Saga you can dance to

Musician, 1er décembre 1997

The method & inspired madness behind Homogenic

It was a late night of music and anisette and seductive breezes. The road hack home from Trevor Morais’ El Cortijo studio dipped and slid along a sheer hillside ; except for the swirl of stars over-head and the rush of ruts and dirt in the headlight glare, we drove in darkness, following the hint of ocean in the air exhilarated by what we had heard ; enticed by the promise of hearing more the following day. And so we return this brilliant afternoon, near the southern
coast of Spain. The valley spreads before us flooded by sunlight as El Cortijo comes into view. Morais, an expatriate drummer from the U.K., lives in and owns this place, a hacienda perched high above a swimming pool and a deep, scrub-filled ravine. In the distance, looking south toward the Mediterranean, the sky melts into a watery horizon. A patio, lined with colorful tiles and bordered by Cordovan pillars and arches, leads toward the open front door.

A few musicians gather at the dining room table, sipping coffee, munching cereal, talking quietly in a medley of languages and accents. After a while, Björk Guðmundsdóttir appears, in white slacks and blue short-sleeved shirt. She’s upbeat, smiling. Everyone around the table exchanges good-mornings as she reaches for the fruit bowl. “It’s like the best thing before bed,” she enthuses. “You open the window, get into bed, and... Without warning, she uncorks a buzzsaw snore. “I mean, I fell asleep with a book in my lap.”

That post-nasal skronk, followed by a pixieish grin and a delicate shrug, reflects one element of Björk that seems crucial to her as a person and an artist. Her singing, like her demeanor, is utterly uninhibited : When a melody peaks at a certain high note, some quick impulse prompts her to aim even higher. And she’s one of the few artists whose albums can catch you totally by surprise : From saxophone quartets to big bands to electronic racket, Björk will draw from any source to animate her songs.

The only thing one could have predicted for her third studio album (not counting Telegram, a collection of remixes) was that it would be even more diverse than the previous two. Well, talk about unpredictable : Homogenic proved us wrong. As the title suggests, it’s mainly one thing : an ambitious project based loosely on Icelandic literary tradition to create an impression that’s more focused than any of her earlier projects. It contains the cascading, ecstatic vocals and wildly unorthodox rhythm programming that have become hallmarks of her style. But this time around, it’s all in the service of a single idea, which Björk spelled out for us as we sat on the veranda. A cassette player, containing a rough mix of cuts from the album, sat nearby.

After all the diverse influences you’ve reflected in the past, is Homogenic more of a pure Icelandic expression ?

First of all, there is no such thing as Icelandic music. But I want to prove that there should be. Just by looking at the mountains and walking around, you can feel that. Iceland’s literary history is so rich. Why hasn’t its music developed as well ? There’ve been many thoughts about that. The Danish treated us very badly for the six or seven hundred years we were their colony. For example, the church banned musical dancing. So storytelling became the thing that thrived with us. Storytelling is us. The Icelandic people, we were the ones who wrote down all the sagas. They memorized stories from generation to generation ; they could go on for, like, two hours. That’s why I believe in old-school songwriting. Now, I really respect the Sixties pop culture of the Beatles, where you get one idea and you repeat it nine hundred times. I respect that repetition : “Love, love me do.” But that’s not where I come from.

What about the musical side of the equation ?

First, it’s the beats. It’s to prove that techno doesn’t come only from Germany. There should be such a thing as Icelandic techno, which if you look at nature in Iceland, you’d see that it would be very simple, very explosive, very raw. I mean, NASA sends its astronauts there to rehearse, because it’s like a moonscape. So I want the beats like that.

Then the second thing is the strings. I attempted to make string arrangements, with a lot of help from [Eumir] Deodato. He’s been like a big daddy, letting me experiment with notes hut still being there for me when I need him, and sometimes just completely doing it for me. So the starting point of this album is beats and strings, with the voice in the middle. I wanted to have the whole album like that—just one flavor.

Which would be different for you.

Very different. That’s why I call it Homogenic. It’s like a challenge in that you have few tools to work with but you want the whole emotional scale, as before. Some of my favorite albums are just, say, one voice and one drummer, but you’ve got one sad song, one happy song, one intellectual song, one prankster song, just with fewer tools. So I approached Markus Dravs, who’s the engineer on this album. Actually, he’s a bit more than that, more like a creative engineer. He’s worked quite a bit with Brian Eno ; he comes from that angle, where it’s not just a question of putting a microphone next to an instrument. I gave him a library of beats that I thought were slightly Icelandic. He came up with loads of noises, and we started tailoring them to the songs. Anyway, I’ll play you a tune that Marcus and I did, with that kind of a beat. [Bjork cues up a cassette up a nearby tape player, and begins playing a very noisy track, with an electronic soundstorm raging over a repetitive synth riff in thirds.]

