The tracks, attitude and most notably, the voice of Kittin (nee, Miss Kittin) were synonymous with the electroclash era; glamorous, hedonistic and operating with tongue firmly-in-cheek, it remains one of the most divisive periods in dance music's fluctuating history, but few could deny it's strength of personality. And of all those personalities, few, if any, have had the longevity of Caroline Herve.
Returning without the prefix in 2018 to deliver the unexpectedly soothing 'Cosmos' on stellar US label Dark Entries, Kittin continues to operate as one of the most distinctive Djs on the European circuit, with tastes that shoot fruitfully through the sphere of techno, house and electro. That renders her the ideal candidate for the latest edition of Phantasy's interview series, 'The Forum', speaking with candour and depth to John Loveless, touching on her decades-long relationship with The Hacker, dance music's gender evolution, the cyclical nature of rave culture and the legacy of her more memorable lyrics.
So, to begin, you're just 'Kittin' now.
I would like to be simply Kittin, because people naturally call me that, but I know that it will be very difficult to change it totally. So, for me, it doesn't make a difference, because back in the nineties, when I started, they put 'Miss' in front of every female DJ. And I thought, “I'm 45, and I'm not a Miss anymore.” I always found it a little bit ridiculous, but I just gave up somehow.
Was that particular trend playing off the percieved novelty of a female DJ in the nineties?
I think it helped promoters to sell tickets. I remember, back then, there were a good amount of female DJs playing in my area, like Isis from Holland and Jax and Marilyn, girls from Holland, basically. But always with 'Miss' on flyers.
There's a track on your recent LP, Cosmos, that is called #metoo. I've thought about you in the past few years, given the impact you made as a DJ back in the early 00s. There continues to be a lot of discussion about the representation and support of female DJs, either in terms of booking or as you've put it, deconstructing the different expectations of female DJs in comparison to their male colleagues. Do you look back on that period and feel you were having to fight against factors that you shouldn't have needed to?
It's a tough question, because, you know, as thigs were before, you wouldn't ask yourself that question. You would just try to do your thing with what you had and do it the best you can. The world, not just music, was like that, and this was the case, probably for most women in every aspect of life. So you would just deal with it. And I never had the spirit of an activist, so I never thought about bringing that talk to the table.
It really came up later, but, I was very surprised because I never wanted to be an activist. It was just a reflection of my actions, and I'm very proud of that somehow. It shows that my attitude and my way of navigating this system was right. Because nobody could use the fact I was an activist to say, “Oh yeah, she's the one who's barking.” I just made my way by working hard and doing the best I can, and treating people with respect. And I think that they treated me with respect in return.
And, of course, now I think I could have done much more, and there were Djs like Electric Indigo, who did do that; She created the first feminist group, 'Female Pressure', and she paid a high price for trying to raise her voice. I'm sure a lot of promoters didn't book her as they were like, “Oh no, her again.”
I think that both yourself and Electric Indigo, or (activist and post-punk pioneer) Gudrun Gut, sometimes use your sense of humour as a weapon?
Yes, and I think that's what Gudrun really understands. It's not about breaking everything and saying no future. It's about fighting the system from inside. And somehow, maybe without really realizing, that's what we did. But, at the end, you can have opinions and be strong-minded, and you can be an activist, but what really counts are the decisions you take for yourself. And that, in the long term, it speaks more than any speech. I just remember that I wanted to go to bed and know that I was OK with my choices. That I made my choices according to my values.
Would you agree that dance music in 2019 is more explicitly political?
Yes, but also, a lot of people pretend or say they are involved or have an opinion on this or that. But, when you look at their career, they make commercial choices where there is no engagement. And they have their reasons, and I'm not here to judge, but it's really according to what they pretend to believe in. And on that matter, I was always faithful to who I am. I never played gigs where I thought, “I don't want to be a part of that.” And I was always very skeptical whenever there's a lot of money involved.
