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Carl Cox & Nicole Moudaber In Conversation: The Longtime Friends on Techno’s Dominance, Music During Wartime, The Absurdity of Tulum & More

Carl Cox and Nicole Moudaber greet each other like old friends, because that’s what they are. Getting on Zoom with Billboard from faraway spots on the globe — Moudaber is in Bali; Cox is in Phoenix, AZ. — each producer sort of squeals with delight when the other materializes onscreen.

It’s a kinship that formed more than a decade ago, when Cox, a pillar of techno since the early ’90s, championed Moudaber as she rose in Lebanon — where she DJ’d throughout the ’90s — then through the U.K. scene of which Cox is a native. The pair have made tracks together and remixed each other’s music as they’ve each travelled the world evangelizing for techno and house while also helping catalyze the genres’ current popularity in the United States.

This weekend, that evangelizing continues at Brooklyn’s Avant Gardner, where Cox is hosting a pair of shows on March 19 and 20. The first, Carl Cox Invites, will feature performances from house and techno luminaries including Avision, Dubfire, Hannah Wants, Josh Wink, Seth Troxler and Moudaber. The second, on March 20, will feature an all-night B2B between Cox New York City legend Danny Tenaglia. The following weekend, Cox will be at Ultra Music Festival in Miami, where he’ll host his longstanding Resistance stage, which has helped introduced masses of young ravers to the genres Cox has been pushing in the U.S. since his days of playing for 15 people in an Alabama bar.

Ahead of the Brooklyn shows, Cox and Moudaber discuss the death of EDM, techno interlopers and music as a vehicle for happiness during dark times.

Carl Cox: Hello hello hello!

Nicole Moudaber: Hi gorgeous!

Billboard: Hi to you both! Okay, to start, house and techno have obviously become the prevailing genres in the dance world in the States over the last five or so years. What’s your take on the expansion of the type of music you’ve played for so long?

NM: In the States, thank god EDM is dead. This is why we wear black. We’re still mourning. [Laughs.] I think techno, like our kind of techno, is blowing up right now in the States. [The U.S.] started it, they had a little dip, they disappeared, but now it’s coming back to where it belongs. It’s reaching every corner, every region in the U.S. in such a big way. The kids that listened to all the EDM on the radio when they were 14, 15, 16 — five years later now they’re going to clubs and are hearing DJs like Carl and our peers playing a different kind of music. They’re getting more mature with the sound, which is more musical, more intelligent, vibier. We’re happy this is happening.

As international artists, has this expansion opened up more opportunities in the States?

CC: When I first came to America to play, it was 1990. There was no infrastructure for this music at that particular time. It was all in the clubs, whether it be gay clubs, straight clubs… There was always this rhythm of sound, but at that time America didn’t know how to embrace it from state to state. It was always in a warehouse, or in a club on a Wednesday night. It took a long, long time to chisel this music into America.

My biggest door opening was Moonshine Over America, which was basically a company from Los Angeles. We did this bus tour to start to get the word across about this music in places where “techno” music wasn’t even a word. We were playing techno music in Birmingham, Alabama. Can you imagine that? We went down there and played Birmingham on a Wednesday night and the club probably had about 15 people in there.

NM: Mega!

CC: We were techno evangelists, like, “You’re going to listen to our music!” We really pioneered this music from a very early point. The only radio outlet at the time was a station called Groove FM where a guy called Swedish Egil pioneered our music at that time. Eventually you had Sirius XM. A few festivals started popping up in San Francisco, Orange County. Then Ultra in its early days — I nearly didn’t do Ultra because I felt Ultra was the most disorganized event company in the world, and they couldn’t organize a piss-up in a brewery, as they say.

NM: [Laughs.] 

CC: But at that particular time, they asked me what I wanted to enhance what they were doing… That was for me to run my own stage. That was it, I’d run my own stage or nothing. And they gave me my own stage. 20 years later, now it’s the megastructure. People buy a ticket because they want to go to the megastructure, not just the mainstage. And now all my artists and people and peers come through to that stage, so people learn about the music as well.

It’s really great right now…People really thought we were over during the pandemic, but all we did was stand down until we could get back out again, and now people are coming back out in droves. It is incredible right now.

