I met up with Nadia Says for tea and cakes at a Turkish bakery in Kreuzberg Berlin a couple weeks ago, randomly on International Women’s Day. I’ve been following her projects in Berlin and Los Angeles for about seven years, and I’ve had the opportunity to interview a number of artists she works with as well. From collaborating with such acts as Mary Ocher, HYENAZ, and DJ Hell; to curating mega-parties in Los Angeles and in the illustrious Berghain in Berlin AND currently with the DBC in Detroit; further on to initiating cultural podium discussions and other talks at Soho House, Nadia Says is a Keyser Söze of the international Techno-Cultural scene. I had known her awhile, but I realized I didn’t really know about her actual roots and origins. Here’s how it went…..
I think it’s really interesting to have this talk with you, randomly, on international women’s day. Because I think you’re like a really strong woman.
Thank you. Uh, yeah International Women’s Day… you know at some point it was called International Women’s Rights Awareness Day and that was a really good name. It was a bit long and bit of a mouthful, but that’s what it should be…I really have a problem with the appellation Women’s Day, because every day is Women’s Day.
I totally agree, it’s also sort of a bit too cute. Its’ funny too, because I was teasing you before about being this person who like comes out of the shell, like the Venus de Milo (smiles)…where are you from, your background, why you do what you do (with such effort) has always intrigued me, that’s why I wanted to interview you, because you’re somebody who’s so present in project management, in the music scene and the cultural scene. Also, you’re kind of like a ‘Keyser Söze… but then you show up and you look quite young, and you are kind of quiet.
I think it’s because I put more focus on the work than the people in general. And I do this not only for the people I work with, but also for myself. I really don’t think it’s that interesting or important who I am or where I come from; it’s more important to see the things I do. I understand lately that maybe with social media and with the next generation, it’s become more and more important to show yourself. Whether you do it as a brand for marketing purposes, or just for ‘human purposes,’ people get a bit worried if they don’t see you posting pictures of yourself on Instagram or Facebook; it’s not something I naturally want to do, but I can do it a little bit. Just to put everybody at ease, because I’m part of society and I’m ready to play by some of the rules.
How did it start? Were you already organizing as a teenager? You can tell somehow that this is in your blood….
(smiles) My first party was for my birthday when I was nine. And that was a killer party, because we had half girls and half boys, we had a DJ who was my mom’s boyfriend, and yeah it was a cool party. A year after that, when I was ten, I had one again, but instead of having it in my room I had it in the garage, so it was even cooler, and a year after that I actually rented a hotel basement and I asked people to pay entrance at the time—I think three Francs—which is now the equivalent of 50 cents – because I bought food and drinks with the money they gave. I was 11. Yeah, it was a pretty cool party. (smiles) So, yes, I’ve been doing this for a while.
Were you into the techno scene as a teenager? Did you go to parties?
No. I knew of techno. My friend was a big fan of Carl Cox but I wasn’t into that music. I went to a few raves, not because of the music but more because of the atmosphere and I wanted to see what it was about. At the time, techno was pretty much illegal in France, because they said you could get epilepsy from it. I thought that was bullshit, and anything that’s illegal was very attractive, so that’s also one of the reasons I went to raves. I was more into indie-pop rock, that’s more what I grew up with. The way I got into techno was later on when I liked to go out and I liked to spend time with friends; but the problem is if you went to clubs that had indie-pop rock music they would be more like bars that closed early and you couldn’t dance all night. So, if I wanted to dance all night, I had to go to techno clubs. Actually, techno and drum’n’bass. That’s how I got into electronic music, because I wanted to party all night. (smiles)
I got more into the scene, little by little. Later, I lived in London, and actually wrote an article about this, on why I thought people go to techno parties and take drugs – it was mostly pills at that time- seemed to be the equivalent of cavemen dancing in a trance around the fire and doing mushrooms. It’s something very primitive. The music is very raw; it’s very binary. Like, you dance from one foot to the other—it’s very basic dancing, but you get into a trance. The music is loud so you communicate with people with one word every 20 minutes…it’s more about body language and looks in the light, and body odor I guess. I think that’s the appeal, it allows us to go back to a primitive stage where we can just give way to this thing we have in ourselves and our genes since the beginning of time. We just need to move to the beat.