I tend to find that any artists who truly don't give a fuck don't feel compelled to tell you. You can just sense it, or feel it in their work. I remember when I was a teenager and I first heard Requiem for a Hit, the way you subverted the misogynistic rap element of it with the singing breakdown. It's still very funny and cool.
I still don't know how I managed to do that. I feel like I had to be very naive to have made that record. Unafraid of anything, and a bit unconcious. And it's only when you're young and you are kind of rebellious or you have nothing to lose that you do those kind of things. Because as you grow, you become more concious and you are wiser. And I don't think I could ever be able to do that again, because now, I'm wiser and I think too much! And it's great that I was able to do that.
And you're not afraid to make yourelf vulnerable, on that record in particular, to hear you singing like that.
I think it's just fun to do that. When you put vocals on a track, it was always too boring for me to write stupid stuff about love. I thought it was a great opportunity to write something different or maybe even a little bit disturbing. And also, because not a lot of people do that. So there was a highway in front of me somehow.
You recently released a series of tracks on Dark Entries, featuring your best known collaborator, The Hacker.
It's funny, because at the time, we didn't release these tracks because we thought they weren't good enough. We thought 'Love on 26' was too cheesy.
But I think that record sounds very fresh. But that's the cyclical nature of rave culture, I suppose?
Yes, that's the luxury of time. Because ten years ago, or even five years ago, these tracks would have sounded retro in a wrong way, in the cheesy way. And now, we're cool again! Because right now, electro is coming back, techno has been back, and that's the wheel of time.
How does it feel during those moments on the wheel of time, when the hand of the clock isn't resting on you? Is it easy to panic?
When we wrote these tracks, in 1996, we were probably a bit ahead of the time. And when this movement, our scene, exploded in 2001, we were already touring and had been for five years. So we were done, and we stepped back. So now, to have it come back round again, and to have these old records on some tapes, it's great to see that in this genre, we are somehow still the boss? Can I say that, with some irony? (Laughs.) But it's good for my ego to say, “OK, we are still here.” It's great to see that we managed to stay very singular and strong.
You were associated heavily with the electroclash scene, but your taste has always reached beyond that. Your set for RBMA at 'Thirty Years of Techno' was very satisfying; like a whistlestop tour of house, electro and techno. You're able to play in a very versatile way, and maybe now the clock hand is back round to you again, you can play better without the expectations of a scene resting on you?
It's hard for me to tell, as I've been Djing for twenty-five years and trying to play in this way since I saw Lauren Garnier, back when I was a little raver in 93 or before. And then, with my own experience, I tried to tighten this skill and keep this very edgy angle. And I think now, it's hard to say. Can I still be fresh? That's the question that we all ask ourselves. That's why young Djs breakthrough very fast, and they ask themselves the same question, because they want to last. And we all have to stay relevant, so that we have interesting things to say when we play and that's not easy because, especially for me, of course, I don't envision my work in the same way I used to when I was young and I didn't know anything. It was my door to see the world and escape from my small town and grow as a human being.
I just take it easier. I try my best still and I'm glad electroclash is back, I'm glad techno is back, and I'm glad that audiences once again appreciate the big mixture of genres in one set. But we're in a totally different situation. There are more Djs, more clubs and more trends, and things move faster. I'm lucky that I have had my name for a while and I can relate or rely on that to have a few more years of work in front of me. But, it's a fragile economy! How can you stay strong in what you say and what you do as an artist and as a DJ while in the middle of this huge world now. I think about it everyday, and it pushes me as an artist to ask myself for more.
Your latest LP, Cosmos, is missing the irony or the sexuality people might perhaps typically associate with you.
Yes, but I knew that from the start. But I don't do music to satisfy an audience. I do music because I need to say something. And what I needed to say, couldn't be said in another form. That's what came out when I had the urge to release new music. That's the freedom I have, as Kittin solo. When I release a record, I do what I feel. I have to shut myself out from what people might expect, and take on my role, which is to provide people with something that is real. I could always make what people expect of me, and commercially, I can still do it when I collaborate, on the techno side, with Dubfire, or the electro side, with The Hacker.
