Sweater

Björk in progress

Electronica’s reigning queen, Björk, holds forth on drum machines, the state of club culture, and the changing seasons. Jim Greer follows most of it.

Björk looks nervous. Sitting down on a couch in the lobby of Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont hotel, the Icelandic singer can’t seem to stop running her tongue around her lips and over her gums. She sips continually from a glass of water as she talks, and leans forward, perched on the edge of the couch cushion, gesturing occasionally with hands that are otherwise engaged in fidgeting in her lap, or scratching with vigor the side of her impish nose.

Probably it’s a matter of excess energy rather than nerves, though ; certainly, at this stage in her career, Björk would seem to have little to fret over. Few artists have achieved the sort of cross-genre success
- while still retaining credibility within a notoriously fickle and street-savvy subculture like electronica - that the former Sugarcubes lead throat has enjoyed. From her earliest Icelandic punk-jazz days (she released her first record at something like 13 years old), through her stint as an alt-rocker, and on through her metamorphosis into the acceptable face of clubland, Björk has forged a fearless and idiosyncratic path that makes mincemeat of generic structures/strictures, combining influences from big band to Big Beat into one gloriously technophilic mess. Throughout, the one constant has been her patently God-gifted voice, an instrument of such emotional range and force that it cuts through even the densest musical fog.

The world is better for having her voice, and this issue of Sweater is better for printing her answers to a bunch of stupid questions.

I hear you went to see James Brown perform last night.
Ah, what a guy. I was crying through the whole set. Not from sadness - he was just melting me. I mean, I’ve never been that big a James Brown fan, really, I don’t even have any of his records. Of course I think he’s a genius, but...just seeing him work was fabulous, and the music was even tighter than the recordings. And his 18 piece band...so tight. I mean, I hate entertainment, Las Vegas things, but this was just pure. He’s so professional it’s scary. Without losing any of the passion.

You’ve spent a lot of time in London, and obviously you’ve traveled quite a bit in the US, too. What would you say are the major differences between electronic or dance culture in the US vs. the UK
I’m from Iceland, obviously, so I can say truthfully that I’m a voyeur both in England and in the States. When I grew up in school, people were either punk or disco. You can analyze that forever, but with youth culture that usually seems to be the case. Either you’re slick, your hair is combed, you’re disco...you know, and later in life if you do drugs you do coke. And the other side is just kind of more aggressive, scruffy, you probably smoke spliff or whatever, I don’t know. Obviously this is a massive generalization. It seems to me in England, rock or guitar music is mainstream, it’s kind of goody-goody. Very square. And electronic music is for rebels : sort of creative, taking risks, where rock music is playing it safe. In the States it seems to be the other way around. Maybe it’s changing now, I’m not so sure, but here electronic music is goody-goody, disco, and rock music is still the rebels. If you wanna be bad you buy a guitar, you definitely don’t buy a drum machine. In England, and you’re teenager, and you wanna be bad, you buy a drum machine. If you wanna be healthy and wholesome and eat porridge, you get a guitar. That seems to be the main difference to me.

A year or so ago there was on awful lot of media hype about the so- called "electronica revolution" here in America. Then, when the predicted revolution failed to happen, at least on a mainstream, commercial level, there was a sort of backlash. Why do you think US audiences seem to have so much trouble accepting electronic music ?
I think in the States when technology is related to music, people think it’s cheating. People think you just buy a machine and press "on." Which I find amazing in a society famous for special effects, where the guys who made Star Wars, and George Lucas’ team, and the people who made Terminator, are thought of as being creative, even though they’re using computers. It’s not like they bought the computer and pressed "on" and Terminator changed to liquid steel or whatever. The public realizes that that took a very creative mind, but for some reason they just can’t take that into music. I’m still going through these ridiculous battles when I do TV shows in the States - it’s like, "Oh, will Björk play live ?" "Yes." "Who’s gonna play with her ?" "Oh, Marc Bell, who’s playing a drum machine." "Oh, that’s not live." And it’s like, I just start yawning. But if he brought a drum kit, would that be live ? "Yes."

We’ve even got leftovers of that in England, because I remember doing a show called "The White Room." They had many bands on, and everything would be white, you could only see instruments, no amplifiers, nothing. They would put white over everything, it’s a very graphic show, and I had two people playing with me live there, which I was very proud of, I had Graham Massey from 808 State, playing a computer, doing a complete live mix, and Howie B. We were doing two different songs, both of them were working together, they had tons of the same stuff, and they set it all up, very organic. And the show would start putting white towels over all the computers. And they were kind of asking them questions like, "So, can’t you play a tambourine or something ?" I was furious ! You’re talking to the pioneers, here...you’re gonna put towels over their equipment and ask them to hold a tambourine ? It’s like "Get a life !"

