THE ITALIAN TECHNO TITAN: MARCO CAROLA
In a rare interview, the Music On don talks candidly to DJ Mag...
Marco Carola is an enigma. In a rare interview, the Italian techno DJ/producer and Music On promoter talks to DJ Mag about record shopping in London in his formative years, his upbringing in Napoli and his steady upward trajectory into becoming one of the biggest techno DJs in the world...
It's Friday night. DJ Mag is in Ibiza, waiting outside Amnesia, one of the island's most important and long-standing nightclubs. The queue winds like a serpent out into the dusty carpark as the masses wait in gargantuan queues to get inside. Expectant ravers patiently perspire under the spotlights, as a kaleidoscope of languages bounce off the cars and out into the night.
DJ Mag doesn’t need to worry about any lengthy negotiations with the bouncers, as we're waved ceremoniously through the gates, names checked and wrists banded, before tottering across Amnesia's cobbled entry and into the inky dark. We're not here just to flex our credentials; we're here for the opening night of what’s grown into techno’s most fiercely loyal clubbing cult — we're here for Marco Carola's Music On.
The bass smacks hard against our eardrums as we enter through a side door, scuttle down a long narrow corridor, and out onto Amnesia's cavernous terrace. The enormous room is pulsating like a misty dream sequence from a Hollywood flick, as the 5000-strong crowd surges to the beat in otherworldly unison. We're hurriedly ushered through the dancefloor by an Amazonian beauty — she's later introduced as Marco's PR assistant — and up and on to the terrace's rocky and so-often-photographed booth.
And there he is. Standing just outside the strobing light at the side, flanked by yet another PA and various members of the Music On posse. They buzz around him like flies whilst fans from the nearby VIP bar stare silently in awe — it’s an apt preview of the mass hysteria that’s still yet to come. Stoney-faced and focused, like a mighty General waiting to go into battle, Music On’s commander-in-chief looks powerful. Marco Carola, the man we’ve all been waiting for, is ready.
As we watch, he steps down into the light in front of his adoring public, elevated above the pulsing throng like a demi-god as the masses whoop and holler with child-like glee. Spotlights swivel and the dancefloor is bathed in red light as the club’s air thickens with sweat-soaked anticipation, and crystalline techno starts to ooze like sap from the speakers.
He’ll captain the decks for a whopping six hours tonight, slamming down everything from gluey minimal techno to spiky tech-house (perhaps even a vocal or two!), plus the occasional vintage, industrial anthem. The time slips by in the blink of an eye before Carola raises a hand above his head to signal the end of the show, as light streams into the terrace from high overhead. As the final bass beat slams from the stacks, he’s promptly whisked away as fast as he arrived, off to spin at a party reserved exclusively for those in the Ibiza elite.
Standing in the Amnesia booth atop his empire, a legacy he’s spent nigh-on two decades building, Marco Carola looks invincible. He’ll do this 16 times over the next four months, as part of his Music On residency at Amnesia, before jetting off to Miami and Barcelona for the off-season. He’ll also listen to over 2000 new promos a week, spin up to 10 marathon sets a month, craft countless new edits in his studio and play the occasional foreign festival including the UK’s upcoming SW4 at the end of this month.
Famously guarded and not often open to one-on-ones with the press, DJ Mag is here to meet the man behind the myth, the real don behind Music On. And we want to know: who is Marco Carola when the show is over, when the strobes stop flashing, when the club doors close?
Who is Marco Carola when all the lights, finally, come on?
Serial globetrotter, workaholic and self-confessed perfectionist, Marco Carola fits the template for any successful business mogul. When we meet one-week prior to Music On’s Ibiza opening, he’s tired (he tells DJ Mag several times), and with his current schedule it’s no wonder. “Yes, I'm tired,” he smiles, wryly. “I always say 'Monday is the Sunday of the DJ'. Though it’s always Saturday night in Ibiza, so there is no stopping.”
He’s just headlined alongside Hot Creations bossman Jamie Jones at a mammoth UK festival the night before, telling us that he “really respects what [Jones] is doing in Ibiza”. His exhaustion is likely compounded by a recent trip to Romania, that saw him nab international headlines thanks to a mammoth 24-hour set at Sunwaves Festival. “It just happened, these things are never planned. There was such an energy [in Romania], that’s what keeps you going, the only thing that keeps you going — the relationship [with the crowd]. Romania is a crowd that really listen to everything, there was no pressure, just emotion.”
