Carl Cox on anxiety, gender equality and drug policy

Carl Cox on anxiety, gender equality and drug policy

In this second deep and personal chat with the legendary Carl Cox, Kamran Ahmed explores a range of topics ranging from his upcoming events to his experiences of anxiety, his views on gender equality and more...

Kamran: Carl, great to speak to you again. First things first, I gather you’re coming back to Sydney for a Space Ibiza party on New Years day…

Carl: Yeah, it’s really good that Paul Strange who promotes the event, has been able to represent the Space Ibiza brand so well in Sydney and it makes sense for me to fly the flag for him. For 10 years he’s worked really hard to uphold the name and deliver these great parties. I did play for him about six years ago at Fox Studios, that was an amazing event. I mean, I could play anywhere in the world at that time but it seems right to come and play for him. With me being a Space resident for the last 16 years and before that doing the opening and closing parties - I think it’s a great opportunity to celebrate that fact. I’m really looking forward to it and hopefully the people follow.

Kamran: Yeah, we're really looking forward to it too. The night before you’re going to be at Melbourne’s Shed Nine doing a Space Ibiza set there on New Year’s Eve right? What do you think is going to give it that Space essence?

Carl: Yes, so obviously now with Space being closed for the last 2 years, I haven’t been able to deliver a proper Space terrace set because I haven’t got the club! I decided that I wanted to bring that island style of music to the dance floor at that time of year and bring some of those classics back… some nice piano tunes that made Space what it was, just really get down and dirty with good tribal tunes and add an element of fun to the music. At the moment the music is getting so lost, that I just really want to break out of the mould and to give people some fun on the dance floor again. It's not the Space club in any way, shape or form – it’s just the same style of music that I’m delivering to the dance floor.

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Kamran: Nice. So you and Eric Powell are bringing back the mobile disco too. We’re very disappointed that it’s not coming to Sydney, but it sounds awesome. You're doing most of the events in wineries, why that particular setting?

Carl: So for me, the winery setting is such a great backdrop to the music that we like to play. It’s just the perfect playground to share the music that I grew up with, with people that are the same age as me or a little bit younger, but remember these records from wayback when. Plus I think it’s good to do something different, we're even doing the botanical Gardens in Brisbane.

It is a shame that we’re not doing Sydney because we played at the Ivy for like, three years straight. It was always a good time there and obviously it isn’t a winery, but it has a pool on top of the building so it was great for the music we were playing. We’re not able to bring that back unfortunately - the sound restriction was pretty bad and of course you know the things that are going on in Sydney with licenses, which also make it very difficult. We’ll find somewhere in Sydney and we’ll bring it back in the future, but at the moment we’ve had really good responses to Adelaide and Melbourne.

Kamran: You’ve got Robin S and Cece Peniston performing this time and they’re both legends of that soulful, classic house sound. How did that collaboration take shape and what do you think that’s going to bring to the shows?

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Carl: People know the nature of the event that we do... we play classic house, so that’s the reason that we book artists like Robin S, Cece Rogers and Cece Peniston. We had the full Incognito band playing live for us last year, before that it was De La Soul.

Don’t forget we’ve been doing these mobile discos for the last 10 years now, this is year 11, so this ain’t our first rodeo! It takes me outside of what I would normally do which is quite exciting, but people do know that I’m a funkster, and I came from a soul, funk background. It's music that I grew up with and that I like to hear again, because you don’t really hear it. You may hear some funk and soul shows on radio stations, you know, but when you hear it on a good sound system and you’re outdoors with other people that feel the same about music from the 70’s and 80’s... it’s a good feeling! People of a certain age can be excited to go to it without going to a festival full of 18 to 21 year olds.

For us, it’s nice to have a mobile disco that we can basically call our own. Me and Eric don’t need anyone else, we basically start from the beginning and we play till the end. Then we put the sprinkling on the top of the cake when we go, '...and by the way we’ve got Cece Peniston'.

