Blaze of Glory | Skip to main content

Blaze of Glory

Blaze of Glory

After a life-changing epiphany at Nevada's Burning Man festival, dance music icon Carl Cox is back with a bang, with an incredible new two-CD mix for Global Underground, 'Black Rock Desert', sonically documenting his sand-swept experiences. DJmag discovers how the isolated desert festival has become his new creative muse…

Given his illustrious career, now into its fourth decade lest we forget, you'd be forgiven for assuming that Carl Cox was long past the point of mind-boggling, eye-opening, life-changing revelations. Well, you'd be wrong. In 2008, after innumerable requests, the Godfather of British techno finally played the notorious Burning Man festival in America. For Cox, it was nothing short of an epiphany. Even now, a year and a half on from his momentous trip, the awe with which he describes his first visit to Black Rock, Nevada, is still readily apparent.

"It blew my mind," Cox, now 47 and still literally larger-than-life, concedes enthusiastically. "Being on the Playa was, without doubt, the best thing I've done in my life. Purely based on what it gave me, and why I did it."

Coming from one of dance music's pure legends, this is heady praise indeed. He was at the vanguard of the acid house revolution of the late '80s, he DJed at some of rave's biggest, best and most important clubs and nights (Hacienda, Shelley's, Heaven, The Eclipse, Sunrise, Shoom) and he's managed to straddle the underground and the mainstream with ease - let's face it, Carl Cox is arguably the only thing anyone interested in repetitive beats can agree upon; he is dance music's equivalent of The Beatles. And he's still fighting the good fight. Now an elder statesman, he maintains a watchful eye over a sprawling scene, he, as much as anyone, helped give birth to. And yet, he believes his two appearances at Burning Man (he returned last year) to be up there with everything else he's achieved.

Carl Cox

"I feel that I've found a necessity in my life," he says. "It allows me to be who I want to be, and it allows me to share my music with everyone else. I am in Burning Man now - I'm gonna go again next year and I'm gonna go again the year after that. The things that I experienced there, the things that I saw, the people I met, how I felt about it when I left, it gave me another purpose to live."

Of course, for us Brits, Black Rock Desert is not just around the corner, it's not like getting to Glastonbury. So as tempting as spending a week in an American desert in September sounds, many of us are never going to experience this alternative, anarchic universe. Not in the flesh anyway, because Carl has compiled an incredible two-CD mix, 'Black Rock Desert', sonically documenting his experiences in the Nevada desert. And not only that, this album is a genuine dance music historical artefact. Unbelievably, it's Cox's first compilation for Global Underground. Over the years, he had been asked a number of times to compile a set for the label, but he'd always refused. He knew that any album for Global Underground had to be unique, so he demurred. Constructing a mix based on his experiences in Ibiza, say, would have been, he argues, too easy - "people know the story" - so he bided his time.

"If Carl Cox was going to do a Global Underground album eventually, there was only going to be one," he explains, referring to himself in the third person, as is his considerable wont. "It had to be somewhere with significance. We wanted something that really meant something to me in my lifetime and something that documented an event that a lot of people still don't know anything about." Hence Burning Man.


The first person to tell Carl about Burning Man was his old acid house sparring partner Paul Oakenfold. By Cox's reckoning, that was 15 years ago. For the last 10 years the guys behind the Opulent Temple stage at the festival had been in contact with Carl about performing there. Unfortunately the time had never been right. He was always working. Finally, it got to the point where he had to go.

Carl Cox

"I said to myself I am going to take the time off to experience something that I believe I've never experienced before. When I spoke to my manager about it she had no clue, but she knew that there was some fire in my belly, so she was like, 'off you go'."

Getting there proved to be something of a logistical nightmare. In September, Cox is still based in Ibiza, so he had to catch a flight from the Balearics to Gatwick, via Madrid. From Gatwick he flew to Las Vegas, where he then caught a small plane to Reno. There he hired an RV to get to Black Rock. Having left Ibiza on Tuesday, having played Space, he finally got to the festival on Thursday evening.

"I had to arrange a driver, I had to arrange a car, food, I had to arrange everything that allowed me to undertake this journey. It probably cost me £25,000. Just to go. Nothing else –- that's with flights, drivers, the truck, food and everything." And this was just for the love of it. Opulent Temple might be one of the most successful stages at the festival, but it is not a big money-paying gig.

"I'm not even going there to get paid in any way, shape or form," he says. "I'm doing it to support something that comes from the right place, which is the heart. We love what we do and there's a reason why we do it. No-one has paid to see me play. I'm there purely because someone has asked me if I would like to do it. 'Yes I would!', so here's an embodiment of my music and here's a snapshot of what I think is realistically where I am right now.

Carl Cox

"So it's not Carl Cox playing at Madison Square Garden, or playing in Egypt at the top of the Pyramids. I am at Burning Man at the same level as everyone else. What I have, from my artistic point of view, is the way I play music and make people happy. For me, that's perfect. It's the perfect way to feel about me and my music and the perfect way to explain a part of my life and why I did this in the first place."


