VTSS will not be constrained by any box you put her in. With one foot in the ‘big room’ and another in the avant-garde, the high-octane maven is just as comfortable commanding the colossal soundsystems of EXIT as she is soundtracking the boldly experimental dancefloors of Unsound or a high fashion party in Milan — all with time to spare to enlighten the Sunday morning congregation of Berghain. First cutting her teeth as a sound engineer in Kraków, the turbulent and uncompromising queen of the rave made a name for herself in Berlin, pushing against the strictly-imposed boundaries of the city’s techno scene and daring crowds to sample her trademark bombardments of hardcore, electro and EBM.
Her penchant for mind-bending, quaking sets has placed her as one of the most sought after DJs in Europe, with prime slots at Junction 2, Riverside, CTM, Atonal and countless others. Make no mistake, Martyna Maja has become the poster child for the modern DJ success story — an all-rounder who boasts collaborations with the likes of Randomer and Varg, upcoming releases on both Technicolour and Ninja Tune, and 151k loyal followers on Instagram to boot. Always promising erratic, fiery selections matched with a clear intellect and deep understanding of her craft, VTSS is a force to be reckoned with.
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For someone with an unshakable air of confidence, it’s strange to meet her in such a time of flux. The pandemic saw the Berlin-dwelling Maja pick up sticks and move to London, and with nightclubs closed and a limited touring schedule, she developed a new perspective on her relationship with clubland: “Last summer was, as Kylie Jenner said, ‘the year of realising things’,” she laughs as we bask in that last little bit of sunshine at the end of September, people-watching in Dalston, “I want to be a producer - not just a club music producer - that people can listen to whenever they want, during the day even; it doesn't have to be [about] tailoring music for clubs. I've been feeling like that for more than a year now, that this is the direction I want to take.”
“I don't think I'm the kind of person who would be able to just tour for 52 weeks a year for however many years, I don't think I can live my life like that, it's exhausting for your mental and physical health,” VTSS says. “I'm kind of greedy, you know. I want it all. I wanna make music for myself, for others, I wanna play live, I wanna work in fashion, I wanna use my voice. I just can't be stuck in one place or just doing one kind of project, or producing techno for my whole life — and it's okay if the same people don't agree with my other projects or ventures, if I lose [them], it’s fine, but I'm also so excited to meet new people who are gonna fuck with this part of me, you know?”
This ravenous desire to “have it all”, Maja tells me, isn’t new. Having had a keen interest in electronic music since first hearing Aphex Twin as a teenager, her first clubbing experiences came at underage ‘fidget house’ parties in her home city of Warsaw. “You’d need to have parents' permission, but everyone would fake those,” she says, “I don’t think my mum knows that. We’d say we were going to sleepovers.”
Maja’s parents both hail from towns in Poland but moved to the capital city before she was born, holding high ambitions for their daughter. While her father had tennis stardom in mind for a young Martyna, her mother had sights set firmly on academia, sending her to Kraków to study law and economics. “They wanted me to be in the United Nations or something, look how I ended up,” she chuckles, motioning towards her vibrant, long red hair and a dagger-shaped earring hanging from her ear. Everything changed for Maja when a school friend invited her to Unsound Festival in 2012, introducing her to the Polish underground art and music scenes.
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“I guess, [there were not ] so many women DJing, I saw someone - I don’t even remember who she was - but she looked so badass performing. The way her music was mesmerising everyone in the room made me realise that I, in some way, wanted to contribute to this scene. [There was a lot] building to this decision to drop out [of law school] and to go do sound engineering, but I’ve always said that it was Unsound that was the changing point to me.”
Abandoning scholarly pursuits to focus on the arts did not sit well with her aspirational parents. “To be fair, when I told my parents that I wanted to drop out of law school to become a DJ it was the biggest nightmare ever - they were crying,” she laughs. “It was the worst day of their lives, but I was lucky enough to discover something that I was good at and I love doing at a fairly young age. I don't wanna sound like a twat, but I knew it was always going to work out,” she adds.
From there Maja focused on understanding every element of how a club night works: working on the bar, running parties, operating soundsystems, acting as a warm-up DJ - anything to enhance her knowledge. However, she admits, starting in Poland made it much harder for her to develop her craft within Europe: “There are not many people who come from my background who manage to get this far,” she says. “I always knew I wanted to leave and live abroad and see the world and stuff, [but coming from] Eastern Europe can be a handicap. People don’t realise how much of a disadvantage it is to not grow up speaking English, we were taught it on a pretty limited level in school, [people] don’t realise how much of a privilege it is [to come from an English speaking country].”
“My parent's generation would only be taught Russian, so especially then - how do you learn about the world? It's only through travelling and reading, and if you only know Russian you can only travel through the former Soviet Union, so this was the only world that [my parents] had seen the mentality is changing in Poland now, on different levels. Part of my mum’s work was travelling so I was quite lucky, she taught me about the world, but it’s rarely the case.”
