Why Manchester is the new creative epicentre of neo-soul and hip-hop
On the morning I was due to speak with The Knife I boiled two eggs for breakfast to have with toast soldiers: childhood comfort food to allay the nerves. As the eggs boiled in the pan they rattled against the metal and their ta-ta-tap-taap-taap-ta-tap tapping reminded me of the in- and out of time rhythms on the Swedish sibling duo’s new album ‘Shaking The Habitual’, especially Without You My Life Would Be Boring and Networking. It made me think about the demarcations that we make between sounds and noises and music, and how these sort of entrenched value judgements – should you apply them to people or situations – are central to how societies arrange themselves.
This is, of course, the territory that The Knife stalk on ‘Shaking The Habitual’, laying their quarry out loud and clear not just on the album but in its accompanying materials. There’s that extensive album “biography” penned by a writer friend Jess Arndt that rallies, poetically, against the archaic structures that govern our world (“a blood system promoting biology as destiny”, “a series of patriarchies”, “hyper-capitalism” and “this homicidal class system”), plus a wonderful set of comics by Liv Strömqvist that playfully question who really needs educating about how to live in the world.
‘Shaking The Habitual’ questions fixity and tradition, not just thematically and lyrically but in its song structure and sound creation. The dense, spiraling rhythms that any fan of The Knife aches for are still very much present (A Tooth For An Eye, Raging Lung_ and _Ready To Lose) but they sit side by side with an almost 20-minute long ambient void (Old Dreams Waiting To Be Realized) and furiously blunt techno (Full Of Fire). It’s stirring, passionate music; music made with purpose, fueled by a deep frustration and intent on finding new ways to express that. Yet it is very far from a difficult album and it’s certainly not the crazy statement it’s been painted as. In fact, the most shocking thing about ‘Shaking The Habitual’ is how it’s been met. Maybe Karin and Olof set themselves up for the old, tired – and tiring – “pop shouldn’t do politics” noises that have circled the album, but those very responses serve as an important reminder that today, populist platforms are the place for this sort of discourse.
Music isn’t made in a vacuum. To understand where ‘Shaking The Habitual’ is coming from you only need to pick up the paper or scroll through Twitter. Every last echo of social outrage and political exhaustion that has thus far characterized the 21st century winds throughout The Knife’s first album in seven years. It screams and shouts, pressing us to shake out the stone in our shoe that we’re used to – its clarity, in fact, is ‘Shaking The Habitual’s finest quality. So often we dance around the difficult subjects, tiptoe about beliefs and rarely say what we mean. The Knife, finally, spell it out.
We speak via Skype, without video as Karin explains it affects the sound quality, and they are relaxed and warm. At one point, as you’ll read below, Karin speaks at length about a track before Olof points out she’s talking about the wrong one. This is greeted with a laugh and an apology: “I haven’t really learnt the titles yet.” It only serves to underline that the connection to the music for Karin and Olof lies deepest with the process, not the product; something that becomes patently clear throughout our conversation. At a glance, this positions the album as opposite to pop, a world entirely obsessed by product; by the end result. But The Knife, with wile and cunning, have used their position to challenge what is pop – what could be pop – head on.
How are you doing?
Are you both there?
Hello! Good to speak with you. I’m kind of overwhelmed by ‘Shaking The Habitual’. It’s really exciting to hear an album that reminds why art is made in the first place: to create a space for questioning and a chance for some dialogue about things. I’ve read about your approach to sound on this album and I was wondering if it had its seeds in ‘Tomorrow, In A Year’?
“‘Tomorrow, In A Year’ opened up new ideas about working more conceptually.” Karin, The Knife
Karin: Yes. I think after we had been working with ‘Tomorrow, In A Year’, I think it opened up new ideas about working more conceptually and also making music out of theories and ideas, and other stories that don’t start out from your own self, which I think is very common in popular music. So I think for me it really opened up a new way of thinking about what to write about and what to make music about.
