More live: Why Carl Cox is moving beyond being a DJ
From three-deck wizard to a new kind of triple threat, Carl Cox is evolving. He talks to Nick Stevenson about his new artistic era, first album in a decade, and playing on the moon
Whisper it, but the planet’s favourite DJ has more than hinted that he’s looking to move away from DJing in 2023. There’s a bit more to it than that. In creating his latest album, 'Electronic Generations', Carl Cox awoke a passion for live performance. That led to a series of live shows, including a recent London live debut at Wembley Arena, and now, a whole new path for the undisputed king of underground dance music. He’s moving from triple decks to a triple threat: DJ, live artist and combined hybrid.
Mixmag caught up with Carl from his home in Australia to find out more about re-emerging as a whole new act, playing on the moon, and why he’s not putting his feet up and eating crisps in front of Corrie…
You're going to be playing the Coors Presents Mixmag Live event on Saturday December 17 back in London, are you excited about coming home and playing that show?
This is a great opportunity to play to a really great London crowd, a great cause [ticket proceeds are donated to the British Red Cross Ukraine Crisis appeal], and I think people haven't really seen that much of me this year, so, it was an opportunity to be able to come back and play again.
Mixmag Live, of course, is the name of the mixtape you made with us 30 years ago this year which basically changed the game in terms of legitimising mixed tapes. How does it feel to have reshaped music culture, going from illegal rave tapes to allowing dance acts to earn a living through music through the Mixmag Live series that you started?
It was really awesome to turn a corner with that because there were a lot of tapes going around. I mean, I was being recorded so much and then being sold bootleg wise all over the country and not receiving a penny for any of it. It was good for promotion I would say because I had a lot of high volume turn over on my tapes purely based on my popularity at the time, but we never saw anything and the artist never saw anything. So, it was really good to get behind a campaign to legitimise what we actually do as artists, because without the performance there is nothing to sell. Without the music there isn't anything to sell. You have to respect the people who make the music, and you have to respect the person who puts it together as a package for the person to buy that music and enjoy it for whatever he or she decides. With the DJ culture and what was going on at the time, there were a lot of other people getting rich quick out of what we were doing and it wasn't fair. At the end of the day it had to happen where someone took a stand and went, 'No, we're going to pay the artist to put it together, we're going to pay the royalties to people who make the tracks.'
Last time we saw you was at your 60th birthday party. We didn't realise you were such a singer - knocking out some Angie Stone, backed by Incognito - it was quite the show!
You know I do have a few hidden talents. I didn't even know that we were going to do that. By the end I was singing the whole of 'Rapper's Delight'. People were looking at me going, 'What is going on with you?'
Speaking of performances, let’s talk about your live show in October at Wembley Arena.
Wembley was scary, because it's Wembley, you know? It's a prestigious venue and all the greats have played at the arena. This Wembley show, kind of confused people a little bit. ‘Will I see a live DJ? What's he doing? What's with the keyboards? Why isn't he DJing?’ I was on at 10:PM. Doors opened and I was already doing a rendition of the title-track of my album, 'Electronic Generations', which no-one's heard before, and I'm basically creating it live in front of your very eyes. And I felt like a pioneer for once. I felt like I was pushing things forward. I felt like people were actually buying tickets to see what I can create for your night, the wonder of it all. If you think about the millions of DJs that are out there now, everyone's a DJ. My next door neighbour's a DJ. My cat's a DJ. It's like, everyone's a DJ. And, 'What equipment have you got?' 'Yes, I've got four CDJs and a Pioneer mixer.' If you look at every single person now, they have exactly the same set up and they just play music in a different order. There's no-one really standing out based on what you're actually getting anymore.
