Published October 20, 2011
Look. We’ll come right out and say it. Björk Guðmundsdóttir is a genius, an innovator and a visionary. Her new record, ‘Biophilia’ is a feat; it marks her best work in at least a decade and everything surrounding it—apps, graphics, concepts, music schools (!)—reeks of the future in such an inspiring and novel way that it makes all other musicians look sorta bad, really. You are much more interested in reading what she has to say about things, so this intro will end now. And if you want more, you may read a far longer version of this conversation on our fancy Airwaves website.
I’ve been listening to ‘Biophilia’ for a few days now, and the apps, educational aspect and concept were just explained to me by your assistant. I am stunned. All I can think of asking is: what is this? What did you do? WTF?
I’ve found the simplest way to describe the project is by talking about the touchscreen aspect. Whenever I make an album, I am never quite sure what I am doing, then when I’m done I sit down and try to make a little sense. And it wasn’t until after I had done a fair number of interviews post-the Manchester performances that I had simplified the idea and concept enough to talk about it properly. And I found the key point was the touch screen.
I had used touchscreens on the ‘Volta’ tour, in the form of the Reactable and Lemur devices, and when I started this new project in 2008 I wanted to continue using them for writing music. So I thought: “How would you write music on such a device?” This lead me to mapping how I view my songs in terms of structure, and that sent me right back to my time studying music in grade school, what I liked and disliked about that education. And how I thought about writing music. This was my mental process. Then, the touchscreen has brought along some revolutions.
It’s changing how we interact with a computer…
Yes, that’s really it. That’s what the project is about in short. I was mapping how I think about music theory, how I write songs, and how that could transfer to that new process; because I have never been able to write songs like a troubadour with a piano or a guitar [retches]. The idea was a little along the lines of: “If I were making my version of an acoustic guitar to write music with like a folk singer, what would I put in that? What do I put on the touchscreen? And I immediately thought of nature and its structures, I started tapping into that…
Wait, I want to back up. Learning music theory and music, I felt it was too academic. You didn’t get to experiment and find your voice and your style. It wasn’t about the individual so much as mass-training conveyor belts of kids into playing for the symphony orchestra. “If you practice for several hours a day for fifteen years, you might be in the symphony” was sort of the carrot. That’s cool and great, I love watching classical performers and I admire them, but for kids who love music, there are a lot of other things that are important. Like composing music. The pictures that young kids draw, you want to hang each and every one of them on the wall, because they are all brilliant. And I thought: “If kids could write music like they draw those pictures, without being brilliant violin players or whatever…”
RHYTHM IS IMPORTANT
Indeed, your assistant just showed me a clip of children in Manchester [where Björk had her first ‘Biophilia’ event] playing music through your apps… were you making the instrument, or machine, you’ve always needed?
Yes, a little. I was being selfish, really, making the sort of discipline or course I would have liked to study in grade school, the one I never got to attend. “Why moan about missing it, why not create one now?” I thought. Maybe it’s a way for more intuitive songwriting? I have written a lot of melodies while walking outside, thinking of rhythms. Rhythm has always been important to me; when in The Sugarcubes and Kukl I often worked with Sigtryggur [Baldursson, drummer of both bands, extraordinaire in his own right]—we’d often make the bases for songs by ourselves, with rhythm and vocals. It’s an unusual approach to songwriting, voice and beats—usually songs start out with chord progressions—but I never related to that method. Thus, when acid house and the whole electro movement came along, it was only natural that I’d jump right in. It had rhythm and voice, my favourite elements.
So you started out working within the confines of rock music because that was all that was available, and then given the chance jumped off into more rhythmic territories?
Yes, that was kind of it. And I don’t think I was alone. I think it’s maybe a larger group than people realise, folks that were into the whole indie scene; its philosophy and style and spirit, but not necessarily the music. People that jumped into acid house and electro when that kicked in. It has more of a feminine structure—I am not being essentialist about gender; men contain feminine qualities and vice versa—punk is more macho and electro is more connected to things like world music, rhythm, flow and feeling .
THE FRUSTRATED MUSIC TEACHER
Through the ‘90s, you played a large role in introducing the electro revolution to Icelanders. And through ‘Biophilia’ and especially its educational aspect, you can be thought of as introducing new techniques and ideas to people. Are you maybe sort of a missionary? Are you trying to ‘spread words’?
Well [laughs], I am frustrated music teacher, that’s for certain. I wouldn’t take credit for “introducing Icelanders to electro”—there were so many great people working at doing that. I tried to help out when I could, and my position granted me some chances to do that.