It also feels particularly apt timing for the album in terms of the themes it’s exploring because in recent years the mainstream has woken up a bit to what’s going on around us. Rape culture, homophobia, racism: these things that have always been underneath the surface but it feels like people are starting to question their presence a lot more, once again. Was an awareness of all of that…did that drive the album?
“We’ve always been interested in filtering and finding ways to work with the things we think about daily, which are power structures and criticising norms.” Olof, The Knife
Olof: It’s always difficult to know where to start. In one way…in different ways depending on how you see it, we could say that we’ve always been interested in filtering and finding ways to work with the things we think about daily, which are power structures and criticising norms. I guess these things have come out in different ways throughout the last ten years or more that we’ve been working. I think this time, for me the main difference is that we have studied a bit more and read political theory, studied post-colonial theory and post-colonial feminism. Through the feminist engagement and thinking for feminism for some time, going deeper into that and expanding into intersectionality and these things. I think that this is a big change – and I think the way it can be seen in the music…I would say that lyrics have a more structural interest and interest in how political structures work, whereas before, if you want to generalise, it has maybe been about more how actions in society affect us on a psychological level. I would say that the music, even though it’s the result of a very joyful, jamming process, it’s still more conceptually conceived. The creative choices have been quite conceptually driven, trying to follow the content of the lyric. I don’t know; it can be seen in hundreds of ways but this is one way.
It makes sense. Did you consciously lean towards techno rhythms because it’s one of the most flexible forms of this century and also one of the most freeing? It feels like Full Of Fire is invoking some kind of rebellion and I wondered if techno was a conscious choice for that?
Olof: The process of how that song came about, and many of the other songs, is really that we wanted to have fun. I’m talking about the production: we wanted to have a fun process, so we jammed with electronic instruments. We jammed for hours and it came to hours of material that we edited down. That is kind of the process. But I think in the end, the reason why we chose certain sounds before others, I think there comes in the conceptual side that we find it exciting to work with sounds and come up with sounds that are difficult to pinpoint where they come from or what they are. We try to make sounds that maybe can sound like an animal or a human but made with a synthesiser or trying to be more electronic when singing. Trying to find these sounds that for me, if I try and think really hard and make a very farfetched judgement, I would say that gives me a feeling of a queer sound. A sound that is a bit in-between and is more asking questions than answers, and also more kind of inspired to think outside the box. You can say many things [laughs].
Olof Dreijer of The Knife, photographed by Alexa Vachon.
I feel that on Fracking Fluid Injection, the sounds that are happening there are like the land is crying.
Olof: That is correct.
Could you speak a little about that particular track?
Karin: We had very many ideas about different kinds of experiments that we wanted to do when starting this project. One of them was to set up a PA system in an old boiler room which is now used for other things. So we set up with PA system in this room and wanted to create a feedback chain and see what would happen if sound could develop and continue working by themselves and also with our interference. Oh…Olof thinks I’m talking about the wrong track.
Olof: It doesn’t matter but you’re talking about…
Karin: I’m talking about Old Dreams! I’m sorry.
There are parallels between those two tracks though.
Karin: I haven’t really learnt the titles yet. Old Dreams is made in the boiler room. Fracking Fluid – that is when we working with voice and a bedspring actually, and trying to see how these sounds could become one and how they don’t become one. How they work with each other and how they can get close to each other, and also where they split. It’s kind of a study of vocal and this bed spring sound.
I’d like to go onto Old Dreams because obviously I’ve read your album biography, and I know that you’re interested in how humanity has had all these old dreams about how we can organise ourselves to live together but we’ve not been able to get there yet. The soundscape of Old Dreams does feel like that suspension we’re held in late modernity’s accelerated capitalism; held in this state of reaching for things that we think that we need.
Olof: Yes. That’s what we’re thinking about.
Karin: It’s actually a Swedish writer called Nina Björk who wrote a text about these ideas, referring to Karl Marx, in a Swedish magazine called Glänta. We don’t have to invent…we don’t have to focus to come up with new ideas all the time. There have been so many before us thinking so many very good things and it’s the realisation of many of those ideas that still hasn’t happened.