So, for me, I've been involved in this music for over 35 years, 40 years, who knows, but here I am at 60-years-old and I'm still worrying about what people are expecting from me. I should be feet up watching Coronation Street, eating crisps. I still feel compelled to go out there and show people why I still do this. And in this realm as well, I'm not a classically trained musician. I see myself as a musician because I do play keyboards and I do play drums, so, my music has always been about the rhythm and the groove, and the feel about my soul or what I bring to the dancefloor; Wembley gave me a great opportunity to do that. That's why I did Wembley. That's how it made me feel. It wasn't a money making exercise. It wasn't to further my career in any way, shape or form. It was an opportunity to show people what I would like to do next. What kind of corner I want to turn down now. This is me now coming out of the realms as a DJ and going into the realm of a live performing electronic artist.
I think because we're so blinded by the DJ culture now that no one really cares about live artists anymore. You speak to any DJ that wants to do what I'm doing, and they don't want to do it because it's too much hard work for them. 'I can't be arsed. Give me a USB stick and I'm going to put it in my CD player and I'm going to play music to you for my latest album, my latest studio track, and that's the end of it.’ And you get a nice production behind them and good sound, good situation, people enjoying it, but we can't take that any further now, we can't play any harder, can't player any faster, can't play any softer, we can't play any more vocals more than what we're hearing. We've seen and done it all. But electronic music being made live, there's no boundaries to it and that's what I love about it. It can be as soft as you like, or tough as nails, or as weird and wonderful as you like, but it all comes from within from the individual person.
Read this next: Carl Cox's first album in a decade: “There are no apologies if it's too hard”
On the new album you've got Nicole Moudaber, Fatboy Slim, Juan Atkins and even Chase & Status doing a remix…
I've always respected each and every one of them, and there's so much more that I want to bring to the table in that way. And having Chase & Status do a drum ‘n’ bass mix out of my record was a challenge for them, because they don't do that; Chase & Status remix other drum ‘n’ bass records. It's not in their nature, but they've got a challenge by that. They really enjoyed the track that I'd given them, the aspect of the musicality of it. That will be rolled out on the second album, because the first album is all original Carl Cox music. There's no remixes or artist profiles to any of it. It's 'Electronic Generations', Carl Cox, that's it. Every single thing you hear on there is by me. The next album you have all the curated artists, of which you've heard some of the tracks already.
And what is it that changed your mind about making an album again, because you previously suggested you might never make another album?
Oh, that's why it took 10 years, because I wasn't expecting to make another album. After five years I'm, like, 'Should I make another album?' I'm, like, 'No.' Because the thing was about it, I've made four albums already and I like to think that every single one of those tracks that I made for those albums are a representative of who I am. I wasn't here to follow any fashion. I wasn't here to reinvent the world in any way, shape or form. I wore my heart on my sleeve on each and every one of those albums that I've done and I'm very proud of them. But it comes to something when you do that and on the last album, 'All Roads Lead to the Dancefloor' — it got well received up to a point, but it didn't quite connect with people musically because things have changed. It didn't come out on vinyl, it was a digital download. People only liked one track out of the album or two tracks out of the album and it was thrown away. And I'd worked really hard on that album. I introduced a lot of live artists on there, percussionists and really great vocals, and I had saxophone players. I brought a lot to the table with that album and it got the lukewarm reception that I didn't think my album would get. So, I was just like, 'Well, maybe my time's done.' Because I don't want to just make dancefloor bangers.
I don't want to just be seen as the DJ that just makes dancefloor tracks, linear techno music. I'm much more than that as far as I'm concerned, based on all the different styles of music that I've always had on my albums. So, they're techno-and-house-orientated and dancefloor, but there's also tracks that you don't have to dance to, you just listen and enjoy the aspect of that musicality. I felt like on that last album I had given my all in that realm and I didn't want to pander to the dancefloor. I just said to myself after that album, 'I'm only going to do some remixes and I'm only going to do maybe one or two club tracks to release on records. And if anyone wants to sign them, like, Circus did initially, that's all I'm going to do.' And then after that album, year one went on, year two, year three, year four, and I'm, like, 'You know what, that's fine, I'm not going to do another album.' And we get to 10 years later and the pandemic hits and we're locked down and this is a whole new situation for everybody, and I've just built my studio. The studio was only there for me to do remixes or club tracks, that's it. No album, no desire to make another album, I'm over it.
