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Always innovative, always incredible, Carl Craig effortlessly joins the worlds of house, techno, jazz and even classical performance. Welcome to Planet E.
Words: Joe Muggs
Photos: Woolhouse Studios
Though he’s consistently been one of the biggest, busiest dance music stars on the planet over the past two decades, Carl Craig has always got time for people. At 4am, after sitting up in his London hotel for half the night waiting to get his musical kit rescued from the ill-fated Bloc Weekend, knackered and in some discomfort from a broken ankle (of which more later), he’s still got time to crack a beer and talk to the camera crew who were trapped at the festival and want to record an interview before he jets off to his next show. A couple of hours and no sleep later, he’s being trundled through Gatwick on a wheelchair, and is deep in conversation about life and families with the ageing porter pushing him. Later still, over dinner in Vienna, he’s got Mixmag in hysterics with some to-and-fro patter involving dwarves, wigs and superglue. Each time, his attention is all with the person he’s talking to.
Because the more time you spend around Carl, the more you realise that behind the genial exterior, what you’re seeing is an intense focus on the moment. Whatever it is he’s doing, he remains interested in his surroundings and the people around him. “If I could,” he says over that same Viennese dinner, “I’d do my tours by road – actually drive myself and get the chance to actually see all the countries I’m going through.” And this is what has kept him on top of the game, creatively and commercially, since he first came to international prominence in 1989. Neither a compulsive hustler, looking out for the next hit or deal, nor a self-conscious maker of ‘art for art’s sake’, he does what he does – from dancefloor-destroying bangers to cosmic jazz to orchestral experimentation – simply because it interests him at the time.
After dinner we head to Vienna’s grandest opera house, where the city’s most glamorous party people have turned out en masse, paying €60 a pop for an über-posh rave. Damien Lazarus, Maceo Plex and Jamie Jones will play straight-up, banging DJ sets through ’til morning, but before that there’s a live performance by Carl with fellow techno legend Moritz von Oswald and pianist Francesco Tristano. They make an odd trio: laid back, working-class Detroit dude Carl, stocky and unobtrusively dressed; wry, aristocratic Berliner Moritz, elegant in dress and poise; and the slight, devilishly handsome and slightly wild-looking young Luxembourg-born prodigy Francesco. But on stage, each surrounded by banks of electronic gear, they become parts of a greater machine, completely locked in to the complex but luscious soundscapes and grooves that emerge from their equipment.
The swanky surroundings are just right for the music: luxurious and absorbing, and completely convincing as high art sound-making. For a long time there are no beats, just layers of ambience and harmony with Francesco’s melodies on piano and synth rippling through them. It’s not a standard series of tracks; rather, refrains appear in different forms through the set, most noticeably the riffs from Carl’s 1993 classic of emotive electronica ‘At Les’, which appears both in lengthy ambient style and then later in upgraded versions of its original sunrise techno form, each time with Francesco improvising around the melodies so that it sounds entirely new. Even though people are really there to dance, and one muppet down the front does shout, “Play techno!” during the initial ambient section, in actual fact most of the thousand-strong crowd are completely rapt through the whole set, including those long, beatless interludes.
Afterwards, while Moritz is hanging out with his wife and Francesco is being thoroughly chatted up by the hottest girls in the crowd, Carl puts his foot up in his dressing room with a much needed ice pack and muses on audience response. “That was good, but kind of an uptight crowd,” he says, “which is what you can get sometimes at an expensive event.” Does he prefer playing to a more rough-and-ready audience, then? “Ah no, some of the greatest things I’ve done have been in these kind of concert halls. One of the first big shows I did with Moritz and Francesco was in the Royal Festival Hall in London, and that was a big deal. At the time I didn’t compare it to the past, but looking back it reminds me of the very first time I’d played in London, at the Town & Country Club with Derrick [May] in 1989. I realised what an amazing opportunity it was, getting from people standing around or dancing to people sitting there and really absorbed, really listening.”
