chicago based amir alexander has very quickly become one of my favourite producers, initially off the back of this great release on argot. since then i’ve devoured his classy back catalogue on labels like new york’s plan b, hakim murphy‘s machining dreams and his own formidable imprint, vanguard sound, at the same time as getting down to his erudite dj sets and getting deep in one of his opinionated but grounded interviews. he has a great story to tell; one that goes back almost two decades (dont be confused by his boyish looks, the man is almost 40) and one that encapsulates what it is to be a true artist. though speak of sacrifice in favour of art can often leave a sour in taste in the mouth, there’s no doubting amir is in this for the right reasons.
anyway, the rest of the info you will get from this insightful, highly quotable and honest interview, so i shall butter you up no more. whilst reading, check out his latest ep on hypercolour, then scan the man’s european tour dates at the end of the interview.
how are you? what’s been keeping you busy?
man, i’m good… trying to take a little time to smell the roses. i’m really in touch with who it is i am as both a man and an artist. 2012 has been a stellar year for me. both literally and figuratively… feeling mad focused, and at the top of my game, yo.
i’ve been keeping busy packing up a three bedroom house, putting it all on a huge truck, driving said truck roughly 1225 miles across the country, unpacking the truck, while beginning to book my first tour of europe (which has been quite a learning experience). for the last 2 months roughly, except for the week it took to move i have worked on average 10+ hours a day 7 days a week doing booking/tour type work. to relax i like to mix records (i.e. practice and select the records i’m bringing with me). that, and running vanguard sound with chris mitchell, making videos for my next release the idiot savant masterpieces ep on vanguard sound, planning, negotiating, and conceiving a new sister label which will be called “anunnaki cartel”, letting the chips fall where they may, and staying conscious. i stay busy. no rest for the weary.
you have some serious formal music training right? how much has that helped when making house and techno, and would you ever use it to do other stuff besides house and techno now?
the way that my musical training has helped me more than anything is that i know when shit is good, and i know when it’s wack. better yet, to paraphrase something mr. ricardo villalobos said, i can instantly tell when the message isn’t translating.
my upright bass teacher told me in my first lesson “i’m not going to teach you anything except how to refine your ear and how to teach yourself”. practice with a purpose. identify your objective. what do i want to accomplish with this practice session? the rudiments in general, or an advanced technique i haven’t mastered? this allows a serious student to self adjudicate, and thus measure progress. that’s what formal music training taught me. how to hear and identify wackness. thereby avoiding being wack myself (for the most part…. i am human of course), and it taught me how to not fuck around and focus on the task(s) at hand.
i really hope to use it outside of the dance music realm one day. i have always dreamed of scoring film as well as writing charts for a small jazz combo. one thing i also hope to do is to help educate young artists. when i found underground dance music.,i was going to school to become a band director/ jazz composer type guy. i also love wind ensemble… gustav holst is my man! there will be lots of chamber music in my later career if i am blessed with long life. it’s a very exiting prospect.
so what music did you grow up around, when did you first hear dance music? i understand you moved around a lot, so i wonder what impact that had on your young ears?
i grew up listening to motown and tamla, philly international, parliament, you know? marvin gaye was my mom’s favorite. stevie, michael, the commodores, donna summer. my personal favorites at an early age (probably about 4 years) were the ojays and chaka khan who are still favorites to this day. this is what the average african american families were listening to in the mid 70′s.
around 79 i discovered hip hop. when i heard planet rock for the first time… that and the message i felt like i had discovered my own music. a sound independent of my parents. from day one, drum machines and synths captivated me. it sounded like the future. good memories.
moving was always within the same lower economic military family type circles. good food, funny smelling self rolled cigarettes (lol), cold beer, and good music was always around when my parents and their friends would get together so us youth would watch them get down to the latest disco records. most of the time we joined in. that’s the first dance music i heard. the first disco track i distinctly remember was joe tex – ain’t gonna bump no more with no big fat woman. dope…. classic tune! boo williams did a sample cut up track of it in the 90′s on cajual. cop that if you don’t have it.
