from conceptual potholes. Instead of bowing to the traditional form’s grandiosity, the collaborators went granular with their sonic palette.
You were very into field recordings at this time.
Yes, a short period. Which, actually, I just think is silly. Who gets to say that recording this sound in nature is art? It shows the hierarchy of contemporary art. Not everyone can say that a recording of the wind, or whatever, is art.
In 2010, the foursome released the opera music as the album Tomorrow, In A Year. The titular slippage of time hints at the poetic spirit with which they approached Darwin’s work. What does evolution sound like? Vibrating cells, aeons of dissonance, a stirring in the earth, unfurling rhythms, something with a beak.
While the constraints of a commissioned piece had proved a challenge, the experience of collaborating with Mt. Sims and Planningtorock sparked something in Karin and Olof. A feeling of possibility. An appetite for learning. Olof had recently completed a course in gender studies and brought that energy to their conversations about a possible new studio album.
We had these long lists of literature that we wanted to read.
It was a way for us to meet at the common ground after having not worked together for quite a while.
My kid asked me the other day, ‘Haha, you named Shaking The Habitual after Jane's Addiction’s album, Ritual de lo Habitual?’ And I said, ‘No, it's not, although that’s a great album. It's a Foucault quote and it is about responsibility as an artist.’ Which I think is still super important to think about.
The quote came from a popular collection of interviews with the French philosopher Michel Foucault, conducted between 1961 and 1984. Karin was into his book, The History of Sexuality, but neither xe or Olof had read the interviews before. Something Foucault said near the end of his life jumped out at them.
The work of an intellectual is...to shake up habitual ways of working and thinking…and…to participate in the formation of a political will (where he has his role as citizen to play).
That energy and intention made sense of everything The Knife had ever stood for. Back in 2006, Karin was asked in a video interview to define the message behind their music. Xer answer: “Stretch borders and change standards.”
I think [Foucault’s] quote also speaks to how I see things: the personal is political. Everything is political. Your choices you make.
But what did “shaking up habitual ways of working and thinking” mean in the context of The Knife this time around? Karin and Olof had even more questions than usual. Making Silent Shout all those years before had been a serious and insular affair. It was time for a completely different approach.
A way to do that was to try to have fun by jamming together. We had never played any music together live in the studio. Everything [we did before] was very much produced in the computer.
The music that grew into Shaking The Habitual spans drone zones to dance floor freakouts. It is the sound of Karin and Olof kicking at systems and structures; the result of searching for new sonic vocabulary to object to societal indoctrination. The songs they wrote draw lines between governments that carve up human rights (“A Tooth For An Eye”) and corporations that carve up the natural world (“Fracking Fluid Injection”).
That was the time I started to really understand how intersectionality works. How all the different systems of oppression work together.
The elongated moans and creaking bones of “Cherry On Top” take issue with Sweden’s non-democratic system of monarchy. The song’s glacial ambience an exhausted sigh into the face of the royal family. “Without You My Life Would Be Boring,” on the other hand, is a limb-curling celebration of standing up to injustice.
Yes, that is a fun lyric. The line ‘without you my life would be boring’ is to all the people that are into revolution and activism.
The flute solo in this track is using a scale we made. Many melodies on this album are done in scales that we made from scratch. Scales that are outside the equal temperament, the piano scale. It's fun when you go into alternative tuning because you start asking yourself, Why is it that we have learned to like only this equal temperament scale? And how is the idea constructed that we find this scale more harmonious than other scales?
They weren’t alone in their interrogation. To fully realise Shaking The Habitual, Karin and Olof reached out to collaborators who shared their desperate itch to demolish systems. On the throbbing “Stay Out Here,” Light Asylum’s Shannon Funchess set the contours of artist Every Ocean Hughes’ ode to direct action on fire. The album came with a series of sardonic comics by Liv Strömquis that called for the redistribution of wealth. And the writer Jess Arndt channeled Karin and Olof’s rage into a restless manifesto about inequality that they sent out in place of a press release.
Behind the scenes, the shaking up continued. For the first time, they looked critically at the gender split of the people they’d worked with in the past and flipped it. From the album’s mastering engineer right through to the band’s tour crew.
Yeah, that was not even a concept for us on the 2006 tour. I don’t think I can recall thinking about representation. That you have a responsibility and a possibility to have an impact.
This time it was like, ‘Okay, we’re doing a show, we’re doing a tour, and we can actually decide ourselves how we would like to do this.’
And when it came to the live show vision itself, they turned their thinking upside down.
It was a friend of ours who told us that, ‘I think you two should dance.’ That's how it started.
Basically, question the idea of The Knife on stage, question the idea of what it means to perform electronic music on stage. What is live? Is it playing instruments or is it embodying the music with dance? There were a lot of these questions.
The uncontainable rhythms of Shaking The Habitual were made to be danced into the body, absorbed by every ligament. Embracing motion proved to be the most invigorating way forward. Karin and Olof reworked the songs for tour, upping the tempo and transforming the stage into a dance party; a sea of shiny bodies.
On one hand, the live show was liberating.
Making music can be very lonely, so touring is the part where you hang out with people. It was very fun to be a big group of people. You get very close because you rehearse for many months and then you go on tour and live together for a long time.
What is live? Is it playing instruments or is it embodying the music with dance? There were a lot of these questions.
But it also came with a level of responsibility they hadn’t experienced before.
All of a sudden we went from only being two people in our work to like 25 when we were touring. We were 11 on stage and then the crew and technicians.
We were employers, also.
We were responsible for all these people and their working conditions and everything. That was a very new thing to us. it was a bit stressful because you want everybody to feel good when you're out like that. Human relations in workplaces, that was something we really tried to figure out.
There were a lot of new things that felt very weird if you are somebody who cares about working conditions. We did our best but there is so much I would have done differently. If I would do it again, I would have [a dedicated] human relations person.
Yes, it's super important to look at it and see what worked and what did not work, and how do we do it better next time.
That approach carried them through two iterations of the tour. The first version confused some fans, who drew the mistaken conclusion that Karin and Olof were not on stage because they couldn’t easily spot them in the crowd of glittery eyed dancers.
We learned that was for some people almost more radical than having masks.
The second version of the live show was closer to what they originally tried to achieve: more colourful, more urgent. It also featured some unusual instruments that artist Bella Rune designed to “visualise some of the sounds on the album.” For over a year, the siblings shared a stage with their friends and collaborators; they danced, they sweated, they rested their tired limbs, and then they danced some more.
In-between tour dates, they made music for Europa Europa, an anti-nationalist cabaret about migration written and directed by Nasim Aghili and presented by the art group FUL. As Sweden readied itself for the 2014 general election, The Knife performed with the cabaret around the country.
We had a lot of fun and learned a lot from the great people we worked with during Europa Europa. That’s something I think both of us would like to do more in the future, collaborating and getting input from different kinds of people.
It’s been 20 years since The Knife started slicing a path through pop culture. Five studio albums of hacking up their guts, and many moons in-between spent stitching them back together again. Somewhere along the way they swapped their red barn on the west coast for next-door studios on the east coast. Just enough space to see what else could grow.