But every so often we are reminded that for all his success and reliability, Cox is also human and changeable himself. Most recently, he's been raising the topic of retirement: he's closing down his Ibiza residency at the end of this season, having expressed disquiet at the nature of the Island's scene, and has even made noises about retiring from DJing entirely. Whether or not that comes to pass – and as you'll see from this interview, what exactly retirement might mean is far from clear – it's a sharp reminder that there have been multiple phases to Cox's almost 40-year career as a DJ, and there's no reason he should remain stuck in one role now. Whether playing funk and hip hop before acid house hit, dropping the three-deck mixes at the height of rave madness which remain some of the finest documents of the era, 'battling' with Jeff Mills on the turntables as techno went global in the late 90s, or sharing stages with the megastars of EDM, he's been there, seen it and done it.
Given all this, Trax really wanted to put his current moves into context and see how they fitted with his ethos as it's developed over the course of that career, and so we grabbed him just after a show at Fabric in London. Sleep deprived and keen to get some rest he may have been, but he was also every bit as genial and engaging as his “nice guy of techno” reputation would lead one to expect. He was also in contemplative mood, ready to weigh up the pros and cons of the modern dance music era, including in Ibiza, and, as we'd hoped, bringing the weight of his accumulated experience to bear on the state of the world today. A conversation with Carl Cox is always a worthwhile thing, and this one – taking in drag racing, drug wars and spaghetti bolognese – is no exception. Whatever his next moves, we're very happy to have his perspective on the world we all operate in, but which he straddles like a grinning colossus.
His last opening DJ set at Space Ibiza, last month:
So what's happening right now in Carl Cox world?
Most of all people are concerned about my retirement, which of course has been talked about a lot. And people are scrambling to go to Space with my residency there ending. People are... not upset exactly but they can't believe this is the very last time I'll be playing there. I won’t be leaving the island, mind: I’ll still be playing there – but that club has become an institution for fifteen years!
Most people last five years of really going out in Ibiza, maybe seven at a push, but for most punters, to follow me from the beginning to where we are now is just not possible. So it’s the next generation that’s come in now, and they've pushed it even more for me, so I almost feel like Benjamin Button. The crowds are getting younger and I'm getting younger with the crowd! Even last night at Fabric, though, was just phenomenal: it felt like the first time I ever played, and here I am, a fifty-four year old. The crowd did not want to leave, four in the morning and it's a school night too!
And it's still continuing. The interest on me is probably even more now than ever before. So what keeps me going? People. The interest of people, they don't want me to stop, they want me to continue to do what I do, to spread the love of music, it makes people happy, gives them something to look forward to, and that's been my job most of my life now. I don't do scaffolding anymore, I don’t do painting and decorating anymore, and I'm still grateful to be a fully-fledged DJ full time and basically be spreading my music all over the world. But still, time is passing.
Carl Cox, few days ago at Love Family Park Festival 2016:
So you're not exactly retiring, but easing off, then? What will take up the extra time you free up?
Well I do have a lot going on outside music. I'm very much into my motor sport. For the last three years, I've actually supported young riders in the class of Ducati in here in the UK: they ride a bike called the Panigale 899, and they've been doing very well. Also, because I live in Australia I’ve had the pleasure to support a side-car racing team there. Now, side-cars nobody really knows why these things exist but they've been around from the 1930s or even the 20s – a long long time – and they’re the best kind of grass-roots racing. I love that, I've created my own motorsport team, and I'll be flying them over for the Isle of Man TT [the UK's biggest motorcycle racing event] in a few weeks. Last year we did really really well. From seventy entries we came in eleventh place, but this year we’re looking to go top ten – then really we get noticed. This is all under Carl Cox Motorsport.
Also I'm an avid collector of American muscle cars and English old school classic cars. I have about seventeen of those: old Mustangs, Pontiac GTOs, all sorts of different amazing motors from the 1960s and 70s – and over seventy motorcycles, all classic models. So outside of the music, I ride my bikes, I drive my cars, and I actually drag race too! It’s a very very powerful car, it's actually a Mk 1 Capri from 1972 – the outside looks like that’s what it is, but on the inside it’s completely different, it’s over 2000 horsepower, turbo charged V8 and I can propel myself over a quarter mile in eight seconds dead at 187 mph. Very very fast, and very very scary but it’s something that I love.
