The bitter winds of Hurricane Sandy’s lesser known sibling Leslie lick our drying lips as we hurriedly make our way through Reykjavik’s frozen streets, the prospect of meeting Björk quickening our step. There is a stillness here amongst the personal panic and aggressive weather front: the tips of Mount Esja vying for attention through the settled grey light, the clarity of the air unmatched and the stunning glass palace that is Harpa – the concert building in which Biophilia was housed for 9 days last year – standing tall against the icy droves of Faxafloi bay, almost as if it were the city’s protector. While Björk, fresh-faced and dressed in a grass-green silk playsuit, “is basically its Queen, you know?!” or at least that is one whispered remark we overhear as we enter the hotel lobby.
A couple of hours previous, I had also been reliably informed that when in Reykjavik she reverts into “mumsy” mode. She is the most glamourous mum. But, as we sit down to chat over a cup of tea, I can see what they meant; talking to Björk is more like talking to a wise aunt or tribal elder than a genuine, stratospheric pop star. She even complains that the cold is making her skin very dry and offers me some moisturiser she picked up in the duty free. She fidgets constantly, her face serious but her eyes smiling. She is completely in her element, excited about seeing Dirty Projectors and Olöf Arnalds, as well as her own son’s band Sindri Eldon, play later. You can tell she is looking forward to letting her hair down tonight and why shouldn’t she be, having spent a good four years absorbed in the world of Biophilia? And when I say “world” I’m underplaying the magnitude of her recent undertaking: “universe” is probably more apt.
Embracing the possibility of new technologies whilst paying homage to the old, her Biophilia project saw the creation of new instruments, a travelling educational program (which has even made its way onto the Icelandic school curriculum), breath-taking month long residencies, ground-breaking apps and now, as if all that weren’t enough, it has spawned an entire album’s worth of remixes. Bastards is Björk’s alternate universe – one which she has chosen to share with Death Grips, Hudson Mohawke, Omar Souleyman, These New Puritans, Matthew Herbert, 16 Bit, The Slips, Current Value and Alvo Noto. “I probably should have done it with every album,” she remarks, “but you know, I just get too busy.” I reassure her that no one begrudges her this, after all Biophilia is not your average album – its very nature making it perfect for stripping apart and re-imagining.
Each rework comes with its own back story: some coming together across great distances, some emerging from close encounters, some created with relative strangers and some, as in the case of Matthew Herbert at least, born of long time friendships. “Matthew is so talented,” Björk beams proudly, “and he’s so flexible. He just came and did a version of every song. For him it’s like drinking water. He’s amazing to work with because he’s not that precious about what he does so if I decide not to use something I don’t hurt his feelings. Two of his mixes ended up on the actual album but after spending a long time with me he took everything home with him, and took some things even further.”
She also spent a lot of time with 16 bit, whose Eddie Jefferys tells me via email that his first experience of Björk was ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’. “He came to Brooklyn for a week and we worked together. I was really torn about whether to use their version of ‘Hollow’ on the album. Their beats for ‘Crystalline’ and ‘Mutual Core’ made it on there, but in the end ‘Hollow’ wound up on the remix album. The structure is actually exactly the same. It’s not a typical remix because it sounds so much like the original. It’s got all my vocals, it’s not like they just sampled it and fucked with it.” Speaking of the remix and what it meant to him to work with Björk, Eddie tells me, “It was easy to get lost in it. Working with such abstract time signatures was definitely a strange mix of confusing and enjoyable. She has been so successful without compromising her music or herself. Björk is like a breath of fresh air.”
She admits to not really getting These New Puritans at first but tells me how she soon fell head over heels for them. “I listened to them when their album came out and I must have just been in the wrong mood or something but then, I don’t know why, about a year ago I put it on and it just clicked. I had a moment, for like two or three months, where I listened to it all day, every day. It’s like all or nothing with me, you know when you just fall for something, head over heels. I asked them about working with me and I was so surprised they were up for it.”
