“Make it by 40 or die by my own hand”: In Conversation With Amir Alexander

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Not long after we meet at dusk in Bermondsey, Amir lets on that he hasn’t eaten since breakfast. After several failed attempts to entice him for a bite to eat in the hotel lobby before his hypoglycaemia worsened, we found ourselves sitting in his room about to witness his first taste of Crabbies ginger beer. “What’s that word?” he asked, “tangy, that’s it… it’s more gingery than I thought it would be”. Just like that, Amir Alexander’s blood sugar level was closer to normal and he’d managed to put us completely at ease. Surprisingly easy in fact, given that it came from the same headstrong man who began his DJ career at his fourth birthday, dropped out of college on a full scholarship and left his family behind to chase a career in music. After a self-imposed make or break target of his 40th birthday, Amir proudly stands up there with the real leaders of the scene and now, with his long-awaited debut album looming, we thought it about time we find out what led him to this point.

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Credit: Lewis Khan

We start, as you might expect, at the beginning of Amir’s life in music. His parents both “loved to dance” and were big fans of disco. His father a record collector and his mother a seamstress – she made their own 70’s style jumpsuits “with bell-bottoms and huge collars” – would go to see the legends of the day, like Parliament Funkadelic, showing a young Amir polaroids of the event on their return. “Everything I was getting from my parents was about having a good time with music” and with the many parties they threw, Amir talks of sneaking out of bed for some water and seeing his first strobe. It was the “most amazing thing I’d ever seen” – it appeared he’d got the bug.

When, at the age of three, Amir was given his own record player, it paved the way for his own journey through music appreciation. DJ’ing his fourth birthday, alongside his two girlfriends at the time, Tasha and Keisha, he played classics like ‘She’ll Be Coming Round The Mountain‘ and ‘Three Little Pigs’, even going for three or four rewinds. A friend of his was “kinda rough” and broke the belt on the record player, so when his parents saved up enough for a new one, the two turntables set-up became a precursor for what he would be doing in years to come.

Around the age of 11, a young Amir joined the big band, intent on becoming a musician. As a poor kid, his parents couldn’t afford to buy his own instrument, making him the only band member without one. After moving schools, his new band director tested his ear and put him on tuba, coincidentally the only instrument the school always had one spare of – “I was that kid in the ghetto, walking around with a tuba”. Picking up trombone as well, it was clear from an early age that Amir was a musical boy, instruments choosing him along the way. It was some time before he got to play any melody, so the bass parts were to become second nature to him.

I snore basslines, they come out of me when I’m asleep

Earning himself a university scholarship with music was something that Alexander admits to happening “all of a sudden”. Knowing he might never graduate due to lack of parental support, he took a degree’s worth of music classes, while neglecting all the other parts of the course that would see him over the line. While he didn’t walk away with the certificate, it did give him the time to properly find himself musically. As part of the jazz programme at school, he was snapped up by the University of North Florida and, during his freshman year, he was exposed to a range of musical styles – from house and hip-hop to acid jazz and rare grooves – and adopted many different attires and musical personas. One evening he might wear his rave clothes for a club and bare witness to rare groove DJs playing something he was studying in jazz class. The next day he’d don a suit and be “a jazz man”. “It was a good time”, he smiles.

Our conversation turned to where house music began for Amir and when it really became a passion. Having flirted with it for many years, and growing up with disco, he took a liking to Freestyle and “anything with a Planet Rock beat”. He talks of being lucky to be at “ground zero” for the Miami Bass movement, cruising round town with his crew in one of the famous “bass cars”, packed out with subwoofers. Recalling how varied DJ sets were back then, it meant that whenever a proto-house track or a bit of techno was played, it stood out to his young ears. He officially discovered house music in Details Magazine, when Larry Levan died. There was an article about his life and Amir found himself realising “Wow, I totally missed that! I missed The Police, Hendrix and James Brown too!”. Around this time, in the early 90s, Amir decided to retire the tuba and invest in turntables, choosing music that was “today, or right now”.

