Biophilia is one of 2011’s best releases, even without the Apps, invented instruments, live shows, educational workshops, etc. The songwriting itself is sharp, the feel immediate and enveloping. But I didn’t listen to it until after Björk and I sat down for the following discussion, which is fitting: To this point, the concepts surrounding her seventh studio record have been the focus, not what that record will or could sound like. The Biophilia project consists of five parts: The album, the Apps, the live shows, a 90-minute Biophilia documentary (background, process, etc.), and her new website. The concept, or at least part of it:
Björk has collaborated with app developers, scientists, writers, inventors, musicians and instrument makers to create a unique multi-media exploration of the universe and its physical forces – particularly those where music, nature and technology meet. The project is inspired by and explores these relationships between musical structures and natural phenomena, from the atomic to the cosmic.
Non-spoiler alert: I respect her desire to surprise folks, so I’m not going to describe the sound here. Plus, the following interview is much more concerned with how Biophilia came about and what went into it. After reading, you’ll know the background and it’s exciting, I think, to have to wait a bit to experience the full results. It’s old-fashioned, right? Which might seem to run counter to Biophilia’s digital elements, but as Björk mentions in the following exchange, this is more a return to punk and DIY than you might’ve imagined. It’s a return to forms of various sorts.
Full Disclosure: Björk and I are friends. I think the relationship was helpful to the interview process — since we’re comfortable with one another, and know how the other person thinks, there’s a certain openness that wouldn’t have been there otherwise. I also avoided any random outside queries and just focused on Biophilia. The Q+A came about when I was asked to write the Biophilia “Artist Notes” by her and her management. (In 2007 I interviewed Björk about Volta for Pitchfork then wrote the notes for that collection, too. We spoke again on record for Stereogum’s Enjoyed: A Tribute To Björk’s Post compilation album). Since she and I were sitting down for a couple of hours and recording the conversation, I suggested that in addition to the compressed notes, we run the interview itself.
We spoke via video Skype, her in Reykjavik and me in Brooklyn. I’d intended to fly to Iceland to do it in person, but in the end, this was the easiest for all parties.
Stereogum: Did you come up with the title “Biophilia” first? Or did you come up with the concepts that then led to the title?
Björk: It was pretty early on. I was reading a book by Oliver Sachs called Musicophilia and it really inspired me. That must have been two and a half years ago. Because I’m not really good in English, I said, ‘oh wow, [Biophilia] could be a title for the project,’ but ‘Bio’ thinking ‘Nature.’ Later somebody told me it means ‘love of life.’ I was more thinking ‘nature-like’ or ‘morphing into nature.’ My bad sense of English thought it was feeling up nature or something — Biofeelingup. When I read about it online some people were speculating about the name — I think they went to a dictionary and saw that it means “love of life” and – and I was like “Oops. OK, I can go with that.”
Stereogum: In the end, how did that tie in with your ideas about music, nature, and technology working together, or interacting together, in some way?
Björk: We used touch screens on the Volta tour and I was so excited by the potential. I didn’t want to just show off again on stage and make flashy noises — I wanted to dig deep and write with it. I could immediately see the potential in the touch screen: I wanted to be the frustrated music teacher and do semi-educational things with these screens and write a song about ten different natural elements. You can have crystals growing and that’s a song; we can have the moon doing its full moon and small moon and that could be a song. I felt like, ‘wow, now you can unite with structures in nature.’
When I was in music school as a kid I would go to the director — When he got bored, he would press that sort of 70’s walkie talkie, and would have me sent up to his office — and I would tell him how he should run his school and he would just laugh. It was that sort of arrogance of youth, when you’re a 9 year old. I was like, “come on, your not giving us enough chances here! We don’t just want to play songs by old dead people! We want to write stuff!” I guess part of this project for me is trying to score some karma points I burnt down back then: If you think you know it all, why don’t you stand up and do it?
