“I try to lead, not follow”: A very nerdy chat with Carl Cox

2017 marked the start of a new chapter for Carl Cox. After wrapping up a 14-year residency at Space Ibiza last September, this will be his first Northern summer that doesn’t revolve around the now-defunct White Isle superclub.

But as you’d expect, the big man knows how to keep busy. In the first half of the year alone, Coxy will stage two very special festival events in Australia – first up is next month’s Babylon Festival in Victoria’s idyllic Carapooee West Nature Reserve, where he’ll play an extended set as part of a line-up that spans Claude VonStroke, Feed Me, Maga, Infected Mushroom, Jooris Voorn and more. Then come April it’s time for the return of Pure, the techno festival he launched last year in two cities to rave reviews.

In the lead up to Babylon, ITM’s resident techno nerd ANDREW WOWK got on the phone with Carl Cox to talk DJing, dance music and – err – to settle the age old ‘dogs or cats’ debate.

You’ve been DJing for over three decades now. What keeps you inspired and coming back for more?

The knowledge that we are creating history, even still today. I think that’s what is so endearing about this whole scene – we don’t know where it’s going to take us, because we keep developing, we keep brainstorming what we can do next to make things better.

The current generation have been getting into it over the last five to ten years, and they’re getting inspired by what we’ve created. They take the music that I love and interpret it themselves, taking it into the future. And I suppose me being as old as I am, I’ve taken on a more ambassadorial role.

So it’s kind of like passing on the torch, in a way?

It’s basically saying, “Okay, if you’ve got a great idea, if you’ve got an idea that you want to bring to the table, then bring it to the table.” Because if it’s really good, I’m interested. That’s the thing that gets me up in the morning – the excitement about what we do next.

But even though dance music has always been a “forward-thinking” style of music, do you feel it’s important that people also understand the roots of the music and its history?

Yeah, I think you have to go back to go forwards sometimes. That’s why a lot of the records that you hear sound kind of retro. If you listen to the latest Daft Punk release it sounds like something that came out of the seventies, with the vocoder and everything, even though it only came out two years ago. If I played you a record that was made in the seventies, with the same type of beat as that, you’d think it was made yesterday.

“You have to go back to go forwards sometimes”

That’s the thing about it. The unsuspecting punter, the kid that only listens to Daft Punk today, has no idea that the vocoder was made in the sixties. So, for me, it’s kind of fantastic that these instruments are still being respected as a form of new music. People are still excited by it, but from a new wave perspective. It’s brilliant that, as old as I am, I’m still getting to see the benefits of what it was like yesteryear.

Another example is because I’m here in Australia, I get to listen to a lot of radio on rotation. So when I hear Pnau’s Chameleon – which I hear about fifty times a day – it sounds like a track that came out in the nineties. But it’s kind of experimental because it’s going back in the time but also using today’s sounds. So you’re connecting with people who are listening to today’s sounds, but reconnecting themselves with the nineties piano. And those piano sounds just makes you smile.

“As underground and whatever else as I am, I can still appreciate a tune that makes you smile”

Sure, at the end of the day, piano house did become really cheesy, and every record was a piano tune at one point. But when you haven’t heard it for a while and you get it kind of remade into the current generation’s take on it, it sounds really fresh and exciting. It gets you up on the dancefloor, no doubt about it. And as underground and whatever else as I am, I can still appreciate a tune that makes you smile.

In a lot of respects, I feel like that’s a large part of why you’ve endured as long as you have. You’re not concerned with what you “should” or “shouldn’t” play.

Not at all. I’ve always played what I believe is my sound and what’s made me who I am over many years.

I’ll play something as obscure as you like, which you can’t find on Shazam, and then tip into something that you may know or you might’ve heard, or even a very popular tune. A great example is Kolsch’s record Grey. You play that and it just gets everyone going. It’s like, why wouldn’t you play it? It’s a fantastic tune. Doesn’t matter if it’s commercial or underground. It’s just a great tune. All I’ve ever tried to do, every single time I go out there, is just play the very best of what’s out there.

If you look at my sets going back to 1990, 1991, they were, like, minimum 145BPM. Now, if you play 145BPM today, most kids will have a heart attack. They won’t be able to keep up. Of course times change over the years, and the music you were listening to when you were fourteen is completely different to what you’re listening to now. It’s just that, for me, I’ve gone through it all. You know, break beat, techno, hardcore, gabber, trance, techno trance, the Detroit sound. But irrespective of that, my approach is the same: out of all of the elements that exist at any point in time, I try to pick and play the best.

