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The Future of Fetish Clubbing

There is very little that can replace the sensations of being in a fetish club, but Louisahhh’s debut album The Practise of Freedom comes close. Hailed as “the missing link between Nine Inch Nails and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs”, Louisahhh (real name Louisa Pillot) makes pounding, rebellious music made of many flavours: punk-laced techno, industrial pop, noise, a splash of electro that ties into her work with Brodinski and tenure behind the decks at various underground clubs in mid-00s New York City.

The Practise of Freedom is an exploration of a part of herself she calls “feminist submissive”, covering themes ranging from eroticism and empowerment to addiction and apocalypse. In short, it’s exactly the sort of thing you’d hear at Klub Verboten – a London-based kink community and contemporary fetish party, where the music is as dark and physical as the environment it’s played in.

We got Louisahhh and Karl, one of Verboten’s co-founders, in conversation to talk about sober sex, the future of fetish nightlife after lockdown, and how COVID could help to integrate the kink community’s culture of consent into mainstream spaces.

The video for Louisahhh’s single “Love Is A Punk” also drops today, digging deeper into concepts of surrender, consent, and the shadow self. Watch that below, and read Louisahhh and Karl’s conversation afterwards.https://oembed.vice.com/8MWaCqH?img=1&lazy=1&v=1&app=1

VICE: You both bring different things to the table on similar themes of underground nightlife, techno and sexuality. I thought we could start off by talking about how each of you found your people, as it were. You moving to France to DJ, Louisahhh, and your events in London with Klub Verboten, Karl.

Louisahhh: It’s interesting, because I moved to France mid-career. I grew up in New York City, lived in Los Angeles for a while, and then the record company that I was working with kind of said ‘we have everything you need… but you have to move to France.’It was a little bit of an adjustment, because it’s not only changing continents, it’s also a big shift in terms of attitudes and cultural codes. It’s also been interesting observing attitudes toward sex and sexuality and kink across the world. In France, in a lot of ways, it’s seen as a high pursuit and it’s kind of intellectual. Like, it’s not Halloween, you know? But it’s also super closeted and repressed, in my experience, outside of very small subsets. But I’ve been here eight years now and I’m really happy – and my French is still terrible!

Karl: I’ve had a similar journey, but from the East to the West. I grew up in East Germany before moving to London about 12 years ago, and kink is a very different thing back home. You could talk with your grandparents like ‘oh yeah we’re going to this fetish club’ on Sunday morning and they’d be like ‘oh cool!’ It’s very open. You have public gardens where you can sunbathe naked. As kids, we would always go swimming naked – mainly because most swimwear wasn’t available in communism [laughs], but it was also just very embedded in a way. Then, coming to London, there was something missing. So we did the first Verboten events purely for ourselves, but we found our people in the process. We didn’t expect that, but it happened, and now there’s this huge community that we’re kind of responsible for. Which is another question, right? How do you move from just wanting to do a sex party to taking on a larger responsibility? 

VICE: How did you each navigate that big change of coming from one place, and having these pre-established ideas and values around sex and sexuality, to moving somewhere with completely different ones?

Louisahhh: I think starting to explore kink, and starting to name this part of myself and be able to advocate for it, was actually kind of a survival mechanism after moving to France – because the cultural codes were so different, and because dating in France was such a mindfuck! It didn’t have anything to do with what I knew. In the US, especially coastal regions, there’s a lot of dating multiple people at the same time and you have a declarative conversation about what the relationship you’re having is. In France, it’s all grand gestures and four-hour long dates on a boat and it would kind of be assumed that you were in a relationship. I was like ‘I meant we should just see each other for coffee, fuck this!’ 

So I discovered this part of myself in the context of living as an expat, and it made it so much easier to name specifically what I was looking for and not accept anything else. It really helped me to feel safer and more grounded, and to figure out what was not for me much faster than I would have in the context of this effusive guessing game that was happening. 

