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Sipping weak coffee backstage at the Southbank Centre on a muggy Saturday, thinking about interviewing Karin Dreijer Andersson. A chat about her music seems a bit prosaic. As an artist, she does not have much time for the niceties of the modern music industry, much less explaining herself to dolts with Dictaphones. For one, The Knife , the Swedish electro band that she plays in with her brother, has a reputation for being an outsider act: they performed behind curtains of mist, were rarely photographed without 17th century Venetian masks and hardly ever granted interviews. Musically, the group trod a similarly de/personal route on their three albums, the last of which – Silent Shout – stormed the Swedish Grammies even though it was a dislocation of euphoric trance’s rhythmic template, shifting European house’s home from urban havens to the tundra of the far north.
So, when news got out that Karin was working on a solo project called Fever Ray, it was hard to imagine – what does a constituent part of such a singular band sound like? As it happened, from when lead single If I Had A Heart started popping up on blogs toward the end of 2008, Fever Ray has turned out even more critically acclaimed and artistically fulfilled than the Knife. The album, released on Rabid in March, locked into the terror in the air, delivering an astonishingly bleak and personal take on industrial/EBM, minimal wave, 21st century neo-primitivism and 1980s electro pop.
Thankfully, her stage show, choreographed by Swedish video director and artist Andreas Nilsson, is as extraordinary as the album or of anything The Knife have done. Chatting before her Royal Festival Hall sound-check, for the gig she was playing as part of the Ether Festival of digital art, she seemed light, charming and surprisingly open.
Tell me about the ideas for the tour and the stage show.
Sure. I’ve been working with Andreas Nilsson, who directed the video for If I Had A Heart. He also did the Knife’s stage set design, so I have been working with him for this one. I think we started working this October, discussing what to do. I think we wanted to build something out of the primitive and more primal feeling of the music and as a contrast to that also something very, very hi-tech. We are like five or six people on stage, with primitive cultures face paint and more folk orientated outfits, and also we work a lot with lasers.
I really like the album’s tribal, almost religious feeling.
I just wanted to make something very slow, and something that took time to get into. I didn’t think much before I started about what I was going to do. The tribal feeling or that primitive feeling, you get that feeling when you work with so few elements. I work with very, very simple instruments and beats, and it’s quite monotone – I think it’s very repetitive in its arrangements.
So folk music is a result, not a starting point?
Yeah, I don’t know what makes you want to do a certain thing. I watch more films to get inspiration than I listen to music. I try to create atmosphere more than, sing a song.
Does that cross over into the live show?
I think the live show is a way for the music to continue developing and changing. I think it’s very important for the music and visuals to have the same idea to start from.
It’s almost like you’re offering a three-dimensional experience.
That would be good if that happened. Yes, I think that just to open it up maybe, to continue where the album finished – that’s where the live show starts.
Do you find yourself wanting to limit the instruments you use?
Yes. I think I work quite minimally with as few tracks as possible.
It’s quite an old style of minimal music you play.
I suppose I still like to listen to Plastikman, who is very minimal. In the production, I listened a lot to this Phil Collins track In The Air Tonight which, I think, is quite minimal. There’s very few instruments in it, but every sound is so taken care of, I think it’s very deep when it’s very big, but when just a few things get their full potential, that’s very interesting.
Do you find it strange intellectualising music?
I don’t. I don’t think that is good to do with my own music.
I work so much with raw feeling and emotions, they are like instant things. I’m not good at talking about my music. And I’m not interested in doing it. I can talk about other’s music [laughs]. I don’t think it’s good to tell too much and I think it’s important for music to keep the possibility to work with ideas and emotions, and if you explain too much, you destroy that, their own interpretation, their own possibility to have their own ideas. It is better to just give small hints.
We talked about that this morning: What is this live show about? I think we’ve done nine shows together so far, and I think we’ve got something going on onstage. If you come to this show with an open mind you can be part of what’s going on, but if you don’t – if you expect a certain thing and expect us to do it for you, then you’ll get excluded in a way. I don’t think we’re very communicative. It’s important to come with no expectations.
It’s interesting you say communicative – another one of my questions is about the place of storytelling. Which seems unusually direct for you?
You mean the lyrics?
I try to be direct without saying too much. It’s a good contrast to have very physical words and very straightforward words, in contrast to the music, which may be very monotone and not saying very much. It’s also about creating dynamics in between the music and the words.
