Björk in conversation with David Toop

Interview Promo, 8 juillet 2002

David Toop est musicien, journaliste et écrivain. Il a réalisé plus d’une vingtaine de disques depuis son premier album paru en 1975 sur le label de Brian Eno.
Retranscription d’une interview filmée.

Toop : Does having a hit record separate that song out from the rest of your work. I imagine you think of your work as being some kind of continuum, like a whole, but then you have a big hit and then suddenly that song is much more prominent and then maybe some are more experimental. Does that then separate it out for you in some way from the other work ?

Björk : It is a tricky decision, when you do a single, like why you should do it. I guess I have usually been pretty excited by it because in a way it gives you space to put out ’b’ sides. A lot of the ’b’ sides that I have done so far, have perhaps been pretty experimental or remixes that mates have done. A lot of the times these have been the first step to leading to us working later on together. It is a field where you can experiment. It is an amazing field of commitment as well when you put something on an album. Also, I have been pretty excited about doing videos and working with and enjoying the process with the video directors, it sets me free in a lot of ways. When I was in a band as a teenager it was a lot experimenting but not a lot of ego, and when you done what I do for as long as I have done it, you become quite a specialist in your field, which is why you do it, and it is excellent. But when I do videos, I become a beginner again, and it also all about group work and I really, really enjoy that.

Toop : The album is called ’Greatest Hits’ I am just wondering what your general feelings about ’Greatest Hits’ albums. Does a ’Greatest Hits’ album give a good synopsis of an artists’ career ?

Björk : I think, like with everything, there are a lot of bad ’Greatest Hits’ albums and there are a lot of good ones. Just like with everything, the percentage is : some are 10% good and 90 % are rubbish. Although I still think it’s worth the risk to at least try. There are some ’Greatest Hits’ albums out there that I have loved, with music I am not so familiar with. For example, I was twenty-five when I found out that Marvin Gaye existed, I didn’t know soul music before that. I got some kind of singles collection or ’Greatest Hits’ of his.

I think you also have to trust people as well. Some of the Marvin Gaye collections were not so good when you just play number three or track nine or something, and the other ones were fantastic, like every song was excellent and the structure was perfect. So I think it is possible.

Toop : I like the saga idea, the way that some songs bounce from one to the other. Presumably that’s your Icelandic roots coming out, the sagas in your history.

Björk : I think so. I also think that being in bands for so long, and thinking if I don’t go to London and do my record I will explode. I had to justify it to myself what egocentric behaviour that was. So it started from there, that I would make part of the songs I was writing by taking the gentle piss out of myself being that self-important, but at the same time, confessing that I enjoyed being this central character in a story, which was about me, first being a kid in Human Behaviour then leaving and going, when I never thought I would leave Iceland, to the bright lights and being tempted by all the corrupted things.

By being a bit over-excited and coming from nature, in the song Isobel, a creature that functioned purely on some very intuitive, compulsive ways and that clashing a lot with a very well-behaved and well brought-up British, and ending up getting hurt and escaping into the forest and training those little moths to be my messengers of intuition. So I would send them all to fly back to the city and go in front of the nose of all those people who were being too clever and not following their instincts and they would shiver in front and go : "No, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah" until the clever people would click out of their logical behaviour, and then they would say " Oh, I’m so sorry" before they flew back to instinct stuff. That’s the ’nah nah nah’ stuff at the end of Isobel. In the video of Isobel we had a load of those moths, and it was his idea to make them tiny aeroplanes that grew inside light bulbs. So I was planting those tiny little light bulbs in the ground and they grew to be big light bulbs before the little aeroplanes would break out, like chickens from eggs, and fly out into the world in front of peoples’ noses and getting them to stop thinking so much.

In Bachelorette, which was maybe the third leap into the epic trilogy, once the moths had prepared the city, Isobel would take the train and go to town and confront the people that had hurt her before, where instinct and logic clashed with love. Bachelorette is quite a confrontational song. But in the end nature wins and all the trees and plants grow all over all the skyscrapers, and it all becomes nature again. So I guess it’s some form of revenge.

