The stranger the better: A Q&A with Carl Craig

Where do you start an interview with Carl Craig? At which point do you unpick that thread which will eventually unravel a legacy in electronic music that spans three decades and some critical bullet points in electronic music’s history.

It’s a Techno origin story with its roots in Detroit, counts Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson and Juan Atkins as some of the protagonists in a plot centered around one of the most significant eras for the genre. It’s there in the late eighties when Carl Craig first came to the fore as a producer and set forth on a career that spans a gummult of aliases, a host EPs, more than a handful of LPs and countless remixes, that even he has trouble recounting today.

Born and raised in Detroit in the middle of Techno’s origins, Carl Craig was mentored by none other than Derrick May as part of that crucial second wave of Techno artists, which also includes the likes of Kenny Larkin, Richie Hawtin and Robert Hood. It was this second generation that would go on to establish what the first generation created as the dominating force that it is today. 

Carl Craig has become a prominent figure in its legacy, with an eclectic approach that has seen him release some of the most significant pieces in Techno’s history. Under aliases which include 69, Paperclip People, Innerzone orchestra and C2 he has released records that are undeniable classics today.

He has been a promiscuous and prolific entity and continues to make severe impressions in his field, with an intuitive and inventive approach that has followed him across his extensive career and aliases.Carl Craig has always favoured a bold, experimental approach which has been distinguished by his unique take on the Techno. Broken beats, obscure alien sonic textures and nontraditional compositional forms have been a calling card that he’s brandished independently from any trend-informed developments within the genre. Carl Craig is simply a legend in his field today.

That legend is installed in the echelon of electronic music, but when I call up the man behind that legend, I find humble and down to earth person who is incredibly eloquent and who’s scope when engaged in conversation can span way beyond music.

He’s in Spain when I call  “trying to pack up all my shit that’s accumulated in Barcelona,”he says in a measured breath. His kids have been going to school in Barcelona for the last four seasons while Craig has split his time between Barcelona and Detroit. The kids have already moved back to the motor city, and he’s packing up the last of his possessions while seeing to some playing commitments on this side of the Atlantic. 

His next stop will be Oslo to perform his Versus show for Oslo Classics and then later that evening, he’ll play a set at Jaeger where he’s played every year for the last five years and it will be his second time playing in 2019. “I can’t be in Oslo and not play Jaeger,” he tells me. 

It’s the first time however that we get a chance to speak in the context of an interview, and with burning questions going back from the first time he played here, we have a lot of ground to cover and very little time. So, where exactly do you start an interview with Carl Craig?

I wanted to start off by asking you about Detroit, especially Detroit today. It’s always had this fractured relationship with Techno in that it’s always been more popular outside of the city. Have you seen that change at all in recent years?

Well Detroit is a city where people are influenced by what’s popular like in any place. But the thing about Detroit as a city is that it’s not a major city for the country. For instance in Norway you have Oslo that’s going to have all the influence on the rest of Norway.

Detroit is one of many big cities in the United States, but people are influenced by what becomes big, and what becomes big in the US has more to do with what’s promoted by major companies, who have the money to get behind the promotion of music. 

In the old days, it went by regions. You could have a big record in a region but it won’t be big across the United States. And the same with electronic music. it can be regional, so Detroit has a movement that’s very strong for electronic music; Chicago has had their House music scene; Miami has their House music scene. You have all these aspects that are influential in each city, but when the Chemical Brothers come out with a new record, that’s when there’s a big major push because they’ve got a big label behind them, so that’s when everybody pays attention. 

Or something happens in Las Vegas, like right now Techno has taken over from EDM, and now Techno is the new fad again in the US (laughs). And that will influence people in our region. People will see Adam Beyer or Carl Cox at EDC, and then they’ll be all about this Techno thing. 

But only a few of the people will actually do research, and then people will start tweeting or instagramming that “you know there’s a Techno movement in your own town, what do you know about that?” Then people start paying attention, because there’s a kind of pressure from others that are outside of the US.  

Do you find that this kind of newfound interest like that of Las Vegas, directs new audiences to your music, or do people still have to dig that little deeper to get to Carl Craig?

They have to dig deeper, definitely. I’ve never been somebody who tried to be predictable about what I do. That means I’m happy with what I do, but is probably also seen as the more real aspect of electronic music. 

