The Dummy Guide To The Knife

12.02.10 Words by: Charlie Jones

Swedish siblings Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer have existed as The Knife (read our interview with Olof here) since 1999, creating thoughtful, timeless, brilliant electronic music. Their clear separation of private life and art has forced critics to review their work unbridled of baggage, as objective as possible – as it should be, I’d argue – though their artistic persona makes a biography or condensed overview of their work a fanciful task.

11 years on, they remain more challenging, challenged and ostensibly difficult to ‘get’ from the scraps of any Google search or a précis of their Wikipedia entry. However, as human inquisitiveness dictates, this has only increased the public interest in their work. With the fervour surrounding their upcoming release, the opera ‘Tomorrow, In A Year’, louder than ever before, here’s a short guide to what we do know about The Knife.

1. The Origins of The Knife

“It was machines and emotions. I saw skaters and a dancer in a sauna. I thought this was the future; this was what I’d been waiting for.”

There are, for pretensions sake, two histories behind The Knife. The above quote is taken from the second, the fictional account, which surfaced in 2005 with Director Amy Engles’s hauntingly odd short animation ‘How I Found The Knife’. The film’s narrator is the band’s label boss Frau Rabid, portrayed as a rabbit – a nod to Rabid Records’ logo – recounting how she discovered two masked monkeys, Karin and Olof, in a small house in the middle of a field, both intently forging futuristic sounds from their conveyor belt of musical equipment. It is probably untrue.

The second, more likely, history: Karin, the elder of the pair, started out in music first with an indie band called Honey Is Cool that cited Talking Heads, The Cardigans and Tom Jones as influences. They released via various labels to minor acclaim before founding Rabid and putting out four releases, including the album ‘Early Morning Are You Working’ in 1999. As Karin began working with brother Olof more as The Knife, Honey is Cool gradually petered out, announcing their split in mid 2000 via the label’s site.

2. Rabid Records

“It’s very important to be on our own label, and without it The Knife would not be The Knife. Major labels don’t dare to choose certain directors [for videos] or remixers [for tracks]. It also lets us release music very quickly.”

Speaking to Olof in 2006, it was clear that Rabid Records
is central to the existence and musical development of The Knife. Having started exclusively releasing Honey Is Cool records, Rabid naturally provided the platform for The Knife’s self-titled debut in 2001 and has given the band the freedom to experiment, adapt and change their sound without pressures from label bosses and A&R types, unlike many of their contemporaries. Releasing via Rabid also gives the band complete ownership of their recordings, and the ability to record and work on side projects, solo work, remixes and guest spots at their own will.

Rabid wouldn’t be The Knife’s label without it’s own mythology, of course. Thus, it doesn’t run with the same formal business platter provided by even the most leftfield indies, providing a ruse about “the lazy Frau Rabid”, the label boss who “seldomly releases other music than The Knife. Except from every 3rd year when she gets excited and manic and dreams about being professional, then she signs someone.” Almost true to her word, only Rockmonster, Monster and Maskiner, Jenny Wilson, Calle P, and First Aid Kit of non-Karin and Olof projects have since been released on Rabid. Unfortunately for those angling to be the next addition on the Rabid roster, their somewhat mantra isn’t inviting: “please do not send demos, start your own label instead.” Prescient advice.

3. ‘The Knife’

“[With ‘The Knife’] we were put in an indie genre.”

More of a slither than a bolt out of the blocks, their 2001 self-titled debut found its niche in the record collections of the few upon release. Even in their home country of Sweden the record originally only sold “around 1000 copies”, according to Karin. It saw the band exploring themes of love and loss (N.Y hotel – the only single), death (Lasagna), and including frequent references to the sun/light and darkness in nature. They even included a nod to Bruce Springsteen on I Just Had To Die, which paraphrases the lyrics to I’m On Fire, though adapting Springsteen’s desire for a purportedly married woman to what seems to be the infinitely more uncomfortable desire of male pedophile for a young girl. Karin’s vocal predilections expose the transient, haunting power that was absent on Honey Is Cool records, sprawling over dripping synths on Kino and Neon. Despite impressive moments, however, it was an album that suggested promise rather than importance.

4. Heartbeats

“We wouldn’t have done it if it was our version… We needed it [the money] at the time, but we wouldn’t do it again.”

‘Heartbeats’, the first track from their second album ‘Deep Cuts’, is undoubtedly The Knife’s hit single. It just so happened that someone else happened to have the hit with it, which is probably how they prefer it. Propelled to ubiquity by the 2006 Sony Bravia advert with the bouncing San Franciscan balls and Jose Gonzalez’s lovingly soporific cover version, it gave the band previously unseen exposure – and a well received royalty fee too. This fee helped fund their building of their studio in Stockholm, the continuation of Rabid and the incredible – and expensive – live show, thus offsetting any ‘selling out’ qualms.

