Les Inrockuptibles No. 14, 18/6/95

A Close Encounter (translated)

Article by Emmanuel Tellier, Interview by Neil Hannon

Pictures by Eric Mulet

The Abbey of Vaux-de-Cernay, southwest of Paris. Reconverted in a luxury hotel few years ago, the old building built in the XIIth century never had welcomed a Rock-Star, more accustomed to receive rich German couples. In passing the door that leads to the huge medieval smokehouse, Neil Hannon has feverish gestures and the voice fainting.


"I do not know if I will be able to speak to her... No one would have to met its heros". To help him, we put him in an old armchair in leather with a glass of alcohol. That will not be the last. Before to see her, you can hear Bjork. Or, more precisely, you can hear her huge ghetto-blaster to announce her arrival, barking some refrain of ethnic music from the other end of an endless corridor. The resonant volume grow slowly, as in a film of horror. This lascivious progression has a comical effect on cheeks of Neil Hannon that, as spring rose, have now turned red. There she is, in front of us, her music-box in a hand, a long white handkerchief in the other. Great slap in the back, generous embraces, first flashes of laughter: we can't say that the energetic Icelandic girl hampers civilities. The alcohol helping, Neil no longer trembles. With a decided gesture he takes from its pocket the small notebook where he has scribbled an impressive series of questions. Over his shoulder, one guesses several themata: love, nuclear, football. Begins then a singular discussion that we will studeadly maintain kirs after kirs. Six hours later, in the forest of Rambouillet, Neil Hannon will scream some pretty bird shouts.

Neil Hannon: I have a small problem with your records - even if indeed I find them fascinating. Here is: why do you offer a place so important to computers? Why you, that possess a voice so tremendous, do not have more confidence in organic, natural sounds?

Bjork: I have always made confidence in natural sounds. I have always loved the sound of the harp in Debut, for example. During years, I have even felt need to use exclusively natural instruments, acoustics or electrical. With the Sugarcubes, we adored these wonders in woods: guitars, flutes, ancient batteries. We found them reassuring, close to us, close to the Earth. But with the time -and by frequenting discos assiduously- I have started a new relationship with everything that involves technology. Samplers, rhythms-box, sequencers have begun to scheme (puzzle) me. Similarly, I had the sentiment to arrive to the end of a road. I thought that acoustic instruments no longer would take me very far, even if they kept their infinite beauty. For me, cords, percussions, wind instruments were in contact with the external world, with elements. By opposition, computers seemed to me, more in contact with our internal life, our imagination. This is the same difference that opposes reality and dreams, true life and fantasies. Music with computer, is pure imagination, an extreme creativity, with no marks, no safe-net. And if such a music based on technology lacks of soul, this is certainly not because of the computer, but because of whom that programs the machine lacks of soul. Since three years, I work with a tremendous programmer, Marius de Vries -he is a bit executing my fantasies, his hands materialize the work of my brain. At the time to recruit him, I challenged Marius: "I want you to make the noise of the wind on the top of a coconut tree". Ten minutes later, I had my sample on computer. I have taken Marius in my arms and we begun to work... Since several years, I love everything that concerns science, I try to acquire all the possible knowledge. When I was young, the peoples I lived with did not like to speak about all these things. For them, modernism was a tabou, an error. Even a city as New York -nevertheless not so new- scared them: it was not necessary to like it, it was necessary to fear it. When I have been there for the first time, I wanted to scream (shout) my happiness. All these skyscrapers, all these cars, what a change compared to my old Iceland! Now, each time that I go to the States, I spend as much time as possible in the museums. I know everything on NASA activities and cars factories.

Progress, is also nuclear. Are you afraid of it ?

Nuclear, is a fear of my generation, not of our children. At school, I had learned how to flee (hide) under the table in case of nuclear explosion. But if I tell that to my son, he looks at me and says "But mummy, what you tell is completely stupid". His problems are the ozone layer, pollution. Not nuclear. It is not necessary to have fear in technological progress: there is no way to get around it. Did you know that Swiss had discovered the plastic in 1505, in deceiving the cooking of a cheese? (Laughter)...

