In Conversation: Kittin & The Hacker
Kittin & The Hacker play a Live/Hybrid set alongside Kobosil, DJ Stingray 313, Alienata & more on Saturday 14th May.
When Kittin and The Hacker first began working together, electroclash was about to have a big moment – thanks largely to the French duo. Since their groundbreaking First Album two decades ago, Caroline Hervé and Michel Amato have watched and weathered the evolvement of the sound they pioneered. This year they were back with a third release – you guessed it, Third Album.
Music like any art form, ebbs, flows and attracts different influences over time. But, as The Hacker explains, “that’s the point”. And the reason for these two friends coming back to make music together 20 years later? Simple – it was the right time.
Ahead of their Hybrid/Live show at the club, we spoke to the pair separately – Kittin via email, The Hacker over Zoom. We talked stripping it back to basics, the process behind Third Album, the incredible potential of having limitations and the freedom a live/hybrid setup affords. Keep reading for insights into the collaboration which not only spans 3 albums, but a decades-long friendship.
KITTIN ON KITTIN & THE HACKER
fabric: As a pair, your impact has been profound in defining electroclash and spearheading a new wave in electronic music. Are there any emerging artists on your radar now you think could be integral in the next generation?
KITTIN: I must say I am very fond of The Exaltics, Animistic Beliefs, Ryan James Ford, such artists who are able to navigate between electro, techno – with a rave twist, let’s say. But it’s hard to tell if they are emblematic of a generation, as everything goes so fast, so many producers...
fabric: In previous interviews you’ve said that collaborating again was a possibility – what sparked the decision to team up with The Hacker again for a new album?
KITTIN: We are totally free and about keeping our duet as a side project. Therefore we work when we want, when we have something to say to each other, when we miss each other. We slowly started to talk about writing new material during a few shows DJing together. Fact is, we have so much fun… The idea of touring again with strong new material was motivating. But it’s all very vague to be honest. The time was right. 3 Albums in 3 decades, that’s the amount of time we need.
"We leave the perfect space to surprise each other, even though we know each other by heart now."
fabric: Do you think your sound or musical output might have been different without each other's influence?
KITTIN: The fact is we push each other further. That's basically the aim of any collaboration. But for some mysterious reason ours is unique. We leave the perfect space to surprise each other, even though we know each other by heart now. My goal is to bring Michel’s music to another level, to something we would never do alone.
It must sound like we are stronger together and it’s obviously the case. In my solo work, or with other collabs, I need to explore many universes every time, taking risks to step into genres that may not fit or be expected, just for my own appetite for curiosity and challenges. With Michel, we are in our element, and the goal is to improve and surpass what we are both good at.
fabric: Is there a track you never get bored of playing in your sets?
KITTIN: Right now, Life on MTV or Stock Exchange from the first album, because it’s still so accurate in terms of sound, lyrics, musicality. It’s possible because 20 years has passed, 10 years ago it would have sounded kitsch!
fabric: Can you tell us a bit about the Live/Hybrid show, how does the new album fit into that?
KITTIN: It’s the most versatile, flexible, modern way we found to perform. We play instrumentals of the songs on turntables (we already played instrumentals for all our past shows as it’s impossible to travel with analog gears), we mix them like in a DJ set, I sing everything live using different effects, and Michel has a SH-101 boutique to play some sequences live as well.
It’s the best compromise to play whatever, whenever, in the order we want, without sacrificing the live experience for the audience and for us. It turns out it’s more difficult and exhausting than a regular show! We accumulate mixing, with singing and playing live. But the best part is we are never stuck by a fixed track listing and we can loop parts and create real suspense. We play an average of 15 tracks in 60 or 90 minutes, so it’s a lot.
THE HACKER ON KITTIN & THE HACKER
fabric: Firstly, congrats on the new album. Is there a track that particularly hits home for you on the new release? Any track you made and you thought, this is going to make an album?
THE HACKER: The first track was Ostbahnhof. I had the loop, the main bassline, but it was much slower in terms of BPM. Caroline came to my place and she said, wow, it's really good, can you speed it up? She said, ‘I hear something techno, like at a club in Germany with this loop and just one kick’. Everything happened very quickly. In maybe one hour, two hours, the track was done.