But I have always had a soft spot for frustrated teachers. Like David Attenborough or Ási [head of Smekkleysa records, Icelandic alt.godfather] when he had his radio shows introducing new and exotic music to Icelanders. I was all ears. And I am. I like to listen when people talk. I am curious in nature, and when people show me what they’ve been up to, and what they know, I often get fascinated and I want to tell the world about it.
I always assumed I’d be a music teacher when I grew up. Then this whole pop music adventure happened and I’ve really liked that . But I still joke about it with my friends, that year I planned on moving to a small island and teaching kids to play the recorder flute. That’s still my retirement plan. So it’s a joke, but not a joke, y’know?
This is one of the reasons I was very excited to be able to weave an educational aspect into the ‘Biophilia’ concept. The thought just occurred to me when we started programming, I got so excited. “Wow! I can weave my old pipe dream of teaching music into my next album!” I had never thought of that! It was a moment of truth; initially I had just planned the touchscreen aspect to work with writing the album, all the rest came later. In 2008 I had no idea that the technology would be so widespread.
BJÖRKCORP, R&D DEPARTMENT (AKA “JAMES MERRY”)
You basically developed instruments to write this album. This is no mean feat. Do you have a ‘research & development’ department or what? How does it work?
Hahaha, my ‘research and development’ department consists of James [Merry, Björk’s assistant], he is a one-man team… I usually don’t employ assistants, I like keeping it real, making my own phone calls and such. I had gone three years without one. I was a year into the ‘Biophilia’ project when I decided I wanted someone on the job, and not a usual assistant, but someone to specifically do research. James used to work for Damien Hirst, but wanted a job where he could travel. You could say he got what he wished for [sinister laugh], as making ‘Biophilia’ certainly took us all over the world.
Making an album in this manner was incredibly fun. ‘Volta’ and the accompanying tour, for me, was a sort of grand finale for me. I thought: “I’m going to take ten brass girls on tour and flags and play all the festivals and play all the old hits that work at festivals and go out with a big bang!” I sensed that I would dig a hole after all that and start from the beginning. At the same time as ‘Volta’ ended, my contract with Universal was up, and I found myself in a similar place that Radiohead were in four years ago, when they released their album on-line and people could pay as they world. I was all PHEW! I was off the grid, all the companies were sending me offers and I was refusing them all, because I knew something good would come of this… It was liberating.
You were on your own, no demands, nothing…
Yes. Initially for this project it was just me and James and my sound guy-slash-programmer Damian Taylor doing all kinds of everything. I intentionally hired no help, I wanted to keep it that close and also I had no money to fund it, I could just scrape together for the next studio session. After a year of working like that, I realised I had grown very embedded in the environmental and political battle here at home… that and other reasons led me to just renting a house in Puerto Rico, we spent a year there; we created instruments and read five hundred million books and watched a billion DVDs. Everyone thought we were mad. It was scary, but at the same time very exciting.
“…AN INSANE HEADFUCK”
We finished that phase and then there was phase where I was working with Oddný [Eir Ævarsdóttir, author] at home, trying to encourage and facilitate green companies and startups. Kreppa came along, along with mass unemployment and I got the idea that my album project could be job creating; maybe I could get one of those half-finished buildings and make it into a music museum for kids, where every room would teach them about different aspects of music and theory and intertwine that with lessons about the natural world.
There would have been, like, a lightning room where you could learn about arpeggios and play around with lightning. Then a pendulum room where you learn about bass lines and counterpoints… I was thinking of ten rooms, to fit each song.
I met with some people and started seriously investigating this, before I determined that it just wasn’t right. It felt self-indulgent in the middle of a crisis. The idea was to try and give something back to my community, a well-meaning project and all, but there is a thin line…
So by then National Geographic contacted me and we decided to try and make a 3D movie. I called up Michel Gondry and he was into it, then Sjón and I sat down and wrote a script… or actually he listened to me talk for a billion years before writing an amalgam of my thoughts and his own. But then it turned out that financing a motion picture is an insane headfuck that can take something like a decade to accomplish, and since making a movie wasn’t a particular ambition, we dropped it.
The goal was always more along the lines of creating something that could help kids understand and engage with music and the natural world anyway, I have no dreams of being a filmmaker. And oddly enough the iPad showed up around this point in the process. We had ten songs and had written programmes for each, so in fact the final lap—transforming the project to iPad—was the easiest.
