Original in Russian by Afisha. As told to Filipp Mironov, 22 July 2013
“A DJ — is that like untz-untz?” Govorukhin asked, and gestured with his hands. Nina Kraviz on Irkutsk thugs, snobbery in Moscow, sexuality, political liberals, and worldwide success
Nina Kraviz may well be the most popular Russian artist on the global music scene at the moment. Hailing from Irkutsk and formerly a journalist for Afisha and resident at club Propaganda, Kraviz is now an extremely successfully electronic music artist who regularly packs clubs in the UK, Spain and Southeast Asia, not to mention appears on multiple magazine covers and stirs up heated discussions on the topic of exploiting female sexuality in dance music. Afisha has been trying to schedule an interview with Ms. Kraviz for several months now and when we finally managed to squeeze one in… we didn’t hold back in asking her everything on our mind.
Tell us what you’re doing in Moscow at the moment. You’re not scheduled to play anywhere…
This was the only weekend in 2013 that I left open on purpose so that I could work in the studio. I sat down in my studio and realized that I was homesick. So I got on a plane and came back here. I’ve been meeting up with friends, taking walks, moving things from one apartment to another. In general lately I’ve spent more time on a plane than I have in Berlin, where I also live now. I had a very long Asia tour: one and a half months outside of Europe. That’s when I realized how much I travel. Before I would be away for at most 2 weeks, and this time it was a whole month and a half.
You take off with one suitcase in hand and return with a second one — is it new?
In my case it’s even worse: I pack a ton of things with me to begin with and I buy a lot more on the road. After arriving in Tokyo with a huge bag of records, I also might stop in to Technique and buy a whole second bag’s worth. It all turns into a nightmare because there’s no one traveling with me and I amass this huge, heavy pile of stuff. In Hong Kong, for example, I became acutely aware of my own loneliness — just me and my records. On the other hand, in my daily life I avoid crowds and love going everywhere on my own. [Journalist Sergey Poydo, musician Dmitry Yaponets, designer Protey Temyon and entrepreneur Roman Mazurenko walk up; they exchange some jokes.] Hey, are there a lot of cute guys in Moscow?
Some good ones left just now, a couple more are sitting in the bar. It’s a well-known fact that Moscow is good for finding a hot girlfriend; to find a boyfriend you should go to the States or Europe.
Russian girls are too beautiful. And shameless. I miss them. But above all, I miss the Russian language. Language is your window into a culture and through it you realize yourself and your own identity.
But you consider Moscow your home, not Irkutsk?
Irkutsk is my old home, my parents live there and I’m glad they’re there, that we have our apartment and Lake Baikal there. I’ve been all over the world, really everywhere, except for places where there’s no way to play music. But I’m always drawn to places where the nature resembles my birthplace. Like outside of San Franciso there’s breathtaking landscapes and I feel very at home in Latin America. Mountains, lakes… Scenery like you would find on Mars. I only recently realized that Baikal fills you with its own special energy and I’m always drawn to return there. Unfortunately last year I didn’t make it back.
How well do your parents understand what’s happened with you and who you’ve become?
My parents are very supportive. My mom teaches English at university, she has a doctorate degree and follows me on Facebook. We message each other every day. Sometimes we meet up in Moscow, other times in Europe. My dad gives me advice. For example, he tried really hard to dissuade me from doing a live show. I argued with him: “Dad, what do you know about it? Don’t be a backseat driver. I released an album, now I need to give concerts for it.” I should have listened to him, but I didn’t… In the end I was the only artist at Sonar Festival who did a live show and also a DJ set in the same day. I mixed records in the same hangar where I had come to hear Jeff Mills play years ago.
You and I have known each other for 10 years but I have a hard time imagining what you were like before moving to Moscow. What made you come here?
In 1996 I stumbled upon this radio show called Garage on 106.8FM — in Irkutsk it would come on at 3AM. I would record it on tape cassettes. I remember how one of Armando’s tracks blew me away — this dark, hypnotic acid-house. At some point the show went on tour and came to throw a party in Irkutsk — and I couldn’t go because my parents wouldn’t let me out of the house.
Yeah, that’s probably the best way to make your kid obsessed with something… tell them it’s off-limits.
