Always striving to challenge the status quo, Swedish enigma and visionary Karin Dreijer does things very much on their own terms, artistically and musically. Here, they open up on electropop experimentation, identity politics and the “visceral confection” that is Fever Ray

“I think all of my characters are beautiful because they are true. They are very, very true. A lot of them have no shame. We have different names for the woman in the ‘Even It Out’ video – DeMona Lisa and Melody are just two. She has no shame at all, which is amazing and it’s so fun to be in that character.”

For someone whose artistic and musical life is theatrical, raw and boundary-breaking – treading the line between beauty and brutality, the parochial and the epic – Karin Dreijer (Fever Ray) is surprisingly considered. Dreijer is talking about taking on different roles in videos and on stage, and here the “DeMona Lisa” of the previously mentioned ‘Even It Out’ video. A vengeful cypher of ostentatious female sexuality in brunette beehive, platform heels, stockings and Fanny Craddock make-up, she is a sight to behold. 

“I had never dragged a female person before,” admits Dreijer. “It makes you feel really strong. I don’t understand what happens – I haven’t been that character more than a few times.”

Dreijer is sitting in a hotel room in Seattle, the day after the last show on the US leg of Fever Ray’s tour. Tomorrow, the band and crew are off to Mexico City. 

“Last night was fun,” declares Dreijer, dressed in a sweatshirt and sporting a blonde pixie crop – a world away from their artistic persona. “When you start a tour, you don’t yet know if you still can do it. It takes you a while to get it into the muscle memory, to understand what you’re doing and what it is you want to do. It’s a process. A year ago, I had no idea what it would be like when we started, no idea about what kind of character it would be and how it would feel in the body.”

The European tour comes to the UK in late February and early March, with dates in Bristol, Manchester and London. It’s taken over a year of pre-planning, but the show is still evolving. 

“We sit down and go through choreography and listen to the audio after almost every show,” says Dreijer. “We’re five people onstage, we have movement and costumes, instruments, lights and audio. There’s no school to learn how to do this, so I’ve learned by experience. Our show has a very big theatrical element and approach. Everything is performance.”

What makes the tour even more extraordinary are the personnel. The band and the crew are female and non-binary. 

“I think it’s important to work with people that I feel safe around, who are professional,” says Dreijer. “Yes, the crew that we have at the moment is mostly female and non-binaries, but the representation of us is not good in the industry. When you look at the line-ups at festivals and if you go backstage, it’s awful. It’s really, really bad.”

You’d be forgiven for thinking that things might be different by now, especially in the broader arts environment, but no.

“I started 30 years ago and it hasn’t changed much,” muses Dreijer. “You do see some female and non-binary crew members, but they’re not easy to find and the good ones are booked up many, many years ahead. But I try. The crew we had in the US were amazing and we had a lot of fun together. And we usually go by bus also, so you have to live with these people in close proximity.”

Why does the music industry still seem so male-dominated? Is it not drawing enough people in, from all backgrounds? Dreijer’s response is wonderfully blunt.

“It’s patriarchy and capitalism – it’s not different from any other industry.”

Dreijer talks about the cost of touring post-pandemic and the effect of huge inflation. Taking a band on the road costs many times what it used to, and the UK is now very expensive to tour for international acts. Making art, in whatever form, is not easy.

“In Sweden, at least, there have been no political campaigns to restore culture since the pandemic,” says Dreijer. “Maybe 10, 20 years ago you could apply for funding to tour but there is no such money anymore.”

Musically, Fever Ray are in a league of their own. Released in March 2023, their third album, ‘Radical Romantics’, blends elements of electropop, lyrical magical realism, club culture, melodic hooks and huge technical experimentation. 

Dreijer has a visionary approach to character and concept, the ambition being a holistic creation and, needless to say, the whole being much, much greater than the sum of its parts – both sensual and matter-of-fact, fusing graphic imagery with tenderness and a careful poetry. You can cite Björk or Sophie or a myriad of others, but nothing comes close to the concoction and visceral confection that is Fever Ray. 

The videos are short films in their own right, featuring quasi-incubators, rabid tea parties, demented candy-coloured cabaret, sunken-eyed voyeurs, pickaxes, office photocopiers and delighted severed heads. They are works of art, and so it’s no surprise to learn that Dreijer takes their time when conceiving, writing and recording new material. After 2017’s ‘Plunge’, ‘Radical Romantics’ took five years to make. Did that seem like a long time?

“No, I think it was quite fast!” shoots back Dreijer. “I came home from the previous tour and it took me a year after that to just fix things, store things, organise things, do the accounting and take care of things like you do when you come home. But then I start to read and listen to music to find out how I want to do this, how I want to tell these stories. It’s a lot of research for me… and also to find collaborators.”

photo: Nina Andersson

Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor is one. He co-produced the sizzling, multisensory ‘Even It Out’ alongside Atticus Ross. How did that come about?

“They make a lot of music together for film and TV, and I was really into ‘Watchmen’, the series taken from the Alan Moore comics. I loved what they did. We started with one track that I had done a demo for, and I just thought it would be fun if they could put it in that kind of atmosphere. And they were up for it.”

And yet Dreijer has not yet met the pair in person. 

“With all my collaborators, we do everything online,” they admit. “We send files back and forth – I love that way of working because then I can work any time of day that I like and they can do that as well.”

Is there a massive irony here, in that this is an album about connection – visceral connection – and yet you’re actually doing things remotely?

“Yeah, it’s a bit weird, but the social part happens when you tour,” they reason. “And no collaborators are involved in the lyrics – the collaboration is about the production.”

Dreijer also works with their younger brother Olof – the two previously worked together as electronic duo The Knife, wearing beaky masks in photographs and generally being highly conceptual. Their music studios are next to each other’s in Stockholm.