You are so positive! You give the impression to be always fun, bubbly. You are therefore never depressed? You never feel miserable?

Happiness is a natural state. It is sadness which is not natural, fear, anger: these things mine us, it is necessary to fight them... I have an obsession in life: to make peoples happy. My son, my friends, peoples that I work with, I want to see them all bloomed, gay, opened. It is a battle, a tremendous motivation. Then, I have conscience to leave only a succession of positive character lines, to give elements of my personality that can make happy others peoples. The rest, I hide it -by modesty and by respect. That would rhyme to display my anguish? What right can I have to pity on myself ? There are so many peoples that would dream to be at my place. I have never known happiness more than this time. What I lived since that I have success is so glamourous. I have the feeling to be a star of the American cinema: a brown Marilyn Monroe. I've just spent three days in the Orient-Express, then two in a castle in Germany and there, I am in France, in a wonderful abbey, in the process to sip kirs au champagne with a funny Irish fellow (laughter). . . You want an other kir?

At the beginning of your career, have you ever dreamt of that ?

At the beginning, all I wanted was to travel, to see the world, that I had no need of this success and everything that comes with it. But with time, you get used to luxury. To the material luxury -hotels, cars with chauffeur- as well as the intellectual luxury-to be "important", to feel cherished, courted. You get used rapidly to have always around you three or four persons, whose unique function is to make life easier for you. It is reassuring, it helps to go forward. Even if at the end, I am always alone. When I return at home, in London, all these peoples disappear. I becoming Cinderella again after the twelve knocks of midnight.

Come on, sometimes you must be fed up by all these guys.

The other evening, in Germany, there were twenty peoples that came to meet me for a cocktail -journalists, DJ'S, folks of record companies. With each of them, I would have been able to speak during hours of fascinating things, to start debates, laughter, to have fun. But I remained a bit in withdrawal: I surprised myself to think that if an old gran'pa collector of African insects had entered at this precise moment, it is him that I would have to speak to... Since I'm a small little girl, peoples are interested by me. They didn't even left me the time to grow-up: at 11, after my first records, I had already my picture in all the Icelandic newspapers and, in the street everybody was asking me for an autograph. I have had time to get used to all this circus, the ways success works. Nevertheless, I have never considered this celebrity as a blessing, but rather as a reality to manage -the same manner that you can manage your own fortune, or the way you get used to live with a leg shorter than the other. You get used to be famous, but you don't worry about it. I am not neither too sure of myself, neither cynic, neither even wry. I'm trying to deal with that the best way I can, knowing perfectly that I have a lot of chance.

When we look at you, you give the impression that glory was your fate.

I'll (start) finish to believe that I have fallen inside when I was small... At 13 or 14 years old, to escape the success of my first records as a child, I have begun to play in Rock groups. Tappi Tikarrass (in English: kick the tart's ass) then with Kukl (in English: witchcraft). Each time, the same slogan : to surprise, shock; to make reactions. I had shaved my head. Later? I tinted my hair in orange. We made a lot of efforts to make our music unspeakable, unbearable and nevertheless, our concerts were crowded. What to do?

I have always thought that we were the best able to criticize our own records. Do you feel able to do it ?

I have always been my most implacable critic. When peoples pack and swing heap adjectives perfectly insane about me, all I want is to close my bedroom, in front of a mirror, and tell to myself my four truths: "Bjork you are only a dirty bitch ! you are totally useless my poor girl. Everything that has been written about you, is only crap. A heap of bullshit. You would better work harder or you are going to be in the street". If I had to summarize what I think about Debut in few words, that would give something like this: here is a pathetic attempt to move to the adult age from a dirty girl of Iceland that wants absolutely to be noticed and to prove to herself she can do it alone. Brief, a failure... At the begining, this album was supposed to be the most selfish work of my life, an undertaken project on my own, for my own pleasure, to prove to myself that I was able to do it after fifteen years spent within a group. I promess that at that time when I wrote these pieces (scores), I didn't care to know if the others were going to like it or not. And then finally, this selfish act became an act of love, an absolute division (sharing). It has become, a bit against my will, the most generous thing (act) of my life. Thousands of peoples have been found around what was supposed to be only a small personal adventure with no importance... Sometimes, I tell to myself that I am a big selfish cow. That if I was more honest to myself, I would stop to belong to this huge commercial business, to be alone and to sing just for me, as when I was a child. When I had 5 or 6 years old, I went in the fields behind our house. I've spent hours to sing looking at the flowers. This is possibly maybe the true song: the one that nobody hears.

