Nina Kraviz: Techno, Bach, Champagne

Nina Kraviz belongs to the new East – which includes Balenciaga designer Demna Gvasalia and rapper Tommy Cash. They're taking the washed-out West by storm.

A rainy day in May: Nina Kraviz in Moscow.
A rainy day in May: Nina Kraviz in Moscow.Nanna Heitmann

Moscow/Berlin-Nina Kraviz is one of the world's most sought-after DJs. She usually plays live in front of thousands. The virus has made that impossible for now, but Kraviz has a plenty to do: she's currently producing an album, taking singing lessons and listening to Bach. Her life is shaped by the self-confidence of a successful artist who's permanently on the road and whose home is the world.

Kraviz hasn't been back to her Berlin flat for a while. She's been hunkered down in Moscow since September. Over Facetime, I get a glimpse of a room that, with its beechwood furniture, reminds me of the friendly matter-of-factness of a holiday flat at the Baltic. The artist's Moscow apartment is in city centre, close to Red Square. Preparations are underway for the parade on 9 May to commemorate the end of the war in Russia. Every now and then, there is a rhythmic humming. The orchestra is getting into the swing of things. A nice analogy to Kraviz's pulsating sounds, which normally pour out of club loudspeakers all over the world with a similar vehemence - sounds that are ice-cold and beautiful, like a clear mountain stream in her Siberian homeland.

The music is techno and it stands for the last great subculture that still mobilises the masses at parties today. In her sets, Kraviz mixes avant-garde tracks with pop classics. She also performs her own tracks with vocal elements. Like most DJs today, she is also a producer.

There's a little gloss on her lips. Her hair is tousled. She wears a light-coloured T-shirt and looks as if she just stepped out of the shower. It's 5pm Moscow time, a friendly afternoon in early May.

How's the mood in Moscow after the end of lockdown? In Berlin, people are expecting a nightlife explosion.

Everybody was really uplifted when the clubs reopened in January, but since we didn’t really have a full lockdown lately, people’s reaction was rather moderate.

Are you booked anywhere in Moscow right now?

Hopefully in the end of May. Let’s see how it goes. You never know at the moment. The club is called Mutabor, which is a quite important part of the Moscow scene.

We're seeing it first: Between interview and photoshoot, Nina Kraviz got a short cut.
We're seeing it first: Between interview and photoshoot, Nina Kraviz got a short cut.Nanna Heitmann

Are you in any way affected by the Victory Day celebrations on 9 May?

Yes, because there is no family in Russia which was not affected by the war. Almost every family has losses, or family members that were wounded. Many people died of hunger or they were half dead from hunger, especially in St. Petersburg during the prolonged military blockade, the "Leningrad blockade". Even teenagers worked really hard on the home front. That is why Victory Day is called in Russia the “holiday with tears in people’s eyes”. Plenty of Russians commemorate this day by joining the Memorial March which takes place in every city and small town all over the country. People carry portraits of soldiers and workers on the home front in their hands.

The war especially affected the generation of your grandparents, right?

Exactly. Both of my grandfathers were workers on the home front. One was 14 years old and he used to work for 15 hours in a military plant every day.

Will you watch the parade?

The majority of Russians watch the main parade on Red Square on TV.  I live very close to Tverskaya street, the main street leading to Red Square. I won't go but I can watch participants of the parade on their way to Red Square. The most impressive part is the air force show when the planes and helicopters fly over the building where I live. It’s really breathtaking.

How are you experiencing Russian politics right now. Do you have an opinion about it?

I am trying to stay away from politics. It’s difficult though.

When were you last in Berlin?

Last September. I really miss it. I hope I can get back soon. How is everything?

Everything is closed. It’s very boring in Berlin. Are you in Moscow now because Berlin has nothing to offer?

Well, even in pre-pandemic times I wouldn’t go out that much, unfortunately. I was always on the road and on my rare days off in Berlin I would simply be too tired to go out.

I understand, if you work in clubs, you don’t go to them in your free time.

Well, not really. It is also important to come back to that clubber’s state and to go to the club just for fun, enjoying the party and sharing emotions like everybody else. It’s great to be on the other side sometimes, being a  part of the crowd on the dancefloor. This is how it all started for me and how I fell in love with music and DJing in the first place. But I also like doing quieter things, like going to museums or wandering around town. Berlin’s parks. So good! I love walking, it's so relaxing. And I am a loner anyway. I don’t really need constant social interaction.

I think this is visible when you're on stage. You're so into the music, even nowadays, when you have to play in front of nobody for some kind of stream. You dance for three hours, enjoying yourself. It really looks like you don’t need anybody.

You're probably right! Being alone is not too boring to me. Even though I was able to play a couple of shows recently, there is this strange energy everywhere in the world, you can’t escape. But to get back to your initial question, I did not leave because I was bored of Berlin, I just wanted to be close to my family during the pandemic.

