Fresh Kicks 194: Kiernan Laveaux
Kiernan Laveaux records a mix of psychedelic rave magic for the Fresh Kicks series, and speaks to Eoin Murray about Cleveland’s queer club community, T4T LUV NRG, empowering others through music, and being a ‘house is a feeling’ DJ above all
It's Sunday night at Freerotation 2022 and, after three days of raving at the intimate festival in Wales' Baskerville Hall, energies are wavy, and starting to waver. Luckily, Kiernan Laveaux's USBs contain all the ingredients of a reviving tonic. At the helm of Room 2, the Cleveland, Ohio-born DJ stirs a kaleidoscopic brew of trippy Midwestern techno, rolling Japanese kosmische, bucolic belters, and warped, bassy steppers. She's in her element, guiding the freshly charged dancefloor through the cosmic portal between Zoe Mc Pherson's synapse-snapping live set and a final peak-time push from Pariah and Hodge. Bristol DJ Ploy sums up the mood she conjures in three neat words: "Unabashed rave magic."
It was a highlight in what was shaping up to be a pretty big year for the Pittsburgh-based rhythm alchemist. The previous week, she’d made her equally successful debut at Berghain’s Panorama Bar on a housier tip. A few weeks before that, she tore up New York club Nowadays’ 24-hour Pride Nonstop party. The rest of 2022 comprised an array of landmark club sets and festival slots, including Honcho Campout and Sustain Release, Amsterdam’s De School, Berlin’s Ohm and Tbilisi’s Left Bank. So impressed was Ploy after witnessing her Freero set, he booked her to play his Deaf Test club night’s first birthday party at London’s Venue MOT in November.
Everywhere she played, she brought her unmistakable take on DJing-as-artform with her – a personalised style that drinks deep from the house and techno sources of the American Midwest, and dub sound system culture – conveying an “elastic, funky, motivating energy” with every brilliant blend. “I'm a ‘house is a feeling’ DJ deep down,” she tells us over Zoom in January. “Even if I'm playing really heavy shit, I want it to feel like house and disco; the way that shit hits you in your body.”
Like everyone, Laveaux had spent much of the previous two years at home. She used that time in lockdown to finesse her DJ skills and “keep the iron hot”, mostly so she could play comfortably and confidently once clubs reopened, but also just for her own sanity. It paid off. CDJs become like instruments in her sets; her liberal use of FX, pitch-bending and jog-wheel trickery invokes the dubwise production techniques of Lee “Scratch” Perry, Adrian Sherwood and Dennis Bovel, as well as her DJ heroes Larry Levan and Ron Hardy. When she plays, technicolour wormholes of distortion and delay stretch out from percussive passages in a way that feels freaky, playful, and purposeful – honouring the past while gazing wide-eyed into the future.
Laveaux started DJing in 2014 when her friends Mx Silkman and Father Of Two asked her to get involved in their recently launched queer club night, In Training, at the punky Cleveland venue, Now That’s Class. She was 18 at the time, had never really been to a proper rave or club, and wasn’t all that au fait with the music outside of records recommended by friends, or works by experimental artists like Actress. Motivated by a desire to connect with fellow trans people, she learned how to mix on Virtual DJ and was soon playing opening sets for the party’s headline acts, which ranged from "cacophonous live electronic performances to DJs exploring the more adventurous tangents of techno, house and off-kilter mechanics," she remembers.
Without any strict genre policy, she was able to develop her style and tastes freely, pulling from the “mishmash of influences” that surrounded her in Cleveland – rock, metal, hip-hop, noise – while simultaneously diving into the rich dance music history that was right on her doorstep, from Chicago house and Detroit techno to the “weird, sparse and interesting” rave legacy of Ohio. “Finding out about Midwestern dance music just combined all of these different things in my life that I loved,” she remembers.
Other parties and club nights came together, including the similarly eclectic Heaven is in You with her close friends ADAB and Ghost Noises, inspired by Ohio's "multifaceted hip-hop and experimental music worlds". There was also Disco Paradiso, a party organised with fana and Glacial23, where flavours like freestyle, Italo and disco prevailed. “I feel like, in some ways, all of [these parties] had similar motivations and themes behind them, of just being these necessary social gatherings for all of us to connect with other people like ourselves, and feel less alone in a weird, small Rust Belt place,” she says.
“Ultimately, that goal of trying to just meet other humans and empower people... That's the one takeaway that I think will never leave,” she continues, candidly. “It feels nice to have that as the basis of what got me started on this journey... Coming from this strange, small, very unique, very depressing, but also really lively city... Yeah, that shit just really stays with you.”