So yeah [laughs] I’m a massive petrol head. But the other side is my music, and there has to be a yin and yang to what I do, if I’m just listening to music the whole time I’d be getting into that really incestuous thing where DJs don't have anything outside what they do as a job, and that’s all I’d have to talk about: but I love meeting people, I like doing things, I’ve never been one to just sit down and get stuck in a routine. I’ve always been given the opportunity to do other things in life and these are the things that I really enjoy.
Do you think that's helped your longevity – not 100% focusing on music? So many DJs are eternally gigging or on a plane, don't have any perspective, and end up losing it...
True. You know what? I can’t think of anything worse than making music on the plane. A lot of the DJs do that and I think that’s your time to rest, do something else but they feel compelled to do it because they want to get to the other side and say ‘hey I just made this hit record’, and they’re chasing, chasing, chasing. But eventually that chase becomes an obsession, and if they don’t get that number one hit then they get depressed! The music becomes more and more commercial and accessible and they just burn out. I’m not looking for that at all, I’ve done enough music and enough albums, I’ve worn my heart on my sleeve with a lot of music I’ve created and I’m still doing it. I’m not chasing anything, I’m making music because I want to and because it’s a part of who I am.
Carl Cox Boiler Room Ibiza:
Do you think you'll have more time to get into the studio now?
It’s a really difficult question to ask, because as much as I want to kick back and do other stuff, you know Glastonbury’s calling, and Coachella, and I haven’t been to Japan for five years. A few years ago I was working there with Fatboy Slim just after the tsunami happened, so a year later we went there to do a benefit party to help them get back on their feet. It was a little thing to do, but it was an amazing party and everybody was really pleased with our efforts – so can you imagine if at the end of that, I’d just got on the microphone and said ‘I’ll see you in six years!’ It sounds impossible, but that’s what happened – so if I am going to retire, I still need to go and do that party one last time. It’s going to be hard to step down from it, the world is a big place. When I first started DJing in the UK, Scotland and Ireland I was like, ‘this is alright!’ Then France, Germany, Italy – and then basically was covering the world, I found myself playing in Reykjavik and all these amazing places. I never thought that my life would take me to so many places across the world.
"As soon as I pulled off this three turntables mixing, everybody understood, “Oh, OK, that's Carl Cox, OK I get it!”"
For those who don't know, can we do a quick chronology of how you got to that point of 'going international'? You started out playing soul, right?
Yep, soul, funk and disco music. That was me growing up: I used to take music with me to school, in the afternoon I used to take my little portable mono record player out and basically bust tunes, and everybody would be listening to it and dancing to it. But that made me want to find records and collect them and every week I’d come back with a bunch of new tunes – so that was from ’76 til about ’81; as I got older, I bought a sound system too, and I basically wanted to be the person you came to when you wanted to have a party.
Then there was this musical shift through ’79 into the 80s where there were more electronic sounds coming into music. You had Afrika Bambaataa, 'Planet Rock' and I was mixing hip hop with funk and soul, but of course the disco music was more pitched up, and it was a different crowd but I could play for them too, then you had the whole hip hop era and when you heard stuff like 'Peter Piper' by Run DMC it would just blow the speakers, it was fantastic. So through ’85-6 everything was going fine for me, my soundsystem was getting bigger, people knew that I was the go-to for any party, and my music would always be upfront and fresh. I was always pushing the limits while everyone was dancing to those beats, there was a shift towards that warehouse sound with people like Soul II Soul and all the kind of downtempo funky stuff that they were playing…
I the mean time I started to be really attracted to house. The first record I bought from the house era was a track called 'Time to Jack' by Chip E, and as soon as I heard this record, it changed my life... And then in ’88, with the acid house thing in full swing, I was asked to do an all night party called Midsummer Night’s Dream in Oxford, run by the Sunrise organisation. Nobody going to the party really knew who I was but I was working on the concept of three turntable mixing, and they booked me to do it. So the party had been going on, the MC said “Make some noise for Carl Cox” and I was on – and as soon as I pulled off this three turntables mixing, everybody understood, “Oh, OK, that's Carl Cox, OK I get it!”. The defining mix was two copies of Lil' Louis 'French Kiss', mixed with Doug Lazy 'Let it Roll' acapella. Nobody had heard that style before, and it blew them away. That moment was really my transition, and I’ve never looked back.
