Björk is sitting in London’s Hyde Park watching rowing boats skim across the Serpentine. She’s not exactly dressed for July’s sticky heat. Her heavy brown coat covers what a designer would call a cleverly “deconstructed” fashion item and what anyone else would describe as a stencilled sackcloth “bib”. Her trousers are rubber, her socks white and grubby, her clogs clacking furiosly.
In person, unpolished by the “hair and make-up” brigade, Björk is still 100 per cent “Björk”. Every now and then she’ll take the lemonade ice-lolly from her mouth and plunge it into a paper cup at her feet. She’ll answer the question, then retrieve the ice and resume munching. She seems unconcemed that it’s not her paper cup, or even mine, but one abandoned by an earlier coffee drinker. But maybe she has other things on her mind.
We know plenty about Björk. We know about the “pixie” image, the Astro-Björk of her album sleeves. We know she’s a single parent, the mother of ten-year-old Sindri. We know about her hippy upbringing, her music academy training. We know she visited London at 16 with an Icelandic punk band and later formed The Sugarcubes back home. We know about her dance Debut, the follow-up Post, and the way 808 State, Plaid, LFO and Nellee Hooper have shaped her music. We know about the famous boyfriends. And we know 1996 was a year Björk would probably prefer to forget. First there was the reporter she attacked for approaching her son (“When I beat up that woman in Bangkok...”). Then the split with Tricky and the bust-up with her new lover, Goldie. Even more public was the “crazed fan” whose acid bomb was intercepted by the Post Office, his shotgun suicide recorded on home video.
Homogenic, then, will be Björk’s uncompromising third album. Recorded with the Icelandic String Octet and Mark Bell of LFO, it’s a typically wayward record, and as far out on a limb as Björk has gone. Far closer to Debut’s “The Anchor Song” than “Big Time Sensuality”, for instance, but an album which, despite the Arctic strings, still sparks clubwise connections. The post-dancefloor beats are earthy, rugged, like lava flows or belching geysers. String-laden emotional landscapes meet churning electro on tracks like “Jóga”, named after Björk’s best friend from Iceland. “Dare” is an ugly-beautiful symphony with beats made of static and melodies by Casiotone. “Immature” is a sweet, intravenous rush of strings and harps. “So Broken”, meanwhile, is stripped back to flamenco guitar and Björk’s outrageous vocal performance.
On our way to the park in her label boss’s Range Rover, we listened to another track, “Pluto”, at earsplitting volume. It’s a fucked-up, distorted wail blasted by heads-down digital hardcore. In the passenger seat, Björk actually starts headbanging.
I’m glad I heard that track so loud. It sounds really good when it’s pumping out.
“Yeah, [Björk’s label boss and manager] Derek’s got a really good stereo.”
Are you still happy with the album ?
“Yeah, happy’s probably not the right word. I’m still fixing it. I’ve got maybe 18 songs that are very different from each other, so the album could be ten tracks, maybe... It seems the more Mark [Bell] and I work together, the more ideas we get.”
Do you have a favourite track ?
“It’s quite different for me, because for me it’s more like a photo album, like memories. “Pluto”, that was me and Mark having a laugh in Spain. It was a day like this [hot and sticky], and we got a little amp outside and a keyboard and I just did all these really punk things, just really thinking heavy metal. Most of the tracks I wrote before Mark started on them, so they’re more like song-songs, and then Mark would work on beats and arrangements with me afterwards.”
How’s this album different from the other two ?
“I think it’s just better. Debut and Post were a lot of stuff I’ve written over many, many years. So when I started doing this album I caught up with myself, All these songs are from a one-year period, and more of what I am today. “Human Behaviour” is so obviously written when I was a teenager.”
How did you come up with the title Homogenic ?
“I called it Homogenic because... how can I explain.. ? I was really, really happy in Iceland, and I had everything, living the toughest life ever in a little house by the harbour, with several jobs. I used to stay at home...”
This was before you came here ?
