“I remember them telling me about the dogs that went into space,” she says; “and how beautiful earth looks from far away. That it has very unique light – once you see it you always remember that slightly blueish, incredible light of earth. And I heard a story about a cosmonaut who was training to be in space all his life but actually went only once. Those people – those people from the Soviet era – were incredibly calm, down to earth people...” she stops, smiling, as she realises her inadvertent pun.
This is what conversation with Kraviz is like, though. One moment you’ll be talking about a favourite techno record, or what it’s like for her to be moving into the global DJ big league, then before you know it, the conversation has swerved through history, philosophy, national characters and a flurry of detailed sense impressions. Passionate, impulsive views will collide with laser-accurate analysis of anything from George Orwell to the Dutch electro scene, a joke will suddenly become an argument and vice versa, then she’ll turn the tables and start asking you about whether you think people can be innately good or evil. Add to this an encyclopaedic knowledge of decades of underground music, an obsession with the “voodoo moments” of DJing and a back-story that gives us more than one of those double-take moments, and it rapidly becomes apparent why she gets frustrated that some people only want to talk about her looks and her gender.
She’s come to the interview practically straight off the plane from Moscow, and without small talk (beyond asking about a pork pie which she’s spotted on the bar and is intrigued by) gets straight down to it. Dressed in a T-shirt and leather jacket, she makes constant eye contact and is direct and open to most lines of questioning. She describes the Russian capital still as “my city” and has been hanging out for a couple of days to recharge, although she now nominally lives in Berlin. “I guess I’m really a world citizen now,” she says. “I live on a plane as much as anywhere. But Moscow is my place – it’s where I belong the most, I think. It’s still a very special city, and I feel right when I’m there.”
Before Moscow, though, Kraviz came from Irkutsk in Siberia. Far from the icy environment we might associate with Siberia, Irkutsk is on the same latitude as London, on the border with Mongolia, and “as close to Japan as it is to Moscow... quite a strange place.”
Irkutsk was, historically, where dissenters against Russian governments – “rebellistic people” as she puts it – were sent. “Even before Soviet times this was true,” she says; “Pushkin, for example, and the Decemberists who were against the Tsars”. Like most big cities, it had its ugly side and she had to learn to be reasonably streetwise growing up.
“Now I’ve been to the ghettos in Chicago and Detroit, I realise it could be much worse,” she explains, “but there were plenty of areas that were jumpy at night, my school was kind of rough, and I lost a few friends who were doing not-good stuff.” Her parents were, if not revolutionaries, certainly in the free-thinking tradition of the city; both intellectuals, they encouraged her education but also instilled a love of good music.
She would spend hours with her father (“A big guy, and so passionate about music”) listening to cassettes, “Spoiled with good music, like really good music – Weather Report, Led Zeppelin, Grace Jones, Giorgio Moroder, really great things” – but her real epiphany came late at night. “The only way to get me in bed sleeping was for my parents to leave the radio on quietly so I could go to sleep with music. It would be the national radio station, with a tiny bit of volume, and I’d be there in the dark, with my dreams and the music. Then suddenly, three in the morning in Irkutsk was ten in the evening in Moscow, and boom – ‘OK we’re starting our weekly show, Garage, the best electronic music for the dancefloor, tune in, wow, pow pow pow!’” Her voice is hushed as she remembers it, her normally direct stare glazed over, her conversational flow breaking into a sequence of ‘wow’s, half-remembered quotes from DJs and imitations of acid noises, whispering “I’m a teenager, and... and... wow!” at the memory.
This was the mid-90s, and a section of the Moscow scene had adopted some very serious house and techno as its own sound. From the very first night she discovered garage, Kraviz taped it religiously and researched the artists and DJs she heard. Even though this was before the internet was readily available, within a month she was familiar with Armando, Green Velvet, Romanthony, Drexciya; knew their stories and had tracked down every bootleg CD available in her city. She would fantasise about Moscow constantly, too. She’d visited with family, but “It was a three-and-a-half day train-ride away, it felt like to another planet – and I remembered especially the smells, of the metro, of chocolates, of particular foods.” As a teenager, though, it took on new resonances. “The nineties were wild in Moscow,” she smiles. “When I got there in 2000 it was already a little settled down, but before it was bandits and whores, money, danger, super-passionate, electronic music, acid, drugs, woaaaah...”
Despite her intensity and seriousness – fierceness, even – when talking about music, Kraviz is surprisingly easy-going while DJing. A few hours after our interview, at 7am in the Fabric DJ booth, she’s light on her feet, bouncing between decks and record box, waving to punters and occasionally just dancing. She’s not taking the task lightly, though. Her set is split between CD and vinyl – resorting to a laptop only once when she’s suddenly inspired to copy a track onto a USB stick to stick in the CDJs – and is clearly not pre-prepared. Often she’ll leaf through records, seem to select something, then put it aside again. The sound is mostly percussive techno and Chicago house, and her mixes are inspired, uncannily meshing together complicated percussion lines, occasionally building up to rushing segues of a few acid tracks. On an occasion where a vinyl record slips, Nina is unfazed, quickly bringing the mix back into line, determined not to break the spell.