Broad in stature and taller than you might expect, he’s swathed, somewhat predictably, in black. On meeting, he casts an authoritative figure — we get the feeling Carola doesn’t put up with any bullshit. “I’m used to this, this type of life. This year is my 25th year that I’m DJing and it’s a question of getting used to it, learning to control yourself, if you know what I mean,” he smiles. “I’m really responsible when I DJ, it’s really difficult for me if I miss a gig.”
London is nothing new to Carola, he's been here many times before. “Actually, one of the biggest places I really discovered music was London,” he says. “You know, I was going to Fat Cat and Ultimate Base, Carl Cox...” he trails off. Carola has oft touted Cox as a pivotal influence — a man who's held down a residency at Amnesia's biggest rival, Space, for as long as anyone would care to remember.
As we talk, Carola exudes a kind of measured warmth, a trait that makes us sense he’s probably had his fingers burnt by the media once or twice before. He rarely smiles but when he does it’s both sincere and endearing, particularly when he talks about discovering music and defining his sound. “I was shopping in [London] record stores like crazy and I was coming back [to Napoli] with a case full of records every time. Fantastic sounds, I found those sounds I was craving. This is the way it was at the beginning, we would go to record stores anywhere we could.”
It’s easy to spot Carola’s European connection; from his last name to his thick Italian accent, everything about him oozes his heritage. “[When I was young] there was a few record stores in Napoli but it was still very filtered,” he says. “So we’re talking the beginning of the nineties, and really, apart from a few places, it was really hard for me to find what I was looking for. I even thought I didn’t really know what I was looking for. So I started travelling, to London. That’s why London is special.”
Back on the Music On dancefloor, a group of models are shrieking like demented cats as tatted-up bros smack each other on the back inside the booth. A look over the edge and down into the heaving pit reveals a petri-dish of clubbing stereotypes — there's everything from fresh-faced Ibiza virgins to leathery, techno veterans. What's even more apparent is the sheer number of Italians at this party, because to them, Carola is their king.
”Well, there’s a lot of Italians everywhere,” laughs Carola when we ask why there’s so many at Music On. “But you know, in Ibiza they say San Antonio is full of English people, but there’s Italian of course, and Spanish too. We have Americans, Brazilians, Eastern Europeans [at Music On] — it's very mixed.”
Italians have historically had an obsession with techno. It’s thanks to a flourishing scene based largely in Rome from the end of the ‘80s that techno has become a religion for the Italian youth, only to be rivaled by techno’s foundations in Detroit or, perhaps, Berlin in the noughties.
Why do you think Italians have this obsession with techno? Why is it important? DJ Mag asks.
“I don’t know.”
Are you sure?
“[Smiles] Okay. Well. Italy is a country where this type of music, how do I say this? Is put on the side, it’s outcast. Magazines, newspapers, TV, the mainstream, they don’t talk about it. The media, they pretend that this isn’t part of the nightlife, this clubbing isn’t part of the culture, and this probably made it better for us, the people who love it.”
If techno is the anthem of the Italian anti-establishment, then Marco Carola’s Music On is as close as you’ll get to a rally night. It’s well known that the White Isle’s underbelly is soaked with complicated politics; nights move around constantly and DJs are picked up and dropped continuously. Prior to launching Music On, Carola had been manning the decks alongside Sven Väth at Cocoon — also at Amnesia. “Well, Amnesia has always been my second home, I started to play there in 2001,” he says. “It's not just my affection for the club, it's also from the club's side and their shared affection with me. People working there, the team. It would have been a very difficult choice for me to leave.”
It’s tough to know whether Väth felt a bit miffed, given Carola’s defection to start his own — and now equally successful — night at the same club; but Carola doesn’t trouble himself with the island’s political interests. “Politics on the island, it's such a big thing. For a long time, it was something I didn't know was so strong in the club scene. It's not just between promoters, it's been club owners, everyone. From the first to the last person that works in a club [in Ibiza], there is some kind of politics that affects everyone. There are some people working in the bar who can't ever go to another club for a drink, for example. So, this could affect, of course, the work of the promoter or me personally, but I try really hard not to listen or focus on what's going on outside Music On. Because it would negatively affect me, it's a waste of time to focus on it, these silly rumors; I'm trying to stay out of it. So no, I don't think it's effected my work.”
