One of the most charming DJs in the business. A musical ambassador and aveteran of acid house, a champion of techno, a dance music pioneer, label owner, King of Ibiza–you name it, Carl’s been there and done it, never losing sight of his passions –playing music, breaking tunes and celebrating life.It was at the age of 15 that Carlboughta set of turntables and began working as a mobile DJ. Disco was the first music that captivated him but by the early 80s Cox hadmoved on to playing the same music as other young London DJs –rare groove, New York hip-hop and electro. He was perfectly placed to hear Chicago house music in its earliest forms, and when the epic ‘Acid Trax’ by Phuture (a.k.a. DJ Pierre) came out in early ’87. “It was then that I thought, ‘This is it,’ says Carl. “I would do my parties, and I’d play old rare groove and hip hop and soul and I would say ‘Right you’ve got to hear this Phuture track’ and people would just stop and listen.”As a founder of the sound, Carl rode the exploding British rave scene. He played the opening night of Danny Rampling’s legendary Shoom, co-promoted The Project with Paul Oakenfold, held a residency at the Zap Club in Brighton and at the Sunrise rave in 1988, hooked up a third turntable for his dawn-breaking set, got 15,000 people back on their feet, and established a personal rep for three-deck wizardry. The next step was to make music, and Carl’s 1991 debut single for Paul Oakenfold’s Perfecto label, ‘I Want You,’ gave him a top 30 hit and a Top of the Pops appearance. Two more singles also made the charts. But Carl was a reluctant pop star and as the masses moved onto fluffy house and trance, and the hardcore created jungle, Cox retreated into the club world that had nurtured him,and instead embraced the underground sounds of techno. “Techno drives home somewhere,” he says of his core music. “It takes you to an element of surprise, not knowing where you’re going. It’s scary but wonderful at the same time.”
You first started your career when you were 15. How has the industry changed since then? And for the better or worse?
Now the first thing that is obvious is social media. There were no mobile phones in those days. If you wanted to find where your mate was, you would have to go round to his house and ask him mum where he was.
Compared to where we are now, it’s changed a lot as you can imagine. Music is music; people are following and enjoying music. If you really wanted to find music, you would go to a record store and now you just basically tap into your phone and download whatever you like from wherever you are in the world.
The thing is, we’ve become a little bit complacent because of it because things are easy to throw away. If you don’t like that record; you delete it where before, you bought it and you had something tangible. You collected it and you felt that you owned a piece of music history and you treasured it in that way.
It’s a lot more difficult now when you go to a club that you’ve waited all week to go to; you’ve bought all these clothes and you’ve asked friends if anyone wants to go; what car you’re going to go in; you’ve gone to the club and you saw the DJ and felt the atmosphere and you really enjoy it. Now, you can juice up your laptop, watch MTV and you are in your kitchen or bedroom and have a really good time like that. I kinda get it but that’s the difference between when I was 15 and what it’s like now.
Of course, this generation wasn’t around when I was starting as a bloody DJ so they will never experience what it was like back in the day.
It’s a shame because in the early days you really respected the fact that musicians were musicians. If they made it, it’s because they were talented and they did the leg work to get where they are. The fan base today is how many likes you have on YouTube or are you really popular on Facebook or your Snapchat is amazing so therefore you must be really funny as a person because you’ve got dog ears.
I get it because it’s the new generation’s way but there’s so much faceless connection with people that you don’t get to meet the real person because of all of this. It’s distracting to what’s going on and that’s why the purity of everything that we’re doing with social media has been diminished based on that.
How have you seen dancefloors change from the DJ’s perspective? Are people more or less responsive to more experimental sets?
I still go and kick ass! If you don’t like it, there’s other clubs you can go to. I don’t go on that island to compromise, never have, never will. I do like a good Ibiza vibe, good house music, piano vibes, bringing the fun back into playing music on the island. I can’t be one of those DJs who just plays for themselves. Every time I go on the island I want to have fun, I don’t want to stand there being a record dork and not dance to certain records ’cause they don’t suit my vibe. I’m happy to hear all types of music. You can go to Berghain if you want that, but Ibiza’s not Berlin. If I hear a Spanish guitar on a record, I’m not gonna think ‘I hate that!’ You’re in Spain! Why wouldn’t you hear a Spanish guitar? That for me is what’s missing a little bit, when people get a bit antsy about wanting to go to a certain night because they play a certain type of music. It’s all about the vibe, that’s why I go.