I learned musicology in that school for ten years, from 5-15, — after 15 I rebelled and become a punk — I didn’t continue to the next level. [As a kid] I felt it was really weird that music schools behaved like a conveyor belt to make performers for those symphony orchestras: If you were really good and practiced your violin for a few hours a day for 10 years you might be invited to this VIP elite club. For me music was not about that. It is about freedom and expression and individuality and impulsiveness and spontaneity. It wasn’t so Apollonian; it was more Dionysian, especially for kids. Kids draw masterpieces — they’re the best painters ever. I think the same with music: They could totally write amazing music if they just had the right tools. It’s important at that age to set up something … and then maybe afterwards you can go study your violin for 500 hours a week. But at least in the beginning you know about the options. There’s not just major and minor scales, there’s Indonesian scales and Japanese scales and African scales. There’s like 99 scales … and now you can actually get access to all of them with something like Ableton Live. Or, it’s like the piano: White notes are major — its almost fascistic… — and then it’s like there are the black notes, not as good as the white notes. So it’s hard to play like an Indonesian tune on the piano and let alone electronic music or some of the stuff that’s been written today… I think it’s all amazing, but there should be other things as well. It shouldn’t be a monopoly: You have to do this first for 15 years and then you can … I think it should be the other way around.
People from the rock and roll world have felt for years that electronic music had no soul, but now electronic music can not only have soul, but have all the shapes in the world. It was [considered to be] a bit like house music, like LEGOS, but now we can go further and program something like the migration of swallows and that can be the choir section.
There are more patterns than you know.
Stereogum: Is this why Biophilia involves classes for children?
Björk: Totally. Basically Manchester is a prototype. We finished our money after the album was ready, so it’s sort of back to punk DIY deals. But we managed just to we had to do a sort of low budget setup in Manchester, which wasn’t really a bad thing: It pushed us; it was liberating, actually. We’re teaching kids two songs a day. The first half of the day they will get crystals — they can touch them and play with them and hear about them from a biologist and they can use the app and the music teacher will teach them about structure in music and then they can write their own little song and take it home on a USB. Then, after lunch, there will be another song– the one about lightning — and they will learn about electricity and static and energy. That particular song is about arpeggios, so then a music teacher will teach them about arpeggios. They will have the iPads. Each song is an app and they are plugged directly into a pipe organ or a gamelan celeste or a pendulum or a harp sort of thing so I was trying to mix together the most exciting of electronics where you can use cutting edge technology to do more impulsive sort of like right brain sort of stuff for kids but then you could plug it with a sort of most famous acoustic instruments that man has made. We’ll have people coming from other cities that we’ll hopefully be traveling to… Hopefully we can expand this educational side.
I’m gonna try to break up the touring thing so I’m maybe going to do two or three cities a year and I’ll have a few months off in between and then I’m going to tailor make each city around the building we get. I want to get into buildings where I could stay for a month. So obviously, you can’t go to normal concert venues because that is not meant for that. We’re trying to go to science museums. We’re saying we will teach the kids for free on our days off if you provide the location and you can make something out of it: Bring the crystals and the viruses, the DNA and lightning … some collaborative sort of thing. I think it works best like that.
Stereogum: I remember a couple of years ago when we were doing the Dirty Projectors project with Housing Works you mentioned you were maybe signing to National Geographic. How is that working? Is the record coming out via National Geographic?
Björk: I was off all deals after Volta — that’s a really exciting position to be in. Then National Geographic offered me [a deal] and I was like, “Whaaaaat, so I could be labelmates with sharks and lemurs?” We went and talked with them and met them quite often. I was writing songs at that time and thought…
Let me go back a bit: the whole thing started as an environmental thing for me. Huge aluminum factories were about to get built — me and my friends and more than half of the nation feel like it’s not a really good idea, but we just happened to not be politicians… But then we realized there was not enough support for startup companies in Iceland. Things are made really difficult for them both legally and financially — like on every level. After the tour, I came here in August and I spent pretty much from August till January, full time working, like every day on the startup company idea stuff. We started two months before the bank crash, not knowing it was coming — you could just feel something was just seriously wrong, you know? For a weekend, us and 150 experts, sat down and wrote a manifesto to give to the government, like laws they could change now, without it costing any money to make it easier for startups because you could start a record store, there’s so many things you could do like that, you could grow your own cucumbers, there’s like 5000 things you could do, you could harness the tides in your bay, you could start a computer company, or but basically in all the villages in the countryside it was just like, no, one aluminum factory and everybody will get jobs, end of story, end of discussion. We handed over documents to the government and said, “Listen…” Then the bank crash happened in the middle of that, so it was a little insane to be hanging out with the economists and all these people. There were all these empty buildings and all this unemployment and we were just trying to come up with ideas of companies … I was sort of the spokesperson because people know who I am, or whatever.
