It’s easy to think of The Knife as having a certain froideur—the wild disguises, their privacy and precision—but for the group's devotees, the same hallmarks draw you closer. When I first heard their third album Silent Shout at 18 years old, I’d just left home and was starting to figure out what do with my own voice, and the obliquely liberatory instincts of the lyrics aligned with the more outwardly political music that me and my friends were listening to at the time, like ’80s alt rock, or riot grrrl, which took a sledgehammer to society’s structures in a more direct way. Formed of siblings Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer, The Knife were a band who went about things elliptically, and were all the more enticing for it. Their polemical outsider electronic music was intoxicatingly, cultishly glamorous—something that a misfit teen could get behind.
Ten years after its original release in February 2006, Silent Shout’s feminist techno folk tales pack the same punch. One song depicts a faceless mass struck dumb and coddled by staring at screens—and while vocalist Karin wrote the song about television, in the iPhone era it hits a rawer nerve of how technology can both bring us together and keep us apart. Elsewhere, the songs peel off the barnacles of society’s so-called underbelly, describing the quietly terrible lives of characters who are incarcerated, dancing for dollars, or praying for chemical castrations and carrying mace in their purse. A lot of this is fiction, but on Silent Shout it never feels like pure fantasy. The world in 2016 can often be a scary place, particularly for the marginalized. While there’s joy in The Knife’s music, their chilling fables can feel as haunting as the worst of the world we live in.
Adding to the heady strangeness is the fact that you can't tell if the disfigured vocals are from woman, man, or robot. For Silent Shout, Karin wilfully shunned the melodiousness her voice had on The Knife’s previous album, Deep Cuts, in favour of what reviewers at the time called “surrealistic,” or “unrecognisable new mutations.” Now, these experiments seem like a sign of the way the wind was blowing. In the past decade, we’ve become less hung up on assigning a gender to vocals, and pitch-shifting is a technique that’s become a trend: it defined witch house, is a throughline in the wildly popular remixes of the Majestic Casual brood, and is used by pop artists such as Rihanna, Lorde, and Lady Gaga. The Knife didn’t pioneer pitch-shifting—hell, it’s even in “The Boy Is Mine”—but they helped to unlock its potential to explore a gender-nonconforming space.
The Knife’s masks were physical as well as figurative. Maybe Olof would wear synthetic sportswear and cruise a drag queen (the “Pass This On” video), or the pair would appear with papier-mâché beaked prostheses for Silent Shout’s promo pictures, or don spangled jumpsuits on their later Shaking the Habitual tour. In a culture where we look to artists’ autobiographies to enhance, or even validate, our experience of their work, with their wild costumes The Knife owned their unknowability. As Tavi Gevinson recently wrote of David Bowie, “a world of possibilities opens up when you don’t concern yourself with familiar markers of authenticity.”
The band went on hiatus in 2014, stating that they “don’t have any obligations to continue.” While they’ve taken on musical projects as individuals since, this is the first time since disbanding they’ve given an interview as The Knife. In January 2016, we spoke for an hour in a three-way phone conversation to reflect on their memories of the album, its themes which seem to resonate more strongly than ever today, and their past, present, and future in music.
Going into Silent Shout, you’d just released Deep Cuts, which was a big hit. What kind of creative mindset were you in?
OLOF: At the time, [Deep Cuts] hadn’t been such a big success. I mean, it was a success in our minds. But it wasn't so big as you just [implied]. I think that happened a little bit later.
KARIN: I think we just wanted to make more music. So we didn't have any plan really of what we were going to make. We had some more technical ideas, because on Deep Cuts we used a lot of free software. And I think we were getting a bit tired of that, so we had an idea to work with just analog equipment.
So your medium shifted: you’d used immediate software to make pop music, and then you chose more specialist analog instruments to make Silent Shout, which wasn’t so poppy.
KARIN: I think when you work with a material that requires more time to get into, like an analog physical machine, it makes it possible to make music that requires more time to get into. So I can imagine that that had an impact on what kind of music we made.
OLOF: We were fortunate enough to be able to start releasing music at a time when we weren’t so great at producing. We learned a lot about making songs along the way. So for Silent Shout it was a learning process. It was simple stuff—classic techno machines like synthesisers and drum machines—and a lot of trial and error. It wasn't like we had this super clear idea. There was an idea, but we kept on trying different kinds of sounds and combinations.
Karin, what were you interested in exploring with the lyrics?
KARIN: I had so many ideas in my head, that I just wanted to make tracks and to write down what I had been thinking about. Theme-wise, a lot of it was about finding the words to describe the feelings that I had when listening to the music. I think I am most interested in politics, and that for me includes gender, feminism, and sex. So that’s what I make music about—it contains all of that. But it has always done that.
The treatment of your voice is one of the most distinctive elements of the record. What did you hope to achieve with the pitch-shifting?
KARIN: One of the ideas that I wanted to play with was to be a character that you can't place. What happens when a listener can’t place a vocal? What is it? Now, we’re much more open to not having to decide what gender a vocal belongs to. But at the time for me, it was a very important experiment. In a way, it was very free.