And so then there was a shift from acid house into hardcore, was it a smooth transition?
Well one of the things about the UK was that up until this point everything we had was influenced by American music and imports, it was only every now and again that we had producers making music with an identity of its own. In the early days we had S'Express, 'Pump Up The Volume' by MARRS, A Guy Called Gerald, all of these guys were making UK music from their point of view. Of course there was something from house and techno to it, but it was something that we could define as ours, and then eventually Orbital and Adamski came along, and we really had something to brag about.
But at the same time the underground was developing: jungle, drum n bass style, which defined its own musical shift. I’ve always been into finding out what the next step was going to be, what was the music that was going to define our moment in our time. And right then it was breakbeat, speed up with big basslines and a whole other subculture, based on house music from the US mixed with soundsystem music from the UK and turning into its own rave culture. There were so many sub genres at the same time, and to gather all of these together you quite quickly had to have these bigger festivals. So you went there to listen to Danny Rampling, or Andy C, or myself, or Roni Size, it was just a melting pot, it was so big and it was basically created by us.
So you’re still talking about the illegal or semi-legal raves here?
Yes that was before the Criminal Justice Bill [a 1994 act of parliament which outlawed unofficial gatherings “characterised by a succession of repetitive beats”] came into play. But it was something that we needed in our life, we'd already had all these defining moments from rock and roll and punk, reggae and ska and soul and funk – but when it came to techno and house music and raves, there is still nothing like it. And it has now become a much bigger worldwide phenomenon, even growing into EDM now. But there is still this underground movement, the younger generation have taken what we used to have and embraced it, brought it to the forefront and developed it into their own subculture.
"I hear Disclosure play and I'm thinking… I’ve played that sound twenty years ago! [...] all I’ve got to do is pull out my old records."
So many things are revived in clubland, now more than ever: from 1980s soul/boogie, through raw basic house, to hardcore and jungle. How does it feel to you to hear those things coming around for the second or even third time?
I hear Disclosure play and I'm thinking… I’ve played that sound twenty years ago! But the kids have got their hands in the air and they think it’s great, so I’m thinking all I’ve got to do is pull out my old records. I mean, even last night at Fabric, I was playing a lot of classic house and techno music, and sixty percent of the crowd yesterday were maybe 22-23 years old, and the music I was playing was 25-6 years old. They weren’t even born when 'Voodoo Ray' came out and they are dancing to it. I remember exactly where I was when I heard it for the first time, but they’ve never even heard it. It’s not their fault!
It was funny when I played 'LFO' by LFO – that track had a bassline which blew speakers... not in Fabric, of course, but in plenty of other places. When that record first came out on WARP you’d heard nothing like it, and there still isn’t anything like it. And when I played it last night, it was almost like crickets walking across the dancefloor, people were like ‘what’s that?!’ and then people from the old school were like ‘wooo I remember this!’ and it went off. And that’s where we are right now, the current generation is experiencing music from yesterday – but it still makes a difference today. There’s going to be somebody from that crowd who will love the LFO record and go “let me make my own version of that”. It gets regenerated again and it carries on, that’s the evolution of being exposed to this music to the point that you make something makes sense to you.
Carl Cox Essential Mix (1994):
The best dance music anyway is functional, it hits your body and makes it move, and it’s still going to have that function 20, 30, 40 years ahead.
Yeah, and what's unbelievable because the production on that LFO record sounds just as good as any other record made today. It was way ahead of its time.
And that’s interesting because especially with trance and later EDM, you've had huge movements that rely on big production values. Did you ever get caught up in that 'arms race' of playing the biggest sounding records?
I never did. I mean, I was really a big advocate of trance music in the early days, and I’d mix hardcore, trance, techno and rave so I had four genres that in my one set I’d match together and be challenged by and have fun with. Anything that came out on Eye Q records or Hardfloor, those were amazing times, when a track had the string drops it just pulled at your heartstrings. One track called 'The Orange Theme' by Cygnus X in particular was just phenomenal, and still today sounds amazing. Trance today is very different to what it used to be like, but these were the foundations of the music, and I was right there on the forefront of that – now I could have gone that route when, as you say, the sounds got bigger and bigger, and become the black Armin van Buren [laughs heartily]. But I’ve got blackness in me, I still want that funk and soul, that bassline sound to my music, which trance doesn’t have.
