Carl Cox Reflects On His Favorite Records And The Techno Phenomenon [Interview]
Carl Cox has been a global phenomenon for the past three decades. As an innovator of his own producing/DJ technique and a curator of talent at massive festival arenas, Cox’s insights are continually imprinted in the electronic sphere. Building an artistry based on his avant-garde principals, Cox determines the journey of his live sets based on his techno roots. He expressed his thoughts on the music with EDM.com before a performance at FreakNight Festival in Seattle, where he host his special signature stage, Carl Cox and Friends.
“Techno has been a cutting-edge of creative music. The word techno only arrived based on the music made by technology,” states Carl Cox reflecting on the fundamentals of the sound. “I think what people don’t know is that it couldn’t be considered mainstream if it’s techno. Where techno music is today is really great because people are still discovering it.”
Techno is a prodigy that has proved to be timeless, and Cox’s method epitomizes this beauty. “When I play a record 25 or 30 years old and I still see people digging it, it’s because it was a good record to begin with and withstood the test of time. Now, people don’t even know if it’s an old tune or a new tune because a lot of the new records are taking influences of what came out in yesteryear.”
Devising a forward-thinking soundscape, Carl Cox is the first DJ to spin three turntables at once. He discusses a time when he reverted to performing live after the midi synchronizer was released, however, he discloses that his prevailing ability is more pure in DJing. “If and when I use any of the extracurricular effects, I primarily still play with 1 record player, be creative and mix it with the next record. Now, you have the ability to have 4 deck players or 4 decks, my creativity is basically even higher and 10 fold now. So I really enjoy that. I can push things forward.” Cox also reveales his interest in introducing the new Roland drum machines into his live sets. “I keep the party going just for drums.”
Listen to Carl Cox live from Awakenings, Amsterdam NYE and read the full interview below:
Intro written by Carissa Gerzeny. Interview by Wilf Libgott & Van Chau.
To what extent do you believe techno has become a mainstream phenomenon? Mainstream as in the amount of people who are aware of it and know what type of music it is. Not necessarily fans.
Carl Cox: I don’t think techno is a mainstream phenomenon because the word techno only arrived based on the music made by technology. The people who were driving the machines. The early days of techno music really does stem from Kraftwerk, Jean Michel Jarre.. So a lot of that techno music that you hear today is two completely different things. Techno is a word play on the music that you listen today. Everything is made with technology.When you’re out there dancing, you didn’t really know what you got into. It could be tech house, tech Latin, tech funk, tech jazz, tech stuff. I don’t think techno is mainstream. I think what people don’t know is that it couldn’t be considered techno if it’s mainstream. Techno has been a cutting-edge of creative music. So for me, a lot of people out there don’t know what real techno music is. I’ve come through the whole techno realm of music. And most of that hasn’t become mainstream at all because it doesn’t pander to the wave of commerciality of what is accepted as dance music today to the point of EDM. Where techno music is today is really great because people are still discovering it. It’s really cool because techno music can be anything. People will always say I’m a techno DJ, but if you listen to my sets, really listen to them, it’s all kinds of dance music from an electronic point of view.
Which time period of your career do you like the best?
Carl Cox: The best time for me was the old school rave events. You kind of heard about these parties going on and you didn’t know where they were until you made a phone call, that you spoke to people who were primarily going to the same event that you were going to, you didn’t know whether the party was going to be indoors or outdoors, you didn’t know who was playing. We’re talking about the 90s here. 91-92. And when you did get there, the sound was amazing and the lights and lasers were fantastic. It just blew you away.
There are still some parties like that out there. Do you sometimes play those or not?
Carl Cox: Not really. No, a lot of those parties happen so very last minute. You can’t be waiting by the phone to be told the party’s in 5 minutes and 2.5 hours away from where I am and to come and play and turn it up. It’s not possible. I actually used to do that many, many times before especially here in the UK there used to be 5-6 parties on the weekend and I used to make 3 out of those 6 parties. Now you don’t get as many people as you used to get years ago because the police has cracked down on them so much. But when people are able to make those parties, it’s always a good time and a good spirit.
Sadly Mark Bell of LFO recently passed away. He, of course, is known as the co-creator of legendary record LFO - LFO. For your personal taste, could you name a techno record that was profound in influencing your later career?
