It’s a dark and stormy night. The gothic spire of Riverside Church, on the Western Edge of Harlem, is hidden in mist. Throngs of acolytes huddle around the church doors as though awaiting entrance to the gates of a Medieval city. They are Bjork fans. At noon that day a special one-off show in the church’s chapel had been announced; the Bjork website crashed, the show’s hundred or so tickets sold out instantly, and now some devotees have made the trek to the this obscure corner of New York where the church sits as though on a precipice above the river, apart from the world of Harlem to the North, or the grumpy, distinguished optimism of Columbia just to the East. They are here to participate in the pagan ritual of longing, watching, and waiting.
Inside the chapel the audience sits in rickety chairs below a vaulted ceiling, facing an alter and Bjork’s new band: Harpist Zeena Perkins, a veteran of the New York’s experimental music scene, a twelve woman choir (all dressed in black), and two guys at computer consoles, looking a bit like Repo men or software engineers, though one of them has a mohawk. They are the experimental music duo Matmos, who Bjork has recruited to back her on her upcoming tour and who play on her new record, Vespertine. Above it all, carved into the pale stone, are the words; “The Truth Shall Make You Free.”
The lights dim, the music starts - a kind of techno hymn that sounds perfectly at home in a chapel – and Bjork walks out. She is barefoot, in a flowing white dress and feathered black hair, an angel with a stylist.
Her presence, and the sound of the music, is otherworldly, as though she has endured some terrible torture (making a movie, perhaps?) and has now emerged into the afterlife, a kind of Joan of Arc in her sainthood, come to show us the way to heaven.
Bjork tip toes up to the microphone, little weightless angel steps, and then… walks right past it! Up the center aisle she floats, like a bride, eyes raised up a little, not towards the ceiling (and God) but to the horizon (and the future, or maybe it’s the exit sign). She opens her mouth and that furiously penetrating and rather enormous voice - a diva voice, really, minus all the “Let me cover three octaves in one bar of music” pyrotechnics - fills the chapel. The first words out of her mouth: “It’s not meant to be a struggle…”
Audio is the Nigger of the World
A few days earlier, Bjork (sounds like “Murk,” not “ York”) was sitting in a row boat in the middle of the lake in Central Park, talking about her new record. Somehow the idea of Bjork in a boat in a lake seemed, well, Bjorkian, but now she mostly appears somewhat embarrassed to be stuck in a rowboat with a stranger, who suddenly feels the same way. Yet there they are, on the water. She spends most of the time with her eyes cast down at her hand, which seems to be subtly manipulating an imaginary toy, and her comments are succinct.
On her new album, Vespertine: “It’s about finding a little bit of heaven under your kitchen table,” she says.
A white swan – or is a goose? – lands in the lake nearby, wings outstretched, and it brings to mind the outlandish Swan dress Bjork wore at the academy awards. Even before she starred in Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark ( a song from her soundtrack, Selma Songs, got an Oscar nomination), there has always been an intensely visual aspect to her presence in the world. Bloomsbury books will release a book of photographs from over the span of her career. And for all their distinctive and varied qualities you get the feeling the photographers are all functioning as cinematographers under the direction of their subject.
Then there are her music videos, intensely creative and original collaborations with the such directors as Spike Jonze, Chris Cunningham, and Michelle Goundry. Her boyfriend, artist Matthew Barney’ cinematic work is, like Bjork’s, preoccupied with shape shifting,
“People always go by the eye, never the ear. You would never see a city that was designed to sound good,” she says, as the sounds of taxi honks blends in with the honks of the geese and ducks around us. “People have to train their ears. A video helps people get the song the first couple of times, if it looks how it sounds.”
Most Bjork videos look like they sound, which is to say, they very often look like Bjork. The video for the new record’s first single, Hidden Place, is one long shot of her singing while strange metallic fluids come out of her nose and eyes, and little drawing out of her mouth.
Right now she is wearing a pink dress with white stripes, and pink tights, and on her feet are well worn white slippers (with fluffy white pom poms on the toes). With her black hair and a little eyeliner, she looks like a slightly satanic teletubby.
I ask her where she got her dress
“In a store,” she says. She looks down at the imaginary toy in her hand. The oars squeak loudly as I row.