So basically I was doing that for four and a half months in Autumn, 2008, and then I came to New York for half a year and then I was half of my time working on this album and then half of the time totally from June 2010 to Christmas 2010 I was working on this Magma case. I don’t know if you heard about that.
Stereogum: I did hear about it.
Björk: Half of my time went into that. We started a petition and were trying to get people to sign it to not privatize access to our natural energy resources. 48,000 people signed it in the end. We ended with a marathon Karaoke that took four days and we got up to this 48,000. It was really touching. Old ladies had driven on their old trucks or jeeps or whatever from the other side of the island and they just stood up on their own and said “I don’t want a karaoke machine” and sung acapella, the national anthem, like crying, and all these farmers would come … and choirs would come and sing “we want to keep our natural resources ourselves; we’re not selling to ALCOA or international companies.” So yeah, that’s a lot of time. It took me three years to make this album. You could say that 1/3 of my time I’ve been working on stuff like that. I’m totally smitten by it. I’ve got four sisters and brothers really struggling on the brink of bankruptcy, and a lot of people have had to sell their houses … and everything’s related to this bank crash, you know?
[In the middle of that] I was thinking like my next project. I just finished the tour of Volta and had the touch screens and saw my chance to be the frustrated music teacher and I do semi-educational things with these screens and write a song about ten different natural elements. I thought maybe I should do a Music House where I can make use of these empty buildings. Each song could be a room: Here’s the crystal room and here’s the lightning room and here’s the water-drop moon room … and the staircase could be like little notes, like scales. I was like, I just have to suggest an exchange, we could set up the museum in a house and they could get to keep what we made. It could be some sort of museum or kids could take courses there in the future.
Everybody got pretty excited about it and then when I met National Geographic they were like “Oh we’ve never released records before, we want to do that” and then I was like “Yea my record is actually like a music house” and they were like “Oh, ok.” So they got like cold feet and I don’t blame them: I really didn’t know how to do it myself. Then they said “We do 3D movies that are shown in science museums and in these kind of planetariums so maybe we should make it into a movie.” And that wasn’t a really big jump for me in a weird kind of way because each room could be a scene in a movie and that could show the element. So I called up Michel Gondry and he was like into it and so we started working on a script with my friend, the Icelandic author Sjón. We started writing a synopsis of a script and then finished that. Then I started writing these songs and developing these rooms and instead of developing the rooms, the rooms became scenes in movies… Then Michel got busy with Green Hornet and we were sort of bumping into walls because the music house, the rooms, and the scenes every time it became human scale it was a problem. I would be like then Gravity plays the bass line in this song and it was like great how many ropes does that take? I would say, ‘Then you set your clock to the moon room and that’s a song.’ It was so utopian. …”
And then the iPad came out — a year ago. It was kind of weird because when me and Damian [Taylor] started programming with Max program back in 2008 after the end of the tour, for touch screens, we heard rumors that in two years there was gonna be this thing that was in between an iPhone and a laptop so we kept thinking about that you know? Then the iPad came out and I was so excited about all of these apps. We had two years of work behind us of a script so the songs were ready so the rooms… and also the interaction was ready so were thinking “oh it’s going to be a museum soon and the kids are going to come hold it” or whatever so the music room that became scenes they were like actually to make it an app was easy, it was like nothing. Because we had the script, we had the songs, we had decided what the interaction was going to be, we decided on the natural element and we had done two years of work.
