With an unequalled ear for an electronic hook, incredible skill behind the decks and her constant rebellion against techno snobbery, Caroline Hervé, AKA Miss Kittin has over the last 25 years become synonymous with Sónar. Whether through her early performances with The Hacker, as part of DJ Hell's International DJ Gigolo's squad, or her solo headline sets, Kittin is as much a part of Sónar history as the green astroturf of Sónar by Day.
Kittin will be returning to the festival for the anniversary as part of a special b2b with Kim Ann Foxman to close SonarLab on Fri 15th June. Ahead of the event, Sónar caught up with her to discuss her memories of the past quarter century and how she sees the wider industry today.
Hi Caroline. As you know this year we're celebrating 25 years of Sónar festival. Do you remember the first time you played. What were your impressions then, and how do you feel about returning for the anniversary?
I do remember exactly. Sonar was still happening on the beach. We were planned with The Hacker live for the epic Gigolo records night on Saturday. I arrived a day earlier and had to fill in last minute for Abe Duque as a DJ on the Disko B stage, who got stuck for visa reasons. Upstart, the label boss, has broken his leg and welcomed me with sticks in the air. That was my first performance at Sonar! Next day, Gigolo night was surreal, a succession of insane circumstances: After soundcheck, Hell had his record bag stolen, there was a body builder on stage, and no dressing room so I had to change behind the tech guy; Zombie Nation spread tomato juice as blood all over himself; people were breaking fences to get in. It was a long crazy night… Of course I am extremely honoured to be back, especially with Kim Ann Foxman who is one of my favourite DJ at the moment. Closing this stage was my last appearance at Sonar many years ago, it's a stage and time I particularly cherish when the sun comes up. Sonar is mainly a huge human and cultural adventure created by very special people to me, with who I always had a special bond, even when I was not programmed. I am sure they would have never guessed their baby would have grown so much worldwide, but I never doubted it. It's a real proof of trust to be invited once more, as I am clearly somehow closer to retirement!
As well as our birthday, it's also 20 years since the release of your first EP with The Hacker 'Champagne'. What have been the main changes you've seen in electronic music since then?
The whole industry. Technology, management, marketing, social media, concurrence. And therefore, the global approach and behaviour around music. Talking with The Hacker we often remind ourselves [about] touring with no tour manager, no sound engineer, no soundcheck sometimes, on big stages, completely on our own, carrying gear in hand luggage sports bags, something unthinkable today.
Are there any plans to celebrate the release?
We already released a series of « lost tracks » on Dark Entries last year, recording at the same time as the First Album. The 2nd volume is to come next month.
There's a line on 1982 from that record: "Let's make a riot in the shitty serious world of techno" - How much do you identify with that sentiment today?
At first, it was an ironic quote to say we could never do better than our techno idols, such as Jeff Mills (The Hacker took his name from one of his tracks). So we decided to make electro instead. And when we did, with more ironic lyrics, people wouldn't take us seriously, techno people mainly. True, we surely didn't take ourselves seriously, still now. But we always took our job seriously, with love and respect, as a day by day chance to discover the world. Things didn't change much on that serious techno matter. We still witness codes closely followed to be accepted in a genre. Politics. Some musicians wouldn't remix us, scared to go out of their way and lose what they call integrity, and clubs wouldn't book certain DJs because they weren't seen as 'underground' enough. I just can answer: if we would have followed these rules, we would have never had such a career. Not everybody is brave. Far from that. I am fine with it. It gives more space for my curiosity.
It's interesting how there's been a revival in interest in the EBM sound you were referencing back then, and also how many of those DJ's happen to be women: Helena Hauff, Lena Willikens, Veronica Vasicka for example. Do you think there's any reason for this, and what is it about that sound that's so enduring?
First of all, let's put things back to perspective. There is more women breaking through, yes, thank God, but for how many men as well? So now just because there's a few more women in the spotlight, we make a whole fuss about it. Well, get used to it. Back then there were simply less DJs and therefore less women. It's mathematics. Secondly, I truly believe [that by the time a] woman gets to that level, she [has] [had to go through a lot, with perseverance and more work than any man. Somehow, EBM's energy reflects their story, the strong will behind them. Third, history is just a succession of loops and reinterpretations, we had that with house, techno, acid, and now EBM. Not surprising.
Either way, there has definitely been a change in terms of more representation. Do you think things are getting better?