“This was before I came here. I was being too lazy, so I went on a mission. I knew I had to put myself in an emergency situation, like Bruce Willis in Die Hard or something to get all these things out of me. So when I came here, I thought, ‘OK, let’s go for a hardcore mission. Wooarrgh !’ I knew it would take two albums. And that’s why I called them Debut and Post—before and after. And now it’s like a new crossroads for me. In a way, Debut and Post were a collection of duets. A lot of people wrote the beats with me. I started this one intending that Homogenic would just have one flavour, but then the thing with Mark Bell just happened... The reason I’m talking so un-organisedly is because what I set out to do has become something else...” What do you mean ? I’ll tell you how I felt before. I thought, ‘It’s really easy to hold the person’s attention for 35 minutes if you’ve got 900 toys.’ Doing Debut was like, Wooooah ! Like a kid in a toystore. It’s like, ‘I can have anything ? Cool !’ But I thought the true challenge was to have almost no toys, down to one stick, without a second of boredom. My idea was to have just strings and beats and a voice, the strings on the left and the beats on the right and the voice in the middle. With the balance button on the stereo, people could pick the ambient version or club one, or both. That’s a great theory, but in practice, when the songs started growing, it changed.”
Why did you decide to work with the RZA from the Wu- Tang Clan ?
“When I started this album, in a strange kind of way I was trying to go back to what I’m about, you know ? How can I put this ? It’s so hard, such a big question... I’ll try to be short and quick. But, I went away from Iceland four years ago and started this completely frantic, very exciting lifestyle. I went around the world and visited all these places, lots of clubs, lots of exciting people... So when I did this album I was like, ‘What am I made of ?’ And I’m from Iceland, I’m born ‘65. Iceland is full of fucking ruptures, very raw lava. I’d wake up in the morning and have a walk by the ocean and scream and sing. There’s snow blizzards and people might die because the weather’s terrible—all these kind of things. I wanted to get closer to what that is, because Icelandic music doesn’t really exist... I’ll try to go back to the RZA thing.”
“I thought, ‘OK, Icelandic music would be very phat techno beats that are unfinished and distorted, like eruptions.’ I listen to a lot of Icelandic string music, so i wanted that. I thought, ‘Who can I work with... ?’ I started off with an engineer and we did a lot of beats that were just, Pchh-pkk-up-chhhu ! And then I thought that RZA’s beats were just gorgeous because they’re really simple and really raw. I can’t remember if RZA contacted me first, but it seemed to be a very mutual sort of thing. He said he wanted to come to Spain, but the Wu-Tang album took longer than they thought. Then I met them in New York.”
What were they like ?
“Oh, they’re gorgeous, like big teddy bears. They fall asleep in piles, do you know that ? They’re just like [snores]. Derek fell asleep on the studio floor at six in the morning and before he knew it there were five Wu-Tang members on top of him [lies across my lap and pretends to snore]. They’re just gorgeous people. And so we started off doing one track. It’s just doing my head in. I still think we can do better beats on that one. What he did was brilliant, but it was just not the right timing. I was out or something, and when I got back, he’d got all the strings people in and recorded them.”
Will that track be on your album ?
“I haven’t decided. He asked me to write melodies on his album and make it my album but... that’s just not right. Maybe I shouldn’t even be talking about this, but I think, this album, it’s just him.”
You’ve called last summer’s events “my crash”.
“At the beginning of September, when the bomb was sent to my house... OK, that was terrible, the guy died, terrible. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. My whole life exploded in one way or another in one week. Where do you live Björk ? You’ve been in a suitcase for four years ! When I say this, I’m not doing the Kurt Cobain, or anything. I’m not saying, ‘Oh, poor old me.’ No fucking way. Look at me, I’m a lucky cunt, you know ? I’ve had a really top time, working with the most exciting, creative people. The most ridiculous, gorgeous situations I’ve been in. I’ve still got my mates, still got Iceland, still got my kid. So I’m not moaning, I’m not moaning. But what I’m saying is, you go away from Iceland, and, Arrggh !, jump out of an airplane with no parachute and you’re going 9,000 miles per hour for four years. It’s not a situation where you’re gonna fade out. You’re gonna go, Pshewtt !, and you start a new period in your life.”
How did going through that affect the music on the new album ?
“Well my album is really just about that. How to sit in a chair. Before I came here, I was just a lazy cunt. If I had some craving inside for some drama, I would just put a record on, or read a book or watch a film. And so the hardest thing then was to be hyperactive. But later, it became just as hard to sit down. ‘Björk, sit down ! No, sit down !’ It got to the stage that I would go clubbing and I would manage to get to ten clubs in one night and only hear one tune in each dub—that’s just stupid.”
