Love Among the Ruins: The Knife on pop, performance and queering the norm

Ahead of The Knife's latest and perhaps last ever tour (which takes in The Warehouse Project on 5 Nov), the Swedish siblings talk to us about their roots, Shaking the Habitual, and what it means to be a socially conscious pop band in the 21st century

Feature by Sam Lewis | 31 Oct 2014

Contemporary music culture is riddled with strange contradictions. Piracy is outlawed, but Spotify – from which almost all artists receive effectively nothing – thrives. The ‘top ten’ is peppered with four-to-the-floor identikit EDM, yet the underbelly of music culture has never been more diverse – the internet ushering in a world in which every taste can be catered to, where niches and genres are birthed and assassinated as quickly as you can restart your router. It’s as if the musical ecosystem is being starved of one crucial nutrient from above – investment, money – while being force-fed another from below – mass digital information, musical heterogeneity.

It’s why bands seem to explode and die out instantly, why music at the low end has never burned more brightly or variously. Meanwhile, high-end pop – increasingly designed to appeal to all ‘world’ markets at once – has been lulled into a kind of Eurodance death-trance, pseudo-dubstep competing with occasional auteurs (Beyoncé, Kanye) for increasingly meagre spoils. In fact, 2014 might be the first year in modern history where no one artist shifts a million album copies.

Beyond this, it’s easy to see how the turmoil in the industry reflects that of wider society. Technology has outstripped the capacities of popular culture under capitalism – the internet has given us a glimpse of a world where all culture is available for free all the time, yet the profit-motive shackles the possibilities of this digital future to a subservience to sales. Just as the bailout of the banks introduced ‘socialism for the rich,’ so the higher echelons of artists – U2, Radiohead – are able (albeit for different reasons) to give away their music for free, while everyone else scrambles for the crumbs at the foot of the table. When the performance of music is increasingly bankrolled by corporate endeavour, how does a socially conscious artist tackle and reflect upon this new world?

"We are in desperate need of politicians talking about the redistribution of income and wealth and acting upon it” – Olof Dreijer

The Knife’s 2013 album Shaking the Habitual was just such an attempt. Each track quivered with an army of information behind it, African rhythms juxtaposed alongside Western pop, fractured lyrics that dealt with both commonplace love (see Without You My Life Would Be Boring) and macrosocial angst (lyrics like, 'I've got a story that money just can't buy / Western standards / Poverty's profitable'). The record was teeming with contradiction: an album from a band with a certifiably huge pop hit which featured in an advert – Heartbeats – that expressed left-wing political anger and railed against corporate culture. It was an occasionally abrasive record that placed joyous contemporary dance at the centre of its live performance. It was fronted by a woman who renounces what the image of a woman in pop music is meant to be. It was an album full of oblique references, yet its title stated an intention clearly – to challenge what we should expect from a pop record.

Swedish brother and sister Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer can trace their time as The Knife back to 1999, but Karin traces her formative experiences of the industry further back. “In 1994, when I started to approach the music industry, while playing in an ‘indie-rock band,’ the only way to put out your music was either on homemade cassettes or through a record label. In Sweden there was one record label and one A&R – the person on the label deciding which artists to sign – that had the most credibility, where all bands wanted to be. This person was of course a man, the bands that he signed were mostly men and the very few female artists had very limited ways to act, if they wanted to be accepted.”

The group’s conversion to queer theory politics has been well-documented, and has bled over into a live show that aimed to challenge – to ‘queer’ – the nature of live performance itself. For their Shaking the Habitual tour, the band have employed an array of live dancers, as well as multiple vocalists – leaving it difficult to ascertain which one Karin is. Instruments themselves are often totally absent, the show reduced to pure performance rather than a display of musical proficiency; all this from a band that only started playing live shows in 2006. Karin attributes their desire to ‘disrupt’ expectations to a deeper need to challenge the corporate commodification of what live performance means. In 1994, she explains, “recording music was very expensive in comparison to today. And the way to make your music heard was very narrow and extremely difficult to get through. On the other hand, the connection between music makers and the corporate world wasn’t the only way to go, which very few artists and listeners question today. There was still the idea that music was an art form that shouldn’t compromise or sell itself to corporate powers. There was a line between art and commercialism. Today it’s a mess, making ads seems to be status symbols for music artists.”

