On my own terms with Karina

“It’s funny what’s going on with social media,” says Karina Chaczbabian while contemplating the spoon in her coffee. “A double espresso” she insisted earlier, “it’s Monday”. “All these things you have to learn,” she continues slipping back into the thought with a rhetorical “do I really want to do this?”

Does she need to do this is a more urgent question. Karina has been DJing successfully around the world these past twenty years, and she’s been doing it all on her own terms. She’s been an enigma, always on some kind of tour, between her various residencies around the world, and yet when she posts something from her artist page today she’s lucky if she receives “three likes” with even her close friends are unlikely to see it. “I hope that people booking these people understand,” she says of the current DJ hype as she contemplates the ubiquity of social media in today’s DJ culture, before she resigns “I just don’t know anymore…”  

It’s a rare moment I get with Karina. She’s on a brief stopover in Oslo, before leaving for the United States and Mexico, where she has a tour lined-up for the autumn season. She hopes to get in a recording session with Connie Yin in New York for their new C&K project, but she will remain on the move in the constant transient lifestyle of a working DJ.  

This has been the reality for the Karina through the better part of her career and regardless of her woes on social media, it doesn’t look to change anytime soon. After the States she’ll hardly have a moment before jetting off to her residency at Analog Room in Dubai, where the Iranian crew has finally secured their own location and then she’s planning an extended stay in the newest Techno capital of the world,Tbilisi, Georgia.

“I really loved the country so I’m considering going there for a few months, and I really want to discover the culture and make music,” she impresses. Georgia, Tbilisi will be the next stop in a life that has taken her from Poland to Norway, Egypt, Ibiza, Berlin and New York through the course of her youth and adult career, which shows no sign of slowing down any time soon. And remarkably she’s done it all with a 100-odd records always in tow.

I meet Karina for a coffee on her way to Filter Musikk where she has to convince Roland Lifjell to hold a consignment of records for her return in a few months. She played Storgata 26 the weekend before, and was delighted in the fact that she could play some of her Disco records this time around. She has been playing a fair bit of Disco recently from Oslo to New York  where she keeps some of those records “in a suitcase at a friend’s place in the Bronx.” While in Oslo she is also trying to coordinate to relocate these records for access upon her next visit to the US and Karina does all this without an agent or manager.

“I haven’t found the right person for me,” she says when I ask her about her lack of agent.  “Why should I pay 20% for something I can do myself,” she demands, but she can agree “it’s not an easy way” of working. Karina is the last of her kind, a DJ that negates the hype and in an industry dominated by social media, she stands out today as an individual dedicated to her craft and the tools of her craft, that could never be appreciated in the measly 80 characters of an average insta post. Hers is a purist pursuit, that is enshrined in the bedrock of the same fundamentals of DJing that started in Ibiza for Karina when she first cut her teeth in the business end of club culture and DJing. 

How did she end up in Ibiza, I wonder. “It’s very simple,” she says, “I just went to Ibiza on holiday. I was looking at these guys working and I was like; I want to do that. I was studying economics at that point, and I was like, why I’m doing that? I got addicted to Ibiza and I spent ten seasons there.” 

She started her life in Ibiza as a waitress, but after a late night at DC10 and Cocoon, she missed her shift and subsequently lost her job. It turned out to be fortuitous for the burgeoning DJ. Even then, Ibiza “wasn’t cheap, everybody was doing everything to survive” and Karina went from waitressing to doing promo for Cream. This was a time before the ubiquitous power of social media and promotion meant reaching out directly to the people. ”I was their best promoter and I actually hated that music,” says Karina with grimace, but she found it quite easy to separate her personal tastes with her job. “I was thinking to myself; ‘There are people that like this and I need to find those people.’” 

She quickly moved on from Cream to Cocoon where she spent six years while DJing around Ibiza. She picked up a residency at The Zoo Project during this time, and the open air would eventually consume all her time, forcing her to leave Cocoon and devote all her energy to The Zoo Project. “I love The Zoo Project – it is so much fun,” muses Karina “an incredible amusement park for grown ups.” 

2019 marks the first year in 20 years that Karina will not be in Ibiza or her beloved The Zoo Project, and I‘m curious whether it has something to do with the recent spat of police raids around the island. “I just wanted something different,” she replies. “I don’t feel it’s changing in a direction that interests me,” she says when I press her on the state of club culture on the balearic isle. That side of the island was inconsequential to a person like Karina, who tended to stay clear of the known tourist traps around the island. Her decision to leave was one based on a simple desire to explore more of the world, especially North America, Georgia and Armenia.

Thanks to her base in the Big Apple she’s travelled all over the States, especially enjoying the divergent House and Techno scenes of San Francisco, Dallas, Chicago, and her favorite Detroit. “Playing in Detroit is quite a challenge for me as an European. I love it and I’m also very nervous. I respect it a lot, ” she says with an unbridled enthusiasm. She’s travelled between Europe and the USA 14 times in the last year and even though she might be in Georgia next year she has no intention of slowing down next year either.

As for her desire to move to Tbilisi, it came after a recent visit to the region. “I went to go look for my roots” she hisses, as a bit of an eastern European accent glides off the oo’s and into the esses. 

“I’m Armenian by descent,” she explains and after a brief visit to the country, she has been inspired to explore more of the region, with Georgia as her base and the booming Techno scene there to facilitate her move. “I really loved the country, so I’m considering going there for a few months, and I really want to discover the culture and the music.” 