He’s not suggesting that the absorbed, arty way of listening to electronic music is superior to the wild abandon and socialising of the club environment: just that he’s glad to be able to connect with both. And he really has consistently connected with both: where many of the stars of Detroit techno tended to reach the wider world via a slightly geekier audience, Carl – like his mentor Derrick May – has from the beginning tapped into the mainline of dance music. From releasing the intense disco-techno rush of his Paperclip People project via Ministry of Sound and working with Deep Dish in the early- to mid-90s, to his recent back-to-back DJ/live sets with Luciano, he has always been able to channel the straight-up hedonistic imperative of clubland just as naturally as he makes experimental music that references out-there precursors like Sun Ra and Throbbing Gristle.
So where does this enduring club appeal come from? Carl is by no means straight-edge – his broken ankle came from a drunken basketball game in Spain with Luciano, Mirko Loko and Kevin Saunderson. “I drank a bottle of Champagne and thought I’d go in hard, show them how we do in Detroit,” he says, and ruefully admits to being given some MDMA in Cocoon one summer, trying to talk to a girl and seeing her run away in horror as he appeared to her like a growling, gurning monster (his acting out of this moment is quite something to behold, as is his face when he mock-sadly says, “I’m too old for that shit now”). But neither is he someone who defines themselves by being a party monster. “I still hang out with Derrick [May] and Kenny [Dixon Jr, aka Moodymann] in Detroit,” he nods, sagely, “and they’re like brothers to me. We keep each other on the straight and narrow – if they heard I was sloppy drunk in the DJ booth at some show they’d never let me forget it, like, ‘You’re slipping, bro!’” At another point he says how “sad” he thinks it is when drugs become more important than music and people.
In fact, it seems that the heady rush of his dancefloor tracks is actually so powerful precisely because he’s inspired by things beyond the simple equation of drugs + dancing that drives so much other, lesser music. Mixmag brings up Paperclip People’s ‘The Climax’ as an example of a tune that seemed to exemplify the intensity of mid-1990s E-fuelled house – but he’s quick to say, “Naw, it really wasn’t about that. If anything that track was about sex, rather than anything else. I mean, I love the energy of people together in a club – if I didn’t I would make some other kind of music altogether – but that’s not the reason I make a track. It’ll be inspired by something new I do in my studio or something that’s happening in my life.”
Those inspirations can come from anywhere. Carl loves rollerskating (he and Moodymann are regulars at their local rollerdisco) and basketball, he watches sport to relax, he likes to take time to “just be with my daughter on her terms, listen to the shit that’s happened at school, that kind of thing” – but really we come back again to the fact that he’s interested in everything. During a day spent with him, inevitably other DJs and his fellow musicians are around, so there’ll be a lot of talk of travelling – and Carl will have some gem of knowledge about anywhere you could mention: the food, the architecture, how people dance, how they drive, the characters of people in different regions of a country. This absorption of experience is his life-blood, and what he takes with him into the studio.
It seems it’s always been so. As a kid in rough, inner-city Detroit his musical interests were diverse: Led Zeppelin were his first love, then he learned the guitar and “wanted to be Prince”, then came the club sounds of the 80s like ‘Last Night a DJ Saved my Life’. He finally discovered Detroit’s unique, brand-new music when, at 15, his cousin Doug, who had made a record himself with Juan Atkins as Channel One, took him to see Jeff Mills, then called The Wizard, at a party. He was cutting and scratching Italo-disco, new wave, early rap and the kind of electro that was starting to mutate into actual techno. “That was it,” he says, “I just went, ‘Ah man… gimme more! gimme more! I’m hungry! I’m hungry!’” But his inspirations were as much arcade games, and even the rhythms of the machines in the printing shop where he worked after leaving school: “The sound of the machine that stacked paper and put staples in it – ‘fwoof-fwoof-fwoof-fwoow-kerbam’ – that was almost something you could dance to right there.” Again, that focus on the moment, the absorption of experience wherever it may come from.