Carl Cox: The thing is that with Mark Bell, it was really sad to hear that he passed away. For me, I’ve always been a big fan of him for what he created. I remember when the track LFO came out and LFO by LFO. When the sub tone bass dropped in that track, and apart from the strings that were so dramatic, you never heard anything like that in any record even today. The bass pushed every single bass to the absolute limit. And even today it still does that. I actually subconsciously played LFO a couple of times actually. In fact this year, had an ode to records that had a great bassline in them. From the top 100, DJ Scream was hosting a show and he asked me what my favorite bass record was and it was LFO by LFO. And what surprised me was that no one in the 100 thought about that record. They thought about everything else but that record. I was so surprised. They thought someone else had already thought about it but no one did. That record is still unbelievable and no record made like that today. So here we are and it became # 5 out of 100 as all-time top records. I’ve played the record a couple of times at places I’ve been to this year. And I just thought what people will get it, what people will think it’s amazing and what people will think what the hell is this? And it was a 50/50 dance floor. Half of dance floor was like woohoo; I haven’t heard this in years. The other half of the dance floor was like, who? When the baseline shook everyone just stood there like what’s that? It was brilliant to even see the sound guys think, what’s that? Now that’s LFO; so they know the record now. Time has passed and people forget things, but this is one of the records that launched a million other records based on artists’ integrity. I’m so sad to hear that he’s gone is such a way. For me it’s rest in peace for mark and he’ll never be forgotten for sure.
You have a very long standing career. How much of the classics do you incorporate into your sets? Do you like the new sounds better?
Carl Cox: To be honest, I come from the old guard. When I play a record 25 or 30 years old and I still see people digging it, it’s because it was a good record to begin with and withstood the test of time. So I’m fortunate enough to have these records and mix them together with modern day records and get an even bigger reaction to the old record based on its integrity. Based on how classic it was to begin with, based on how I believed in the record to start with. When I bought that record I knew there was something about it that had spirit, soul and longevity. You just can’t keep a good classic down. And for me I think it’s important to show people that that music you’re dancing to now this is the track that started that whole thing off to where we are now. And I think it’s amazing to cross the barriers of what people think is an old tune or a new tune. Now people don’t even know if it’s an old tune or a new tune because a lot of the new records are taking influences of what came out in yesteryear. So I’m really pleased to be in the middle of that situation where you’re going to get new records from me for sure but you’ll also get classics based on how good the records where to begin with. I’m happy to be in the middle of the situation where I can pull amazing classic records. Records only came out and only sold like 1000 units. You pull that record out and people are like, what’s this? And it’s like this came out in 1986, but it still has that amazing production and spirit and to know that they can’t get it. You gotta play the game.
A lot of underground producers, DJ and labels try to distance themselves from the term EDM. But should they actually embrace it to bring techno to new levels and audiences?
Carl Cox: I don’t think underground DJs and producers are trying that hard to distance themselves. I think it’s good for all to introduce dance music, electronic dance music to a generation that would probably never listen to this music. Now, listening to this music and having a good time is an introduction to where the underground DJs and producers are. I don’t think it has to be an us and them situation. Without this underground music, there would be no overground. There has to be a balance between what we do and other DJs do and what becomes mainstream. I don’t think they try to distance themselves, but I don’t think they want to follow any fashion. They should be able to make and play whatever they want really. I believe to each their own. The younger generation will say that the music they’re listening to is underground because a lot of the tracks you can’t get on Beatport or MTV. But to get that many people you have to commercially accessible music that you do hear on radio or MTV or Beatport or any record playing platform. I like to see the balance between the two elements. In the end of the day, you have the people who have been around for many years and believe in what they’re doing and people who have been around for 5 minutes who think they know everything. In the end of the day, time will tell where people will end up.
You are one of the first DJs to spin with 3+ turntables at a time. Now someone has created new technology with a 4d sound. Are you inspired by the new 4d sound invention?
Carl Cox: Not really, no. I remember quite a few years ago there was a company trying to bring in the 3d effect; it’s a stereo situation. Now, the problem is with all these amazing, fancy soundscapes, it works really well in a controlled environment. So if you were in a cinema or a box room studio that has sound acoustic treatment. Anything to do with parts of the sound, if you stand in the middle of the room you’re blown away and think wow that’s amazing. I can hear a high-hat coming from the back left, the conga coming from the front right, I can hear a kick drum coming from the bottom left, and I can feel the baseline in my chest. Brilliant. But no one has the ability to record in 3d or 4d. And if you do record in 3 or 4d, you have to be studio minded. You have to have gone to college or university and have a degree in soundscaping because the only way to benefit is to understand what you’ve recorded. But in stereo, it’s so easy to record. You just pan left, pan right. And if you do stand in the middle of the room and you have stereo speakers left and right you still get a great effect from it. People still don’t care too much about 3d and 4d is even more elaborate in forward thinking soundscape. So I’m not really impressed at all by it because if you impress by it in a controlled environment, it’s really hard to get people to understand that this is 4d and this is the wave of the future. You’re better off with a good stereo, good sound system, so you can really rock and really hear what you’re getting.