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Credit: Lewis Khan

This new focus also increased an appreciation for the geography and social significance of dance music. He remembers first hearing ‘Good Life’ by Inner City on the radio and thinking “she was singing what I was thinking. The good life… that was it… I wanted it!”. A few years later, he heard the song again in a club and it took on a whole new meaning. In that environment, what he describes as a “psycho-tropic experience”, he really discovered what the good life was. To pursue this full time meant dropping out of a full scholarship at college. He moved down to South Florida with a Catholic School raver girl that he had met, started flipping burgers and set his sights on being a DJ.

With his parents not playing an active role in his life at the time, Amir told any adult figures in his life who cared, that it would take him ten or 12 years “to get really good at it”, but he was sure there was a future in it for him. In hindsight, it took that long, plus another five years; “enough time for everyone in my family to totally give up on me and write me off as a fool”. Being the “black sheep child from two parents who themselves were the black sheep children in their respective families” has certainly taken its toll on Amir’s relationship with his family. Now there is interest in him, he makes a concerted effort to make it as “un-awkward as possible” for his family to try and be a part of his life.

I was that kid in the ghetto, walking around with a tuba

After dropping out, he then headed to San Francisco to really cut his teeth. Further moves took him to other parts of the US, before finally finding Chicago – where he spent the most time in his life, alongside Florida – and he really found his feet in the city. In his words, “by the early 2000s, bang I was there!”

It is here that we move onto Amir’s philosophy on what he does; and while he elaborates, it’s his modesty that particularly shines through, complemented with a healthy serving of self-assurance. When asked about the moment he finally thought he was making it, he replied simply “maybe a couple of weeks ago…if it’s happened yet”. He is so sure of his path and the direction he has taken, that making statements like that for him is a “little premature”. I wanted to gauge what effect the lack of parental backing had on Amir, especially in the last few years, where he has really begun to make it on the international stage.

He spent his 40th birthday in Paris amongst people some might call strangers, but he calls new friends. There was no call from blood relatives, and Amir admits “it could have been a lonesome time”. But, so assured of his path, he sees it as something that just had to be done. He is aware that his relationship with his family may never heal, but there is the underlying sense that he is willing to accept this as the sacrifice he’s made. In terms of having made it, there’s a poignancy to his responses. “Once you peak, you plateau and then you go down, so I’m good where I’m at”. Distinguishing between the different sides to what he does, and the role of each, only reinforces his status. “As a DJ it’s all about the people, and as an artist it’s all about me. I’m making myself happy with it”.

It’s perhaps this refreshing take on what some see as the lonely pursuit of an artist that translates so well into Amir Alexander’s music and his production values. First and foremost he sees himself as an artist – “I snore basslines, they come out of me when I’m asleep” – and it’s this tireless dedication to every part of what he does that has seen him to the level that he’s at today. But things were never easy.

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Credit: Lewis Khan

His emergence and relevance in the scene, especially in Europe, came with a self-booked, nine gig, three-week tour of Europe just three years ago. This self-starting attitude earned the respect of secretsundaze, for whom Amir now has a close connection, having played for them several times in the past years. And what of his move to Europe? “I did 40 years in the USA, I’m good now, I’m over it. It was never really my place”.

The most interesting topic of discussion with Amir will always be his own music. There’s a visible change in his tone when discussing it, that can be attributed to countless hours in front of analogue machinery and computer screens. There’s an evident pride at work that reinforces who he is and why he deserves to be at the very pinnacle of the scene. We naturally moved on to the moment his productions started getting noticed internationally.

Amir had a pact with himself; by 40, “it was do or die”. Either he had broken out or he would “die by [his] own hand”. “Reverberations of what I had been doing for 20 years weren’t coming back at all”. With “a month or so left to live”, as he chillingly puts it, there were a few releases waiting to come out. Expecting releases on Deep Vibes and Hypercolour to be the ones that rejuvenated his career, it was actually a release on a lesser-known label at the time that proved to be the foot-hold he needed. Steve Mizek’s Argot came straight out of Chicago and it was Amir’s Gutter Flex EP that really got him noticed.

Of late he has brought out works under different aliases and he refers to them almost as separate people. They’re “just different facets and different sounds” for what he likes to do. Recent work for Just Jack Recordings, under the Richie Ratchet alias, saw him really rip open the acid power that was bubbling under in some of his earlier productions. “Richie Ratchet and Jack Ingoff are twin brothers. They both do acid, but Richie’s first releases didn’t have vocals on them’. We’re told that forthcoming releases under this alias will all be vocal.