What just happens (normally) in Berlin and not in Moscow?

Meeting five friends from all over the world in a record store all of a sudden.

If you could make a wish, which Berlin club would you play after corona?

Berghain, I guess.

Techno is big in Berlin, what about Moscow?

Since 1991, when the first big rave - “Gagarin party” - took place in Moscow, techno music’s status has been in a process of constant change. At the moment there are a few really cool parties happening in the city. But Berlin is more techno than Moscow.

If the music you produce would be an animal, which one would it be?

I would like my music to sound like an early morning nightingale in May.

I think your music could be an ocelot.

Oh really? That's nice to know! And sometimes a mosquito. I could be everything.

Noah's Arch!

Yes! But back to the nightingale, you know, right now it's May, my favourite month! Everything starts to bloom, it gets warm, the nights get shorter. And then there is this amazing moment around 3 or 4 o clock in the morning, when you walk around and it starts getting brighter. The nightingale will sit in a tree, not a single person around, no cars, and you hear the bird singing into the sound of the night which blends into the approaching morning. I love this so much.

That's when you leave the club. The nightingale is a metaphor for that moment. When you've finished a set and leave the club. Nice.

Also the intimacy of this moment. I feels you are really close to something very special. Such a warm feeling.

Do you have a favourite sound at the moment?

I am currently taking a closer look at music theory and listening to loads of classical music. As a big fan of organ music, I am really loving Bach more than ever before.

Nina Kraviz in front of the famous apartment building at Kudrinskaya Square.
Nina Kraviz in front of the famous apartment building at Kudrinskaya Square.Nanna Heitmann

What is it about Bach that interests you?

I remember listening to Bach when I was a child. But I have been rediscovering his music recently, and I have a new perception of Bach’s music today, as I make music myself. I could listen to him again and again and still have goose bumps.

I think Bach is very much like maths. And a fugue reminds me of the different tracks in electronic music production. Classical music and electronic music have so much in common, as both are instrumental music.

Yes, absolutely. There are many great piano versions of Bach pieces. But then there is the organ! If I had an extra life, I would become an organ player. It’s a mystery for me, how one can play it. It’s multidimensional. You have pedals for the feet, but also keys and registers, which you must operate simultaneously! Amazing.

Like an early synthesizer in way.

In a way. And the sound! For instance, do you know “Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ”?

I remember vaguely.

I am sure you know it!

Nina Kraviz starts to sing, in a choral style with a solemn tempo.

Such a hit! It’s timeless and sounds so fresh today. I love it! Also his not so popular pieces.

Couldn’t you reinterpret Bach? Like Carl Craig did with Ravel?

I would love to. The greatest example of a Bach reinterpretation is the soundtrack of the original Solaris film by Andrej Tarkowski, which also included “Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ”. The Russian composer Eduard Artemjew did it perfectly. Let me see, maybe I can play it for you … wait.

Nina Kraviz types something on her laptop and a melody comes on.

He played this piece on the legendary Soviet synthesizer, the ANS, it’s still kind of close to the original. I think Lars von Trier used the same piece in Nymphomaniac with Charlotte Gainsbourg. Anyway, I could imagine reinterpretating Bach, but it’s a risky path.

Take a fugue, that’s a simple construction. I played it on the piano even when I was a child! That should be easy.

As soon as I finish my album! It’s mostly song-based. I am taking weekly vocal classes and spending a lot of time in the studio. The first single is coming out soon. It’s a bit on the crossover side.

I can’t wait! Also when you perform it! Apropos performing: What was your longest set ever alone?

I think around 13, 14 hours. It was in Athens.

Respect. And what’s your favourite blend at the moment?

Currently it’s a mix of Yellow's “Oh Yeah“ and literally any other record.

Do you think there is a "female way" of DJing?

Is there a female way of driving?

I understand. But, as far as I remember, in the 1990s, guys were mixing the music to death. It seemed like a competition about who had the greatest technical skills. And the few female DJs were spinning records in terms of having a successful party.

I don’t see too much difference. Even though I am not too focussed on the technical side, I know women who  are not less technical than men. In my opinion it is rather about character, not about gender. I don’t share the opinion that women aren't good at technical things. I grew up in a society which was quite orthodox on one hand where the women are seen at the centre of a family. But on the other hand, all women were working, even at factories doing really heavy work. Lots of women were in leading positions in scientific fields, in maths, physics, medicine ... It was normal in Soviet times. So I don't think in stereotypes.

The thing I'm talking about is that the boys had to show off their skills, and the female DJs concentrated on the purpose. But I get your point. In former East Germany it was a similar situation as in the Soviet Union. Women who grew up in these surroundings don’t discuss gender equality too much because they did not experience that big gap as others did. By the way, is it Champagne that you drink when you're on stage?

Yes, always! Champagne goes with everything!

Champagne with everything!

Champagne for everybody!!!