So people have very strange ideas about this. And Marc Bell, one of the reasons I love so much working with him...like the rhythm on the first song on Homogenic, "The Hunter." He came to Spain just for a laugh. And he heard the song, I’d done the vocals and the bass line and the chord structure, but there were no beats. I explained to him the beats and he recorded it live in one take, and the beat changes through the whole song. He did that on a 909. It amazes me that people still can’t grasp that live element of it.

Is lack of receptivity towards electronic music ever frustrating in your case ? I guess at this point you’re not really trying to convert anyone.
I feel spoiled rotten because all the people that I respect, as I travel and I just accidentally meet them, they seem to respect what I do. At the same time, I don’t have to be this kind of martyr of fame, going to all these premieres, and having naff geezers hang outside my house. None of that. I live back in Iceland, and I hang out with friends and family, and then I come over here for a week, and I stay in this hotel, and I got the best of both worlds, do you know what I mean ? I’m spoiled rotten. I can’t even ask for more. And I don’t want more, to be honest. I had a record company meeting a week ago in New York, and they actually used that word, "converted." I’m so sincerely flattered how much they care - they were teasing me, they go "Stop converting the already converted."

They want you to broaden your audience.
I found it interesting just for argument’s sake, because I love sometimes playing games. I could talk about any stupid issue for hours, and even take a point of view that I don’t agree with just to get a conversation going. But at the end of the day, when I’m back on my own writing a song, I can’t - even if I wanted to - do it to please someone. I’ve got a pretty sacred relationship with myself. So I think I could not be in a better situation. And it wasn’t like I planned it. It just happened.

What is the point of writing a song, of making music, for you ?
Well, I guess I don’t know, I would be lying if I told you why. But I was just planted with this mission - it sounds almost like a mushy fairytale - to write a perfect song. And I still haven’t done it, but I’ve got 50 years to maybe get here. And I’m willing to do whatever it takes - it’s a question of drinking 900 coffees and becoming an extrovert and moving to a cosmopolitan city, I will, which I did in London. If it’s a question of moving back to Iceland and becoming a hermit and locking myself away from the rest of the world for the next 50 years, I will do that. And not in a self-sacrificial way ; that’s where I get my kicks.

Is music the most important thing to you ? Would you sublimate everything else in your life for it ?
No, I’m not that puritanical. I have seen quite a lot of people - when I was 16 the band I was in, we signed to Crass, a [leftist/anarchist/highly political] label in England, where you saw people become vegan, and they would’t take part in anything because they didn’t think it was pure. "Only wear black and grow your own food, and don’t take part in anything that’s corrupt." And it started being a very positive move, saying "I don’t want to take part in anything that’s corrupted," but in a few years time, you find yourself saying, "Do you want this ?" "No." "Do you want a Coke ?" "No." "Do you want a car ?" "No." "Do you want to listen to James Brown ?" "No. He’s sexist." And it ends up being quite an anti-life statement. So I’m not literal about it. And also, I’m here in LA. I live in Iceland, and I’m here in LA, and I find it comical to be here. For me it’s like being an alien. I think communicating is healthy. I’m not that fiercely religious about it that I think having a trivial conversation will pollute...whatever... That would just make what I do stagnant and sterile. But yeah, I must say, if I have a mission, that is my mission.

Having sang both with a "traditional" rock band, The Sugarcubes, and now for many years as a solo artist in largely computer-generated settings, what’s the main difference between the two modes of making music, for you ?
I think what it’s about, and I hope I don’t sound too deep here, ’cause I don’t want to get all pretentious on you, but for me what it’s about is : what is the narrative, and what is the environment ? Because, okay, if you wanna talk organic, natural rhythms, you could talk about the seasons. They happen always the same way, every year. And the longest day is always the 21 st of June, and the shortest day is always the 21st of December, and if you zoom out, it always looks the same. But if you zoom in, 1963 was very different from 1974. But it’s a question of...how can I put this ? Who is the storyteller, and who is the environment ? Like for example...I wish I could say this right, cause I can feel it, but I can’t put it in words...what people used to call wallpaper music. So much repetition that you don’t notice it. And you have patterns, but you don’t notice them, because they’re so even. But then you’ve got my face, which is...we are talking now together, and it’s going all different ways, and being really sort of narrative, and sort of organic all over you, and like nature. So I will stick out more.