Tell me about your new boyfriend, Howie B.
“[Gasps] I did interviews all last week and nobody mentioned it. I usually don’t try to talk too much about these things. I’ve known him for seven years and he engineered a lot of “Debut” and most of “Post” and he’s just one of my best mates, you know, and I’m just so pleased. Sometimes you really, really try to organise things and make them happen ? It can work for a lot of areas of your life but for your love life, it don’t work. You don’t go out and get it. I’m not even going to pretend I know, ‘cause I don’t. But I recommend going out with your best mate ‘cause you’re already great mates. Things can’t really go wrong.”
Your splits with Tricky ant Goldie seemed quite messy. Will things be different this time ?
“I don’t know. I never said I knew anything, and I never really talked about them. A lot of the time the press just make things up and put them in the first person. What I’m telling you now is about as much as I’ll talk about these things. I don’t even look at any of them as failures. They were all so gorgeous when they were, and they were so right for then. It’s just one of those things. I don’t know. Either things turn you on, or they don’t. End of story, really.”
You’re collaborating with Goldie for a track on his new album.
“Well, I was going to go today, but my voice is a bit scruffy. I just talked to him last night. I’m just gonna wait, ‘cause I want to be at my best. He’s played me the tune. The album is outrageous. It’s so good, so good. He didn’t compromise one bit, he didn’t compromise to anything including the whole drum‘n’bass scene or whatever. He didn’t even compromise to them, to nobody.”
Do you ever compromise in your music ?
“No, I’m terrible at compromising. I don’t know how to do it, to be honest.”
Do you have complete control or do the record company ever try to interfere ?
“Yeah, but that word ‘control’ is so ugly, ain’t it ? I just do it and they take it or leave it. And I’m lucky because so far they’ve taken it.”
Do you worry about becoming self-indulgent ?
“When I did “Debut” I thought, ‘OK, I’ve pleased enough people, I’m gonna get really selfish.’ And I never sold as many records as with “Debut”. So, I don’t know, it seems the more selfish I am, the more generous I am. I m not going to pretend I know the formula. I can only please myself.”
There aren’t really any ‘post-Björk’ figures in music. You’re different to Goldie or Portishead in that respect. Why ?
“It’s impossible for me, seeing it from my point of view. Maybe you could tell me ?”
I want to know what you think.
“I’m too close to myself, you see ? I’m just doing what turns me on. But then again, my point of view is quite different from other people’s, because I come from Iceland—so I’m made out of different things. Maybe you’d get another Icelandic person and they would do something similar. Maybe a lot of people who see Goldie—mixed race people in England, say—would go, ‘Ah, I can fit into that mould,’ even when they don’t fit in it. But maybe there’s not a lot of Icelandic chicks in London.”
At the moment Iceland seems to be very trendy.
“It got trendy when I left, didn’t it ? Yeah, it’s quite funny. I read that the Spice Girls were there. I heard that one of the Spice Girls is going out with an Icelander.”
Yeah, Mel B.
“Yeah, it was good, because it was so much in the gutter press. There’s so few people in Iceland, and in the background you can see your mates and your downtown square. I got really homesick.”
You seem to have moved away from club music recently. Do you still go clubbing ?
“I never thought my albums were for clubs. I think it’s more maybe the remixes and they were not really done for clubs, either. I think my music has always been for headphones and people listen to it in private. I was really flattered when people called me dance diva and all that. But no, I go to clubs, but I guess I’ve got quite picky. Living in London where there’s so many clubs, you’re spoilt rotten. I have to know there’s a good DJ before I’ll get off my arse and go. But the whole Squarepusher and Mike Paradinas and Aphex— any of those lot will get me out of my chair. Metalheadz and the whole Anokha thing.”
Do you feel happy with your life at the moment ?
“Yeah, but then again, I’ve always been quite happy. But I always... it’s terrible these deep questions, these interview questions... I did want life easy, and I didn’t get it, but I’d be bored shitless if life was easy. I can’t wait to finish this album, though. Goldie’s gonna help me with this one beat, on ‘Shape Shifter’. I’ve lived with it so long, you see. I did half of it, the strings and the voice, one and a half years ago, and we did the beats so much later. I challenge myself all the fucking time, maybe a bit too much.”