5. ‘Deep Cuts’

“The first album we did was more introverted, and we didn’t sell any records. So we wanted to do something totally different”

With a beacon like Heartbeats, ‘Deep Cuts’ was The Knife’s breakthrough album, and the shift to a more ‘pop’ sound overall opened them up to a new audience. So where ‘Heartbeats’ was balladeering new wave electro-pop, You Make Me Like Charity investigated the funk, beats and bleeps of contemporary R’n’B, and single Pass This On could be placed within the brooding electronica and highly personal lyrics that they’d later reveal in ‘Silent Shout’. There were also lots of steel drums.

Lyrically, ‘Deep Cuts’ was broadly discussing the pantheon of human heartache and lust, subjects that The Knife made into an often squeamish experience, from Olof groaning “I keep my dick hangin’ out of my pants” on ‘Hangin’ Out’ through to Karin sultrily suggesting “I could fuck your brains out” in a passing fashion on ‘Rock Classic’ and intoning “I’m in love with your brother’ during ‘Pass This On’. Rarely had a brother/sister relationship tested the liberal status quo of the critics and fan so square on. That the album’s overt politics, particularly feminist stances, wasn’t recognised in many early reviews may be due to the obsession with the aforementioned pseudo-incest, but any revisit in this context would reveal plenty of references, a few of which are discussed in the ‘Politics’ section below.

6. Politics

“When we did ‘Deep cuts’ we wanted to do a more political album. We wanted to show our ideas about feminism and other kinds of ideas, in very obvious, and very pop packaging.”

As quickly referenced in the section on ‘Deep Cuts’, The Knife’s politics are deeply intertwined with their work. Unlike their private lives, their politics are a public affair via their lyrics, being referenced in their videos and, perhaps most obviously, discussed in interviews. There are frequent hints at socialist persuasions, with even a direct reference to communism in the lyrics to Silent Shout’s ‘Forest Families’, though an all-out, flag-waving, laying hearts on the line salutation can be found on the 2004 EP ‘Gender Bender’, particularly the track Manhood: “Don’t like the voices of the right wing / Got my heart to the left / I like the lady in red, yeah / This is socialist.”

The principle of equality that is one of the central tenets of socialist thought is seen elsewhere in The Knife’s work. Not only in the clearly divided split of input into the music (both Dreijers have commented on the split work ethic that they share) but also in their feminism. They infamously boycotted the 2003 Swedish Grammis in protest of the male domination of the music industry, instead sending two members of feminist group The Guerilla Girls to receive the award. Then there are the prior mentioned lyrics, including a critique of patriarchy in the workplace (“I’m the head over small business. Employing old male friends of my kind.” on ‘Hangin’ Out’), a song from the perspective of a fearful housewife (“I’ve got mace, pepper spray / And some shoes that run faster than a rapist rapes” on Na Na Na) and another open salutation (“I like the feminist way” on Manhood). That Karin and Olof are from Sweden, a relatively radical country for gender quality and one that is more accepting of socialism that many of its European neighbours, is a fact that clearly resonates with them. However, despite their views, their music is not intended to proselytise. They’re not asking the listener to change; they’re leaving them to decide for themselves.

7 ‘Silent Shout’

“I don’t think it’s good to shout things”

‘Silent Shout’ marked a critical peak for the band, while it’s release around the same period as the Sony commercial increased mainstream interest. Recording was started in a former carbon dioxide factory, moving on to the vaults of Stockholm’s Grand Church (described by Olof as, “so old the walls were falling apart so we had brick dust in our lungs”) before they retreated to their Stockholm studio for the final pieces. There were more steel drums, more synths and an altogether more textured, macabre feel. Lyrically the politics remained, though less literal than on ‘Deep Cuts’, while there was introspection and a concern with how society affects people, something they’d touched on before. The record also had singles in abundance, including We Share Our Mother’s Health, Silent Shout and Like A Pen. Indeed, the title track sets the tone for the record with its sinister bassline, blipping synth arpeggios and pitch-shifting vocals throughout.

8. Privacy

“If we could choose not to do any photos at all, we would.”

Like the best reclusive artists, The Knife created a world around them and a mystique than fascinates people far more than any exposé would. Consider the press photos for ‘Silent Shout’ where their faces were covered with Venetian ‘plague doctor’ masks, or that they didn’t play their first live show until February 2005, 6 years after forming. Though they clearly aren’t averse to interviews (they’re actually both incredibly charming and easy to interview), they prefer to illustrate their music by using video directors that share their vision and live performances that bring images and emotions from their music to life, rather than detract and distract from it. As Karin commented in 2006: “When we make pictures and videos and stuff, we try to express the music and keep the focus on what we do.”

