Angus Finlayson gets to grips with the weird world of трип, the highly distinctive label project from Nina Kraviz.
Kraviz's post the next day followed complaints about the set. Punters wanted techno and in their view she hadn't played any; some asked for their money back. The "most negative comments" were reserved for a moment just as the sun was slipping under the horizon. The track, by a Russian producer known as ISHOME and Shadowax, which is forthcoming on her label, трип (pronounced "trip"), was "I Want To Be A Stewardess." It's "a totally my cup of tea like tune," Kraviz said. She described it in her Facebook post:
"a very bassy techno yet beatless sonic weapon with a repetitive Russian speech... that suddenly for about one and a half minutes loses its own shit speeding up to 155 BPM, changes skin and one amen break into another turns into proper drum'n'bass or even hardcore... to finally drop the speed almost to 129 and become his normal self."
But is it really so clear which is the tune's "normal self"? Is it the techno-style beginning and end, which (just about) slots into an open-air set in front of 4,000 people? Or is it the 90 seconds of chaos in the middle, when all the expectations we had about the track—and, by extension, about the person playing it—are turned on their head?
"I find it very interesting that I can be such a different person, and DJ as well," Kraviz says over the phone from a Sydney hotel room a couple of days later. "I can be this and I can be that and it doesn't contradict at all."
Maybe Kraviz's audience would prefer it if she had just one "normal self." More than most top-tier artists, her sometimes surprising actions invite judgement and criticism (her gender surely plays a role in this.) But this doesn't deter her. трип, launched in 2014 and best known for Bjarki's inescapable techno hit "I Wanna Go Bang," might be her most confounding move yet. That track is an outlier on the label: the other releases are much stranger. Most are double-pack compilations (Kraviz insists they're albums) with cryptic titles and surreal, grisly illustrations on the sleeve. The music inside is techno in a loose sense, spanning from the high-tempo wildness of AFX's "P-String" to the melancholy wash of DeNiro's "Organezized."
трип tracks are unified by their trippiness, naturally, and their willingness to surprise (see the jazz chords in Roma Zuckerman's "I Have A Question," or Kraviz's cover of "I Believe I Can Fly"). The producers, a mixture of debutants and '90s veterans, are as likely to come from Russia or Iceland as the US. The records are sequenced to be mixed into one another endlessly, so that, Kraviz says, "the afterparty at home with friends can go forever."
As the label has flourished, Kraviz has placed it at the centre of her musical life. She tours with трип artists and takes a keen interest in their progress—particularly that of Bjarki, who recently released three albums on the label. Last year, Kraviz estimated that her DJ sets consisted of at least 50% released or forthcoming трип material. The labyrinthine tracklist for her forthcoming fabric 91 mix is riddled with unreleased label tracks. The mix itself, strange and vivid, sounds as if it's been infected by трип fever.
"This has actually really, really changed it," Kraviz says when I ask how the label has affected her DJing. "I think it made it more personal in a way." It's late in Australia, where she's partway through a six-week transcontinental tour, but she's eager to talk. "At some point I was so into [playing трип music] that I got a little bit uncomfortable almost. I started thinking that I need some cold water on my head, you know, because maybe I'm moving away from reality. Because I'm a DJ in the first place, so I must continue to dig for music outside my label's radar."
The idea for трип came from Kraviz's DJing—specifically from of her 2015 DJ-Kicks mix. She was revisiting past loves in preparation for the mix, and found a pair of records that she'd discovered when she started buying records in the early 2000s. One was Icelander Exos's 1998-released Grass Hunter. As techno records went, "it was completely different. It was fast, furious and at the same time very soft, beautiful, mild, hypnotic. Kind of psy-techno, you know?" The other was by New York's Steve Stoll under his Cobalt alias. Kraviz was struck by the very '90s artwork. "The only thing that was written on the record was this silver word, 'Cobalt.' This kind of blurred, silver-ish, encrypted word. Somehow those two records were defining for me when I was thinking of my own label."
Around the same time, she looked back at the various stages of her career and realised something: "No matter which timeframe or what kind of music I was interested in, the texture was always the same. No matter what kind of type of music I'm playing it will always be this specific type of emotion or nerve or whatever it is, a texture. I said, 'OK, there should be somebody who's representing this kind of feeling, or this nature of music.' And I looked around and I couldn't find anybody."
She'd started gathering exclusives for the mix, and realised that she had "quite a collection of unreleased, unsigned music. And it all has this interesting texture and it has a very specific sound, and I was thinking, 'What I can do with it?'"