I really liked this one because it was the first one. When we did that, we felt like our collaboration was still working. It was a kind of a relief, like okay, we can do more. I love this track also because it's so simple. If there was this part in the middle where it's just a kick – it can't be more minimal, it's impossible. It's like the idea of being in a club in Germany, when you hear the kick from far away, it works perfectly.
Actually, when you have a new album, you change every day. One day, you have a favourite track and the day after you have another one. So now it's Ostbahnhof but for a long time my favourite one was 19. Because it's kind of this disco feeling.
fabric: Where does the name 19 come from?
THE HACKER: Ah 19, it's actually a song with double meaning. It's the name of a bar in my hometown. It's the bar where I always go – I will probably be at this bar in two hours [laughs]!. It's not a crazy place. It's a typical ‘bistro’ as we say in French. It's not hype, it's not cool. It's real. We wanted to just make a song about that, like, "meet me at 19". So for those who know, they know what it's about, but for those who don't know the song has another meaning.
fabric: Did you have a structure for the album? For example the track Purist, where did that come from and fit in?
THE HACKER: I don't know [laughs]. No, this one... I did it during lockdown. I was home, my girlfriend was watching TV, we couldn't go out. I had my synthesiser and stuff in my studio, but these days I just had my computer, my laptop and a small MIDI keyboard. I was listening to a lot of early Chicago house like Ron Hardy, really early stuff, early Frankie Knuckles. Then I found this melody, I did this rhythm with the 707 drum machine.
In the end, I don't know if it sounds like Chicago house. Some people said to me it sounds like a lost track from New Order, which I take as a huge compliment –and maybe – but the main idea was to do a Chicago house track.
fabric: How have your inspirations changed from First Album to Third Album?
THE HACKER: [My] main influences are the same since the beginning. Basically, it's Kraftwork, Dopplereffekt, Detroit electro and 80s new wave like Depeche Mode, New Order, things like that. Of course a little bit of Detroit techno like Jeff Mills. I think my music is a mix of all those influences and I hope that with time I manage to create my own style. At the beginning you could really hear where It was coming from. I hope that now it's not so easy to say, because those influences are more integrated.
I'm kind of an obsessional person [laughs], I stick to those three or four influences and try to make something out of it. For the new album, I was listening over and over again to Kraftwerk because for me it's really close to perfection in terms of electronic and groove, but funky at the same time. But also I am listening to new people. I really like this guy from America called Black Light Smoke, Jensen Interceptor from Australia, Alessandro Adriani who I work with and has a label called Mannequin in Brooklyn.
fabric: Have other mediums like films or books been influencing you? Especially over the last couple of years in lockdown?
THE HACKER: For me, the series Chernobyl, that was huge, I loved it. There is not really music actually, it's more like the soundtrack, drone and noises from [Hildur Guðnadóttir] – this series was a big influence on me in terms of atmosphere – it's very dark, very menacing. I'm a big fan of 60s science fiction. I always take ideas from shows like Star Trek, the early one – the sound, if you listen to the atmosphere, it's full of bleeps and noises and stuff like that – I've sampled it!
fabric: Do you ever sample that stuff?
THE HACKER: I'm not a big fan of sampling, but sometimes. I don't sample loops of music. I just sample sounds and then I use that in my music.
"Having limitation is good. It's your imagination doing the work and not the computer."
fabric: Have these been things that have always influenced you, or is this more recent?
THE HACKER: Yeah, since the beginning I've been influenced by those series. Even today when you watch it, it’s a bit kitsch but still the idea is very strong. Especially something like The Prisoner you know, in terms of mass control, the media, propaganda. It's still very up-to-date. Very now.
fabric: Like the original Dune film? You can see it's dated, but the aesthetic and mood and idea is still relevant. And that's the most important part, they were just limited by technologies.
THE HACKER: That's what is interesting. Having limitation. You try to do the best from what you have. And it's the same actually with music. Today there is no limitation with electronic music – actually a track is never finished, you can always add layers and sounds and stuff, and sometimes you can get lost with that.
