Fever Ray's Smoke, Mirrors, and Hirsute Wolfmen
We've slowly broadened our definition of what constitutes "live performance": Consider Dan Deacon wielding his green plastic skull, Girl Talk headbanging over a laptop, or Daft Punk doing whatever it is they do in that pyramid. When Swedish brother-and-sister duo the Knife brought their menacingly iconoclastic electro-pop to the stage back in 2006 behind their breakout disc Silent Shout, the result was more a multimedia theater piece than a "concert," rendering old definitions of the term quaintly obsolete with a barrage of slick video projections and silly dances.
Since then, singer Karin Dreijer Andersson has gone solo, releasing one of this year's most skin-crawlingly affecting records under the name Fever Ray. Supporting that self-titled debut, she has been touring Europe with an elaborate show art-directed by Andreas Nilsson, the same Swede who masterminded the Knife's earlier concerts, as well as videos for both "Silent Shout" and Fever Ray's "If I Had a Heart" (plus those turn-you-off-bacon-forever scary Pigman clips for José González).
Unlike that 2006 Knife tour, though, expect more than just a fancy dumbshow set to a possibly entirely pre-recorded soundtrack when Andersson finally makes it to the U.S. Then again, as she notes when reached in Stockholm, the very definition of "live music" is up for debate. (She charmingly translates it as "music that is played in the very moment when we are onstage.") "I don't know really how to call what is 'live' and what's not. When you play synthesizers and computers, for example, of course . . . parts of it, it's still a machine."
But the music is only half the point. Scouring YouTube for evidence of what Fever Ray's show will look like is largely a confusing exercise. You get a whole lot of amorphous color and the occasional glimpse of Andersson's silhouette between bursts of light. (It's pretty similar to her "Triangle Walks" video, actually.) She's apparently fronting a four-piece live band, but from the existing footage, we'll just have to take her word for it: She could be commanding a robot army behind that blobby, shifting miasma of Pink Floyd neon.
"Yeah, we use a lot of smoke," Andersson admits. "I think, in March, when we did our first shows, there were people at the concert who really didn't know that there were people onstage. We've done a lot of festivals this summer—it's very hard to control the smoke. It can be windy, it's outdoors, things happen with the smoke. We've done a few shows that were horrible—the total opposite. We just stood there feeling naked. Now, when we go back to clubs, it will be good again."
The shadowy, sinister aesthetic of Fever Ray's first four videos fit the record's style well. (Production notes for her latest clip, "Seven," might've read as follows: "Singer as senior citizen in a fairy costume; barnyard voodoo accompanied by hirsute wolfman.") While the Knife took pop convention and lacquered it with malicious intent—making lines like, "I'm in love with your brother" sound like veiled death threats—now Andersson plunges even deeper into darkness. The music grinds and chugs, abandoning some of the brighter synths that offset the Knife's pop nihilism (she's been vocal about her love for all things drone, and it's obvious on Fever Ray's steady, underlying quiver of dread); as for the visuals, Nilsson's video for "If I Had a Heart" features shots of terrified young children adrift on a boat and a dog nosing around in a mansion full of corpses.
This isn't cheery stuff, but there's a bizarre optimism pushing through. Andersson's best lyrical sentiments combine the innocuous with the weighty. On "When I Grow Up," that means juxtaposing household chores with veiled romantic obsession: "I'm very good with plants/When my friends are away/They let me keep the soil moist/On the seventh day, I rest/For a minute or two/Then back on my feet to call for you."
Andersson doesn't consider Fever Ray to be "dark" music. "It must depend on what you compare with," she says. "I have listened to, like, death metal, for example, and I think that's, maybe, darker. I think that is very individual, how you experience music. For me, it's not that dark." If it were, "then I would probably not be able to perform it. I think it has a lot of hope and happiness in it."
For the live show's wardrobe, Nilsson and Andersson began by trawling Google for images of international folk costumes. "Karin and I talked about various references: Papua New Guinea folk art, the movie Dead Man," explains Nilsson, reached via e-mail in India. "I wanted to create a live show that had a sense of ritual drive—like a séance where the stage and the room where the audience existed became one."
Andersson concurs. There's "a very primal element in the music, in the sound—the beats are very primitive and very clear and monotone in a way," she says. "So I think, for us, it was a very good way of translating that into something to wear." The singer worked from a very specific reference point: the fictional band Las Moscas (The Flies), from Spanish director Julio Medem's 1993 film The Red Squirrel. The band plays "on a mountain, dressed in fur," Andersson recalls. "I think that was a very, very strong image that I discussed with Andreas when we were about to make the first video and to do the live show design." Other unlikely influences came into play, like photographs of "ectoplasm," as Nilsson explains it, or a performance he'd seen by the No Neck Blues Band.
Nilsson's immersive light projections might harken back to an age of '60s psychedelica, but anyone dosed at a Fever Ray show is destined for a stupendously bad trip (the sort that ends with images of a bunch of dogs lurking around a corpse-filled mansion, naturally). He veers between simple shapes and grand gestures. Live clips for "Keep the Streets Empty" showcase a pure minimalism: straight lines of neon ticking along to the beat like a kinetic Dan Flavin installation. "When I Grow Up" bathes the stage (and crowd) in a deep emerald blue; "Coconut" resembles nothing so much as an extraterrestrial rave.
"I wouldn't call it a multimedia experience—rather, a mass for a golden calf," Nilsson clarifies. And despite Andersson's oft-remarked tendency for shielding herself—behind masks, sunglasses, or smoke—Nilsson doesn't consider the stage show simply another way to remain unseen. "I don't think it's a matter of hiding. It's a theatrical play where we are creating characters that are more interesting to watch than a couple of [thirtysomething] Swedes."
Would Andersson ever consider playing Fever Ray songs unadorned—no lights, no projections, no multimedia tricks? "I think that would be totally meaningless," she says. "The reason for doing this music live is to add this extra visual aspect of it. We try to work with the whole room when we play—with visuals and, what you say, the smell of the room? And the sound, of course. The visual aspect of it is probably more important than the audio one." For the audio aspect, though, there's that four-piece, playing guitars, synthesizers, and . . . computers, plus an Argentinian-born percussionist adding "a depth that the album doesn't have."
So how would Andersson like audience members to feel after absorbing all this? "A little bit shaken," she replies, laughing. "Or sick. No . . . happy. Happy would be good. Happy and crying. That is my best way of experiencing shows: happy and crying."
Fever Ray play Webster Hall September 28 and 29
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