Behind the scenes, Carola isn’t alone — there’s a huge team that goes into producing the adult wonderland that is Music On. “There’s Luca, he's my manager, and he looks after me,” he explains. “The contracts, the logistics, visuals, art design, all that stuff. I take care of the music and the line-ups. Then there's Ernesto and Roberto who have always lived in Ibiza pretty much their whole lives, they're promoters and organise our PR teams, dancers and merchandising and are a fundamental asset to our brand and events. The weird thing is, all four of us are from Napoli.”
Despite Carola’s marathon sets, he doesn’t man Amnesia’s two rooms all by himself. Joseph Capriati and Paco Osuna head up Amnesia’s second room, pulling an equally loyal and mostly European-based crowd. Other acts on the bill include fellow Italian duo and Music On residents Neverdogs, as well as up-and-comer Hector, plus a group of rotating guests that include Stacey Pullen and Leon. “I respect all of the DJs that we've booked at Music On, for their music, for their production,” Carola says passionately, his face ablaze with pride. “You know, it's 17-weeks across two rooms, so it's a big line-up of people — sometimes experimental, sometimes brand new guys, or something more predictable. It's a very complete line-up.”
Marco Carola’s praise isn’t an easy thing to garner; it’s no secret this man is tough to impress. “It sounds strange to say, but in my experience, it's not easy to find a really good DJ who can adapt to all kinds of situations. I've seen DJs with really good skills, a really good sound, play at a certain time of night or with one type of crowd, but it takes a lot of experience as a DJ to play well in all kinds of environments. And even more, in all types of sound systems.”
Standing on the Music On dancefloor, it's loud. Really, really loud. As we stare down the terrace's full length, our eyeballs burn at the sight of a huge LED screen that displays Music On's dystopian-looking logo in full pulsating glory. Dancers appear on platforms doted around the room, the crowd so dense they seem to float, glassy-eyed, bottoms bared and seductively gyrating, above the swelling crowd. As we watch, we’re struck by just how terrifying it must be to man this room, a place so gut-wrenchingly fêted with expectation you could cut it with a knife. Such mass adoration is not afforded to just anyone, which leaves us questioning where did Marco Carola really come from?
Born in Napoli in the mid-seventies, Carola’s upbringing is something rarely discussed. “I think if I hadn’t been a DJ, I don’t know, I would have done the same thing as my father,” he muses, when asked. What his father does, he doesn’t say, instead he skirts the question nimbly like he’s been asked many times before.
Captivated by DJing from a young age, a baby-faced Carola took to the turntables at the tender age of 12, spinning at a local nightclub owned by the father of a friend. A club built off the brand of Italy's biggest (and still surviving) radio station, Radio Kiss Kiss, Carola would spend a significant chunk of his youth inside the Kiss Kiss Club’s walls. “We were just always in that club. We were like 12 or 13 at the time, looking at the DJ, looking at the radio, the turntables, the lights, the samplers, the machines and, of course, the music. My passion for this started there.”
“I remember I bought my first sampler and it arrived in August — which is a big holiday month for us in Italy — and I was with my family, I was seventeen I think,” he continues. “And I left, I went straight home, and I started to play with it. I didn't even know that I was doing production, I'd actually bought it simply to improve my DJ sets — but that's when we first started producing. From this step, I started to buy new machines, keyboards and computers. I always knew exactly what I wanted to do, but I just needed the money to buy the stuff.”
Carola’s birthplace of Napoli has long been renown for its gangland influences, and for a significant gap between the rich and poor. “This rough side of the city, this dark side, this is in some ways a good thing. It’s very hard to explain, but in Napoli because we’re used to this roughness, we only really trust a few people close to us like family. This is probably why there was this strong musical influence to look outside — we never followed, we never looked at what Italy was doing, what the news was saying, what the magazine is saying what’s good or bad, we made our own way. Napoli taught me to use my own instincts.”