What’s the name of this song ?

“Five Years.” Two days ago we recorded a string octet to this song, so it’s very stringy, with a brutal beat and voice, not even trying to work together. Then [co-producer] Mark Bell came. I’d been watching him since 1990, when he was doing LFO, because I like the pioneers who have stayed faithful to techno. He did several remixes for me—for example, he did the first remix of Telegram. He played with my voice, adding effects. That’s another thing I’d never done, which I’d love to try more. That’s one reason why Mark and I work so much together ; I trust and respect what he does for me. If I were to say who influenced me most, I would say people like Stockhausen, Kraftwerk, Brian Eno, and Mark Bell, because the work Mark did when he was nineteen proved to our generation that pop music is what we understand. We walk around with all these telephones and car alarms, and we hear all these noises. We can keep saying, “No, it’s soulless, it’s cold,” but it’s part of our lives.

Well, this is very important : People have said that I do a bit of this and a bit of that, but that’s never been the case. I never wanted a style simply for style’s sake. Music is a very personal and human thing, so if I go and do a song with, say, Tricky, I don’t give a shit where he comes from. His race is bollocks. And when I’m talking with you, I’m not looking for your passport and wondering where you’re from or what you brought here, like the hippies do : “I wonder what star sign he is.” No luggage, please ! When I work with someone, it’s down to two characters. Björk Goes Latin, that wouldn’t be honest.

But when you recorded, say, your rendition of “Like Someone in Love,” the arrangement stays within the tradition of American standard tunes. In that sense, you seem to be going away from what might be your natural cultural reference.
[Sighs, a bit frustrated.] We can analyze forever what it’s about, but it’s just an instinct thing. It felt right to do that song, but I had to be respectful as well. Maybe it’s a balance of how much vou can visit, like the balance between how much you stay in your house and how much you go to your friend’s house for dinner. For “Like Someone in Love,” you can say, “Let’s eat out tonight.” You just can’t do it that much.

So what will you be working on today ?
We’ll be doing one of the songs that Deodato did the strings for. I haven’t even heard them yet, so I’m very excited about it. [Björk plays the next track on the cassette.] This was the first version. Later we introduced the bass line ; it’s so easy to do a song for a bass line, so putting a bass line in at the last stage is like indulging yourself.

Deodato wrote the string charts without knowing what the bass would play ?
Yeah [impish grin]. I wanted so much for it to be just beats, strings, and voice. [We listen for a few moments ; the final version of the song, on Homogenic, is titled “Bachelorette.”] There’s a lot of story-telling going on, a lot of brutal, in-your-face stories. One of them is this kind of Wuthering Heights epic. [She puts one hand melodramatically over her heart.] The first song in this epic was “Human Behaviour” [from Debut]. The second one is “Isobel” [from Post]. I guess this one is the sequel.

Why did you come all the way to Spain to do an album that’s so strongly connected to Iceland ?
Well, I do go to Iceland. It’s my home and it always will be. But I need to get away from that as well. Iceland isn’t like it was when I was a kid, because I’ve become something ... different. It’s the same for me, but I’m not the same to them. If I’m gonna fight that one, I’ll spend the rest of my life doing it. It’s better to accept it. There were boring practical reasons too. The fact that I don’t know anyone here in Spain keeps me working. It’s also so beautiful here. There’s not many places where I feel at home, and I feel at home here for some strange reason.

An hour or so later, we’re downstairs. Behind the glass in the studio, an octet composed of young Icelandic string players works on the chart for what will become “Alarm Call”. Other working titles are scribbled on paper and pasted on the wall : “Coba #1,” “Bertolucci,” and the proto-title for “Alarm Call,” “Sod Off”. Out in the main room, Deodato sits on a well-worn couch, scratching changes in his arrangement. A few feet away, Mark Bell finesses some synth and sample parts for another tune. “I really like working this kind of session,” says the co-producer and keyboard specialist, whose credits include projects with Kraftwerk and Art Of Noise. “It’s more open-minded. You can sometimes get locked into things, like with these guitar groups who are so prejudiced, like you’ve got to study guitar for ten years before you can make a blues album. But with Björk, if it sounds good, it’s good.”

