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Techno titan Nina Kraviz: ‘People were suspicious of a pretty woman making music’

The Russian producer became technos most divisive figure after filming an interview in the bath. Here, she discusses sexism, her emotional DJ sets and raving on the Great Wall of China

Musicians are often said to be on top of the world, but rarely are they actually perched on one of its wonders. Way up in the misty hills of Mutianyu, north-east of Beijing, the Siberian DJ and producer Nina Kraviz is soundtracking sunrise at the Great Wall of China. Forty ravers have gathered on an ancient watchtower to dance as dawn breaks, while two replicas of terracotta army soldiers preside over the decks beside her.

A few hours earlier, the authorities had cut short Kravizs headline show at a nearby festival, claiming incorrectly that it was overrunning. So, this otherworldly afterparty feels subversive. It is being livestreamed on Facebook, which is banned in China, along with most western social media. Wine is passed around as though it is the prohibition era. Kravizs metallic sound feels thunderous enough to bring the terracotta warriors to life.

Moments like these are why Kraviz has become the most talked-about DJ in techno. One of the first women to become a headline act, she thrives on challenging her audience. Her sets stand above other DJs slickly synchronised, clinically pristine beats as she plays fast and loose with ghetto house, old-school hardcore, footwork, trance, drumnbass and her favourite genre, acid. Her style is unkempt, never dull.

When I DJ, Im fucking alive, she says. All my channels are open. People think Im on drugs, but Im not Im just really experiencing it. She calls her approach raw, but she dislikes how that has become a byword for anyone who plays vintage-sounding house music through software: Fuck you, man, [your show is] pre-cooked, taken out of the fridge and then burned in the fucking microwave. By contrast, she never pre-plans her sets, let alone stands still while playing. Im putting my physical presence into it. And its different from one show to another because Im a different person every day. Im the kind of person that goes from highest point to the fucking lowest point in a second.

People think Im on drugs, but Im not Im just really experiencing it … Kraviz DJing on the Great Wall of China. Photograph: Frankie Casillo

Im not a psychopath, she laughs. Im just extremely emotional.

An interview with Kraviz is as trippy and impassioned as one of her sets. Her body clock is back to front; we end up talking in her hotel room at midnight the next day. Chain-smoking in her dressing gown, she spends an hour explaining how techno has been underestimated as a genre. Its a phenomenon, its as important as jazz, she says. Its incredibly rich, culturally, but its so underground that it took me 15 years to have even a little bit of a frame of reference. There are still areas that I dont know about.

Kravizs techno education started in her hometown of Irkutsk and developed in the early 90s (she wont disclose her exact age), when she would listen to early-hours radio broadcasts of electronic music on the Europa Plus network. By the end of that decade, she was living in Moscow, working as a dentist at a war veterans hospital by day and holding down a club residency on Friday nights. She briefly fronted the band MySpaceRocket, but left to focus on her own productions after being told she was just a singer. Two of her tracks, 2009s Voices and 2010s I Am Gonna Get You/Pain in the Ass, were released by labels outside Russia, putting her on the dance music map.

But sexism was a problem. Back in the mid-00s, the male-dominated dance music scene struggled to get its head around a woman who knew what to do with electronic hardware. In 2012, she released her self-titled debut album, a collection of simmering 808 love songs and gauzy techno-pop. While some people loved it, says Kraviz, people were suspicious of a pretty woman making music on her own, with a vision. They couldnt handle me. It was like: It cannot be true that you can have lipstick on and make music.

A year later, she starred in a video portrait by dance music site Resident Advisor, during which she was interviewed in the bath. A picture of a foamy, playful Kraviz was plastered across blogs and divided the club world. The criticism levelled at her including from male peers said she was putting sexuality before artistry, as though the two were mutually exclusive. The renowned house DJ Seth Troxler called Kraviz a bitch in an interview.

Watch a video of Kravizs trip to the Great Wall of China.

With me, people feel very loose in expressing their opinions, she says. It sometimes seems like its bad to be a sexist, unless its about Nina Kraviz. If a man had been in the video, she says, the focus would have been their music: I was one of the only artists at that time who had made an album without ghost producers. Still, she doesnt regret the bath scene. Im thankful now, because it made me famous.

Bathgate encourage her to create a comfort zone where Im myself and no one affects it but me. She started her record labels Trip (which celebrates 20 releases this month with a new compilation) and Galaxiid, which established her as a tastemaker for severe and surreal techno: the muggy, Kraftwerkian anti-anthems of Icelandic artist Bjarki; Russian duo PTU and their breakneck whirls of pinging samples; and Kravizs own releases, which sound as though they were made for the dungeon of a Detroit techno club in 1991.

She still has to deal with sexist comments about her mixing skills and men leering during her live streams. I try not to think about it, but the majority of people are maybe not that interested in music on a deep level.

As it nears 3am, I wonder how she maintains her sanity in a world of sunrise sets and constant travel. I have a pretty serious sleeping problem, she says. Im so excited; I cant go to bed for three hours after the show, no matter how tired I was before. But I cannot control it, so I just accept it.

Her schedule is about to get even more busy. There is a summer of festivals ahead, she is making remixes for art-pop musician St Vincent (Shes a character; I like characters) and she is writing new music. I think people are mostly attracted to the energy I bring, she says. And if people like my energy, thats already the greatest compliment I could get.

The compilation album Trip 20: Dont Mess With Cupid is released on 20 July

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