All I could think about were DJs. I would fantasize for hours about dancing to house music in a club. In Irkutsk all my girl friends would hang out with these thugs. When I made them listen to my cassettes, they would ask, “When’s something gonna happen, like when are they gonna start singing?” They couldn’t understand the magic of these looping, thumping samples. The funniest thing I remembered about this was during my divorce. Sergey [Chliyants, Kraviz’s ex-husband — Ed.] respected what I did: he set up a small studio for me in his office, ordered special shelves to store my records. But he never tried to get into it himself. The same as his friends… like Govorukhin once asked Sergey what his wife did. I timidly replied that I was a DJ. “Oh! Is that like that untz-untz?” Govorukhin asked and he gestured with his hands. It was so embarrassing. Another time I had just finished cooking dinner and went to my room to listen to some new records that had just come in from Juno. Suddenly Sergey says to me, “Nina, something’s wrong with your record, it sounds like the needle keeps skipping in place.” And I’m like, “Sergey, it’s called a freaking loop! I’ve explained this to you a million times!” And to be honest, it only went downhill with us after that. Basically I’ve found that I don’t have time for people who don’t accept electronic music as a modern art form, who don’t value or understand it. I recently performed in Bilbao at the Guggenheim Museum and now I hope no one will ever tell me that a dance music DJ is just “untz-untz.”
So in Irkutsk, and later Moscow, you lived with this feeling like in that movie “Fucking Åmål,” like you wanted to get out of dodge?
Yeah, that’s what it felt like. I spent 9 years of my life in the field of medicine and fantasized the whole time about clubs. I enrolled in university in Irkutsk to study dentistry, then moved with my first love to Moscow and started studying third-year medicine while still in my second year. I started clubbing — I don’t remember which came first, Kerri Chandler’s set at Propaganda or Sasha at XIII. I haven’t been to Hermitage or Ptyuch but at the end of the ’90s there was still this fear around club culture left over from the rave scene. While I was still studying I approached Ptyuch magazine. I straight-up told Igor Shulinsky that he should hire me because I knew my way around electronic music. He sent me to Konstantin Zigzag’s studio and told him, “Kostya, see how well our little muse knows her stuff.” He even paid me for the interview and snippets I wrote.
Why didn’t you quit dentistry right then and there?
I could’ve become a decent doctor and I liked the profession. Above all, I wanted to finished what I started — I worked almost for free for the government in a school dental clinic, for a whole year, in order to earn a medical residency from the City of Moscow. There was a line of upperclassmen ahead of me and they were all angling for my spot.
“Nina, can you take a look at this tooth that’s bugging me?”
Yeah. I somehow managed to juggle a million things: I DJed, conducted interviews, booked artists for Caviar Lounge’s agency, then showed up mornings for work. I liked my double life: my coworkers didn’t have the faintest idea what I did in the evenings and nights. And at these Moscow parties, no one imaged that in the daytime I wore scrubs and did check-ups for war veterans and Soviet cosmonauts in a specialized hospital.
You enjoyed drilling?
I enjoyed the process, and the result. But you can’t have hobbies when you work in medicine — it takes up all of your time. A doctor is allowed to have at most 2 weeks’ vacation in a year because he needs to constantly practice his craft. And then you have to consider that a successful dentist is someone that patients count on to treat them. It’s a very fixed job. One day I woke up and simply decided that I wasn’t going to work that day. I shut off my alarm and never drilled any teeth again. I didn’t even go back to pick up my work history booklet (Ed. –– an official document in Russia).
So you basically went through ton of different jobs before you became a musical artist?
Yeah. My first job was really strange: as a student I was a promoter for these cigarettes, Pyotr Perviy. You know, the person who comes up to you and offers you to buy two packs and get a lighter for free. I also worked for Afisha: I approached Zenziper with pretty much the same line that I used on Shulinsky. I felt really out of place there — it was my first office where they had only Mac computers and I just couldn’t wrap my head around them. I remember I wrote something about this modeling competition when the magazine just started, about Krasnaya Moskva perfume. They fired me over this article on Sven Väth — the promoter who booked him, Vladimir Trapeznikov, made this big scandal, said that I misstated the facts. Looking back it seems funny, but at the time I was really struggling to make ends meet and I really took it to heart. In fact I was fired from just about everywhere: from Afisha, then Caviar Lounge — to make room for the daughter of that actor Livanov. They even fired me from Propaganda! It wouldn’t have been so bad if I had some crappy job like herding pigs or something. But I really liked all those jobs, so I really freaked out at the time.