I think it’s pretty funny how techno is so underground even though it’s so classically such a moneymaking and business thing. I mean you have the entrance fee and the bar and you have this organization of money coming in and money coming out…it seems like people who organize parties are just partying too, but it’s not really like that, is it?
That’s a very good question. I mean, we all have to pay rent right? Whether you’re a DJ, a party planner or whatever, so how do you monetize something that is still supposed to be very accessible? You don’t want to make it too expensive; but at the same time, you have to pay your artists, you have to pay your venue, you have to make sure everyone is safe… then also if you make a rave outdoors and it rains on the speakers… you know?
I was at a club and a friend was djing and there was a set of headphones that had fallen into a spilled drink puddle. He was busy, but I kept trying to tell him to move them because they were still plugged in and I thought he would get electrocuted, you know? (laughs) Shit happens.
Yep! It’s this big thing you know of making things business-y enough that it’s safe and everybody gets paid. But also still has a party mood that everybody can join in and everyone has a good time. And I think that is what being a good organizer is all about. Actually, it’s about being fair in regards to money and how the business is run and understanding the people who come to your party and the artists you work with. It’s not about booking that one artist who brings 100 people by 11 pm. If that’s how you’re doing your parties…I mean I understand, you want to make money, that’s fine, but it’s not going to be a cool party, that’s all.
People who own nightclubs just to have money really turn me off, and everything’s so clean and you have to behave; because it’s operated by someone running it purely as a business… There has to be a certain amount of soul in it too. They totally miss that. Or this idea that it’s okay to deny people entrance after standing on line for a really long time, because they don’t look cool enough. In New York, I used to always love going to after-hour clubs because they were way more underground, more free. And I think this thing about having no curfew plays a big role in it, because having this endlessness in the darkness of the night makes you feel like you can do anything; but at the same time it’s a release that helps people let go and just get out all the stuff that’s happened in the day. That’s what I love about Berlin parties and that’s what I loved about the raves: not the drugs—the freedom!!!
How do YOU characterize what you do? I always, go back to this techno party thing, but it’s not just about techno. What I’ve realized about you is that there’s a whole lot more going on and more involved. (smiles)
Well, no, it’s not just music. It’s different types of art and different types of music, to be honest. If I have people who play experimental, drone sounds, ambient, house, disco, it’s not techno music…But it is the techno spirit in the way that it’s free-spirit. It’s underground. It’s meant to dance. If you just say something’s disco, you think about glitter high heels, and that’s not the idea…
…yeah, you think about the 1970s….
That’s not what my parties are about. You know, if you think house music, you’re maybe thinking about something a bit commercial, although that’s not where house comes from but that’s maybe the image that we have. So, on the one hand, you have techno music that is a certain type of music, but you have the techno spirit. And I think among my circles when you say techno I think that’s what you talk about, the techno spirit. So, when I had these events at Berghain for example, where there was live music and audio-visual art, we actually didn’t play any techno at all….But I think it can be considered as a techno party, because it was at Berghain, but also because despite no actual techno music, it had the techno spirit.
I know! And there’s so many other elements involved, other than the music that make techno techno. I did a show in Leipzig with a painter who wanted to do a half proper painting and half techno show. The challenge was the lighting, because the paintings needed proper lighting and the party needed ambience. And it was this huge factory space, so hanging or running lighting from the ceiling would have been super stressy. So I got this idea to use construction lights in car tires to absorb shock and keep the people from burning themselves. At first the lights were really bright, but later we slowly turned them off one by one and then slowly moved them out of the way so the people could dance…. It was the coolest transition!