We just did it for shits and giggles, but now it’s turned into something that people really love and enjoy and are happy to be a part of, that’s why we’re doing it again and again.

Kamran: You mentioned the fact that you play from the beginning all the way to the end, so it’s an extended set, a real journey. There’s been a bit of talk recently in Sydney and in the electronic music community in general saying that longer sets should be the industry standard so DJs can take people on a journey. Usually sets are an hour long, and some people say that’s not enough. What are your thoughts on that? Do you think people should be getting longer sets as par for the course? Or do you think hour slots also gives more DJs a fair shot to get on to a line-up?

Carl: I think DJs should be doing 2 hours minimum at festivals, and I think for smaller, bespoke events – 3 hours minimum. Laurent Garnier… you can’t book him unless it's a minimum of 3 hours, otherwise he isn’t coming! And I don’t blame him, because like me, he's got music that he can basically play all week. So to do a 3 hour set out of that is a no brainer and when DJs can’t go past one and a half hours, it’s a bloody shame because we know that they can play longer if they wanted, but their contract says, 'we have a plan'. It’s a shame, because if you’ve played all your big records and you got nothing left - that’s not what being a DJ is all about.

In my upbringing playing music, when I was doing a lot of house parties or bespoke events, I took my crate of records... I was on at 9pm and I’d finish by 10am. By that time I’d be playing B-sides, sure, but that’s what you did - I finished at 10. When I was doing Space, I opted to just do Carl Cox all night for 10 hours. That’s what people paid their money for, if they come in, they want to see Carl Cox, so if the doors open at 12am – I’m on, if it finished at 7am – I’m still on.

I think every time I did Space Ibiza, I went on at 3am and finished at 8am every single Tuesday. This is after the DJs that we booked and introduced, so we would have Sasha on before me playing 3 hours, then I would go on after him for 5. I wouldn’t mind playing 3 hours, but once you get into your set and into your journey, after 3 hours - you’re not done.

At the mobile discos, doing a 7 or 8 hour set shared between me and Eric is actually a lot of fun. Eric can pull out records and I’ll be like 'woah, ya bastard, I’ve gotta step up' and I’ll play a record and he’ll go 'woah man, I was gonna play that tune!' so he’s gotta find something else to play. Between us we’re pushing each other to play our music the best way we can and when people hear it, they know we’re having fun because we’re really digging deep into the crates to find the record that needs to be played at that point. But to have a plan and just let DJs play for one and half hours, you actually belittle people who came to see those artists.

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Kamran: We touched on giving people the opportunity to get on a line-up which is the flip side of the extended sets and there's one thing I wanted to get your thoughts on Carl. These days, quite rightly there’s a lot of talk about equality and having gender equality on line-ups. People have different views on how to go about doing that, in Sydney we’ve had nights which have an all female line-up, which has also drawn some criticism from some people who say that it’s trivialising the issue. Other people say you should have at least one female DJ on a line-up, others say that it should be purely down to talent, that people should be booked strictly on skill regardless of their gender. What are your thoughts on that?

Carl: As you can imagine, I’ve been doing this for so many years... and 9 times out of 10 you’re going to see a male DJ up there whether it’s radio or live shows, it tends to be male-dominated and it has been for many years. But as things break down you are seeing a lot more women and girls coming in to the fold as talented artists and DJs, as the voice of their gender. It's necessary - I’ve always been a great advocate for bringing more girls and women into the fold of our industry, because it is so male dominated. I pioneered and got behind Nicole Moudaber... I said that she was one of the most underrated DJs that I have ever seen and she needs to be heard - and now look where she is, she's massive!

And now you’re seeing a whole wave of female DJs coming through and they’re actually doing the business, you know what I mean? It’s fantastic to see. I don’t think it should be a feminist movement, cream rises to the top, talent will always get noticed at the end of the day - if you’re good enough you’ll be there, but I’m loving the fact that there are more females coming into the fold.