I remember that lots of people spoke out pretty critically about your DJing skills too.
I’ve always played a very particular sound: few people liked it and even fewer supported what I did. In the Moscow of the 2000s the party scene was ruled by these little clans. They all helped and promoted each other, but it was really hard to become a member of one of them. There were always these authority figures standing in front of me, like that DJ Meshkov guy, who had to like you in order for you to get your foot in the door. I think things have gotten a lot better now. I remember back then me and Aleksandr Osadchy lived together in a hallway room on Frunzenskaya, and this DJ Katya Vesna lived in the corner room. And she really bullied me when I was learning to mix. In 2005 when I applied for Red Bull Music Academy and was accepted, it completely altered the course of my life. Yeah, I didn’t make it to Seattle because my US visa got denied and it was another dramatic tragedy for me. But a year later, as a sort of exception and consolation prize, they invited me to perform on the Red Bull Stage at Sónar Festival. And over the next year I went on tour all over Russia with their information sessions. The whole thing ended strangely: that same year, in 2006, I was accepted to the RBMA in Melbourne, which Andrey also attended — we already had our group MySpace Rocket back then. There I handed Greg Wilson my CD of tracks that I did together with Vakula — he went by Miguel or Misha back then. Greg released it on his own label. That’s when I started trying to convince my bandmates, Andrey and Stas Kross, to send him the whole album. A British label, Greg Wilson, what a way to start! But the guys dragged their feet — then they met Mikhalna and released their project Dsh! Dsh! They refused to give me their unfinished material, so that I could put on the finishing touches, and even said, “You’re just a singer. You’re totally clueless and talentless! You’re a nobody!” And I just flew into this huge rage. That was probably the biggest trauma that I ever lived through in Moscow. That same week I bought a synthesizer and a sound-card and installed the demo version of Ableton that had been given to us in Australia. I chain-smoked the whole time and fiddled endlessly with my instruments. I wouldn’t sleep for three days at a time. One time I passed out on my keyboard. I got worked up into a huge trance and was so excitable that it felt like I could die. I ended up writing so much material in those three months that I’m still releasing it to this day.
Then there was MySpace. I had learned a little Spanish and went by Damela Ayer — which doesn’t mean much, something like “Give it to me immediately.” I signed up for an account, uploaded my tracks and started waiting for reactions. A bunch of people outside Russia said they liked my stuff. I saw that this other Russian guy, Anton Zap, released on Underground Quality. I sent my tracks to him and the label head, Jus-Ed. Half a year later I got a response: this and this, and I love your track “Voices,” let’s release it.
How did you end up on Rekids then?
I had met Matt Edwards [of RadioSlave and Quiet Village and Rekids label head. — Ed.] in Melbourne. He was the only lecturer whose presentation I missed. I went up to him and told him that I really admired his work and regretted missing his lecture on underground disco, and that Rekids was one of my favorite labels, but I had been tired and gone off to wander through some shops with the other girls. It seems that struck a chord with him and he ended up looking me up online. Later I brought him to Propaganda and gave him a couple more tracks; a week later he wrote me that he was going to release “I’m Gonna Get You” and “Pain in the Ass.” About the same time on Underground Quality I had this melodic house record come out, “First Love EP.” It got reviewed on music sites and blogs. But no one believed that it was really me behind these productions, they thought someone was ghost-writing for me. This speculation also sparked interest. Like do you know how furious and insulted I was that I had been called a “nobody”? That episode really pushed me over the edge. I got another big shove when they shut down my Voices night at Propaganda. Those two years that Lev Timoshov and I threw those parties laid an important foundation for me to get more involved with touring. And by then I had already developed my personal philosophy: if you don’t appreciate me and my work, then somebody else will.
Well from what I can tell, Edwards and Rekids still helped promote you on an international level.