“What kind of store?” I ask. She looks at me, blinks at me a few times, and then looks back down at the imaginary toy
“A clothes shop,” she says.
Why won’t she name names?
“I think people don’t have to be told what to do,” she says. “A lot of fashion is about control, all these big companies telling you, 'If you don’t spend that much money, you’re not fashionable.' And that seems to be about the worst crime anyone can commit. I like it when people are individuals.”
The one topic on which she animated is computers, more specifically, the computer she used to compose the songs on Vespertine (Macintosh G3, she’s just bought a Titanium) and the software she runs on it. She switched from Q-base to Pro-tools midway because Q-Base, “is completely focused on dance music. So everything is in four bar boxes, and, well, it’s obviously not about the tool you use, it’s about what you do with it, but I was finding it easier with Pro-tools which is more fluid, and based around the emotional structures, rather than a four bar box. "Of course,” she adds, “it could be a placebo.”)
When she was eleven years old she had a hit record in Iceland, and then confounded everyone around her by declining to make a follow up. After her rock band, the Sugar Cubes, reached an international audience in the late eighties, she left the band and, in 1993, started a solo career with “Debut,” which sold over to million records worldwide and made her an innovative force in dance music. By the time her next record, “Post,” was released, she had moved to London and been romantically linked to both Godly and Tricky, which created a tabloid frenzy that lead, indirectly, to what VH! Ranks as number 96 on their top one hundred violent moments in rock: when Bjork arrived in Bangkok with her son, Sindri and found an unexpected swarm of reporters, one of whom stuck a mic in her son’s face. The reporter, in turn, got a fistful of Bjork, and was down for the count.
"Everything must be done with passion,” she once remarked. “Dancing, fighting, fucking, eating. Yes!"
In 1997 she put out Homogenic, which featured a cover photo of herself looking like an elderly Geisha from another planet, and a sound that she describes as “scorched earth, like the dessert.” She followed this up with Selma Songs, the haunted soundtrack to her acting debut in Lars von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark,” in which she starred.
Despite winning the Palm Do’or for best actress in Cannes, she insists it is her acting finale, as well. When she asked her co-star, Catherine Denuve, how she tolerated being an actor, Denuve said, “Don’t you find it interesting?” Bjork, in a now famous response, blinked a few times and answered, “no.”
Lars von Trier, like Stanley Kubrick, doesn’t like to go anywhere, ever, so all his movies are shot on location in Denmark, but even in this relatively austere, non-Hollywood environment, Bjork seems to have found the movie making process a bit gross and unsettling – “people following you around with robes and chairs,” as she puts it, and the experience – in which she
“I’d fly half way around the world and only drink tea for three days so I can sing one three minute song. I’m willing to do that for music because music is my religion. Words and language are logic for me, they’re like going to the bank. But music is my passion.”
Bloomsbury has released a book of photographs from over the span of her career, and for all their distinctive and varied qualities you get the feeling they are all functioning as cinematographers under the direction of their subject.
“People always go by the eye, never the ear. You would never see a city that was designed to sound good. People have to train their ears. A video helps people get the song the first couple of times, if it looks how it sounds.”
Most Bjork videos so looks like they sound, which is to say, they very often look like Bjork. The video for the new record’s first single, Hidden Place, is one long shot of her singing while strange metallic fluids come out of her nose and eyes, and little drawing out of her mouth.
Thus: “Audio is the nigger of the world.”
“Homogenic was very confrontational, very dessert, hot, stark, merciless, unforgiving,” she says. “I wanted Vespertine to be the winter album, where you’re in a cocoon. It’s about hibernation, and whispering and drinking hot coco and not speaking for days and daydreaming and its snowing outside. It’s about zooming in and finding Heaven underneath your kitchen table.”
It had seemed like a good idea, going into nature, but now, with every pull of the oars, which makes an atrociously loud, creaky, horror movie-type sound, it has come to seem
ridiculous. I have taken her out, and Bjork wants to go in.
“I’ve never worked as much on beats as on this album. On this album there are forty or fifty tracks of just beats on each track, because they’re so fragile, like an ant coughing.”
