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Shaking the Habitual: The Amoeba Musical

"Olof, I’m soooo bored. Why is working with you so boring?" Karin suddenly asked. It was just another day at work in early 2010. We were sitting in the studio and had just started discussing whether or not to make another The Knife album, the first in several years.

"I don’t know why you’re bored," Olof replied, "but I feel the same way about working with you. It feels like we go to a regular office; we do the same old thing day in, day out."

"Exactly. Music can be so meaningless; I feel we need more of a purpose to continue."

At this point, we had been making music together for more than 10 years and had released five albums as The Knife. We both realized that the market probably expected us to produce something similar to our previous records. But we also knew that, to be able to make a sixth album, we were going to have to find a way to get back to the joy and meaning of music-making: we needed to try something totally different.

Up to this point, we had been working in a very result-oriented way, where every step of the process was geared towards making a "good song". We decided that one way to stop feeling bored was to focus more on the process itself – by jamming, experimenting and creating music in ways we hadn’t tried together before. Another important thing was to re-engage with the political dimension of our work. For us, The Knife has always been a way to express our beliefs in socialist ideas, queer feminism, anti-racism, a world without national borders, and human rights for all, since these fundamental rights in the Western societies only include some bodies. With the new album, we both agreed that we wanted the politics to be less embedded, more obvious and impossible to misunderstand. So, we decided to start by making a list of things, people, books and music that inspired us both musically and politically, and to improvise from there. The songs that eventually became Shaking the Habitual owe a huge debt to political thinkers including Judith Butler, Frantz Fanon, bell hooks, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Michel Foucault, amongst others, whose words and actions are an ongoing source of inspiration and strength.

When we had finished the album, the work started on what is the core theme of this book – the on-stage performance of Shaking the Habitual. In the process of making the album, we also realized that it was time for us to question the concept of The Knife in a wider sense. Or, rather, we wanted to challenge the idea of The Knife that had been created somehow. We needed to find a way to do and be what we wanted, taking the commercial dimension of The Knife into account only to be able to find ways to exist outside of it. For instance, we realized that the masks we used to wear in press photographs as a way to criticize the media’s obsession with the individuals behind the music had started to be seen as the opposite: as our brand or trademark, and as something mystical. The discussion of purpose and joyfulness started all over again, this time in relation to whether or not to perform the album.

"I’m not surprised you are bored with performing," the curator, and our friend, Kim Einarsson, told us one day. "It’s the same for the audience. Concerts are boring, but dancing is fun," she continued. "Instead of reproducing the stereotypical way of performing electronic music – two people behind a laptop – maybe you should be dancing to it." And so the idea was born to make a dance show, with Kim Einarsson and the dance producer Anna Efraimsson as creative coordinators.

Since neither of us had ever danced on stage before, we decided to collaborate with the choreographer Stina Nyberg, along with a group of dancers from different fields and backgrounds. We decided that we wanted the show to be a collective effort both as process and outcome, meaning that everyone in the team would be involved from the outset. We started to consider ourselves as an amoeba – a type of single-celled organism that has the ability to alter its shape and that for practical reasons team up with other cells or organisms, no matter how different – and we searched for ways to communicate that feeling to the audience. We quickly came to the conclusion that in order to do so, we would all have to play the roles not only of dancers, but also of singers and musicians, performing as one shifting unity.

To make everyone comfortable with the different elements of the performance, we took singing lessons together, focusing on making interesting sounds rather than finding exact pitches. We also taught each other dance moves, inspired by everything from Broadway musicals to Bollywood, in ways that made it possible for all of us to participate. We wanted the audience to have fun, too, and to dance alongside us, so we made more fun and dance-friendly versions of the songs from the album and some older songs. As you can see in the pictures in this book, we also built new instruments to use on stage to give the audience something more interesting to look at than someone turning small knobs on an almost invisible technical device. And we hired a totally non-male tech crew to work on the tour – something that, unfortunately, is still quite rare in the music scene.

On the last leg of the tour, in the autumn of 2014, photographer Alexa Vachon joined us to document the journey. With this book, we invite you to share some of the moments of Shaking the Habitual: The Show, an experience that has been challenging, educational, inspiring and filled with love for both of us. We hope you will enjoy it as much as we did!

Karin and Olof Dreijer, March 2017