THE SIBERIAN DJ/PRODUCER HAS INADVERTENTLY BECOME THE MOST FIERCELY DEBATED FIGURE IN UNDERGROUND DANCE MUSIC.
Figures of controversy make the most interesting interview subjects. Figures of controversy with an outspoken nature and humanistic approach to everything within their creative sphere are like gold dust. With Nina Kraviz’s no holds barred policy, you get the sense of an artist truly being herself, even if it gets her into a little trouble sometimes.
An unfortunate subject of the ‘Female DJ’ debate, Kraviz is an interesting character in relation to feminism. Known to address the issue herself, she constantly underlines the unprocessed nature of her expressions of femininity and simultaneous reluctance to ‘butch up’ in a continually male-driven profession – ideas synonymous with third-wave feminist arguments endorsing choice and highlighting, amongst other things, that you don’t have to be ‘unfeminine’ to rely on principle notions of gender equality. These same ideas come into contention with issues such as cosmetic surgery, promiscuity and, say, doing interviews in bathtubs.
A couple of months ago, Resident Advisor released the first of their Between The Beats series. Intended to document the events in between the world’s most celebrated DJs’ moments in the spotlight, the subject of their first piece was Kraviz. From being a relatively unanticipated addition to RA’s extensive catalogue of media, it became the biggest talking-point in world dance music. The video offers an intriguing insight into a profession that is as increasingly sensationalised as it is desired. There’s no denying the role of international DJ, as sought-after and financially prolific as it can be, is a lonely and rootless pursuit of success and gratification. Kraviz seems at pain, throughout, to stress how fortunate she feels to be in her position.
She speaks endlessly about the joys of DJing, of how she feels she fulfills her role. But one scene stole the comments inches. The bath scene in question rapidly caused internet furore, as numerous DJs dipped their toe in. Greg Wilson penned an extensive, and eloquent, piece on the intricacies of Kraviz’s feminine ‘curse’, whilst TEED shared a video of an equally glorious frolic in the tub. Maceo Plex unfavourably accused her of ‘blatant uses of sexuality and superficiality’. The issue fanned the perishing flames of an outdated dichotomy that increasingly sells women short, with those involved commonly disregarding autonomy, instead focusing on misused attention on either side of the debate between vulnerability and venality.
Kraviz’s anger at being elevated to a sexual symbol then instantaneously demonised for expressing her coveted femininity is understandable. In her personal defence, she stressed the raw nature of a creative persona which remains embroiled with her personality and appearance, whilst she revels in the tactile nature of vinyl and her own sensual nature; in the DJ set as an interactive, communal experience between room and selector. But as the water slid down the plughole it reformed as the most fervent debate in the rapidly popularising world of ‘underground’ dance music.
From humble beginnings to the top of the DJ game, it’s been a lengthy and intriguing path. Kraviz grew up near Irkutsk, a Siberian city with an unforgiving climate, in a home where jazz, blues and pop music constantly filled the air, before moving to Moscow in the late 90s to pursue her training as a dentist while juggling frontwoman duties with electronic band MySpaceRocket as well as performing under her own name. An RBMA success story, she was picked up for the Melbourne instalment in 2006, and subsequently met individuals who changed the course of her career: Greg Wilson, a constant mentor, and Matt Edwards (Radio Slave), a career-long associate. Edwards’s Rekids label became her home, and in 2012 she released her self-titled artist album through the imprint.
The album in question showcases a producer/songwriter wholly at ease with the requisite nuances and sympathetic balance of an effective full length. Warm deep house tracks mingle with atmospheric, ambient pop songs, frequently defined by distinctive, seductive vocals which are at points robotic, as on single Ghetto Kraviz, or on gorgeous closer Fire, multi-tracked and riddled with humanity. Beats are often emaciated and minimal, memories of rhythms which flicker and bubble through smoky atmospherics. Meanwhile, Kraviz’s increasingly techno-oriented DJ sets have become hugely revered, exploring a compulsive adoration of mystic acid house, mesmerising crowds as she labours to carve a niche in that ever-saturated market.
While the bathtub affair continues to naggingly follow the Kraviz name – and doubtless add a zero onto her DJ fee in the process – we meet her in a London hotel to find an utterly affable and charming individual, as passionate about her music as she’s ever been. As she joins us she’s slightly bleary and an hour late having played a secretsundaze party the previous night. She speaks as she performs, frank and unrestrained. We share a cab to the photography studio, where she shows herself to be a total natural in front of the camera, free from inhibition, pulling faces and seemingly unhindered by any contexts. It was a pleasure to get to know Nina Kraviz the individual, beyond the fabrications, the mist and the myth.
So how did that infamous RA video come about? What was your motivation for such a personal expose?
From the outside perspective it looks very different from what it is. I was travelling so hard and was doing the promotion for the album and I had so many shows. While I was in the process of this it was explained to me that RA wanted to do an interview and that the guys would be following me for a few days, which was really cool to spend some time with them. I don’t even know why I said yes, it was just an interesting experience and we spent three days together and four months later they presented their version of the video.
It’s very personal, isn’t it.
It’s all concentrated on some very female aspects of my character. I am a very open person and sometimes that makes me very vulnerable. You can always have a better chance to hurt someone when they are open. When it was finished we did some edits, but the video still isn’t the way I wanted it.
Do you feel you’ve been misrepresented?
Yes, to be honest. I just wish we were all talking about more interesting topics. It represented me like I was a DJ whose craft isn’t really music related.
It was very focused on you as a female subject.