What I like about Dopplereffekt, early electro or Kraftwerk again, is that they had limitation and that's what makes it interesting. They were trying to do the best with what equipment they had back in the day. Having limitation is good. Sometimes I do it, for example, on Ostbhanhof, I was thinking okay, I'm going to use two synths and one drum machine and see what I can do with that. With limitation you have to think. It's your imagination doing the work and not the computer.
fabric: On the flip side, are there any pieces of equipment that you just couldn't do without?
THE HACKER: Of course. My 808 drum machine, the original one, the SH-101 synthesiser from Roland, and then the MS-20 from Korg. That's the basis of my music, I always start all my tracks with one of those elements. I add other things but the core of my music comes from this machine.
fabric: Do these two pieces of equipment make into the Live/Hybrid show or do you adapt?
THE HACKER: On stage I have the SH-101 synthesiser. We used to do, I want to say, a traditional live show before with Kittin singing and me using a synthesiser and a computer. We did that many times and it worked. But this time we wanted to do something a bit different, something where it's easier to adapt to the people, the crowd, at what time we're playing.
We thought instead of having a computer on stage, let's use a USB stick like a DJ set, but with an instrumental version of our songs. So we mix those tracks like a DJ set, but we mix them in a way so that the song is here, Kittin is singing live and I also play live on the synths. Also if at some point, we want to play a track from someone else but that fits with our music, we can do it. That's the kind of freedom we wanted to have.
fabric: In previous interviews, you've mentioned that collaborating again might be a possibility. What reignited the collaboration?
THE HACKER: I realised three or four years ago there was new interest in our old tracks from the younger generation. Also there was this big comeback of electro around 2017/18. I felt like I was part of something again. In music you have ups and downs. But mainly, it was the desire to work again together, because we are really close friends. Suddenly we felt like we wanted to, we had ideas.
fabric: When you haven't seen a friend in years, but you pick up where you left off?
THE HACKER: Exactly. We were wondering how it would go back in the studio together – do we still have this chemistry? Do we still understand each other? And yeah, it worked immediately. Like you said, it was like we left the day before, you know. And it was very comforting.
fabric: Any highlight moments from your sets together over the years? Or points in your sets that you really look forward to playing certain tracks?
THE HACKER: Ostbhanhof works really well. We played it two weeks ago at Panorama Bar at Berghain, and it's a song more or less about that club. Without saying the name of the club in the song, everybody understood. There was something a little bit, not magical, but hysterical maybe [laughs] – everybody went crazy, it was a great feeling. But also there are old tracks that I still love to play from the first album like Life On MTV or Stripper. The cool thing is [I] have young people coming to me like, 'Wow, what's that? Is it new?' And I'm like, no, not really, it's [from] 20 years ago. But it's a good feeling.
fabric: Not a new track maybe but it's new for them?
THE HACKER: That's also one thing that I'm looking for with making music is to try to do something that is timeless, if possible, that you can play now or five years ago, or maybe five years in the future and it will still work.
"We were wondering how it would go back in the studio together – do we still have this chemistry? Do we still understand each other? It worked immediately."
fabric: Do you feel your sound or musical progression would have been different without each other's influence?
THE HACKER: I think so yeah definitely. I think I would've been a solo artist. Maybe much more underground. Yeah, it was a big success. I would still be making music but the situation will be totally different. I think my flat would be smaller [laughs]!.
fabric: Anything else coming up?
THE HACKER: And of course we play fabric next month! I'm really looking forward.
fabric: You've played the new Room 2 recently. How was that?
THE HACKER: Yes, October last year. It was great. The sound system is scary. It's great. Everybody's around you. It's like Mad Max 3 Beyond The Thunderdome!
But next month, it will be the first time that I play Room 1. You know, fabric, it's a big club with a big reputation. Everybody knows it. So yeah, I'm a bit nervous, but also looking forward.
fabric: How long have you been playing at the club?
THE HACKER: I don't know how many times I've played, but I've played Room 2 many times. I played live maybe 10 years ago, maybe more? And the soundsystem, it's very loud!
fabric: Very loud. Bring the earplugs!
Kittin & The Hacker bring their Live/Hybrid show to the club on 14th May alongside DJ Stingray 313, Kobosil, Alienata & more. Tickets below and here.
Interview & Words: Billy Allen & Isobel Trott