And that's why people call me; for my voice. They want that feeling, that identity, something that people can connect to. But thank God, as a solo artist, I have my freedom to explore my own world. I don't care they don't buy my own record. It's a need for me to do that, otherwise, I would just repeat what I already did. But that's not fulfilling as a human being and as an artist.
The first lyric on the record is a statement that you are where you want to be, and seems far removed, almost spiritual, compared to the nocturnal glamour of your club collaborations. Where did you want to be, and where are you now? Not to kill the mystery of the single, but what are you reflecting on there?
It's more on a spiritual level, I never wanted to sound like a hippy, but what I meant is, as a human being, the big journey is to search for who you are. And for me, it took a very long time. I think for everyone, it takes a huge amount of time, and lots of travelling and searching, believing in different places. And then, hopefully at some point, and it's often when you pass forty, there is an emergency somehow to acknowledge you have probably arrived halfway through your life, if you live a good amount of time, and there is an urge to succeed with what's left in front of you. And then, automatically, you realise that you know what you want, what you don't, but that you have to move your ass to be where you want. So that's why I started with that track. I've got to the point where I know who I am, more or less, and that's where I need to be. It's a place you can call home, spiritually, and geographically, knowing the place you want to live. Which is also something I had never had before.
Sounds like a good point to be at. I suspect I've got a little ways to go yet...
Well, it was tough, and I'm happy everyday that I managed. But it was really hard work! (Laughs.) I'm a very tortured person and without a lot of guidance. I had to learn everything through experience, but I made it. And I always knew I'd make it. I knew there was a point from which you can enjoy life, and I wanted to speak about that as it's my biggest achievement. And when I make an album, I have to talk about my deepest thoughts in that moment. And they were these, so that's why I couldn't write techno for this. When you peel off, like an onion, and come to a sense of who you are, then the music has to reflect that. It's an album without a lot of beats, without chorus, without verse. It's really about the textures that reflect my state of mind. And I know that people are used to me being a little 'far away', at least at first.
You've enjoyed a long and frutiful relationship with The Hacker. What's the secret to that side of your life?
The Hacker is the funniest person I know, and we are idiots, working and playing together. We never take ourselves seriously, but the work and everything we do, we take seriously. And that's the difference. Because for me, people who overact and are showing off all the time, it's a weakness. It shows such an insecurity and it's not appealing or attractive at all. And that's why we have so much irony. Because we are all insecure.
It's funny, because it started that we needed each other. He needed me for the vocals, and I needed him for his gear. Because he was the only one I knew who had gear in my hometown. We were friends, going to raves and parties together, but we were not super close. We became close through this project and yeah, it's strange, to be thrown out there on big stages with a technical partner like that, and you grow together, you learn out of eachother and the relationship is more like that of a family now. We are like brother and sister. There was never romantic or physical love involved; it was a real partnership. We never had an argument that could destroy the relationship and tear us apart.
It's still hard to maintain any relationship though, even one that's platonic or based in creativity. I know it feels natural, so you probably wouldn't want to see it as an achievement, but that kind of dynamic can be very difficult as well as very satisfying, right?
Oh yeah. (Laughs.) But look at some of the most iconic bands. The Hacker wanted to make music ever since he saw Depeche Mode on the TV. We know them a little bit, and their history, and we knew that they could survive because they live seperate lives when they don't work together. The Hacker is not an introvert, but he's writing to escape. He can be running away from conflicts, whereas I'm more the front-girl who is more confrontational. And that's how it works. Each of us has a function in the band that is really defined, and of course we have conflicts, but we know we need each other. We complete each other and we know how to handle the situations because we exactly know how the other will react. And when you know that, you know how the problem will be resolved in advance. If I want to talk about something he doesn't know how to talk about, I will know how to approach the problem. And the same for him. You have to deal with egos, but you also have to put your ego on the side to realise what is best for both of you. And if you're unwilling to do that, there's no chance the band will last. You have to think about what's good for the project.
