Detroit techno legend Carl Craig is, quite rightly, one of the most celebrated electronic musicians of all time. Chal Ravens talks to Craig about his most ambitious album to date, Versus, a daring attempt to recompose some of his most recognizable tracks for orchestra.
Carl Craig believes “there’s a time for everything”. Just because you’ve completed a track, he says, doesn’t mean it has to be released immediately. But you’d probably tell yourself exactly that if you’d been working on the same project for almost a decade. The latest album from the Detroit techno master is Versus, an orchestral collaboration that shakes up the black-tie sobriety of the concert hall as Craig presents some of his best-loved tracks as you’ve never heard them before – and it’s finally ready to be unveiled.
Versus is a collaboration with Francesco Tristano, a young pianist and composer with a passion for techno, who was only in his mid-twenties when the project made its live debut in Paris in 2008. Combining adaptations of Craig’s classic tracks with versions of some of Tristano’s pieces, the performance saw them take to the stage with France’s Les Siècles Orchestra, conductor François-Xavier Roth and Craig’s friend and collaborator Moritz Von Oswald, already something of an expert in the field of reworking electronic music for orchestra. The plan was always to record an album documenting the ambitious performance – but no one expected it to take quite so long.
“What touched me more is with ‘Desire’, hearing the string players playing the solo”
The past decade has seen a glut of club-meets-classical performances, with varying results – from the arena-ready “Ibiza Proms” of Pete Tong and Jeff Mills playing ‘The Bells’ with the Montpellier Philharmonic through to Actress’s off-the-wall collaboration with the London Contemporary Orchestra, which saw players making use of prepared piano and plastic shopping bags. Craig himself has already explored this crossover territory on Recomposed, his 2008 album collaboration with Von Oswald. So hearing club classics reworked for the concert hall is no longer such a novelty – but with the bold and brawny Versus, Carl Craig is not here to gather standing ovations in a tuxedo.
Having said that, today in London he’s dressed for the occasion, encased in a charcoal mohair coat – a bespoke number, he reveals – and leather trousers. Outside, it’s an unusually warm spring day. He’s also wearing a pair of wraparound, rimless glasses that would look like safety goggles on anyone but Craig, who ends up seeming, as ever, several years ahead of the curve. The prophetic aspect suits him; as part of the second generation of Detroit techno masters, alongside Jeff Mills, he’s had an incalculable influence on the music of the past three decades, releasing numerous dancefloor classics and remixes under guises including Paperclip People, 69 and Innerzone Orchestra. Craig’s take on techno is perhaps the most emotive and personal of his Detroit generation; the poised, sensual atmospheres of 1995’s Landcruising and 1997’s More Songs About Food and Revolutionary Art have arguably never been bettered.
But Craig has also spent much of his time collaborating with others, joining up with a jazz ensemble for 2003’s The Detroit Experiment and working with Sherard Ingram (AKA DJ Stingray), Anthony ‘Shake’ Shakir and Kenny Dixon Jr. (AKA Moodymann) as Urban Tribe, among other group projects. Yet none has been quite as time-consuming as Versus. After their handful of shows in 2008, Craig and Tristano took a smaller ensemble into the studio with the aim of not simply recreating the live performances but expanding the material into a bold hybrid of classical and electronic music. The sessions produced reams of “raw material”, which Craig was left to sample, arrange and obsessively tweak for the subsequent seven years. “The production process was that we’d have elements to work with and then be able to alter and change the mixes however we needed to,” he remembers. “We had the orchestra there and we used what we had captured.”
The project enabled Craig to hear synth melodies he wrote in the early ‘90s brought to life by the acoustic instruments they were always intended to represent, like the breezy flutes in ‘At Les’, and the results were sometimes unexpected. “The inflections and everything is different. The wind, how someone blows, how someone trills,” he says. “I think what probably touched me more is with ‘Desire’, hearing the string players playing the solo. That is a solo that I played in my parents’ basement on a Prophet 600 or something, and to hear them play that… Francesco sat there and actually scored it exactly how I played it, minus here or there some things that you can only do on a synth. It was just unbelievable.”
Craig has given the brass section a starring role on foundation-shaking versions of ‘Sandstorms’ and ‘Dominas’; the wobbling low-range works in tandem with his own bass emulators to create a sound big enough to fill the Royal Albert Hall, or the aircraft hangar at Sónar. To do this he borrowed a technique from Philadelphia International Records, the classic soul label based at Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia in the 1970s.
“They would double-, treble-, quadruple-track constantly to give that richness,” Craig explains. “They didn’t have a lot of space in the studio – they could only use five players. So they would do a track with five players playing at this octave, and then another track with the same five players playing at another octave, and build it up until it got where it needed to be. And that was how we started as well. ‘We can just double-track, triple-track – we’ve got 25 players, we could sound like…!’”
Despite taking tips from vintage producers, the complexity of the final mix, which walks a tightrope between the delicate dynamics of the orchestra and the visceral wallop of Craig’s synths and drum machines, reflects the power of the modern-day studio. It’s a long way from his early days making tape edits. “Oh yeah, I don’t need to use scissors to do edits anymore,” he says. He sometimes misses the old school approach, though. “The difference with a tape edit is the texture of the tape. And if you’re trying to repeat a section it always gets fucked up somewhere, you know?