Karl: I relate to that. You’re not just adapting to this new language barrier, you’re also adapting to new language around different kinds of kink as well, and that’s so challenging when you go somewhere else. My first two years living in London were terrible. People would either go ‘oh, German, that sounds so harsh!’ and I’d be like ‘OK, I’ll stay over there’, or people would ask for me to speak to them in German. It’s so bizarre in the beginning, these new things that you just don’t know how to go about, so you tend to take a step back and exclude yourself so you can look at it from the outside. In a way, dedicated kink spaces made things easier, because I didn’t have to speak! I could stand there and watch and learn, but there’s so much to adapt to when you relocate that goes beyond language.

PHOTO: LOUISAHHH BY ELLA HERME

VICE: I’m curious about how music and sexuality intertwine for you both. Louisahhh your new album is in part an exploration of what you were just talking about, embracing this role of the feminist submissive, and Karl the music is a crucial part of the experience at Verboten.

Karl: When we talk about kink spaces, most people get this image of a 90s swingers club with some RGB blinky-blinky lights and trashy music. And that is what they often are, right? But I think it’s on our generation to change that, and music brings another complexity into the mix. If you resonate with a particular sound then that’s something more that you have in common with everyone else in the room, which makes things more interesting. Also music just carries this very emotional domain. I’ve never understood how people can function in a kink space with their sexuality and, at the same time, listening to some crazy music!

Louisahhh: It’s funny you mention that because a friend of mine, who was a stripper, was talking recently about how angry she would be when she was working because one of the dancers’ songs was “Lady In Red”. She would wear a red dress, take off the red dress, and “Lady In Red” would play, and we were both like… that’s just so far from our concept of sexuality. If that’s your jam, go on with your red self, but it’s very personal. For me, music has always been the number one immediate thing that gets me in my body and snaps me into a space where I’m connected with my sexuality, whether that’s in public or not. Music is important to naming and exploring this part of myself – I name it as feminist submissive – and it’s a very empowered space for me, because it’s my power to give. And so that part of my sexuality works as the creative force behind my music. They’re interconnected in an inextricable way. 

Why do you think techno in particular lends itself so well to kink spaces and these artistic explorations of sexuality? 

Karl: Techno is bold. It’s full of subconscious meaning but it’s stripped down to the bare essentials, so it leaves room for the individual as a recipient to fill and interpret and take it from there. I think that’s why it resonates for me in kink spaces. It might also be our generation, though. At Verboten we also tend to book people that play body music, a bit of a darker sound, but it varies. Our events are very visual, too, so it just ties together as a whole. 

Louisahhh: The fact that it’s kind of hypnotic and repetitive cultivates a very specific mindset, kind of like leaving the outside world behind. In the context of any club space, but especially one like Verboten, it’s also kind of primal, right? Both the emptiness and the hypnotic elements really lend itself to appreciating that fact. It’s not for synchronised dancing, it’s not for top 40 hits and bottle popping, it’s like, we’re here to fucking lose ourselves, or become that part of ourselves that we can’t have in the outside world. That’s what I’m looking for in anything I listen to, personally!

VICE: Do you find kink clubs – whether they’re in Paris, London, Berlin, New York, wherever – to be fairly similar, or do they vary in terms of cultural attitudes towards partying and sex? 

Karl: I think there’s something universal about kink. It’s almost like when you’re a kid and you go with your skateboard to skate park and get taken in. Once you rock up to a fetish club in your little rubber uniform, or whatever your taste is, that’s very international.

There are also local differences, like I would say London is definitely very dressy. If you happen to be a fetishist and happen to be into some form of materials, whether it’s PVC or latex or rubber, London is your scene! Germans aren’t as dressy. They’re more about playtime, and they tend to be a bit more sober. So there are these local differences, but you’ll always be taken in. Whatever you express through your sense of dress, it has a place in that world. You won’t be looked at or questioned around your kinks in a judgmental way. Over the years I’ve seen so many people rock up on their own, and so far all of this existed in their head and in their own little private sphere. Maybe they even questioned themselves on it – ‘is this ok?’, ‘is this right?’, ‘am I the only one?’ – but then they go to a club, and suddenly those people find friends. They find a group of people and they start hanging out outside of kink, outside of the club. I see this over and over again, and at this point that’s the thing that really interests me. 