But techno did.
And still does. And a lot of it was from Detroit of course, which still has that element of funk, soul and strings and passion and drive about it. So I’m still passionate about it. And I’ll still play a lot of those Detroit records, and people are amazed. Even if the production value wasn’t that great, you can still feel that the music was pushing through.
Carl Cox, live @ Techno Parade (1999):
I remember hearing you play in the late 90s, as a lot of techno was going towards pure loops, and your mixing style really made you stand out – because you just fit more tunes in.
With just loops even I, get bored! I had to add some vocals or just do something to lift up the style because it was loopy techno, and most of it came from Prime Distribution Records, they were really pushing this sound out. There was a bit of it that was amazing, but only amazing up to a point because people still wanted some substance to the music.
And what about at the turn of the millennium, when that hard techno sound died overnight and German minimal took over – how did you react to that?
I kind of played minimal at the beginning of the night, I used it to play longer sets. It would be minimal to begin with, then into the realm of classic Carl Cox, and if I was playing even longer then minimal for the outro. I could never have played minimal for eight hours: it was just not possible. Everyone became too cool for school with that sound and minimal producers were getting lazier and lazier to the point it was just a kick drum and a clap, and then maybe a hi-hat. Like come on – we need more! People became moodier and more chin-stroking and the scarves and the beards were getting longer, and it was like “What happened to the rave?! What’s happened to the unification?” Because this was basically separating out people who really knew music and people who liked to party, and the people who wanted to party got bored and left and the people who were into the music wouldn’t dance, they were just chin-stroking. So you had a room full of people who were just swaying and it got to a point where we needed something else. So as soon as a piano tune came out after the minimal sound people were like ‘at last!’ and the chin-strokers were like “Jesus what on earth is that piano? We can’t dance to that!” But the majority outweighed the minority, and then we got back on track again.
Going back to your rise to success through the 1990s, as the dance movement went past rave and into the 'superclub era', who did you remain close to out of your contemporaries?
I was always close to [John] Digweed, and of course Sasha. Dave Seaman, Mike Pickering to a point, Graeme Park, obviously Paul Oakenfold. I was always very close to these DJs, we wouldd always cross over on line ups. But I was very much an individual DJ: as often as not, it would be Carl Cox and a local DJ, not a heap of other DJs – it didn’t need to be loads of other names!
Laurent Garnier and Carl Cox
Then quite quickly, it seemed you transcended the purely British big league and started to be classed alongside, say, Richie Hawtin or Laurent Garnier...
Yeah that was one side of it, so if I was playing a Cream night it would be with Digweed, Sasha; but if I was playing a more techno night it would be Dave Clarke, Richie Hawtin, Laurent Garnier, Sven Vath, Pascal FEOS, the list is endless really. Jeff Mills vs Carl Cox was always good: he’d be playing with drum machines, synthesisers, all that, I'd be mixing on multiple decks, and we’d have this battle. But the people were getting the best of it, this was nothing to do with commerciality or top ten hits it was just what was getting laid down. And it still is!
A lot of people lost the plot back then, when the money started flowing and with it the helicopters, the limousines and the egos...
Yeah, if you take someone like Erick Morillo who had the Subliminal Sessions, his sound was very favourable with everyone, and he decided that he wanted to chase the money and the girls, and the number one spot, and he went more and more commercial and eventually fell from grace. But now he is picking himself up and we’re all helping him to get back to where he should be – but it’s so hard to get back when you fall like that. At the end of the day that was your moment and you missed it because it’s been filled: someone like Chuckie is the next Morillo, with the glasses, the jets, the girls. But now Erick’s back and sounding great and he just wants to get back to playing music and I think it’s fantastic that he hass been able to do that. There are plenty of other DJs who I don’t really want to mention… But everybody has their own mind and can take their own route, but I know personally I never did that. I stuck true to myself, and nobody needs to take a leaf out of my book but there is a reason I’m still here doing what I do.
Carl Cox, Space opening party @ Ibiza:
We’re going through another kind of hype bubble now with EDM. When you see someone like Avicii who crashed and burned and had to step back, do you just go “uh oh, here we go again”?