Did you sing in a different way with the deeper tones?
KARIN: No, I don't think so. I have the sound of the vocal in my head when I sing it—I have a very clear idea about what kind of expression I want to make. Then I record them, and afterwards, I just try to capture that idea. Sometimes it gets more clear if we pitch, and so we change format.
KARIN: I don't really see Jay-Jay as a man, and I don't see myself as a woman. So I wasn’t thinking about that. It’s two voices, but I don't really know what they are.
“A lot of the tracks are about a numb feeling. I mean, I hate a lot about this society. And I hate that the structures themselves try to do their best to make you numb and passive. The oppressive power structures benefit even more when you stay home in front of the TV.” —Karin Dreijer Andersson
Did you notice after Silent Shout was released that a lot of artists copied the sound or pitch-shifted vocals?
OLOF: Yeah, I have heard some artists where I have thought that. But at the same time, music technique in general has spread to the masses—in a great way—so it's difficult to say where people find their inspiration. People always arrive at similar thoughts, from different directions, or coming from different backgrounds. We used a lot of arpeggio on Silent Shout, and that arpeggio sound came from trance, and trance influences came back around that time or a few years after.
The song “From Off to On” talks about celebrity culture and how we stare at the TV. And in 2016, we live our lives through screens more than ever. What were your intentions with that song?
KARIN: I think it has a lot to do with how consumption and capitalist society affects you, and how it controls our physical bodies as well. And I think the TV thing was very central for me—how TV culture calms you, makes you numb and takes away disorder. When you feel really shitty, you go home and you turn on the TV and it will ease your pain for a little while. And also the isolation—instead of running out from our houses to act, a lot of people stay at home instead. I think a lot of the tracks [on Silent Shout] are about a numb feeling. I mean, I hate a lot about this society. And I hate that the structures themselves try to do their best to make you numb and passive. The oppressive power structures benefit even more when you stay home in front of the TV. I know there are a lot of people who think the same way as I do. And still, it’s so hard to do things about it.
It’s interesting you say that technology controls our bodies, because these days the physical shape of people walking the street is different. Everyone is looking down at their phones.
KARIN: Yeah. This was before smartphones! [laughs]
For the first time in your career, this was an album that you toured. Was that a difficult decision?
KARIN: Yes. We hadn’t been doing anything on stage for seven years. Both of us were not interested doing any performances at all. But the year before we did a tour, we did one show at the ICA in London. Our artist collaborator, Andreas Nilsson, made video projections, and we performed three tracks. After that, we started to talking to him about how this could be explored a little bit further. He had an idea about having two screens: one screen in front of us and one behind us. He described it in a way that made me feel OK about it.
How did Andreas Nilsson bring out a different layer to the songs?
KARIN: He found a lot of visual characters and elements for the sounds we had made. I think a lot of it connected very well. I mean, he was in the beginning of his artist-ship. So me and Olof and him were all experimenting a lot. And none of us, at that time, had been outside Sweden making art. It was a safe space for us to explore.
Was part of it that you wanted to connect with fans?
KARIN: Of course! But how I think about it now, it’s more like a film and music experience. It was something else than a concert. At the time, I thought electronic concerts were very boring, but this was more of a film. At that time, I would have liked to go to such a concert to see a film and have music play loud in speakers. You can't really think so much about trying to please everyone’s ideas about how a concert should be.
OLOF: At the same time, we thought a lot about the audience, and wanting them them to have a great experience. We put a lot of work into this. With Andreas we worked on the visual side of things, and then we spent weeks making surround sound mixes so it would be even more like a multi-dimensional experience. But it was a way for us to be on stage in a comfortable way, too. I mean, I had stage anxiety and I had it for many years after that as well. Now I don't have it anymore.
Did the masks and outfits also help you feel more comfortable on stage?
OLOF: Yeah. At that time, that helped because it felt like you go in there and play a character, like in the theater. And it felt good to be replaceable, that anybody could be there. It’s the film and sound that does the big job, and I’m more of a prop.
It’s less ego-centric.
OLOF: Yeah, [ego] is not even part of it. Exactly.
In the imagery you put out around Silent Shout, you wore bird masks. Why birds?
OLOF: I had been making papier-mâché masks as a kid… [Karin laughs] It's just a fun home-type of activity to make papier-mâché. And I guess in the electronic music world it's not so common to have this personal, not-so-cool type approach that using papier-mâché could be seen as.
KARIN: It was very practical. We had a little bag for these masks, and we would bring them when going away, doing press, doing promo. It was easy.
OLOF: When we released Deep Cuts we had pictures of ourselves in Sweden, but I didn't like being recognized, and so it came from that experience. We learned by our mistakes. But I also think it is important to say that we didn't intend to come off mysterious or difficult or dark—that's never been our intention. It's just more to put more focus on these different characters in the music.
KARIN: And I think also to be able to have a private life besides making music.