Then [my manager] Derek was the brave one: He emailed the top ten best sellers of apps and asked them would you do this project with Björk or whatever and some of them emailed back and said yes and I was like “are you insane?” They came to Iceland around Halloween and were here for a few days. We went to this small restaurant. We would stay there in the daytime for a few days — because they aren’t open in the daytime — and we were just sort of brainstorming (which is a new thing for me because musicians don’t usually brainstorm). It was so much fun because they were just like total science nerds and we would be having dinners talking about secret like moth societies with seven members that meet once a year … and I was just in heaven. Also, they were from all different countries, and were all different kinds of ages (some of them were like 18 year olds and some of them were like 65). Just all sorts of people. Usually are supposed to be competitors, but they collaborated on this and they offered, in that restaurant, why don’t we just do this for free, everybody works for free, and we’ll share the profit 50/50 and I was like yayyy its like the punk days… so that’s how we’re doing it
Stereogum: So it’s self-released?
Björk: Yeah. The good thing is because we did it that way, it sort of became more their baby, you know? And yeah, that is a really long answer. The National Geographic thing is still in there — they offered me to be their music explorer in residence. What I might do now — because setup this app box set and we’ve done 3 years of really hard work… I have a feeling it’s not only going to be ten songs. I might make it into a double album or just use this same setup and every three months — or whenever I feel like it — I’ll add another song. The Apps, [paired] with the subject matter of nature meeting sound … I mean, you could do 5,000 songs!
Stereogum: It could be a continuous project, you can keep adding to it…
Björk: Yeah, until I get bored. I have a feeling it’s gonna be probably like two albums. We’ve spent three years setting this up. So much time of this went to going to meetings and going through…oh we’re doing a music house…oh we’re doing a film, you know, so now I would really like to just focus on the music. It’s ideal, the fact that it can be spontaneous and you don’t have to wait for another three years to release something. I’m quite excited by that, especially after making records all these years. I’m going to play in Iceland in the Autumn, but then in January I could write a song and just add it in you know? So, I would like online music distribution to at least have that they should be able to do that right?
Stereogum: I would think so, yeah.
Björk: If they move from physical to virtual or whatever you call it, it’s got its pros and cons but you should at least be able to be spontaneous right?
Stereogum: I agree. So would you do physical versions of these, too, if you were releasing them as an ongoing project? Or is it too early to tell? Like 7”’s or whatever…
Björk: We were gonna do it [just online] … I was like, OK, it’s a new era like reinventing everything, but then Derek told me: “Listen, most people who by your albums actually buy CDs.” So actually just two weeks ago we just signed to Nonesuch, but just for one album. They’re a cool label and they seem very sympathetic to what I want to do. They’re really into the apps and the semi-educational thing. I think maybe after this album we’ll be ready to go. I mean we’ll see… that’s the good thing about this: You can just take it as it comes…
Stereogum: As far as the instruments that were made for Biophilia…You talked about some before: How the gravity would pull the pendulum… How important were they for the Biophilia concept? Were you looking for very specific sounds that you couldn’t find on anything else? Or was it conceptual?
Björk: Well, as mentioned, we started off pretty utopian, and then, actually, the pipe organ ended up being a very sensible solution. It’s probably the least utopian idea. It’s basically a pipe organ that just receives MIDI, so that’s it really, it just means that if you have an iPAD — or actually I wrote a lot of the songs on a Nintendo game controller, that was before the ipad came out — you would have the different chords and the speed and the bpm and that was plugged to the pipe organ. Then we tried a lot of gamelan orchestras and that was kind of problematic. I mean, I love Gamelan orchestras as they are: They’re incredible. If you go to Bali or Indonesia you will have the village gamelan orchestra and they’ve been rehearsing once a week or whatever for hundreds of years so it’s very human, it’s a very human organism. I didn’t want to copy that. You can’t copy that you know? But I wanted the sounds. We tried la robotic gamelan, which basically is a normal gamelan, but with robotic hammers. You have it in a big room and you could draw a circle or whatever and then the gamelan would play the circle. But it just didn’t… I think it was amazing, the robotic gamelan, but it just wasn’t right for this project. I’m such an old rock and roll dog, and I’m just so used to touring, that I kept thinking: “How are you going to put that on stage?” I like acoustic instruments that are very very acoustic, but how can you keep up with the energy of the electronics, you know? If you have like a bunch of gamelan instruments thrown around the stage, you’re just gonna lose all the energy…
I had an old Celeste in Iceland… I was like, “How about we just get that and we replace the silver notes with bronze notes, the same as the gamelan?” We didn’t know who could do it, and then the organ maker in Iceland who also made the pipe organ for me, was like “Oh! I could do that.” We also found this guy who does cymbals. We were talking to him about cymbals because of some other idea and he was like “Oh I can make those bronze notes.” So he cast all those bronze notes and he flew to Iceland. So, basically, it’s like not a gamelan instrument because it sounds a bit like celeste as well so its sort of like a hybrid between the two. You can close it and it’s not big, it’s small, you can tour with it. We can plug the iPad into it.
