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New Sounds Battling the Fear of Queer: The Knife

Electronic protest music?

In this three-part feature from the Spring 2013 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine, we speak to three contemporary electronic music acts challenging traditional power structures through this most unlikely of musical forms. Here Rashad Islam Endicott talks to The Knife. You can also read interviews with Terre Thaemlitz and Planningtorock as part of the series. 


In western pop, it’s been a minute since the classic protest song has worn anything but the musty perfume of canonization, wafting a relevance more historical than contemporary. But don’t blame it on apathetic youth or lack of international example. While music became one of the most important platforms of protest during the Arab Spring of 2010 and Occupy movements went global in 2011, 2013 has seen a revival of music with a message in the unlikeliest of forms and in conceptually less charted waters. The predominantly instrumental domain of electronic music has become a medium for topical songs on queer culture and the destruction of patriarchal norms in the context of broader social change. Recent releases by The Knife (Shaking the Habitual), Planningtorock (“Misogyny Drop Dead”) and Terre Thaemlitz (Soulnessless), connect the morphability of sound synthesis with thoughts on the fluidity of gender identity, albeit in very different ways and to varying degrees of reflection. Here, in three parallel interviews, a conversation emerges on the virtues of inauthenticity, gender equality, and finding the political in the personal.


You’ve said you were both influenced by political texts when putting together your new album, Shaking the Habitual. Can you elaborate on that?

Karin Dreijer Andersson: When we were making this album, we wanted to find an equal base to make it since we hadn’t been working for so long. And we also thought it would be fun to combine our political interests with making music. Olof had been doing gender studies at the University in Stockholm at the time, and his courses had a great literature list. There were texts by Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Frantz Fanon, Judith Butler and Michel Foucault, as well as Swedish writers writing from a post-colonial view about Sweden’s colonial history.

The title of your new album is taken from a quote by Michel Foucault where he argues that the role of the intellectual is to “re-examine evidence and assumptions, to shake up habitual ways of working and thinking”. Applying that to the role of the artist, how do you see the connection between the album’s more explicitly political lyrics and the way these are expressed musically?

Olof Dreijer: For us there is a connection, but for others the connection might be more far-fetched. I think we’re playing around with authenticity and the way we’re doing that is by trying to make sounds that are difficult to pinpoint where they come from—acoustic, electronic, an animal, a voice. We record acoustic sounds and try to make them electronic, and we record electronic sounds and see if they can pass as acoustic. This can be one way where I think we can provide a world of sound where we don’t think one sound is more “authentic” than the other. And I think that is one way where it connects to what we’re doing conceptually. I also think it’s the result of the process of long jam sessions this time, as opposed to constructing the songs with the computer.

So in a way, how you’re playing with concepts of identity and authenticity in sound mirror your thinking about identity and authenticity in gender. Does a progressive political message have to be communicated in progressive musical formats?

OD: I think it all depends on what you’re trying to say. If we try to make something with a certain political content, we try to think about the best way of communicating that with instrumentation and sound. In some cases that should be an easily consumable pop hit, in other instances it should be more emotional.

KDA: At the same time, we’ve been making music together for a very long time now and we need to do things together that are challenging. To do a Deep Cuts album again wouldn’t have been any fun for us. I mean both of us think that it’s fun to learn new instruments and techniques and give yourself challenges.

Your video for “Full of Fire” includes various androgynous characters, handicapped FTMs, public sex, and women peeing in between parked cars. The song ends with you shouting the lyrics “Let’s talk about gender!” What do you want to say about it?

KDA: Well what you see in the video aren’t things you see everyday, and we wanted to show ideas and thoughts that need to be discussed. We wanted to question why it’s like that.

OD: I think there are so many things going on in the video, but I think it mainly shows people that are searching for things that feel right for themselves to live their lives. They are finding ways to live life. It sounds vague, but it’s important in a society in which heteronormative ways are so heavily promoted. And showing these different parallel and subjective experiences is important.

As background info for this interview, I received a comic strip about aid-workers humorously discussing the capitalist compulsions of the extremely wealthy. The characters discuss, amongst other things, how to heal the rich by redistributing their wealth and planting trees. What does this have to do with your album?

OD: To give a little background of the comic, we were thinking about how to go about the album cover and we thought about this comic writer Liv Strömquist who does great feminist, socialist comics. We met and discussed the issues that we address on the record and found common interests and we both wanted to do something about feminist analysis of finance, and I think her initial idea was to move the focus from presenting poverty as the problem to showing wealth to be the problem. And this is the comic strip you received separate from the album. The irony in the comic strip for me is always the parallel response of the European aide workers in Africa. This is the way that it’s close to us—thinking, for example, that planting a set of trees would solve any serious problems. I think that, sadly, the cartoon is a bit humorous.

Is this an album of protest music?

OD: I think it can be seen as that. That’s our past, we grew up with these Swedish protest songs. I think we were wondering how to adapt the idea of protest music to today.

KDA: I think it’s an interesting question—how music can be protest music now a days.~

Published May 09, 2013. Words by Rashad Islam Endicott.