What has caused this explosion of techno artists?
I think to be honest EDM has played a massive part in the techno resurgence. EDM has a massive energy in it, massive breakdowns. But if you think about it in the past five years, if you went to go see any EDM DJ most of the DJs played the same style or the same type of thing, or even the same tracks. I think people wanted to go to this kind of event, but they couldn’t bear to hear the same track over and over, the same way, by the same DJs anymore.
See techno takes you somewhere else; it’s a similar experience, but the audience is being taken on a developmental journey, they want to discover new sounds. You don’t have to have the drops in the records, you don’t need to have the vocals in it, you don’t have to have the fireworks and all this paraphernalia – it’s because you’re into the music. So people who experienced EDM, loved it, but after five years you’ve had enough, this is what has pushed the techno stages at festivals.
Also with techno, you don’t need to produce main stages all the time, you can be in a club with 200 people and still play techno. With EDM there has to be arenas, and they can’t play past an hour and a half, whereas techno you can play as long as you like – as long as the crowd are there.
Recently I did a festival in London called Junction 2, B2B with Adam Beyer. Now usually in London if you’re playing techno, you’ll get 200-300 people and that’s it. We had 15,000 people for a techno lineup, which is just an insane response, where before that would be numbers reserved for EDM so really there’s a massive shift: I mean a few days ago, an event in Ibiza David Guetta was playing tech-house! What’s going on here?
How has this affected you personally as a techno DJ?
I’ve always been a techno DJ of course, but I remember techno used to be a dirty word and people would instantly say: “I don’t like Carl Cox, he plays too hard, I want to find something easier to listen to.” But I’ve always played with integrity; if the crowd couldn’t handle the tough techno sound which I like, then I would warm it to the point where it makes sense for the dance floor.
So funky techno, or tech-house or tech-funk or funk soul, it was always something I adapted to, and I managed to keep that all the way through until now. Now techno is the hipster word of today and all these DJs are playing techno, it’s great again! it’s landed on my lap just like, bang! “Oh you’re a techno DJ fantastic!”, before they just wanted that deep house sound 124-126 BPM with vocals, now everyone wants 132 BPM no vocals and it’s just slamming!.
If you listen to Amelie Lens, she’s just slamming! It’s incredible you know because I used to slam it 25 years ago, and the BPMs are going down so I can basically just keep grooving you know. We’re seeing 134 BPM and this is it, the people out there they want to rock, they want the DJs to push the buttons and see something. The rave was built on energy and the excitement of it all and this desire to get lost, it’s like a new era for me now, it’s like a new day, all these DJs have decided they want to play tougher music and I’m loving it.
What DJs coming through at the moment in techno have you got your eye on?
I mean there’s so many, the old guard are still doing their thing, it’s difficult really to pin point anyone truly coming through. I mean, the girls seem to be doing it for themselves right now, you know Amelie Lens, Deborah De Luca – you’ve got Dax J, a young guy coming through really laying down the order on his sound, it’s phenomenal really that this new generation of DJs are coming through, but coming through from techno, it’s brilliant to see it. I would like to see some girls coming through as well though, I think some of these girl DJs are better than some of the guys. Techno and electronic music has been so male dominated for many many years, bring them on, it’s their turn, to be honest.
The PURE concept is a back to basics, no frills approach, all about the music. And it seems to have been received well.
Yeah, it’s still growing, but we’re keeping it bespoke. We’re not looking for 10-15,000 people. We don’t want to water down the idea. If people are buying a ticket, it’s because they want to see the DJs and the music – which are the only two reasons why I’m doing this in the first place, rather than all the hullaballoo… all the festival and the fireworks.
I guess it’s kind of a reaction to the excess of EDM and the way things have been going?
Yeah, it is a reaction. Because it’s like, if we’re not doing what we’re doing, then that’s all you’ve got left. It would be a shame after being involved with something for 30 years, that’s what it’s come down to. I refuse to let that happen. I have to do something about it. And that is creating PURE. There’s so much great music still being made, it’s the reason I still DJ and do what I do. Techno can be groovy, it can be funky, it can be jazzy, it can be industrial. There’s so much realm to it. You’re not out of the ballpark if you’re not into techno. Techno is just a word based on the technology that has enabled us to make this sound of music. And within it, there’s still house music, there’s garage, there’s breaks elements to it.
