Award-show shenanigans are as lame and bloodless as the shows themselves. But if you’re gonna pull stunts, grace helps. In 2003, the Knife won a Swedish Grammy—a Grammi—for their album Deep Cuts. They skipped the ceremony. “Well, we didn’t really want to be there,” explains Karin Dreijer, one-half of the Stockholm-based brother-sister synthpop group. “So we sent a couple of people to accept our award. Yes, they were dressed as gorillas.”
Her speech is spare, and she offers no long, self-important explanations about the trials of her artistry. It’s the kind of commanding politeness that can make one wiggly. And it’s ironic that Karin is so measured in conversation; on record she’s a horror show, her voice never emerging without a heavy robe of effects. If nothing else,
Silent Shout, the group’s hyperbolically dark third album on their own Rabid Records, is a study in how to tear the human voice apart. Hear Karin contorted into an ankle-biting nymph or stretched like Saran wrap. Hear her imitate HAL-9000 weeping. Hear her pitched down to registers reserved for video game demons.
Silent Shout is sublimely corny, actually. Her younger brother Olof’s preferred production repertoire—block rockin’ beats, icy new-age arpeggios, wriggly acid-house basslines, and pervy keyboard sirens—are the guts that make techno fundamentally hokey to most listeners. And in song-based music outside the mainstream, electronics are only specifically valorized when people figure out how to make guitar anthems with them (Radiohead), neuter them (the new Junior Boys and IDM generally), or make glorious caricatures (Daft Punk).
Conversely, the castanets that open
Silent Shout‘s bristly Ace of Base cabaret “Marble House” sound enough like castanets to make you think
castanets, but deliberately fall short of realism. “It’s sort of like kitsch,” Karin says. “For a small country, Sweden has a lot of electroacoustic music, and Olof and I have been to many of those performances. The sounds the artists make resemble natural sounds, but they never try to replicate them exactly, or know that they can’t.”
But the Knife’s artificiality is liberating. It’s like good David Lynch dialogue, so numb and one-dimensional it’s otherwordly. So it’s even more striking that
Silent Shout‘s lyrics are about the deliriously fucked-up depths of domestic life. The title track is a nightmare about growing old; the stripper in “Neverland” looks uglier on the anorexia fantasy “Like a Pen.” Siblings flee the city on “We Share Our Mother’s Health,” but they eventually lose inspiration—in “From Off to On,” they drown in TV. And in the canniest turn of the year, the drumless hi-NRG bliss of “Forest Families” is followed by “One Hit,” where Karin transforms her voice into a monstrous beer-gut gurgle and brags about spousal abuse.
Silent Shout is beautiful and gruesome and creepy and other super-serious adjectives, but like Lynch or horror films, essentially comedic. The epic swaths of synthesizer, the chintzy Kate Bush goblin voices, the naughty occult darkness of it all . . . it’s
funny. “Well, we laughed a lot while making the record,” Karin says. “We have a kind of anal sense of humor, I guess.” The record is a long joke about Hansel and Gretel finally biting back at the Brothers Grimm.
Most conversations with the Knife hit two walls, though. One comes when people try to harp on the familial tension between Karin and Olof (“So, do you guys, like, not always get along?”). The other pops up when people try to connect
Silent Shout‘s lyrics to Karin’s personal life—an understandable point of interest given that she’s married and has a daughter. But whether her words have specific personal meaning is irrelevant, because she never sings as herself anyway. Karin offers one wink: “Sometimes it takes that mask to really tell the story.”
And finding the right mask has always been a problem for the Knife. They don’t like press photos or public appearances. They’re cagey with reporters; Olof is rumored to have done interviews with a vocoder. Karin admits that in seven years as a group, “We’ve only played about 12 or 13 shows to date.” Working with director and longtime video collaborator Andreas Nilsson, the Knife have designed their elaborate live show as a synesthetic experience—”If we are going to dress up and appear, we want to dress up like the music,” Karin says.
Which is why the gorilla stunt strikes me as appropriate. The Knife want to remain anonymous, but not in a self-effacing way; they’re obvious and fastidious about controlling their image. They’re 900-pound gorillas in their own room. They’ve reinvented themselves on each of their albums, from their partially acoustic 2001 eponymous debut through the garish, alien-sounding Cyndi Lauper–isms—more alien than Cyndi Lauper, even—of 2003’s
Deep Cuts through the fantasia of Silent Shout.
Toward the end of our conversation, Karin and I finally hit a stride, so I feel like I can make a confession: “I think the funniest song on the album is ‘One Hit.’ It’s amazing. You’ve got this horrific character, this abuser, this monster, but he’s rising out of a really goofy pitch shifter. It’s grotesque.”
She chuckles. “Ahh, yes. And the worst part is that you can dance to it.”
The Knife play two sold-out shows at Webster Hall November 1, bowerypresents.com.