‘Everything Is Choreography’: The Knife Interviewed

The Knife's new live show has baffled, irritated and delighted audiences in equal measure. After their show at London's Roundhouse last week, Alex Macpherson sat down with the group to discuss communication, the politics of movement and reconfiguring peoples' expectations

Photographs taken at the Roundhouse by Howard Melnyczuk

The Knife’s Shaking The Habitual show has been one of the most divisive live performances of the year. It’s one that seeks to confound expectations of what a live show should be – but while the unpredictable visual pandemonium and dynamic movement on stage thrilled some fans, others have been turned off by the way in which the band eschew a traditional live set-up, with musicians visibly at their instruments, for large portions of the concert.

The day after their first show at London’s Roundhouse (to read an in-depth report of the performance, click here), the Quietus sat down with The Knife to talk about the show’s issues and aims – and the responses they’ve received.

At their behest, The Knife consisted of Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer – the public face of the band to date – as well as five dancers: Halla Ólafsdóttir, Marcus Baldemar, Adena Asovic, Rami Jawhari Jansson and Maryam Nikandish.

Throughout the show, there seemed to be a deliberate displacement of attention away from Karin and Olof. At one point, six figures lip-synced in unison into microphones; it was often impossible to tell who was who on stage due to the costumes (and, if you weren’t right at the front, the distance). And even during the one moment the spotlight was on an individual figure – a woman seated at a piano – this was undercut when you realised there was no piano in the song. Was this all intentional?

Karin Dreijer Andersson: Yes, it was. It’s the idea of doing things together with other people – creating this collective that we have been working on for a year now. (This show process has been going on for a year.) So it’s showing or acting the collective in practice.

To me, it fit in with some of the ideas you explore on the album about privilege – it was as if you and Olof were trying to lose your privilege as performers, to erase it.

KDA: In this process, everyone on the stage is doing the show together. Everybody dances, everybody plays instruments. All of us. It’s the most logical way of doing it. [Laughs.]

Halla Ólafsdóttir: And it’s not only about The Knife specifically. It’s a proposal of the transformation of roles and playing with hierarchies. Not just hierarchies between people and their identities, but between the art forms – between dance and sound.

Olof Dreijer: Each person in the whole crew – it’s their show. The light people, it’s their show. The sound crew, it’s their show. It’s a big collective, a big group having fun together. We want to communicate that to the audience.

Was it the aim to bring the audience in as members of that collective? During ‘Full Of Fire’ this was particularly noticeable: for the first half of the song, you stood stock still while the audience danced. It felt as though you were watching us. And, of course, the stage was left empty during ‘Networking’.

HO: Yeah. We work a lot with this idea of transformation: Where is the show, where does it happen, if you want to engage where do you do that? It’s the transformation of the stage. We’ve talked a lot about the idea of generosity and how to work with that.

I’m getting the impression that while most people think of The Knife as Karin and Olof, you think of The Knife as a collective that includes everyone here today – and others…

OD: The Knife at the moment is this project.

So you don’t consider The Knife a duo?

KDA: Not now. Now we’re on tour and now we look this way, this is what we are now.

And you were on stage for the entire show?

KDA: We’re all there, all the time, from beginning to end. Nobody ever goes, apart from during ‘Networking’, when we all leave.

How long have you all known each other?

KDA: It’s all different…

Marcus Baldemar: Everyone’s connected somehow. I’ve known most of the performers from before – but the whole team only since January.

KDA: Some of the collective we started to work with one year ago – the artistic directors, set designer, choreographer, light designer – and since then it’s developed and grown. Now, when we are on tour, we are up to 10 performers on stage and about seven technicians with us. We are really trying putting effort into how we organise ourselves and how we choose who we work with – we look at the norms of music industry, for example. On this tour we have only female technicians. There are so many stituations where you can put theory into practice.

Choreography and dance were very much at the centre of the show. Can you talk about choreography and what its importance is to you?