You visited Detroit and Chicago in the nineties, alongside The Hacker, taking over music inspired by those scenes. What were those experiences like?
Human experiences. I think music was just the catalyst, the ship, through this journey. Imagine, our first live show in Munich, which we played for DJ Hell, that The Hacker had never taken a plane. Heroes like all the Hardwax crew, and then, when we went to Detroit... I'm still amazed by all these experiences, and what we achieved, even though it was physically very hard, travelling in cars and vans. We had no business class. We lived it the hard way but we learned so much, like kids in a candy store. We went to places that we had only heard about in history books. Going to Leipzig or Dresden in 1997, we met the youth, people our age and even younger, who experienced East Germany. And when we heard them talk about how they grew and the system, it was just amazing to hear those stories. It was the same to be in Detroit and hear Mad Mike Banks' stories, about how people live and the social situation. It makes you a better person. You come home and you are not the same. That's why The Hacker and I are very close to each other and we are linked for life. We went through a lot of very deep emotions, linked not only with music but history, economics and geography.
The earliest interview with you that I found online was from 2001. You'll be pleased to know there's nothing particularly unusual or shocking in there, but you talk about how your production methods. How have they changed over the years?
The Hacker finally has live Ableton! Back then, it was Atari and I was singing into headphones, as we didn't even have a microphone. Now, people send me the facillities at home to record my own vocals with or without effects, so the other person is free to do their own thing. My voice is my instrument and nobody can make it better than I do.
Have you changed your approach to vocals and maybe even maintaining your voice over the years?
Yes, because, like I told you before, you're more concious of your voice as you get older. Honestly, if I'd have known the famous line from Frank Sinatra, “Suck my dick, lick my ass” would get so big, I'd have never sung it. Because I'm not proud, spiritually speaking, to have a track that marked history where I say, “Suck my dick, lick my ass.” I don't think that's a nice thing to say. There's nothing to be proud of.
I wouldn't say that! It's a club record that's genuinely funny and weird, and that's because it came from your mind at the time. Of course, it would be weird if you were still just doing tracks asking people to suck your dick or to lick your ass...
Thankyou, thankyou! Because a lot of people still want me to sing stuff like that! But we are different, we grow, and we know that words themselves have power and that you need to think twice before saying what you say. And that's the difficulty of being a writer. And thank God with knowing that, you put effort into doing the best you can with words.
I don't think that just applies to musicians, writers or artists these days. People can be made or undone by just one photo or quote these days.
And I think that's the lesson that could be taken from Twitter. For me, we have to cherish language and start to write correctly and so on. We will come back to cherish autograph and language. I think it's important. And of course, I still want to have this desire to write controversial things with irony, because that's who I am, and I won't change. But that's what I'm working on; What subjects do I want to talk about to still be relevant and have an impact with maybe more maturity and more intelligence. That's the goal, but that's very difficult. It's a long process, to find the meeting point between being spontaneous and letting go, while knowing the impact that will have. It's very complicated to write!
Do you make notes to construct vocals, or does the process come out of improvisation?
Yes, I make notes. I'm very interested in everything, I read a lot and I'm extremely curious. Always searching for information, or when I watch a movie, I always need to know who did the lights, stuff like that. Because everything inspires, and when I decide to write a story or a song about something, I'm not neccesarilly writing autobiographically. I'm more interested in people than myself, as an artist. So I like to find universal subjects and write a peculiar story around it.
I've always wondered, what's 'Silver Screen Shower Scene' about it?