There’s a famous quote of yours that goes in Detroit we have cars and music, and I’ve always been curious about the relationship between the music and industry in the city. Was there some sort of impact or was it just habistance that this machine music came out of the motor town?

Well, with Berry Gordy, his whole idea of running Motown like an assembly line came from working on an assembly line in the factory. Juan Atkins, his influence came from the assembly line as well, but it was the assembly line once it was automated and partially run by robots. That definitely had an influence on his music, and his followers like me. 

But none of you ever worked in those factories?

No, I don’t think Kevin (Saundersen), Derrick (May) or Juan ever worked in the factory. I know Derrick can definitely remember quotes from Star Trek, so there was this whole Sci Fi thing that came a bit before my time, and I believe that’s had a big impact on Detroit Techno. It was about equipment that had a bunch of lights on it that looked really interesting and did cool things, like travelling in space. Those are the influences that are still prevalent in Techno music. 

Detroit was declared bankrupt in 2013, and when you started out, it would have just been after the 1980’s recession. Do you think that socio-economic landscape had any effect on the music or culture in that it was a bit more raw or soulful as a result of that?  

Detroit, the whole time I remember growing up, until just a few years ago, has always been in a recession, or trying to recover from a recession. When you go to the center of the city, there’s development, but it has been slow. When you go into the neighbourhoods there are always burnt down houses, buildings boarded up and houses that have been torn down. 

There was always this decline that even when we had a great mayor, like mayor Archer, you still couldn’t get past that decline. We started having devil’s night fires, all these people taking copper off of buildings, and roofs off of buildings. Detroit’s recession became an opportunity for people to make money in really fucked up ways. It’s only over the last four years that we’re seeing Detroit, not only on an economic rise, but also a rise in the development. 

How do you think it’s affected the music scene there, especially in light of the revitalisation project that’s been going on there for the last four years?

The guys do what they do. Omar S, Theo Parrish, Kenny Dixon, Mike Banks, Jay Daniel and Kyle Hall, they’re doing what’s ingrained in them, channeling their experiences from how they grew up in Detroit and and channeling that into their music. 

I think that once we start really seeing a change from that, it’s going to be another generation of people making music; transplants that are moving to Detroit from outside of Detroit. Young teenagers that are going to experience Detroit in a whole different way that I experienced Detroit growing up. I hope that as the landscape is changing it will help generate a new perspective in how Detroit music can be made and appreciated in Detroit. 

Was there ever anything that you felt that could be described as a scene in Detroit or was it like you said: guys just doing what they’re going to do?

I think any scene has to do with what happens in the club world and the party world, especially with music for clubs. You need to have clubs to hear the music. We had the music institute. That was a major deal. It was George Baker, Alton Miller and  Chez Damier that started Music Institute that revved my engines a lot to make music. 

Before, I was going to the Shelter where they played like “Ballroom Blitz” and “This charming man,” but from 12:00 – 02:00 they played black music. They’re playing Mr. Fingers and all this Chicago stuff as well as what Derrick and Juan were doing. But that was 2 hours out of a 5 hour night, so when the Music Institute happened and it was 6 – 8 hours of just straight Techno music with Derrick and Kevin and Juan playing on Friday and then Alton Miller and Chez Daimier on Saturdays doing more Disco stuff. 

That made a really big impact for me and Detroit needs that all the time, but unfortunately that  was the biggest club impact since it closed in 1995. And now its Movement (festival) which is great, but it only happens once a year. It’s not a consistent thing on a weekly basis.

When you started making music, you stepped straight into the production role, and I believe you never DJ’d before you started making music. But you do mention that you were going to clubs at least. Do you think that approach has had an effect how you write and compose music?

Yeah, definitely. Every influence I have has had some impact on what I do. When you are playing festivals all the time, you start making and playing music for festivals. When you are playing in clubs all the time, you’re making and playing music that’s for clubs. 

So when I started making music, that came from playing guitar and I bought a synthesiser and begged and borrowed from everything else that I had. I made everything from what I learnt between transposing things from guitar and putting it to synths. Whereas Derrick and some of the other guys didn’t come into it playing any instruments, they came into it this with just great ideas and a way to programme this stuff, and they were DJing. 