Toop : To me it’s like of like a map of your evolution from a certain point from a London point I suppose we can talk about some of the earlier tracks. Can we talk a bit more about that evolution, and your feelings about it now, you already sketched it in, but I would like to hear more detail about your feelings about each individual album and some of the songs within those albums.

Björk : With Debut I was really a beginner so a lot of it was just learning about the studio even though obviously I had been in studios since I was eleven so I was very comfortable there. But usually I had just taken care of my vocals and lyrics. I was usually there during the mix with the Sugarcubes, and I had ideas but I never been responsible for the whole thing. So Debut was the first time I talked about arrangements and towards the end of Debut I talked about rhythms and towards Post I got braver in that way and produced more. Homogenic was the first album where I knew how the whole production, not the whole detail, but the big picture I knew what it was going to be before it started. So it was more of a case of playing little roles inside that picture. Where with Debut and Post sometimes I would have half the song and I would ask someone to complete it, so it was like a duet or a collaboration. I guess in Homogenic I started to get a little more bossy.

Toop : Which songs are really meaningful to you now emotionally ?

Björk : I guess because the core of my work is emotional I have used my emotions as a structure to build the rest on. Basically my songs are a collection of emotional peaks, even if they are gorgeous peaks or painful ones. I guess that is the nature of my work - by being the sort of person that preached about emotions and emotional rules. Being emotional doesn’t mean that you are stupid, like you could still go haywire and arrange and orchestrate things, things that are usually considered quite academic or clever. Just as long as you use emotion as the structure, as long as there is a heart to it, it is okay. So because of that, most of my songs are very precious to me. And if that means you only get a record every three years – they are the ten peaks in those three years. So you are getting on average three or four friendships and some personal victories, which I guess is a pretty average thing for a person to have. Kinda like, every three years, you have ten or eleven subjects or riddles you are trying to solve, or friendships that have this incredible fertile spark to them or friendships that are difficult and you try to get an angle on them. I guess every one of my songs have this thing to them.

I have noticed though that a lot of the people that listen to my songs think they are love songs, it’s like a romantic boy/girl thing, which I am actually quite pleased to hear. Even though like half of them or not even that friendships or even my relationship with my work or a country or a hobby - whatever. I always seem to pull it back to that one on one love thing, when I describe it in a song, even though I am describing a mountain or something.

Toop : It is interesting that you said that you didn’t think that Debut was a good record. When I think of Debut, I don’t think of it so much in terms of quality that way, but to me the songs on Debut are more innocent. Where the songs on say, Homogenic are more confrontational in a way ; where the songs on Vespertine are more reflective and intimate, I guess. And it’s more a change of tone or moods, than a question of this was not good and this was. What do you think about that ?

Björk : I guess I don’t look at my albums to be sincere. I don’t look at them being better or worse. But I guess it’s sort of a way for me as a craftsman to feel I’ve got along way to go to some place, to document my interior though I still have got a lot to learn. In those terms, Debut is quite naïve and Vespertine is more specific and detailed. I guess that feels good to me that I managed to do that, you know. But being immature can be a good thing. Even though all you are doing is some big sketches or something - like Debut - it’s very simple. It doesn’t mean that it’s bad. Like for me now, I have done Vespertine, and I still feel like I’ve got so far to go. I feel like I’ve learnt something now and I feel like I’ve managed to document my extrovert side, which is Homogenic and my more introvert side which is Vespertine, so I feel like I mapped it slightly out. So now I feel I’m ready to do a proper album, that I have all the colours on the palette, and I am ready to start. That’s how it feels for me, but maybe that’s more the craftsmanship side of me talking.

Toop : Lets talk about some of the collaborators, because I know collaboration is important to you and certain people have been crucial at certain times. For example, Graham Massey.

