Very often the albums I do are sort of reactions to the ones before. I did a one-and-a-half-year tour for "Volta." We started using Lemurs, which are sort of like the grandfathers of iPads but they’re not computers ; they’re just touch screens. You can mix things live, change the volume of the high hat, pan the vocals. And we had a Reactable, which is an instrument where different sections of the song are [manipulated with] blocks of plastic that have bar codes underneath. What’s inside the computer is becoming more physical. And it’s just such a great opportunity, because obviously music was never meant to be a 2-D thing ; it’s a 3-D thing. What we were talking about on the last tour is that I would love to not only perform with touch screens but write with them.
What it was connecting with in my brain was when I was in music school, from 5 to 15. I would go to the head of the school and complain with that sort of arrogance of youth when you think you can do things better : "I don’t understand why this education is so academic !" Once or twice a year, they would let us improvise with triangles and marimbas. I wanted to do that the whole time. And instead they were manufacturing, like on conveyor belts, performers for symphony orchestras. They don’t give kids a chance to develop their own styles. And I didn’t like this kind of VIP feeling in classical music, that it is for the privileged few. It sort of looks down on other people. Musicology was made into this sort of Chinese, made to be difficult.
But now with all those touch screens, it was like, "Wow, this is an opportunity !" And I think I’m not the only one. I think a lot of people have been thinking in those terms.
Was the songwriting process different this time, since each track is also an app and has an educational component ?
I wanted to prove that you can be educational and emotional, that you don’t have to sacrifice one for the other.
I tend to not worry about things like that. I always used to feel embarrassed when people would try and call me an artist. I remember first coming to the States, and there would be a sticker on my door if I did a TV show : "Artist."
It just seems like some snobbish kind of promotion. I’m really comfortable with being a pop musician. People are like, "Oh, you’re an artist," and it’s like they’re offering you a promotion, or if you play your cards right, you can move up a level. I don’t want to move anywhere. I love folk music and pop music, and I’m really proud to be part of that. I don’t want to sound too clichéd, but you see people make a shoe and they’re an artist, or people cook food and they’re artists, and certain people are artists in how they bring up their children. It’s a state of mind, being creative, and so I find it really hard to label if it’s art or not.
I think it was Einstein who said that the more he finds out about the world, the more mysterious it is to him. And I think there’s a way that you’re never really going to explain everything fully, even if I sit here and speak for five months. For example, you play the app for "Moon," but you still don’t know anything about the emotional soul or the content of the song. It’s still a mystery.
The original idea for "Biophilia" was to make a house that had different rooms with the songs living in them.
In 2008 when the bank crash happened in Iceland, I was working with start-up companies there run by some of my friends who were trying to inspire people to do things other than [opening] aluminum factories. There were all these houses that were empty because of the crash. So I was like, "OK, we could get a house here and have each room as a song, as a natural element. Or it could be some sort of a museum or a school, an interactive music school for kids." That’s how the project started.
Yeah. I happened to be without a record contract, which is either a really privileged position or a really scary position to be in, your choice. And maybe because I was doing environmental work in Iceland, National Geographic contacted me out of the blue asking if I wanted to be on its label. I thought it would be the coolest thing that I would be label mates with sharks and bats. We had a lot of meetings, met a lot of explorers. They were like, "Well, how about if you did a 3-D movie ?" So I hooked up with Michel Gondry, and with [Icelandic poet and frequent Bjork collaborator] Sjón we ended up writing a whole synopsis. Michel was finishing a movie, "Green Hornet," which he delivered last summer. He was stuck in an editing room while they were playing his movie for crowds and counting how many times they laughed. It was just a horror, a Guantánamo situation, so he wasn’t free to come and work with us.
Then we heard these rumors about a machine coming that was a cross between an iPhone and a laptop, so we were sort of writing with that in mind. The iPad came out, and you started seeing all these apps. My manager contacted the 10-top-selling-app makers. He sent me an email the day after : They all said yes. I would never have the sort of guts or be sassy enough to do that myself.
All the app guys came to Iceland. They were all different ages : 18, 60. We didn’t have any budget because everybody thought the project was esoteric and crazy. The app guys said, "We want to do this for free, and then we all share the profits 50-50." And that’s like the old punk years, when everybody used to make the posters and albums by hand together.
We’re showing off sound as the superstar here. You’ve got a pipe organ, a gamelan, and you can see that it is actually being run by an iPad. You can see as I’m working the app, playing the song — you can visually experience it.
It’s hard to pick one — it’s the most fantastic bundle of eccentrics we’ve ever met. They all seem to be geniuses in one thing or another, all talking about secret societies, dark matter.
Oh, it’s just so fun. They bring with them teaspoons made of something, and then they make you stir the tea and the teaspoon disappears. It’s a totally new crowd I’m hanging out with now.