“I think the bravest thing is to make music out of the noises you hear around you,” she continues. “For example the noises we hear now, the airplane and the police car and the birds and somebody rowing and the human voice. If you make songs that are dealing with your moment right now, the attempt to make that into magic is a lot braver than to take something you never heard, like some fantasy. Most people think that the life they are leading is boring, and the noises they hear every day are ugly, which sometimes is probably true, but if you take those same noises and make then into something magical and manage to elevate them into something out of the ordinary, I think that’s brave.”»
Lap Top Love
When I first meet Bjork she is clutching a giant book to her chest. It’s a picture book of Iceland. We ride up in a town car from her record company’s offices to the Central Park Lake, and I feel proud to have whisked her away from the deadening vibe of a giant office building in mid-town. There is something natural about Bjork and I have the idea that the geese and swans and ducks on the lake will be a good setting for a conversation about her new record, Vespertine.
I leaf through her book while Bjork takes a call on her cell phone. “The record company is pressuring me to make the videos more narrative,” she says at one point, and I stare at the photographs of a bizarre, stark landscape that one wouldn’t guess is on Earth.
I ask her about the landscape of Iceland.
“I lived there till I was twenty seven,” she says. “I’m definitely a rural girl who goes to the city. That’s very much my story. I play it and over again in my work. It’s a classic scene: Nature versus City. The urban-rural clash. Trying to make the two work together.
“Homogenic was very confrontational, very dessert, hot, stark, merciless, unforgiving,” she says. “I wanted Vespertine to be the winter album, where you’re in a cocoon. It’s about hibernation, and whispering and drinking hot cocoa and not speaking for days and daydreaming and it’s snowing outside. It’s about zooming in and finding Heaven underneath your kitchen table.”
And then we’re on the boat. It’s a white-skied day in the middle of the week, a hangover noon, and Bjork and I are more or less alone in the middle of the lake. It had seemed like a good idea, going into nature, but now, with every pull of the oars, which make an atrociously loud, creaky, horror movie-type sound, it has come to seem ridiculous. I have taken her out, and Bjork wants to go in. I apologize. She assures me it’s fine, even as she stares down at her hand and sits sideways to me, as though the surroundings are too embarrassing to look at.
“I’ve never worked as much on beats as on this album. On this album there are forty or fifty tracks of just beats on each track, because they’re so fragile, like an ant coughing.”
“I think the bravest thing is to make music out of the noises you hear around you,” she continues. “For example the noises we hear now, the airplane and the police car and the birds and somebody rowing and the human voice. If you make songs that are dealing with your moment right now, the attempt to make that into magic is a lot braver than to take something you never heard, like some fantasy. Most people think that the life they are leading is boring, and the noises they hear every day are ugly, which sometimes is probably true, but if you take those same noises and make then into something magical and manage to elevate them into something out of the ordinary, I think that’s brave.”
She tells me she has a “love affair with my laptop.” She wrote most of her record using pro-tools software; her Macintosh G3 mysteriously disappeared from her luggage just after finishing the record, but she has just bought a new titanium G4.
“If you are going to work with things, if it’s technology or a guitar or a spoon, there is no point in doing it unless you let yourself get completely involved,” she says. “So if there is a handshake between me a computer, I would prefer it to be all the way. Otherwise, just skip it.”
4:The Music Box
“Make the high hats like icicles.”
That was one of Bjork’s instructions to M.C. Schmidt and Drew Daniels of Matmos, who Bjork enlisted to make micro-magic on Vespertine. Matmos’ most recent record is comprised entirely of sounds samples during various plastic surgery procedures. For the last few months they have been living in Bjork-sponsored splendor in a studio-rehearsal space-flophouse on a gallery choked Chelsea block. M.C. Schmidt is thirty-eight and, except for the pocketknife on his belt, fairly reserved. Daniels has a Mohawk and a tattoo of the Proctor and Gamble logo tattooed just above his ass. His bodacious mother and siblings, visiting from Louisville, gambol around the large airy loft while we chat, throwing in asides during our interview, prompting Schmidt to call out to the woman who is, effectively, his mother-in-law: “That’s enough from you!”