And then we've got lockdown and I've got some drum machines hanging around, and I had this sampler hanging around. I had this DJS-1000 from Pioneer DJ in a box not even opened after three years. I'm, like, 'Why don't I just stick all this stuff together, midi it all up and just fuck around and jam and see what happens?' And that's exactly what I did. And then Pioneer sent over one of their new mixers called a DJM-V10, and what's really good about this mixer overall is that you can record each channel as stems to your computer in time. So I'm like, 'If I recorded the kick drum and hi-hat to jump out as percussion basslines and some chords, this is going to record on forever more.' So, one day I just thought, 'Right, fuck it. I'm just going to jam on the 909 or the TR-8.' And I found I was having a lot of fun doing this and I just carried on, and I recorded. And we kept recording and all of a sudden I found myself doing, like, a one man live show to myself. And I'm in the room just jacking the stuff.
And it's, like, 'Fuck, this is great.' And I listened back, I was like, 'That sounds amazing.' All the things I was doing I would never have sat there in a studio in front of my computer and done any of it, because it's really difficult to sit there and to force techno music because it's so paint by numbers now. You know, ‘that's the hi-hat pattern, that's where the claps should go, that's where the drop should be’, and that's where it should come out and that's where it should end.. There's so many records like that now, techno records that are formulated in such a way. And it works, but it doesn't work for me. But what did work for me is that I'm just jamming the shit out of this stuff and all of these patterns, ideas, basslines, core progressions and stories were just oozing out, and I recorded everything. So, after about an hour-and-a-half or whatever, I sat there and I topped and tailed all the ideas of what I was doing, and I just found that each idea that I was doing was a track. My last album took six months to do; this took an-hour-and-a-half.
Are you serious? The whole of 'Electronic Generations' was surely not done in an-hour-and-a-half?
I'm telling you, if you go onto YouTube and you check out the Movement live show that I did for them, there's the album. But I didn't care whether it came in on a three, two or one. So, I edited them so it made sense for people who were listening to it. And then I had to basically balance the sound and then get each track to make sense. So, it wasn't, like, I've now made the album now I've got to work out how I'm going to perform it; the performance is already there. So, I'm just there thinking, 'Bloody hell. Okay, this sounds good.' So, I got a few of my friends to listen to it, they were, like, 'Who is this?' I'm, like, 'It's me.' They go, 'No way.' And I go and get someone else, and I'm having to explain to people what I've just done and created. Can you hear how enthusiastic I was about the whole thing at that particular time, because that's how I felt and I still feel like that today about what I've been doing with my live-hybrid shows. It installed my faith into me making music again, because for so long people were, like, 'Carl's a great DJ. He's got a really good ear for signing music, but as a producer, no, not really. Not quite there. Blah, Blah, Blah.'
Okay, I don't mind people who like or don't like my music and I can take criticism, but I think they can't deny what I've done here at the end of the day, because it comes at you, the music of the album comes at you, and that's what I like about it. It almost has a punk-like attitude towards what I've created, because it doesn't really fit in any real genre of place. It's just something that I have basically laid down and sent out. And when I put this together, having sent it out to a few people, one person we sent it to is Matt King from BMG A&R, and I'm just thinking, 'If he doesn't take the music, I'm going to put it out on my own record label, Awesome Soundwave.' We basically only sign electronic artists onto that label, and I'm just going to put it on there anyway and see what happens because I've got nothing to lose. It took me no time to do and there it is. But meanwhile I think sometimes things work better if you don't think about it. You just do it and get it out.