Björk : Graham Massey was a real catalyst for me in the fact that I went out and did my own stuff. After being in a band with the same people for ten years, and part of me thinking and quite liking the fact that I would always be in Iceland and with my cuddly family and friends, and going on tour with the Sugarcubes, that was enough. Then, musically, I was craving something that didn’t fit into all that, and I felt slightly criminal by wanting something even more than that. So the person I contacted in ’89 or ’90 was Graham Massey, when I called I shyly asked if he wanted to hear my demos and whenever I went over and visited he was always completely enthusiastic and paternal. He would show me his record collection and funnily enough we both had the same collections, one of Reykjavik and one of Manchester music - it was quite similar in certain ways. Whilst I was still touring with The Sugarcubes he would make me compilation cassettes of stuff and I would make him some too, but I have a feeling that his tapes, at that pint in my life, had more of an effect on me that mine had on his. We would do demos, and that was very important to me. I would write songs and then do stuff with Nellee Hooper later on and I would play this to Graham, and get his advice, and just know that he believed in me which was quite important to me.

Toop : And Nellee Hooper ?

Björk : For me, Nellee Hooper is very much about me coming to London and he would be very sociable. He is like this big daddy - a host character who would introduce me to tons of people. He has a real talent to see what’s inside a person and he would set up things to surprise me. For example, when we were working on this island, in the evening, he would blindfold me and put me in the car and take me to this beach and he would have set up a little DAT recording system with a microphone with a very, very long lead and I would have some headphones, so I would record vocals whilst running along in the sand. So he would be very fearless in sussing out what was inside of me and dying to get out. He would set up these situations where I had to do things that were quite scary, but I had to do it. I wrote this one song called Cover Me, which was about entering the unknown. Nellee would do this same thing, blindfold me and take me off in the car and put me into this cave, which was underground and full of bats. It was completely black inside so that I couldn’t even see the ground - sometimes it was just like canyons and stuff, and I would do the vocal whilst I was walking inside the cave and I would be just about to fall over - you can even hear the sounds of bats. So, it was with stuff like this that Nellee pushed me into areas that he knew I wanted to go into, but I didn’t have the guts or the confidence to go there. He would create a nest for me, a cradle, with a lot of confidence to work in. It was with him, for example, that I learnt to work with a programmer. He had his own studio with his own programmer, and I would come and do stuff with them and everything was taken care of. So I learnt a lot of stuff from him, like how to behave in a London studio, how to communicate with the engineer and how to communicate with the programmer. Again, very paternal, although very different to Graham Massey. As Graham Massey had very similar musical tastes to me, but Nellee had completely different tastes. So Graham Massey was very supportive of me in a purely musical sense, where Nellee Hooper was very supportive in helping me to deal with the world, the studio, my sense and longing for adventure - so more how to act and operate as a musician, rather than musical direction, which Graham has probably been more helpful with.

Toop : Guy Sigsworth ?

Björk : Guy Sigsworth is someone that Talvin introduced me to when Debut sold more than 20 times more than it was expected, as it was such a small and eccentric album. So we had to put together a tour in like two weeks or something, despite the album not being made to be played live. This is when I was introduced to Guy Sigsworth. I think on the first tour I didn’t have very exciting jobs for him, I gave him something like a few one finger keyboard lines. He then did the second tour which is was when he was actually the MD, where we started finding each others musical tastes, after being on tour buses for four years. It slowly built up like all good musical relationships. We started working together in 1993 and it wasn’t until 1997 when we did Unravel, and it had built up to a point where we actually walked into a studio and half an hour later and we had a song ready to be mixed. We had got to know one another’s insides so well. Vespertine was then an album where we wanted to go even further.

Toop : Matmos ?