Is there anything else you would like to speak out about?
Carl Cox: I've always tried to be creative as a DJ. My schooling came from hip hop era within the hip hop parameters on house music. Always quick mix-ins, quick ideas, quick change in records just to keep the vibe alive, real and exciting. Set the record playing but also put in my own soul into what I’m doing. I used to do live shows, many years ago. I used to have a thing called the Carl cox concert. And I hope to god there isn’t any footage of my early live shows. But for about two years, I did a live show with my live keyboard, sequencers and samplers. To me, it was really edge of your seat type of stuff. And to me it was something else, excitement where sometimes it went right and sometimes it went wrong. Once the midi sync came out that meant I had to play live. That was interesting. Kick drum and me playing live. But I did it. I had to say to myself am I going to do this wholeheartedly and go full live as an artist or go back to DJing. I, in the end, went back to DJing. I felt that my ability was more pure when I went back to DJing in the ideas of being a performer. So now that we’re in the 21st century, what I use now is a computer which I utilize my software which I use to play from. I use tracks of software with pioneer record box together which you have the capabilities to use all the effects. In the end of the day, I’m still spinning records through all of it. So, if and when I use any of the extracurricular effects, I primarily still play with 1 record player, be creative and mix it with the next record. Now you have the ability to have 4 deck players or 4 decks, my creativity is basically even higher and 10 fold now. So I really enjoy that. I can push things forward.
Do you think the new drum machines from Roland, the tr-8 for example, that you might want to try that out once at a live show?
Carl Cox: Yeah this machine is rocking and the machine to have a look at about a month ago. I haven’t actually rocked it but I do know people use it for their live shows and been really funky with the machine. It has a really great sound and is easy to use as well. It looks great so it all adds up. When you look at it it’s like the starship enterprise and you rock it up. It works really, really well. Before, with the drum machines, you never had the ability to sync them because of those midi clock. A balance with usb and 5 o’clock usb then away you go. It all fit brilliantly. It was all about the old drum machine and they used to wonder. So basically when you spin your records you use the drum machine, but the kick drum was never the in sync with the original kick of the turntables. You always wondered. That’s why a lot of people don’t really use it. That being said, people were not scared to rock the drum machine for a while. It really worked brilliantly well.
I would think it would be fun to see you play on one.
Carl Cox: For sure. I actually, in my set up is 4 turntables to spin my records, I use a remix 1000 that has a drum machine in it and a midi effect. I really rock the drum machine on its own. I use the effects and keep the party going just for drums. And people look at me and have no clue as to what the hell I’m doing. The little machine I have in front of me and I push these buttons and create effects and stuff. And that's live and no one knows what's going on but I’m doing it. I love having that ability to go that far. With the Roland I’m really looking at it as something I want to introduce in my live set next.
So for the Seattle gig that comes in a week, do you think you'll be doing the same thing?
Carl Cox: For sure. I’m going to be freaking them out. It’s called freak night so be prepared. I haven't played in Seattle for quite a while. There’s quite a great line up of DJs and they have the ability to have my own Carl Cox and Friends in the arena. So we'll be able to pinpoint exactly where I am with my music and how far creatively I can go with what I want to do. This year has been phenomenal. Every part in every show I’ve done has been fantastic, been great. I’ve not played in Seattle in quite a long time so it's like virgin territory. So hopefully I won't be a virgin no more once I get to play there.
It would be nice to see you more often in town after this gig.
Carl Cox: Yes for some reason, I used to play Seattle all the time when I came to America. Seattle was on the playlist as much as it was for me to play in Los Angeles or New York City or Miami or Boston. Seattle was always on the map and for some reason it fell off the map for me for some reason. And I remember the people in Seattle were open-minded there more than anyone else. I remember playing real techno music and house music there and on the same stage where DJ Zinc played. Played drum and bass. I thought it was cool. I was into that kind of music. The people didn't just move, they danced to everything. So I was really impressed by that movement. I’m not sure how far it's gone now, but I do know that on one side we have EDM DJs and on the other side we have the DJs that we booked and played are quite good DJs. Seattle is quite massive. I’m really, really looking forward to coming and seeing where the scene's at. I’m sure there are going to be some really happy people at the end of it.
Well I can tell you from the early feedback I’m seeing that there are a lot of people who are very excited to see you. Also a lot of people who maybe are hearing you for the first time.
Carl Cox: That’s true because a lot of people coming will be hearing me for the first time in Seattle since I haven't been there for 15 years. A lot of the older generation, a handful of them, will come back and remember the old days are like, but primarily there'll be new school people so yeah I’m ready for them. And we're really making a really good statement about where we're at right now and I’m sure people will have a really good time.
Cover Photo Credit via Space Ibiza