Louisahhh: That’s beautiful and very well said. I don’t go out that much recreationally because it’s my job, but one thing that I think can be appreciated about kink, regardless of how somebody relates to that word, is that it’s such a connection to vitality. It’s this idea of the erotic as something that isn’t necessarily out and expressed at all times, but as a way of seeing the world, and seeing that anything can be eroticised in a powerful and connected way.

My relationship with kink is that it’s a co-created utopia. I think so many of us have so much shame around that part of ourselves, so to be able to hold a real physical space in the world where it’s fully accepted and embraced by people who feel the same way in terms of their relationship with their own sexuality is a beautiful and exciting thing. I think a lot of people think kink parties and fetish parties must be the most sordid places on earth, and it’s like – actually, no, it’s a really loving concept. 

Karl: Absolutely. I tend to find that once you’ve been through some form of struggle, to some extent, you’re more likely to create solidarity over the course of your life. You’re more likely to understand other people’s struggles and join in and say ‘I know how it feels’. 

PHOTO: LOUISAHHH BY ELLA HERME

VICE: Louisahhh, I was wondering if your relationship to sex has changed throughout your sobriety journey?

Louisahhh: Hell yeah. When I got sober I was like 20, I was very young. So I’d explored a little bit of this stuff prior to getting sober in the context of my drug use, and then I kind of shut it away, thinking that in recovery I would have to be more of a “good girl”. Turns out that my relationship with my higher power, or whatever we want to call it, hadn’t matured enough to embrace that part of myself that was kinky and perverted. After around ten years of recovery, the door kind of got blown open and it was actually like, no, the guiding love in your life loves this part of you, and it’s a travesty to not use that. It was really liberating and unleashed this huge creative force and really changed the nature of my relationships, to be able to have that peace in the light instead of shoved away. 

When we don’t accept parts of ourselves, they will come out somehow, and often it’s in destructive ways unless they’re acknowledged and integrated. So it was really powerful and healing to come into this part of myself. It’s actually been really good for my sobriety, because I feel like a lot of people are kind of in the same place that I was. I started a podcast called Sober Sex to discuss exactly this!

Karl: That’s so good! I’m also six months sober now, which is a first for me, but I totally feel where you’re coming from. I really wish there would be a bigger decline in drug taking in nightlife culture. Particularly now, as kink is entering the mainstream domain and adapting and sliding into so many spaces that may have not had that element before. There’s always so much going on, so many nice people to chat to and engage with. Why sit on a ketamine bender for five hours alone in the corner? I wish kink would be more of a tool to be used to define that and step back from that.

If you’re a bit of an introvert, or if you’re diving into this world for the first time, it can be very overwhelming and it can be hard to make meaningful connections and interact with people. I saw it myself. When I moved to London, I didn’t speak to people for about two years. I went out alone and discovered everything myself, but it was OK. It’s just so tempting for people to take the shortcut, but I think in a fetish club or in a sex positive space, there’s so much more to it that you don’t have to do that. 

Louisahhh: Kink spaces and fetish spaces are really leading the way in terms of consent culture and how we might introduce that into more mainstream clubbing experiences too. While so many of us who are involved in this universe go for the intensity – and as an addict, of course, I love intensity – it can be dangerous to not be in one’s body when doing more physical play practices. So to advocate for sobriety in kink spaces can feel a little vulnerable, because so many people want to go to disappear and to get out of their bodies, but at the same time it’s for safety’s sake.

Karl: Absolutely. It makes this whole negotiation, and this whole thing that we want to advocate for, so much more complicated. Whenever we’ve had moments where we’ve been asked to step in or have a listen, it always comes down to communication, and how do you communicate if you can’t remember the last thirty minutes? 

Over lockdown we’ve received more reports than ever – and that’s without even doing an event. On the one hand that’s a good thing. It shows that people have trust in us that they want us to listen, and they care about other people’s safety in this events world when we go back to it. But it’s also scary how quickly things can snowball. ‘Oh, let’s go to this person’s house, oh now there’s fifty of us, oh let’s do X,Y and Z, oh let’s also take those and those drugs on top of it’. If something happens, to de-cluster all that and go back over things and try to learn and make things right again… we tried it so often, but it’s difficult.

PHOTO: ELLA HERME

VICE: Nightlife culture in the UK – there’s a lot of drugs, a huge amount of drinking. Is that something that surprised you when you first came here Karl?

