NME

Homogenic

A small, dark room in north London, and the people are asking themselves exactly the same question which vexed those who gathered in a small, dark room in Manchester just seven days ago. Essentially, they want to know what the devil has happened to Björk.

It turns out she’s gone and discovered ‘Björkbeats’, basically, and how do we know this ? Why, because they’re literally battering our heads in, that’s how, with them tearing through the speakers like red-hot barbed wire. Then, on top of the Björkbeats, she’s singing some of the most sepulchral songs she’s ever penned. It’s the sound of 12 rotten months, a couple of failed relationships and one attempt on her life being exorcised in full, and there’s no mistaking that.

“Explode this body !” she screams curtly as the jagged techno drums of ‘Pluto’ reach full pelt, her trademark pixie dance now cranked up to a madly tumultuous degree. If there’s one thing racing through the crowd’s mind more urgently than utter bewilderment at this juncture, it’s purely that this is an out-and-out extraordinary performance.

So, did you also catch Björk on her recent European tour ? Did you witness the first airing of tracks from her courageous new ‘Homogenic’ album ?

Chances are, you did not, because one of pop’s major icons—the very same one who played live in a host of arenas little more than a year ago—has just completed one of the most miniature tours of France, Germany, Belgium, Spain and Britain imaginable. That’s miniature as in six secret shows played in club venues with an average capacity of around 400—including Sankey’s Soap in Manchester and the Blue Note in London—with her and current collaborator LFO’s Mark Bell improvising the whole shebang as they went along.

Björk, what are you up to exactly ? “ ‘Post’ was glamorous and extrovert, yeah ? And ‘Homogenic’ is not like that at all,” she replies, by way of half-answer. Bereft of any make-up or jewelry and just back from her regular afternoon swim, she sits in a café in Soho, one day before her show at the Blue Note. As such, all NME has to go on at this point in time is last week’s gig in Manchester and that, frankly, was not an extraordinary night out, with little of the six-track set attaining anything like the emotional lift-off that they’re set to do tomorrow.

“So, yeah, this small tour...it’s about doing things you can’t plan,” she offers next. “It’s just like : DO IT ! Mark might jump off the plot and then I have to cover for him, or it might happen the other way round.”

“For me, ever since I left Iceland I’ve always felt that it’s not worth doing anything unless it’s something you haven’t done before.”

Highly personal songs, limelight-dodging micro-shows, austere sounds, equanimity rather than bonkersness and no sure-fire, bombastic, chart-shagging tunes at all—that, evidently, is her way forward. Because , while reinvention is a subject that Björk has long been privy to, this time round the changes are fairly and squarely in the direction of the outright experimental. Which, in short, means that fans in search of a ‘Big Time Sensuality’ or an ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’ simply aren’t going to find one. Yet again, what is she up to exactly ?

“I can’t really worry about the people who won’t get this album, but there’ll probably be quite few of them,” she admits. “This whole thing about me being a glamorous, happy dance diva, it’s been very flattering but not at all true.” So you think you’ve made a brave album ?

“Yeah, but if I can take credit for myself, I think I’m always brave. You’ve got to take a lot of risks. Nine out of ten times it might be crap, but it’s worth it for the one that makes you say, ‘Har har ! Yes !’ It’s very important and at least a certain percentage of my albums have always been like that.”

A certain percentage, yes, but, up till ‘Homogenic’, never before an entire album—from the strange, buzzing intro to ‘Hunter’ to the icy ambient ending of ‘All Is Full Of Love’.

Recording the album in her house in southern Spain may explain some of this new-found freedom (“It was the biggest luxury of my whole life. I could stand on the balcony and see Africa, and I couldn’t ask for more than that.”), but if Björk’s new sound has been influenced by one event above all, it seems it was the departure of production wizard Nellee Hooper from her camp.

“Working with Nellee was one of the most magical musical relationships I’ve had,” she explains over the background din of creative types bawling into mobile phones. “But then we had a lot of, as they say, musical differences. That’s probably one of the main things that made ‘Post’ and ‘Debut’ turn out how they did. He had a real taste for shiny and sophisticated sounds and me coming from Iceland... need I say more ?”

A bit, perhaps... “In Iceland we don’t trust things unless they’ve got holes in them and dirty marks on them. I remember he couldn’t handle stuff like ‘Anchor Song’—it was too discordant for him. And then there were beats he put on the album, which I thought were far too fashiony and slick and that’s where we clashed the most.”

“Halfway through ‘Post’, the magic between us had gone,” she recalls. “With ‘Anchor Song’ I stood up for myself and, well, I walked out of the studio, actually. He wanted to put a slick beat on it, but I wasn’t giving in and I won’t, not ever again.”

To wit, Björk’s drums now preside firmly on the mad side and, as such, are about as glamorous as a tramp. More bashed-up old rucksack than sequined handbag, she’s dead chuffed with them, too.