Have you ever pained to write (compose) the songs of Post? Or have-you the feeling to progress, that whole things becomes easier with time?

To write (compose) will never become easier: opening your own chest with a knife to get songs out of it is not an easy thing, an act that you undertakes by habit. I remember having spent hours screaming, arguing with Einar of the Sugarcubes about this subject. He was thinking that we had to manage everything, think about each word, each gesture. Me, at the contrary, I preached madness, the total creation, the artistic anarchy. He was saying that the Sugarcubes were the most precious thing of our life, that it was necessary to concentrate to preserve the group, to preserve us. I replied that it was just necessary to advance, go ahead, to stop thinking about all these questions. If we had listened to Einar, the Sugarcubes would have never been separated. We would have managed everything quietly, cynically. His great dream, was to buy a small sunny island with the royalties of the Sugarcubes. He was there already, bearded with an Hawaian shirt, selling old books to the tourists, offering cups of cappuccino or weird sandwiches to fans of the group coming here in pilgrimage. He would have installed me on a small scene, on the beach. I would have sung there successes of my childhood and some titles of the Sugarcubes for a public in string and swin suit. After that we will go for another tour, before disappearing again to our golden retreat. Einar wanted a quiet life, to be recognized as a major artist. He did not understood that I wanted something else, that difficulties motivated me more than they scare me.

Is it difficult to work with you? You must have a strong personality...

(Laughter)... Let's say that I know what I want. I'm part of these peoples who are following their instinct, who don't want to act by reason. Then of course, sometimes, some teeth grate.

To live with you, is it hell or paradise?

Why? You want to try? (Neil hides his face, then bursts into laughter)... I have not the impression to be unbearable: at the contrary, I can be a small woman of interior very well organized.

Who is your best friend ?

My best friend is named Joga. She is an expert in massages, and she always travels with me. I expect from my friends that they surprise me - a friendship must be maintained, it is never totally acquired. The day when I get annoy with a friend, I tell him/her, I try to understand what doesn't work. This need to understand problems at the very root, to freely explain things, is a typical Icelandic behavior. My country is a small village: impossible to get anger with someone for the whole life. In Iceland, peoples that divorce remain always friends. How could do otherwise? They reside the same area, meet the same peoples. In fact, I became very demanding with others: in friendship as in love. I can't bear relationship based on lie and hypocrisy.

In an article, you told that when you were child, your family considered you as an adult.

That was not a very common way of life: I have grown in a hippie community-kind right in the middle of thirty adults. I have three half- sisters and three half-brothers. We have all together three mothers and three fathers - a true bazaar... When I was small, I was able to do all what I wanted. The word authority didn't existed for us. One of cornerstone of my education, it is no regulation : at 7 years old, I was probably the most adult member of the community. Those that had 25 or 30 years old used to lived as capricious kids, not going to work, remaining all the day in bed; while for me, at 4 years old, I woke-up alone, dressed alone, had my breakfast and took the bus to school. In my family, they were all completely fucked-up: I have rapidly become the key element of the place, the one where adults could always speak to when they had a problem. I remember discussions with my mother, of which I was the voice the reason and her, the naughty girl. I do not know what all these peoples would have become if I had not brought some light in their life... Now that my son is 8 years old, I begin to understand what my parents could have found in me. In a way, children are indeed stronger than we are, more solid. Sindri is the most unbelievable person I ever have to opportunity to meet -he is so smart. All my girlfriends are crazy. You would see that: women of 30 years old ready for fight for a kid of 8!