The instrument that was more adventurous was the pendulum. It changed a lot … I went to MIT in January 2009 and met a lot of people there over a few days. Then a year later, January 2010, I went back and the people that we got along with best, we asked them to do a pendulum. That’s been really tricky because that’s just really tricky.
Stereogum: Isn’t it 30 feet tall or something?
Björk: Well it was in the beginning, and I was really worried because I never wanted it to be that big you know so I was like oh, I think some of my ideas were a bit esoteric, so I was like “oh, I want this pendulum to be next to me like he is my friend or something and I’d push him and he plays a bassline and I sing with him and it’s amazing.” And then I gave him the song I’d already written and then he said “to play that you need more than one pendulum, you actually need 38 pendulums.” And I was like “WHAT?!” and I was like, “Oh that’s a shame and then hes like because its 38 arms it needs to be like 30 feet tall otherwise they’ll hit each other.” And I was like, “Damn ok, oh because they’re 38 and they’re 30 feet tall they need to be made out of aluminum.” And I was like “WHAT?” and “because it’s aluminum it has to be motorized” and I was just like “Ok…this is not going the right way.” And then he’d worked on it for a whole year so it was really really difficult. I just had to stop it I said, “Listen it has become the opposite of what its original intention was that it was effortless.” It was Spinal Tap reverse. We [now have] four pendulums that are each a few notes. You can hang them either in the ceiling or on a branch or something. They’re about two meters tall and made of wood.
They look more like they could be your friends.
Stereogum: Something I thought was interesting: In the particular case of this album, there’s been a lot of talk about the ipad and the apps and the concept, but for the first time that I can think of, people don’t really know that much about any of the particular songs you know that there’s “The Virus” because of the app, and you released a little bit of “Crystalline” with you driving the car, so there’s a little bit of that, but otherwise it’s been kept pretty tight so people haven’t heard much about it. Was that intentional or was it because you really wanted to unveil the songs with the apps at the same time so it makes it hard to separate the two because there hasn’t been a tracklist, no one has seen a tracklist or anything…
Björk: I’m trying to get into the twitter thing because I’m just not really good at it. I thought I would be more up for it with this project, because it’s sort of semi-educational, and the frustrated music teacher could come out, so its not so much, I don’t feel like I’ve talked so much about me….but it hasn’t kicked in it. I want to, because part of me wants to tell the world that musicology is not something for the chosen few and its simple, it’s like the alphabet, it’s easy. And especially connected with sound and simple physics because that’s how sound functions, it functions like gravity or its simple you know but yea maybe we haven’t really been doing a good job with being online and blogging. I’m a bit rubbish with that.
Stereogum: How did you decide to do the unveiling “Crystalline” with you driving the car?
