Longevity is something of a rare bird in the frenetic, often transient world of dance music. Rarer still is to maintain a career (not to mention a well-honed, cutting-edge one) over some 30 years in the clubs and dancefloors of the worldwide electronic music fraternity. Carl Cox is one of the select few who not only have managed to last the distance but continue to innovate musically while constantly seeking new electronic avenues to explore.
DJ, producer, remixer par excellence, Carl Cox has been at the vanguard of the UK's house and techno movement pretty much since he burst onto it in the early 1980s. With a record label (Intec), countless releases and remixes, and a 15-year (that's fifteen-year) residency at Ibiza's legendary Space under his belt, Cox is synonymous with his beloved electronic dance music.
His excellent recent sample library release, Carl Cox: My Life in Music, squares the circle of his genre-straddling production skills and further illustrates his eclectic tastes and fine ear for a blistering beat or bassline.
FM were ecstatic to catch up with Carl Cox prior to his recent trip to London to get his thoughts on the changing face of the DJ booth, his love of technology and how it feels to be drawing a 15-year- long Ibiza residency to a close.
Was learning your trade on vinyl back in the day an important apprenticeship for you?
"There are a lot of new DJ/producers on the scene today that don't even know what a record is – they've never seen a record player! They laugh when you tell them that's what we used to play on... 'oh really, where's the sync button?'
"We had to develop the talents to mix two records in, which wasn't easy. That's the thing with some DJs nowadays, that if you were to give them two records and say, 'right, mix these two together – one's 116bpm the other is 126bpm'... Good luck with that! We used to do just that. We had to make sure that those bloody things went in time and that was the skill. For us, learning to DJ that way, I think, makes it much easier to use the equipment that's around today."
What's your take on the current resurgence of vinyl as a format?
"To be honest, I think vinyl coming back is a bit of a hype. The problem is a lot of people who never got to play on vinyl are seeing this as something unique or bespoke and a lot of the people who are getting into the vinyl want to feel that what they're doing is very special. Undoubtedly it is but you're paying for it. You're paying a lot of money for not a lot of music. Also, you're not actually buying the very latest music; you're buying music that's been re-pressed or re-released as maybe a run of 300. So, if you're one of the 300 that has it then, yes, it is a bit special; but if that record doesn't take then you've got nothing to back it with... any next release from that artist.
"It's really difficult to put out vinyl on a regular basis as it costs so much money. One of the reasons vinyl went to the wall before was precisely because it cost too much money to put records out. When me and Intec (Records) stopped putting out vinyl it was because each release was costing around £6k. I had no choice other than to stop putting out vinyl."
What was your first exposure to tech beyond the record decks?
"I think the first thing was an eight-second sampler. It was the Numark PPD and you could get eight seconds mono or four seconds stereo sampling. I actually made a bootleg record called Let the Bass Kick and I had a four-track Tascam, which I'd basically bounce tracks on and overlay tracks.
"I would sample the record through the sampler from the mixer then overlay that loop and record the loop for six minutes then do exactly the same process for another sound. Then, once I had that initial backing track, I'd spin something else over the top and basically create bootlegs."
When you started DJing did you ever imagine having to be so tech-savvy in the DJ booth?
"Yeah, for sure. I think that you have to have an element of understanding what you're using so that you can get the best out of it. That, for me, has been something I've always tried to do in terms of what you can do to keep pushing things even further. I remember the first time I had the two turntables mixing two records together thinking, 'yeah this is cool but what can I do to push this forward'. So, I got another turntable, put it in the rig then realised, 'okay, so now I need a mixer with three channels'.
"They never had a DJ mixer with three channels at that point; the other channels were for tape recorder/Aux or a microphone. Also, the Aux channel didn't have a gain on it and you had to create an input gain from something else. So, I had to have two mixers, one to create an input gain on one's auxiliary channel then plug my turntable into that channel and boom... I had three channels on a mixer and I was able to mix on three record players.
"The thing about using three turntables is that it took me a while to start doing it live because, hey, mixing two was hard enough but mixing three could get ridiculous, but I've always been into that idea of pushing things forward. If you give me something, I'll check it out to see if it works for me or hinders the way I work."
Can you give us an example?
"Say, for instance, Ableton Live. A lot of DJs went onto Ableton Live and found they could overlay music sounds, loops and multi-layer ideas on top of their own music. As well as that, it had MIDI so you could plug your keyboard in and play on top of everything with MIDI timing. But I just thought that the core element of DJing was gone... now you were becoming more of a live producer.