“But I didn’t realize until after I saw the Radiophonic Workshop documentary that they were using a ruler and a calculation, and we just used our ears,” he laughs. “We were just like, ‘Okay, the track’s playing! The kick drum’s there – the one is there, cut it!’”
“I’ve been working on music over the years, I just haven’t been releasing it”
Even in a modern studio with endless multi-tracking and the all-important ‘undo’ option, the process of blending living, breathing humans with grid-bound machines threw up some obstacles. “This was really new for all of us, so we had some glitches early on. We maybe should have started with the rhythm of the piano first. The conductor wanted to start off with the horns, but there’s not enough rhythm in the horns,” he recalls. “It has to be tight enough for what I do [in the studio]. And with an orchestra, they don’t work to click tracks. We did use a click track, and the conductor was totally fine with it. But say you have a click track going and you tap out a rhythm – the human factor is that you’re not going to hit the beat dead on every time. The same thing with a conductor – he’s off a bit, and then the orchestra has to calculate what he’s doing and follow his lead,” he laughs. “I think we did three or four days of recording, and the first day, as with any recording, you’ve got to throw it out right away, you know what I’m saying? The first day goes out the window. And then the second, third and fourth days are where you’re able to clean things up.”
He couldn’t have known after those initial recording sessions that he would spend the best part of the next decade tweaking the results to perfection. Did he ever think about giving up? “No, it had to be finished, there was too much at stake. Too many people were involved. And I’m glad that it took us this long, because if we had gone with some of the earlier versions then I would have felt that they were incomplete. Now I feel that every track is…” He considers it briefly. “The only thing that could maybe be changed is some mix tweaks here and there.
“But nothing about the arrangements, nothing about the instrumentation. Everything is exactly what it should be. If we were to have released it seven years ago, it would have felt like – did you see that episode of The Simpsons where Homer finds his long-lost brother and he has this car company? And he says, ‘Come on Homer, build me a car!’ And the car comes out to be this crazy square thing,” he laughs. “That would have been how I felt about it if it came out seven years ago. Now I feel that we have a mixture of a Bentley, a Rolls-Royce and a Ferrari.”
Versus also includes electronic treatments of several pieces by Tristano, which turn out to be some of the most striking tracks on the album, from the soft, Balearic melancholy of ‘The Melody’ to a welcome moment of calm on ‘Barceloneta Trist’. You get the feeling that producing other people’s music creates a degree of distance that allows Craig to get the job done more simply.
Yet despite the many collaborations he’s been part of over the decades, he’d still rather be alone in the studio. “I’ve always liked working on my own more than collaborating,” he says. Does that mean another solo album could finally be on the way? “In time, in time, yeah. I’ve been working on music over the years, I just haven’t been releasing it. I did do a little release with Third Man Records, we did the Third Man Pressing thing – one track was my new original track and one was a reggae record that I recreated just to have a B-side. So I do work on stuff.
“But what I learned from Derrick May in the early years is just because you make it doesn’t mean that it has to come out now. And he proved that to me. When I met him in ‘87, ‘88, he was playing this record that blew my mind from Suburban Knight. And I’m like, ‘Why aren’t you putting this out? This is amazing!’ He said, ‘People aren’t ready for it yet.’ The track was ‘The Art of Stalking’, which was “done in 1986 on cassette” but not released until 1990. “And it blew up when it came out.”
Even with the promise of new material in the wings, it’s striking that Craig has spent much of his recent career revisiting his back catalogue. On Versus he goes back to tracks that have already reappeared in other projects, like 2005’s The Album Formerly Known As, a remastered and reworked version of Landcruising. The Versus version of ‘Technology’ is perhaps just the latest iteration of a single idea that has stood the test of time. Why does he think these tracks have enjoyed such longevity? “I think that any music that sticks around for so long has elements of authenticity that people hear and people can feel,” he suggests. “Like this Caribou track [playing in the background], there’s an authenticity to this track – it’s not like he’s trying to make a pop record, it’s just – that was it.
Craig once said he judges his personal success “by how much emotion I can get out of something when I listen to it 10 years later.” That’s still the case, he confirms, when he goes back to tracks like ‘At Les’ or ‘Dominas’, both of which he’s reworked on Versus. “You know, what I like about me most,” he offers, chuckling at his faux self-aggrandisement, “is that I have a lot of very fond memories that are important to how I developed and how those songs developed. So I can remember making ‘At Les’, I can remember making ‘Bug in the Bass Bin’, I can remember making 69’s 4 Jazz Funk Classics or 69’s ‘Rushed’. I can remember being in the studio doing Innerzone Orchestra stuff, or the Urban Tribe things and what was coming from those [moments].
“I didn’t have to write it down, it didn’t have to be videotaped, I remember those feelings that I had and what came from it. That’s what has always driven me, is those memories and those experiences that I always kept.”
Versus is out on May 5 via InFiné; a special vinyl edition of ‘Sandstorms’ can be ordered now from VF Editions.
Chal Ravens is on Twitter