“I’m not complaining though,” she looks up at me and laughs, “It's a Polish trait that we complain all the time - and I'm fighting myself not to. Living [In London] has helped a lot, everyone's more polite and joking - you ask someone how they are doing over here and they always say ‘I'm good’ ‘cause it's more of just a greeting, while with my Polish friends, we’d go ‘I'm actually pretty shit!’, and proceed with complaining. I’m working on that though!”
Despite the struggle of getting into the international club scene initially, she says, her experience in tiny venues did help her become the DJ she is now - the practice in “covering all bases” allowed Maja to excel quickly within the Polish DIY scene, which she credits with stimulating her interest in deconstructed club and the other genres she still regularly deploys alongside techno in her sets.
“I learned so much from doing my residencies back in Warsaw, that was important, even as a techno DJ who was always playing harder stuff - I've had my share of playing 100 BPM parties or all-nighters, and I'm grateful for all of it.”
“Something that bothers me about other DJs sometimes is that they've never been a local DJ, they never did opening sets or had to be a resident at a club — so, they just feel like they know better. They'll bang 160 BPM and won't care about anyone else, but sometimes it's not about you it's about the night and how it progresses, so I always think this is important; and when you're a headliner you can allow yourself to do a bit more, the night is leading to your performance.”
VTSS doesn’t allow herself to be shackled by expectations, her ability to feel the atmosphere and flow with the night itself means she can hit crowds with sounds they didn’t know they needed to hear. In Berlin, Maja embedded herself within the techno scene — but without ever really playing strictly techno, quickly gaining a reputation for thrilling her crowds with a heady mix of hard, fast, banging music. She’d be the last person to agree with her sometimes denomination of ‘techno DJ’ however: “I just see myself as a DJ - yeah, techno is my main genre. But it’s the future to mix genres and styles right? There’s so much talk in the [techno scene] saying ‘oh you have to do it like this and play it safe to have a long career’, fuck that, if I had to do that I would just grow to resent it.”
“I started as a live artist, right? I will always love hard techno raves but I also love other music. It’s annoying how there seem to be so many rules in the European scene these days, there's so much stuff that's frowned upon, you know the ‘techno bros’ and the BPMs. We sometimes lose the element of fun in all this.”
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There’s a sort of fluctuation with her relationship with the crowd, wanting to both embrace them with a good time, but also to shock, to educate — a tough feat to manage for one of the biggest DJs in Europe right now, receiving bookings from major events such as Awakenings. She says that her awareness of who she is playing to is what helps her do this. “It's your job to play for other people, you're doing it for a living - you know?” she comments “Don’t get me wrong, I still play everything I wanna play, but you’re not in your bedroom anymore, you gotta see if you’re finding the same language with the crowd, it’s not just about you.”
Despite high profile bookings, releasing on SPFDJ’s imprint and counting Object Blue and Blawan as fans of her music, the pandemic slammed the brakes on VTSS’s meteoric rise — shifting her focus, much like the rest of the scene, away from the club and into introspection. As a producer, Maja had always had her sights firmly set on the rave, but with night spaces closed, she lost her passion for creating the slam she had become known for. “I didn't feel as inspired with stuff that was inspiring me before. I stopped making straightforward techno because the whole thing is you're making music for the club — I wasn't inspired by making techno at home and listening to it on my laptop speakers.”
Martyna describes the first few months of lockdown living in Berlin as a “tough” experience, abandoning music for months as she reckoned with where exactly she was supposed to go next. It wasn’t until a chance visit to London to visit friends that her passion was rekindled. She explains that she felt a dramatic priority shift - not wanting to simply aim to be a big room DJ and sustain bookings, but instead flourish as an artist, and put herself and her mental health first. Another shifting point was getting her dog, Mauro. He’s with us as we sit roadside in a café, and as VTSS explains her priority shift, she looks down at him adoringly, “ambitions change you know?” she says, picking him up. “What I've learned from the pandemic is that if you do something you might wanna do something else really soon. With Mauro, I knew I always wanted a dog - I was always obsessed with dogs, and I always knew that I could never have one with DJing and stuff. In lockdown, I realised that having a dog was more important to me than anything else, and I’m going to prioritise this and make everything else work. It was the best decision, 'cause in the end it really helped me survive everything.”
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With an appetite for inspiration in mind, Martyna and Mauro packed up a car and moved to East London in summer 2020, finding a sanctuary in the organised disarray of the British music scene. “I got criticism [In Berlin] for being too playful in mixes. Whereas I’ve been feeling here that people are a bit more open-minded musically and they just care about having a good time. I always felt my sense of humour kind of matches here, the banter you know?” she laughs. “There have been so many factors, to be honest - the process was quite long to get here but I’m really happy with the decision. I feel more at home here than any other place before.”
“I enjoy going to pubs and clubs here, the way people play music is so refreshing. Last weekend I had my Friday off, I went to see three friends playing - I made everyone's itinerary, my friends hate me. 19:30PM to Printworks to watch Peach, then we headed to a Birthday party in Hackney Wick because my friend Angela was playing, then object blue for a live set at 2:30AM at fabric - I sent everyone an itinerary with instructions of how to get there - I'm such a girl scout!”
