DJ Carl Cox returns to Ultra for the 10th consecutive year, still can't believe he's 'doing this'

British superstar DJ Carl Cox’s famous gap-toothed grin is almost as infectious as the euphoric techno sets he lays down, and it also reflects why he’s been so successful over his 30 years in the biz: He loves his job.

And Cox’s passion for music – and people – led him to create the Carl Cox & Friends arena 10 years ago at the Ultra Music Festival. He saw a glaring need for something different, a way for dance-music lovers to experience deeper and more intense musical sets than the typical one-hour performances of the main-stage acts. And thus began his own festival within a festival, which has become a major reason many music fans flock to Ultra.

You can help Carl Cox & Friends (including Luciano, Loco Dice, Marco Carola, Dubfire, Umek, Nic Fanciulli, Pete Tong and more) celebrate 10 years at Ultra, on Friday and Saturday (March 28 and 29).

It’s your 10-year anniversary of Carl Cox & Friends – do you have anything special planned?
Yeah, but it’s quite difficult to raise the bar on what we did there last year. Basically, the production in that room was by far the very best that I’ve ever worked in. So can you imagine something special over what we did last year? The standard of what we did is pretty high, so I don’t think we can produce that room any better than it already is. The only thing I can do is to make sure the DJ lineup is 110 percent great, and that I am able to play the best music at the best of my ability to make sure that people remember the reason why I do this festival in the first place, is because of the music.

Do you feel a different level of adrenaline when you’re performing at Ultra?
For sure. One of the things about Ultra, what’s so great about it for me, is that when we started, we started off very humble. We had one small arena, one tiny tent, which allowed two-and-a-half, maybe 3,000 people to hear exactly where I’m coming from as a DJ. So I was able to steer the ship to exactly where it is today. These things didn’t happen overnight, as you can imagine – it steps up its level every single year. I didn’t even realize we were going to get to this point. I thought maybe I’d become a part of their success, but what’s happened is I’ve become a jewel in the crown of their success. You have the success of the festival overall, but people have come to Ultra specifically just to come to the Carl Cox arena. So for me, I’m very happy and very proud of that.

What does it feel like to perform in front of thousands of people who are going crazy over your music?
Well, I’ve been DJing now for over 30-odd years, and I started off very humble, playing in bedrooms and school discos and this kind of thing, and when I get to Ultra and there’s 15 or 20,000 people in front of me, my mind just says, “I can’t believe I’m here doing this.” And I don’t have a guitar, I don’t sing, I don’t dance – well, I do beyond the DJ booth – but I’m not a live performing artist. I’m a DJ that performs a certain genre of music that I enjoy sharing with people. So can you imagine me not having any of these elements, but meanwhile I’m able to create this euphoria based on the music that I love – it’s still beyond what I can believe in some ways. And not only Ultra – the biggest crowd I’ve ever played to was 1.8 million people at Berlin’s Love Parade around 2001 or 2002. Go to YouTube if you want to see that. But the thing is, that’s a lot of people, especially when the person performing, the entertainer, doesn’t even have a guitar. This is a testament to the music scene and where we are right now.

How do you choose which DJs will join you in your tent each year?
As you can imagine, I move around the world quite a lot, and I see a lot of these DJs and my peers play the music that I enjoy. And if they’re playing a certain sound of music that I really like, I’ll just ask them if they want to join me at my festival as a friend, but also I believe in them as talented artists who can represent the sound of music that I want people to listen to when they come into that arena. So this is the way that I choose DJs – I don’t look in a book or go online to see who the top 100 DJs are, I just know that that DJ is a great DJ to play in my booth.

There’s a rumor that you’re banning cellphones on your tent – is that true?
I don’t know where you’ve heard that, actually. Even if I said yes, let’s ban them, it’s never gonna happen. The cellphone is as deep-rooted in your body-part system as much as your heart is, and you cannot live without the two. Can you imagine me standing up there saying, “Anyone who comes in my tent can’t have a cellphone”? There’d be nobody in my tent! Many years ago there were no cellphones, so people concentrated on the music a lot more. But now, you wanna take a piece of what the atmosphere and vibe is like home with you, and the only way to do that is with your cellphone. So to take that away from people would be a bit ridiculous, really. So no banning of cellphones!

Ultra is only one weekend this year – was two too much last year?
Yeah, I would say it was too much. I experienced both weekends, and both of them were very well attended – obviously the second week was the better week in the sense of attendance. But in the sense of people who wanted to be there for both weekends, it was quite a spectacle. But I believe less is more. You give them one weekend full-on, I think that’s more than enough to take home with you as a lasting memory of a good time.

Do you think Ultra has completely taken over WMC week?
I believe that when the Winter Music Conference started, it was basically for the delegates to go see the DJs primarily at the clubs that were available. But I also believe that there was room for a festival to celebrate dance music as a good time to be had by all based on what they’ve created. And I think it’s amazing that the world’s attention has come to Miami, not just for Winter Music Conference, but for Ultra as well. So I think both of them work hand-in-hand. I don’t think it’s taken over at all – I think it’s just been a part of the system now where you come for it all. And I think that’s a really good thing – when you’ve got so many people coming to Miami and you can’t even get into a club, that’s probably one of the reasons why Ultra did this in the first place.

What drives you to keep doing this year after year?
That’s a good question – I have no idea! Putting myself in this situation with a noose around my head based on that I have to deliver every single time I play Ultra. I just absolutely love being in this position. I love standing up there, and I love the idea that I’m able to share my music with everyone based on what I enjoy and have been enjoying for over 30 years. Without that love and passion for it, I don’t think I would be doing it still – but I still have the love and passion for music. And right now the phone’s still ringing off the hook, my schedule is full, I’ve got a massive worldwide agenda this year also. I’ll keep doing it until one day I’ll say, “I’m done.”

Who are your three favorite musicians of all time?
I have to say Stevie Wonder – he’s such a prolific artist, he produces, he creates, he arranges, he’s a musician above all musicians, and he’s stood the test of time. I think he’s absolutely fantastic. I really enjoy The Police, and of course Sting in his own right as an artist I think is absolutely fantastic, based on that he has such an affinity for world music, and the music that he makes touches your soul. And also Kraftwerk. These guys really paved the way for electronic music. They just came out and made music out of the box, and still today they’re being sampled and still being represented and h
eld as techno artists of all time. So these guys are artists that influenced me to be doing what I’m doing today.