HO: For me, choreography and dance are different. Choreography can totally exist without dance, so I would see the whole project as movement, as choreography, and we decide within that choreography to use music and dance and objects.

MB: The dance we’re using in this project does come from somewhere… it’s an extension of the politics and the things we’ve been talking about.

The dancing at the show was almost amateur in quality – it seemed loose and free-flowing, rather than tightly rehearsed.

HO: There’s a certain notion of quality often connected to dance – such as that you would have to have certain kinds of training to execute it in a well-done way. Our interest was to use dance as a tool for empowerment, as something that generates joy – sure, we dance in unison, in ensemble, but not in order to reach perfection or talk about skill, but… for joy. Because it’s fucking fun!

OD: One thing we’ve been talking about is not to use dance as a decoration. That’s why we studied different collective dances, like folk dance and techno dancing and jumpstyle – these are dances that are normally done in a group. It might be a dance crew from Holland doing jumpstyle or it might be a cossack dance group in Ukraine, we are interested in the similarities between them – the way they all lead to the feeling that together, we are strong.

Of course, dance is inherently political. The club has historically been a site of escapism – particularly for minorities.

Adena Asovic: Me, I started to dance to house about five years ago. I have a background in ballet, but when I started to go out in clubs, I discovered house music and the whole culture – where people just have their hands in the air and are just feeling it. To me, that is dance – it’s a feeling. OK, it’s a visual movement as well, but how can we show you that feeling? Can we show you the sound in our movement? What I love about this show is that we are really bringing the club culture of just being into it. We are dancing without doing power moves, without doing extraordinary flips. We are all unique – even if Olof and Karin are not professional dancers, they are still dancing, they are dancers now.

Whose face was in the picture frame during ‘Got 2 Let U’?

OD: Haha! Who do you think?

I thought it looked like Karin in drag…

KDA: Ta-da!

I found it interesting because it brought to mind personality cults – which the rest of the show seemed to be deliberately deflecting and erasing, contra the usual live set-up which is designed to enhance that almost devotional position to the artists.

OD: It was actually about patriarchy…

KDA: We didn’t want a dude like that on stage. So we put him in a frame and just had him there for a few minutes to play with. And then he was off again.

OD: Also, the content of the song deals with an abusive man. We tried to impersonate this by thinking of a certain right-wing journalist in Sweden…

[Everyone laughs]

OD: …I don’t know how much detail we should go into, haha. It’s the patriarchy.

So you’re not going to say his name…

OD: Oh, they all look like that. [Laughter]

KDA: You can see it from many perspectives. But it was also… fun, an interesting way of looking at the format of video. We have talked so much about what kind of conventions there are to put on an electronic music show that usually use a lot of video projections – which we did last time. It was really fun to see what happens if we just use a very little part of it.

What are your expectations of what a live music show should be? What live experiences were formative for you, growing up or recently?

OD: For me, the inspiration for this show comes from the boredom of going to concerts. It can be really inspiring to see a boring concert: you can think of how you would do it instead. You’re supposed to be passive and stand and listen, but I’d rather dance in clubs and be active on the dancefloor together.

An interesting counterpoint would be your Silent Shout tour – where it was much more conventional in that Karin stood on stage and sung into a microphone and Olof was behind a computer. But the Shaking The Habitual show was so much more unpredictable and visually dynamic.

KDA: We have tried to create something we would enjoy – that has been really important during the whole process of making the album and the show. It must be a fun, meaningful process. For us, there was a lot of studying involved, going deeper into what we’re interested in, like political and gender theory – and going into the element of dance, which was a completely new thing for us. I think it’s insane that it’s still unconventional in our field to work with dance in a specific way. Everything is choreography. When a band is on stage, they choose how they perform. Some choose to stand still for 90 minutes in a corner. Now, after doing this show, my body screams when I see a person stand still, press a computer – whatever they do. To move is the best thing you can do – politically, also. Be active; spend your time on dancing and politics.

HO: Every time we dance and fuck, we win!

