Last October, a mysterious teaser video surfaced on Fever Ray’s website, hinting—with ghoulish imagery, explicit lyrics, and a personal ad on some made-up dating site called “Karma Kinksters”—that she would release new music after nearly a decade of dormancy. “Sadist, empathetic switch seeks same,” the video’s text began. “For hours of sharing: ideas, skin, warmth, breath, politics, dreams, and body fluids.” A week later, Fever Ray’s exhilarating full-length experimental pop album Plunge was released.
Karin Dreijer, 42, began making music as Fever Ray while the Knife—the critically acclaimed, enigmatic synth-pop duo she formed in 1999 with her brother Olof in Sweden—was on hiatus. Her 2009 self-titled album was a collection of beautifully haunting dance music with surreal lyrics touching on themes of motherhood (Dreijer had just given birth to her second child), depression, and exhaustion. The album was a critical hit, and in 2010, Fever Ray won a P3 Guld award in Sweden for Dance Artist of the Year. Dreijer, who also has become known for her shocking costumes, accepted the award wearing a large red veil that revealed a grotesque melted facemask underneath.
The Knife disbanded after touring for their fourth and final studio album, 2013’s Shaking the Habitual, which challenged the status quo with lyrical references to both anarcho-feminist ideology and queer theory. On Plunge, Dreijer explores those politics on a deeply personal level, singing about desire, sex, and her own queer re-awakening. “Free abortions/And clean water” are some of the demands she makes on “This Country,” before the rallying cry of, “This house makes it hard to fuck/This country makes it hard to fuck!” On “To the Moon and Back,” Dreijer declares, “I want to run my fingers up your pussy.” And in the accompanying music video, Dreijer is rubber-coated and genderless, waking up from cryogenic sleep and entering a BDSM tea party complete with a golden shower. No matter where you land on the gender or sexuality spectrum, triumphantly freaky work like this pushes boundaries in all the right directions. I called Dreijer in Sweden, just before she embarked on a worldwide spring tour, and we talked about Plunge, progressive politics, and personal ads.
I always think it’s interesting to hear how feminist artists came into their political identities. Growing up, did you feel a pull toward radical politics?
I grew up in Sweden when it was a social democratic country, which at that time meant a lot of rights for people—free healthcare, free school systems. But my dad was much more far left—he was a member of a Communist party, which was a normal thing in Gothenburg; there were so many different Communist parties in the ’70s and ’80s. So I was brought up with socialist values, and I think that has shaped my way of seeing the world—politics are still my main interest. But back then I didn’t know so much about feminism. There were of course feminist movements, but it was not a part of the left. Women really had to struggle for their rights. And any queerness—that scene was not at all part of the left movement. So that was something I started to understand a bit later.
Americans tend to view Sweden as being very politically and socially progressive. What is your view on that?
I know there is this idea of Sweden and its equality, but things are happening super slow, and there are always these backlashes. There is a huge problem with racism in Sweden, for example, and there are new neo-Nazi parties, and the politicians and the police are allowing neo-Nazis to march. You can never take freedom or any of these things for granted. If you don’t stand up and watch [freedoms] and protect them, they are so easily taken back.
The music videos for Plunge have such extreme and compelling imagery. What were you hoping to convey?
I worked with [creative director] Martin Falck, who has been a friend for a long time, and who worked with us before on [the Knife’s 2013 album] Shaking the Habitual’s artwork. We started to talk about the visual aspects quite early—I hadn’t finished the album yet. We were just sending pictures to each other, like hundreds a day, through all different media. We sat down after a while and just went through everything we thought would be fun to do, and it started to grow out from what we had collected. I was also very into personal ads, reading all these advertisements for finding other lonely people.
I love those old-school personal ads! Your first teaser video began with one, and you also reference personal ads in the manifesto that accompanies the album. In the age of online dating—reading personal ads has been replaced by swiping photos—is there anything to that, reading text describing someone’s preferences and desires versus swiping through faces and bodies on a screen?
There are so many filters for making a nice photo [laughs]—writing is much more difficult. If I were to build a dating site, I think it definitely should have the sounds of people’s voices; I think that is super important. I think it would be great to build something without photos, to find out more about the person, rather than going on a date because of a photo.
In the music videos, there are elements of kink and bondage, but it’s much less serious and much more bizarre than the classic black-leather aesthetic.
The mainstream picture of kink and fetish and BDSM is very much about that—the black leather, the 50 Shades of Grey stuff [laughs]. But we really wanted to make something queer, something that is really questioning what it is that you want. When you play with someone, what is it that you actually want to do? To change power structures and change the norms? We didn’t want to do any mainstream kink play; we really wanted to make something that was fun and that had a lot of humor in it. I think it is super important to have warmth and love present all the time; it’s very important to take care of everybody who is in this together.
Both the music and the videos for Plunge center on queer sex. Do you consider that an act of resistance, like when you sing the line, “Every time we fuck, we win”?
I think it’s more like trying to protect something. Queer sex is under attack all the time, maybe now more than ever. If it wasn’t necessary to save queer sex, then of course I could have made music about something else. It’s a very effective way of oppressing people—to attack their way of having sex. As long as you aren’t hurting anybody, you should be able to do what you want.
By Emily Nokes // Photos by Ninja Hanna
This post originally appeared in BUST magazine's April/May 2018 issue. Subscribe today!
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