What do you mean by “promoted me”? In Russia it means hiring a team of publicists to flood the media with your music. No, in the UK for example you can’t shove anything down people’s throats. Matt was genuinely interested in my work, the same as Jus-Ed. They both believed in me and and gave me a wonderful start. Then I really worked my ass off. I have never had a manager and to this day still don’t have one. I’ve never had anyone there telling me what to do. Let that be clear! Russians have this idea in their head that you can just call someone high up to pull some strings and turn you into a star. No, that’s not the case — I hustled my ass off to get where I am.
Are you Rekid’s most popular and profitable artist?
Of course. The only thing that’s unique about me is that I’m this Russian girl who came up with a handful of underground hits: “I’m Gonna Get You,” “Pain in the Ass,” “I’m Week,” “Ghetto Kraviz.” I’m an obsessive record-digger, and not hard on the eyes either. Real success came when I released my album, which was completely recorded in my Moscow apartment, feeding off emotions from a romantic drama I was going through. Almost all of my art has to do with men. I even wrote in my album footnotes, “Thanks to the men who have inspired me.”
They did you wrong?
Yeah, but I pushed a lot of their buttons too. I’m just the kind of person who has to see everything through to the very end — in both work and love. I don’t have time for any hypocrisy or half-assedness.
As far as your process goes: How do you come up with your sound? Do you base yourself on anything? Is there a aural landscape in your head that you try to manifest?
Some tracks that I came up with in 4 minutes, like “Fire.” I spent exactly as much time writing it as the song lasts. I was at home alone with my headphones on, and lit some candles. I played a nice synth-pad and listened to my own voice through some effects. I went deeper in this sort of meditative state and in the first take sung about what I was feeling. “Ghetto Kraviz” was written in 40 minutes. “I’m Gonna Get You” took a few hours.
So you don’t have any productions that you spend weeks or months getting just right?
No. Any musical idea worth realizing must be simple and recordable within a short amount of time. If you need to torture yourself over it, it means that the idea isn’t fully developed. It either needs to be modified or discarded. That’s my philosophy.
For your own style, do you have any set formula?
The single most important thing that I keep in mind is the word “raw.” I want my music to feel raw and the vocals to be recorded in the first take. I myself used to be a journalist and know how all artists say that they don’t think about their style. But I honestly don’t know what kind of music I have. There’s this inspiration and magic that you get hooked on, like an elegant math equation that you need to find an equally elegant and, most importantly, simple solution to.
Now for the most banal question of all: when did you realize that you had made it?
You wouldn’t believe me if I told you that I still haven’t realized it. There have been moments that have seemed surreal to me. Like when you’re in a room in front of 10 thousand people and just 5 years ago you were one of those 10 thousand. Or when Yoko Ono personally invited me to Southbank Festival in London — although I ended up turning her down. Or one time at the Madrid airport: I just got in after a tour through Brazil and the barista at the cafe refuses to let you pay for your juice because they know who you are. Publicity is nice, of course. On the other hand, I was riding in a taxi last night and the driver asked me what I did for a living. I told him and he took out his iPad and started searching for my name on Yandex. He found my biography from 2003: Nina is a musician and journalist who has worked for Ptyuch magazine and opened for Felix Da Housecat.
It’s funny that your Facebook page now has more likes than his.
Yeah, something like 150 thousand now. Some places I’m really popular in: the UK, Italy, France, Japan, Berlin… there I get recognized just walking on the street.
What about in Russia?
Promoters try to book me but I usually turn them down because it’s just too nerve-racking for me. Here I feel like I constantly need to prove something to the public and defend what I’ve accomplished. It’s strange, I’ve been performing as a headliner for two years now in the West and here people say to me, “Oh cool, you’re playing the same party as Ellen Allien.” People here have this idea that to become successful you need to follow the trend — no way! I play the same underground sound now that I was playing 10 years ago. Or they think it’s easy for a broad with tits. But show me another chick who’s accomplished something similar.
Does that still get to you? Namely the backlash over that Resident Advisor feature.
