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Interview - Feb 2, 2004

"Finding the band’s audience is our job."

picture From Gothenburg, Sweden, although now based in Stockholm, siblings Olof and Karin Dreijer form the alternative pop band The Knife, who were featured as HitQuarters Artists of the Month in April 2003. They have sold more than 30,000 records with their two self-released albums, “The Knife” and “Deep Cuts”; the latter has sold 26,000 copies and is nearing gold status (30,000 units).

They are now set to release a record in the UK, aided by their UK-based manager, Eric Härle, who also manages Moby. In the latter part of this interview, Eric talks about the details of the release and how the record companies he has presented the band to have reacted.

Olof, what are your and Karin’s musical backgrounds?

For a few years, we both attended a public music school, which you can choose to start in fourth grade in Sweden. I played the saxophone and Karin played the guitar. Karin started playing in rock bands quite early on, but my background was more jazz oriented because of the saxophone, so I played in jazz and ska bands.

Before The Knife, Karin had an indie rock band with four other guys called Honey Is Cool (click on artist or song names to listen to Real Audio files – Ed.) and they released a few records on MNW, a big independent record label in Sweden. But MNW wanted them to play more commercial music, so the band cut the contract, started Rabid Records, and released what was to be their last album. Rabid is now Karin’s and my label.

I started making drum & bass and dance music on a computer in 1996; I have also been deejaying for many years. I generally play hard European techno.

What was the idea behind starting a band together?

We didn't start with the idea of being a band; we just began to make music together quite naturally. I was making music on the computer and Karin asked me if we could try out some ideas she had. That was in 1999 and from there it took us two years to make the first album.

How do you work together when you are making music?

Karin sings and writes the lyrics, and everything else we do together. Either she has an idea for a melody, which we try out and then add the drums and bass, or I write the drums, bass and melody lines, and she does the vocals on top. Those are the two different ways we mostly use. We don't play that many instruments manually; we program most of it.

What equipment do you have in your studio and how has it evolved?

From the start, we’ve only used software synthezisers. We did buy a stand-alone Yamaha sampler, but we only used it for a couple of months and then all the cheap software samplers and synthezisers came in and we didn't need it anymore. We have always worked with quite a small set of computer-based equipment, although we recently bought several traditional synthesizers. The main program we use is a Swedish application called Reason. It has synthesizers, samplers, effects and mixing boards; we use it together with a sequencer program called Logic Audio.

The studio has been located mainly in my bedroom. For “Deep Cuts”, we added a song booth, which we made out of two mattresses and some carpets. Since we generally just use the computer, we have also recorded at Karin’s and in other places. A year ago, we moved the computer to an art-studio complex where we rent a room. It’s not luxurious but it’s cheap, and we’ve again made use of the mattresses to create a song booth.

What lies behind your decision not to play live?

We create our music in the studio by building it up on the computer. We have never stood in a rehearsal room playing our music, and therefore it's a big step for us to play it onstage and show our faces. When we make music we like to take on a certain persona, and it is that persona that makes the music more than just us. There’s a very big difference between performing onstage and sitting in the studio creating music.

Do you have day jobs?

We did before, but Rabid Records pays our salaries now.

Do you also release other artists?

Karin released an album with an electronica band called Monster & Maskiner, and I released a 12 ”, which I also produced, with a rapper called Calle P. While we have released other stuff, it's not record label work we are interested in: we are simply interested in making music. It's not because it's fun that we have this label, we simply have it because we have to have it. We want complete artistic freedom and we want to have the power to decide how everything should be handled, including the marketing, promotion, distribution, etc. We only release The Knife now.

Did you intend to release your music on Rabid Records from the start?

Yes, because after a few months, once we had tried out some ideas and developed them into two songs, we wanted to release them. We manufactured 500 copies of our first single "Bird" in the Czech Republic at a very low cost, and we sent it to the public radio station P3, which is the biggest station in Sweden. Even though it was very lo-fi, they liked it very much and played it a lot. We released it in August 2000 and it sold out in a few weeks. Although that was only 500 copies, it was a big thing for us. Then we made several more songs and released the album “The Knife” in February 2001.

Karin and her friends from Honey Is Cool had started Rabid Records long before, and since Rabid was there we thought it was the road we should take since we didn't want to compromise in any way.

How did you fund the release of the album?