His instincts were correct: parting with the cash for the RV was a wise move. The rangers that greeted his arrival told him as much, noting that he was about to do Burning Man in style. But what impressed him more than that was the initiation ceremony he had to perform to gain entrance onto the Playa. Firstly, he had to kiss the ground, then roll around in the dust. He then, as he tells it, got his 'arse spanked', before he was allowed to ring the bell, whilst shouting Burning Man, and he was allowed in. His reaction to this?

"Wicked! Let's go and enjoy ourselves!"

Having finally got there, his gob was well and truly smacked when he witnessed the spectacle unfolding before him. Because it was pitch-black when he arrived, all he could see was the moon, the stars and a multitude of moving lights. Because there are no streetlights in this artificial city, everyone sports some form of illumination at night, whether they be walking, running or travelling by bike.

Burning man

"I immediately thought, 'I have just landed on an alien planet. I have no clue where I am right now. All I know is that I'm here and it's awesome'," he recalls. "I couldn't go to sleep. I was like, 'Right, let's go out'. It was phenomenal, the things I saw that night. The Opulent Temple was on. I think Lee Burridge was playing and he was rocking the house. But we walked about and saw some amazing things. The music and the energy… and I stayed all the way up. We got there about seven at night and we stayed up until seven in the morning. We watched the sunrise, and then saw everything in the daytime. I was like, 'Jesus!'"

And while the festival is firmly rooted in the rich countercultural legacy of the West Coast - the festival started on a beach in San Francisco - it wasn't the hippy dippy carnival Carl thought he might encounter.

"You might expect a lot of greasy, unwashed soap dodgers praising themselves to the sun and dancing all night long," he laughs. "But it just isn't like that at all. I met some really nice people who are into it for the right reasons. Everyone is there for a reason - you don't just end up in the middle of the desert without a story to tell. Everyone is there to give - there's a huge artistic and creative impulse, and I liked that.

"Some people talk about Burning Man and they're like, 'Oh that's the last place that I'd want to go' and they start moaning about the dust, the toilets, the showers etc. Now, yes, you have to have an adventurous side to do it because there's no Sheraton Hotel there, there's no mini bar, you have to create everything for your existence. And if that means you don't have a shower for two days, so be it. A water truck goes by spraying water - there's your shower."

Burning Man

Being a world away from the pampered lifestyle many DJs are used to suited Carl, he says. Unlike at most gigs he plays, at Burning Man he was something of an unknown. His ego was most definitely checked in at the door. He literally mucked in.

"I would say 85 to 90 per cent of the people there didn't know who I was," he says modestly. "I'm just another dude from another country dressed in shorts, ripped shirts, a cowboy hat with lights on it, goggles, a pink scarf… I'm not there to dress to impress. I'm there to feel good about myself and be who I want to be. And I think that sometimes in life you just need that. Who am I as a person? What do I enjoy? What don't I enjoy? What is my purpose in life? Some people have thought the worse, and gone to Burning Man, and come back completely different people - that's really powerful."


Buoyed by this spirit, his set, unsurprisingly, was a triumph. Initially, those that did recognise his name on the schedule were sceptical that he would have made such a trip to play just for two hours. "Wasn't he in Ibiza?" he heard more than one festival-goer utter. But there he was, and once he got on the decks, people started telling their friends about what they were witnessing. Four thousand people soon became six thousand people, which went onto eight thousand. The reaction of the crowd was incredible; people were passing him hats, beads, coats, anything they could give to register their appreciation.

Burning Man

According to Carl, this collective and communal ethos immediately reminded him of the early rave days, where barriers were broken down and people came together, united by the music. It was, he admits, inspiring.

"It's not just about electronic music either," he proselytizes. "It's about folk music, drum circles… it's about whatever you feel. Salsa dancing… it had everything. They had this soul train going across the Playa. It was this old steam train, and there was a couple of guys and girls dressed up in '70s gear playing funk music. I was thinking, 'I just don't believe this!' Funk music on a soul train in the desert and people dancing behind it. Some people had probably never heard funk music before, and yet there it was!

"And there was a London bus too, which picked people up and took them around the Playa. The mentality of buying a London bus, shipping it to America, modifying it, and then driving people around the Playa… for no reason. I think that is unbelievable. That's one of the reasons  I loved it and will go back – to be inspired like that. The rave scene was the same, no matter how you perceive it, it brought people together. It didn't matter whether you were black, white, Chinese, gay, rich or skint. No-one cared as long as you were dancing to Todd Terry or Primal Scream or Graeme Park or Sasha… fantastic. That's why it grew. Because for once in our life, we were unified by something we could all enjoy. Breaking down the barriers of negativity… and Burning Man certainly has that ethos."