Karl: Yeah, massively. I came from a small scene in East Germany and people were sober – like sober sober. It was about music and creativity, and of course there were other scenes too, like around Tresor, but it wasn’t anything like I’ve seen in London

Louisahhh: Yeah, you guys are insane. It does feel like in this downtime that we have from actually seeing each other and doing things together, that there’s a real moment to reconcile what the future might look like and the ways we can support people who might be looking for help. Even in terms of just normalising sobriety within a kink space or a club space.

Karl: That’s the big question, right? This avalanche coming towards us after a year of silence – how is this going to be? How is this going to play out? We really believe in creating these more interpersonal responsibilities rather than saying ‘don’t do this, don’t do that’. We want to give people a share in this night, and a part of the responsibility, and say ‘look, this only works if all of us are nice and decent’.

Louisahhh: It sounds like you’ve really created a community and I love that you’re talking about mutual responsibility and respect for each other. I was wondering how would you suggest we carry that out from the kink community into a broader clubbing space, or even just our lives? 

Karl: I think there’s a lot to adapt and learn from the very core of the BDSM and fetish scene. It’s particular language and terminology, and it sounds complicated but it’s as simple as dealing with COVID. Elbow instead of the hug, two meter greeting from a distance, right? We learned that very quickly. So if we can add that to the palette of things that we do out of muscle memory, like brushing our teeth, then we can also learn consent and what comes after that. I think it’s all there, and now it’s something that needs to blend into club culture in general over time. 

I don’t think it’s just about creating rules. You also need to embed these rules and these thoughts in people, and let it flourish there. I went to an interesting talk once between the guys from Recon [a gay fetish dating app] and 56 Dean Street [a sexual health clinic in London], and one of the guys from the clinic said he had noticed a difference between people from the BDSM scene, who come in and break things down to the last detail, and people from the Chemsex scene, who are a little more shy and the language isn’t there as much. So he just brought everyone together in one room and said: ‘let’s talk about it. What is the terminology? What are the words? Let’s watch each other and adapt and learn.’ And I think this needs to happen more often. It would have such a positive impact. Of course there’s always the one person that never reads the room, and that’s the one we’re talking about, right, but it’s a start.

PHOTO: LOUISAHHH BY ELLA HERME

Louisahhh: That’s beautiful. I think without the absolute necessity for it, as in a kink space, it doesn’t get picked up organically. So to have it offered and practiced by a few will hopefully lead to it being picked up by many. As you mentioned we’ve picked up a lot throughout COVID, because we had to. We’re forced to do deep bows instead of handshakes or, in France’s case, kissing each other twice – it’s so intense! But this idea of asking consent for even just a handshake is an amazing thing, and here’s an opportunity to embed these rules as we go back to life and to gathering. It just feels really good to be asked if something is ok, you know? Like, what a fucking epiphany. So it’s very exciting that you’ve said that, and there’s a conversation starting. Let’s continue it. 

Karl: It’s on us to keep repeating this message and putting it out there as something to talk about. It helps a lot. We’ve opened up discussions after [online events] before and there’s sometimes been really interesting conversations going between a few hundred people, and everyone is so engaged. [Consent culture] isn’t just a myth that we’re using to replace security, or trick the council or the police. People are genuinely interested, because there are so many people that have had some form of negative experience in the past. And perhaps there wasn’t terminology around it at the time, or there wasn’t a way of calling it out, or it was very difficult to communicate because we just didn’t know – is this right or wrong? What should I do with it? Where do I go with that? Now those channels are open, and people are engaged and really curious. I think, in the future, if your club night or club wants to have any form of importance then hopefully you’ll be forced to adapt and learn. If not, then you might as well close. 

Louisahhh: Amen. You won’t find a set of people who are more enthusiastic about being like ‘and this is why it’s great!’ but who are also so big on protocol. It’s like: it can be fun, don’t worry, we’ll show you. What a great thing.

@emmaggarland

Louisahhh’s debut album The Practise of Freedom is out now via HE.SHE.THEY. 

Klub Verboten’s fifth birthday party will take place on the 17th of September and you can grab tickets for that here.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

by vice