Just before we released the record, we received a grant of SEK45,000 (USD6,200) from the Swedish National Council for Cultural Affairs to support the release costs. Anybody can apply for the grant, you just show them some of the music and if they think that it is of a high artistic quality and that it will increase the cultural diversity of the market, you’re eligible, although not guaranteed to receive it. They have a fixed budget for this particular grant of about SEK6,000,000 (USD825,000) per year, which applicants compete for.

When you release the record, you have to report the invoices you receive to them, and you have to draw up an overall budget, which includes an estimation of how many records you think you will sell. Our estimation was that we would sell 1,000 copies. Of course, we sold much more; to date, the album has sold 10,000. They don't get upset if you sell well, but you might not receive the grant again next time. They also have a rule that excludes artists who release themselves on their own labels. Luckily for us though, when we first applied in 2000 they weren’t strictly enforcing that rule. However, we did not receive any grants for the next album, “Deep Cuts”.

How did you deal with promotion and marketing?

We didn't have a strategy at all. Even though Karin had previously released Honey Is Cool, we didn’t know anything. It was a very small release, only 1,000 copies of the album, and the only thing we had to solve was the distribution. Our strategy was therefore just to release things as cheaply as possible. The recording costs were zero. We made lots of mistakes during the course, but we learnt from them.

What did you learn?

Not to use Digipack! We used Digipack as a package solution, but it’s twice as expensive as a common jewel case. Apart from that we learnt which people to send records to and all that stuff.

What kind of reaction did you get?

We had all kinds of reactions. We had a few really good reviews, a few were terrible, and many people thought the music was very strange.

Were there any major differences between the musical techniques you employed for the first album, “The Knife,” and the second, “Deep Cuts”?

During the work on the first album, we basically learnt how to use the equipment. I learnt how to work with the sampler and all the programs we use, and how to get a good sound from them. The sound on "Deep Cuts" is consequently of a much higher quality than on “The Knife”.

As far as the music itself, the first album only reached a narrow, almost elitist audience, and with "Deep Cuts" we wanted to dialogue with a broader range of people, the public, so to speak. Because we have certain ideas, feminist ideas for example, and we wanted to reach not only those who already knew about those issues, but also those who were unaware of them. Therefore, we made more of a pop album.

How did you handle the promotion and marketing for the second album?

We sent the record to a few people at the public radio channel P3, although not to commercial radio because they don’t play our music. We also sent it to several people at newspapers and magazines; we just looked up the people who were in charge of reviewing and sent it to them. We didn’t otherwise contact journalists; we just sent them the album and hoped they’d review it. As far as ads are concerned, we bought a few in several small music magazines. It wasn’t all that complicated. The big thing was definitely P3. We were lucky that they liked our music and they're the ones who have promoted us most.

For our three latest singles, we’ve worked with a promotion company called Skiva, who now send the records and videos out to media and book interviews. They don’t promote us very aggressively, but they make sure all the appropriate parties receive the material. We heard about Skiva from other people we know who work with them, and who said they were good.

We pay them a certain amount for the period of time during which we want them to work with something, which is usually a few weeks, and as we are a small, independent label, they give us quite a reasonable price. It has spared us time and relieved us from gluing envelopes all day long, which is not much fun!

Your records are distributed by Border Music?

Yes. Border Music, an independent distributor, distributed Honey Is Cool, and when we wanted to release “The Knife”, we sent them a few demo tracks and they accepted. We didn’t have to show them a business plan, so I don't know how they go about choosing the music they distribute; I think they just listen to it and feel whether it's good or not.

They are happy if we sell 5,000 albums, which we did with the first album in a few months. Of course, they worked more intensively with us when we started selling albums, so it was much easier to work with them on the second album. They share the costs of ads and sometimes they financially support videos. They are quite big in Sweden and are continuously growing.

You released “Got 2 Let U”, the first single from “Deep Cuts”, long before you released the album. Why was this?

Got 2 Let U” was released in May 2002. We thought that the album would be released earlier, but eventually it was released in January 2003. Perhaps the time span between the releases was too long, but we wanted to release the single when we had completed it, so we did. “Heartbeats” was the second single, which we released a month before the album came out.

Did “Deep Cuts” receive good reviews?

In the biggest and most important magazines, the big papers, and in the papers published in the big cities, the reviews were very good. But the reviews in smaller, local papers were worse. Sweden is a small and very trend-oriented country, so when something gets good reviews people trust that.

When did album sales take off?