She hopes the move might give her the time to work on some new music, but ultimately Karina has always been more of a DJ than a producer. She has enjoyed a musical output, releasing music on Cymawax, God Particle and recently a track called “Acid Meow” for Absence Seizure, but DJing always seemed to trump all her other creative endeavours. Asked about her reserved output, she breaks out in a simper with “yeah of course, because I’m homeless. I’m constantly on tour.” With most of her machines in a house in Poland (where she spends a fair amount of her time too), making music is a real endeavour she can only enjoy when she’s settled somewhere. “That’s the plan for next year,” she tells me. “To stay longer in one place,” in an effort to “work on things a bit more.” She has however managed to find some time in the last year to work on new music with friend and fellow DJ, Connie Yin (Resolute, NYC).

“We actually became good friends before we DJed together,” says Karina, but  it was after playing back to back that they forged a musical bond too. Karina admits, “I don’t like to play back to back all the time,” but with Connie “it was really fun.” 

They shared a musical kinship through DJing, which expounded through their friendship led to them collaborating on their own music as C&K. After an extended stay in New York, Karina and Connie managed to lay down some material in what would be a future release, but Karina insists there’s no rush in putting anything out just yet. “I’m not going to release music, just for it to be released.” She insists on a “quality of sound” in her productions and “music as art” and not a commodity to be flouted as some marketing gimmick to get more gigs.

Talk of a C&K label has also surfaced, but in much the same way that Karina treats music, she “was never interested in having a label for the sake of having a label.” A C&K label would have to remain consistent with her philosophy on music. “I can make a House track in a day,” she insists with a sarcastic overtone; “but for what, is it going to be that good?” Like she is prone to do, Karina leaves the question hanging, and I can’t always  discern if it’s rhetorical. On this occasion I answer with another question. Do you feel you have to make music to get more playtime?

She gives my a side glance before answering; “Obviously there is a correlation… do I need to follow that…. A bit if I want to, but not really.”  It’s understandable why she won’t acquiesce to the archetypes that dominate DJ culture today. As she insists, she is a DJ and a DJ that still honours the traditions of her craft. She won’t be lured into a debate about digital over vinyl, and she respects every DJ’s decision in their choice of format, but she’ll always prefer vinyl. “It’s my choice, and I’m happy with what I do,” she explains while talking about the benefits of the tactile format. 

You can’t deny however, that there’s a certain dedication involved in carrying a big bag of records around the world, and yet the only real downside for Karina is the “the weight and you can’t really take all the music with you that you’d love to have.” Karina thrives in the limitation, but I get the overwhelming sense that these records aren’t merely tools for Karina. “It’s an addiction,” she stresses “an absolute incurable disease,” and yet she doesn’t appear to be looking for any cure. “I sometimes have two copies of a record,” she admits. For Karina, if there’s a “record on sale, that nobody knows about, it can’t just stay there. I feel sorry for the record. It’s talking to me; take me… take me.”

Her second (or is it fourth at this point) home in Poland contains the largest portion of a collection that’s dotted around the world. “I lost control a long time ago,” says Karina about the spread of record collection which includes the House and Techno she plays most often in her DJ sets, but there’s a uniformed approach to her buying habits with records that have “to stand out to be a little different.” Karina is determined that “it can’t have any aggressive sounds in it” and she likes her records “to be moody,” especially the ones she plays in her sets. 

“I’ve invested a lot of money in records,” she impresses and while her friends by now “have a house and a car,” Karina is content in having her freedom and a bag of records at her side. Whenever she returns to Poland, it’s like “digging in my own shop” she tells me with a smile, rediscovering some old favourites, while swapping out the records in her travelling bag. Putting so much effort into the music, Karina prefers a 4 hours for her sets .“I hate these one hour slots. It’s boring, you’re done before you get started.” She prefers to take her time so she and her audience can “have more of an understanding of the night.” She absolutely abhors festival sets today where it’s a case of “bang and your done” and that mature approach is something that follows Karina through all aspects of her music.

Her dedication to the vinyl format; her reserved approach to production and releasing records; her views on running a label; and her desire to remain in one place for an extended (yet temporary) period in order to experience the culture and the music of a region completely is at odds with what the immediacy that DJ- and club culture demands today, both in the physical- and the virtual realm. From her time in Ibiza to her next adventure in Georgia, Karina’s career in music has been forged on her own terms, and there’s no reason she would stop the cycle now.

As our time winds down and we start to make our way to Filter Musikk, Karina relishes in talking about a new track she’s working on and “getting a bass-line together” for the future piece. “I’m really excited about it. It’s a Detroit kind of track, called ‘Pure D’, and it needs that warm bass-line.” Moreover she is “really thinking about working on new music next year,” but first it’s off to the USA, Dubai and somewhere in between there’s a stop home in Kristiansand, Norway again. 

We barely had a chance to talk about the mix she specifically made for Jaeger to accompany the interview, but she makes sure to mention before I press stop on the recording, that “Jaeger is my favourite place in Oslo.” She relishes any opportunity to play at the club and hopes the mix reflects the vibe and feel of Jaeger, as she’s experienced it in the past from the booth.

Our conversation was a whirlwind as we rushed through topics over the course of a single cup of coffee as Karina swept through her extensive career and thoughts on music. There was hardly a pause, and just like that she’s gone again, off on her next adventure…