The thing is, I’m so into the music and that’s what comes first. I’ve been there for a long time and it was a struggle for me to be able to go out and play really underground music. This is a cool thing, so what is the difference because I’m a girl? Nobody captured this. And of course when they published the video I got all these haters. Of course I did. They were super pissed off because I was on a beach in a bikini. Do people wear fur on a beach or what?
Obviously you knew they were filming you there.
What’s the problem with it? What is the problem if I wear high-heels, for example. What’s the fucking problem with it? These people always find it strange that things like this happen. It means I’m not being me any more, I’m being this object.
Do you think you can successfully be both?
I’m just being myself. I’m playing extremely underground music. I’m just looking good. What’s the problem with that? I don’t give a shit any more though. Those who are nice and friendly and use their brain to work out what is real and what isn’t will be fine. Those who don’t can continue to say all this bullshit about how I can’t be in a bikini on the beach or in a bathtub. It’s a feature about a touring DJ! Fuck off, go home. I used to like RA, I really used to like this website. There are so many strange people there, what is the logic there, how does their brain work?
Your sets can be really full-on, yet your album has a real sense of ambience and space. Is there a big contrast between Nina Kraviz the producer and Nina Kraviz the DJ?
The DJ is mostly about techno and house music. I always liked Laurent Garnier because he combined what he wanted in his sets. He combined his tastes so well. That’s what makes his sets so special to me, they’re just such a long and beautiful story. If you talk about the spirit of my music on the dancefloor, it’s techno. It’s trippy, loopy and something that helps you to have a voodoo connection with the crowd. If the crowd is hypnotised, I’ve done my job. If there is still some kind of tension and the crowd is not completely there, it’s not quite right.
There is a real emotion to your productions, they’re very sensory. It’s mind music instead of being banger after banger.
I don’t care how many BPM is in the music. It just needs to make me feel real. The whole idea about my music is that if I feel it, it is real. I must really feel it full on.
You are a very sensory person, aren’t you?
I am very sensory and very passionate and for me this is the most important thing in music, this realness and the point where you can capture the moment – boom! There are vocals on the album where it’s just me capturing the moment, pressing record and talking or singing for minutes. It’s a similarity to when I DJ. I want to put people in a different state of mind. The best thing is when people close their eyes and it’s cool and comfortable.
Have you improved at achieving this result over your time as a DJ?
Yes, I think I’m getting better. The trick with a DJ is you have to always be focused. If you relax and don’t care about mixes, this will exactly be the time when you fuck up. I’m becoming better, but there is still much more to experience. People think it’s easy to put two tracks together, but for me it’s a shamanic, hypnotic thing. Putting two tracks together doesn’t make you a DJ. Having a personality and being a creator behind the decks is part of it too. Sometimes people can have great taste, but they aren’t DJs.
A question for all DJs, when you are on tour so much, how do you find time to listen to new music or even produce?
To be honest I haven’t produced anything new for four or five months. I’m coming back to it now, but it’s scary. I’m working on a remix for Parris Mitchell who is this legendary producer from Dance Mania records. I’m re-interpreting one of his jams.
Can we expect another full-length soon?
I don’t know. I don’t have a manager and I manage the whole operation myself. I don’t have anyone telling me ‘you have to do this, or not to do this’. I am a self-control freak. I was thinking about trying a manager but I haven’t found anyone yet. When someone is going to make decisions on my behalf it’s important they are done correctly.
You tend to play very credible nights, such as secretsundaze last night. You must be doing a lot of homework.
To be honest there aren’t a lot of good nights that you really need to know. I am open to looking around. Sometimes you would rather be in the studio than thinking about all of these things, this is why you need a manager.
How has the reaction been back in Russia to your success?
Ho ho! That’s an interesting topic. I’ve never been more nervous or stressed to play in my home country. There is always these expectations and jealousy. You have no idea! They say, ‘why her? What is so special about this Kraviz?’
There are always haters though. When a DJ gets big, even in the UK, there are always people looking to criticise.
That’s funny. I’ve normally found UK guys are supportive of UK guys. There is this big thing around the UK scene. And in Italy, you are no one until you break through, then you are the big man. In Russia it is different. Most of the time they think to be successful you have to make connections. There is a really cool little following of people that follow me and support me. Others always have to find ‘another’ reason for your success.
What does Nina Kraviz do to relax when she isn’t on a plane?
Nina Kraviz likes reading. Nina Kraviz likes to make no plans. That is the best relaxation, and not to feel sorry about wasted time. To have a walk or a run. I love the world. It is amazing and so mesmerising. I’m enjoying the intense pace of my life now, I’m really used to it. Sometimes my friends don’t understand how I can be like this. I love sleeping, doing massage to make me feel human again. I like swimming.
Do you like to party still?
I am very picky. If there is an experience for me that is interesting or I can see the value in, then I’ll go. But sometimes you don’t need a reason to go anywhere. When you realise you don’t need a reason to have a reason, that is a special thing. It’s an attractive sense of freedom. I am a unique case because I don’t take drugs at all and I need to get my energy from everything else. Sometimes I wake up and I’m like, ‘where am I? It’s dark.’ It’s an interesting experience to be tired. It’s a different, edgy, dangerous state of mind.
Do you go on auto-pilot?
It’s like Joy Division, She Lost Control. I was DJing in San Francisco in this state and dancing away and someone filmed it. Then there were all these comments that I was high on drugs, but I was just so tired. When I watched it, it looked like I was in a strange state of mind. It felt like I was almost enlightened from being in this strange state.
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Nina Kraviz plays Unknown Festival, Rovinj, North Croatia, September 10th-14th.
Words: Thomas Frost and Anna Tehabsim
Photos: Fillipos Hatzis