Carl Cox's Burning Man Experience

As Carl Cox and his people prepare to build their first ever camp at this year's Burning Man festival, Mike Boorman speaks to key members of his team, and tries to get his head around the enormity of it all.

Mike Boorman

Last updated: 13th Aug 2014

Image: Burning Man (c) Duncan Rawlinson

Burning Man is something that most of us have heard of, but that few of us know much about - we just know there's something different about it. Carl Cox and a team of volunteers are building and running their own camp this year, The Playground Experience, but even with a name as big as that at the helm, the internet is far from awash with information about it.

So that was it. We had to find out more. Just what are Carl Cox & friends up to in a Nevada desert, and why has there not been some massive PR drive telling us about it?

"You only know about it because you personally know people who know about Carl's involvement," says 'Yoms', camp co-ordinator for PlayGround Experience and Media Liaison Officer for Burning Man as a whole.

"But there is not going to be a single piece of messaging from the camp that is going to be pivotal to Carl's appearance. Apart from following our social media channels, there isn't really going to be anything that says Carl's involved. That's how it is."

"We're setting up a camp called PlayGround Experience; that is our message. We are creating a space where adults can go and be children and play like they used to play. You can engage in different things. We've got life drawing, we've got an inter-camp games championship. We've got a tea party, but it's not a normal party, it's a steam party."

Talking to Yoms for a few minutes made it abundantly clear just how different Burning Man is to everything else - more so than we could have imagined (see the enormity of it in the time lapse below). It's almost unfathomable to observe prior to an event the influence of one of the biggest acts performing being so deliberately underplayed.

Yoms continues: "What you have is a space that is probably bigger than Glastonbury, where you have a blank canvas, and every single person there is a brushstroke on the canvas, and that is it. Burning Man has never booked any artists, you could be anyone or you could be no one.

"You will hear that people are there and you will just look and say 'What? That's this person?' You often never know someone's performing until they actually do. How many festivals have you heard of where you don't even know who the hell is turning up?"

So the next question has to be, if Burning Man didn't book Carl Cox and if it isn't really about the DJs anyway, how did all this come to be?

In summary, at his own expense, Carl Cox went to Burning Man in 2008, and it blew his mind. He's popped up there a number of years since, and now finally he is curating his own camp - a camp that is one of many at the festival - and it is funded by him and a select few benefactors.

He'll perform alongside a number of DJs, including the likes of Monika Kruse, Lee Foss and Seb Fontaine, and there will be one or two surprises on top of that, but as the booker/artist liaison Matt Tanner says, this isn't the standard booking procedure.

"All the DJs have to buy tickets, Carl Cox included. That epitomises the ethos really… there's no precious DJ turning up saying 'I'm lord of the manor'. This isn't really a music festival as such, it's more a creative gathering that happens to have some of the world's best DJs appearing and playing for free and on the same level as anyone else - there's no hierarchy of fame and notoriety.

"Yes, I guess there is some kind of hierarchy in the sense that Carl and his people have put in the money to fund this and we are honoured to be helping plan and deliver it for him, but there is no financial profit in return - which epitomises Carl's commitment to the Burning Man movement - it's all about contributing something to the wider event and having a good time while we're at it." (hear one of Carl Cox's legendary Burning Man sets below)


Carl Cox Global 499 by Carl Cox on Mixcloud


As part of Soul Of Noise, Matt Tanner and partner Grant Nichols are hosting a fundraising night on July 26th where all proceeds go towards the PlayGround Experience. They will also be performing at Burning Man as Soul Of Noise.

"I'm working really closely with Ian Hussey, Carl's tour manager," Matt continues, "so we'll see some more well-known DJs come in to the fold. I’ve actually just heard from Ian now about two really massive names, who are additions to the Friday or Saturday line up, but we wont know which until they actually pitch up and say 'hi' - but really the ethos we're trying to instil is that people can just rock up and play."

"I can remember going to Burning Man last year and mentioning Richie Hawtin to someone and they're like 'who?' - a lot of people had never heard of him - so clearly this is always going to be about more than just named DJs and music. I've also been speaking to Bella Berlin's agent for example - a human glitterball and lazer show! We haven’t been able to work that out for this year unfortunately, but I’m hoping we can get her on board for next year!

"We're also working with one of the largest camps out there, Distrikt, run by Ben, Ronnie and DJ Kramer among many other guys. We’re hoping to have a Distrikt v Playgound day on one of our three art cars! Yes three!! So there's going to be all sorts going on."

He's certainly not wrong about that. And as both Matt and Yoms are at pains to point out, this is only a very small part of something far bigger. What we liked the most from speaking to both of them was how it appeared that Burning Man seems to be able to accommodate some very individual concepts, but that they are delivered in an utterly selfless and liberal way.