“We didn’t really hang out when we were young – I thought he was just a kid and annoying,” reveals Dreijer. “I moved out when I was 18 and we started to hang out and do things together much later. I ask him a lot about technical stuff and he asks me more about overall creative decisions. We trust each other in many ways.”

Do you ever bicker? 

“No, we are very direct with each other. I can come to the studio and if he’s put all his surfing gear in the whole place I’ll tell him and he’s like, ‘OK, I’ll remove it’. So it’s very calm.”

There are, it turns out, ideal opportunities for windsurfing around the Stockholm area. Suggestions that the Dreijer siblings make a surf album are met with a cute “maybe”.

We talk about the characters in Dreijer’s work – the lyrics tell stories and the videos are populated, as mentioned earlier, with curious figures. The ‘Radical Romantics’ cover features Dreijer dressed as a bald- headed sprite in a pale suit. The make-up is eerie – as if a ‘Doctor Who’ villain has taken on the aesthetics and lifestyle of a reincarnated Albert Steptoe. Are there a lot of these entities trying to get out in their songs? Where do they come from?

“It’s more about emotions,” they say. “I try to find the right voice and character and who needs to tell this story. How do I tell this story in the best way and find out the sound of the voice? Should it be whispered or screamed? In a big room or a small one? Far away or very close?”

On visual concepts, Dreijer works with Martin Falck (“an old friend and long-term colleague”), who is a graphic designer, creative/music video director and writer. 

“We have a very similar process and we share everything all the time – every image, every idea, every joke,” he has said of his projects with Dreijer.

There is such a lack of vanity in the work, a real exploration of outward persona and inner feeling – something that Dreijer describes as “finding what the emotion looks like”. They are trying to create a visual language that few would have the courage to do. In performance terms, it’s not purely a matter of beauty versus ugliness. When I use those words, Dreijer baulks.

“I believe that we [as humans] perform every day. Either you perform like this or you perform more like the normative beauty standard of a beautiful person. Who is to decide if it’s ugly or beautiful? It’s about the inside, right? And I know it’s a cliche, but I think all of my characters are beautiful.”

The characters are astonishing and extraordinary, I say – very powerful images. 

“Me and Martin, we’d been watching a lot of John Waters films – especially ‘Female Trouble’,” says Dreijer.

Lyrically, the album explores vulnerability and desire, focusing on the body and the senses. On ‘Shiver’, for example – “Killer skies / Thick thighs / Some girls will make you blush / Some girls will make you shiver”. But the sacred is very much contrasted with the everyday, and certain words and phrases jump out. “Cinnamon bun in the oven / There’s a fire in my hand” from ‘What They Call Us’ and the use of the word “cuddle” in ‘Carbon Dioxide’. It’s not something you hear often in song, and with Dreijer’s inflection, it sounds astonishing. 

Which lyrics are they most proud of on the album?

“What catches you in poetry… it’s the things that feel good in your mouth. And also for me, since English is not my first language, it’s always good to play with words. In ‘New Utensils’, there is this list of things that you want, or need, to survive – but also if you’re going on a hike or camping. I like to jump from very specific themes to the very grand.”

Dreijer mentioned writing in English. Have they ever written in Swedish, I enquire?

“Yes, when I was 15, and for a theatre piece a little while ago, but I’m thinking about doing it again,” says Dreijer. “Is it easy for me to write and sing in English? No, it’s never easy to write at all. I still like magic realism – do you say that in England? – because I do think that every day is magical. And to be able to do that in Swedish… I haven’t tried.”

And what do your daughters think of your music?

“They are 20 and 16 now. My oldest can laugh a lot about my lyrics and stuff that is a bit cringe. But to them, this is my work.”

People may assume that identity politics is a modern phenomenon, but haven’t ideas of sexuality, gender – and everything in between – been consistently explored within music and culture?

“Art is a place where you can play with ideas and it’s always been going on, as you say – questioning and playing with the norms, including gender,” agrees Dreijer. “When we started in The Knife more than 20 years ago, we worked with voice transforming. I didn’t see it as gender politics at that time because I didn’t have a vocabulary for that. Or I just felt that I wanted to find a voice that told the story in a clear way. It was super-intuitive. 

“I still don’t think about it – music should not be thought about so much. It should come from the body.”

We also need to clear up a few things about Swedish music. Surely there is a wonderful history and lineage of Swedish music that accounts for more than Abba, Ace Of Bass and Roxette? Can Dreijer suggest anything that I should be listening to?

“Oh, maybe I should write you a list!” they offer. “There are a lot of fun, experimental, progressive rock things, but there’s also electronic music in the past.”

What was the last record you bought? 

“Obongjayar, a Nigerian-UK artist. I really like him. I love Yves Tumor. They played in Stockholm when I was in the US, and I was like, ‘Oh damn!’. I’m so annoyed about having missed that.”

If I was to go out in Stockholm, where should I go? Are there good clubs or hangouts, or is there a scene?

“The culture politics of Stockholm is awful, I would say,” says Dreijer. “There are no great venues and the people who buy housing in the city manage to close down everything because it’s too noisy. It’s difficult to go to shows and difficult to play in Stockholm because there are so few places.”

So what’s the biggest myth about the creative process? “That you should sit and wait for things to happen,” says Dreijer, without hesitation. “You should really have a routine for working. I think it’s great to do office hours. And if you don’t have ideas you should do different processes like practise instruments, study other people’s music… it’s like musical exercise.”

Karin Dreijer is now itching to go. We’ve talked for over an hour. One final question – the biggie. What are we all here for? Without a second’s thought comes the answer, resolute and clear. 

“To take care of each other.”

‘Radical Romantics’ is out on Rabid

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