At the end of 2015, at her first ever out-of-state gig, Kiernan Laveaux met Eris Drew, and the two became fast friends. “Her and I initially bonded over just being some of the only trans women that we both knew in this small Midwest rave scene we were in, which was really, really important for both of us at that time,” she says. “It still is.”
Eris played a live set at In Training in 2016 – her music at the time felt like "the embodiment of a transgender, psychedelic take" on Alan Vega and Martin Rev's 'Suicide', Laveaux remembers – and in May 2017, during Detroit’s Movement Festival, both played at the beloved queer afterparty, Club Toilet. That set signalled an evolutionary era for Eris, who met her new manager not long after, and was soon travelling to DJ in Europe for the first time at a Hot Mass event in Berlin’s Ohm, with Laveaux on the same bill.
Shortly afterwards, in April 2018, Laveaux, ADAB and Eris came together to throw the first of the "psychedelically fluid" Motherbeat raves, which have gone on to take place in various locations around the world, from Pittsburgh and Seattle to Berlin, "with rotating casts of friends and co-conspirators helping to facilitate each iteration".
The trio's companionship has remained strong; Laveaux and ADAB are among numerous friends and peers in the wider T4T LUV NRG family, co-founded by Eris Drew and Octo Octa. “Eris and Maya [Octo Octa] are able to use this platform they have as a net positive, to help other trans people put music out and do these DJ mixes... I just think we're all people who are all trans and just really needed and wanted some friends who understood us. And I think we all found that in each other... Everyone involved with it has really helped give each other a lot of confidence and solace and love... To be a part of something that's like a connective love energy is really great.”
For Laveaux, that sense of connection, energy transmission and mutual empowerment is at the core of everything she does. Her DJing style embodies the notion of the Motherbeat, a word used by Eris Drew and others to express what Laveaux describes as “the nurturing, beautiful energy that music and people contain.”
“It’s the pulse of life that manifests everywhere: chaos, serendipity, beauty and pain, everything brought into one,” she says. “All these things that you feel whenever you go out; the depth of human experience alchemized almost into a rhythmic level.”
“A DJ acts as this constantly swirling, rotating energy source that other music passes through, and that you kind of give part of yourself to. Within that, you're also changing tonalities, BPM, all this stuff. And so kind of, in the essence of that, you are embodying a new layer of connective tissue and essence.
“I want people to dance, and feel how amazing it can feel to be at home in your body kinetically, both physically and in your soul.” she continues. “Physical movement, and being around people, taught me that my body, despite how I may think about it, or despite what society may think about it...” she pauses. “I just want people to feel like they're beautiful, and deserving of respect and safety and kindness and love, and that life is just worth living.
“There’s just a whole world out there, full of different sounds to hear and people to meet... The world we have to live in is just so violent and loving and beautiful all at once. And you can't understand the beauty of life without strife. Ultimately, I just think it's important to help people realise that, maybe, through dance or just through meeting someone at a venue or hearing music, it's possible for us to all try to overcome that as best we can.”
She pauses once more. “And I just like to rock out.”
Laveaux is looking forward to transmitting that energy further in 2023; she celebrated her 27th birthday in January by doing a 13-hour DJ livestream on Twitch. She's also taking baby steps toward producing her own music, and will be starting a label with her longtime friend, CCL. In the meantime, she’s recorded a mix that communicates all her psychedelic rave magic and technical prowess in one breathtaking 68-minute package. It’s genuinely energising stuff, and as clear a reminder as any that house is, after all, a feeling.
DJ Spooky ‘Yellow Brick Road Haunted Beats’
Boredoms ‘Jungle Taitei (Laughter Robot's Hemp Mix)’ Remixed by Yann Tomita
Angel Hunt ‘Safeways O’
LOFT ‘Seq (2015)’
Metrist ‘QQraasi Qraasi’
33EMYBW ‘Adam Bank (Lechuga Zafiro Remix)’
Knopha ‘Gym A’
Malka feat Ayaní ‘Xaxo’
Carter Tutti Void ‘T 3.4’
Wet Dog ‘Flies’
Kyoka ‘Piezo Version Vision feat. Lone Ranger’
twofold ‘Trim curve’
Mor Elian ‘Diva Test (Cicada Mix)’
Duckett ‘Torso on a Trampoline’
Jennifer Loveless ‘Out/Under’
IDHAZ x Bored Lord ‘They Never Taught Us To’