Minimize to Maximize

An Interview with Misstress Barbara

by Cosmo Lee

As artforms change, artists within them must decide whether to change also. On one hand, there's staying up-to-date. On the other hand, there's maintaining individual identity. How do artists stay relevant as their cultural contexts shift?

As artforms change, artists within them must decide whether to change also. On one hand, there’s staying up-to-date. On the other hand, there’s maintaining individual identity. How do artists stay relevant as their cultural contexts shift? Some artists, like AC/DC, forge ahead without change, trends be damned. Others, like U2, welcome change and wrap their identities in it. Perched on the Scylla and Charybdis of change are fans and critics, all too ready with armchair accusations of stagnation or selling out.

To lose a reputation, one must first build it. Italian-born Montreal resident Misstress Barbara has been a techno DJ for ten years, earning a worldwide reputation for wildly energetic sets of hard and funky techno. Techno, as its name suggests, is no bastion of retro fetishism. As the genre has skewed to more minimal sounds, Misstress Barbara has moved with the times. Her new DJ mix Come With Me throws her fans a major curveball with stripped-down minimal and electro sounds. Her productions (downloadable at have changed similarly. However, her manner of delivery has not changed. Unlike techno DJ’s like Richie Hawtin who have embraced technologies like Final Scratch or Ableton Live, Misstress Barbara remains committed to good old-fashioned vinyl. In this interview, she explains why.

Montreal probably isn’t the first city that comes to mind when people think of techno. What’s its draw for you?
Well, so many things about music, and non-related to music also. Montreal is a great city, the most European city in North America, where the mentality of the people is very open. The people are cool, they’re hip, they’re relaxed. They know electronic music much more than many other places in North America, including the rest of Canada. It’s very European, and people party late here. It’s not like at 2:00 it’s finished like most of the places in North America. At 2:00, people [haven’t] even [gone] out to after-hours yet. They party really late, and it’s great. It’s a party city. And the food is really good, and the fashion is great, so I think it’s just a really cool, hip city.

You’ve attributed the name “Miss” “Stress” to a stressed-out personality. Now that you’ve been DJ’ing for ten years, are you still stressed out?
Yeah, I’m not stressed out by DJ’ing necessarily, [but] it’s just part of my nature. I’m stressed out about everything. I’m stressed about making everything perfect. Even if I would not be a DJ anymore, I’d be stressed about something else. I’m still stressed, yes. I have a little more experience than when I started my career, of course, but I’m always really nervous that things don’t turn out the way I want. I’m just a perfectionist.

You’re known for “drummy, funky” techno. What made you switch to more minimal sounds?
The evolution is normal when you’ve been DJ’ing for such a long time. Every artist changes, and the music business has changed. There’s not really any “techno” produced at the moment, anything new. And in minimal and electro, there is a lot of new music every week coming out, new records. When I go record shopping every week and I come home with one or two new techno records, versus 25 or 30 or 35 new records from the other sounds, of course you end up changing. When you play three, four times a week, you want to play new music. Otherwise, you get so bored with the music if you play always the same music. It was a very normal evolution, considering what’s happening with techno in the market. There’s absolutely nothing new in techno. It’s always the same loops coming out and out and out again.

How have your fans reacted to your change to minimal sounds?
Some like it, because they believe in me, and they stay open. They realize that no matter what I play, if I decide to do it, I do it well. But some, they just won’t take it, they hate it. The funny thing with them is that they will like another DJ playing minimal, but they won’t take it from me, just because they know me as techno, and they will never accept my change. Some people are completely not happy about it and not very nice about it. But what can I do? If people are not open, if people are staying in the past or if they can never evolve, I’m not going to be like them. Evolution is important. If I don’t evolve, I’m going to kill myself as an artist anyway. So I’d rather evolve and have a brand new day instead of being always the same and end up losing my fans, because at some point, they’ll be mean enough to say, “You know what? She’s never changed.” That’s people. People are mean. If you change, they don’t like it. But if you never change, at some point they criticize you; they say that you are always playing the same thing. People are never happy, anyways.

Now that “minimal” is the dominant techno sound, do people dance differently from when techno was more full-sounding?
Of course, because the BPM is different. So right there, it’s not like 138, 140; it’s like 126, 128, 130 at the most.