I also focus a lot on lighting. At Berghain, the first time we had light boxes, for example. And the second time, we had projections. Either old tube TVs or projections, because of this light issue… I mean, to show a painting in a techno club– that is very challenging. You don’t want to see a techno club with full on lights– It’s not a pretty sight! (smiles)
How did you start in Berlin, how long ago was it?
It was long ago. And at the beginning, I was going back and forth between different cities looking for work. I was a publishing and distribution manager in London in the print industry, and it all collapsed. I couldn’t find work. I mean, I could find work, but the pay was so low compared to what I was making before. It would have been almost impossible to stay in London. And I find France to be a bit boring, which is why I didn’t really want to be there. I was super broke. I was in Berlin, I was traveling, I was depressed. That’s why I went clubbing.
And I was like well, this is nice, it’s what I do, I’ve done this before. I thought I was going to maybe be a publishing big shot, but maybe I’m not, and I’m going to go back to the entertainment industry and clubs. So I started to work at different local clubs as a booker and I brought in artists or party concepts. I always tried to bring these art-and-music concepts, and at the beginning clubs were like yeah let’s do it” and then they’re like “Oh, Nadia the art costs money but doesn’t bring money” and I’m like “Yeah, that’s the thing about culture; it costs money and it’s difficult to get money out of it, but also it’s very good for your image and makes people happy. You’re helping visual artists strive in the city that they helped you built, because, if Berlin were only about music it wouldn’t be as interesting as it is”.
Eventually, when clubs don’t make money, it can become very ugly. People get upset and frustrated and they take their frustration out on you. So, I was like, I wanna do what I’m doing, but I cannot do it within one club, because it’s not going well”... And that’s where I decided to create Your Mom’s Agency.
That’s what I wanted to ask you, because Your Mom’s Agency has become a real brand in Berlin. Sometimes, I’m not completely sure it’s you. What I mean is like, on Instagram, when a post is made by the agency, it’s it looks so independent, its definitely an entity of its own…
Like I said at beginning, I don’t naturally put myself forward. For example, when I write for Your Mom’s Agency I don’t say “I do this, I do that”, I say “we”. I want to make sure I don’t erase the work of the people who work with me. That’s the second reason. I want everyone to know that Your Mom’s Agency is collective work. Even when I work FOR an artist I still say WE work together, because, if the artist were not there, I wouldn’t be able to do my work for them. And I don’t work for them in a vacuum you know; it’s an exchange. That’s why I say “we” and I try to keep Your Mom’s kind of neutral. I try not to put my personal ideas in there because I want to make sure that all artists are part of the platform.
And it’s a pretty collective group. How were you able to build this collective of people?
It is diverse. I know that diversity is very trendy now, but diversity has existed for a long time, and it’s been important to me for a long time. Not just for marketing reasons, and not just for more moral reasons, but mainly for artistic reasons. If you put five similar people in your group, and they make music, it means you’re going to listen to the same music for ten hours. I find this pretty boring.
If you put someone who has been DJing for 30 years, and someone who has been DJing for three years, and someone from the US, and someone from France, and someone from Japan, then you’re going to have a more interesting set. So, that’s how it started. I met people that I knew from before or new people… And rule number one is you have to be nice towards other people and trustworthy. And rule number two, you have to do something that is relevant and of good quality. I don’t necessary have to like it myself. It has to be good quality and relevant and they have to believe in it. There are no posers at Your Mom’s Agency. (smiles)
So, this project in Detroit with the DBC and Tresor Berlin, is that Your Mom’s or is that Nadia?