Björk : I think I had already written about 80% of Vespertine and had done the beats and the skeleton with programmers. Because it was the first time I did microbeats, I felt that some of them were a little bit wooden and that I needed somebody who was a bit of a virtuoso in the field. So, I had been in touch with Matmos, they had already done remixes for me and we had met and had gotten drunk together, so I called them up and I asked them (as I had almost finished Vespertine) if they would be up for doing a tour with me as I was starting to worry about how we were gonna play these beats that were made out of teaspoons hitting a box, not proper instruments, how were we going to play that live ? Because I did a lot of the beats myself I wasn’t going to be able to do them whilst I was busy singing. Also, I love seeing people live who aren’t doing what people have told them to do, it’s their world. So I called them up in November 2000 and asked them to do the tour with me. I asked them to do 27 tracks for me, which would be not only Vespertine but other stuff from other albums and make new beats for all of them. I didn’t want them to use proper instruments for this, but a different angle. They thought about this for a bit and then they came back and said "Yes !" to my surprise, and I was thrilled.

Then I was doing the album, and I knew that we were missing some stuff from several songs so I said ’Would it be okay to send you some songs, I know it’s very late in the process as we are going to mix it in two months, so would it be alright to ask you if you could add some stuff to the songs’ ? and they said ’Yes, why not’. So, I sent the tracks to San Francisco, which is where Matmos added some more beats to it. I guess the role in Vespertine is like when you get session musicians and you get a percussionist and the drummer had already laid down the beats but you need the sparkle to bring it to life, which can completely change the track but its necessary as decoration.

We then did a tour together for a year, which was great fun and Matmos then took the tracks a lot further. Even though the tracks still aren’t a Matmos sound, they have progressed over the tour, which is very exciting. It seems that now we have got to know each other well enough to just jump into a studio and start from scratch. Now they are more like equals.

Toop : Mark Bell ?

Björk : In 1990, when the LFO album came out, I was very excited - this is when I would meet up with Mark Bell & Graham Massey in Manchester. After this, me and Mark would stay in touch and have occasional nerd phone calls where we would play each other impossible stuff to find - labels, over the phone and have a freeform about how to fuck up the human voice and use certain effect units and that sort of stuff.

Mark did some remixes for me on the Post album and later in 1996, I asked Mark to come to Spain to experiment with me for the beginning of Homogenic. He said he would come for a couple of weeks but stayed for six months, and we’ve since worked together for four years. We completed each other’s ideas like this for years.

I guess what is kinda exciting about Homogenic and Mark Bell for me, is when we did the tour, Mark did the tour with me along with the Icelandic String Quartet, so it was the first time since the Sugarcubes that the same people that played on the album played live with me. I felt very good about that. It wasn’t like a collection of session musicians - it was people that I had actually written the stuff with. Mark had obviously written some of the stuff he was doing, so it could change through the tour and he could make it even more his. From that you have this feeling when you go on stage that anything could happen - the plant is still growing it isn’t complete. So that was gorgeous.

Toop : Let’s talk about the Family Tree Project. Why did you want to do it ? What’s on it ? And how did you choose the songs out of everything that you’ve done ?

Björk : After I finished Vespertine, I felt as if I had completed something. I felt I almost caught up with myself and had got something off my chest I really wanted to do since I was a child and now I feel like I have got a clean slate - a new beginning to start all over again. I sort of feel like I am at a crossroads, so it felt like the right time to put out a selection or more of a retrospect of the story so far. I was ready to put out a collection of the singles, but I also wanted to put out a story of how I got there, and not a bunch of words that have been documented so much already in tons of interviews. More important was the emotional and worldly things, in a musical way – in my musical words and to say in this way how I have developed as a musician.

I am cut into four branches. What’s closest to me, are my harmonies, which is probably the part of me that is the most ancient and patriotic, where I am probably the most conservative. To show that I am releasing what we are nick-naming now, ’The Family Tree’, which might get another name later. So, one of the branches are the harmonies, on which I will have a song that I wrote when I was fifteen and is played only on the flute. Other songs are being picked up, some of which have been released and some have not, but these are all showing where I thought I took the biggest leaps as a songwriter and this takes us all the way to the "Greatest Hits" album.

Another branch is the lyrics. When I felt I did the first lyrics that I thought was maybe more my world, and again where I think I took the biggest leaps in writing the lyrics, they are going to end up on the "Greatest Hits".