NM: There’s a lot more excitement, because people are hungry for it. But also, I think we have changed a little bit. I think we are more relaxed and we’re enjoying the music more than ever before. For myself, I’m not too worried about how I’m going to play my set, or what music they’re going to like. I just do what I want to do. I roll with my feelings. In that sense, the pandemic has definitely centered me as an artist, and I convey the message in a much calmer way. I’m enjoying every record I play. I used to think that, “Oh this is a festival, I have to play this kind of music.” Now I just mix everything together. The vibe is just way better than before, I have to say.

CC: I agree. I think what’s happened is that we’re being more appreciated now than ever before. As soon as we step up on stage, everyone is clapping and cheering and so happy for us to be back. We’ve had a bit of a rough ride, and we’re still having a bit of a rough ride, given what’s happening with Russia and Ukraine. On one side, people are getting killed, on the other side, we’re having a resurgence of our scene. We’ve been pushed and pulled so heavily mentally with what’s going on around the world. We do these parties to escape from everything… My job title is a “disc jockey.” My job is to entertain people to be happy. That’s what I do.

NM: I always think that like, you’re the vehicle for joy and happiness, so you wouldn’t feel guilty that you are enjoying playing music at a festival when other countries are being bombed. I think we should take it in a positive way, that at least we are here to bring joy to people and entertain people and help them escape from the day-to-day routine, knowing that we are doing it for a cause as well. We are not insensitive.

CC: No. When you see a post of where we are and what we’re doing, we’re aware of what’s going on around us, but people are still happy to see people enjoying their lives. For us, being in the position we’re in is amazing, because we are able to do that. And if you don’t like what we’re doing, you can switch it off. If you do like it, you can enjoy it for what it is.

The dance scene does get criticized for being apolitical, or not all that politically aware.

NM: Oh, we are politically aware. If you don’t channel good energy out into the universe, it’s not going to reach anyone. That’s how we perceive ourselves – vehicles of good vibes. And I’m sure people in Russia and Ukraine also look up to us and want to enjoy the moments we create. Listen, I come from war. I’m a child of war, and I know what is going on. I lived it, and it’s in my blood. We used to wait for music to come and help us escape and enjoy a little bit of emotion and nostalgia.

I have my radio show broadcasting in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and I was asked if I wanted to pull it out, and I said no. Because when I was in Lebanon during the war, I was giving radio shows to the stations to help people get away from the horrible world we were living in. It was an escape people could hold onto. I’m not going to make the people in Russia, likeminded people like us, suffer because of some psycho doing this to his own people. We need to think about what we are here to do. We are here to give happiness and moments and joy.

That’s how I see it, anyways. I have zero Russian blood in me. I’m not political, but I root for humanity, and people want to have music, because music is our joy in life.

As techno has become more popular in the States, do you find there are interlopers or coattail riders in the same way there were with EDM?

CC: Definitely. I get it all the time. Back in the day when I was playing real proper ’90 techno, I used to just scare people with such hard music. Now the same people who said that the music wasn’t going are like, “Oh, techno is amazing!” Ten years ago they were like, “No.” Now they think they know everything about techno music.

The standard list of dance scene hubs — Ibiza, Berlin, Tulum – are all of these still the hot spots? Where is the scene thriving as it comes back?

NM: I don’t know about Tulum. Tulum is like white people wannabe shamans. It’s ridiculous. Come on, it’s ridiculous! No. But Ibiza will always be Ibiza, for sure. Ibiza is the heart of the world in the clubbing scene. I think it is my favorite spot to play, for sure.

CC: I’ve had all sort of great parties around the world, but Ibiza is definitely the number one spot to go to, and it will come back bigger and better and stronger once people start getting back to the island. But Tulum for instance, I have no desire to play there. I went there once for a back massage and that was it really. To go there clubbing is not really what I want to do. At the moment you see a lot of people playing there — people like to see the sun rise and set there — but is it a catalyst for what’s going on in the world right now? Probably no. Croatia is probably the next really cool place to go. Greece is a really cool place to go to as well.

You guys have been friends for a long time. Give me a classic Nicole and Carl story. 

CC: The thing with Nicole, I really do love her dearly, because she really does put her heart on her sleeve when it comes to her playing. It’s always amazing to see how she really connects with the people… I think that people really understand that we are great friends and have a love for each other, because we’ve grown up together, really.

NM: I think most of them know how it all began — Carl discovered me back in the day and we connected musically and we’re still here together after all of these years. People have followed the story, and that’s why they get emotional when we play together.