An interview with Amir Alexander

From Chicago to Malmö via San Francisco and Berlin, Amir Alexander is a true underground innovator and an artist who has always remained true to his roots. With over 30 releases on labels such as Secretsundaze, Plan B and Argot, Amir has spent over 20 years honing his craft.

From the thriving underground sounds of Sweden to his forth coming Hip Hop/Drill album and the running of his labels Vanguard Sound! and Anunnaki Cartel. We caught up with him after his second album Dusk Til Dawn dropped last month on Just Jack Recordings to talk all things musical.

Hi Amir, how’re you doing – Am I right in saying that we’re chatting to you from Berlin?

I’m fairing well Dan. Thank you. I’m back in Sweden now for a few years. Wow! I left Berlin in August of 2014. It seems like only last year. Time flies.

It does! How long were you Berlin based for? What a great city.

I was there for about 6 months. It’s amazing in the summer time. I’ll get to play on the river in a few weeks. Always nice to share music with the dance floors there.

You’ve spent a lot of time in different cities around Europe and the US, what drew you to Sweden and your current base of Malmö in particular?

I was first brought to Sweden to play a Christmas party in 2012. I met a woman and fell in love. We’ve since parted ways, but we co-parent a super amazing little son. He shares my birthday. After he was born that was it. I live where he lives. Period. A boy needs his Papa. And a Papa needs his child.

Do you find that there’s much of a music scene in Malmö its self or are you having to travel far and wide for gigs?

There is indeed a thriving scene here. I don’t get out much to party, but when I do I’m always taken aback by the vibes. There’s some serious heads here. Ulf Eriksson of Kontra Musik does a fabulous party. I think it pops off every 6-8 weeks or so. I I was lucky to be invited to play there in December. The one after me featured DJ Bone.
He strikes a great balance between locals and artists from abroad on his line ups.

Its kept simple. Good music. Clued in crowd. Dope sound, and a fly loft/rooftop ‘secret’ venue. Invite only all nighters. Ulf is pure class.

You of course grew up in the US and discovered the sounds that Chicago and Detroit had to offer. What or who would you point to as your key influences growing up? Are there any tracks that stand out?

DJ ThreeDJ Chang, DJ Pierre. I heard him premier “What is House Muzik? in my then state of Florida”. Pierre also played this track. ‘On your knees’ was the vocal sample. It was hard. So dope! I had a recording of the night, but never knew the name.

And Outta Limits “Mission Control” living in Florida in the early 90’s, I was us huge MURK fan.

Later on my friend Chris Mitchell and I would bounce influence/ideas off of each other as we began to form the Genesis of what would later become Vanguard Sound! and its sister label Anunnaki Cartel. As young DJs in ‘the trenches’ the sonic revolutionary guerrilla ethos was birthed.

That sounds like a really interesting time to be growing up as an aspiring DJ. On your Resident Advisor page you say you’ve been DJing since ’93 and producing since ’98. Can you talk me through the intervening period between turning your hand to production and those early 2008 Beratone releases?

Self imposed exile. Geeking out and putting in work. I had finally become serious about learning to produce after having returned from a few years living in San Francisco. I had spent almost 20 years at that point rising to the top of the field in whatever local scene I was privileged to participate in, but in many cities I felt like a big fish in a small pond. With the exception of San Francisco in the late 90’s. That, was a scene! When I graduated, I realized that I could accomplish anything I set my mind to. Moving to Chicago to do what I did is what I ‘set my mind to’. I had the confidence in my ability, and the knowledge of how to work ultra hard to achieve seemingly impossible goals. I was very fortunate to be in the right place at the right time, and knew the right people.

It was the lovely Brother Mr. G. Marcell who “put me on” as the saying goes. We met at the legendary ‘Note’ a mid-week dancer’s party. The residents were dudes like Gene Hunt and Jaimie 3:26. I had been making the rounds and hitting the underground parties where I’d hear kids like Angel Alanis. The night before Thanksgiving in 2006, on the dance floor, I recognized G from the 5 Magazine ‘DJ Watch’ feature we were both in. I had already bought his record “Dance With Me” and was blown away. He’s the best male vocalist in House Music today. G and I became fast friends with hours spent on the phone talking life and music. I knew he had a label and I desperately wanted to release, but I never asked him. I always knew that when my music was finally good enough, people would ask me. This is also why it took 10 years for me to release after I began to produce. Quality control. It had to be good.

One day it happened, G asked for an EP and the rest is history. We did a few digital releases. Then one day he came over to my job at the Firestone Auto Repair Garage to play me a new track he wanted to release on vinyl. “Breathe” I loved it. He was saying that he might do split EP with Foe nem from round the way, but wasn’t sure.  I was so stoked that I told G about a track I had just made. “Necessary Sanctuary” and that I would link it to him after I got home from work. He called me laughing, and singing ‘free your mind’. He then complimented me graciously and invited me to release with him on vinyl. A dream come true. All I needed to do was come up with the $500 to match his half so we could press up 200 at Archer in Detroit. Little did we know, we unleashed a sleeper classic. It was 3 years later that I was told that Zip, Ricardo, and Sammy Dee had been playing the record for a couple years. Oh, the innocence and naiveté of the “deep House Revival” years. I was so deliciously green. [Laughs out loud]

Thank you for that insight. Sounds like quite a journey to have been on and it looks like it really does pay off to take your time and hone your skills. My next question is about your labels/s. You’ve been running Vanguard Sound! and Annuaki Cartel for a few years now. You’ve consciously kept them both very underground and as independent as possible. Has it been hard juggling the demands of being a label boss with the desire to make and play records?