There is a real bloody mindedness that seems to drive Burning Man folk, but this doesn't seem to get in the way of anybody else, in fact quite the contrary. As Yoms says, you can see that there is genuine motivation to join those bloody minds together.

"You join the community, and you collectively do something. It needs to be seen - there's nothing quite like 70,000 people all of a similar mindset. And that mindset isn't jumping up and down to music. That mindset is creative with every single aspect. Be it with your clothing, your singing, your building of a camp or an art structure, or even joining in to build something for someone else."

And yes, we've heard all this before… you'll never hear any festival or gathering out there that will say to a journalist "we're in it for the money and everyone hates each other", but even if you've never been to Burning Man (this writer included), it's easy to completely believe that the philosophy we're told about actually exists.

It's worth pointing out at this juncture that the only things that can be bought on site are ice and coffee… not even alcohol can be bought by the public. Despite all the top-level human philosophy, we had to ask Matt about what people actually do for a drink.

"When you're in a camp everyone puts money in so they can give free drinks away. Imagine doing that at a festival in England? It would be gone immediately. But at Burning Man people just come in, have a sip and then they're off. It was at that point when I first went to Burning Man where I thought, 'you know what, they're onto something here'."

"I think the UK and European circuit is on a par in terms of showmanship, like if you look at Arcadia and Block9 at Glastonbury. And yeah, okay, the outfits at Burning Man are more whacky, but you're in a desert - it isn't raining - you can do that, but the way people gave and accepted charity when it came to something as simple as having a drink… that was the one thing that struck a chord with me."

When you first hear about the concept of the camps and the "everyone has to muck in" philosophy, it's easy to feel a bit intimidated, like "how the hell could I ever go to Burning Man without being in the know?" But it's actually not quite as rigid as that.

People can still buy tickets to Burning Man and bring their own vehicles/food/tents/whatever, without having to have a specific job role, but to stay in a camp and enjoy any kind of amenity, you have to contribute something. Sometimes that is in the shape of camp donations, but mostly it is voluntary work, which can be anything from litter picking to DJing.

The other key thing that transpired from our conversations that really sells the Burning Man concept to you, is the absolute random factor. As much as the festival scene in the UK is thriving, you can really see the homogeny in a lot of it - the same acts, the same festival parent groups, the same brands. It's stating the obvious to say that Burning Man isn't about any of that, but it's still surprising at just how unashamedly inconsistent it is.

Matt explains: "So basically, you've got these art cars and sound cars; some might be static, some might be mobile. Robot Heart is probably the most renowned - they've got a massive rig strapped to the side of an open top bus and they'll have all kind of DJs, big and small, playing to 5,000 people at their base on the playa.

"But then without warning, even with the music absolutely pumping, it just drives off! So everyone has to rush to their bikes and follow it until it pitches up again. It's like the pied piper! You'll literally see thousands of people trying to catch up with this party."

"And there are all kinds of other spaces that you've got no idea about. One or two are musically programmed and advertised but even those often aren't on schedule, but most places it's just a free-for-all. There's some photos somewhere of Dubfire playing to fifteen people at someone's little private camp! He probably didn't even know them!"

Final word goes to Yoms. It feels entirely appropriate to name check some of the key people who are giving up their time for free to make their own little piece of Burning Man happen at The PlayGround Experience.

"We've got a bunch of old school burners working on PlayGround. A lady called Jade Jay (Mel) is in Melbourne working alongside me as a co-ordinator, so when one person's asleep another one's running. In LA we have James Nichols who's doing all the big tech build and infrastructure, also in LA we've got Keith Greco, who's one of the creative guys, who's done a lot of work for Cirque du Soleil… he's building and designing the look and the feel.

"In London we have got Matt and Grant Nichols who are managing the musical side of it with the DJs and acts. In Australia we've got Staley who is mapping out how long the bar is going to be open for, how many drinks each person can have in a night etc.

"In New York we've got Cynthia Wang, who is putting together one of the healthiest menus I've ever seen, to cater for more than 70 people in the desert, for one big meal per day. We've been working on this collectively for quite a few months, and soon we will come together at one point and build."

"My line is in years to come they will talk about the event in historic terms like Woodstock, only more so. Woodstock was a start of change of a generation - it was a focal point of a generation - and they made lots of noise, and they did it through creativity. But Burning Man is not making the noise… the people who come to the event are making the noise."

Doesn't it make you wish you were there making the noise?!?

If you want to see Carl Cox tearing it up in Ibiza before he jets off to the desert, you can buy tickets here

Follow Mike Boorman on Twitter.

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