It is fantastic to see more successful women. But it's still not proportional to the amount of DJs rising around the globe. For sure, the female debate attracts attention on them. What is really different, is they can earn as much as men now, which was not the case before. I never earned the same fee as my male colleagues, even though I was more popular than them at the time. I didn't know it, because no one would talk about money. I knew in the collective unconsciousness and for promoters, a woman couldn't be technically better than a man, so they would never accept paying the same. When I told Laurent Garnier my maximum fee, he couldn't believe it. Now my career is behind me, I don't care, but if I would have had the same success today, trust me, my fee would be triple. I got rich in many other ways. I hear a lot of pathetic talk about how high fees some girls get, without releasing major records, I say hey, they play the same marketing game as you, and you just can't take it. It's so easy to say it's because they are pretty. Same old same old...
Out of all your performances at Sónar over the years many people remember a great Disko B showcase in which you were dressed as a nurse. What was behind that outfit, and is fashion and dressing up important to you in general?
When we were booked for Sonar, it was a very big deal for us. And I didn't know what to wear. We were a band, and I was the front one. Living in Geneva back then, I went to a store nearby and found that costume for 20 euros, there was nothing else... I never imagined it would have had such an impact. It showed how easy it is to play with men erotic fantasies… Kind of pathetic in a way. But I envisioned it as like in punk bands, Poison Ivy from the Cramps and so on. I was telling the story to a friend recently, explaining to him how much people expect women to do « the show ». You can see it more than ever with female DJs today, videos of them doing their dance on strong techno. Men don't have to do that, wearing a simple black tee and jeans, and when they do, people don't say a thing. Women always have to deal with the concept of being a sexual object. One more heavy parameter in our life that may be a passport for success, but for a very short time, it's a lost battle. We will all get old with wrinkles. You may give men what they want and they will disrespect you for it, they won't listen to your music, just look at your tits. I was telling him how necessary it is for us to resist, stop using these expected sexual codes, stop having society dictate what you want to be. But you can't blame women to continue doing it, for not having the guts and patience to take a longer and more difficult way. I did it by accident with that nurse costume, 20 years ago, in a punk way, but I will never do crazy dances in order to get more views on Youtube.
This year you'll be playing a b2b with Kim Ann Foxman? How did you meet, and how did the idea for this session come about?
I can't remember how we met, that's how instantly we bonded. She is very down to earth, elegant, talented as hell with enormous humility. She never has to « show . She is like she plays, she doesn't play a role. Believe it or not, it is very rare, male or female. You must be very grounded to be like that. I won't say « secure » because none of us are, as artists, but when she is behind the decks, she is completely confident about her music, it's solid. When it's like that, you take people under your wing in a very motherly way, you give them a guidance, a place to be safe. You can only fall in love with a DJ like that. I relate to that a lot. It inspires me to keep on focusing on the music, my good intentions towards the crowd, with no superficial distraction.
How are you going to approach your joint session? Will you play a track each or would you rather leave some more time to each one to develop your own set? Do you speak a lot before to decide where you want to go or let it flow in a freer way?
I usually prefer to play one track each, otherwise I am kind of bored! There's nothing like that feeling of rebounding on your partner's previous track. You have to be extremely relaxed to do that, otherwise it's a battle, and it's not good at all. You must trust each other, reveal in each other your adventurous mind to find good combinations. And most of all: no ego. You are here to create something together, not to shine. You put yourself at the service of the other. You have to be generous. We haven't talked yet how to proceed. I am not worried. We both want to have fun, an unforgettable time, that's all that matters. The rest will follow.
Nowadays the usual channels of distribution no longer exist and classic formats have faded. How do you discover new music? Do you listen to new things maybe through Youtube or social networks?
I really take my distance with Social Network. It has a negative impact on self confidence, including tones of unnecessary informations. The good thing is it pushed me to introspection, as an artist: what do I really want to say today in my music for example. I discover music on different online record shops, and listening to other DJs too.
Throughout your career, you've often switched between DJ and producer. Which of the two are you most comfortable with, and is there anything you haven't tried yet that you'd like to?
Djing is my every day job so to speak. I am very comfortable with it, I've been doing it for so long, it's a constant stimulation to create something together with the crowd playing music of other people, in different countries, situations. Composing is less comfortable as you have to always get out of your comfort zone, to progress, in who you are and what you want to say. Making music, you must have a message, at least for me as a song writer. An album is always a reflection of who you are in the moment, a long deep work, never easy. There is so many things I've never done, thankfully. Endless possibilities.
Any advice for someone attending Sónar for the first time in 2018?
No advice is the best advice. Build your own Sonar experience!