Like many of dance music’s long-standing DJs, Carola has dipped his toe into promoting as well as DJing and producing. Promoting Music On has kept him connected with Napoli — thanks to his bond with Ibiza’s Neapolitanian power players including his manager and long-time friend, Luca. “[In Napoli] we experimented with our own parties, our own promoters, our own Djs, and that’s why Napoli grew differently to the rest of Italy. Techno is strong in Napoli for more than 20 years. It made me who I am.”
Like any artist at their industry apex, Carola’s life is not short of luxuries. He spends his time in Ibiza during Music On Amnesia — running roughly May to September — plus living in Barcelona and Miami during Ibiza’s off-season. So what of all the superstar perks that make a life as one of techno’s most wanted look, from the outside at least, so very appealing? The parties, the girls, the drugs, the stature, the hedonism of it all; does Carola ever wonder if he's destined for a burn out? “Sure, I have worried, in the past. Particularly last year because I had this problem with my ears, from too much DJing, too many clubs, too much playing and not taking enough care of myself,” he says. “I started to balance myself more, actually caring about myself and living my life outside this world.”
America’s mass defection to techno might be a few years away yet, but Marco Carola deeply believes in the power of the music he plays and makes. “You know, techno isn’t an easy style to love, it’s not easy for it to become popular. I guess because it’s different, there’s not always melody, there’s not lyrics, something to latch on to. So if you love it, you really love it and follow it, you embrace it. That’s what we’ve done in Italy.”
With a life spent jetting all over the globe, it's hard to fathom where Marco Carola really calls home. With six LPs under his belt to date, it’s in the studio, he says, where he feels most relaxed. He’s watched the relationship between DJs and producers change significantly over his twenty-year career, watching favour tip strongly toward those who can both produce and spin. “That’s why so many people are making music now. To get bookings and to make money on the live show side of things. But when you’re known already, you don’t really need to do that — that’s the difference for me,” he says, sagely.
Arguably Carola’s two biggest professional contemporaries — Väth and Cox — have their expertise in DJing rather than production, something that sets Marco Carola apart. “Listen, I’ve been watching this evolution of music production for a long time. Today, the internet is putting music record labels on their knees because not many people are buying music... When I’m in the studio, I’m there because I like to do it, not because I need to do it from a career perspective or to help me economically.”
A financial or career necessity it certainly is not, but with his last LP ‘Play It Loud’ receiving mixed reviews — it followed his much-lauded 'Fabric 31' mix that is still regarded as one the series’ best — it’s Carola’s carefree attitude that has kept his music-making cathartic. “When I started Music On (the label) a few years ago, I had the pressure then to produce an album, or just a track or anything for Music On as a label. Today, with all this music out, to make the difference, you need a LOT of time in the studio, and unfortunately this is something I don't have right now. Music On was a big challenge and very time consimung, but one day of course I will return."
Determined to leave his mark on dance music, Marco Carola is a workhorse. His hectic schedule is undoubtedly of his own doing — it’s this ferocious sense of hunger that makes him seem so iron-clad. We get the sense he gets bored (and frustrated) quickly, as he constantly searches for his next big challenge — it seems even discussing Music On has become a little droll. “You know, there’s so much music out there, it’s so saturated, I think it’s hard to make a mark. It’s hard to touch people,” he sighs. “For example, when you first see a movie with special effects, you’re blown away. But when you’ve seen a thousand movies with special effects, you don’t feel anything anymore. I think this is what is happening with music. There’s just so much out there, it's difficult that you make a difference with one track, with an album for that matter — there’s too much going on in dance music.”
Ultimately, there’s little about Marco Carola’s existence that doesn’t seem meticulously planned. As we talk in London, his assistant is flitting around in the background, packing clothes, organizing flights, and occasionally interjecting to talk at light speed in Italian. Carola’s answers are concise and articulate; this man knows what he’s doing. But it’s the flashes of humility and, dare we say it, vulnerability that make Marco Carola seem, well, mortal.
Revered, much-touted and undeniably intimidating, it’s these rare cracks in Carola’s armour that make him most appealing as a person; the parts the fans never get to see, the bits hidden away from the public eye as he stands resolutely atop his kingdom each Friday at Music On. Simply because, they remind us that one of techno’s greatest legends is — in fact — only human.
* This article was taken from DJ Mag's August 2015 cover.
Copyright Thrust Publishing Ltd. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.djmag.com as the source.