When I came into it, I came into it with the musical training, but not specifically on the instrument I play now. 

That’s the way I perceive your music; rather than approaching it as a DJ, you seem to approach it as a composer. Do you think it would’ve sounded different if you started DJing before starting to make music?

I think it would’ve been that way. I know DJs who just don’t have the attention span to make music. Some guys from Detroit I would really like to see out here, more. They are excellent DJs, but just don’t get the opportunity because they don’t have the patience to sit around and programme music. 

They end up getting stuck in Detroit and want to come and share their music, but can’t because nobody knows you in the fuck they are. Delano Smith was one of those guys. Delano was Djing before Derrick and Derrick was looking up to Delano Smith, and it took Delano twenty odd years, before he actually released some music. Now, you see Delano in Panorama Bar and all over Europe, and if he didn’t make those records he wouldn’t have had that opportunity. 

Was that the same for the rest of that second generation, with people like Kenny Larkin and Robert Hood starting out as producers rather than DJs?

Well Richie was a DJ before he started making records. With Kenny Larkin, he had made his record on Plus 8 and that’s how he became a DJ. Robert Hood, I don’t know if he was DJing out, but he probably had turntables and was really good at DJing. I think Robert came into the Underground Resistance fold through Jeff, and Jeff was a DJ long before he started making music; he was a famous DJ in Detroit for about ten years before he started making the Final Cut. 


The reason I asked is because you have the Techno scene that started with Derrick, Juan and Kevin and then you guys stepped in and the music seemed to change. It brought in a lot more eclecticism and it became really well produced. Did you feel you had to adapt what the generation before you were doing as producers and that’s why you approached more as producers than DJs?

When I got into the fold, Derrick never told me I had to make music that sounded like them. Especially at that time, and I think Strictly Rhythm was the first label that is seen like they were really saying: “you have to make music that sounds like this in order for it to be released.” Traxx were around, and people were just making these songs and they would go to Larry Sherman and he would cut them a cheque for $500 and say get the fuck out. 

With Derrick, Kevin and Juan… I know for a fact that Derrick was really upset for a long time that people were aping his style. You had a whole crew of people in England and London, that were just making records that sounded like Derrick. He couldn’t stand that. 

I came into it, where my individuality was cultivated within a relationship. It wasn’t like I had to make a record that sounded like “Good Life” to get over. They wanted to hear something that was hot, and they didn’t care whether it was eclectic or not, probably the stranger the better, especially for Derrick. 

Would you say that defines your music, something that’s strange?

Yeah. I mean Marc Kinchen (MK) and I started out right around the same time. Marc had a record that was out on express records when he was about 15 or 16, and was taken under Kevin’s wing and I came under Derrick’s wing and you could basically hear the differences between our influences, by who we were mentored by. 

With MK you can see he honed his style which is more commercially viable with more pop, and that’s because he was around when inner city were doing all their stuff. I was around too, but I was next door at Derrick’s and we had synthesisers and drum machines on the floor and we were just trying to make the craziest stuff we could. 

That’s how my career has gone with the work that I’ve done. I was mentored to be fearless what I did musically and Marc is fearless, but he was mentored in way that hone his abilities as a pop producer. 

That’s probably why your music is held in such high regard in our community today, and has made such an indelible impact on electronic music. What is your relationship with those tracks like today, especially tracks like Innerzone Orchestra’s Bug in a Bassbin and 69’s Desire?

I love them all. It’s not only a part of me, but I can remember what I was doing at the time. I wasn’t making any of this to feed a musical system. So when I made “Bug in Bassbin,” I remember where I was when I made “Bug in a Bassbin”. I remember where I was when I made Tres Demented, I remember that I was mad when I made that. 

I see them as bullet points in my life, not just in my career. You know when you have a map and you take a pen and then you stick it there, that’s what I think of when I think of the music I’ve made. 

Sometimes I forget some of it. Zip was playing a track and I ran up to him, and was like; “man this is funky, who is this?” He looked at me like I was out of my mind and said; “this is you!”(laughs).

How have you maintained that level of creativity throughout your career and was there ever a point where you went I’m not going to be able to make any new music?