In the beginning it was not. Along the way it became an untenable situation. We were living in Europe but still pressing in Detroit. To try to make things a bit more manageable we changed our distributor so that we could all be in the same time zone and better communicate. Ultimately, this was a misstep. Our records didn’t get out to Asia anymore. Which was a 3rd of our core base. School of hard knocks. We became less hands on. Couple that with the natural changing of times and ways and we came to a point that we decided to take a hiatus in order to ‘come correct’. What worked in the late 00’s and pre 2015 does not at all work today.

In order to transition from a niche hobby label to a real VAT holding business, we felt that we needed to fall back and ‘do the knowledge’. Our focus shifted also. In the 90’s before Vanguard Sound! had a name, we already knew that we would come hard. Like the modern UR [Underground Resistance]. That was cool when it seemed like a novel act. But 5 years of hammering the underground with the depths of the dark and gritty, we felt we had said all we could. We were never digital, so that will be first. Digital mastering of the entire back catalog to go up on the mighty Bandcamp. After that, we’ll craft boutique one offs like professionals unlike the passionate hobbyists we used to be.

Interesting that Asia commands a third of your core base. How do you gauge the ‘right time’ to release material?

Japan Rocks! We used to read the translations of their reviews when we wanted a feel good. So quirky but so turnt up on the music. You could sense the love in the phrasing.

Mostly the right time to release is when I make it. I go hard for 2 to 4 months and make enough releases for 6 months or so, ebb to a natural burnout point, then I live for a few months soaking up more inspiration. Then I make material to be released the 2nd half of the year. I try to make a couple new tracks for every gig, so the vaults are stacked at this point. Especially considering that it can take 14 months to release one record sometimes depending on the label’s clout factor with the manufacturers. I made 9 EPs and an album last year, but only 1 full EP was released. The album only just came out this month, and the rest of the music is either supposed to be released later this year, or was held for my label (some of my exclusive gold). I recon I could release 3 EPs for the next 5 years before I had to make anything new, with no filler!

It sounds like you’re sitting on a serious amount of unreleased material! You of course released you’re second album last month, Dusk Til Dawn. Its only your second full album, what made you decide to write and release another?

I recorded it as a part of my pre-summer release binge I spoke of before. I made 10 tracks in 10 days. After they were done, I realized that I had an album. All very natural. I felt a coherent theme running through, and the title is just what I was living. Firing up the hardware and making tracks in the wee hours as the rest of my apartment building slept. As they would wake, I would have breakfast, go for a run and then catch a nap before hitting the gym and then picking my son up from kindergarten.

It was my original plan to write a live show as a series of EP’s. Two bird with one proverbial stone. Then the plan was to tour the album live. That didn’t pan out, but there is footage of me rehearsing the live show out on the world wide wiretap.

That sounds like a pretty organic way of producing. Is there a particular reason the live show didn’t materialize?

Simple. Supply and demand. Do this long enough and you’ll experience the valleys along with the peaks. It’s the organic ebb and flow. Sometimes you’re hot, and sometimes you’re not. I get in where I fit in. If enough people wanted to hear Dusk Til Dawn performed live, a promoter would book me to do so. I was booked to premier the live show in London this past summer but they lost the venue 2 days before. I still have most of the show, but I no longer have my Roland gear. I do however have the tape recall data for the 909 if a promoter would wish to hire one. I could also write some new odd time/polyrhythmic acid lines on the spot to replace the ones I did live for the album on a hired 303. So who knows? Perhaps the world could see me perform the entire album live one day.

That would be fantastic if we could. I just wanted to ask briefly about your track “Gutter Flex”. Arguably one of your most successful tracks to date. Just how important was that release for you as an artist?

Every track is the most important when I’m making it because I am externalizing my soul. Laying it bare for all to see. The best track on the record by far is “The Black Rain”, but the one that hits is never the one the artists expects. I can safely say that the old “Flex” has been superseded by “Blessed Is The Meek”. That one by far is my biggest track to date. And I am not even credited for it! It’s a white label ‘Unknown Artist’ collector’s edition. LOL I don’t even own a copy. Mine ‘disappeared’ in the post. Lost to the ether forever.

That’s mad, I’ll have to keep my ears out for it. Just finally, other than the aforementioned projects, what’s next for Amir Alexander or any of your other aliases?

Bro, I just recorded a Chicago Drill/Trap album. I have been rapping for over 2 decades, but only just now do I feel that I am ready to share this aspect of my artistry with the world. I release that material as Ricky Spitzz. I’m doing Hip House material under that moniker as well. I recently remixed Sacha Dive on Silver network. In September we well release an EP with him remixing me on the same label. I have an EP on Vitalik with the Deepest track I have ever made also due out around the same time. I actually sing on it! I had it on Sound Cloud for a day just to gauge and got excellent feedback. Heads was feelin’ it. A lot more rapping and singing. Taking my time, and being a regular dude who is falling back to keeping all this a hobby and not a job I have to depend upon. I’m much too niche and small fry to expect consistent work in the scene as it is today. I’ll just continue to create for myself and if someone fancies putting it out, great! If not, I’ve had a great run and have already accomplished everything I wanted to as an artist. Those who know, know well. Those who don’t may never. But it’s all good. At then end of the day, it’s about a party and blowing off steam. The fact that I’ve been able to travel and eat off my art is/was a bonus.

Thank you so much for chatting to us Amir.

Thank you as well. I appreciate the press, and your obvious interest, have a great night and keep in touch mate.