WHP FEATURE 026
Carl Craig has explored so many facets of music – electronic or otherwise- that it may seem reductive to call him a techno artist. But Craig is a techno artist who reminds the world what techno is capable of; a musical form that constantly strives towards the future, ignoring anything that looks too much like a rulebook as it goes. In Craig’s case this has taken his sound from the proto-jungle pressure of 1992’s Bug in a Bassbin, to the hundreds of records he has signed to his Planet E imprint, to his current Versus project, a fusion of Craig’s electronica with an orchestral ensemble that blurs the lines between techno and classical until they become indistinguishable. It’s a career that has demanded listeners keep up. Just when you think you’ve got Craig pinned down, he’s off exploring some new tangent.
Even catching up with Carl – who at any given point seems to be working on about a dozen projects simultaneously- for a chat on the phone is a feat in itself. But when we finally did get hold of Craig to talk about where he’s at right now, we found ourselves embroiled in a conversation that went from the flavours of M&Ms, to who the most Detroit person in Detroit is, to the science of the sun, to working with the Pet Shop Boys. It turns out that, as with his music, you never quite know where conversation with Carl Craig is going to go next…The last time I interviewed you, you were after the Detroit t-shirt Mac wears in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia-
Yep, the one where the word ‘Detroit’ is in the shape of a gun. I never found it. So we can put out there that Carl Craig is still looking for that t-shirt?
Hahaha yeah, that was a great t-shirt. This, in a roundabout way, leads me to talking about the Detroit Love you run – how’s it been going?
Detroit Love is doing great – it’s great that we have a Detroit voice represented, and we have people who are fans of Detroit represented. I’m glad that we’ve had a shitload of fun over the last couple of years. Who is the most Detroit person you know? The most Detroit person?
Ohhhh. Y’know the easy answer would be either Mike Banks or Kenny Dixon, but there are some waaay more Detroit cats than that, but I don’t think it’s anybody you would know. But all of these guys have traits that are identifiable as very much being from Detroit, there’s the militancy, the stubbornness, the anecdotes – the people who always have an anecdote for something – there are so many people with traits that are obvious, so when you see them in another country, in Germany or whatever, it’s like, wow , oh my God, this guy’s really from Detroit (laughs). Does the stubbornness and the militancy make putting the Detroit Love shows together a challenge?
Umm, no, no, it’s not much of a challenge because we all have a common goal to represent Detroit. I think if it was a Planet E party then it would probably be a lot more difficult because Planet E is Carl Craig, whereas Detroit Love is all about love for Detroit.
I just want to ask you – sorry if you’ve answered this loads of times before- was the name Planet E taken from the KC Flightt track Planet E?
No it wasn’t. I knew that it existed, but we know the other side, the Voices track – I really didn’t know that KC Flightt had a track called Planet E until I saw the label for the record.
Wow, that must have seemed a strange coincidence.
No, because we all live on planet Earth, so there’s no reason why he shouldn’t have thought of it before. It’s just that Planet E Communications is the communication between space and Earth – I got it from watching a documentary about astronauts going to the moon. Do you keep up with science and space travel developments?
Mmmm, a bit, I think I like new data they have on the sun better – I think the sun is the most amazing entity in our galaxy. It’s burned for so long, it’s the source for everything that happens here on Earth, everything that happens is based around the sun rising and the sun setting. That’s interesting, it’s there every day and I hardly think about it
You take it for granted, definitely. You know Jeff Mills has just done his new version of the Planet Suite – is that something you’ve been interested in; the idea of converting thoughts on heavenly bodies into music?
Unfortunately I think that any vision I would have based on that would be considered more science-fiction than I would want it to be, so that’s why I haven’t focussed on it too much. I’m not a big sci-fi guy, I love watching some of that stuff, but I don’t want it to be misconstrued into something I don’t intend it to be. I know Jeff is definitely into other-worldly ideas, and extra-terrestrial stuff, so I’ll leave that to Jeff to do, he does an excellent job of it. The Planet Suite is music I’ve loved over the decades, it’s been influential for me, and like Jeff I’ve played compositions from Planets during DJ sets. I haven’t done it for a long time though it was about 10 years ago when I last did.Which tracks? Did you go in with Mars?
Yeah, just that first track from the album. When I used to play vinyl I played it at the beginning of my sets. But I can’t say I was first or second doing it – if I did do it before Jeff, there was most likely someone who did it before me. I mean Electrifying Mojo probably did it back in the 70s or 80s… And talking of the 80s, I see you’ve just remixed Pet Shop Boys who, to me, are quintessential 80s artists. Had you worked with them before?
No that was the first time. The time had come before when there was a request for me to do something, whether it was with West End Girls or another thing, and I just couldn’t pull myself to do it. West End Girls and Opportunities were two big records for me growing up in the 80s, it can be a little daunting being presented with opportunities like that. But when this current track was presented to me the time was right, and it came out well. Was West End Girls a big hit in Detroit?