"For me, when I started playing on Ableton, I'd be DJing with the CD players then going over to Ableton. But when I went over to Ableton I found myself feeling devoid of being a DJ as Live is so perfectly sync'd, in key and everything was really nice but I've never been really nice. I was more, 'here's a record, I'll throw this down... boom... and you can kick it', but Ableton was kind of smoothing me out.
"So, I've always used it as a producer but still want to be looser as a DJ by me being in and out of sync by what I use via Traktor. This is where I try to work within the constraints of what's happening and what's new but it does also have to enhance what I'm doing, otherwise it's just not worth me getting involved."
Have you investigated Native Instruments' Stems much?
"Well, here's a thing – I love the Stems. I think it's absolutely amazing that you're able to get a record you love and strip it out and overlay other stuff... that keeps you in the creative mode the whole time. I find myself going inside Stems then back to DJing and back and forth, which Traktor allows you to do.
"I've been using Stems for about a year or so now; the only problem with them initially was that you weren't able to get that much music on Stems as a lot of producers felt that they didn't want to release their music on a format where you can basically just have vocals, keyboards or even just a bassline.
"They didn't want people to have access to stripped out versions of music they'd created; but the thing was, no matter what happens with it, you still get a certain amount of royalties... so nothing really changes to be honest with you. If you hear your bassline on another record, then nine times out of ten you're not going to get anything for it anyway as everyone's ripping everyone else off anyway.
"So, that's why I think Stems is such a good thing and I'm behind it 110%. It really does enhance my sets when I play Stems on their own as I think about being creative in a different way than usual... It does up the ante when you play tracks that you love but strip them out and create your own version of it. You might get a great bassline from a track but want to use the drums from something else and you can mute or add effects to just the drum track alone, which is really powerful."
I never know what it is or have a set plan. I'll just take a track I love, whack the bassline in, no, it doesn't, maybe try something else, loop it, get it going... boom, boom, boom! That's how my brain works all the time."
Sounds as if you enjoy things that enable you an extra level of creativity live?
"Yeah. I think it's... look, people know that I can mix music; people know that I love when a plan comes together. Not all the time but I'm trying to do something all the time. [Laughs] I'm not there being smug saying, 'check me out... it's all in key and everything... smooth!'. I'm working hard at every point to create the moment of what I'm doing. I never know what it is or have a set plan. I'll just take a track I love, whack the bassline in, no, it doesn't, maybe try something else, loop it, get it going... boom, boom, boom! That's how my brain works all the time.
"The thing is, the equipment, software and hardware is there for anyone to go and create but it still takes a certain amount of talent and ideas to make it work for you. This is where the wheat is sorted out from the chaff. I've always found when it comes to equipment that less is more. If you've got 15 delays going and four basslines, then everything gets so clouded and cluttered. People often just want to hear a good kick, a good bassline and a good riff. Once you've got those elements together and you then put something on top of it that changes things, then people can hear it and feel it."
Was the Traktor S8 that you use now the key to opening this new world of creativity?
"Well the mad thing is that I basically came into Native Instruments and the S8 kicking and screaming! I didn't want to use it. In the early days I created my own mixer with Numark, the PMCCX, which was a dedicated three-channel mixer, which had the matrix system so you could have any one channel on any one mixer. It had an isolator on it and had a really good sound and everyone loved it at the time But, as soon as Pioneer came out with their mixer with the onboard effects, everyone jumped on that.
"Pioneer then brought out the DJM2000 and that had a drum machine and all sorts of things on it and it was a fantastic little mixer. You had four channels, loads of effects that you could use and I was really impressed with the sound of it. So, that was the mixer of choice for me and I'd use it with Pioneer's RMX1000, which was an added effects unit that I really enjoyed playing on as well.
"So, then the S8 comes out and I thought, 'here we go'. It had all those beautiful coloured lights and more buttons than you could shake a stick at and everyone was saying how it was going to change the face of DJ technology and how the sound was better than anything else. So, eventually I decided to check it out, took it home and it blew my mind!"
"The sound was great, which was impressive, as was the way they have everything laid out on it. The thing about the S8 is it's an incorporated mixer. You have your controller system and your soundcard already onboard. So, you don't have to have loads of extra wires that could mean something could go wrong. It works as one independent unit and, touch wood, I haven't had one go down on me yet. It's really solid and if you keep the signal at a good place then it sounds better than any other mixer out there.
"So, I was super impressed by the S8 itself; then they came out with the Stems format, the controllers of which are already built into the S8. Native Instruments are thinking ahead all the time."
Over the years have any particular pieces of gear kept their place in your heart?