9. Andreas Nillsson

“It was never my intention to make music videos to begin with. Actually, I’m a painter.”

A long-time collaborator of The Knife, Andreas Nillsson has arguably played a more important role in the visual adventures of the band more than any other visual artist. From the pencil-drawn animation to N.Y. Hotel (co-directed with Andreas Korsar), the hypnotic skateboarding meets animated crows of ‘Heartbeats’ (co-directed with Johannes Nyholm), the spectral horror of ‘Silent Shout’ and the boogieman stop-motion of Like A Pen, Nilsson has transferred their music into film to great effect. He’s also the brains behind the theatre that comes with their live show (and the Fever Ray set), using 4 projectors, 2 transparent screens to give a 3D hologram effect and 2 giant paper mache dolls that often mouthed the backing vocals on the last tour. In an interview with Olof in 2006, he explained why they keep returning to work with Andreas: “He understands us best. The aesthetics in his work can be surprising. They’re more about feeling than the images though. He creates the feeling and image that represents our music.”

10. Side projects

“You don’t have to compromise when you work by yourself”

The success of Fever Ray over the past year and a half has brought a new focus on the side/solo projects of The Knife, reinvigorating interest in their creations and contributions outside of the band. From Karin’s guest spots on Deus and Royksopp records, to Olof’s country-hopping sets as DJ Coolof, a full overview would end up the size of a small dictionary, so here’s a short list of the best work of their side projects:

10.1 OAR003 B – Oni Ayhun

Speculation surrounds this track. The B-side to the third release from Oni Ayhun – though still technically unconfirmed that it’s Olof behind this – is a tweaking minimal house track that has drawn favourable comparison to Lee Jones, been recommended by DFA’s Tim Sweeney on Beats In Space and was featured on the excellent Four Tet essential mix recently. There are definite comparisons to be made between this and The Knife’s sound, notably around the synth arpeggios on the 6-minute mark, while live performances haven’t confirmed the identity either way, with Ayhun playing dressed in costume as a woman.

10.2 What Else Is There? – Royksopp

Karin appeared on the most recent Royksopp album ‘Junior’ too, but ‘What Else Is There?’ is not only one of her finest vocal contributions, but also arguably some of the best work Royksopp have ever done. A chugging bassline is shrouded in glacial, honeyed synths and a rousing string section as the song reaches its culmination. Meanwhile the video was another inspired work by Andreas Nillsson, featuring Karin a model mysteriously floating through scenes of apocalyptic darkness.

10.3 Let My Shoes Lead Me Forward – Jenny Wilson

The Knife’s remix turned Jenny Wilson’s cutesy, warped pop into a trance-inspired minimal club track. It can be found as the b-side to the Rabid released single.

10.4 When I Grow Up – Fever Ray

Taken from an astonishing album, ‘When I Grow Up’ was the calling card for the Fever Ray project, as Karin discussed growing up from an almost inverted perspective. The vocal pitch shifts were hallucinatory, while the seeping guitars, keyboard and tripping drum programming created a nebulous warmth. When she sings “I put my soul in what I do” it feels absolutely true.

10.5 Echoes from Mamori – Olof Dreijer and Mamori
Taken from an art project recently curated by Olof in Rotterdam, ‘Echoes from Mamori’ is an audio piece that uses the sounds of nature from Mamori, near the virgin Amazon forest in Brazil, where he undertook field recording work in preparation for The Knife’s Darwin opera. As challenging and experimental to listen to as anything else they’ve worked on, it’s another insight into the creative process that led to ‘Tomorrow, In A Year’.

11. Darwinism and the opera

Tasked by the theatrical group Hotel Pro Forma to create an opera “based around Darwin and evolutionary theory – with a focus on biology and geology”, The Knife – along with Planningtorock and Mt.Sims – set about transferring his epochal literature ‘The Origin of the Species’ to music in March 2008. Drawing on field recordings from the Amazonian forest, the expansive percussion instrument collection of Icelandic musician Hjörleifur Örn Jónsson and the guidance given by HPF, they created a score and libretto, and worked with another team on the specifics of the live performance. Both the structure and nature of an opera enforced boundaries that distanced the band from pop rhythms, perhaps excepting ‘Colouring In Pigeons’ and ‘The Height of Summer’. The resulting record is thus perhaps an unexpected twist in The Knife’s catalogue, though considering their working process of transferring images and words into sounds, and their appreciation and understanding of the importance of cinema (they wrote the soundtrack to the 2004 film ‘Hannah Med H’, after all) and music video, I’d argue that this was a natural step for them. Moving entirely outside of their comfort zone is a challenge that many musicians discuss, but few actually complete. That The Knife have done so with such accomplishment is a huge credit to their creative powers.

‘Tomorrow, In A Year” is released on the 1st March.

Read our interview with Olof.

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