That’s what I’ve always enjoyed about yourself and your music, you’re quite fearless in your mixing of styles. You’ve got a wide range of influences. Do you think this is somewhat lacking in some of the new generation of DJs, where they’re a bit confined in their genre, like “I’m a deep house DJ” or “I’m a minimal techno DJ”?
Yeah I think it’s a big problem. A DJ is supposed to be able to play all sorts of music. I mean, I’m not going to play country music or rock n roll, but I can still appreciate what it’s good for. But these days it’s all about style and trend. So if you play some weird, minimalistic, underground sound, 124bpm, people in Berghain might hear you and book you – but if you play anything from say, David Guetta, that’s it, you’re done, it ain’t gonna happen! But listen, years ago, Guetta made some really good music that nobody knew about, but played it because it was good. I’ve never pandered to that at all. I could have been one of the biggest EDM DJs of all time, but I chose not to, because I don’t actually believe in that sound of music. It’s not my thing. My thing has always been to play what I play at the very best of my ability, and I’ll find music and play stuff that I feel is the best you’re gonna hear from any DJ. Whether you’re playing drum ‘n’ bass or deep house, trap or techno – at the end of the day, if you play it with conviction, it’s great.
You are going to be bringing those party vibes to Australia with Carl & Eric’s Mobile Disco which has really grown in stature over a number of years. You’ve even gone international with it recently. What was your motivation in starting this event with Eric?
Look, I really missed hearing the music that I grew up with. I was in Miami at one point having a bit of a DJ powerhouse dinner with Ali Dubfire, Josh Wink, Christian Smith, Lenny Dean and I just stopped everyone in their tracks and asked ‘can anyone tell me where I can go and hear 70’s, funk, soul and disco music in Miami?’. They all looked at me as if I was absolutely mental and they all said ‘no!’
I thought this was a shame, because there is nothing better than when you hear a track like ‘Papa Was A Rolling Stone’ by The Temptations at a night spot, which goes for 9 minutes, and you sit there and really feel the soul of the whole song.
‘I thought, you know what, I’ll play it. I’ll find somewhere and I’ll go and play it.’ When I did eventually go and play that record, people were in tears. I really love just unleashing all of these types of records on the crowd and sharing that love. That’s my motivation for doing the Mobile Disco.
When we started this 10-11 years ago in Dromana, (1-hour south of Melbourne) of all places, people thought we were mad! I was playing all these 70’s joints, album tracks, 12-inch disco edits of all these songs that the crowd hadn’t heard of before and people began to love it. You can see in the crowd’s eyes when you play a song they haven’t heard in ages, which they love, how excited they get!
We kept the name simple – Carl & Eric’s Mobile Disco – which came about because I used to do Mobile Disco’s as a career for 12 years before I became the so called ‘Techno God’ You know, I was playing Madonna’s ‘Holiday’ well before I was playing anything heavy. I really did cut my teeth on this groovy sound.
Rather than people waiting for ‘the drop’ or the confetti cannon to go off, they get the same feeling from hearing funky records that they love, being played from start to finish. At the Mobile Disco It’s tune after tune, after tune, after tune…and it goes on for hours!
You play many parties around the world, and they all require a different vibe. As well as doing the PURE tour, I saw you’re going to Bali in May to play the picturesque Ulu Cliffhouse, alongside Eric Powell, for your Mobile Disco show. How would the music you play at gig like that differ?
Well, the Mobile Disco thing is something we started up 10 years ago for shits and giggles. Me and Eric live down here on the Peninsula, and we were going around to all the wineries, and just seeing basically where we could lay our hat, with the music that we have in our garages, the abundance of records that we grew up with, from the 70s, 80s, 90s, were all sitting there doing nothing. So we went to a restaurant called Stillwater at Crittenden Estate Winery, and the proprietor Zac Poulier was really into our music and who we are. So we said, “We’re not gonna make it a rave party, we just wanna play these records we grew up with.” So he said, “OK, that sounds like fun.” So we just did it, 150 people, they really enjoyed it. We had a format where we played really cruisey music in the afternoon and picked it up in the evening, but only played classic house and garage. Since then I’ve done Mobile Discos in Miami and Ibiza, around Australia, and now we’re taking it to Bali to play at this beautiful venue, The Cliffhouse, and I heard there’s going to be a lot of people from Perth there!
Catch Carl Cox and Eric Powell at the Mobile Disco in Bali on May 19th.
Check it out here