“One day four years ago we got an email for Bjork’s manager asking if we’d like to do a remix,” explains Daniels. “We actually had to go out an buy some Bjork records, because we didn’t have any,” ads Schmidt. “Then, a couple of years later, we did an in store show at Rough Trade in London, and she showed up and sat cross legged on the floor. She called every so often over the next year and then one day she sent a DAT tape with some melodies,” says Daniels.
“We got ‘Hidden Place’ (Vespertine’s opening track) as an MP3. It was like being handed a huge wedding cake and being asked to add to it. But when we remixed it, and she was very receptive to our dismantling.”
At one end of the loft sits a hodgepodge of old and new tools for music making, along with a pitched tent where Bjork’s fourteen year old son, Sindri stays when he visits (he’s spending the year in Iceland).
Schmidt gives me a giddy account of every item: A violin bow, a bell, a giant Music box that plays a Bjork song, a 1980 Rolland Sh-101, (It’s an old analog synth that makes that seventies educational film sound,” says Schmidt), a Roland W30 (“MC hammer era sampler”), a Korg MS-2000, and a tray of rock salt.
“The record has a choir but she is very good at avoiding that “We Are The World,” hammyness,” says Daniels. “It’s not “’I wanna know what love is.’”
Matmos’ microbeats make much of the record sound as if it’s being played on a turntable, and there are little scratches and imperfections on vinyl. It’s about as far away from Dance music as one can get.
“She said, ‘I don’t really go out dancing anymore so why should I make music like that?’” says Schmidt.
I ask them about the way she works.
“She writes her songs whole she’s walking,” says Schmidt. “Her natural temp is walking.”
Bjork puts her affinity for the duo this way:
“We have a mutual obsession of recording sounds around the house. Domestic ideas. I had recorded the majority of the sounds when they got involved, but they added more. But I was keen on having them on tour: They’ll be walking on snow and playing cards and doing all these things live.”
“In every milieu there’s a couple of freaks that she’s a crusader for,” says Daniel. “And we’re two of them!
The Riverside Church chapel seems like the ideal place for this new Version of Bjork’s music, the kick off show for her interior, micro, “heaven under the Kitchen table” era, and Matmos duly walks on rock salt and manipulates their “ant coughing” beats while Zeena Perkins plays harp and the twelve woman choir sing. It’s a great show.
Bjork sings much of the set unmiked, pacing the center isle like an evangelist who is preparing to cure people with a laying on of hands. When she does use the mic, she holds it in a way that, despite the religious surroundings and her loose fitting clothes, seems extremely sexual. I flash to a photo from the upcoming book, a photo of her lying down with her eyes closed, her hand down the front of her pants.
After the show, a small group gathers at Passerby, a Chelsea bar, to celebrate. There are a lot of Icelanders there, and Neville Wakefield, the Photography curator who mans the toll booth on the bridge between art and fashion in the world of photography, and Bjork’s boyfriend, Matthew Barney, another medium-mixing, shape shifting specialist.
Bjork seems to be genuinely with the show.
“It was a rehearsal, for sure,” she says afterwards. “We were just figuring out a lot of things. Trying to figure out when it’s brave to be acoustic and when it’s not really brave. There seems to be a thin line.
“You could real feel at the concert that each person… was going to a place where no one has gone before, which of course is the point of the whole concert.”
She is still in white, her feet now in black high heeled shoes. The Champaign flows, the music pumps up, and people start to dance. Then someone throws a glass against the wall. Then another.
The sound of breaking glass is an arresting sound, and in this context I momentarily wonder if this is some kind of Icelandic tradition: After you play your first show with your new band, debut all new material from forthcoming record, and retire to small closed off bar to celebrate, it is customary to throw multiple glasses against the wall.
But no, some stranger has simply gone nuts. For a minute the air is full of glass, then the guy is forcibly ejected; he proceeds to pelt the bar’s window with rocks and stones until he shatters the whole thing. Amidst all the flying glass I glimpse Bjork’s face, a mixture of incredulity and bemusement. She is cool under pressure. It’s another unnatural disaster, a Volcanic eruption on the landscape’s surface. One gets the feeling she’s seen plenty. Then it is over, the cops come (instead of arresting the culprit, they pragmatically negotiate the handing over of his credit card to the bar), and Bjork and everyone else start dancing again on the broken glass.