Dance has often cropped up as a mode of protest; I’m thinking particularly about the historical Japanese practice of ee ja nai ka, and just last month protesters against a Washington state tax on dance venues used the art form to make their point.

OD: Dancing is communication. Between us; or in a club, between the DJ and the dancefloor. And we don’t only have to talk about what we do in relation to concerts. We do perform in concert venues, but all of us are interested in breaking norms in our different fields. We play a lot with the norms of contemporary dance, scenography, costume designs…

I thought the most explicit link between politics, movement and sound came during ‘Stay Out Here’: the rhythm, intensity and multiple voices of the song reminded me of being on a street march. Would I be on the right track in thinking it was inspired by Occupy Wall Street? Several of the lyrical references seem to indicate so…

OD: Yes.

KDA: Emily Roysdon wrote the lyrics for that and yes, she was in the middle of Occupy in New York when she wrote it.

Why do you think people are so obsessed with the idea of authentic musical performance? It’s as though seeing Olof prodding a laptop on stage would have justified it all to some fans.

HO: There are very many different angles that bother people, but I think it’s super-interesting that what comes up so often is this idea about live-ness and authenticity when you have an electronic concert. You would never authentically play every sound! That would be amazing if we could manage that! But for us, because the idea of playing with authenticity is very much present in the show, I think it’s super-exciting that it’s being discussed. And if I think of the show as a dance performance – how the hell would I do a dance performance that isn’t live? In my head, there are a lot of things the show and the dialogues around it are generating: the idea of live-ness, how we perceive information…

I totally agree. It’s obvious that hours were spent painstakingly creating the sounds and textures on record. Why expect you to recreate them on stage by pressing a button, and why is dance as an art form not given the same respect? Not everyone agrees, though: it was one of the most divisive shows I can remember attending. I was scanning Twitter after the show and have been looking on your Facebook page – and if you don’t mind, I’d like to read out a few of the negative ones…


MB: Do it!

"How can you call that a concert, you didn’t even sing." "The worst rip-off I have ever witnessed." "The worst trappings of postmodern pigshit." "Was that a joke?"

OD: We are on stage like this – if people don’t like that, it’s fine.

HO: It’s quite luxurious, coming from the world of dance and choreography, where you have to constantly fight for the art form itself, for people even to know it exists – you have to drag people to it. Here, there’s a possibility of making art and reaching out to the extent that people are fucking fighting about the shows! I love that.

RJJ: You could make it simple: if you took all the performers, put them on stage, and filled the room with a lot of people, and then say: Entertain everybody! Everybody has to feel joy or happiness in their body when they leave! That would be a very hard task…

OD: It’s also important to say that many of the things we do on stage have previously been done within the comfort zone of the queer community. We have years of drag, voguing and miming behind us – but they have been done within a group that wants that and reconfirms it. Whereas now The Knife have ended up in a bit more of a mainstream situation where there are people outside this comfort zone, who might not be socialist or feminist or queer. It’s not so strange for us.

In a strange way, the complaints are almost like a critique of capitalism in themselves. I think it’s a pretty recent development, this sense of entitlement among fans to what artists should or should not do on stage: which songs they should perform, the manner in which they should present them. It’s almost like ticket-holders imagine themselves to be stakeholders in the band.

KDA: I think we have been pretty clear about what we do in the show. Maybe we could be more clear? We have been writing texts about our process and what we do on stage, and that it’s not a conventional concert. Maybe when you buy your ticket you could look it up and check out what you’re buying?

HO: If you always get what you expect, nothing would ever change.

MB: For my part – it’s going to sound like such a cliché – the goal is not necessarily to change things, but to plant a seed in people, to maybe make them question themselves a bit, to shake the habitual. It can only be a good thing.

KDA: We have a very, very privileged position. We can put our ideas in practice, so we have to take responsibility and do that.

The Knife’s Shaking The Habitual album is out now. They return to the UK for a live performance at Bestival on the Isle Of Wight on 7th September, and are touring throughout the summer. For a full list of dates click here.

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