The deal was sealed by a "half-dream, half-nightmare" about an octopus. "It was a sunny day and life was going on around him. And then suddenly he turned into someone completely different, some kind of monster, and he devoured everyone in sight. And he kind of returned to his normal self and he didn't even understand what happened."
With this puzzling dream in mind, Kraviz stumbled on a strange portrait of her by a young Portuguese illustrator. "It was an extremely dark image and extremely psychotic. It was a little bit reminding me of how I felt at that time. This was a part of some kind of art series that one artist called Tombo made, called Mental Diarrhoea. I messaged him right away and I was like, 'What the fuck is this?' and he was like, 'Nina, I'm really sorry, I really didn't mean any harm, I'm a big fan of yours.' I said, 'It doesn't matter, this is amazing, it's really beautiful. By the way, can you please write down a story of an octopus that is devouring everybody in a moment's notice and it doesn't even realise what the hell is going on?'"
Tombo made four drawings over the next three days, giving трип its visual language, and Kraviz assembled an eight-track release around her strange concept. The Deviant Octopus features tracks from Stoll and Exos that had appeared on the DJ-Kicks mix, alongside contributions from Detroit innovator Terrence Dixon, Kraviz herself and the young producers Bjarki and Parrish Smith. The xerox-style artwork was inspired by those '90s records, as was the music, a sparse, visceral techno sound, heavy with menace.
The octopus concept might seem bizarre, but there's a logic to it. "I guess it was some kind of illustration of what I was feeling inside," Kraviz says. "I was going through a very interesting phase in my life, where I was changing, things around me were changing, people were not anymore the same. I mean, some personal relationships... Everything was becoming something else."
This, it turns out, is Kraviz's M.O. Just as in conversation her long, tangential anecdotes end up delivering the answer you were waiting for all along, трип's more farfetched concepts tend to have a rational core. For example, the "box" in Ivan, Come On, Unlock The Box "symbolises something that is unknown, and the whole amount of fear and anxiety that you have in front of something unknown, and you need a little bit of courage to make steps and to actually do it." It's a fitting theme for tracks that alternate between spooky mystery and peak-time panic.
My mention of When I Was 14—named for a Mark Twain quote about the ignorance of youth—prompts a long discussion of the way opinions are shaped on the internet. "Online, people sometimes feel entitled enough to judge something, even though they don't have enough knowledge for it. I had of course my own experience in how people are manipulating and creating some certain image for myself that I had not agreed to." The high tempo intensity of the music might reflect the overheated tone of online debate, or perhaps Kraviz's indignation at these people passing judgement on her.
As for Sleep Not Found? It's easy to see the relevance to a touring DJ. The music, wonky and sedated, would nicely soundtrack the glide through endless airport terminals. In fact, this is one of several kinds of "trip" referenced by the label's name: the state of tiredness "where your mind is finding itself in these kind of dusk areas, in between a dream and reality. When you're tired or you're changing time zone, sometimes you're happy to be in this kind of state of mind. It's very nice for creativity, this kind of state.
"Of course my label is a reflection of my personality in a way, and my attitude towards music and the world in general," Kraviz says. A Трип release should observe "the whole emotional background of the time when it was made."
These oblique emotional narratives are enhanced by Tombo's artwork, which features a nightmarish pantheon of invented characters. Sleep Not Found is adorned by a sci-fi beast he calls the "osseus," all sinewy limbs and claws. The figure on I Have A Question—"the black guy," he calls it—starts life as "a tiny ball that absorbs anything around it, and evolves into a baby. This baby absorbs experience and knowledge around him, and it grows into a man, with eyes on his fingers. These eyes on his fingers are the anxiety and curiosity to absorb everything that he can, while he touches, listens, smells, sees, everything."
Mixing dark urges with queasy humour, Tombo's drawings often seem like the expressions of an unrestrained id. For Bjarki's breakout EP, Arthur And The Intergalactic Whales, he worked to a stimulus sentence from Kraviz: "I wanna see all my friends at once—I'll do anything to get a chance to go bang!" Tombo's response was a "sex forest" where the luscious-lipped trees are watched over by floating "vagina men." On the sleeve's reverse, a moustachioed figure stands at the forest's forbidding edge, looking for a way to the orgy.
As you might imagine, the way Kraviz selects music for the label is also unconventional. "I always say, first of all, send me everything you've got. Send me everything that you hate. Because that's probably what I would like. And also send me everything that's unfinished. Never think for myself what I would like, because you would never guess what I would like."
Terrence Dixon, who appears on two трип compilations and says he's working on an album for the label, approves of the process. "I have given трип over 30 tracks in demo mode, they only picked two or three. This is the kind of thing that the industry needs more of. Nina tells me to send more, as in trying to get the best out of me, or as in, 'I know you can do better.'"