“It was time for me to stop visiting so many other people and and borrowing so much of their creativity. I love visits, don’t get me wrong, because otherwise your own ego would eat you up. But I always wanted to know what Björkbeats would sound like,” she laughs.

“Me and (engineer) Markus Dravs would work in the studio on the top floor of my house, right by my bed, and we collected a library of beats. I’d be going, ‘Brghhh ! Kie-keee ! Kwow !’ and he would make them real for me. At first I thought we’d make, like, big beats, but then they just got weirder and weirder.”

When these angry, spooky clicks, clunks and thunks started emanating from the sound system it seems, another stage on what’s been a lifelong quest for Björk was completed.

“I’m still trying to find out what my music sounds like,” she reveals conspiratorially. “It’s been stuck in my head since I was a little kid and it’s not really complicated at all. But it might take me ten years to find it. Or 20, even. I’m still just beginning.”

Are you sure you’ll know when you’ve found it ?

“Well, I think so... but then again, I sort of don’t want to find it, because that would spoil everything, yeah ? I just hope I get it before I die. That’d be good.”

“My gran is a painter,” she adds. “She’s 72 and she’s got a new thing going on. She’s moved into different colours or something. See, she’s still learning and trying to find the pictures she has in her head, and I think I’ll always be the same.” In spite of all this talk of beats, that’s not to say ‘Homogenic’ is any kind of dance album. As she said, she’s no club diva of the “Way-hey, it’s Saturday, so let’s boogie”—kind and her brand of vocaltronica is clearly built from something other than carefree, arms-aloft hedonism.

“What’s so beautiful about this music is that it doesn’t even matter if there’s a nuclear war going on outside or if Led Zeppelin are playing in the next street. It’s still ten-nil to me,” she grins. “This stuff has always existed ; it’s for you, sitting there on your own in your woolly jumper and slippers. It’s not something to be social to.”

Because people can’t dance all day and all night ? “It’s just outrageous what you can do in life,” she splutters excitedly. “When I walk out of here I could either get plastered, go to a library, go out for the night with complete strangers or fly to the other end of the world.Thank God we lead lifestyles where we go out and get pissed and listen to music through massive speakers, but sometimes we all have to sit down and shut up.”

Above and beyond all of this, the key question, surely, is whether Björk has gone and done a Blur ; indulging in some kind of culling of her fanbase in order to revive some sanity in her life. It’s an issue which she’s cagey about, with half-answers once again being de rigueur. Would Björk prefer to stay out of the tabloids from now on ?

“But I don’t really read them, you see ? Erm, I can always escape back to Iceland, can’t I ? But it’s wrong when you can’t date a person without it being up there at the top of all the proper news there is in the world. I don’t care about it ; I really don’t. But when I know that the people I love—my relatives, people I’ve gone out with or their families—are upset by things, it disturbs me...”

“I’m not complaining,” she continues after a long and uncomfortable silence, having nervously scanned the room. “It’s just like, the minute you think you’ve sussed it out, you learn that you haven’t.”

Augmented by an eight-piece string section, Björk returns to the stage for a proper tour in November, but it appears that any arena-sized appearances are definitely out of the question.

“The arenas were interesting,” she concedes. “You’ve got to try everything once, otherwise you’re a coward, but never again, as far as I’m concerned.”

Does that mean your forthcoming tour will also be something of a bind for you ?

“Oh no !” she retorts. “I’m not so much of a punk that I think a gig isn’t a proper gig unless it’s on after midnight in a cellar that’s painted black. That’s a load of crap, really. My rule of thumb is : would I pay to go to a show myself, and that’s it. I’m not even going to try and explain it more than that.”

Are there other aspects of pop fame that she’d rather steer clear of from now on ?

“I think I always have and always haven’t. I’m not saying, ‘Oh, I hate my job and I’m gonna do a Kurt Cobain on you all’. Not at all. I could go and work in a f---ing fish factory instead of doing that. Any minute I want, I can walk away from all this.”

“But certain parts of fame are completely pointless. That’s something we sussed out when we were punks. It’s just a question of if you feel responsible for your... not destiny, that’s a bit heavy ; for your life, maybe.”

...An issue which crops up in a number of songs on ‘Homogenic’, not surprisingly. There’s ‘Five Years’, which will have her peering into distant space at the Blue Note tomorrow night, taking a swipe at a host of former beaus, as she laments, with an ear-splitting intensity, “You can’t handle love”, while all manner of crunching electronic ire goes off in the background.

Less obviously, there’s also the more tempered and soulful ‘Immature’.

“Oh, I think that one’s about an ongoing battle I have with myself,” she states. “It’s me trying to work out whether it’s braver to be self-sufficient or to need a person. Because when I was a kid, I’d go off camping on my own and being in the middle of nowhere for two weeks, being able to cook and hunt for myself, was my idea of bravery. As I’ve got older, though, I’ve realized that, in fact, I was being a coward, because I wasn’t communicating with anyone.”