I mean… I push it. Sometimes when you push things creatively, it works against you. I just kept active, I just kept taking my ideas and spinning them to remixes and then to tracks. If something didn’t work out as a remix then I would spin it into a track. If something as too good for a remix, then I would spin it into a track for myself. If I was a painter and I had canvas and paint all the time, then I would keep making paintings. 

Does this mean you’re constantly working on music to release it, or does a lot of it end up on the cutting room floor?

Much of what I did I had as outtakes. But I look at it as experiments, so when I couldn’t make five tracks in a day, it’s possible that one track would be ok, more than possible five tracks would be shit. So I would take from what I did as experiments and the next day I would be moving on from what I did the day before. 

It’s more difficult for me to make music based on the idea that I’m going to release something. For instance Moritz von Oswald and I have been working on an album together for the last 5 years. You just keep working and keep working and don’t even think of it as being releasable, but just as getting something in a way that we can exorcise our demons. 

Is that also relative to why you have so many aliases, so you can compartmentalise all these different aspects of your creativity?

Yes, definitely. I came up with those aliases after I make the tracks. That’s why you see some stuff only come out as one thing. Like Innerzone Orchestra, there’s only ever been one Innerzone Orchestra record. There’s only some releases that have more than one release, like 69 and Paperclip People. 

That makes it difficult to do a 69 album (for instance). I’m not going to be able to do a 69 album. I’ve already tried that, and it’s not happening, because the influence doesn’t come from me making 69 tracks; the influence comes from me watching tv, acting silly and doing stupid stuff and then something great comes out. If I work on thirty tracks in ten days, there could be five tracks that actually work and those tracks might feel like 69, or Innerzone Orchestra.

I want to ask you about your last album Versus, because it ties into why you’re coming to Oslo. That album was very different from anything else you’ve done in the past, because it was very orchestrated and very bold. Is that the future of Carl Craig and where you want to go with your sound?

Growing up in the seventies, there were a few ways of hearing music: One was radio, another one was TV on Saturday and the other one was in an elevator. So whenever I went into a big building with my parents there would be muzak (elevator music) playing. It was always this orchestrated versions of pop songs. 

As a kid when I would hear an orchestrated version of a Dionne Warwick song, and I’d know the original, my logic for them to get an orchestra together to do a version of the song, would mean that the song was important. That is how I was indoctrinated in elevator music to be interested in orchestral music. Not only that, but I did play concert bass when I was in high school. 

That’s very interesting because obviously Brian Eno was very influenced by Muzak as well, but he went completely the opposite way as in it was music that could also be completely ignored, where as you specifically focussed on the aspect of it that is bold and has to be heard.

When I started doing these orchestral shows I worked with Franceso Tristano on all the stuff and this is a person who is not a very imposing person, but when he plays you have to listen. 

So that has had an influence on me as well, especially coming in and doing these orchestral scores and performances, because I’ll walk in and I’ll know all the players are going to be masters of their instruments, whereas I’m not, but I’m the composer. I have to trust the ability of these players. 

Part of getting their attention when Francesco did those scores, was to make the scores interesting and strong for those players who want to play it. It had to be something that grabbed their attention and that’s part of something that can be heard in the Versus record. It had to be interesting on a player’s level and whatever I had added after the fact with electronics, made it come together maybe in a bit more of a cohesive way. 

Your doing the show for Oslo classics.

I love coming to Oslo anyway. Any opportunity that we have to do Versus, I’m totally up for doing it, because every performance I learn something else. Whatever I learned from this I’ll be able to take into my future productions. 

You’ll be playing Jaeger after the show. How do you plan on bridging that gap from the live performance onto the dance floor?

Jaeger feels great, I always have a lot of fun when I’m there. 

Do you feel you have to adapt your sets at all when playing this side of the atlantic?

No I do what I do. If I feel a vibe that’s different, I might try to adapt to that vibe, but people come to see Carl Craig, so I try to give them what Carl Craig is into at the time. 

How has your relationship between DJing and production changed over time, do you feel more drawn to the composition side of things or are you leaning more towards DJing of late?

DJing is my day job (laughs). That’s what I learnt a long time ago; You gotta get out on the road, because that’s how people get to know about your music and that’s your job, to promote the music. There’s not going to be two performances every week when I do the orchestra, DJing is what does it.