There’s almost no guitar on Homogenic ; “So Broken,” a flamenco-like duet with guitarist Raimondo Amador was bumped from the album just before release. The dominant textures are strings and synths, with many of the parts created by Björk. Using what she calls a “neutral string sound” on her preferred keyboard, a Nord Lead, she played into an Emagic Audio Logic program, from which Deodato later notated the parts. (The Nord keyboard was also used as a tuning reference for the string players.)

Many of the keyboard sounds on Homogenic come from libraries assembled by Bell, engineer Markus Dravs, and the band Human League, since some early recording for the project was done at their studio. “A lot of Marcus’ sounds are processed through old guitar pedals, since he works with Brian Eno, who likes that sort of thing,” Bell reports.

The drums on the album often have an otherworldly quality, somehow distant and muffled, yet pushed high into the mix, where crackling, sharp-edged snares are usually heard. Their peculiar quality, Bell notes, stems from the fact that their drum samples were taken at a slower rate in order to create a texture that would stand apart from the dry, close-miked strings. Much of this derives from Björk’s initiative.

“She’ll go, ‘Can you make the bass line more furry ?’” Bell laughs. “It’s always poetic, which is good, because if she tells you exactly what to do, you’re more like an engineer. This way, you get to create atmospheres too.”

Markus Dravs agrees. “She wrote the song ‘Joga’ for a friend of hers, and she explained that particular character to me. First of all, she set out an overall picture, like whether it’s a song of no compromise or whether it’s about a character who’s very enthusiastic and helpful ; she’d say we should do heartbeats or whatever. I then came up with a rhythm that seemed to fit that description of a personality, and she said, ‘Oh, the distortion is a bit too abstract ; it should be more punchy.’ We did other hits, maybe start again, but those first noises wouldn’t necessarily be thrown away. Then Mark had a go with it. He took 99 percent of what I did and came up with some noises, which gave me new ideas and I’d have another go.”

This collective morphing apparently brought the sounds to what Björk would consider an appropriate level of fuzziness. You don’t hear too many crystalline timbres here ; probably the purest electronic color on the record is a straight Roland Juno-101 tone—“practically a sine wave,” says Bell—used for a few bass lines. Almost everything, including drums and voice, is run through a Yamaha CS15 filter and a maze of outboard gear, which most frequently includes an Eventide H3000SE Harmonizer and an old Boss SE-70 pedal. “She’s had that voice for thirty years,” Bell says, “so it’s good if we can do a few different things with it.” The excised cut “So Broken,” for example, begins with Björk’s voice pinching through a car radio-like filter, then gradually blossoming to full-spectrum strength as the piece builds. And on “Hunter” the juxtaposition of shattered bits of Björk and cool, smooth longer notes creates a kind of amphetamine reverie, soothing and jumpy.

“We process a lot of stuff in our Akai samplers,” says engineer Russell Kearney. “There were really no rules. Before I got here, she even used the grand piano in the living room as a reverb. They just put a speaker underneath, blasted out some sounds, and got gorgeous results.”

Now Deodato is in the studio with the strings, running them through a three-chord motif that ends the tune. Björk listens outside. When they nail it— sharp attack, sharp staccato, slight pause, and legato final chord-she jumps and claps her hands. “Rock and roll !” she says, and to Deodato, a big thumbs-up and a grin.

The taping begins. She’s restless again, listening closely from the couch. After one take, she tells Dravs, “That’s a great sound, but it needs to be much closer. You need to hear the violin in your face.”

As mics are shuffled around the string players, Kearney points out that Björk wants the string sounds as clear as possible, to balance the obscurities of the rhythm and texture. “They’re not processed in any way. No EQ. We’re just using the Focusrite preamps direct to the tape machine. I’m not saying anything against the Euphonix that we used before ; it’s just that when Deodato was last here, we had a different desk. We haven’t had time to do A/Bs on the Euphonix preamps, so we decided to go with what we know.”

We observe that Björk traditionally prefers a dry string sound. “That’s true,” Kearney says. “But we’ve gone far closer with the mics than we’ve ever done. They’re literally right in front of everybody’s nose. I suppose it’s tough when somebody sticks a mic in your face and says, ‘Come on, play !’ But these string players are great.”

And now we’re hearing Björk in deep discussion with Dravs. “We need contact mics ; they’d be perfect for this song. We need texture ! We’re going to change the microphones so we can hear the wood, the oak”— and now she playfully rubs Dravs’ head—“between your ears !”