Soul music

It's this inclusive aesthetic that informs 'Black Rock Desert', too. Yes, it's tough and uncompromising, but deep within its mechanical grooves and brutal techno workouts beats the heart of community. This is techno - and all shades of the techno canon are on display here; from the stylish Germanic man machine minimalism of Tiefschwarz to Robbie Rivera, Joachim Gaurraud and Joey Beltram - as soul music. Techno as rebel music. It's a clarion call for all techno devotees and those dissatisfied with what other music gives them. No wonder Cox believes it to be one of his most significant releases ever.

Burning Man

"I think it will truly show people who I am as a person," he avows. "I believe the mix to be the very best in new music that is out there right now. I was asked to do other mix albums and I turned them down so I could give this the full benefit of what I believe it needs as a release, above and beyond anything Global Underground has ever done. Because it's quite easy to say to Nick Warren if you go to Tel Aviv we'll do the mix from Tel Aviv. I'm quite sure Nick would have a story to tell – 'Well, I jumped on the plane, I got to Tel Aviv, the gig was fantastic and there's the music.' And that's it. But my story of Burning Man goes much deeper and has a lot more history, purely based on the fact I was asked to go many, many times, and only now did I feel it was right for me to go. And then, based on everything I saw, and what I heard, and to relay that to this release, and showing people that it can be done, in all sorts of different ways. And if you're not experiencing a certain something in your life, then maybe this gives you the chance to do that."


Like we say, you can take Carl Cox out of 1988, but you can't take 1988 out of Carl Cox. The beliefs he espouses might seem outdated, even naïve to some, but that's their loss because Carl Cox has lived through some pretty momentous times in the last 25 years and he is testament to the transformative powers of music, its potent, celebratory qualities. From spinning rock 'n' roll, calypso, reggae and soul music at his parents' house parties to his most recent gigs, the ethos is always the same; sharing music with people.

As a youngster, he consumed music in a voracious fashion. Every new musical trend he lapped up eagerly. Funk, disco - even Pink Floyd! - he devoured all music. So much so, that by the time the '80s arrived he already had a massive record collection. Most people thought about these records after the fact, he reckons. He was already there. The same with acid house. He endearingly boasts about how he was there at the start, how when everyone else was listening to rare groove, he was already experimenting with this new warped house music, because, as he puts it, "it was the future".

And so when Oakenfold, Nicky Holloway, Danny Rampling and Johnny Walker came back from that fateful holiday in Ibiza (he had been asked to go, but he was too busy working), he was ready.

"At the time, no-one knew who Carl Cox was," he reflects. "I had my own soundsystem (which he had built - he was always good with his hands, being a carpenter, builder and painter and decorator before making it big), but I also had an amazing collection of music. One person for sure, apart from Paul Oakenfold who let me play at Heaven on a Monday night, was Danny Rampling. He knew that I had all this music and he invited me to play at the first two Shooms. That was fantastic. It meant I could unleash all these records on an audience that was prepared for what I was going to play. But even at the first two Shooms you had people in Afro wigs coming to listen to rare groove. Which didn't happen!"


Since then, Carl Cox has gone into musical folklore. He's the DJ that people who know nothing about dance music have heard of. He was one of the first DJs to appear on Top Of The Pops in 1991 with his crossover tune 'I Want You Forever'. He was a hardcore pin-up boy, before reinventing himself as the face of UK techno. His 1995 mix album F.A.C.T. was a revelation, shifting an incredible 250,000 copies, while his Ultimate Base night in London and his Ibiza residencies are the stuff of legend. Heck, he even did a spot of acting in the 1999 clubbing caper Human Traffic. As such, he's ideally placed to comment on the current situation in clubland - particularly given the tumultuous changes of the last decade.

"The thing is," he pleads passionately, "We have to adapt to change. I have. I'm still interested in what happens next. I can't revel in what it was like in the past. For me that is what it was like at that time, now it's a new day, a new generation. A lot of people are still crying,  ''88 was where it was at'. OK, fine. But that was 20 years ago. I had an amazing time, I was really proud to be part of it, for sure, but here I am in the 21st Century releasing one of the most influential CDs of my career for the next generation to be inspired by. Fantastic."

That's why he's bringing back his much-missed In-Tec imprint this year. Now a wholly digital operation, he aims to release 12-14 tunes a year, and he wants to nurture new artists too. He's also putting the finishing touches to his new artist album. Working on it in Australia – where he now lives, just outside Melbourne, for a few months every year – he describes it as his first truly dancefloor album. He hopes to release it at the end of 2010, with 12-inches to come this side of the summer.

  So in a world constantly defined by change and our willingness, or unwillingness, to meet that change, it's comforting to know that some things will always stay the same. Carl Cox has always known that it's quality not quantity that matters. In the past he managed to combine the two effortlessly. Now, as he approaches his 50th birthday, he realises that he has to slow down. To an extent. You see, no matter how hard he tries to take things easy, his restless spirit keeps pulling him along.

"I'm still preaching what we should be listening to," he laughs. "I've still got it. It's what I've always been about. I'm still here to save the world from bad music."