But then you get the whole cultural sort of ambience, or whatever, and people will say "okay, you can’t put this into two categories, the one that’s eye to eye, singer/songwriter, tell me a story, and then... elevator music." Ambient, Brian Eno, the whole revolution with him was the fact that even though you don’t notice it, it doesn’t mean that it’s bad. It doesn’t mean it’s second class music. It can be just as important ; and the whole discovery of the common man/new age music, which I personally think 99% of it is crap, but at least the discovery that it’s an environment, and it can be very repetitious, yet still alive. It’s like the seasons, or like day and night. And it can be very precise in that manner. I mean, you look at things like cells in your body. They’re probably all pretty similar. Millions of them, and probably as similar as drum machines. And you’ve got a choice : What is telling the story ? And say if you read a book : in what country did it happen, and who is it about ? So first you get a sense of the environment...and I think those two things are just as important. It’s just a question of what is what. Say for example, you sample voices, and you make them completely repetitious, and maybe you have a drum in the middle, and that is the narrative. So you would swap roles there. The thing is, you’re most used to the human voice, the singing voice - that is the narrative. So I think it’s a question of that.

The balance between narrative and environment is one you seem to take particular delight in messing with in your music.
I think for me - when I say this, I’m not being passive or pessimistic, but - I don’t see so much difference between the past or the future. A lot of my friends disagree with me there, and in dull moments we’ll bring this up, and we know for sure we’ll get a nice little argument, but I think t the balance has always been the same, and always will be, between known things and unknown things. It’s just a question of with what kind of open mindedness we deal with the unknown things. And how we enter it - with fear, with escapism, or with caution - I’m not saying any of these are right, it’s just... But I can’t really see so much difference between a drum machine and a violin or a voice.

I know that if I deal with noises I hear every day, I am being braver, because I am being more truthful. Taking dull, gray, ordinary noises and trying to make them into magic is much more of a challenge. So for me to take a drum machine, which is similar to the noises I hear in a fax machine or whatever - let’s face it, that is the environment we live in. If I pick that, which is dull, boring and ugly, and people say, "agh, that’s so hideous, we’d much rather hear fantastic Disney violins, and people talking about love," which I respect as well sometimes the drum machine stands for me for reality. Just the cash register in the supermarket. Come on, face it, you’re living in this world, you’re not living on an island in the Pacific. Deal with it. I still believe in fantasy, that you can watch a cartoon and trip, or have a dream about this gorgeous date you’re gonna have, or whatever. I like fifty-fifty. Realism and fantasy.

But then again, just to contradict completely what I just said, you deal with instruments like my voice. Say I’m tired, my voice will sound tired, I can’t lie, I’m female, I’ve got an Icelandic accent - that’s reality in a certain way. But I could go into a computer and make the most fantastic noises. Pure imagination that would never thrive in the real world, and play with that. So I think it’s all available, and at the end of the day, I don’t know, it’s just whatever turns you on.

Sometimes I get the sense that by obscuring the primacy of your voice, by veiling it in layers of sound or texture or whatever, you’re covering up for insecurity, either with regard to your voice itself (which would be ridiculous, of course) or what you have to "say."
My first reaction after hearing you say that is, how I feel is...I don’t experience myself as this person who walks around life kind of doing these monologues. I’ll maybe meet up with a friend, and we will make several attempts to plug into each other, and I’ll be like, "So how’ve you been, what’ve you doing ?" And he or she will tell me stories, and we would be maybe in a car, or in a house, and the phone keeps ringing or whatever, or maybe sometimes you’re just not focused enough to get the moments of stillness and calmness that you want to have with your friends, sort of moments of truth, if you will - they don’t arrive that often in real life, do they ? Sometimes after you’ve drunk nine bottles of something and you’ve exhausted yourself, so all the other irritations have gone away, so all you’ve got left is that little grain of truth...

But I think even the people I love most and am most comfortable with, I don’t even think I’ve told them that I love them. I mean, I don’t know what to say (laughs). So I think maybe when I’m not being that narrative in my songs, and all these things are popping in and out, I think this maybe just how I experience myself in real life. Being surrounded by things, and actually enjoying it. And you get little minutes there of kind of like eye contact, and then it all swirls out again. But it doesn’t stop you from trying.

Do you think that music reflects a sense of place ? Either where you recorded it or where you’re from ? Or is it more reflective of emotional states ?
I think the magic of music for me has always been that the location is abstract. If there’s such a place - a country called Abstract. Abstractia. When I say that, I don’t mean a sort of Picasso...none of that shit. Abstract like a three year old kid can be. That’s what makes me sad when people try to force music to be something else, like political or whatever. I guess the cliche is kind of when you’ve had a feeling, this black current inside you, this darkness for a while, and you go in a taxi and you hear by complete coincidence a song and you’re like, "It’s there ! I’ve had this feeling in me for a year, and that ten seconds summed it up !" So if you want to talk locations, I think that’s...I’m getting better with language, I used to hate language, I thought it was so brutal and coarse, and it bulldozed over all the nuances and the details. But as I get older, I’m more willing to be specific and try to be more precise and ot least sort of d’o a peek-a- boo at the abstract places. You can try and try until your face turns blue, but nothing will do it as effortlessly as music.

Jim Greer

publié dans Sweater - 01.08.1998

 

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