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.”