Of course it still gets to me. My dad consoled me, he said look at all the free publicity. It went down like this: Resident Advisor shot me for three days while I was on tour with a really intense schedule. I wasn’t trying to show off any particular side of myself, I was just being me. Then they said, “Let’s shoot an interview in the bath.” I thought it would be fun, I mean you only usually see videos of DJs at parties, restaurants, hotels, oh, and with their baggage at the airport. So I get in the bath and the focus is not at all sexual. Just me under a bunch of bath bubbles, whatever. And then all hell broke loose. Greg Wilson wrote an article, Nina Kraviz — The Mistress of Her Own Myth. A long essay with my backstory and possibilities for the future. In response I wrote on my Facebook page that I was tired of being condemned for using my sexuality. Then Maceo Plex weighed in: “So I watched this girl that all the guys are going crazy for and I think I’ll go take a bath too, instead of actually writing music.” And at the end he gave a shout-out to Cassy, Heidi and Ellen Allien, who he considers real female DJs. And he and I are actually well acquainted. He knows my sound full well and that I, unlike him, play vinyl whenever possible, not like his two USB-sticks, and I drag these heavy bags with me everywhere. But what can you do.. I thanked him for his “flattering” opinion of my work and reminded him of Cassy’s first release for Panorama Bar where she’s buck naked on the cover. You can even see her pubes! It was a great cover, by the way. Then the whole DJ community was divided into two camps. A lot of people were on my side. And everyone found out what kind of person Maceo Plex was. In the end he deleted his post and publicly apologized to me via an interview for The Guardian.
OK, but can you tell me how much your attractiveness affects the popularity of your music?
I think they’re inseparable. It’s my stage image and I’m not going to make any artistic statement that goes against my identity. What am I supposed to do, wear a burka? Although maybe I’ll do that at some point.
But there is a lot of widespread talk in electronic music about the importance of anonymity. When producers don’t want their physical likeness or past hits to affect how a listener perceives their new work.
That viewpoint does exist. In the underground they don’t even want you to wear lipstick. But look at Luke Slater — this acclaimed techno guru who wears make-up as part of his image. He recently spoke out about this disheveled techno dress code that always bothered him, jeans, T-shirt and no sense of style whatsoever. And if you want anonymity, then I also have releases under other names.
Does that mean you’re the artist behind Burial?
No, unfortunately not. But to myself, I’ve already proven everything. Look: there are lots of pretty girls in the world. But there are almost none in electronic music. Why is that? If you really believe that a pretty girl can get anything she wants, that all the doors are open for her, then OK, show me a few other good-looking women in club culture. Along the same lines, everyone uses sex: music that doesn’t speak to people about love, emotions or beauty simply cannot become popular.
A lot of people, like Govorukhin, just think that it’s easy to do dance music. But I have another question: Have you ever considered turned your success towards bigger causes? Besides these discussions on music and feminism.
I think you should only speak out on subjects that you simply cannot remain silent on. People often ask me to comment on the situation in Russia and the Pussy Riot case — I always decline. The only time I [spoke out on a political subject] was many years ago in Kirill Tushi’s film on Khodorkovsky [a Russian businessman who opposed Putin and is serving 10 years in jail on tax charges].
Back then you said something that didn’t sit well with our more liberal-minded friends.
Yeah and what about it? I have an opinion and it hasn’t changed since then. Only now I refrain from publicly making such comments. I don’t care if I fit in with this group of trendy liberals and their worldview or not. I don’t find it necessary for myself to publicly take a stance on issues. Like Professor Preobrazhensky once said, when you permit yourself to patronize on a grand scale, you risk advising grandly stupid things. I’m more inclined to sympathize with the view of actor Vladimir Zeldin from an Afisha article on elderly people: He lived through these really terrible times in history and doesn’t feel that the state owes him anything. Rather he considers it his duty to do something for his country. I really hope that we will have more Russians like him in the future.
It doesn’t seem to me that’s not the case with your relationship to Russia.
How isn’t it the case? I dedicated 9 years of my life to the state healthcare system. I believe that in addition to the doubts and complaints that a person may have, he also has a duty and responsibility to his community. I read my friends’ posts on Facebook and I want to ask them: guys, why are you always complaining? Many simply don’t know or have forgotten what things were like 15-20 years ago. You go do something for a change, try and improve things. I’m very glad that in my country people have the right to express their opinion. This does give rise to changes in the current situation because without checks and balances, any system risks toppling over. Heated debate is important, but when you only have criticism and negative viewpoints that don’t take into account all the rest, then that’s not healthy. You start believing a lot of things that aren’t true. Even worse, you start believing that you’re entitled to help or that someone else to blame for your misfortunes.