and when did you decide to start making it, djing etc and what were some important milestones at that point?
i decided i was going to make this music and become a dj the first time i went to a rave. i just new that i could do it on a high level once i learned the basics and started a practice regimen. i also knew that that would take a few years.
one of the most important milestones at the time was meeting a girl at a party, falling madly in love, dropping out of college, and moving to gainesillve florida to witness the infamous mayhem that was simon’s. ultra legendary club. i learned a lot there. it was a world class maze like back alley club that was anything goes (if you could get away with it) great times!!! that whole episode was highly influential. within six months of going out to my first rave i had recorded my first mixtape. my girlfriend at the time named it the good tape. even before my skills were up to par heads complimented my selections.
how long did it take you to foment the tough, dense but warm house sound you have now? your palette is so recognisable on every tune you make (without repeating your self or your ideas)
hhhhmmm that’s a good question. i started producing tracks in late 97 early 98ish, so i don’t know…. 15-16 years? let me think on that for a minute. the sound i have now is directly tied to the analog gear i first learned to produce on. roland synths for the most part. i don’t know if it’s a good thing to have a recognizable palette or not…. to some extent it’s good i guess. food for thought.
i try to treat each project as its own little life. sometime they come in batches of 4 to 8. sometimes just 1 track. i just go until i have fully explored a suite of ideas. sometimes that’s an ep, and sometimes the suite is spit up among many labels.
i really started to hone in on the “sound” i have now in early 2007. that’s the time that i dropped out of the chi scene. i wanted my tracks to be on the level of my djing. so i focused tunnel vision style on really finding my voice.
you have a very identifiable sound – i wonder if that’s intentional or just a product of the way you work/the kit you use? can you hear your music in your head before you lay it down, or is it more experimental and trial and error?
no man, it’s completely intentional. i know what my music is going to feel like. rarely do i know exactly what it will sound like before i make it, but that has happened. usually i have to catch a vibe first. that manifests itself into a musical motif, or idea. once i have an idea worth developing, i go on autopilot and channel. i strike the perfect balance between the conscious and unconscious. once i’m in that place, art happens. my approach is definitely a product of the kit i use. it’s a bit unconventional more than likely. trial and error was the first few years, but i’m well past that now. in many ways, every project is a bit of an experiment, but i am well versed in the elements, so my compounds come out on point. at least the ones that you guys get to hear. dig?
is there something you think ties all your music together? or do you have goals with each production, like using a certain technique, making a certain emotion etc?
my life experiences tie it together. i am my art. i live this in every way. i am fluid in my methods and techniques. that keeps me from feeling stagnant. what’s more is that i am trying to explore the full spectrum of human emotion. i probably resonate on the more melancholy side of things…. the more wistful being that i was always on the outside looking in. i touch on all aspects but i really like exploring, and sharing the darker side of life because that’s what i know best. i make dance music for parties, but i also like to probe deeper into the depths of human existence.
my goals with each production are to make a piece of art that will be relevant in 500 years. isn’t that what all true artists want?
how important is a sense of history to a modern dj and producer do you think? is it a good or bad thing? does it inspire or lead to endless cycles of self-reference do you think?
it is everything. your artistic values as well as your moral compass. without it, one is lost. i think it’s a great thing. i also feel like people (who will perhaps someday be artists but are not quite there yet) take the easy way out. it’s easy to rehash and follow formula. what do they say….
first you imitate, then you emulate, then finally you innovate.
the self-reference comes from coasting on what the founders did. there is a lot of mediocre, but not much remarkable. sad truth but real talk. many follow trends but few set them. look at the deep house band wagon? it’s getting bled dry just like minimal did. just like any other pigeon holed media driven genre. i love deep house, but that’s not all i make. wait… let me rephrase that, i love good deep house. not the banal, cookie cutter, i can’t dance to this fodder that keeps me from even wanting to hear the words deep house.
revivals are not bad in and of themselves. lack of true artistry and real honest creativity are.