I have increasingly pain to return to see my parents in Ireland. Is it something you also feel, this progressive detachment?

I have never considered that I was really installed in London: I have rather the impression to be there on holidays, passage. My home, is Iceland and I return there as soon as possible. When I arrive there, I cram cheese and I spend my days in the swimming pool, convinced that I've found the most beautiful country in the world. And then after a week, I'm bored.. I do not know where I will be in five years. As PJ Harvey, I'd like to leave this business to open a cafe , to serve the tea to old ladies. Sometimes, we speak about it, her and me: to leave all this fury. To escape.

Do you believe in God?

I do not believe in religion, but if I had to choose one, it would be Buddhism. It seems more livable, closer to men.

Do you watch football on TV?

My friend Nellee Hooper (leader of Soul II Soul and producer of her album) has installed a parabolic antenna on my house in order for Sindri to watch TV channels of the whole world. As a matter of fact, there is always twenty-two guys that bawl in my lounge running after a balloon. Sindri is a fan: in his bedroom, he has drawn huge charts to score the results of all the championships for the world cup. I try to get involved in these knacks, I watch some matchs with him but, the most often, an image is coming to my mind: a team of football player, is nothing else that eleven spermatozoa trying to penetrate an egg. Sometimes, I would love to be the goal (laughter)... While Sindri looks at the feet of the players, I watch their thighs. What do you want? I have no boy-friend since October, then of course, that creates a lack. At this time, I am truely obsessed by sex.

(Constricted smile)... Well, maybe I'll take another kir royal...

Sex, is the most beautiful gift of life, a wonderful chance. Something you must enjoy fully, not to have fear to profit... My lovers are friends before all. Friends I can sleep with from time to time. I have never asked myself too many questions.

What is the kind of character do you like in men? And these that you dislike?

A few years ago, I found men terribly boring. I just needed them to make love, but after that... I like challenges, then I decide to create something more intense, to undertake a serious relationship with a boy. Usually, that works for several months.

What is the main British man defect?

They lack of humor.

In a magazine, you explained that it was without any doubt, more difficult to be a woman, but that finally, it was much more fun. Do you have the feeling that a life of man is without of interest?

No, but I believe sincerely that girl's life is more nervous: there are more challenges, it is much more motivating. When I see a girl as Tori Amos, so voluntary, so amazing (blazing), I am proud to belong to this sex. Sometime I also envy Courtney Love. Because she has the unique ability to be a man and a woman at the same time.

When have you been in anger for the last time?

Anger has never been a natural character line for me. In fact, I have to force myself to reach such state, to oblige me to react. My last real crisis, was five or six years ago, in Belgium, when a German shepherd dog has bitten me to the thigh. The dog belonged to the bouncer of a disco, who shut the door in front of me while I had been bitten by his bloody dog. I have waited patiently that the guy opens again his door: I just wanted that he apologizes and calls a doctor. But this moron has repelled me another time. Then, I have exploded.

Do you find yourself too fat?

I watch my weight every morning. Sometimes, there can be temptations: to eat too much, to make some pain to yourself, so much to spoil... But you cannot be easy going, that would be too stupid.

What would you tell to a young artist - Irish, for example - that would cross a long crisis of confidence at the moment to write his third album and would be tempted to throw to the trash ten of his songs he's not particularly proud of? Would you tell him to retry again, or to let this third album released and to do better next time?

For me, this young artist would have to work harder, start all over from scratch. To release songs he's not completely proud of would be a terrible error, a sign of cowardice. I hope to have always the strength to resist to such temptations... Neil, think of the day when you will be 85 years old with small children on your knees. That day, without any doubt, you'll like them to listen to songs that you recorded when you were 20 years old. If you are not proud of your third album today, how will you find the strength for the these kids to listen to it in 2050?

I believe that I will be proud enough of these songs to make them listen.

Then do no longer hesitates. You can release your third album.

(Neil gets up, arms up in V, sign of victory) Thank you!