Karin Dreijer Andersson of The Knife, photographed by Alexa Vachon.
Did you feel a responsibility with this album? I know you’ve spoken about the privileged position that you’re in.
“There have been so many before us thinking so many very good things and it’s the realisation of many of those ideas that still hasn’t happened.” Karin, The Knife
Olof: Yes, in many different ways. For example, a couple of years ago when I was working with my solo project and doing different drag things, and trying out different political strategies to work with like queer and feminist theory, I felt like, okay, if I’m going to work with this I have to learn a bit more, like people do, so I took a class in gender studies. I felt like I get different opportunities to work on a public level – or there are people listening to what I do – so I felt I had to learn more to handle that position. Then when we started to work with The Knife again – or we didn’t even think we would do something with The Knife but we started to work together, me and Karin, and maybe after a year or so, we thought we could do it under the name The Knife – the responsibility maybe… I don’t know about the musical process, I think then that’s the process when we study things and the music is a way to filter and work and put certain things into practice and try out things in a musical utopia. That is quite a process for us in our little world. But now that we’re putting together a touring crew and hiring a lot of people, then I think we really think we’re in a privileged position and we have to use that, make use of that in the best political way. Then we really think about how we organise ourselves – we’re putting together a mostly female technical crew and do these different things and see what we can do.
“If you have the possibility to choose how you organise yourself, I think then you also have the responsibility.” Karin, The Knife
Karin: That is something direct: if you have the possibility to choose how you organise yourself, I think then you also have the responsibility. That is something that I think we haven’t done during the years so well but that is something we have really started with in the last couple of years, trying to change our own organisation – how to put out records, how to work with all the technical people that we work with, who makes our videos, artworks and everything.
Questioning is a big force on the album. In your own way of working on the album, was questioning one another a big part of the process?
Karin: I think we talk so much before we start to make music and start to write, so I think this time we’ve really tried to make a common ground to work out from. We started to read, for example when making this album, and started to talk about things we wanted to do. I don’t think that we really had to question each other…
Olof: But we do.
Karin: But yes, we do [laughs]. But the idea was to find out topics or ideas that we both wanted to work with.
It’s tempting to see the album as a prayer in a way, a message in a bottle to hopefully stir people. Did you have any thoughts in this way?
Olof: Oh, I don’t know. Do you mean – is that an interpretation or do you maybe think that could’ve been our intention?
Having spoken to you for a few minutes I think that maybe it wasn’t an intention because you’re so focused on the process and the questioning, but I kind of see it as a prayer or a hope for change, and hopefully something that might – as part of wider cultural conversations – help move us along to the things you’re talking about.
Karin: During the process I don’t think about how it will end or what it even will be. It was so late that we talked about it as an album but I think now when it’s finished – we finished it last year – of course, you can wish for that it becomes part of a discussion and that it starts having its own life and that it can start ideas and so on. But that is nothing you can really have in mind when you’re making it.
“There are different types of escapism and I don’t think that all music agreed upon as escapist music, is escapist music for everyone.” Olof, The Knife
Olof: I also think that’s it’s now afterwards that the only thing I can hope for is that it’s a friend and a comforting thing to have in your political struggle to make you feel less alone. We were given the question a couple of weeks ago – or no, there was some journalist who wrote that if you were to ask the average person, they listen to music as escapism. I mean, I also listen to music as escapism and that’s really important – I need to get lost sometimes. But I’m thinking that there are different types of escapism and I don’t think that all music agreed upon as escapist music, is escapist music for everyone. Because if it is like a heteronormative message, that it is not so escapist but more reminding about the harsh reality. And so I believe that even though our music has a quite clear political message, it can still be something to escape into for someone who shares similar political views.
Yes. I also think that people’s ears are becoming more open to many ways of listening, something that Duchamp and Cage showed us years ago – and we’re remembering that now.
Olof: Yes, exactly. When I do dishes, I listen to musicals. There are different kinds of music for different occasions.