I didn't write the lyrics, so I don't know. I think it was Tommy Sunshine's, I'm not credited on the writing process, unfortunately. I didn't know how to fight that at the time. 'Silver Screen' came out really quickly after 'Frank Sinatra', and that had such an impact on these people, that a lot of people asked me to write over and over about the same thing, and I didn't really want to. To me, 'Silver Screen' is 'Frank Sinatra', but written differently.
You have played some interesting and varied back-to-backs in the current DJ scene. Kim Ann Foxman, from New York, and also most recently with Marcel Dettman in Panorama Bar, and elsewhere. What's the common uniting factor between the people you blend with creatively?
Kim Ann Foxman, I met her two or three years ago, but I had been aware of her since she was in Hercules and Love Affair. And I just liked her at first sight, as she had what I really like in an artist, and especially a female artist; she's just herself and so naturally herself, that it's something we can somehow be jealous of. Someone with such a good nature and sincerity, you can only love her. And you can feel that when she plays. She doesn't show off, she doesn't do anything because she's just shining by the way she is. And that's so classy nowadays.
We're playing together at Sonar this summer, for the first time. It was their idea, and it was a good one! I have invited her in the past to a few parties, and I worked hard to make sure that we were playing in the same spirit. But really, we're just playing record... We don't save lives!
Playing back-to-back with Marcel Dettman, in Panorama Bar for eight hours, was one of the best DJ experiences of my life. Marcel invited me and I was hoping we could play a little bit together back-to-back. He started on his own, but he was really tired and said, “Please can you play with me?” And this was just another dimension, to play with him in there.
I wish I had been there that afterrnoon. He's somewhat like you in the sense that he's known for one thing but can make any record sound interesting. He just plays records with a certain charisma.
He doesn't doubt what he plays. He's completely secure, so when you're on the dancefloor, no matter what he plays, you feel love and you feel on the same page. He's a very solid person. He has a very good family life, his wife is amazing, he's very grounded and balanced. And he has a huge musical culture, of course, but he plays with that spirit and he's smart enough to play all this stuff together without any problem. And it's because he's like this on the inside, too. Djs like that don't lie, they don't force anything and they have just an amazing personality, and it's magical.
And really, I think people go clubbing and go to listen to Djs to feel that energy. And it's a huge inspiration, and one you may not notice when you're on the dancefloor, or on drugs or whatever, but when you go home, you have that energy with you for days, and then you can move on with your life. Because you know you carry something real, positive, stable... Something right. You have something very right in you and it's the best thing to change your life, or to put into your projects. And it's so important that Djs play with that intention, and be very generous with that.
It feels like a bit of an arms race at the moment to be 'blessed' or 'humbled'. But really, it's almost ironic that Djing continues to be so anchored in ego, because I think at it's core, it's quite a generous craft, right? To share music with people?
Yes, but it takes years to learn to play generously like that, because you have to know and love yourself. And that takes a long time, especially when you are trapped into needing to be succesful, have likes and followers and you want to be a star. If your mind is occupied by that, it's not occupied by working on yourself to be a good person.
Have you always had that confidence as a DJ, at least, or like the rest of your life, is it something you've had to work towards?
Of course not, but that's for sure that from the very start, my wish was in life was to be free. Not to be rich or famous, or a big artist. I just wanted to be a free woman, a free person, in charge of my decisions, independent financially and never trapped in the preoccupations of fame, money or power. When I spoke about playing with Marcel, and giving someone inspiration or a positive thing to go on with their life, that's something that I always had in mind. Because that's what I felt the first time I went to a rave. I came back home and I was like, “What was that?” How am I going to go on with my life after feeling that everything is possible? And if I experienced it, then I think that maybe in the room, someone will do the same and do something great with their life.
I want to give my best with music so that energy can come out of myself, because it makes me happy, and maybe it might make someone else happy. I know that it's the right thing to do, for myself. I cannot speak for every DJ, but that's my intent, for sure. I hope it doesn't sound arrogant, but it's very sincere.
John Thorp, April 2019