OK. Let’s go back to the topic of art and creativity. You’ve had the opportunity to participate in many projects — which was the most fun for you?
I enjoyed being the face of Hugo Boss and making a song for their models to walk down the runway to. I enjoyed DJ-ing in museums. The album was also interesting for me. I enjoyed working in Omar S’s studio in Detroit and singing for DJ Stingray and Gerald Donald of Dopplereffekt on their joint project. Leftfield invited me to do a song on their album but I turned them down — I need to be fully involved in composing the song and have control over the finished product.
You became a resident of Richie Hawtin’s Enter party at Space in Ibiza — I understand that’s a huge accomplishment for Russian musicians on your part?
Before that I’d played in all the big Ibiza clubs. I love Ibiza and appreciate its significance. It’s a gorgeous place, really breathtaking. And I really feel like part of something bigger when I’m there. At all the other big festivals I’ve played at, I still felt like it was just a small part of the greater entertainment industry. But in Ibiza it’s a complete world and business in its own right: people go there especially to spend money and see their favorite DJs. Of course it does resemble Las Vegas. But on the other hand you have the best sound systems and set-ups. Nothing pops or cracks. It’s perfect for vinyl.
Now I have a question that’s mandatory for any DJ interview: booze and drugs, those vices that bring down many of the greats in the films we see about clubs — to what degree do they affect you?
I don’t do drugs. Booze, sometimes. But I’m not allowed to get wasted, this is a job that requires work every day. I’ll fly for 12 hours on a flight where the stewardesses will switch twice and I’m not allowed to be in a bad mood, because I have my period or a migraine or what have you. I’m not allowed to get drunk until I’ve done my job first.
It doesn’t seem fair that mixing while sober is more boring.
It depends. Sometimes you get this great energy from the crowd that you don’t need to drink at all. I understand that, regardless whatever my sound and aesthetic profile might be, my most important job is to make people happy and dance. Despite the fact that many people consider nightclubs to be less cultured and prestigious than, say, a concert hall or art gallery — I believe in the magical effect that this art form has on people and try to attain this even in a club.
Do you have a role model in mind?
Probably the Laurent Garnier of the ’90s.
He developed a lot of the ideas surrounding club culture today.
Yeah, like the responsibilities of a DJ to his listening public. He defined a lot of concepts for this profession. In his interviews and later his book, Electrochoc, he laid out a lot of guidelines. Some people deep in the underground believe that a DJ should just stand behind a curtain and think only about the vibe and how to make people dance. Yeah, that’s accurate. But there’s another side: a DJ is an artist, a figure whose voice matters. I can relate to both conceptions and they’re both comfortable for me.
So will we be seeing Nina Kraviz perform with a paper bag on her head anytime soon?
Anything’s possible. Nowadays I request that the lights in the DJ booth be kept off. I think it’s important for people to know that I’m the person behind the decks, but they don’t need to be watching me while I mix.
Is there a particular dark side to fame, something that’s a downer for you?
Besides crazy fans, I don’t like when people think all music’s the same, categorize my sound into their boxes and don’t appreciate all the meaning that I put into it. This is how I see it: there’s a small group of people who correctly interpret what I do. The whole reason why I do this lies with them, my faith in what I do. And we keep in touch. It’s impossible to interact with millions of people. I can’t interact directly with the 150 thousand people who have liked my Facebook page. I can interact with a few of them, who represent the rest. When people talk shit about me, that I don’t write my own music, that I’m just a chick with tits — when I don’t even have any — I’m of course upset. And I want to rail against them and finally convince them. But in the end it’s like that old joke, maybe you know it? There’s a Jewish family. They have an only daughter and they want to marry her off. They buy her wedding dress. But they’re worried. So they go to a rabbi and ask, “Rabbi, we’re marrying our daughter off. Please tell us how to dress her, how to arrange her on the bed, how she should move.” The rabbi sits and thinks for awhile. Then he says, “You know, what can I say, no matter how you gussy her up or arrange her… the end result is all the same…”