Björk: [My assistant] James filmed me, I wasn’t aware of it. I was actually listening to the album for the first time and invited my friend in the car with me. We were on our way to the organ makers house to record the gameleste and I had to sort of…it was my last chance to change something on the album. We were mixing the album, and for the first time actually I had heard it in chronological order, so I was like terrified I was just like dropping and he just shot that little shot. He just did it and was like “How about this?” being a teaser because he’s definitely more internet savvy than I am. I’m a bit rubbish really. But I mean, we tried to, I mean we were gonna get somebody who would just do that full time but it sort of didn’t work out. Uhm but we should do more its true. Also because it was so low budget and what happened was that everybody just got like ten jobs, including myself. I’ve become, apart from being a musician, I’ve become like the project manager of the project manager or something, and I don’t know about what James is, he’s got about fifty titles by now. And Damien about 70 job titles, and Rosemary about 17. So, it’s just been fun, because it’s just been sort of the four of us, and Derek of course. So, but we sort of…it just really took its own and grew in a really organic sort of way and it’s just been really really really fun.
Stereogum: It sounds like it. Because there was also the photo on twitter of just Michel Gondry on the clapboard or whatever, that popped up too, which is sort of nice, it feels more natural. It doesn’t feel like a press campaign, it feels more like here’s something we just did and we’re just throwing it out there. Which maybe fits with the project.
Björk: Yeah, we’re going to try to do more like that. We’ve been busy, we couldn’t fit stuff in… But also, it’s problematic because everything leaks so quickly.
Stereogum: One thing I saw on the early press release was that there are going to be installations as well. What will those involve?
Björk: I think that’s just the set yea because kids can, on our days off, when we don’t do our show, the kids will come and they will actually be on the stage and write songs with them. So I think that’s what they’re calling installations. Or some other things could cross over into being installations? For example, we don’t know if we can afford the choir, because it’s like 24 of them, but we just about found somebody to fund them to bring them to Manchester, obviously they live in Iceland and they can be there for the Icelandic concerts in the Autumn. But I also recorded them with each voice on their own and we were thinking we could have 24 speakers in a circle and then you could have an app that could play with the song and then the choir would come out of these speakers and you could walk up to each speaker and hear the voice individually. That for me is not an installation…
Stereogum: Not gallery installations or anything like that…
Björk: Not at this stage, but it could be, I mean, some of the science museums we’ve been talking to, like the one in Tokyo, because the project is so like, I don’t know what it’s like, sort of a jellyfish … it’s very easy, that it goes from being a music house, to a film, to an app box, so when someone in Tokyo says “I have this amazing room where we have this screen which we never use and we’d love to do something on it.” Can you do part of your projectof your project there, I’m gonna say yes because I’m much more adaptable then I was before because this beast sort of has two hundred arms and it’s really easy to just say “yea it’s just box 19” and because im gonna have more time, but that’s just like a good soundsystem. But, I can imagine some people calling that an installation.
Stereogum: That’s the thing, in the past people talked a lot about the collaborators like Brian Chippendale and Antony, and people like that. But with this one are the collaborators more the programmers and the children? Or are there other musicians that you’ve reached out to that are also working on it
Björk: Well because of the nature that we wrote the MAX program with Damian I could write patterns in nature and that would be the song. It didn’t really need much more and then you’ve got those instruments, which are sort of the stars of the show. The collaborators are probably right in the end. It took forever to get the instruments made, once they all came in, we had already set up deadlines with Manchester and everything and I mean three years had passed too, so I just wanted to move on, you know? So we didn’t spend that much time on the beats, maybe a couple of months. I asked some people to help me out. I did the beats on some of the things. And then some guys sent in beats and they came to New York. There’s like four groups of people that did beats: El Guincho ended up doing basslines for two songs. And, Matthew Herbet, he did beats for two half of songs, sort of me and him doing workshop style, I don’t know quite know what to call it…. And, actually, it’s three groups, because I’m the fourth one. So, finally, 16bit, these two guys from London, ended up doing beats for another song and the chorus of another song.
Stereogum: At one point you wrote me and asked about ideas for potential remixers. Are there still going to be remixes of the tracks as well?
Björk: Well, we’ve never really done it this way around… because I hadn’t finished the tracks, I was kind of asking those three people or groups or whatever to do remixes, but if I liked some of it, couldn’t I put it on the album. Which is a bit the wrong way around. I was waiting so long for the instruments to be ready… I’ve never really been in that situation. They sent me versions they liked of the songs, and I cherry picked a couple of bits and put it in the songs, and then their versions ended up being the remixes. So all these three guys have done their versions of the songs, yeah.
