Carl Craig wants to bring synthesisers to life

Carl Craig has always had what he calls a “synthesiser brain”. From the first moment he touched his cousin’s Casiotone keyboard, the Detroit native was hooked. When Harold Faltermeyer’s ‘Axel F’ blew up in 1984 as the Beverly Hills Cop theme, Craig dedicated hours to duplicating its synth line. Needless to say, his synthesiser excursions got a lot more sophisticated from there.

Carl Craig is now one of techno’s most celebrated producers and remixers, and synths have been a constant. “Whether it’s a Prophet 600 or a Juno-106, it’s always something that stays in my studio set-up and my heart,” he tells inthemix. This weekend in Sydney and Melbourne, the producer celebrates his prized instrument with the Versus Synthesiser Ensemble. The shows, presented by Red Bull Music Academy, see Craig and his bandleader Kelvin Sholar joined onstage by four additional players.

The symphonic concept began in 2008 with a full orchestra performance at the Cité de la Musique in Paris. Aided by the maestros Moritz Von Oswald and Francesco Tristano, the Les Siècles Orchestra reinterpreted Carl Craig classics including ‘Darkness’, ‘At Les’ and ‘Technology’. These new versions were compiled on this year’s Versus album. The scaled-down ‘Versus Synthesiser Ensemble’ debuted at Detroit’s Movement weekender back in May, before hitting the European festival circuit. The Australian dates are the ensemble’s first shows in concert halls.

Craig still spends most of the year touring as a DJ, but the Synthesiser Ensemble shows have energised him in a new way. While he’s not the type to gush (his usual mode in conversation is serious and a little aloof, with flashes of sardonic humour), he speaks with clear pride and enthusiasm about this project. Here’s what the Detroit innovator had to say about his synth obsession.

From your vantage on stage, how have you gauged the reaction so far to the ‘Synthesiser Ensemble’ shows?

We have had this situation that happened in Detroit [at Movement festival] and every gig since, where the stage or tent has emptied a bit, then we start playing and before the end of the first song it’s completely full.

People at a festival might be taking a break and seeing what else is going on, and they hear this cinematic thing that’s building and building. People are like, ‘Wow, we’ve got to check out what the hell this is.’ People are waiting and listening, and then when the kick-drum pops in, the whole place erupts. It’s quite incredible.

I’ve seen your Modular Pursuits show, where you’re alone onstage with the machines. What’s different about the energy of playing in an ensemble?

With Modular Pursuits, I have an idea of how I’m going to start it, but I have no idea how I’m going to finish it. With [the Synthesiser Ensemble], we know from the beginning to the end what we’re going to do.

“I’ve always thought of Detroit techno more as an expression, instead of something based on a certain type of instrument.”

I want it to feel more like an orchestra than a jazz band. The players are there with sheet music in front of them; it’s very formal in the context of electronic music.

Most electronic music is very freeform, and that’s what Modular Pursuits is. This show is regimented to the music. You know that ‘Darkness’ is going to be the first song, and ‘Technology’ is going to be the last song. We play it like the album. When you go to see an orchestra do Mozart, it’s going to be Mozart for the whole night – they’re not going to play another composer. That’s what Versus is.

How important is the synthesiser in the sound of Detroit techno? 

The importance of the 808 and the 909 seems to be the default concept of what Detroit techno is. It’s the same way with electro music, with the 808 or 303. But [in Detroit] we used whatever we could grab, and I’ve gone on from that point and found other aspects to express myself.

I’ve always thought of Detroit techno more as an expression, instead of something based on a certain type of instrument. Blues isn’t just about playing a Fender Stratocaster or a Telecaster [guitar]. Blues can be played on a sax, on a trombone, on anything that you put your hands on.

I think it’s the same way with Detroit techno. People will pigeonhole that it should be an 808 or 909, and that’s what Detroit techno is. But that’s not what Detroit techno is: it’s an expression.

Photo via Carl Craig Facebook page

When you were first developing Versus, were there surprises in hearing your tracks given the symphonic treatment?

Yes, definitely. I’m not one to not do something because I don’t think it’s going to work with my music. I’m an experimenter. When Francesco [Tristano] and I got together to do the arrangements and talked through everything, it was still pretty abstract to me. It didn’t become reality until I sat there behind the conductor and listened to the orchestra.

“I didn’t want to do anything that felt like a straight computer printout of the music, because that doesn’t have any soul in it.”

Now when I look back at the videos of the performance we did in Paris, I’m still quite amazed that it actually happened. Then when I was mixing the Versus record, I could hear the creative freedom that Francesco took on the arrangements. It was definitely necessary for him to have that creative freedom.

I didn’t want to do anything that felt like a straight computer printout of the music, because that doesn’t have any soul in it. The players would probably be bored. The violinist or the French horn player has to have something in his range that’s interesting and will give voice to his instrument. You’re not going to throw a volleyball to Michael Jordan and say play basketball with this.

I know you prefer to work alone in the studio, but this live show is very collaborative. How do you handle that?

I think working in a studio with others is easier for me when I have the music ready to go. But creating in the studio with somebody is quite difficult for me, because sometimes you feel like you have to show off to that person. When you’re by yourself, you can go with the flow, do your own thing. When I’m remixing, that’s a feel I like. It’s like I’m collaborating with somebody because the music is already done, and all I’m doing is taking it and flipping it.

You’ve toured Australia many times now. For people who’ve seen you as a DJ, how would you describe the different feel of this Synthesiser Ensemble show?

A DJ set is trying to get a response from the audience, playing things they can relate to. It’s about doing a great job before the next DJ, and following the DJ who was before you.

With this show, we do what we do. You’re going to love it, or you’re going to hate it, but I’m sure you’re going to love it. I’m not doing anything in particular to make the people more into it. The players are the ones who end up getting more out of their abilities. Kelvin [Sholar] is playing concert piano on this tour, so the crowd is going to be responsive to what he’s doing.

I’ve always loved coming to Australia. For the most part, people know what they’re going to get when they see me at an event. The festivals of course are different, because I might be [on a line-up] with M.I.A. and Mark Ronson, so people are coming out for the big stars. But at a concert venue people know they’re coming to hear me play music from my soul.

Carl Craig’s Synthesiser Ensemble play Melbourne Recital Centre on Saturday September 2 and Sydney’s State Theatre on Sunday September 3. Both shows are part of the Red Bull Music Academy Weekender and you can buy tickets for Sydney & Melbourne here. 

Jack Tregoning is a freelance writer based in New York. He is on Twitter