So it’s closer to house now.
Yeah, totally! And I love it. But it’s not house, it’s techno.

What equipment setup did you use to record Come With Me?
Two Technics [1200 turntables] and one Ecler mixer.

So are you using any other technologies when you play, like Final Scratch or Ableton Live?
No, not all.

You’re old-school like that.
Totally. And I play vinyl, no CDs.

Is there a concept or reason for this when so many other people are using other things?
I like to see my music. I like to see when the break is coming, I like to see when the break is about to finish. You can’t see that on CDs. But you can on Final Scratch. Although, I find that all the people who swap to Final Scratch—if they have energy at all, because some have never been DJ’s with energy—some who’ve had energy, I think they don’t anymore, because they spend way too much time on their screen. They don’t realize that. I think that when you are on Final Scratch, you can tend to spend too much time on your screen, and that’s bad, because from the dancefloor point of view, you look like someone checking emails. I don’t think that’s DJ’ing. For me, a DJ has records, and it turns, that’s it.

And I’m probably retarded, and I’m not evolving on that point of view. I have no problem with people who play other things, but as far as I’m concerned, I like vinyl. I like to touch my music. It makes me feel real. Sometimes I play CDs, like my new tracks, for example—I don’t have them on vinyl yet, but I want to test them out. And I’m miserable when I play that music on CD. I don’t like it. Final Scratch is cool. I got it when it first came out, because it is really cool. You don’t carry your records, and you still play vinyl. Problem: I really bought it in the beginning. I had it, the pro version—[there] were only 100 to have it. I was starting to load all the music in, and I was getting prepared to start using it, and it was taking time because I didn’t have an assistant to do that for me. Although I had bought it, I wasn’t ready to get out [with it]. So I [got] to touring with my vinyls, and at that point I started seeing the first few DJ’s using it. And I looked at them and I thought, “My God, they’ve lost so much energy. They’re always with their head down on their fucking computer.” What made me so popular, more than anything else, more than the music I play, is my energy. If I lose energy, I will lose everything. And I thought that I was not going to use [Final Scratch].

For me, playing is creating a mess in your records, and turning around and choosing your record super fast, and pulling one out and then deciding that, “Oh no, I’m going to play another one,” and you have three seconds to change records, and then you don’t know where to put your old record, and you throw it on the floor, and you put [on] the other one, that’s also part of the whole set. Not just like changing tracks on a computer, and always leaving the same two vinyls on [the turntables], you know? And when I realized that, I said, “OK, too bad, wrong investment”. I had just lost three thousand dollars with a computer and a Final Scratch program that I was never going to use. It’s still sitting there since 2000, I think, since five, six years, taking all the dust. But at least I’ve kept my energy and my craziness in my DJ sets.

And you find that you can still keep that energy and craziness with the more minimal sounds?
Oh, totally. Totally, because I’m very energetic. If I play electro, I don’t play on three decks because the music is too full. But even on minimal, I’m going to have three decks on, and I’m going to have a bunch of effects, and I’m going to change records super fast and everything. It has nothing to do with the music, the energy. Of course also the energy is part of the music, but I’ve seen so many techno DJ’s [who] were completely boring, and techno is supposed to be energetic. And I’ve seen a bunch of minimal DJ’s who were much, much more exciting than techno DJ’s. So I’m sorry, it’s not about the music, it’s about the kind of DJ you are. If you’re fun to look [at], you’re fun to look [at], period. If you make something interesting out of anything, you can make it out of anything you touch. My fans [who] are not happy about this change—they probably think I’m going to become such a boring DJ and everything. But I’m not stupid. I’m not going to swap styles to become a boring DJ. I think that I’m fun because I love what I do. As of the moment I don’t like what I do anymore, I’m not going to be fun, even if I play the hardest techno. So it’s better that I play something that really makes me jump, even though it’s minimal, and I’m going to still stay an exciting and fun DJ to look at, instead of [the obligation] to play the music that I’ve always played that doesn’t touch me anymore, and then I’ll fall asleep behind the decks. Techno for me is not a challenge anymore. I play on three decks, eyes closed, no problem. I need new challenges, and it’s just a little normal after ten years of career.

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