Stereogum: Michel did a video for “Crystalline.” Did he do a video for every song, or just for the one song?
Björk: Well, so far he’s just done it for one song. That was fun. After trying to get a whole movie made and financed and struggling with his Hollywood schedule, certainly doing a video was really easy. So, yeah, I don’t know, we’re just going to improvise. I feel the apps are videos. Is he going to do videos? I was like, “Oh, that’s so over.” But I guess it isn’t. But at least Michel was totally involved in the whole project so he totally gets it. Only doing three minutes was easy. We’re just gonna see how it goes. It’s actually kind of a liberating feeling because we’ve sort of…when it comes out, we’ve done all the apps, we’ve done everything, and if it does well, we can do more videos, and if it doesn’t do well, we don’t do more videos, and I get to do new songs, so its taken just its own life and it’s going to grow. The way it’s been set up, it can go many many different ways. I’m excited about it. Everybody’s worked their asses off for three years and for not a lot of money, so I feel a little bit responsible about telling the world about it.
Stereogum: Speaking of the Apps: Somebody pointed out that with the “Virus” app, in order to beat the virus somebody has to make the song stop playing, so is that intentional, if you let the virus win, the song keeps playing, or you let the virus keep spreading, but if you win the song stops? So is that sort of a joke in a way? If you want to hear the whole song you have to let the Virus take over.
Björk: There’s a very particular sense of humor going on in [the song] “Virus.” I purposely wrote this very sweet sounding pop song about a love affair with the virus — so it’s not like a femme fatale, it’s like a virus fatale. It’s sort of a love song. That song is mostly about generated music. The gamelan-celeste plays the role of the virus, and then it just kind of comes, and the virus wins.
Stereogum: How much is the way you’re releasing the album, and the way you guys joined up with the programmers to make a collective around the album, how much of this is a reaction to the music business? You know how Radiohead releases an album and says pay what you want, and Trent Reznor, released an album for free, etc. Is any of it a comment on the music industry or did it just happen this way?
Björk: I think it’s a bit of both. I think the way this project, evolved, like I said, it became its own thing. Like I said, I was very influenced by what was happening in Iceland and also the fact that I was off all deals, you know? I guess for me it’s more of a reaction. I have a lot of musician friends and they’re all like it’s the end of music and it’s all going downhill, and music’s going to die, and there’s no more CD shops … and I’m including myself, you know? It was so sort of a reaction to that: “Let’s just clear the slate. And what do we got?” We got people that want to hear music, and people that make music, and they’re exchanging it online. Maybe part of it — because of the frustrated music teacher I was also addressing … My friend has been doing arrangements with me of my songs for a couple of years, for notation, just so you could play it on the piano or something, so I’ve been sort of working that out in my head, in the meanwhile, and I was kind of, it felt problematic that you have like notation, which is kind of fancy or something, MIDI information which is really street, I don’t what that is, and then you have MP3’s so I was just saying you know, why don’t we set up a website where you could buy the notation and you could play it on the piano if you want, and then you can buy the MIDI information, you could put whatever sound source you want, and the third thing would be that you could buy the MP3 and that would be the sound that I chose to be on it, you know? It’s sort of trying to blur these lines… that it’s actually sort of the same thing. It’s also something that in ten or twenty years, after a few drinks, you’re camping somewhere, or in a friend’s house you could grab the acoustic guitar and start singing like Beatles songs… Why isn’t this for modern music…electronic music? OK, you’ve got the karaoke, that’s cool, but, sort of wanting, like when your tipsy you just want to sing that, whatever track, you know? So, actually, when we got the organ, we first bought really cheap pipes from ebay and just put it straight into MIDI, so we were like getting drunk in Puerto Rico and singing, and downloading songs, and it was just really interesting how different songs translated on a pipe organ. So, obviously, songs like “Smoke On The Water” sounded amazing, and then there were surprises: Snoop Doggy Dog’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot” has become a regular now, it works everytime… And like, “Bills, Bills, Bills” by Destiny’s Child sounds amazing on an organ — part of it is just sort of trying to take this elitist thing of classical notation and blur it…This is a really long answer to your music industry question. I guess in autumn 2008 I was also at a point where I had lost my voice on the last tour, so on every level it was a new beginning for me, I had to learn new voice technique, eat new food to get rid of throat candida and get rid of a nodule on my vocal chords. So for me to address the music industry thing it was not really like fuck you, it was more just like, what is functional?