How much were the lyrics on ‘Homogenic’ shaped by what’s happened in your life recently ?

“A lot, and I’d be lying if I said anything else. That’s why it definitely is the darkest album I’ve done, but also the brightest. Even though I’ve had some very bad times, at no point did I give up hope.”

Hope for what ? The future ?

“Not really. It’s just a fight against death and boredom, and power and evil.” she replies passionately. “It’s sort of a pro-life fight ‘cos it’s a sneaky bastard, death. You could be running a very fertile zoo, surrounded by children, and you could actually be not a very positive person...”

Hmm...

“Death lurks behind everything and kind of teases you,” she continues. “I’m a stubborn bastard, though, and I’m gonna fight my pro-life battle for ever. But boredom scares me the most and I’ve started collecting videos already.”

For what purpose ?

“For when I get old, of course. CDs too. I’m buying loads of them. They’ll all be waiting for me in loads of big boxes when I reach about 60 or 70.”

If schedules and timing had worked out differently, ‘Homogenic’ might well have been an entirely different kind of album. When Björk first began to consider what her beats would sound like, she was certain that Wu-Tang Clan’s The RZA was the man for the job. He was keen, too, but the delayed completion of the ‘Wu-Tang Forever’ album meant it was not to be. Instead, she ended up getting name-checked on ‘Wu- Tang Forever’s ‘Reunited’ (“Wu-Tang take your brain on a space walk/ Talk strange like Björk”) and recorded just one song with him, which might, possible, be released next year. Nevertheless, it seems she has at least found a close compadre with whom to fight the good fight she speaks of so keenly.

“RZA’s beats are so him, ‘cos they’re eccentric and full of character,” she remarks. “I think it’s the most gorgeous thing ever that he’s on this planet. It makes me so happy that he’s also fighting a pro-life cause against boredom and death. But it’s sad, ‘cos I couldn’t wait for him to finish the Wu-Tang album.”

Why not ?

“It’s obvious !” she replies, as if it was indeed obvious. “If a song’s ripe, it’s ripe. You can’t just put it away and then take it out six months later and expect it to be any good, can you ?”

So, that’s what ‘Homogenic’ could’ve been, whereas straight-up, guitar-driven album, she’s eager to point out, is something it could never have been. And the more trad members of the rock community, they are just floors, by the way. Yes, that’s floors...

“How can I put this ?” she ponders chirpily. “Say you’re building a house—first you do the floor and then you do something else, right ? You don’t keep on making floors forever ; you do walls and windows, too. So if you’ve done rock, you’ve done rock, yeah ? You’ve got to change your tune and that’s just common sense, really.”

Back at the Blue Note, the crowd is crammed in so tight that even a pacifist on love drugs would find it hard not to become irrationally irritated by the stifling heat and mass of people obscuring the stage. That bloke over there ; his hair’s too big ! And as for him ; he’s too tall and, frankly, he should do something about it !

But then Björk launches into another freezing cold yet glorious missive from ‘Homogenic’—‘Joga’ this time—and it doesn’t feel like that any more. Sure, it’s still only possible to see glimpses of her but, as Bell sends the synthesized strings soaring, the sound is mentally loud and monumentally touching.

Splat ! There goes one Björkbeat., eradicating the memory of that nutter with a bomb in America. Crash ! And there goes another, erasing thoughts of a kooky pop princess who once danced through Manhattan on a flatbed truck. It’s a case of a mission wholly achieved, it would seem.

“I’m being selfish with this album, yeah ?” she claims, still twitchy and looking anxiously round the café. “I think... Sorry, I keep saying ‘I think’ and maybe it’s getting a bit tedious now. But I think you can tell when people have been whoring around. You don’t need to see a photograph of them or read any bollocks about them ; you can just hear it. My favorite records, the ones that’ve kept me going through the years, are always the records where people have been so selfish that not even one person understood what they were on about.”

Björk isn’t claiming that she’s finally extricated every detail of sound that’s been buzzing round in her head since childhood, however. She’s getting there, though, and that, categorically, is the main thing.

“This is almost like a sketch for the next album.” she says. “I think that one will be a lot better because I’m coming close to something very good now. I feel blindfolded still and, you know, like I’m tip-toeing along to something that I can only smell at the moment. I don’t want to think about it any more than that, though.”

Why ?

“Because it makes me feel really claustrophobic.”

Then she gets into a taxi and heads off to either get plastered with strangers, stack videos in boxes, think pro-life stuff, punch the living daylights out of boredom, or, quite possibly, do all at once. After all, there is a war on, you know ? And Björk, we can safely assume, is now winning again.

publié dans NME - 04.10.1997

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