Is it about the sound of the word?
It can be, that is very important, the sound of the word. Also the meaning of it, but even more so the sound. The performance is also important. How to sing a lyric – with what kind of voice you want to use can change a lot – how you want to say it, what makes it more obscure or more direct with a low-pitched voice or a high pitched voice. Whether you scream it out or whisper it – that makes a real difference. I think I work with that a lot.
Personally, I found what she said about hiding herself behind the ideas and the emotions really interesting. The obliqueness of the Knife and Fever Ray’s performances are not reclusive. It’s construction, not concealment. In the past she has, with that Nordic sense of cost and dignity, subtly criticised the cheapening of music by its licensing to advertisers, and I think that ties in. She sees her take on some of the most ephemeral forms of pop music (Eurotrance, 1980s synthpop) as high sonic art – though she’ll never shout about it. Fittingly, the next project on Karin’s list is an opera, Tomorrow In A Year, about Charles Darwin’s Origin Of The Species. But Fever Ray, in contrast to The Knife, is more than cold artistry. Much has been made of the deeply personal direction of the album. Its themes – the darkness and wonder of childhood, friendship and nature – are direct and clear, from the videos following a groups of children down a Styx-like river to the lyrics on gardening, friendship and dishwasher tablets. It’s the sound of an artist, a Major Talent even, opening up, looking out.
Something that I really like about the lyrics is the constant repetition of nature, particularly the sea.
I grew up on the west coast of Sweden. 12 years ago I moved to the east coast, where there is no salt water, which makes it not a real sea. I have a very romantic idea about the sea. I also really like to read. I don’t really know why, but it means a lot. This wide-open space, the beach by the sea, it’s very interesting.
You seem a little detached.
I just live in the city, where you just look at things.
Tell me about the opera you’re doing.
We started about a year ago. This Danish company, Hotel Performa, asked us to write music for an opera about Charles Darwin. I think what led us to this thing is that they’ve done so many interesting things, they work so much with a mix of performance, theatre, music, film and modern dance. And we have been working with The Knife for seven years or so, and we really wanted to do something else. It premieres in September, so we’ll be finished soon.
Was it nice to get your teeth into something so big?
It is opera in the old-fashioned sense, but we were free to do what we wanted. It is very much a Knife opera.
Was it your idea or theirs to make Charles Darwin the subject?
It was theirs.
It seems a very Knife-y subject.
His thoughts and ideas have been used for very many bad things, but when you start to read his own writing, like The Origin Of The Species, and his notebooks and letters, you hear his own thoughts, you really understand that he was a great humanist. This Origin Of the Species, it’s so fantastic – it’s just all about diversity of everything. It is so free, and it has no hierarchy. That is what we focus on, the original idea. That’s what a performer wants to work with as well, to show how much it is like everything in life and not about the religious aspect. That is also, of course, interesting, but it gets very political if you focus on too closely on that side of his writings. He was a very modern man.
Is there a sense of evolution to the way you work? Have his writings influenced your work?
There is a steady ongoing evolution to everything. And to be doing it for a year it gives you a totally new time perspective. After reading Charles Darwin, you get a completely new relationship to time.
How do you mean?
It’s something so huge! I mean, in one sense, with geological time, it’s since the world started until now, and you have a human’s life in time, that’s also something, and something about now, very contemporary things. That’s how we work in music, with three perspectives, three layers around time. It has been great – I have read his writings, his letters and so on. It’s been a great year.
You mentioned on the album that you’re “very good with plants”. Are you a keen gardener?
I have an idea about myself having green fingers. But, no, I don’t have so much time for it [laughs].
Would you like to?
Maybe when I get old. But that is also something interesting about time and plants. To go out into nature and work with things that have this year’s cycle, plants that come out in Spring, and die or go to sleep, this thing that continues and keeps on going on and on. That’s a good way to be. I think people who are like gardeners are happy.
I heard that a lot of the album was written when you were really, really tired. Are you getting more sleep now?
Yes. Sleep is not always possible, but I try to sleep more.
Is it having an impact on your music?
Yes! I think it is a good impact. I don’t think there will be any more albums like this one.
The Knife’s opera, Tomorrow, In A Year, opens in September. Fever Ray has various European and festival dates over the summer.