Back to the production side of things, Martyna believes London is helping her curate a brand new sound — inserting her vocals into her productions and creating music that isn’t necessarily destined to be played on dancefloors. “But [for London], it's quite clubby - just not in Berlin,” she clarifies.
For her two upcoming EPs, VTSS is challenging assumptions - flitting between soft breaks, harder basslines and even some pop inflections that will surely redefine her space within the scene, and as an artist in general. Still, when I ask what some of her focuses were in developing the new music, she answers simply: that she still wants to sound like VTSS. “Even if I’m making something that sounds more like IDM, or even trap or drill, I’ve been told by all my friends and co-workers that it still sounds like me - it’s really important to me that there’s still that element that people can recognise me in.”
“When I started making music that’s a bit different, my stuff that's out next year [on Technicolour/Ninja Tune] or even my last EP, there were a lot of people going ‘well if she wants to do IDM or electro she should start a new name’, but no, VTSS is everything that I am, and that I want to be.” But she admits that the need for an alias altogether came from her desire to not be labelled as a female on line-ups. “There were a few women who did the same thing when I was starting 7-8 years ago, it was before there were tons of feminist collectives, and a lot of my friends back in Poland kept constant comments like ‘oh she's only getting bookings to play because she's a woman’ I didn’t necessarily want to hide the fact that I’m a woman, but wanted to just protect myself a bit.”
Being “a woman in electronic music” is a title that - regardless of whether Maja asked for it - has been levelled at her door, repeatedly. Her active role on social media - both a blessing for encouraging her profile and perhaps a curse for attracting unwanted attention from trolls and commenters - has positioned her as something of a mouthpiece for the abuse women in the music industry receive online and the lack of action taken by men to tackle it.
“I try to not pay attention [to negative comments], friends told me to just block people — I've always felt like, I should listen to it all and I should take it, but they have told me that this isn't criticism, this is about your mental health. But if someone is being homophobic, or racist or sexist or just a disrespectful twat - it's worth calling it out and making a statement about it now and then, I don’t think anything’s gonna change by ignoring it.”
“One of the biggest producers in the world was texting me and they said: ‘Oh I'm so sorry [you are receiving abuse on social media], but my advice to you is that you shouldn't talk about it,’ because it brings more attention to it. I don't agree, it all shouldn't be happening and we should call more attention to it. I've got a thick skin by now, but I know how it used to bother me - I want this industry to be a healthier place.”
For much of the electronic music scene and wider society in general - the last two years have brought about more conversations on the social responsibility of public figures. VTSS clearly understands the responsibility for the crowd she commands: “If you're just an influencer who talks about make-up it might not be not the same - but within music, it's inherently political, because of that it's our responsibility to be more engaged and make sure it maintains the safe space it was designed to be.”
“I benefit from music that was created by Black people, and I believe it’s part of the job to not only acknowledge that but make sure the POC artists get their space, opportunities, but most importantly fair compensation for their art.” For VTSS her way of managing that is to ensure those booking her are equally turning to artists from minority backgrounds: “I'm not desperate to be on anyone's line-up, so guess I have the power to push for diversity and other values that are important to me, and I can say no if I don't think a promoter matches those — I have the power to say no at this point and a lot of artists don't, so those of us who do have that power should exercise it and stop being scared of the industry.”
I ask her how it is to feel like your actions are monitored, to be such a big presence on social media, as a person who shares much of her life with her followers across three platforms. “You don't always want to be in the spotlight, but I guess it comes with every job that's in the public eye, even if you have a smaller profile - it all affects us. My friends have private lives, 700 followers but still feel immense pressure over social media. The way I present myself is genuine and I like to think I'm quite self-aware. The great thing about social media is how directly you can approach your listeners. Back in the day, you needed a press team to get in the newspapers - now you have direct contact with your audience on social media, you can show your actual personality.” This is apparent as soon as you chance a glance at VTSS's social media: a mix of hot selfies, crazy footage of her sets, the antics of music industry friends such as LSDXOXO, SPFDJ and Chippy Nonstop — and even BTS shots from this very cover shoot where she jokingly compares herself to a character from Shrek. The stress and anguish of having to deal with so many unknowns aren’t completely cancelling out the amount of fun Martyna has in just presenting herself to the public. She seems to treat social media as an extension of her art, rather than a way of promoting it.
I ask what’s next, apart from the two EPs previously mentioned and Maja’s face transforms to something akin to a 19-year-old about to experience their first rave. “I’m working on some fashion collaborations. I just want to do fun projects! Whatever it is, something that fits into my personality rather than my ‘trade’. I hate when people tell me when I can’t do something because I’m known for doing one thing. Art is multifaceted, and there is lots that I can do and I want to do. I wanna just live my life.” That seems to be why this new “reinvention” of VTSS is so exciting to witness — because it’s come from a shift in Martyna Maja’s relationship with her persona, slipping into a sense of ease in being able to express herself, and insert humour and silliness into her art. Through there’s been turbulence on the journey, she seems to be on the other side now, thoroughly enjoying the prospect of not taking herself too seriously whatsoever, and grasping every opportunity with two hands.
Megan Townsend is Mixmag's Deputy Digital Editor, follow her on Twitter
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