It’s been a long road for Brazilian composer and arranger Eumir Deodato. He rode the bossa-nova wave in the Sixties, doing charts and playing piano with Astrud Gilberto and Luis Bonfa. It’s been all uphill since then, with movie scores, arrangements for Frank Sinatra and other MOR jazz icons, Grammys, awards from Billboard and Playboy, a proto-disco smash adaptation of Also Sprach Zarathustra. And now he.s poolside at the Morais studio, wondering over how he came to he swept into these turbulent currents of Nordic metaphor.

“The work on Homogenic is actually simple,” Deodato says. “A lot of her rhythm loops are very contemporary, so before I attempted to write things on top of them I decided to write underneath, on her vocals, rather than to fight or add to the rhythm. Writing over the beat means writing a new line that’s not in the song, something that will stick out—a high violin part, for instance. But when you write a melody that’s already there, or chords in the low or mid range as pads, that’s writing under.

“In some of the songs I followed her secondary vocal lines ; there was very little harmony and very few chords. I was doing that on ‘Isobel’ too, where I wrote a natural C in a line that was in B minor. Much later on I learned that Björk is the type of singer who will sing the A sharp in A minor, but I wasn’t yet aware that she did that when I did that first song. It’s just something I felt about her.”

Deodato’s old-fashioned pencil-on-paper approach blends nicely with the sample-churning techniques his younger colleagues embrace. Rather than diminish his contribution, both he and Björk feel that his traditional skills make him all the more valuable—and exotic—a commodity.

“That’s where I shine, because all most people can do these days is program their drum machines and sequencers,” he smiles. “They will take samples from television, which they have already heard from other movies ; that’s just rewriting, not writing. Sure I can sample but nothing ever beats the real thing.”

He looks up to the cloudless sky, stretching his arms wide. “I’m here, sitting in the sun, with beautiful mountains and this incredible view, in the company of Björk and all these musicians. I can’t sample that.”

Then he looks our way and winks. “But I can compose it.”

It’s after midnight, once again. Musicians, production staff, and hangers-on have wandered off to their rooms, out to the pool table, or into the night. Björk sits on her canopied bed, thinking back to another part of her musical roots.

You studied classical music from ages five to fifteen. What was the most important lesson
you learned in music school ?

The best thing was that it introduced me to all music. ... Well, that’s not true. That was another thing I learned. “Classical music is really music from Germany over a period of two to three hundred years. You go to the classical Section at Tower Records, and it’s German music. That says a lot about the history of humans for two thousand years, because we’ve been making music all this time.

My obsession was always to work with people to create something that had never been created before. That became very obvious in my school. I had a lot of meetings with the headmaster. He would sit there and say, “What are you doing with yourself ? You’ve got this talent, and you’re just wasting it ! You’ve got no concentration !” It was like a love/hate relationship between us. I used to go to his classes, and he’d try to make me work. But I’d just sit there and cry my eyes out. I couldn’t fit in the mold. He was Jewish ; he escaped from Germany to Iceland just before the war. But I’m Icelandic ; I’ve got a voice, and it doesn’t have to be so complicated. It’s just about me and you communicating. That’s my biggest turn-on, to meet someone who comes from a completely different place than I do. I’ll show them everything ; I’ll give them everything I’ve got. For me, that’s creating : One plus one is three.

As you grew up, you weren’t exposed to much electronic media, radio or television. Did this present any problems in learning to create in the language of pop culture ?
For anyone to communicate, you have to make an effort. Whether you’re born in Idaho with American TV or in Guatemala, you’ll always have to fight certain barriers to communicate.
For the first few years I sang, I used no words. Then very slowly I started throwing one or two Icelandic words in there. When I was eighteen I did my first tour abroad, and I would translate one or two words into English, sing the rest in Icelandic, and do noises as well. Communication is about energy. That’s how we are, and the language sometimes doesn’t matter all that much.

Are your English lyrics literal translations of original words in Icelandic ?
They’re as literal as they can get. Icelandic is quite personal to me. I’ve tried to do interviews like this in Icelandic, but I can’t. I just feel like I’m lying, because English is in the head, being clever, analyzing myself, seeing myself from the outside. Icelandic is personal and private. I still can’t translate certain lyrics, because they’re just too intimate.

Do you dream in Icelandic ?
It depends on what kind of day I’ve had.

par Robert L. Doerschuk publié dans Musician