Before leaving Irkutsk, Nina managed to talk her way into getting a show on local radio and started to write for a Moscow-based fanzine, all the while continuing her medical studies. Then, impulsively as ever, she moved to Moscow to get married to a rising film producer. She threw herself into the nightlife of the city, starting to play first 7” funk records and underground disco, then Italo disco/ electro and finally techno (her first proper club DJ set was so hard she says she cleared the floor with three records), joined a band as singer, but also found a college place there, completed her doctorate and began her dental practice in both the veterans’ hospital and in schools. “I lived a double, triple life,” she says. “I would get up at seven in the morning for studies or work every day, and nobody would know what I did at night, or that my head was full of some strange electro I’d listened to all night. And medical studies are no joke – you can’t miss a class even for sickness, you have to repeat it if you miss it. But I managed it because I was a doer. I didn’t think about anything, I was just feeling, I just followed the direction I was going in.”
Then a breakthrough: Kraviz was accepted for Red Bull Music Academy 2005, purely on the basis of her DJ mixes. To her horror she couldn’t get a visa to attend the Academy in Seattle, but the RBMA team were taken with her enough to book her to play for them at Sónar the following year – “I would perform there? My favourite festival? My name would be in the programme? You’re fucking kidding me!” – and then to attend the 2006 academy in Melbourne. She had played with producing tracks before and had made plenty of contacts in the global underground herself, but now she had the support to take it seriously. Matt ‘Radio Slave’ Edwards and veteran edit-master Greg Wilson gave her encouragement and mentoring, she collaborated with Chicago legend Chez Damier, and techno don Marco Passarani showed her how to use a sequencer. “That was it,” she grins, “I couldn’t stop making tracks. I would go for days and nights!” In 2008 she began a residency at Moscow’s Propaganda Club where she could play “house, techno, acid whatever I wanted.”
In one sense, the rest was history, but in another the battle had just begun. Refused permission to mixdown their album (“I was just a singer, a nobody”), she fell out with her band. Anger fuelled a hyper-productive period, working round the clock making music and earning a record deal with Underground Quality just six months after first starting to produce, but that prejudice still dogs her today: “An independent girl, who does everything herself, who’s not afraid to be sexy, but makes underground music that people like, that people buy? Who won’t compromise her sound, will play Drexciya and dark acid to a mainstream audience? Impossible!”
It’s no wonder, perhaps, that this is where she starts to get defensive. Asked whether club culture revolves around glamour, she bristles. “I don’t understand the question,” she glowers. “What is glamour? I’m not glamorous, I’m playing Fabric at 7am, is that glamour? Glamour is 1930s, 1940s, it’s Rita Hayworth – know your history!” Then, composing herself, she addresses the elephant in the room directly. “You know what really hurts? I wasn’t being untrue to anything or anyone with the film I made [Between The Beats], but people were trying to compare me to Paris Hilton! They’re saying that I just put an image before the music, yet every fucking track in that film is mine. Ev-e-ry track. You want to talk about the music? Let’s talk about the music. But no: nobody who is criticising me will talk about that.
It’s clear that the incident left her bruised. Perhaps that’s partly because Kraviz is more of a thinker these days than the doer she once was. Asked about Russia’s current place in the world she starts on a complex history of the relationship with Syria via the Orthodox church, and returns to her hero George Orwell and his experiences in the Spanish Civil war on what it takes to be “ready for democracy”. She checks herself when we ask about gay rights in Russia, though. “An article is too small,” she says firmly, “for discussions like that.”
On complex issues, she is obviously unwilling to settle on a simple conclusion. She’s constantly in discussion with herself, or, in her words, “At war with myself, as well as with the stereotypical square-minded bullshitistical way of thinking.” There’s a “wild girl, who feels more like a man in my passion for music because some songs can destroy me,” who coexists with a quietly intellectual mind that loves learning languages – she speaks English, Spanish and German – and a systematic, disciplined person who qualified as a dentist while maintaining a “double, triple life”. There’s nothing simple about being Nina Kraviz.
In Fabric, it’s ticking towards 9am, and Kraviz was supposed to be finished ages ago, but she keeps rolling out the intensely funky techno, dropping the tempo and bringing in weirder and weirder sounds. Finally, with a huge grin, she plays first one, then another throbbing track from Aphex Twin’s ‘Selected Ambient Works 1985-92’ which makes the whole crowd go a bit bendy, a bit looser as if moving under water – yet still they dance. Then, for a second, we’re on edge as a completely unexpected snare sound comes in. Rising up from the aqueous electronica comes Dinosaur L’s 1982 avant-disco work-of-genius ‘Go Bang’, transforming the tripped-out environment once again into a party, full of clapping, grinning people. It’s an audacious move, one that very nearly doesn’t work, but she pulls it off. Skipping and waving like a kid in the DJ booth, Nina Kraviz very definitely doesn’t look at war with herself; she looks as though she is exactly where she belongs.
Nina Kraviz plays Mixmag Live at Village Underground on November 2. Get your tickets while you still can.
[Photos: Perou and Joanna Stolecka]