It is a difficult situation, I mean there should be more female motocross riders and rugby players. There is a female team but it’s all female, I want to see them mixing in with the guys. We’ve never seen much of that happen, but there should be equality in all of this. It would be nice to see more female Formula One racers. They are out there, they can do it if they’ve got the same opportunities as everyone else... but the females are coming and about time too.

In some ways, females are mentally stronger to handle a lot of what’s going on which does affect everybody - loneliness or stress or dealing with things when they don’t go right… when you have a bad set you beat yourself up, but you need to be able to handle that and move on from it, don’t dwell on it.

These all attributes you need to have when you’re out there performing, you need to be strong. In my early days I used to travel on my own, but now I have a friend and tour manager who has been with me for ages. If you look at Monica Kruse, she travels alone even at her point in life. She might feel some loneliness but she gets out there and she rocks the bloody house. She is a testament to female DJs all over and I love her for that.

So I agree with females coming in to the fold in a male dominated industry, but I don’t agree with having an all-female line-up. There is no need to try to blatantly book DJs because they’re female.

Kamran: You described some of the difficulties that people have to encounter in the DJ lifestyle. You and I have talked about mental health in the industry before, but one thing we didn’t talk about last time is performance anxiety. So we interviewed Archie Hamilton of Fuse recently, a great producer and DJ, and he was talking to us about performance anxiety and how it can be a challenge. Did you ever get really anxious before you were performing? Does it still happen now? And how do you cope with it if it does happen?

Carl: You know what it doesn’t happen to me… people do ask me 'do you ever get butterflies? Do you not wanna go on? Do you get nauseous?', but you’ll never see me do it, you’ll always see me come through and bust the door open. If I have any anxiety I just kick the door down and go ‘fuck you, I’m here!’

Kamran: Haha I like that, ‘fuck you I’m here…’

Carl: ...I’ll never second-guess myself, I’ll never not want to be there, I’ll always feel comfortable in my position, and I think it’s because I’ve been doing it for so long.

I mean when I first started to DJ, my first ever party… I did have the curtain in front of me closed. I had a DJ booth behind the curtain and I would open it to see if anyone was dancing, because I was very shy as a DJ. I was out there performing and thinking ‘I hope they like this record’. Because once the curtain’s open they’re looking at you… and what’s to look at? I’m not Brad Pitt! I’m not going to start juggling three vinyls… ‘check me out, 3 vinyls!’

Kamran: ...while playing circus music?

Carl: Haha, ain’t gonna happen. The things DJs have to deal with these days… now if people go to see you at a festival or a club, the cameras are on you. Things are even worse now because they have all the streaming sites that want to stream you. So you’re standing there and you got all these cameras literally in your face while you’re performing. So you start to bead up, start sweating, start thinking ‘oh I hope this record is going to work, I hope the crowd reaction is going to be fine’. You get this anxiety, it’s being created through social media. Not because of your performance, but because of the attention on you. If you do a bad mix, or you drop a bad record, or if things don’t go right for you, you get so critically hammered - and that’s the thing that makes you want to recluse.

So I actually don’t do all of those streaming sites, I don’t want them. I don’t think it’s necessary for me to be scrutinised in every way possible because that’s the thing that creates anxiety. I understand it... if you get all these likes, people love your set and they’re saying it was a great drop, and it’s seen on Facebook and Instagram or whatever. I get that, but the cost can be quite high. Be-At TV asked me ‘can we do this festival and stream you’ and I said no. They looked at me as if I’m mad and said ‘but you’re one of the highest streamed artists that we’ve got!’. Yeah great for you, but not great for me, because I want to be relaxed and I want to play rather than being scrutinised, so it’s a no.

If I say yes, it’s because I’m ready for you. I’ve had a shave, slept well the night before, the set up’s good - I can give you what you want. So I do tussle with it, but I like to be sure that I’m in control of my own destiny when it comes to something like that. I have always been and I always will be, the only time that I walk away from it is when I’m done, and I’m not done yet!