"I've done quite a lot of live sessions over the years; in the early days I went out as the Carl Cox Concept and I always had my Roland Juno-6 with me as well as my Roland 909. I had a Minimoog with me, which is just so powerful. The Korg Kaossilator Pro was superb and a lot of people missed that bit of kit.
"If you just had a 909 and the Kaossilator you could absolutely rock the house. As I say, a lot of people missed the Kaossilator Pro but I still use mine... not the 909, of course, as that comes in all different formats now but the Kaossilator has some really awesome sounds in it and what you can do to overlay and create sounds live is amazing."
You released you're excellent My Life in Music sample library through Loopmasters. How did you go about putting that together and do you see yourself doing more of that kind of thing?
"The thing is with sample packs, I've never really used them for my own music as I've always decided that I wanted to make something that was original. It takes bloody ages to do that though... that's probably why people get so lazy with using presets! For me, if I did that people would call me a lazy bastard [laughs]... 'Bloody hell, he's just used preset number 7!' I'd get it in the neck so I have to really create something else.
"So, when you hear my Loopmasters sample pack, that took two years to put together. I sat there and re-mixed and re-edited everything I created for it... all the basslines, the hits and the one-shots you hear on it are original. I wanted to make them sound nasty, dirty, powerful and bass-heavy so it's not a 'nice' pack as I wanted it to be more slap in the face than that.
"There's some good disco loops, good funky loops and techno loops. Everything that I'm about is on that sample pack, which is why we called it My Life in Music as what you're hearing is just that.
"I would like to do a follow-up library at some point. I've got over 150,000 pieces of vinyl in my garage,which is a huge sample library in waiting. All I have to do is grab a handful of them; some are maybe crap, some are the best records you've heard in your life, but if you just loop some of that stuff which you've completely forgotten about and turn it into something else, you're creating something new and unique. That ties into who I am in the sense of searching for that perfect sound or beat or loop.
"So, creating the pack was a lot of hard work and thank god I was able to work with two amazing producers, David Carbone and Josh Abrahams. Without them I wouldn't have been able to finish it off to the standard we did. We've turned into a bit of a dream team when it comes to production. These guys are so on the money and what you hear on the sample pack is our collective skills."
I wanted to make them sound nasty, dirty, powerful and bass-heavy so it's not a 'nice' pack as I wanted it to be more slap in the face than that."
What's out there that you'd like to try?
"Nothing really... At the moment there is now the ability to create your own soft synths. That can be a little too techy when they just give you a bunch of sine waves and go, 'right, go make your own synth!'. There's so much stuff out there that you can have fun with but I'd always say to start with the easiest things you can get your hands on. Something like Fruity Loops [FLStudio] is a great place to start and then work your way up from there."
So, do you use a lot of soft synths?
"I do actually at the moment. In the early days they sounded crap and everyone was banging on about how software would 'never sound as good as a hardware Pultec', but now you couldn't really tell if it was a hardware or software Pultec someone was using. The A/D convertors on a lot of the stuff you can't tell. I'd imagine some of the old-school producers would do an A/B comparison but most people today wouldn't have a clue. That's a great bassline, my speakers are shaking, I feel sick... it's all good!"
What makes your Space residency in Ibiza so special to you?
"I love to play there – it's always something special and the music that I pull out there is like nothing I play anywhere else. There's just an atmosphere in there that's different every time you play. You know, I'm gonna miss it terribly!"
To be fair, 15-year residencies are fairly hard to come by nowadays…
"[Laughs] Absolutely... and that's the thing about it – there have been a lot of clubs that have come and gone but Space has been solid for 27 years! That's a long time and I've been solid in that club myself for 15 of those years.
"When I first took it on for a Tuesday night I thought to myself, 'I've probably got about three years in here then I'm done'. Space has got loads of accolades over the years of its existence and it really stood for something. There's going to be a massive hole in a lot of people's lives when it's gone."
FM can't pass up an opportunity to ask a master such as yourself – any tips for aspiring DJ/producers?
"I always think that whatever you do you have to do it because you believe in what you're about in the sense of creating your sounds and creating your vibe. Allow yourself to be free when it comes to making music. Don't follow any fashion as that all just comes and goes quickly. Don't be scared of trying something new and don't worry if some people don't like your music as there will be people out there that do and will support you. Those are the kind of things I've lived my life by and I haven't done so bad because of it!"
Carl Cox: My Life in Music is available via Loopmasters. Music Is Revolution – The Next Phase: Tuesday night residency at Space, Ibiza from June to September 2016. Visit the Carl Cox website for regular updates.