The album sold well from the start and kept up the pace throughout the year. We’ve sold 26,000 copies to date. What made it sell so steadily was the regular attention we received. We didn’t have a traditional break with a single, but we kept working and releasing singles throughout the year and that’s what kept album sales up. We made the music for a film that premiered in December, “Hannah med H”, and we released the soundtrack in November, prior to the release of the film.

Another thing that also helped in its own little way was that a singer/guitarist called José Gonzales, whom I know from childhood, released a cover of “Heartbeats”, which even made it into the Singles Chart. Karin cried when she heard it because it was so sensitive and strong.

Can you tell us a bit about the videos you’ve made?

We did an animated, low-budget but very nice video for “Heartbeats” (videos here), which was played frequently by Z-TV, which is the biggest music TV channel in Sweden. It received second highest rotation, and the next single, "You Take My Breath Away", received the highest rotation. We’ve had good rotation on all our videos on Z-TV, and “Heartbeats” was voted Best Video of the Year by their viewers. MTV also played “Heartbeats”; although they didn’t put it on rotation, they played it and our other videos on the Up North show.

All our videos have been made on a very low budget by friends of ours who are artists, except our latest video, “Pass This On”, which was made by Johan Renck. He contacted us a few weeks after we had released “Deep Cuts” and said that it was the best album he’d heard in years and that he had to make a video for it. Unfortunately, because he is one of the world’s biggest video directors we simply couldn't afford him, so we were forced to say no.

However, a few months later, he said he’d do it anyway, without getting paid, so we took him up on the offer and made the video very cheaply. By then we had earned some money from album sales, so we were able to pay part of it. Of all our videos, it’s the video that has been played most, particularly by MTV.

How did the idea for the video take shape?

When we wrote the song, we already had the idea for the video. We thought that the drag artist Rickard Engfors, who is a celebrity in Sweden, should play the main character. As it turned out, Johan knew Rickard and could arrange for him to be in the video, so we were very happy about that.

Have the remixes of your singles opened up new markets for you?

I don't think so. It is the original version that has mostly been played in clubs. One remix, though, of “You Take My Breath Away”, which was done by some friends of ours called PuppetMasters, was played a lot in the clubs, but even then, the original version was played much more. Remixes are a fun thing to do, because it's fun to hear your song in a new way, but in our case they haven't been that significant in commercial terms.

How instrumental has your website been in raising the public’s awareness of you?

Our website is a very important promotion tool, although it’s hard to state its exact importance. Certainly, the Internet as a whole has been beneficial to us. For example, although we don’t earn money from it, all of our music is available on Kazaa and similar peer-to-peer file-sharing applications, which has been very good for us.

Karin started the Rabid Records website when Rabid started. She is very good at web design, so she built it and maintains it. Our Internet Service Provider complains because the site has so much traffic: people are constantly downloading our videos, which are all on there.

Have you received any offers from publishers and record labels?

We get contacted by Swedish publishers all the time, but we always say no to them. We're very keen to keep the publishing at Rabid. We do want a publisher outside of Sweden to collect our royalties, however, although not to place our music in commercials and films. As far as record labels are concerned, we have received a few offers for licensing deals, which is what we want, but they have been very bad offers.

And you recently signed a deal with Eric Härle, Moby’s manager?

Yes, Eric Härle called us and said that he had heard our music and liked it so much that he wanted to work with us. It was Stefan Sörin at HitQuarters who sent it to him. Eric said that it was the first time someone had sent him a record he actually liked.

What made you decide to sign a deal with Eric?

We wanted someone to solve our situation outside of Sweden. We had sent our records to a few labels but either they didn’t like them or we were just too small a label to get any attention. Eric has worked with dance music for many years and we respect that. Even though he works with one of the world’s biggest artists, Moby, he comes from an independent background and he understands our thing, that we're not like these celebrity pop bands, that we just want to make music. He is also a very nice guy and everybody at his office likes our music, so everything was perfect.

What is your strategy for releasing records abroad?

The strategy is just for Eric to get us a licensing deal, preferably with an independent label who will understand our standpoint. We haven’t yet received any offers from labels we want to work with, so we're going to release an EP with tracks from our first album in the UK on our own label in February. Our management will handle the record label work and the costs, but it's going to say Rabid Records on the album. Karin and I will not be as involved with the work surrounding the release; we will really just provide them with the artwork and the masters.