RADICAL ACTIVIST/PASSIVE GARDENER
I am curious about the songwriting process, and how it integrates with the programmes you made. You have a ‘lightning song’, and a ‘moon’ or ‘cycle’ song, and a ‘pendulum song’ and this is all clearly portrayed in the apps, but how did it come to be? Was the music a result of research? Or did you connect the ideas with the melodies later on?
This project is different from my other ones. I was in the mood to connect. ‘Volta’ was all about getting on the soapbox, posturing, complaining loudly and pointing out stuff I thought was wrong and evil. Fighting for nature: “you are all corrupt!”, “Declare independence!” and so on. I was a radical activist yelling at people.
This time around was the opposite. I deflated and went into ‘passive gardener’ mode. No more macho posturing, more research, planting seeds and tending to them, growing things. No two songs have the same root or were made the same way.
To name an example, the song ‘Moon’ was made after we got the idea to create a pendulum programme; a double pendulum moves a little like one envisions a bassline and a counterpoint… that was the idea anyway. We wrote a programme to work with and then [long-time Björk collaborator] Sjón had a poem called ‘Solstice’, which is about cycles, the Earth’s ever-revolving axis… and Christmas. Which in turn is connected to the movement of the pendulum. It fit. This is how things evolved a little, differently with each song but along these lines. There was no one method employed.
BACK TO SCHOOL!
The unifying factor maybe being ‘research’ or the educational aspect?
Yes, I wanted to go back to school. So in the process of making this we met with a lot of scientists, and we read a lot of books and watched documentaries and thought about a lot of different ideas and theories. It was a good process. After screaming about how everything sucks and needs improvement on ‘Volta’, I felt it was imperative to try and find solutions, to research new methods of doing things and presenting them to the world. Beating on pots and pans can be important, but only to a certain point. Eventually, you’ll have to try and think of solutions and how you would like things to be, instead of just shouting that you don’t like their current state.
This relates do with what you’ve been trying to do with the whole ‘Green startup’ enterprise over the last two years. When we interviewed you last year, you placed a big emphasis on us printing a list of ‘green startup ideas’ alongside the conversation…
Yes, getting involved with nature conservation and the like had an emotional effect on me. The three months Oddný and I spent every waking hour thinking about new ideas and ways of doing things, after protesting for two years, I was left with the feeling that none of the old systems were working anymore. That it was time to propose something new.
The time for finger pointing was through, at some point you need to be the change you wish for. To practice what you preach.
And when I saw people all around me going bankrupt, losing their homes, their pensions, everything… I felt I simply couldn’t make a comfortable little record of music. Something more was called for.
I read an interview with you in an issue SPIN magazine from sometime around 1995 the other day, where you said you had always been into these geeky, professor-like guys, naming David Attenborough as an example of someone you’d crush on. And now you’re actually working with David on the ‘Biophilia’ project… is this your dream project come true, finally?
Well [giggles]… yes, I have always been into geeks and nerds and professor type characters, people that could tell me about nature and the cosmos and the universe… David is one of my muses for sure. So dream project… It’s a little like that [joyous laughter]. I am very excited about all of this. Working on this, I was all holed up with James and Damian for what felt like a million years, and now it’s coming out and becoming public, taking on a new life. It is exciting.
Writing music on the touchscreen, making new things to create with, imagining how an instrument would sound and then creating and programming it, I feel like a kid in a toy store. And I really look forward to when the promotional aspect of ‘Biophilia’ is behind me, so I can get back to playing with all these new toys.
It’s funny, sometimes the dream is stronger than reality… writing for an instrument that doesn’t exist can be a turn on; then when it’s actually been realised, when it exists, working on it might be exciting. Right now I am curious how that will work out, whether I will retain the joy of working with these tools. I am looking forward to sitting down with all these people I’ve met and gotten to know in the process, talking and creating more. I want to create ten more apps in the next three years. Maybe I’ll make a song and release it three months later. Since I am not contractually bound to a record label now, the possibilities are limitless. I am very much looking forward to working further in that environment.
I have been listening to ‘Biophilia’ a lot, and as I got acquainted with the apps, the educational aspect and everything else I started thinking of the project as a very optimistic, even hopeful, one. I jotted down ‘techno-optimism’ in my notebook; for some reason it feels like we as a culture have been focusing on the negative aspects of technology for a long time, whereas ‘Biophilia’ evokes a belief that a better world may be reached through technology… Am I totally delusional here?
People tend to forget that technology is something that we humans created. It is a tool. And it is a tool that you can use for good purposes, or bad ones. The problem has been—in terms of music, say—that the business guys have mostly been in charge of how the new technology is used and implemented, instead of, say, people that want to create music, or listen to it… I believe this is true for other fields.