Danceable Darkness: The World of the Knife

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By Marc Andreottola

The first time I heard the Knife, I was driving through Minneapolis listening to the local alt-radio station, 89.3 The Current. The song was “Heartbeats”. Outside it was starting to pour. This was around March. The song itself was a dark, indulgent, spinning surf-wave of beachy summer fun. It was the perfect summer song, the perfect blend of bubblegum pop meets Afro rhythms meets the chaotic lava core that makes the best pop or electronic music special. It felt happy and sad at the same time.

The Knife specializes in an energetic, hot, pulpy happy/sadness that courses through all its songs and sounds. Its universe is simultaneously dark and animated, often described as occult and dark, but sometimes funny. As with its last album, the successful Deep Cuts, the dark half often comprises the political.

It may be my ideal world speaking, but the Knife seems like the type of band that perfectly reflects both the global and personal landscape: one of threat, one of survival, one of fear and alienation, one of hypocrisy—a strange world where we’re all living in a sort of dream, unable to shout.

Through an exotic blend of synth-pop and poetic vocals that alienate and energize, the Knife is challenging the sound of right now, without making it any less fun. Sometimes dubbed “haunted house”, the band’s music is a blend of minimalist and dissonant arrangements mixed with pitch-modulated vocals, vibrant neon electroshouts from the underworld. Their world is filled with a pop combobulation of apocalyptic trance and African rhythms with strange, twisting lyrics that are cryptic and alienating, yet comforting.

Making you feel something, a sort of interiority that you can dance to, is one of the Knife’s biggest successes with its latest album, Silent Shout. The title song is simultaneously haunting and danceable. If this is emblematic of where this brand of indie sub-pop is going, then we’re headed towards something with more depth and layers, futuristic but sad and childlike. Something that you can move to that moves you.

The sibling super-combo the Knife is comprised of brother and sister Olof Dreijer (instrumentation) and Karin Dreijer Andersson (vocals). They are known to be private. They’d much prefer to stay in the world of their lavish apocalypso videos and haunting, Scandinavian sugar factory music rather than pose and provoke in their interviews. The look: Long black coats, black wigs and masks that make them look like crows. Fluorescent gymnastics outfits. Animated dancing skeletons. All of it ostentatious and odd and cryptically ridiculous. Again, they’re like the world right now—filled with serious problems, darkness, humors, and absurdities.

Notably, this latest album was created partially in the basement of a centuries-old Swedish carbon-dioxide factory. At times, the album reminds me of helium—a music world which operates on a different air than our world, something embellished and parallel, but heightened in the way that a Bertolt Brecht play is heightened, to reflect the socio-politcal and the interior contradictions. Things are distorted and exaggerated, surreal and dreamlike, but problematic, real and terribly fun. The contradictions in Silent Shout perfectly describe their paradoxicality: a breed of poetic dance musicians, hipsters that don’t want to be seen, rage that can’t be heard. Their album is released by Mute Records and is out now. Buy it. I interviewed them on a balmy Monday in early June, via conference call.

Who are your influences musically?
Karin Dreijer Andersson: Hmm. I listen to a lot of different kinds of music. Erm. Hmm. I mean, we have a lot of different African folk music in our songs.

You get compared to Björk sometimes. See any similarities?
K: I don’t see it, really. We both have a Scandinavian…accent. And we’re both drawing from that culture. But I don’t think we make the same kind of music, really.

Olof Dreijer: I think what we do is we work more with fiction. And that’s the difference.

It sounds like Silent Shout is a concept album. Do you invest a lot of time in the lyrics and multiple characters you portray?
K: Well, I never think at all, actually, about the lyrics. It came along when making the songs. I mean, you always start with the music, and then certain characters come to mind. Sometimes we try different characters to change the performance of the lyrics. But I think that we were very concentrated making this album. We worked from the inside. It’s not so much about politics as our last album, Deep Cuts. It might be about things, issues. But I think after Deep Cuts, we wanted to do something more…messed up.

Silent Shout seems avant-garde in so many ways, but the title song sounds more like a single. It’s danceable, but still beautiful and poetic. How much pressure do you feel to appeal to a wider audience while also challenging yourselves as musicians?
O: I think that when we were making Deep Cuts it was about the rhythm. But I didn’t think about the audience so much with this one. On some level it was about having fun, and there are things that are more danceable, but on another level we’re still dealing with issues, of course.

Karin, you’ve described the song “Silent Shout” as cold, but warm; distancing, but comforting. Is there an interesting story about how the song came about?
K: No. We just made it. [laughter]

How do you come up with the strange aesthetics for your videos? They’re very apocalyptic, but in a funny way.
K: Yes, Andreas Nilsson is the one who makes our videos. He also designs our live performances. I think when working with him we don’t talk too much. Now after five or six years of working with him we know what to do. I think when working with others directors we are more involved.

So your video When I Found the Knife is ever so wacky and kitschy. Planning to make more videos like that along those lines?
K: We wrote the story just to introduce ourselves. When you start to make music I think you write impressed by the idea of releasing records around the world. But with every new territory you break in the record industry, it takes more time to do it, more time to perfect and harness it. More studio time. So I think we’ve ended up focusing much more on things other than the music too, like the videos, than when we first started.

Do you feel as you guys get bigger that it’s tough to strike a balance between those basement studio days and your current status of emerging international hipster sensation?
K: I don’t think we’re going to be an international hit, but…

Oh, you already are. I can mention you anywhere in Williamsburg and people know who you are.
K: That’s…international.

O: That’s only in Williamsburg.

K: Well, let me say, the bigger it gets, the harder it is to stay. You have to spend more time thinking about how you spend your time. How you make priorities.

Looking at your press release I see you guys define yourselves as “private” and were even staying away from presenting yourselves visually for a while. Do you feel that the music world is overly obsessed with images? Is it still about the music?
O: I think we would like to put focus on the music instead of ourselves.

K: I think everything around you is much more at stake than ever, actually. It’s all very lifestyle-oriented. So it’s all about what you’re wearing and new shoes and fashion and everything! But I don’t think we really fall into that.

Hard to do, because even being a presence in the pop world almost dictates that your music needs to be worn as fashion.
K: Yeah. There are totally some difficulties for artists right now that haven’t existed in the past so much.

Thank god you guys present yourselves as skeletons in your video!
O: We actually look like that.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/knife-060922/