Well, that’s right, I’ve been through many generations and genres and seen DJs get to the highest heights and as soon as they fall from number one to number five and end up in rehab, get a divorce and get depressed and all that and you think “it can’t be that bad!” But that success is what they were chasing, and I have never ever chased anything, so I’m just happy to be doing what I’m doing – whether it is playing to 200 people or 25,000 it doesn’t matter as long as they’re having a great time. And it has always been that simple for me, from a very early age, and I think that’s because I grew up into this, it was never like I had one hit record and suddenly had to make a bunch that sound more or less the same to play out to huge crowds.
And the reason behind this is that we never had any social media in those days, we didn’t even have mobile phones early on, we had to go to the telephone box to find out where our mates were or send letters which got to their destination three days later. Now, you can create a party on Facebook this weekend whereas it always used to be word of mouth. You can make a record on your laptop in your bedroom and get your mate to do a quick video around it, some skating at night or whatever, put the two things together and you get 1.5 million hits because it’s actually pretty cool. The promoter sees you look quite Justin Bieber-ish and gets hold of you and you’ve got a hit, because it’s appealing to the current generation. I can’t do that because I am seen as a father figure, but this is where we are at now, we never had this in the early days. I worked really hard to get to this place, I was lucky enough to come through the 1980s into the 90s and hold on up until now.
And how have those changes been reflected in Ibiza? Do you even recognise it now, compared to when you started?
Well, it’s known to be expensive, that’s what everyone is saying now. But it’s always been expensive, it’s just that back then everything was in Pesetas and of course you just knew that if you had a fist full of pesetas you’d have a good time, even though if you worked it out a vodka lemonade at Amnesia was about £15. But you’d already bought five of them by the time you worked it out! Now because Euros and Pounds are similar, you actually know what you're spending. And you set up your whole trip online before you go. Previously you’d ask the taxi driver ‘where’s the best place to go?’ and you’d end up in San Antonio or near Ibiza Town or wherever. Now you’ve got your hotel or your villa booked and you’ve worked out roughly how much you’re going to spend.
The thing is if you’re going to see Steve Aoki at Pacha, it’ll cost your nearly a hundred euros to get in, 15-20 per drinks, money to get home – it’s going to cost you nearly 300 euros per person, for one night! Incomparable with a night at the pub. And if you go to Croatia instead it’ll probably cost you half the price. But in Ibiza you get quality. All the restaurants are really good now, even a rugged fish shack you’ll going to get your money's worth. And when you go to Space and Amnesia or any of these clubs, there are thousands of euros that have gone into the production. I don’t know how many times I’ve been to Space but not once has the power gone out, for example. People forget about all the infrastructure, the cost of making the roads safe and everything. No matter how much it is to buy a drink, at the end of the day it’s safe now and I think that’s what you buy into.
"I’ve been through many generations and genres and seen DJs get to the highest heights and as soon as they fall from number one to number five and end up in rehab, get a divorce and get depressed"
But the flip side of that is Ushuaia Tower, Hard Rock Hotel, the people who just want to see pop music and really are tourists rather than clubbers.
I think what happened there is that promoters saw the money where it was. And they built it all nice and shiny knowing people would come.
Does it change the character of place though?
It does but as long as people have still got their fish shack too, they’re not bothered. This is just new money, a new concept, new ravers coming in, people want their table down by the seafront, they want to see Dubfire play and they’ll pay whatever it takes to do that. They’ll walk away and say they’ve had a good night. You don’t have to be involved in that, but it’s just there now when it never was before. I’ve never seen so many private jets as I do there now, people with big money used to go to be seen in Monte Carlo. Now when they want to be seen in Ibiza they have to get a VIP table, and it would be silly if the clubs didn’t react to that. But when I first went to the island it was overpriced for me, I could do maybe two clubs and afterwards treat myself to a spaghetti bolognese and chips and that was it!
Well yeah the first DJs and first ravers would go and sleep on the beach, right? They were doing it however they could.
That was great, you were really a part of the community. But now you can go to the Ibiza grand hotel and order sushi by room service… it has changed, again because of the way we’ve been thrown into such a technological age you can basically click your way through.
And how’s that affected the shadier side of the island, to have more money floating around?