Actually, it’s a collaboration. First off, it’s the DBC (Detroit Berlin Connection)— they started this project a few years ago. Second off, it’s Tresor, who has been the motivation behind the DBC. Then thirdly it’s me, because I knew about Deutschlandjahr, I knew the German government was giving financial support for events that showcase the friendship between America and Germany. So I contacted Dimitri Hegemann and I asked him if he wanted some of that funding, he said “yes, why not?”… And I offered as Nadia for Your Mom’s Agency to write the grant application. The grant got accepted, so now I’m working that project as Nadia for Your Mom’s. It’s not a project just by myself it’s really Your Mom’s, because the people who are involved in the project are people with whom I have been working on different projects over the past few years or months.
How do you see your vision going forward: with projects in America? With being involved in different cultures…?
Obviously, Detroit is the motherland of techno so that’s a big one; it’s great to do things there. Los Angeles is the city I find most similar to Berlin in terms of music, underground music. The difference is mainly that all promoters are independent – that’s very, very appealing… The thing is, in Berlin as you know, we have more and more government funding and sponsoring, from companies and corporations. It’s very needed because again, we all need to pay the rent that has been increasing… But it’s also changing the scene in a way that is not nice.
In LA, they’ve always been independent. It means they don’t have many free or cheap parties. It means everybody has to pay the 20 bucks or more to get in. So, in a way, it might be a bit exclusive, and it means you know you need cash to get in…. On the other hand, it means they’ve built a scene that is healthier, because it stands on its own. And of course there is the guest list, and you can work for them and get in. In Berlin, when you say 20 dollars that sounds like a lot, but in America it’s actually still cheap. There are other places– for example, Baton Rouge Louisiana. Cindy Wonderful, who used to be a curator and a musician in Berlin, now she is a curator and gallery owner in Baton Rouge and I cannot wait to go there and do something with her.
It IS also about these smaller cities. I think there’s a lot to be brought over from Berlin to America. Also, especially these cities that were hit by the ending of the Western Industrial Era…. I come from Pittsburgh and we have a lot of empty houses—dating back to even the end of my childhood. No one dares to do initiatives there—I don’t mean squatting, but why not go talk to owner and see what you can do…? I think it has a lot to do with some kind of fear or shyness, though. People need to be braver…
That’s something we do in Berlin, and that’s something I’m very eager to bring to the projects I do in the US. Now, I’m trying to bring projects to Abu Dhabi as well, where they put in HUGE amounts of money towards events that I find so small in the end… I would love to go there and show them that you can get so much more for your money. If you’re going to spend 10.000 euros, please have a big party, not just a small show….
I can totally see that too. It’s interesting to see how easy it is to do stuff when you’re in the right state of mind…What about the different types of discussions you’re involved with, at Soho House, and places like that?
I’ve organized quite a few workshops, discussions, interviews, panels discussions, stuff like that – some at Soho House a couple of years ago. Now, it’s kind of anywhere, where it’s possible; at the SAE for example last night, it’s a co-working space in the Wedding district of Berlin.
It’s because we need to talk about things. Things like, for instance, the fact that DJing or clubbing careers did not exist 40 years ago, so now we have people who’ve worked in the clubbing industry who are getting older. It’s the first time this is happening and we have to see what goes down when you’ve been working in clubs as an artist or operator for 30 years. There’s a lot of damage to mental and physical health, we have to see how these people can feel better, and we have to see how the younger generation can prevent that from happening. And then of course the topics of diversity and intersectionality, which I thought by now would be obvious but it’s not. We still need to talk about it, because people still don’t get it.
So yeah, for now and in the near future, those are the three things that I want to focus on while curating events in parallel: diversity, wellbeing in the industry, and what it is that we do to preserve or gain financial and political power for artists and creators.
Dancing is great, music is great, but we’ve come to a point where somebody tried to re-appropriate music marketing for political purposes…We need to make sure that we know what’s going on. I’m not saying corporate sponsoring or public funding should never happen; but I’m saying, we have to know what’s going on and talk to each other about it, and not being taken for fools, and not to be abused or tokenized by the system.
Nadia Says // Your Mom’s Berlin