Mojo

Quiet Fireworks

For Björk, the 10-year journey from indie pixie to cuttingedge dancefloor diva has been a bumpy ride via the scenic route.
“I know what it takes to get me off my arse,” she confides to Ben Thompson.

The rickety Hammersmith residence which houses TFI Friday’s dressing rooms is an alarming place to find yourself, and not just because there’s a chance of bumping into Chris Evans wearing only a towel. The sense of artifice in action is almost overwhelming. Stylists confer on makeup dos and don’ts—“This on the brow and this on the lid, the look will be classic”—and bands’ sulphuric egos seep out from under closed doors like poison gas. On a white wall hangs Björk’s empty dress : an elaborate creation made out of ancient sofa-coverings from a deserted stately home. Outside, the person who is about to occupy this ornamental robe is having her picture taken in civilian clothes. Due to the proliferation of nosy human pond life lurking in the region, this process involves hiding behind a tree in a nearby park. To locate her elusive charge, Björk’s press officer has to be talked down by the photographer over a mobile phone, much like the first-time pilot in Airplane. Finally apprehended, Björk gusts into the dressing room bringing with her a cumulus of preconceptions as pervasive as Linus’s dustcloud.

Her childhood experience as "the official eccentric” in a satellite hamlet of Reykjavík has prefigured with uncanny accuracy Björk’s later role in the global entertainment village. And yet in person it is down-to-earth shrewdness that seems to be her dominant characteristic. The wilful girlishness of her stage and TV demeanour is forsaken for thoughtful reflection, with only the occasional breathless stamp of her foot or outrageous piece of self-mythologisation (“I’m brought up working class ! I’ve got a father who’s a union leader !”) thrown in to remind you exactly who it is that you’re talking to.

There is a new and intriguing air of privacy in Björk’s music—a sense of wanting, in her own words, “less attention, not more”. The most obvious explanation for this is that it is a reaction to her personal travails of the past year or so : the ruckus at Bangkok airport with an intrusive TV news crew, the public break-up of her romance with Goldie, the crazed racist fan in Miami who sent her an acid bomb and then filmed his own suicide. There has been an ugly—and very British—hint of schadenfreude in the general response to these unfortunate events, as if we secretly rejoice in the fact that those who fly too close to the sun get their wings singed.

The line most readily seized upon as an admission of fault and failure on her part has been from the song Hunter on her new album Homogenic : “I tried to organise freedom—how Scandinavian of me.” For all its apparent candour, this is in fact a crafty red herring. Organising freedom is exactly what Björk’s career is all about. To operate in the way that she does—isolating a large creative space amid the distracting hurlyburly of global pop fame—demands an enormous amount of organisation. “Last year,” Björk proclaims, “was the year I lost my patience with people who deal with life like it is not precious...” A magnetic pulse at the heart of Björk’s music seems to draw in auxiliary troops and then send them packing when they have outlived their usefulness. Björk did not invent this way of working ; it is normally the preserve of shadowy DJ/producer collectives like 808 State, who were the first to beckon her out of the constricting indie heartthrob paddock on their 1991 album Ex-El. Just how bold a move this was at the time is often forgotten today. Before Debut, her first post- Sugarcubes album proper came out, Björk’s record company thought it would sell maybe a third of what the last Sugarcubes album did. And then, she remembers exultantly, “things went mental”.

It’s pretty much the same story with Homogenic. After the deservedly muted reception accorded last year’s remix project Telegram, expectations were not high. “Uh oh,” Björk remembers One Little Indian sales reps thinking to themselves, “the pop momentum is over.” Happily, the starkness and clarity of the recording seems to have won people back rather than scaring them away. “I have been a selfish fucker,” she says happily, “but the people are still there.”

“It’s very much grabbing the collar of people’s jumpers.” Björk says of Homogenic. “then telling them. Look in my eye, this is what I’ve got to say, thank you very much, now see you later.” This manifest sense of urgency is one of the things that gives Homogenic its awesome momentum. The other key weapons in its armoury are sweeping, alpine string arrangements, enveloping subterranean—almost subconscious —beats, and good old-fashioned crystalline beauty.

While it’s one thing to chart Homogenic’s progression from its two immediate predecessors, how it relates to the higgledy-piggledy dressing up box of Björk’s pre-Debut career is altogether a different kettle of herring. The folk set she recorded when she was 11, the born-too-late ‘80s punk records on Crass’ label, the four LPs with The Sugarcubes, and the impossible-to-find album of jazz and pop standards she recorded at home in Iceland in 1992 : all of these must be tributaries into Homogenic’s glacial flow. Sometimes that extraordinary voice seems the only audible link.

Much as she likes to cultivate the air of a child who has just been given the English language for its birthday, Björk’s grasp of the mother tongue of John Milton and Dave Lee Travis puts to shame many who were born to it. “Homogeny” is a biological term meaning “similarity in structure due to common ancestry”. The message is clear—these 10 songs all come from the same source, and while “homogenous” would have suggested a pint of milk growing old in the fridge, Homogenic has just the right crisp designer ring to it.

The bravest and most exciting thing about this record is its willingness to stay in one place rather than jitterbugging all over the shop like its two less coherent predecessors. “Sometimes,” Björk asserts with characteristic forthrightness, “lack of continuity can be really fucking boring.” She has not dismounted the collaborative merry-go-round, just decided to stay on board the same horses for a while. And these horses—LFO beatmeister Mark Bell, the Icelandic String Octet and distinguished co-orchestrator Eumir Deodato—have turned out to be marvellously full of running.