By 1989 Carl had joined Derrick May’s Rhythim Is Rythim (his input can be heard on some of their best recorded music, most notably the stunning, eight-and-a-half minute, kickdrum-free ‘Strings Of The Strings Of Life’) and had the opportunity to travel to London, much against his parents’ wishes. There he found himself smack-bang in the middle of the acid house explosion, but true to form it was not the culture he connected with (“hey, we had dancing in Detroit too, you know!”) but specifics: individual people and their tastes. He became firm friends with Mark Moore of S’Express, and Baby Ford – the acid producer who would later become a key figure in the development of minimal techno – who got him into the store-room of Mute records and introduced him to the history of British industrial music, particularly Throbbing Gristle, whom he quickly came to love.
And so it has continued. Each shift or turn in his career has happened not through any attempt to be the newest or the hardest or the strangest, or to fit into one scene or another. It’s happened because of chance moments and inspirations. His turning of the Innerzone Orchestra project into a broad collaborative collective, way beyond techno and way ahead of its time, was the result of meeting the Sun Ra collaborator Francisco Mora Catlett; likewise, his growing relationships with Moritz and Luciano have taken him further into their respective worlds. And each time he’s been able to adapt himself to these new worlds precisely because he pays attention to the specifics: it’s the attitude of the craftsman, someone who thinks not in terms of allegiance to a particular artistic movement but about learning techniques, adapting and just plain getting things right. “I’m like a shoemaker,” he laughs, “or maybe a fashion designer. I might make things to last, and try and make them quality inside and out so even the details you can’t see are right – but I know that the cycles move on, and I’ve always got to do a new collection, always got to keep moving with the times.”
The closest Carl comes to loyalty to a scene in a traditional sense is to his home town. “Yeah, it is that bad,” he says when asked about Julien Temple’s recent Requiem For Detroit film which used the phrase “slow-motion Katrina” to describe the inexorable physical decay of the city – but there’s never any hint that he would make his home anywhere else, and the musicians he speaks of most fondly and respectfully are still Derrick May, Moodymann, ‘Mad Mike’ Banks of Underground Resistance, Anthony ‘Shake’ Shakir and co: the circle of friends and colleagues that he has had since he started out in music. He co-founded the Detroit Electronic Music Festival (DEMF) in 2000, “to bring the world to Detroit, and bring Detroit to the world” , and has maintained a turbulent but currently good relationship with the festival as it has grown into one of the keystones of the global dance music calendar.
He also puts his own time and money into youth projects in the city. It’s a subject he returns to more than once. “I have been lucky to see the world, to put myself into all kinds of situations, to see the different attitudes and ways of understanding that are out there,” he says, “and I think it’s important to bring that home, to show people that there other ways of seeing things, that there’s life beyond their own doorstep.” Once again, it is not some abstract ideal, but his very real experiences of people and places that he brings to bear on a situation. Although, like many musicians, he may casually use terms like “vision”, “exploration” and “inspiration” in conversation, these are always rooted in the real.
Mixmag next catches up with Carl a few weeks after Vienna, at the Dimensions Festival in Croatia, and he’s clearly happy to be walking properly again. He’s just played a set as ‘69’: warped, percussive techno bangers that he describes as “Pure early nineties Detroit” and that in theory couldn’t be further from the lush layers of his Vienna set, but in fact share all kinds of sonic signatures that could only come from one man’s hard-learned craft. It’s as perfect for the amazing ruined fort venue as the previous set was for the opera house. He greets us with a big hug, then, straightforward as ever, apologises that he’s going to have to leave quickly for the comforts of his hotel. Of course, he still has time to talk: about Croatian food and landscape, about his set, about this, that and the other. In a few minutes his minibus will be here; in a couple of days he’ll be back in Ibiza for Cocoon, then it’s back to Detroit to cook up new music. As ever, though, until the next thing comes along he’s immersed in the here and now: that exact quality that has kept Carl Craig’s music so timeless, for so long.