It was a big pop record – I think West End Girls was big everywhere. It was released at a time when video airplay was in its infancy so you saw it all the time – we didn’t have MTV in Detroit we had something else, MV3 I think it was called, which was a non-cable version that played everything that was hot at the time, and that was one of those hot records. I feel there was a hint of West End Girls in the remix you’ve done
That wasn’t intentional. What I try to do when I remix is to use as many of the elements from the original as I can, and the elements I used sounded like Pet Shop Boys elements, so that’s probably what you’re hearing – you’re hearing the Pet Shop Boys coming out in the remix as opposed to it just being me wiping the slate clean, putting in my own music and then maybe putting a vocal on the top! It was something the same when I did the remix of the Theo Parrish record – I replayed everything that he played, it was exactly his record, it just had elements of me on top. I try to keep that focus when I do remixes, I do my best to keep as much of the artists character in the music no matter how much I take things apart. If you look at my rider, my DJ rider, it says I want peanut butter M&Ms but only in certain colours – that’s pretty much how I want my remixes to be. Do you really ask for M&Ms in only certain colours?
Yeah, certain numbers and certain colours. Which colours?
The blue ones taste great, the yellow ones are great – I don’t ask for the brown ones so much. Man, I cannot believe you can tell the difference in how they taste. They all taste the same.
No they don’t, that’s because you’re taking a hand full of ‘em and sticking ‘em in your mouth! You got a cacophony of colour! Who knew you had such a demanding rider..!
I dunno if you remember the Mixmag cover thing I did a few years ago, but I believe they posted my rider for the photo shoot, and I put all kinds of crazy things on there. You can take a look at that and see what goes on in the mind of Carl Craig. Now I’m a bit scared to.
Naaahhh, there’s no reason to be scared… Ha- anyway, when you said you replayed the Theo Parrish track, that interested me because there are some amazing Detroit producers who aren’t at all classically trained to play the keyboard – are you actually classically trained?
I learned how to play instruments at a young age – but keyboards are not my instrument. Keyboards are an input device to help control whatever instrument I’m using, and at the time it was an MPC-3000. I just know how to get my ideas out and to sound like something I like, in comparison to me being able to sit down and play a song, that’s not going to happen. With Theo’s mix, it was a sample based remix and I just replayed the colours of the samples that he used – so where he played something on a Rhodes, I found a Rhodes sound and dirtied it up, put it in an MPC and replayed it – it doesn’t sound identical, it just sounds similar. Do you still use a classic MPC?
I have a couple sitting there waiting for me to stroke them, but I don’t use MPC all the time because I’m on the road so often – I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to carry an MPC-3000, but the thing is heavy as all get out, so I’m not gonna carry it all over the world trying to make tracks. It’s much easier and more efficient to use Native Instruments Maschine. And talking of being on the road, you’re publicist told me you had the synthesiser ensemble tour coming up, what’s the deal with that?
There’s a project called Versus- Is that the same Versus project you did back in 2008?
Yeah, exactly, so Versus, we finally have an album ready to go of the compositions we recorded live – we’ve had it for a while but it was necessary to make it perfect before releasing it. Now we’re at that point where it’s perfect so we want to take the show on the road. We want to take it out with an orchestra, but it’s easier to take out a small ensemble of musicians – an orchestra is all fine and dandy, but it doesn’t translate onto a club stage, I’ve tried it and I know. So the key is to keep it as electronic as possible but with highly skilled classically trained musicians.This is a project where you’re mixing together techno with the classical world – how much difference is there between the two? Do you feel like you can spot the joins between the two?
It’s a complete melding of the two. The recordings are as close to perfect as I could get to making a hybrid of acoustic and electronic music. Does this mean you had to immerse yourself in classical music before you started the project?
Yeah I did, I did do my best in that – before I started mixing and adding things I started listening to stuff that was outside of club music as much as possible. I listened to soundtracks, I listened to minimal compositions, as well as listening to compositions that are very direct classical music. I was listening to very ambient music that’ll take you into outer space, things from Robert Fripp and Steve Reich, soundtrack pieces that were beyond Bladerunner, people like Matt Quail and Hans Zimmer. The soundtrack that was written for Stranger Things – these were things that not only I liked to listen to, but also I took inspiration from. So finally, why do you think so many techno artists have gravitated towards classical music later in their careers?
Techno is made with a lot of pads, a lot of string sounds – orchestral based sounds. You listen to music from Mad Mike, me, Kenny Larkin, Derek May there’s tons of string sounds, so it made sense for us to do this – but Motown was recording with the Detroit Symphony orchestra in the 60s – for me, I don’t think I’m a pioneer doing it, it was there in music I loved and listened to all my life time, whether that’s in rock, pop or jazz.