So, I did the live show and I was streaming for Movement. And then I did one for Mysteryland, and then I did one for Resident Advisor. And then I did two shows for our own ASW live shows. So, it wasn't like a one trick pony or anything, I just kept doing them. And then I just kept getting more and more into the machines and I'm just thinking, 'After the pandemic I don't really want to go out DJing anymore, because I've done it, I've got to the pinnacle by anyone's standard.'
Does that mean then we're seeing a shift in how you're being booked as well? That we're going to see more live performances instead of DJ sets from now on?
100%. I'm making a conscious effort to now turn a corner, to now take another road to what excites me or what I'm challenged by. I think you have to fly by the seat of your pants sometimes. If you look at The Prodigy, when they were introducing their rock guitarist and their drummers and all that around Liam, he's flying by the seat of his pants. When he decided to have - Rest In Peace - Keith on the vocals, that was a gamble; he's not a vocalist, he's the guy that's just got a punk attitude to life, and he just thought he'd just scream down a few vocals that would connect with people based on the music they were making at the time. And it connected - if they never did that we would still be listening to 'Charly says'. It's amazing that even with their career, it's taken them to the highest lights because of that attitude. They never softened the blow of their music in any way, shape or form. They always wanted to come at you. So, I'm very much influenced by their attitude. These guys never sat there in front of a computer and went, 'Oh, if I made this kind of chord progression and then I played some sort of pattern from the 909, I think it might work.' They just fucking ran that shit and they've edited it to make it make sense. So, I've gone back for me to go forward.
Most of the music I was playing back in the day was made like that. What I'm doing today is the same but from a modernistic point of view. If we think about a lot of the new generation playing house music and tech-house, call it what you like, it's all influenced from the '80s and the '90s actually. The music around about that time that came out was already forward anyway, a lot of my music is the heart and soul and it comes from that era. So, when you hear acid lines on my album and when you hear certain elements of the album, it's not particularly new, but it's not particularly the old either. It's a tip of the hat to the reason why I still enjoy the music from that era, which is connected with the new generation who weren't even born in that era. They're seeing it as something new.
I didn't want to make another album. It wasn't, like, 'I'm going to make another album.' It came together. And the thing is I have still have more music to put out but because there were 17 tracks, they were, like, 'Carl, it's enough already.' I've never had, 'Carl, it's enough already.' Normally it’s 'Where's the rest of the album? We've waited six months, where's the rest of it?'
The album was instantly done and I didn't even have track titles for any of it. As I was editing all the tracks and top and tailing them, I was, like, 'That sounds like ‘Apollo X’. That sounds like ‘My Time Will Come’. That sounds like ‘The Sun Is Shining.' The tracks came in just one night. I was just stood there, did all of this and I did all of that, and then in the next couple of days I sent the music over to BMG to Matt. He's, like, 'Jesus, track titles, tracks finished. All we've got to do is master it and we're done.' I think the energy of that is wonderful and thank God for BMG and for Matt for sticking with me, because I was signed to Perfecto Records in 1991 through Paul Oakenfold's label which was a subsidiary of BMG, and then 30 years later I get signed by BMG as an artist. I don't know anyone in our realm that's ever been re-signed to a major label after 30 years of being signed to them in the first place.
You’re talking really enthusiastically about turning a corner and becoming a live artist. Are you suggesting you might give up DJing and become a solely live performer, would that ever happen?
I think more than anything else that I love performing; so, whether it's DJing, whether it's playing the guitar, whether it's singing, I love performing. I think it would be a crying shame if I stopped DJing and just went straight in to do live performances. But I think naturally what will happen. People will remember me by what I have done as a DJ and then the next generation, or people who are following my next steps of what I do musically, will be the people who will understand my quest to now follow another path. Because I think swimming around in the DJ pool of what's going on at the moment, I find myself in the middle of being the godfather of all DJs, in the middle of all the 19/20-year-old DJs that are coming through the ranks, and they all respect me very much because without me opening the doors there would be no them. But the thing about it is, I think now I've got to let that go and let the DJs coming through the ranks be the people who they believe should be, while I go off and now follow my quest as a live performing artist.
