Ahead of her Melbourne Music Week performance, Kittin reminisces to Cyclone about coming up in the '90s, and how she and frequent collaborator The Hacker never wanted to be sellouts.
The French neo-electro DJ, producer and singer Kittin (aka Caroline Hervé, formerly known as Miss Kittin) was the millennium's premiere avant-pop star. But, while prophetic, Hervé isn't preoccupied with her legacy. This November, Hervé, who last hit Australia as part of 2012's Big Day Out, headlined by Kanye West, is returning for Melbourne Music Week. "Australia is a very far territory for us, and to discover the world is one of the most precious things music brought me. So I have very vivid memories of my first times there, especially the people: [they're] extremely friendly and relaxed. Also so much amazing music comes from Australia, not only Melbourne. I couldn't limit my experience to Melbourne, but I always wanted to play that specific festival because it's in the city itself."
Hailing from Grenoble, at the base of the French Alps, Hervé originated as a techno DJ in the '90s. She subsequently burst out of the underground as an accidental electro-popster, her impassive vocals distinctively droll. Hervé connected with friend Michel "The Hacker" Amato to cut the anthems 1982 and Frank Sinatra, which, issued on DJ Hell's International DeeJay Gigolo Records, led to 2001's First Album. A one-time graphic design student, Hervé's aesthetic would be at once retro and futuristic, reverent and ironic. The music hybridised punk, synth-pop and techno, rejecting pretence. Hervé soon collaborated with Chicago's Felix Da Housecat, the duo airing Silver Screen Shower Scene and Madame Hollywood.
In the 2000s, Hervé and The Hacker found themselves ostensibly epitomising the electroclash phenom, with DJ Hell as its godfather. "When we started, in '96, the word 'electroclash' didn't exist," Hervé recalls. "It appeared with [DJ/promoter] Larry Tee in New York in the early 2000s. He named his parties that. And, with Fischerspooner more in the public eye, journalists took the name over. We were already touring for some years and decided to step out, go back to DJing and solo projects. So we looked at that with a lot of distance. It's only many years later that we realised what it was.
"I feel very fortunate to have lived [during] such a prolific and fun musical time. But it was not like you think. We had many years of underground gigs; small venues, alone, no tour manager, no PR, no sound guy. It was very punk. No one wanted to see two guys behind synths and microphones in a techno club. It was great! To be totally honest with you, when Frank Sinatra got played in fashion shows, we thought, 'Ok, this is over.' We didn't want that. We were probably a bit snobbish but, you have to understand, we didn't want to be 'sellouts'. We had to protect our creative integrity and the fun that goes with it. We never had the ambition to be a big act."
Hervé's solo discography is impressive. In 2004, post-electroclash boom, she dropped a techno-oriented solo debut, I Com. Four years on came BatBox, Hervé teaming up with veteran Belgian-born producer Pascal Gabriel and reconfiguring electro, techno and goth. She produced the title track of 2013's Calling From The Stars with Gesaffelstein. However, Hervé doesn't look back. "I am more interested in what's to come."
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"We never had the ambition to be a big act."
Along the way, Hervé has recorded subversive covers, largely with The Hacker, notably twisting the Elvis Presley staple Suspicious Minds. "Every live tour, we do a cover. For the previous one, we did Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This) from Eurythmics. It's not for being rebellious, [but] more for the live performance potential."
Most cult is Hervé's rendition of the Serge Gainsbourg/Jane Birkin duet Je T'aime... Moi Non Plus with German techno type Sven Väth. "It was Sven's idea," Hervé stresses. "I would have never chosen that song, as Gainsbourg is still too present in our French culture, and I was never really a fan. I preferred Alain Bashung."
Last year Hervé announced that she was "taking back her name" by shedding the "Miss" honorific French promoters customarily imposed on her early on. She unveiled the concept album Cosmos. Hervé explored eternal questions about humanity. She also created instinctively, eschewing "pop and dancefloor diktats". Her perspective now? "It's typically a journal of my deepest questioning in that very moment. So far it hasn't changed – I am still obsessed with the same questions. I live in the countryside, I see the sky so clearly at night, it's always in my mind. Retrospectively, I could have gone even more abstract, [with] less lyrics, less melodies, more sequences. But it took me a long time to write it. It's useless to go back to it. I don't feel it's a radical approach, because in all my albums you can find this electronica aesthetic. It's just away from pop formats."
Cosmos contains a track entitled #MeToo. As a feminist, Hervé is upbeat. "I am optimistic about change. In the last decades, we never had so much social progress for minorities. Unfortunately, [the media] always pinpoint the negatives and extreme sides. We forget that only a century ago, women had zero freedom; belonged to men; were just a womb. The #MeToo movement made speaking possible; made us feel we are not alone; that most women experienced abuse and that some behaviours are not tolerable anymore. It has [had] a huge impact on society – and men too. They also discover what we've been through and therefore will more likely protect us in the future.
"It's not even a man/woman subject – it's bigger than that. It's about how we can treat each other better, treat nature better, equally, without any genre-race-social cast, human or animal or vegetal. Of course, with every progress you have resistance, but globally the awakening is much stronger."
"I am optimistic about change. In the last decades, we never had so much social progress for minorities."
Hervé is aware of moves to historicise electronic music, and to re-evaluate forgotten innovators. "This industry is everything but fair. It's a whole world of injustice and underestimation and overestimation."
Yet she has faith in cycles: "What needs to be known always comes out."
Nonetheless, Hervé has rubbed off on other artists. Madonna's American Life single Hollywood wasn't dissimilar to Madame Hollywood. And there's a Kittinish feel to today's pop rebels: Grimes and Billie Eilish. Hervé is uncertain. "Oh. I have no clue about that and, honestly, I don't want to know. If someone tells me very honestly I had an influence on them, of course it's touching and I take the compliment. But you can't make assumptions. I doubt I have an influence on Grimes or Billie Eilish. I don't really follow pop music. I have a problem with PR. I have a problem with smooth surfaces.
"Pop music today, for me, is way too smooth. I miss the hitchy side, you see. I miss the organic. Everything sounds so clinical, formatted – even 'controversy'. Everybody wants to be unique, but sounds like someone else… I liked Britney [Spears] because she was never smooth. Madonna became smooth a long time ago – she thinks not, which makes it even worse."
Hervé "enjoyed" Frank Ocean's Blonde and, surprisingly, Jamiroquai's Automaton. She digs Tame Impala. "But, to me, Tame Impala is not mainstream pop. It's sub-pop."
Her ultimate favourite? Depeche Mode. "But I stopped following, I have to say."
In 2019, Hervé is again working with The Hacker. Still, for now, she's anticipating her Australian DJ run. "At the moment, I play a mixture of techno, electro and ghetto-house. It's always energetic and left-field. I spend a lot of time searching for unexpected tracks preparing my sets. I am very into Innershades, Aleksi Perälä, quadratschulz, The Exaltics, Clone Records, Craigie Knowes records – that kind of stuff. And old rave tunes, as usual."