Bjarki agrees: "She is someone who just knows how to squeeze things out of you." Exos, a routine трип contributor, describes Kraviz's taste as "unpredictable." "She is mainly hunting for music that has this pureness, simplicity and organic feel."
Kraviz has often used the phrase "no sugar added" to describe her preferred music. She looks for "something that is almost not done completely, you know? There's like another final step that has to be done to call this song a finished thing. But I don't want it to be finished because my imagination is rich enough to finish it itself. And it's essential for a DJ, sometimes, to have this kind of music that you can play with, and you can create your own layers of sounds, and your own thing, out of unfinished music. If it's already finished it's too late sometimes."
Kraviz collects these tracks into a library of material to be drawn on when a concept strikes. She's currently sitting on "a massive amount of music," and not all of it will be released—which can cause friction with artists.
"I will often tell artists that we're signing this music and I don't know when it's going to be out. Sometimes it takes a little while before a track finds its right place. Well, it might never find its place. Some people would after some time say, 'It's already one year and the track is not out!' But some artists are totally fine with it, for example Bjarki. I have so much stuff from him that will never get any release, I think."
Bjarki is трип's shining star. Before joining the label he was unknown; now he's one of techno's most closely watched new artists. He heard about the label through his friend and fellow Icelander Exos, whose "Nuclear Red Guard" had just been signed for the The Deviant Octopus. He went to see Kraviz DJ in Copenhagen, where he was living at the time, and gave her a USB stick of demos. He's since been pivotal in shaping the label's sound, appearing on almost all трип releases, including a trio of dizzyingly inventive albums at the end of this year.
Bjarki is prolific, and it's uncanny how closely his interests reflect Kraviz's. His techno and IDM reboots give old ideas a playful twist, reflecting the label's '90s-loving attitude. (Having grown up in the early 2000s, he describes himself as being "in between the influence of '90s sound and the future sound of the digital era.") His output is rough and provisional-sounding—just the "unfinished" style Kraviz likes. The bold drama of his music means that, even at its weirdest, it could conceivably work in the big spaces Kraviz often DJs in.
"I've always imagined a label where music is accepted the way it's been made, without twiddling it to fit a certain label style or sound," he says. "My friend told me a long time ago that my music had too many layers and different textures compared to other techno records. I guess he meant it in a bad way, when with Nina, she gets it, even better than me."
Bjarki isn't alone among трип artists in describing the label as a family. Veteran producer K-Hand, who appears on two трип releases, praises the "family-type connection" that sees her "included on трип events traveling the world. Some other labels just license music. Then you find yourself just waiting on royalty statements year after year yet nothing else happens, leaving artists completely stagnant."
Exos has built relationships with younger producers through the label. "I immediately felt a strong family connection with Deniro and Nikita [Zabelin]. And now we are working on a collaboration together. I am also in very good contact with Vladimir Dubyshkin who has become one of my favourite artists and a great friend."
This is a wish realised for Kraviz. With a few notable exceptions—like Jus-Ed, who signed Kraviz's debut record in 2009, and suggested that she should start her own label someday—she feels she's often been misunderstood. She hasn't surrounded herself with a team, as other high profile artists tend to.
"To be honest, it's been a rocky path," Kraviz says. "Nobody really could get along with me or with what I was doing 100 percent. There was not much support in the beginning. Now with my label I also deal with people that didn't really get so much support, and suddenly when they are on a label they flourish, and some of them become very prolific, and people start getting interested in what they do. This is really amazing to have such connection and trust, this comfort of being accepted. Most of the artists on the label know that I believe in their creativity—I really believe in them like somebody believed in me many years ago."
But it's still ultimately Kraviz who guides the trip. As young Russian producer Nikita Zabelin puts it, she's the "chief transmitter" between the label's "UFO minds." The label is many things—and Kraviz admits that its direction is "sometimes not even 100% clear" to her—but above all it seems to be an exploration of her own emotional life, captured in a series of strange, adventurous techno records.
"If it doesn't reflect anything emotionally in me, doesn't excite me immediately or can't even make me angry—that means it's not for me," she says. "That's the only criteria for me when I select music. And sometimes it helps me to discover new things about myself."
There's no word on the DJ behind this mix and no tracklist has been provided, but expect music from трип's "UFO minds" such as Roma Zuckerman, Bjarki, PTU, Nina Kraviz, Exos, Vladimir Dubyshkin, Nikita Zabelin, K-HAND and Biogen.
Thanks to Tsiolkovsky State Museum of the History of Cosmonautics and its director, Natalia A. Abakumova, for opportunity to use the space for a photoshoot.