The different direction for the band, which opted to keep its name, was primarily inspired by two key experiences: the creation of an opera based on Darwin's "The Origin of Species" called "Tomorrow in a Year," which the band wrote between 2008 and 2009 in collaboration with musicians Mt. Sims and Planningtorock for a Danish performance group, and a series of exuberant jam sessions the siblings had shortly after the opera was completed. At the time, neither could remember the last time they played instruments together just for fun.
"We always used to sit by the computer and construct things bit by bit, and that's not such a lustful process," says Olof, who lives in Berlin.
"We said when we started that if we're going to do this, it has to be fun," adds Karin, who lives in Stockholm with her husband and children. "It was a challenge to create a process that was enjoyable all the time."
As one might expect of an album inspired by opera and jamming, "Shaking the Habitual" ventures far beyond the constraints of what would ordinarily be considered pop music. Of the double-disc's 13 songs, only four are less than six minutes long; the longest clocks in at nearly 20.
"The songs were so much longer when we did them," Karin says. "Some were going on for, like, an hour or more. We really worked to edit them down to what felt like a good length. But, of course, that's always very subjective."
With so much material, the label had to get creative, according to Mute U.S. project manager and head of marketing Nicole Blonder. For casual consumers it did a little pruning, creating a more affordable, single-disc version of the album that omits one of the longer songs. (A download code for the missing track is provided.) For the vinyl crowd, Mute went in the opposite direction, creating a premium triple-LP with special artwork and posters.
"We definitely had conversations about how to straddle the line between art and commerce," Blonder says, "but we knew that we were dealing with a special record that could not have been made by anyone else."
"Shaking the Habitual" takes its name from a Foucault quote, and political references are pervasive throughout. Prior to recording, Olof and Karin had become preoccupied with feminism and queer theory, assigning each other books to read by Gayatari Spivak and Jeanette Winterson. On lead single "Full of Fire," an unsettlingly pitch-shifted Karin chants what could be taken as a tongue-in-cheek mission statement: "Let's talk about gender, baby, let's talk about you and me."
"With Deep Cuts [the duo's 2003 breakthrough], we were interested in whether we could infiltrate popular music and act within that system to comment on political issues," Olof says. "As we've grown, we wanted to take the opposite approach. We tried to let the political theories steer us in a musical way."
The Knife heads out on a 20-city European tour with an all-female ensemble starting April 27, but U.S. dates haven't yet been announced. Short films for "Full of Fire" and second single "A Tooth for an Eye" were released in February and early March, respectively. A special "interview film" featuring the notoriously press-shy siblings will precede the album.
As for whether they'll continue wearing their signature masks, Olof is coy. "I think we go by the idea that everything is a mask," he says.