What other activities have you been involved in lately?

We’ve demoed a song for Robyn’s next album. Her manager, Alex Strehl, contacted us because she liked our music and wanted to write a song with us and for us to produce it. I also wrote the music to a dance theatre performance performed by the Moose Dance Company at the Modern Dance Theatre here in Stockholm. Then there was the soundtrack for “Hannah med H”, which we finished earlier this year.

What do you consider the most important events in your music career?

Working with different types of music has been very important, from our own, which is very eclectic in terms of genre, to music for film and theatre. I don't think any of our records constituted a break in itself, but the “Deep Cuts” album has certainly geared a lot of attention towards us and it can, I guess, be said to have been our breakthrough.

Thank you, Olof. Eric (Härle, manager), what reactions to The Knife have you received so far?

We have presented The Knife to record label representatives in various ways. We have had meetings with some of them, while we have just sent the music to others. Several people had already heard about the band and had the record but wanted to listen to it again. We've had interest from people in Germany and in the US, although nothing concrete enough to warrant us moving forward at this point. We're talking to a bigger company about worldwide representation, but we haven't yet committed to anything.

Many record companies are concerned about the fact that they don’t tour, and few think it will be played by radio, at least not commercial radio. Others wonder whether they’re a press band. People are trying to make sense of them so that they know whom to sell them to. Right now, from what they’ve told me, they’re not sure where they fit in.

Other than record companies, has anyone else shown interest?

Well, we’re only really starting to present the band, which we want to do by releasing their records independently on their own label in much the same fashion as they did in Sweden. There are pockets of people here who know about them and are interested in them, but the majority of people just don't know who they are. Also, some people simply don't understand them at the moment, but I think that will come once the records get out there.

What is the idea behind releasing independently in the UK?

Nobody wants to move forward in a way that we feel comfortable with at this stage, and therefore we feel that releasing the records ourselves is the logical step in moving the project on. We consider the first album to be a stepping stone, a way to rouse people's interest in the band, and we want to work on the second album and its singles much more.

In the process of releasing it ourselves and building momentum, people will hopefully start to understand what this band is about. We are still negotiating, however, with people who do seem to understand the band and who are keen to get involved, but in view of the current state of the record industry, unless we build up some heat around the band outside Sweden, I think people will find it difficult to deal with this.

What are the details of the releases?

An EP featuring tracks from the first album will be released on 23 February, and the album itself will be released on 8 March. Cargo will distribute it, we have a project advisor and a marketing advisor who are both freelancers, Darling Department will handle the press, Cool Badge will be in charge of radio promotion, and Crunk Promotion will send a limited mail-out of the EP to clubs. The team is pretty much there. The only area we're still debating is what we're going to do on the Internet, whether we’ll hire a company or do it ourselves.

The strategy for the first album is to be careful to not oversell it, because this would influence the effect of the second album. We don't want to do big interviews to back the first album, which is really an underground release; the first album is something that we hope will attract some specialised airplay, and which we hope will get us some introductory features in magazines. It’s with the second album and its singles that we should get the main features.

How far does your plan stretch?

The goal is to release the second album this year, probably just after the summer, and release perhaps three singles from it and see where that takes us. I think it would be unrealistic to want them to be where they are in Sweden: with Karin having already been a presence in the media, The Knife was an easier act for Swedish people to get into. In the UK, the band have no history, so we're starting from scratch, and although the videos are one of our strongest tools, video channels in the UK aren't that powerful, so they won’t have the same impact here as they had in Sweden.

Radio One is very important and the long-term goal is to get the band on the Radio One playlist. We previously targeted Radio One with Röyksopp, another band we manage, with a track called “Eple”, and we didn't get a reaction. Then, almost two years after the song was released, Radio One put it on the A-list and played it for almost three months. In order to achieve that, you have to build momentum and create a profile for the act.

Will you be looking for licensing deals outside of Sweden and the UK?

That’s the idea. We want to start with this and thereby attract people who will want to license the records. First of all, however, we have to generate something in the UK that people can see. The UK is a good market in which to spread the word, because everybody reads the UK press reviews.

Finding the band’s audience is our job. Their music is fantastic and their videos are great, so the quality of it all should at some stage give us a platform from which to break them. We don't know how long that will take or whether it will happen with the second album. The initial reactions from record company people weren’t that enthusiastic, but that isn't a deterrent—it just gives me an indication that it won't be easy.

Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman