The Mix 012: KAVARI - Music - Mixmag

The Mix 012: KAVARI

Scottish agent of chaos KAVARI shares a face-melting mix and speaks to Jacqueline Codiga about growing up amid the EDM boom, finding comfort in horror, and turning Aphex Twin's head

  • Words: Jacqueline Codiga | Photos: KOPI O
  • 9 May 2024

The Scottish DJ and producer Cam Winters, better known as KAVARI, embodies what it means to be a multi-disciplinary artist, expressing herself not only through music and visual art but also her physical form. Her first tattoo at the age of 17 was “MY BODY MY ART” etched into her thigh with needles bought from Amazon, and from there the obsession with body modification culture grew. As we talk over Zoom from a red-lit room while a roommate plays a survival horror game on a TV in the background, KAVARI gives me a tour of some of her gauges, piercings, and tattoos – including her entirely inked out hand that looks like it belongs to a plague victim (done on a whim by her manager, who had always wanted to try it) and her tattooed gums. When I ask her what’s next on the docket, she tells me that she’s looking to get a split tongue, but she has to wait to get it overseas as the procedure is illegal in the UK. She’s even turned her own blood into artwork that she sells online, not satisfied to keep the gore and viscera of her artwork as just an abstract hypothetical.

Body horror, whether on the silver screen or as personal performance art, can be used for more than just crude shock effect. As Arkasha Stevenson, director of the recently released film The First Omen, eloquently put it in a recent podcast interview: “I think a lot of women are encouraged to dissociate from their bodies, growing up. And so body horror has been this strange, therapeutic path where I’ve gotten to reconnect with my physical form through tearing it up on screen”. For artists like Stevenson or KAVARI, body horror is not so much about destroying the body as much as it is a twisted vision of transhumanism, and being able to envision the body beyond its imagined constraints.

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KAVARI’s music as a DJ and producer mirrors that viscerality of her body art; injecting the hard-hitting bass music she draws from as a 25-year-old who came of age at the dawn of the EDM boom with experimental noise and ambient music, often blending styles and sample material with abandon and pushing it all into the red with a gleeful disregard for clipping. After watching genres like dubstep explode and then become formulaic and commercialised in real time, KAVARI’s music heightens these stale tropes back into something that feels as extreme and genuinely scary as she felt hearing artists like Skrillex and Kill The Noise on her family’s computer for the first time as a teenager. In her banger-focused releases like the 'Suture' EP (notably turning the head of Aphex Twin and prompting him to call it “some of the most brilliant, most interesting kicking electronic music lately”) and her excellent 'Lost Cuts' edit packs, you can hear her ripping open the stitches that hold together traditional festival bangers and pop club edits and refashioning their parts into Frankenstein creations of overwhelming noise and crunch.

She brings this no-holds-barred polymath approach to high-energy DJ sets, where the heaviest flavours of brostep and Death Grips deep cuts live side-by-side, and extended sections of beatless pop-edit ambience suddenly careen back into face-melting gabber. Playing sets alongside bass music icons like Hudson Mohawke and fellow leftfield dance weirdos like LCY, Ship Sket, and Gyrofield, there are few DJs world who are able to glide between worlds with as effortlessly, tearing down arbitrarily drawn borders between the sounds of the so-called “mainstream” and “underground” in the process.

To mark her instalment of The Mix, we talked to KAVARI about her journey as a DJ and producer, Scotland’s history of leftfield electronic music, her love of horror, and more. Check it out below.

What was your first exposure to dance music culture? I believe we’re of a similar generation who got hooked on this stuff at a very young age as the EDM boom was happening and that definitely shaped a lot of my relationship to electronic music

It was the song 'Strobe' by Deadmau5. I found it on my family computer when I was around 10 or 11. I remember thinking “wow this is the music they play in clubs” and I instantly fell in love. Deadmau5's music led me to finding Skrillex, and then Skrillex opened the doors to almost everyone else as the music he played in his sets came from a wide variety of artists and styles. I became a huge EDM head in my mid-teens later on. I was really obsessed with Skrillex’s tour videos too.

What were your early DJ gigs like?

Quite funny. My first ever public DJ gig was at a local music festival in the small town I grew up in when I was 14. It was (obviously) EDM-heavy and was basically what you could imagine an early 2010s EDM set would sound like. I was meant to do it on this tiny 2-channel DJ controller I had got for Christmas from my grandparents, running on this software that came with the controller via my laptop. That ended up breaking for some reason and I played on this ancient looking Numark mixer and somehow pulled it off at the last minute. I went back and played the year after too, with what I like to think was a way better set that didn’t just stick to dancey stuff. It got me locally known as “the person who DJs and likes weird electronic music” and helped me meet other DJs in the area. It was cute.

I went on to get a job at the only club in my area which was a classic UK dive bar with sticky floors type place when I was 17. They wouldn’t let me play anything other than chart music or like classics so I’d show up early and play dubstep through the club speakers for an hour before anyone came. The two years I spent there taught me a lot about playing to a crowd. I also have too many wild stories to tell from that place. Some funny, some dark. Overall a fun experience. Although I still hear 'Shape Of You' by Ed Sheeran in my nightmares.

I don’t want to get too deep into edits discourse right off the bat, because frankly it's a boring discourse that's been wrung to death, but I love your 'Lost Cuts' edits and the way you take familiar bits of pop and turn them into something completely disfigured and gnarly - have you always been into playing edits in your sets? And how has your approach to incorporating pop samples in your DJing and production changed over time?

Yeah I love it. I grew up watching and listening to DJs do it and think it’s now stuck in my brain forever. Some edits are obviously better than others but I like taking popular music and mashing it with something recent or with a song you’d never expect. At the music festival I played when I was 14/15 that I mentioned earlier, I opened one of my sets with this deranged mashup of 'Wonderwall' by Oasis with 'Tremor' by Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike where the “because maybe…” vocal chopped into the melody of 'Tremor'. Although it makes me cringe, it’s so hilarious. DJs that get too snobby about edits need to loosen up, like to each their own, but if you don’t want to play edits you don’t have to. I personally love them. Pop infects all of us whether we like it or not. That’s why it’s pop.

I think growing up seeing artists I looked up to finding broad appreciation for music, whether it’s pop music or the most obscure jarring underground stuff, makes you a better musician (and person generally) in my opinion. Nowadays when I make edits I just try to blend together songs that sound crazy regardless of genre, like orthodox hymns and tear-out dubstep. Whatever scratches that itch in my head.

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If big EDM and Skrillex was the jumping off point for that part of your sound, when does noise / experimental music come into the picture? Are there any artists in particular that pushed you to make your music darker and more abrasive?

I got into noise and more experimental stuff when I was in my late teens. Music’s been such a big interest of mine for so long so I would just keep digging trying to find new stuff to enjoy and learn about on YouTube and other random corners of the internet. I’ve also been using SoundCloud heavily since I was 15. I've discovered countless artists on there that have influenced me or helped me discover more. Shadient is the main one that comes to mind since his music quite literally changed my life. My music wouldn’t sound the way it does without him. Same goes for Moody Good. His album ‘MTGFYT’ is one of the best projects I’ve ever heard.

You have a lot of different projects and modes that you work in - the 'Lost Cuts' edits, your dance-focused stuff, the full on noise music on the 'CULT TAPE 001', and your LP 'Against The Wood, Opposed to Flesh' - how does your process work in regards to deciding what you want to do next?

I just follow how I feel. My projects are me channeling my emotions and inspirations into something to listen to as a way to get them out of me. I respect artists that can do one thing or genre for their whole careers but I get bored so fast. When I made 'Suture', all that was going through my head was “I want to make something hard-hitting and intense” and that period of my life was very unstable and erratic. That’s what I was feeling during that time and I put it into what I was making. If you asked me to make another project like it right after I don’t think I could have. I was also scared of continuing the work I did on 'Suture' and people just pinning me as “that girl that does that one thing”. Especially after the Aphex attention.

A lot of people have referred to KAVARI as “a project” but KAVARI is me. Nothing is planned or thought out much. I never know what I’m going to make or want to do next. I take inspiration from so much across the music spectrum and have ideas bouncing around in my head so randomly that I find it impossible to stick to one thing. 'ATW,OTF' was almost a black metal album. Who knows, next year I could be making deep house.

You perform often as a DJ but you’ve also started doing more live shows as your musical palette continues to expand, what is your relationship like to those different performance modes these days? What do you like about DJing vs doing a live set and what do you see yourself doing more of going forward?

To date I haven’t done a live set, though I really want to. It’s just never been feasible and the music I make hasn’t fit into the context of being “live”. I remember I said in an interview in 2022 that I was doing a live set but I was literally just drunk and making things up because I felt awkward saying I was just DJing. I don’t even know why they said I was doing a live set at that event considering it was a DJ festival. I ended up getting alcohol poisoning that night.

I’ve DJed since I was 12 so it's like muscle memory to me and I feel confident at that being my main performance method. Live performance is what I want to focus on in the future but it wouldn’t be the clubby dance experience you get from my DJ sets. I’d want it to be a lot more unsettling and more like a show. I see my DJ career and artistic career running parallel to each other like sisters. DJing is leading me to big brand sponsored festivals in America in front of 200k people. Live performance is leading me to DIY venues where I’m dripping my blood onto metal plates and screaming in front of 200 people. I like to have my finger in every pie.

As someone who draws from pop music and full-on EDM but also more experimental sounds, have you noticed a change in how those two worlds interact with each other? Because from my own vantage point, and we’re similar ages, it used to feel more like all of this stuff was existing in the same spaces and now the “underground” and “mainstream” to broadly generalise feel like two entirely different worlds that aren’t really in conversation.

Yeah I feel that too. Despite how interconnected the world is, people have gotten more secular in some ways. Some festivals used to have broader line-ups or you’d see them have artists from across the EDM spectrum. Whereas now I feel like it’s all just the big names or one style to fit a particular crowd. I guess in part it’s capitalism, but also I find there’s a problem with people in electronic music and thinking that what they listen to is THE underground and dismissing everything else. I notice it a lot with the techno heads specifically. Like god forbid the underground isn’t 4x4 kick drums for an hour from the same 10 DJs whose signature personality trait is Berlin. People can have their tastes. I guess everyone just wants theirs to be the special one. Individualism has gone a little rogue which I think is having a weird effect on how people classify mainstream and underground music, and in turn how they consume it.

You recently played a show with HudMo and Nikki Nair in Glasgow, what was that experience like?

It was great. I really really enjoyed it. Something I never expected but am very grateful for. They’re both so lovely and it was cool being able to chat to them for a while before the show. I’ve been a fan of HudMo specifically since I heard his work on 'Yeezus' when I was in high school. I forgot he’s from Glasgow too. We were chatting a bit about Glasgow’s party scene and specifically one prolific street in the West End. We worked out it’s still just as crazy as he remembers it.

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This is something I’ve been wanting to ask about for some time: what the hell is in the water there in Scotland that produces so much insane bass music talent? Between you, Rustie, SOPHIE, HudMo, Koreless, Proc Fiskal, a bunch others… Obviously there are a lot of factors, but what is your best theory as to why Scotland and leftfield electronic music go hand in hand?

I think it’s because Scotland has such a history with dance music. Gabber, happy hardcore, and techno have been popular here for some time. I’ve met a lot of older people here who are ex-ravers who used to be out listening to gabber at illegal raves for years. Some are even still ravers well into their 40s and 50s. It’s not a secret too that Scotland has an issue with alcohol and drug culture which I suppose is either a product or a cause. I also think Scotland being so remote and the population being relatively small causes people to look outwards for inspiration sometimes. Where I grew up there was no music scene beyond indie bands and some minor techno events. That’s definitely what led me to going online looking for things. I remember seeing a crazy statistic that said 32% of all vinyl collectors in the UK live in Glasgow. Makes sense.

Lastly, we’ve talked about your body art and the many mediums and styles you work in, but I wanted to ask you about horror movies and games as well. 'Against the Wood, Opposed to Flesh' has a number of samples from horror games like Left For Dead and you’ve cited things like the Silent Hill games and The Blair Witch Project as huge tonal influences, where do you think your fascination with horror iconography comes from?

Being raised on it I think I find comfort in it. I was raised watching horror movies and horror media in general. My mum has a really big interest in horror and the paranormal and it was only me and her for the first seven years of my life. She introduced me to things like The Blair Witch Project, Tales From The Crypt, The Haunting, Return To Oz, since she had a ton of horror DVDs laying around. She took me around a lot of abandoned places, ghost tours, seances, and haunted places when I was young too. The 'ATW, OTF' cover is actually a picture of her when she was younger. I wanted to pay homage to her being such a big influence on my love of it.

Do you have any ambitions to create horror games or movies of your own some day? Or is it purely an influence on your other work.

I’d love to score a horror game. Making one though seems like a completely different world to me. Never say never though.

Can you tell us about your mix?

Pure chaos, by every stretch of the imagination.

Check out KAVARI on Bandcamp

Jacqueline Codiga is a freelance writer, follow her on Twitter

clipping. - Make Them Dead
KAVARI - Attachment Style (Ludwig Wandinger Remix)
KAVARI - I want you to breathe
Punishment - Leprosy
Heaven's Gate Initiation Tape Part 1
Throbbing Gristle - Hamburger Lady
Réelle - ID
Prurient - Kiss Of Life
Zos Kia - Poisons
blackerthandeath - I've walked these grounds for centuries
Zero Kama - Death Posture
Sergey Pakhomov - Emptiness Reflector
Grimes - Go (Shadient Remix) (Reprise)
Ship Sket - NGL aiser - hate machine
Björk - Army Of Me
16bit - Boston Cream
Charli XCX - The von dutch remix with skream and benga
Kanye West, Ty Dolla Sign, ¥$ - PAPERWORK
MC Bin Laden - Lança de Coco
Snow Strippers - So What If I'm A Freak
Burial - Archangel
Harsh' - faceblur
Bladee - SAD MEAL
Lana Del Rey - Summertime Sadness
Merzbow - Ananga Ranga
Arca - Monumento Para Lana 116BPM
Outlast 2 - Possessed Elderly Woman Flailing on the Ground
Blood Of Aza - Escape x Say It Right × Hardcore Power × Attachment Style FIX
Skrillex & Diplo (ft. G-Dragon & CL) - Dirty Vibe (Blood of Aza 2 HARDSTYLE Remix)
KAVARI, Skrillex, Disclosure, Flume, Knife Party, Avicit, Foreign Beggars, Aphex Twin - Someone Loved It, Kyoto, You & Me, Internet Friends, Cinema, Levels, Scatta, Avril 14th (KAVARI Attention Deficit Mix)
Avicii - Levels
Black Eyed Peas - Rock That Body
DJ Earworm - United State of Pop 2009 (Blame It On The Pop)

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