your music seems equal parts detroit, chicago and something all together new – is that fair? do those city’s musical history’s influence you?
that’s exactly right. those two cities as well as new york and jersey. i am the synergistic sum of those parts. i believe that that is how it should be. they inspire me. at this point in my development, i avoid being influenced by other artists.
channel the things that inspire you and create your own style. i wear north american dance music culture in all aspects on my sleeve at all times, but i have no interest in what’s already been done when it comes to my material. i tip my hat and advance those ideas, principals and aesthetics.
it better be something altogether new, or i have been wasting my time for 20 years. something new is what i am here to bring. i know where it came from, so i know where i’m going with it… to the lands beyond.
tell us about the label you run, vanguard sound – what’s the outlook there and how did you first meet your partner chris mitchell? aren’t there 6 of you involved now?
no, there are not. there are 2 of us. chris mitchell and myself. i met chris at a party back in the mid 90′s. we were just doing what came natural to us, and discovered that we were kindred spirits. the label’s outlook is dope! we’re doing our thing, yo. actually, we’re starting a new label as well as i mentioned before. anunnaki cartel will be the label we release other artists on. vanguard sound will be very exclusive. that label will release works from chris mitchell and me as well as the other 4 members of the vanguard crew on v/a comps and or surprise solo eps. we are a network of dj, producer, label owners from north america.
if you want to know about vanguard sound, check our youtube page and peep the short films that accompany our music. the plan is to continue to pair each track from each release with a short guerrilla film. the sound is raw and gritty, but not poorly produced. emotive, musical, tough and hard to pin down. we try to blur the lines between house and techno.
from the sets i hear, you’re also a fearsome dj – something not many people can claim to be anymore – do you think the art of proper djing has been lost under an avalanche of bedroom producers who can barely beatmatch?
thanks man, i really appreciate that. convenience culture is a bitch. people tend to seek the easy ways/ the path of least resistance.
of course it has, (not entirely but it’s under serious threat)… but that comes back down to the history. i was once trying to explain to a female acquaintance from europe that people like chris and myself consider ourselves to be defenders of the faith. we are some of the last true links to that era when you had to be dope. period. the level of self-policing was much higher back then. nothing was easy about being a true dj then and that fact will never change. to be truly remarkable takes years of applied practice and study of all of the aspects as well as human psychology and knowledge of self. you can’t download that, and it doesn’t come in a box. it is no coincidence that i have dedicated myself to this art form like a dutiful monk for 20 years practicing the hardest techniques and ideas i could conceive, and that you are now interviewing me because my artwork is resonating with people. you get out of it what you put into it. from day one, i decided that i would be one of the best who shall ever do this. that’s my goal and i will settle for nothing less.
of course it’s lost, but my question is why? i know the answer, but i pose it to those reading this. the answer lies in the lack of the knowledge of the root elements. there is a tiny art scene within a decadent party scene. it really used to be about the music, now the music is 25% the focus at best. big money commoditized the majority of what’s going on and threatens to kill the movement like they did hip hop. that acquaintance could not grasp what i was saying at the time, but just look. the things that are going on now with edm are the same things that watered down hip hop. learn from history.
you came to europe recently – how was that? how does it compare to playing in the us, are the crowds much different?
actually, i will be going to europe for the first time in about a week and a half. i’d love to answer that one when i get back if you’ll let me.
i think that we are all moved by great music the same way. when it touches us we feel good. we like to feel as well as hear it, and we like to enjoy it socially. that seems to be universal.
you seem to be growing in popularity here with the new hypercolour ep, bits on other european labels – does it feel like that from your end? is that your goal? if not, i wonder what is?
well the fact that i’m going on tour feels like there is demand for what i have to offer. the level of madness and frenzy is increasing i must say. madness and frenzy not from me, but toward me, but that comes with the job. i’m trying to take it all in stride….
well, the goal of making and releasing records is to move people emotionally. to strike a chord within their soul, right? the more people i can reach, the better i will be able to help contribute to the art form i have dedicated my life to. in order to fulfil my potential as an artist, i need to be doing this full time. the full time artisan is a dying breed but they are necessary to help drive and sustain the culture.