The need to ‘shake the habitual’ stems from the school of thought which argues that, under capitalism, culture has become an extension of mechanised work. At the end of the Second World War the German philosophers and theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer wrote that, 'Amusement under late capitalism is the prolongation of work. Pleasure hardens into boredom because, if it is to remain pleasure it must not demand any effort and therefore moves rigorously in the worn grooves of association. No independent thinking must be expected from the audience.'

It’s this necessity to shake off the ‘worn grooves of association’ that The Knife attempt in a live show that has left fans breathless and bewildered in turns. Olof explains that, “what we do in our show is very much a reaction to the context we are active in. We react towards the power-norms in our scene, so it’s not intended to say much about what is outside that. But you can always see things and interpret things from the show – for example, it’s a strong collective atmosphere, there are no hierarchies on stage.” In this world the ‘writer’ or ‘performer’ efface themselves; the ‘hierarchy’ of ‘artist’ and ‘consumer’ is challenged so that we can become involved in the music more directly, or at least start to think about what it means when we expect to see a ‘traditional’ live performance.

Of course there’s always the risk that audiences will be alienated by this approach rather than challenged. No one likes to be talked down to, and no one should be ashamed to feel the thrill of old-fashioned entertainment. A post-modern approach to music can slip into the trap of punishing audiences for their ‘complacency,’ rather than bringing them on board in an attempt to do things differently. Olof accepts that the group could have been more welcoming in their earlier shows. “With the Shaking the Habitual show we wanted to be generous, inclusive and fun. For some people, we were totally that and for some people, we were not. With the new version of the show that we did for the US tour in April and May 2014, which we will now do in Europe, we were able to get a couple of weeks of rehearsals where we realised many of the ideas that we didn’t have the time for in the original version. So now it’s even more collective and collaborative – dancers are singing and playing instruments, Karin and I are dancing, it’s more colourful and less mysterious. So I think the original ideas that we wanted to include are now simply communicated better.”

In a world where the traditional dichotomies of trained performance and quiet consumption are deeply ingrained, Olof embraces any art form – be it pop, dance, or rap – people without formal training can thrive in. Does economic austerity threaten the possibility of cultural diversity in popular music? For him, the answer is yes. “This is something we talk a lot about and always have in mind when making choices. I’m very happy to be active in the dance music/pop/hip-hop field – I also make beats for rappers – because it’s usually self-taught people that are active in this scene and there is not that ‘gatekeeper’ of education like there is in classical music or contemporary dance or visual arts. But still we have to work a lot on having as many different kinds of people having access to making music. We do what we can in terms of having workshops and sharing knowledge. We are in desperate need of politicians talking about the redistribution of income and wealth and acting upon it.”

Of course, at a point where state subsidies for the arts have dried up, corporate sponsorship is a way to gain access to funds that allow you to do great things. The Knife used the money José González’s cover of Heartbeats generated to start their own label. It’s when that corporate structure goes unchallenged – or undermines people’s ability to act critically – that problems arise. Karin sees music as “a good tool for playing, working, stretching and questioning ideas. That triggers me and can make me super excited.” What does it mean to be a ‘pop’ artist today? “I don’t really know what pop music is today, but I sense it’s something you can relate to and you can recognise, which makes ‘pop’ very meaningless to work with, since our different experiences and references, depending on background, class, gender, ethnicity, geographic places, make it impossible to agree on an overall, generalized definition of ‘pop.’ I have a passion for rhythmic music.” Witness it for yourself, perhaps one last time, when they play Manchester's Academy on 5 November.

The Knife play Manchester's O2 Academy on 5 Nov. Shaken-Up Versions is released on 8 Dec via Brille Records