I wonder if the Knife aren’t happy with being famous any more. Heartbeats and Silent Shout burst onto a wider scene than they felt they were right for, and now they’re trying to turn off as much of their mainstream appeal as possible. People are calling the record pretentious nonsense, and they’re putting on live shows that people are walking out of. Something tells me they don’t mind.
I went to see them at the Roundhouse last week, and behind me there was a man who spent a good chunk of the show shouting at Karin Dreijer Andersson to ‘do some singing’. After about ten minutes of pretending to play imaginary instruments made out of papier mache and tinfoil, the ten piece ‘band’ crossed their hands (and drumsticks, and glowstick bows) above their heads, as the music burst on without them.
In case it wasn’t clear, the music was not being generated on stage.
They proceeded to prance about for the next hour and twenty. I’d been forewarned that the show was like a cross between Pan’s People, a cheap theatre school production and “Riverdance for cunts”. All these elements were present. The whole thing smelt of 70s Doctor Who, 80s aerobics, 90s acid and titting about on youtube. The vocal line would be mimed intermittently by different people, to the point where I had no idea if Karin Dreijer Andersson was even on stage, let alone emitting noises from her vocal chords. I have no idea what Olof Dreijer, Karin’s brother and the other half of the actual band, was even in the country.
It was well lit, and it looked like fun. Despite being cheap and amateurish, it was constantly shifting, often disconcerting, and genuinely funny. More than anything though, it was thought provoking. From where I was standing, the man behind me getting increasingly irate at his wasted thirty quid, started to seem like the absurd one.
What exactly are you paying for, when you buy a gig ticket? Where exactly does the authentic experience of live music lie? I’ve seen Matthew Herbert play with equipment scattered around different bits of the stage; in a tent or up a ladder; just so that everything can go wrong and sound horrible, so you know he’s doing it live. I’ve seen Orbital’s so called ‘best live show ever’ that’s basically just a fuckload of lasers and a Belinda Carlisle/Bon Jovi mashup. I’ve heard stories of Aphex Twin delivering live sets that have actually been generated by artificial intelligence on his computer, with him having no input whatsoever.
And most of all, I’ve seen a hundred people, hunched over laptops, with nothing exciting in the noises, and nothing to look at but a glowing white apple, sometimes with a sticker on it for anti-corporate credibility.
And that’s just the electronic stuff. I’ve seen the Born Ruffian’s play with a lead singer who couldn’t play his set because his voice was too broken for high notes. I’ve watched Caribou just be incredibly fucking tedious. I’ve seen hundreds of grumpy long haired teenagers (of all ages) staring away from the audience and doing their mediocre job.
The crowds though, we eat it up. We jostle to get to the front of the stage so we can be closer to the sullen faces of our ‘heroes’. We’ll happily stare at four people on a stage in the same pose as every other four people, going through the same motions. We’ll get pissed off at the tall person in front of us, grabbing angrily at his lustrous curly locks (I get this a lot), despite there being nothing whatsoever to see.
What is a great live show? It’s a horde of arseholes staring at a much smaller group of other arseholes.
This is a lie. A great live show is generally some kind of weird musical feat. Most of the top of my list is filled with people with more than one drummer. The top of my list is occupied by the Boredoms, with 9 drummers. There may be a direct relationship between the number of drummers and how happy I am with a live show. The only time that Caribou show was even remotely bearable was when Dan Snaith briefly got onto his drum kit along with his drummer, and the sound filled out to something with just a tiny bit of depth.
The Knife had no drummers, but two drumkits, and I’m pretty sure someone was hitting the megacello at one point. But it didn’t matter. For me, it was incredible.
I’ve fooled myself into believing that Olof, the sibling responsible for the music, was actually tucked away behind stage somewhere adding some kind of liveness to the soundscapes. Part of me refuses to believe that it was purely a backing track. It sounded too perfectly moulded to the space and the speakers. From a violently reverberating bass exploration at the opening, sounds that tore through your flesh and worried your bowels, to the relentless battering drums of ‘Full of Fire’, the music sounded immaculately present. Backing track or hidden Olof, the music was absolutely the star of the show. The sound was visceral and all encompassing. It wrapped you up and pulled your body around. It was everything I wanted.
So whatever the show looked like, it sounded amazing. Could it have sounded ‘more live’? I have no idea. What does that even mean, in a world where the music is generated not in echo chambers and vibrating strings, but by the twist of electrons on a circuit board? Why do people get angry when an artist acknowledges that they’ve made music that is going to make a dreadful live show if all they do is press the right buttons? Why do we celebrate people for making impossible musical structures, and then get upset that they don’t do a limp-wristed acoustic version in person?
The whole performance seemed to be asking for someone to provide a definition of ‘authentic’, ‘live’ and ‘performance’. Infamous for incredible audiovisual shows, creating an atmosphere and having intricate lasers, the punchline was felt at the end. They played Silent Shout and revealed they still had the incredible laser box of their last tour, they just chose not to bother with it. The tone of everything changed as people gazed upwards into the intricate patterns etched into smoke by the perpetually re-arranging lights. It felt like a rebuff: ‘This is what our last live show was like, and it was just the same as this, distracting nonsense’.
A live show with something to look at is fine. A live show that may not be live is fine. A great live show is nothing more than a presentation of some music. If that music affects you. If that presentation takes you somewhere, mentally, then the live show is a success. Particularly if it takes you where the band want you to go.
That’s art. And you probably don’t get your money back if you think it’s shit.
Maybe the Knife have destroyed their reputation as a great live show. Maybe next time, they won’t sell out all their venues in an hour. Maybe next time they’ll tour smaller venues, and be left with a hardcore of queers, freaks and weirdos that still love them whatever.
And maybe that’s the other point. This was a show that felt aimed at some kind of subset of Knife fans. The ones who get the genderbent artifice of the whole thing. This wasn’t one for the hipsters. Or this was one for the hipsters, depending on your point of view. Or where you keep your hips.
It’s possible that I only got to enjoy the show because I had been forewarned. If I’d gone expecting lasers and darkness and I got Pan’s People and glitter, maybe I would’ve been pissed off. But then, I once hitched to Germany to watch their opera, which they weren’t there for, and it was still incredible. Maybe I’m the problem here. Maybe I just refuse to believe I wasted a healthy chunk of my meagre income on going to watch an episode of Top of the Pops.
But part of me knows that it was a brutal, powerful, intense and dark experience.
Part of me was transported, and that’s all I’ve ever asked of music.
Illustration by Daniel with many thanks.
A slightly different version of this piece appeared on themonitors last month (when the phrase ‘last week’ was still truthful). You should probably follow them for music news, because theirs is still new.