my goal is to travel the world and do my part to raise the field, while making it desirable to put in the work it takes to truly be regarded as a fearsome dj. the youth need direction.
are you in chicago right now? is the scene as healthy and thriving as everyone here in europe hopes/thinks? is there good shit going on or do scene politics still rule?
yes, live on the north side, and yes the scene here appears to be healthier than it has been in quite some time. the new school is much more united than the old school. it’s funny though; most of the new school have been at it since the early 90′s. we are much more open-minded i think. there is a faction that wants it to be 1985 forever, but i am optimistic about chicago’s future scene wise.
many of my contemporaries are adding their own chapters to the chicagoland storybook. there are many labels, dj’s producers, club heads, dancers and freaks all contributing.
now… politics rule everywhere… let’s be clear on that, but chicago has new life as far as the global scene goes. lots of enthusiastic energy.
you and the crew seem to value the artistic value of house, techno, djing, vinyl more than many – is that fair? do you think such things have been cheapened in recent times, especially in the us with this whole edm bullshit?
yes, that is entirely fair. that’s what brought us together initially. about edm… yes and no. the true heart and souls of this music in my country are all veterans. pop culture has latched on to the next big cash cow, but the real essence is not cheapened at all. if anything it has become fortified and rejuvenated. there will ultimately be some youth who dig deeper and discover the real shit. it happened to me in 92. i skimmed through a lot of garbage before i found the realness. i’m just putting myself in a position to inspire the next me.
did you recently have to sell a very sweet ride? had you done it all up yourself or…? is it one of many sacrifices you’ve had to make for music over the years?
yes, i had to detach from the material to become more connected with the metaphysical. yes, i had done a partial restoration over the years. then the music really started taking priority. that car is like a jealous girlfriend. she demands all of your time, and in the process makes the human lady in your life jealous. it came down to having my dream car, or my dream career. i was either in classic car mode, or music mode. you can never serve two masters, so it was a no brainer.
i have had to sacrifice almost everything. family life, the most important woman in my life (a few times) friends, and or the opportunity to make some. due to being a dedicated artist, you can’t work a job that pays decent money, because those jobs demand too much of your time and attention. people who know that you’re smart, but that you are also starving have a hard time understanding why i don’t just get a “good” job, etc. no healthcare in being a starving artist, so going to the dentist and regular check ups aren’t an option. this is what artists do. i am not alone in the sacrifice department.
what else you got coming up/are you looking forward to?
anunnaki cartel the sister label to vanguard sound. my next release on our label idiot savant masterpieces ep. my tour, and meeting all the lovely people who really support my work. chris mitchell’s next vanguard as well as his eps on sistrum. getting a chance to dance with the people out on tour. my 40th birthday weekend in paris. living a long time and getting old. (i hope)
would you like to make any shout-outs or big-ups?
yes. special request to all those who were down from day one. all of the heads who are making it possible for me to come play the e.u. taff of bohemian grove, brice willis of concrete paris. those 2 guys are the one’s who made this tour a realistic idea instead of just an abstract one. small people hamburg, northern purpose london, the 2 daniel’s nws and the nord boys in denmark, alessio in berlin, tony in antwerp, leonardo in florence if he comes through, john williams, jamie russell, alex jones, soulymane and alex in paris, michael zucker, and the vanguard crew.
extra special shouts out to nina kraviz and my right hand man, mr chris mitchell.
amir alexander’s 2012 vanguard sound autumn tour…
15 sept – manchester bohemian – grove
19 sept – hamburg – smallville (golden pudel)
21 sept – paris – (birthday gig) – t.b.a.
23 sept – paris – concrete
27 sept – berlin – cdv
28 sept – copenhagen – secret undisclosed location
29 sept – london – northern purpose
30 sept – london – possible after hours – t.b.a.
5 october – florence – tabasco
6 october – florence – private after hours -talk to amir at the party