“A lot of people talked about Post as my record and I was very flattered by that, but I definitely look at both of them as duet albums. Debut was a duet with one person—Nellee [Hooper], and Post was like a duet with seven people. With Homogenic I just decided not to please anybody except myself, and I’m really touched by the fact that people still seem to be interested.” Does she see it as a straightforward progression ? “In one way definitely. With The Sugarcubes I was one of six, so 16.6 per cent of the music was mine. Debut was 50 per cent me—I wrote the songs and the arrangements and Nellee did the beats—and Homogenic is...” Maybe 80 per cent ? “Probably more like 70.”

The only rule with regard to Björk’s collaborators was that they should all be called Mark. Unlike some others in her global pop elite peer group, Björk doesn’t just pick collaborators at random out of the names-to-drop phone book but develops working relationships over long periods of time. Both Mark Stent, who mixed the album, and Marcus Dravs, who recorded it, had helped out with Post, and coproducer Mark Bell of LFO—who technophobes should probably be aware once posed on the cover of the NME smashing a guitar (“that was a joke,” he insists, wary of MOJO readers bearing grudges)—had worked with her as early as 1991.

Bell’s virtuoso knob-twiddling is currently, with the Icelandic String Octet, an integral part of the live Björk experience. He had written the music—to which Björk added lyrics and a vocal melody - for I Go Humble, the B-side of Isobel, and done a sympathetic remix of Hyperballad. Then she rang him up at the start of Homogenic saying she was going to record in Spain for a few weeks and would he come over for five days. Things went so well that he ended up staying for five months.

As to exactly how their collaboration might have proceeded, popular myth would suggest something along the lines of : You go away and make a nice drum pattern and then I’ll emote volcanically over the top. Bell smiles : “It’s a bit more complicated than that. In groups she played in before The Sugarcubes, Björk used to play an old keyboard—a Jupiter 8, the sort of thing Prince or Depeche Mode would have used —so she knows a thing or two about synthesis. She also appreciates the same noises that I do. When she asks for something she’ll say stuff like, ‘The drum pattern needs more oxygen’.” What would that mean exactly ? “Just that it needs to be more busy, more pss-pss-pss instead of duh-duh-duh. With a bass line she might want it a bit more fluffy. Or she might say something more general like, ‘Can you add some silent explosions ?’ (he chortles) ‘Quiet fireworks’, that was the other one.”

Leaving Iceland for London at the start of her three album solo odyssey was definitely a deliberate break with the past. “Sometimes,” Björk explains, “to get closer you have to go further away. That’s what I did four years ago : I left Iceland and everything that was dear to me because I wanted to be introduced to unfamiliar elements. I was leading a beautiful life at home—musical evenings, good books, good films, getting plastered with my friends—but sometimes you feel like you’re only using 20 percent of yourself and just once before you die you want to use 100 per cent.” What was she hoping to find on the other side of the chilly North Atlantic ? “I wanted danger, I wanted threats. It’s like Bruce Willis in Die Hard : when the ceiling’s collapsed, the walls are on fire and 53 terrorists are after you, something comes out that wouldn’t normally. You do things you would never have done on a normal Tuesday.”

While Homogenic as a whole exhibits a heightened awareness on the part of its author of the fact that actions have consequences, Björk adopts the Edith Piaf stance when it comes to regret. Indeed Joga (titled in honour of Björk’s best friend, a hardy masseuse) positively exults in being at the eye of the storm : “State of emergency is where I want to be.” Still, for the moment at least, she’s gone back to Iceland. It is possible to have too much excitement—as Björk herself puts it : “Always having to have everything turned up to 11 can be another kind of stagnation”—and the time has come to take the next step.

What this will be she is not exactly sure. Homogenic’s successor is well under way : “It will be very different : very lyrical, very ...lack of beat.” She is already looking back on the phase just gone—Debut, Post and now Homogenic—characterising it in the third person heloved of tsars, cartoonists and megalomaniac adventurers as, “Björk moves abroad and meets a lot of foreigners”. Used as we all are to having Björk’s otherness rammed down our throats (a repeat offence in which the woman herself has been at least an accomplice and maybe even the prime mover), it’s intriguing to realise that this is how she thinks of us. “Of all the foreigners to meet,” she exclaims happily, “Tricky, Nellee Hooper and Howie B were very good choices.”

A paranoid conspiracy theorist might suggest that Björk had skimmed the cream off the top of the British dance underground and then moved merrily on her own sweet way. “You can’t go to school in my job,” she says, suitably unrepentant. “Ever since I can remember, there have always been people teaching me 9,000 things. But I can say with my hand on my heart that I would always try to teach them 9,000 things as well.” This certainly holds true for Mark Bell, who is happy to pass on what he has learnt from his Icelandic muse. “Every time I did something I always used to press ‘Quantise’, which makes it automatically in time but you shouldn’t really do that because it might sound better as it is.”

Björk now seems less inclined to press quantise herself. Once it seemed as if she needed to cloak her music’s adventurousness in affectation. For every stroke of genius like Hyperballad there would be an overblown irritant like It’s Oh So Quiet. If Homogenic is anything to go by, that no longer seems to be the case, which augurs well for the future.

“I go to a lot of gigs and clubs myself, and I know what it takes to get me off my arse,” Björk affirms. “I want to be swept off my feet, because when that happens it’s like 1-0 against boredom and death.”

“I had a lot of music in my head when I was a kid and this is the closest I’ve got to making it. To be making that music now is literally a dream come true. But I still think I’ve got very far to go. It helps to come from a country where the older you get the more mature you are—in England and the States, it seems the closer you are to being 20 in a sports car with the roof open the better it is, and anything away from that is downhill. My grandmother is still painting : it’s just between her and herself but she’s still moving closer to the target, and that is how I want to be when I’m her age.”

Ben Thompson

publié dans Mojo - 01.11.1997

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