The circumstances of Omar Souleyman’s collaboration were completely different. “We’ve never met,” she says with a look of regret, “although I would love to do that. I just sent everything in the post and he would send YouTube clips of them, like, travelling in Istanbul. And then Alvo Noto, he’s somebody that I just knew would be ideal for Biophilia because the subject matter is very elemental, it’s all about signs and nature so somebody like him, whose music is so architectural, hardcore and elemental – almost like this – ” she actually get’s up and pounds the stone structure next to us in the hotel, “ – really basic you know, was just an obvious choice.”
Death Grips’ collaboration was also born of long distances. “I think they’re one of my favourite bands right now. I really fell in love with that beat in ‘Full Moon‘ and then I ended up emailing them saying ‘is it lazy or like illegal if we do a mash up of ‘Sacrifice‘ and the beat from ‘Full Moon?’ They thought it was a great idea. I think I tried to do it at first but that didn’t really work so they took it and chopped it up and totally fucked it up and I love it, I really love it.”
We discuss how she feels about people “fucking” with her work. I misguidedly think it is good that she doesn’t feel too precious, she graciously corrects me. “I am precious. I mean I get to pick what ends up on my album. I don’t know if there were any rules as such but I can feel in my gut whether something is right or wrong. I’m really protective over the whole thing.”
With such vision I think it’s only fair that Björk remains uncompromising, although she reveals that she does get torn up when things don’t go according to plan. “I probably shouldn’t say anything about this…” she trails off before takinga sip of tea and cautiously continuing “…but I had a really hard time with El Guincho. He came to New York and did two bass lines on the album. We had a really great time. He is amazing but he did one remix, and it was just such a different mood to the rest of the songs that it just didn’t fit. It was really hard for me to decide not to use it but I had to not think just about the best mixes but about the whole album. I love the mix but it was just on another wavelength. I tried to pick out the hardcore beats and put them all together and El Guincho was maybe just a little bit too sweet or dreamy. I love dreamy music don’t get me wrong, but it just wasn’t right for this. At least it’s out there to download for those who want it, for the nerds and completists. For people like me.”
With over 40 remixes to play with, this won’t have been the only decision she agonised over. “I didn’t really plan anything,” she explains. “There were a lot of tough choices. Sometimes I’d have a few versions of the same song and I’d get to choose which was the remix version and which was the album version, but then some songs were so clearly their own thing that I sort of wanted to make one cohesive unit out of them. I’m lucky to have worked with Derek from One Little Indian because we both kind of come from the punk roots. It was really common that record companies, the big ones (before the indies kind of started), would never release anything unless it was guaranteed to sell. We were kind of punks you know. We were like ‘no, it should be the other way around – release all the quirky bits and all the little eccentric things that sell five copies.’ We’re both nerds like that. We were really keen to release things that were not about making money.”
It’s probably the nerd in her that took an album and made it into an educational program, and the humble integrity in that which leads her to saying “I’ll probably end up being a teacher or something, let’s face it.” She clearly takes great joy in that thought. Biophilia was designed with 6 year olds in mind but she ended up teaching 10-12 years because they’re already “self-sufficient” and there is quite a complicated array of scales, arpeggios, chords, rhythms and science involved. Last year she brought her Biophilia project to Reykjavik’s Harpa and enjoyed not being the centre of attention for once, “the majority of the kids didn’t even know who I was and even if they’d seen me in the papers or something, they’d never heard my music. But that is kind of the beauty of these things, you can write your own song with the apps, you can sort of skip mine if you like and make your own.”
She’s even thought about releasing their creations. “We’ve been keeping everything so maybe at one point I’ll listen through all of them and pick the best. There is a whole Soundcloud somewhere as well where people can upload their own pieces. It would take a long time to go through everything, maybe if I get like a spare month I’ll go through them all. I can’t promise anything though.” But there is a spark in Björk’s eyes every time she discusses the idea of launching other people’s work upon the world, after all she has always stressed that Biophilia‘s spirit, its endless homes and beautifully tangental branches “are not about me.”
Bastards is available now through One Little Indian.