Well basically you're talking people trying to sell drugs – but they don’t want that reputation for the island, the police does not want people to get away with this, and they don’t. Because it is still a tourist island, they still want families to come, and they don't want it to become a no-go zone. Everybody knows that it happens but now it is quite contained, it is almost invisible. Four or five years ago there were shootings in San Antonio and all of the people involved were from Liverpool – it was between themselves, nothing to do with the locals or anyone else. But that’s no good for the island when you hear things like that. There would be stolen Range Rovers from Manchester or whatever, and most of it was over drugs. But they have massively cracked down on that now, there is a massive police presence now, especially for drink or drug driving. Everyone moans about the police but when you've just come out of the club and you’ve had that kind of time you can’t be driving, and if the police find you, it ruins your holiday. They have car services now, that’s new.
And how are the politics of promoters going, with things like the Gatecrasher fiasco going on?
It’s a competitive environment. Because the island is so small, not everybody can make it big. People have clubs in the UK or Croatia or whatever and try to create the same scene in Ibiza but it doesn’t always work, it doesn't fit the ethos. A lot of promoters have to go back with their tail between their legs. You have to work the island from within, not just stroll up and go “here we are” and take over. You have to ask yourself what you’re offering to the island, there are already plenty of DJs, if you have too many techno clubs it gets saturated and it’s not special any more. But if you’re doing something with a concept – like a dope funk and disco party, something from the 80s – this interests me. It’s not just about the young kids, there are plenty of 40 or 50 year olds who aren’t going to go to a Disclosure event because the crowd is too young. The music is good, but you’ll just stand out, your daughter’s there with all her mates, it doesn’t work. So if you’ve got Glitterbox and there are children of the 80s on the island too that’s fantastic, these are the things that define the island.
To stay with the generational thing, do you seek out new music aside from what you play as a DJ, are you secretly into instrumental grime or experimental noise or something like this?
I’m very open-minded, always have been, but when it gets to a point when it’s just a noise I don’t get it. I grew up with stuff like Prince playing things on the guitar, so when I hear those kind of abstract noises I’m like “come on mate, I want to feel some substance.” I understand, because most of the kids today, they are anarchists, they want to piss of their parents off when they put music on in their cars, they don’t want someone playing around on a guitar, they want hard, noisy bass-heavy sounds and I get that. When I hear it I’m like “who made that, and what does it mean?” I was listening to an artist, I wish I could remember who it was, and there was no specific time signature, every bar there was a different time signature, everything changed. There was nothing to latch onto.
"This is where we are right now, this is where music is heading and we are all going to be listening to bleeps and bloops."
It might have been Oneohtrix Point Never, or Arca. There are loads of stuff coming out at the moment that are kind of like that.
It’s possible. I was just like “wow!” You can’t dance to it, you can turn it up, you can kind of grab onto something but it disappears. It’s quite endearing, but very experimental, but I was looking at my friend like “This is where we are right now, this is where music is heading and we are all going to be listening to bleeps and bloops.” But there has to be someone that pushes the boundaries, you have to have someone go that far, whether I like it or not doesn’t matter. But I’ve always been dancefloor oriented, my family coming from Barbados I’ve had nothing but people dancing to the beat and enjoying it, whether it be latin or soca or reggae there is something in there that grooves: that’s what I grew up with.
I do like to push things sonically as a DJ, but if the crowd doesn't react well I’ll bring something else back in. I’m not here to reinvent the wheel, I’m just a person who believes in what they do and has been doing it for many years and still enjoys it. When people see me playing I have a smile on my face, they say “there is Carl with his Cheshire cat grin” and at the end of the day it’s all because I’m happy doing what I’m doing, and why wouldn’t I be? I’m having a good time and I want other people to be having a good time and that’s the secret to my success I suppose.
Who's coming up these days who's exciting for you? It's nice to see individualist DJs like Nina Kraviz and Jackmaster getting into that kind of international league...
Yeah it's great to see this generation engaging their own age group with new stuff. When I see Joseph Capriati who’s one of the only DJs to really come through the techno ranks I'm really impressed… And I love B Traits, she’s a beautiful and gorgeous soul and her music is just very endearing, I really like her. And Nicole Moudaber, I’ve been saying for years that she was going to come through and smash the place and she’s just devastating absolutely everywhere she’s playing, I love seeing all this happening around me. So if I do say ‘right, I’m done’ I know the scene will be in good hands!