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I try to lead, not follow. I try not to compromise. I try not to be seen to be someone that’s just playing the top twenty Beatport records you could buy off the shelf, because that’s too easy. And also I do kind of mix and layer all sorts of things over a record to disguise the actual original sound of what it was to begin with, to give my sets a sense of creativity.

“I try not to be seen to be someone that’s just playing the top twenty Beatport records you could buy off the shelf, because that’s too easy”

That’s what my brain is doing all the time. It’s thinking like that every time. When I play, I challenge myself and say, “Right, you lot, check this out. You haven’t heard this before and I dare you to find out what it is.” You know? And some people get pissed off with me, they kind of get their phones in the air and go, “Oh, this is really great,” and they’re looking down [at Shazam] and it’s, “Oh, undefined. Shit.”

But that’s the reason why you go out: to hear music you don’t hear on MTV, your local radio, or even what’s on the charts. You don’t go to the club to hear that type of music.

And it feels to me like the advances we’ve had in DJing technology over the years have made it a lot easier for DJs to play that way. Often you aren’t just playing records, you’re layering multiple tracks together, using effects and so on to present the music in a way that an audience hasn’t heard before, even if you are playing a track they might know.

Absolutely. I’ve recently started using Richie Hawtin’s PLAYdifferently Model 1 mixer. What’s amazing about it is there is actually no EQ on that mixer. It’s all filters. So you can actually pinpoint certain elements in records and identify what frequency they belong to. So what’s really fun is that every time I play a record, I’m messing with those various frequencies. It’s usually subtle touches, but they can make a track sound very different.

I still use Traktor with the Native Instruments S8 controller, but the actual basis of the sound comes from that Model 1, and it’s so superior to everything else that’s out there. It’s incredible. As soon as you hear it, everything just sounds better. There’s more depth of sound, more clarity in the mids, the highs are crystal clear. So when you’re playing, you, and by extension the crowd, can actually hear every single thing that you’re doing.

But only if you’re listening for it. If you’re not listening for it, you just hear the track. Good bassline. You can hear the mids and the vocals coming through. Great. No one gives a shit. But if there are people who do give a shit, they understand that whatever you’re doing, whatever you’re creating, isn’t what was on that record to begin with, because it’s being done on the fly.

That’s how far I’ve gone to keep myself relevant, active and alive when I’m playing. Basically just layering, mixing, and triggering certain elements of what keeps me moving. I can’t play the way where you mix the end of one track into the beginning of another track and that’s it.

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And with Pure, your party that you started here in Australia last year and have your second instalment of coming up in April, is the idea behind that quite similar to how you DJ – give people something they recognise and know, but in a new, unique way?

Well, the mad thing is I’ve got such a great affinity with Australians and a long history with Australian music culture. I was one of the first DJs from overseas to support a lot of the local DJs and producers from here. Even my last album was all Australian-made. I did a millennium party in Sydney. I did the Big Day Out. I tried to do Carl Cox and Friends at Stereosonic. It kind of worked, but still, at the end of the day, it’s all about the main stage and EDM at festivals like that.

“In the bigger clubs here, it’s difficult to try and have pure underground music”

In the bigger clubs here, it’s difficult to try and have pure underground music. If the managers can see that there aren’t enough people buying drinks, you’ll have a shelf life of about two to six months maximum. Then you’ll be out on the street, they’ll get an EDM DJ in there, and he’ll bring friends, the venue will sell drinks, and everything else like that.

So even though I have a wonderful history in Australia, in more recent times I was getting frustrated. I was thinking, “Where can I actually play the music I play, on the main floor of Space, in Australia?” The answer was, “Not many places.” So, for me, I thought, “Right. Well, let me use that opportunity now to create something that I believe should be happening in Australia.” So I decided to team up with Richie McNeill from Hardware, who used to run Stereosonic, because he has always supported techno in Australia.

At the end of the day though, the idea is to have fun with all of this. I just hate it when people kind of piss and moan about what they didn’t get. This is our time, this is what we’ve bloody fought for from when we started in the early days of rave music when the government wanted to break it down.

I mean, they’re trying to do that in Sydney now with these lockout laws. We’ve got to fight and rise above this stuff, otherwise we’re going to be indoors by twelve-thirty, one o’clock because they say so? Hell no. There’s so much great music, good DJs and good time to be had, that we still have to fight for our rights at parties. So I suppose I’m still doing that with Pure.

Thanks so much for your time and thoughts, Carl. And just to finish off, don’t think, just answer: dogs or cats?

Cats. I wasn’t expecting that! Brilliant.

Carl Cox will appear at Babylon Music and Arts Festival from March 10-13 at Carapooee West in Victoria. Get tickets here.


Andrew Wowk is a Sydney-based writer and DJ. You can argue with him on Twitter