CARL CRAIG :: SYNTHFETISH
DETROIT visionary CARL CRAIG arrives in Australia alongside spring, unveiling his ‘Versus’ vision with every knob twiddlers’ wet dream: a Synthesizer Ensemble. Here he talks to Eastside’s PARIS POMPOR about the project and his long-running fascination with electronic keyboards.
“Being a DJ has been a big, important stage [shaping] my view not only on music, but how to present the music,” says Carl Craig. “You get a response every night when you play a certain record, when you play it at a certain time. I think I learned more than anything that it’s not [just] the music selection that’s important, but the timing is important. You can play the song at the wrong time and it just flops. But play a song at the right time and it can… do everything that music really should do. It can blow the roof off!”
You get the feeling that this kind of visceral audience reaction is never far from Craig’s vision. Watching him in a rehearsal video with the Synthesizer Ensemble he’s bringing to Australia for Red Bull in September, I recall a moment when he’s giving instructions to other players about pulling out all the sub bass frequencies in a certain piece. When everything is eventually wound in for a crescendo, Craig’s hope is that the effect will “hit everyone in the back!” To illustrate his point to the ensemble he slams his fist into his palm.
It’s not just about punch though. Craig’s latest concept is about giving the music respect, essentially revisiting his own techno catalogue and taking it sky high, by giving it the full symphonic treatement.
“It’s a project that’s orchestral in nature,” explains Craig.
“I’ve always been intrigued by orchestra music. Growing up, whenever I heard an orchestral version of a song that I knew, that was always a clue to me that it was a big record, that it went beyond what it actually was.”
In other words, only songs that were worthy, got the orchestral treatment, nobody was going to spend money on recording an orchestra for a forgettable two-bit tune.
“If you had a singer doing a version of a Stevie Wonder song, that’s one thing. But if you had an orchestra doing a version of a Stevie Wonder song, then it’s like, okay that song is really a big song.”
“So with these songs that became ‘Versus’ (the album he released in April this year), I really felt like it was taking the music to another level.”
Craig admits he would love to have brought the full orchestra experience to Australia, but that’s not always possible logistically.
“It would be quite a grand statement,” he quips. It was always necessary however, for promoting the ‘Versus’ concept further that he assemble “a lean, mean, fighting machine that we could move around a lot easier”.
And so the idea of the Synthesizer Ensemble: six players on stage recreating Craig’s works from sheet music.
“It’s like seeing a synth orchestra,” says Craig. And in a nod to the genesis, alongside the synths and drum machines, there’s also a grand piano on stage.
The idea is not just about the economics of touring however: “It also brings back the music to the roots of how I made it, which is synthesizer based. It just makes total sense.”
There’s also something very sexy about a whole bunch of electronic keyboards and gear assembled on one stage, right?
“Oh yeah, definitely,” says Craig, a sly smile audible down the phone line. “It’s because of… the knobs and things, so you know, it can be very sensual.”
Craig got his first synthesizer just out of high school. But even before that life-changing purchase, in the ‘80s, as electronic keyboards became far more accessible and affordable, the producer remembers his very first interactions with an electronic keyboard.
“There were two experiences, both with different cousins. One cousin had a little Casio, Casiotone keyboard. I mean like the really small ones where the keys are just barely large enough for a child’s fingers. That sound of course was becoming that new synthesizer sound at the time in the very early ‘80s with the little synthesized drums sounds. So I was always super intrigued by that.
“But I have a different cousin (Doug Craig) who had made a record with Juan Atkins called ‘Technicolour’… and he had a Sequential Circuits – I can’t remember what model, a real small one – Six-Track I think it was called. To give you an idea when I touched it, the hottest record at the time was ‘Axel F’ by Harold Faltermeyer – which is the theme to ‘Beverly Hills Cop’. So my whole time messing around with that synth was getting a sound just like the lead line in ‘Axel F’ and playing it. Those were the first times that I had any experience with synthesizers. From there, all I wanted to do was [play with] synthesizers. Great memories.”
Fascinated with bands like Funkadelic, the synth bass riffs that were starting to emerge and the “weird sounds that were being employed in the background” of music he was listening to, it “tuned my mind in the same way that listening to Eddie Van Halen doing solos or Jimi Hendrix or anything that happened with guitar… The possibilities could be endless, it was limitless.”
The appeal for Craig was being able to shape a sound that mimiced any other instrument, but also “doing something sonically that sounds like no other instrument. I liked that I could make it sound like a bass, but I could also make it sound like laser beams!”
It was a few more years after 1984’s ‘Axel F’, when Craig would debut his own productions professionally, but by 1989 he had managed to get a cassette of some of his bedroom tracks slipped into the hands of Derrick May who liked what he heard and ended up mixing tracks on Craig’s first 12” release, ‘Neurotic Behaviour’ under the alias Psyche.
Aliases, projects and collaborations have been many since then – BFC, Innerzone Orchestra, Tres Demented, Paperclip People, 69, Designer Music, Innerzone Orchestra and perhaps the most revealing, No Boundaries – but a love of pushing the envelope, not just synthesizer ones – has remained. Future focussed, Craig is continually trying to push electronic music forward.
“It’s important not to paint yourself into a musical box. What I’m happy about with my experiences, is working with jazz musicians, working with orchestral musicians…”
Does he have a favourite synth player?
“Bernie Worrell – amazing! I would have to say my favourite synth player’s actually Kelvin Sholar.”
Worrell most would know as the magician behind the keyboards in Parliament/Funkadelic, and the man who also turned Talking Heads Stop Making Sense into an ultra-funky wig-out, but sadly passed away in 2016. If you’re not sure who Sholar is though, he’s part of Craig’s Synthesizer Ensemble and the musical director. Sholar and Craig are joined by Jon Dixon, Greg Burk, Christoph Adams and Jarrod Chase in Australia.
And if you’re wondering whether Craig has held on to all the synths he’s had since he was a teen, the answer is yes. He’s a collector. But one holds special place.
“The first synthesizer that I bought was a Prophet 600. I still have it… After high school my momma saved up some cash and she said, ‘OK, you want something, here you go’ and I was like, “Okay! Let’s buy a synthesizer!’ I’ll have that synthesizer till the day I day because it comes from my mum.”
CARL CRAIG’S SYNTHESIZER ENSEMBLE hits Australia for the Red Bull Music Academy Weekender. They play The State Theatre in Sydney on Sunday September 3 and Melbourne’s Recital Centre the night before. For the full weekender line-up which includes another legend, Tony Humphries amongst others, check: http://syd.redbullmusicacademy.com Buy ‘Versus’ below.