Stereogum: If someone buys the CD on Nonesuch and doesn’t have the apps do you think they’re still experiencing the album the way you want them to experience it?
Björk: I tried to do that. I hope this doesn’t come across as being arrogant, but I’ve seen so many interactive music galleries and museums, and you walk in some space, and some noise starts or whatever, and obviously being the music nerd that I am, I would be like, would this song sound good on your home stereo? So, in many cases it doesn’t, and because many times it’s not made for that, that’s totally fine, not all things have to be on your Walkman or iPod to count as good music. There are all these other situations that work fine.
If somebody would hear this album in ten years, buy it in a secondhand store, it would be the same as my other albums. You wouldn’t need the App to appreciate it. This, for me, is a Bjork album; it’s not a bunch of generated music, ambient wishy-washy stuff. I guess it is like a private joke or something. I enjoy to take on my own musical taboos. For example when I did, Medulla, it was taboo for me: A capella music, the worst music on earth, let’s tackle that! Then on Volta : Oh, the worst music in the world is feminist political music, you know? Then I went there: “Declare Independence”! Now I’m taking on generative music, that’s all in pastel colors, it’s kind of superficial. It’s me doing that. It’s like a joke between me and myself, you know? It just seems like a recipe for disaster to do an App song — and I enjoy that challenge!
I tried to have each song as emotionally different as possible. [The song] ‘DNA’ is about rhythm, but I also wanted it to be about the emotional, my relationship with my ancestors . That was just as important, to prove science nerds wrong, to unite the scientific and the emotional. ‘Moon’ is very melancholic and about rebirth and the lunar cycles but it’s also just about the math of a full moon. [I wanted the music to] weave seamlessly into science, a natural element, and musicology. Our times seem to be so much about redefining where we are physical and where we’re not. For me, it is really exciting to take the cutting edge technology and take it as far as it can get virtually, use it to describe/control the musicology or the behavior of raw natural elements, and then plug it with a sound source which is the most acoustic one there is — like gamelan and pipe organ. So you get the extremes: Very virtual and very physical. In that way you shift the physicality.
Biophilia’s lead single “Crystalline” is out today via iTunes. The 10-song studio album will be out (digitally and physically) later this year via via One Little Indian/Nonesuch. That’s as a “traditional” album. Look also for the Biophilia apps via One Little Indian/Nonesuch. As mentioned above, the apps are a collection of 10, one for each song. They’ll be available via the central Cosmogony “mother app.” According to a press release, “This platform will serve as a three-dimensional galaxy in which the initial apps appear as constellations, and the others are added to the collection at regular intervals thereafter.” More:
Every app has its own theme (in connection with its corresponding song) and combines a natural element with a musicological feature. The layers of content in each app include: an interactive game based on the song’s scientific and musical subject matter, a musical animation of the song, an animated score, lyrics, and an academic essay. The game enables the user to interact with musical elements of the song and to learn about different musical features while creating their own version; the musical animation and animated music score bring together conventional and innovative ways of representing music visually; and the academic essay explores the ideas behind each song and app and how they are realized musically.
The Biophilia Apps have been developed with a team chosen by Björk, comprising ten of the most groundbreaking and commercially successful app developers working today. The team is lead by Scott Snibbe Studio, creator of the bestselling apps Gravilux and Bubble Harp, and includes the creator of Sim City, TouchPress (pioneering designers behind the two top grossing apps Elements and Solar System), and a host of award winning designers, animators and leading experts in coding and encryption.
Björk is currently premiering the Biophilia live show via a three-week, six-performance residency at Campfield Market Hall as part of the Manchester International Festival. More info on that here. And make sure to check her new website regularly…