Kamran: So to the young DJs out there who might be going through that anxiety in the early stages of their career, what kind of message would you give them? Because it sounds like you overcame that quite early on and now you can pick and choose when you feel ready for the really intense pressure. Do you have any advice for the younger DJs?

Carl: More than anything, be relaxed in your position. Try not to turn to drink to curb the anxiety because that’s not going to work, or drugs - that won’t work either. Have good friends around you that care about you, not just hangers on who just want to take as much from you as possible because that doesn’t help either. Once you’re in the position where you need help, they’re not there at all.

You’ve got to be as happy with your position as humanly possible so you're relaxed when you go out there to perform, so you know that you can do the right thing by you and then you walk away much happier.

Kamran: That’s really insightful actually, so you’re saying that you need to have real people around you because that will give you the strength to perform in the moment as well?

Carl: It’s the only way. Out of everyone I know, the one person I can rely on more than anyone is my friend and tour manager Ian - he’s been with me for over 20 years. If you look at some of the DJs, they have to have people around them to feel good about what they’re doing, they turn to the hookers and girls and say ‘woo hoo, that’s me!’. If you look at my DJ booth, it’s me and Ian or just me, because the thing I can rely on is myself. If you do have an extra person on there that’s your friend or someone you can rely on, then that makes you feel even better, but when you’ve got a whole stage full of people who you don’t know, who are looking at you and filming you, that’s what creates anxiety. So there is a ‘less is more’ approach to what I do and I’ve always gone by that policy.

Kamran: Awesome, you touched on people using drink and drugs there, and you also talked about the restrictions that we have here in Sydney. I don’t know if you heard about what happened at Defqon.1? There were a couple of deaths sadly, some young people, who they think took some drugs, passed away. The government is now closing down that festival and at Rave Reviewz we think that’s the wrong approach. Shutting down festivals won’t stamp out the problem, we advocate for sensible drug policy. I wonder what your thoughts are on that. Do you think what they’re doing is sensible or do you think is a better way?

Carl: Obviously you feel sorry for the loss of the people who died, but I don’t think shutting down the festival is the answer. They’ve been after Defqon for a while now, I’ve been watching them and following that. The thing is, at a good energy festival with the music that is played, people feel they have to take drugs to keep up - but you don’t have to.

If these people died because of the festival, everyone who went to the festival would’ve died, which is not the case. They need to look at the reason why these things happen and you need to stop that from happening, try and cut it off from the source - educate people to drink more water, relax in between songs and enjoy the moment, which is the reason why you’re there in the first place.

Drugs have always been a social problem and they always will be. The government always finds it difficult to deal with, but they always try and point the finger at music festivals. No matter what, whether it’s rock, R&B, hip-hop, it’s an easy target… but it’s a social problem they have to deal with before they come after festivals. To not give the license to continue means that they are still narrow minded and that they don’t know what to do - and they’ll have a backlash from the young people who vote for those in power and want festivals to continue.

It’s a very difficult thing that’s been going on for many many years. It’s unfortunate that it’s happened at Defqon, it’s happened at certain festivals that I’ve been at but they’ve been able to continue - it wasn’t their fault, these things happen. It’s a shame that it they’ve turned to a knee-jerk reaction based on unknowns again. Sometimes these politicians are lazy and don’t want to deal with it, ‘shut it down!’... that’s how they deal with it, and then what? It’ll happen somewhere else, then it happens somewhere else. It’s just a shame. My words aren’t going to change whether people live or die, but I’ve always had these parties so people can come and enjoy themselves for the music, nothing more.

Kamran: Wise words as always Carl. Thanks for the chat, we’ll see you soon. All the best.

Carl: No worries, thanks. Bye for now.

Catch Carl Cox at Carl & Eric's mobile disco and Space Melbourne & Sydney, tickets here.