The masks are also quite humorous.
KARIN: Yes, I think so. And as Olof says, they're very uncool, and I think that's really important because electronic music at the time was very serious. And I think playfulness and humor has always been very important part of our work.
I think of the “Pass This On” video, which sparkles with energy.
OLOF: I mean, I don't think that's so humorous. It's more about flirting and overcoming boundaries to me, really.
KARIN: And after that, Olof was recognized as The Knife's dancer.
OLOF: Yeah, which I stuck to a lot! That was a good persona.
One of the album’s songs, "Forest Families," describes being an outsider and finding joy in music. Was that inspired by personal experiences?
KARIN: Yeah. It’s very much about where we grew up. We grew up outside, far away from the city. It was a very homogenous place, and I think I went into books and music very early to… I liked not having to think about where we were. Where we grew up was supposed to be a nice place, but if you listen to the music, it's kind of the opposite.
There’s a line in the song: she said my favorite book was dirty. Did you experience that kind of narrow-mindedness?
KARIN: Yeah, I had a very religious, Christian teacher in school.
What books were you reading?
KARIN: They were just about normal girls who want to find out about their sexuality. I mean, it was not so open-minded.
“With Silent Shout we had all these political ideas and feminist ideas, but we were working with them in [only] music. A big, important difference is that, after that, we tried to infiltrate every part of our work with these ideas. For Shaking the Habitual we tried to work with an all female crew, and we really tried hard to find a female mastering engineer, female music technicians, and female video directors.” —Karin Dreijer Andersson
How do you feel about Silent Shout now? Did you revisit it before speaking to me today?
KARIN: Yeah. I went through it very fast. I don't like listening to my old things. I mean, it was 12 years ago that we started to work on this, and it's about ideas I had then. So much has changed! Of course there are themes and things that still interest you, but I think everything you do gets dated. There are so many new things to explore. I’m not a nostalgic person.
OLOF: We made new versions for the Shaking the Habitual tour, and we were able to choose songs that we still felt something for. We made new versions, and those new versions I feel more happy with now. That's really nice, to able to develop them and give them new life. But sonically, [Silent Shout] is very much a production of very simple sounds. It's basically two synthesizers and the drum machine. And now it's such a huge difference; I mean [for Shaking the Habitual] we used a huge palette of sounds.
Shaking the Habitual was a new sound for The Knife, but it seemed that you wanted to convey your message in a different way as well.
OLOF: Quite a big difference with the Silent Shout time was we only dealt with the political subjects in theory, we didn't really practice anything.
KARIN: With Silent Shout we had all these political ideas and feminist ideas, but we were working with them in [only] music. A big, important difference is that, after that, we tried to infiltrate every part of our work with these ideas. For Shaking the Habitual we tried to work with an all female crew, and we really tried hard to find a female mastering engineer, female music technicians, and female video directors.
OLOF: I mean, we didn't even think about it at the time of Silent Shout and Deep Cuts—so all our video directors were male, and we didn't think about representation in any way. It’s a learning process, and we’ve learned to deprogram the things we have learned from hierarchical society.
It sounds like you became more aware of your privilege and the fact that you were in a position to do something about it. Silent Shout was a little abstract, but with Shaking the Habitual there was no mistaking what you believed in.
KARIN: When you get the opportunity to tour and you get the ability to speak in the media, it also gives you also a responsibility. I mean, it gives you power—and I think there are many, many artists who don't want to acknowledge that. And if you are a feminist artist, I don't see why you shouldn't adopt your ideas into your practice. I find that since we've been doing this in the Shaking the Habitual project, I am very interested in artists who put their ideas into practice. And not only like a secret, not only in theory. Like, having political lyrics.
So, in that context, do you think that Silent Shout was direct enough?
KARIN: No. I think you can never, never be direct enough. There's always something to strive for, to be as political as possible, because that really makes changes.
At the same time, one of the beautiful things about Silent Shout is that you find the politics as you go deeper into the lyrics. Like the song “Na Na Na,” which is about sexism and a woman who feels threatened.
KARIN: Yeah. I am into those kinds of lyrics also. I think what I'm trying to relay is that lyrics are not the only way an artist can be political.
Olof, you’ve been touring with Hiya wal Âalam these days. How has that experience been for you?
OLOF: It's been really great. Hiya wal Âalam is the project of Houwaida Hedfi, a Tunisian composer. We’ve been working together for the last three years, and this last year we started touring. I learned a lot and we're gonna continue this year finishing the album. I also coordinate music lessons and support a band from a refugee camp in Berlin called Oplatz, and their band is called Lomnava Refugees and Friends. It’s a day-to-day activity. They play reggae and hip-hop and communicate their message about refugee rights and their experience of mistreatment as refugees.
What else are you working on these days, Karin?
KARIN: I have made music for theater play that is touring in Sweden now, called Vahák, which means violence in Sami. And I am working in my studio on something. I'm continuing in other shapes.
So not as Fever Ray?
KARIN: I don't know yet. We will see what it will be.