And also, I mean, I still would be doing these hybrid shows. The hybrid is between DJing other people’s music with my own music, and then the other realm to that is the live electronic shows like I did at Wembley. So, I won't be letting it go straight away, I just feel DJing at the moment for me, I've been doing it for over 45 years, it's something that I feel that I need to move on from.
As well as playing the Coors Presents Mixmag Live event in person this December in London, You’ve also been 3D scanned by Sensorium to play in their metaverse next year, how does it work?
The team have created a photorealistic avatar for me that I’ll be using for my shows at PRISM, the virtual world in Sensorium Galaxy dedicated to electronic music. They surrounded me with cameras and created my digital twin using state-of-the-art photogrammetry and motion capture technology. Then they stuck on dozens of body sensors while I played a DJ set, so they can capture precise movements and expressions that my avatar can later on replicate during my shows. Their skilled digital artists can apply layers like clothing and colours to end up with an avatar that looks, moves, and feels like me. I am quite stunned by the result.
Sensorium Galaxy is a metaverse focused on entertainment, which makes it a perfect playground for me to explore the new virtual realm. In the metaverse I can break free from any physical limitations. With almost no limits, I can shape an interactive performance around my music and unleash new opportunities for the audience to engage with me in this digital environment. Joining me on stage, partying in stunning landscapes, even watching the show through my own eyes … you can discover a whole new way of experiencing music, and yes, I want to be among the first electronic artists to take you on this kind of out-of-this-world journey.
Mixmag TV famously streamed you playing in front of Stonehenge. Are there any other locations that you would love to play from?
I think more than anything else - and it will probably never ever happen in our life time - but I would love to do a party on the moon. I'd just love to go there. I'd love to land, set up this pop-up event. You'd probably put the speakers there and they'd all fly away because of the bloody atmosphere. But I think doing a party on the moon would just be bloody awesome.
I heard Wesley Snipes snuck into the booth with you one night. Have you got any other surprise fans you can tell us about?
I had Naomi Campbell, she slipped in - she was trying to book me to do a party for her while I was DJing. I was, like, 'Okay, Naomi, there's other places we could talk about this.' She's in my ear 'Carl, can you do a booking for me?' Everyone's looking at me going, 'It's Naomi Campbell.' I'm, like, 'I know, Let me talk to you later.'. Kylie Minogue, Danni Minogue, those two girls, they're just wonderful. I had Slash, he came through once. I'm playing once and my tour manager at the time taps him on the shoulder and goes, 'Oi, it's Dr. Dre and he just wants to say hi to you.' I'm, like, 'Dr. Dre? Get out of here. He's not here.' He said, 'No, he's here.' I said, 'Shut up, he's not here.' Turned round and it's fucking Dr. Dre. I'm, like, 'Holy shit.' He goes, 'Man, I don't want to disturb you man but the music’s great. This is fantastic, thank you.' And P Diddy as well. I like Diddy, man, he's someone to look up to. I mean, he's had a lot of drama around him, the force of it all, but again it's all about music, so I can only respect that at the end of the day. And Jodie Kidd as well, I did her 40th birthday. I did it for nothing; I nipped down there. I love her to bits. She's a petrol head and she's bloody awesome.
Carl Cox headlines the Coors Presents Mixmag Live - his last UK show of the year - on Saturday December 17 at E1 in London alongside Solardo, Catz n Dogz, Manda Moor, Emerald and Melle Brown. All ticket money goes to the British Red Cross Ukraine Appeal. Get your £20 tickets here
Carl Cox cover with thanks to Sensorium Galaxy and World Famous Promotions Ltd; his new album 'Electronic Generations' is out now
Nick Stevenson is Mixmag's Managing Director, follow him on Twitter