Another branch is probably an Icelandic phenomenon. Because we were a colony for 600 years, and very stubbornly kept our identity and language, without getting eaten up by foreign influences, anything modern and foreign was evil. So me in 1990, when I wanted to spread my wings and work not only with foreigners but also to do what was considered very modern at the time. Electronic music, for me it was so different, it was like sleeping with an alien - you couldn’t get into more scary or taboo territory. So that for me was a big part of my work. I am very, very Icelandic, but I am breaking a certain Icelandic taboo, which helped us survive for 600 years but now it is time to communicate with foreigners. You can show that you can be international and Icelandic. You don’t have to sell your soul, even though you are communicating in English.

This branch, the third branch is the first demos I did with Mark Bell and Graham Massey, and is me experimenting, not only putting together these two very different elements together but also for that time (even though I say so myself) to put melodies together with that that kind of music in 1990 hadn’t really been done that much. So it was really like the first baby steps in that direction, that later became a big part of my work.

The fourth branch is like the academic side of me, which is the side I confronted the latest because I got sent to classical music school in Iceland for ten years. I learnt a lot about Bach and Beethoven and all that, and nothing about Icelandic music, so as a result I felt quite rebellious and I rebelled against it in a big way. So it wasn’t until I turned thirty or something that I felt here is something that has truly influenced my life and I had better confront it, accept it and take my own look at it. So the fourth branch of the tree will include the songs that I did with the Brodsky quartet, which probably a good example of good academic roots, but that is not to be taken too literally. As obviously, they are my songs.

Toop : Are you happy just saying that about that particular project, or do you feel we should say a little more to deal with this one ?

Björk : Well, I guess I could say a little more about the artwork. Whilst this is a "Greatest Hits", it is really more of a retrospective for me. It is not only about the singles, but how I felt I learned and how I got there. The visual side of it was to get a close friend of mine, an Icelandic artist, a girl called Gabriela to help. She also had to struggle with the four branches, being an Icelandic artist, having Icelandic roots, which are mostly caught up these sagas and mythology, having to face the fact that there is no such thing as Icelandic modern art, so you can invent it. Just like I did with Icelandic pop music, which was a great freedom for me, so I didn’t have to struggle with people like The Beatles or Jimi Hendrix or something, I could just start from scratch, almost. Gabriela has the academic branch as me too, she went to an art school where she was told a lot about German artists, and how if you are a woman born in Iceland, thirty years ago, what on earth would you have in common with European Art History - almost nothing. So to try first of all to reject it and then to later on find that you have some of that in you as it was shown to you in school for ten years. I think any Icelander is a poet, as I have said before, everybody in Iceland at least sometimes read the poetry books and the language pretty fierce - this has become our identity through the ages. So Gabriela, my friend, has some pieces where she has dealt with that too. The fourth branch where we have dealt with foreign influences, that we are Icelandic and are up for the volcanoes and the hot springs and all that, we get really pissed off as being categorised as some sort of Eskimos or Elves. We think of ourselves as being really quite modern, we do modern things. So there is that side too, and she has done the artwork for the tree as a result.

Toop : What’s your strongest feeling about the development of your career - your work ?

Björk : My work so far - obviously it has been so much hard work, which is a very big part of it. When I look back on it, what comes first in mind is I get quite mushy - I feel quite grateful. The fact that I have been in a situation to have been able to do this, as I know a lot of people back home in Iceland or here in the UK that have had a lot to offer, but they haven’t been in a situation where they have been able to share that. It feels stronger that I was expecting it to feel. I thought it was going to be a spring clean, well, I guess it is really because when you spring clean you go through a load of old boxes and you find a lot of stuff that you thought you had forgotten about, so you quite easily get sentimental. But in time, you collect it and you look at it all, which is very liberating. As a music maker, it was absolutely necessary for me at this point to clean up and start with a white slate. For some reason, it was essential at this point in my life.

publié dans Interview Promo



  • David Toop
  • Graham Massey
  • Guy Sigsworth
  • Mark Bell
  • Matmos
  • Nellee Hooper