On the topic of alternative personas, we switch to other personnel turning Amir’s head at the moment, and the response is in keeping with the personal drive (bordering on insular workmanship) we have come to appreciate from him. It seems that for long periods, he doesn’t really listen to anything that he hasn’t produced himself or wasn’t released in the 1990s. On the surface, this might seem like an arrogant approach, but extended time with the man reveals a genuine fire within him that is only stoked by constant self-reflection. “It’s all internal, man” he explains, “either I can be really good at what I’m doing or I can be a social guy”.

Conversation then turned to his forthcoming debut album, Love and Fear, out on Anunnaki Cartel, Amir’s own label, later this month. His decision to start work on the album coincided with the news that he was to be a father. He talks of his soul saying “now’s the time!”. There’s something so poetic in that, and yet in terms of where his productions are in people’s estimations, an album is long overdue. He wanted to use the long player format to “create, for those interested, another little world they can go into, sonically”. He describes it as “giving back” to the community, among which he clearly feels finally accepted.

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The artwork for the album (above) is maybe symbolic of the struggle faced to get to this point, but Amir would be the last person to tell you that. Instead he tells me that his initial thought was to “white label it” but instead went for a picture of a mountain climber on the Eiger in the Swiss Alps. As he did with his career, he’s set himself the goal of climbing at least part of it by the time he’s 50. Why that particular image? “Because, fuck it!” It looks nice on a gatefold vinyl cover and it’s as simple as that. In his eyes people spend as much time on the album cover as they do on the music within. In essence, he wanted “to start a conversation…see how much people talk about everything but the actual music”. Whether this was a dig at my line of questioning or a comment on the electronic music scene I wasn’t sure, but we moved on.

From the album, I was interested to know what tracks he felt made the biggest statement about his sound at the time they were penned. After some deliberation, he went for ‘Moist Flesh’, “a synthesis of everything I’ve learned”, he explained. Perhaps this isn’t a question that artists want to answer, but it seemed to draw out of him some real depth about inspirations while writing the album. The last track of the album was written in 2010 when Rufus, his dog of 13 years (and 22 days), died. His death triggered some emotion that he needed to expressed and through his music he found some catharsis. Feeling strongly about the blues, there was a gap in the album that he knew he had to fill and what ensued was a “48-hour marathon”, from which came ‘Never Had’. Finally he felt the album was done. And before you ask, there definitely isn’t a favourite track! 

Talking of the label that it’s being released on, Anunnaki Cartel is a name that emerged after some deliberation with his partner Chris Mitchell and Subwax Record Store owner Jimi Disco; it was felt that Vanguard Sound really didn’t express all that they wanted to say. The initial thought was that Vanguard didn’t run like a normal label, with regular releases and Anunnaki is perhaps the remedy to that. His debut album’s natural home was on his own label, but this was only realised after it was offered up to some labels across Europe. Now it’s found the right home, Amir hopes that this album will serve to build up the label’s profile a little.

I did 40 years in the USA, I’m good now, I’m over it. It was never really my place

With a big professional milestone now completed, what’s next? Under his own name, his second releases for both secretsundaze and Argot are bound to turn some heads, seeing him go back to two labels that really got him off the ground. Fans of his many aliases will also be pleased to hear there is life in them yet. Of interest to disco fans are a number of forthcoming EPs under his alias Isis and Leroy, which he describes as “Jack Ingoff and Smiley Virus’s parents”. Add to the list another “more dancefloor oriented album”, and some work by Betty Ball Breaker (“Isis & Leroy’s daughter”). Most exciting is talk of a live act, once a couple of pieces of machinery have been modified, namely his Roland TR-303, which gives aliases like Richie Ratchet their distinctive acid sound. Couple the aforementioned with his huge catalogue of unreleased material and you won’t find Amir reflecting on the album for too long.

Heartwarming too is conversation of what he’s looking forward to, outside music, in the coming months. “I’m looking forward to when the mother of my child goes back to work and I have to be daddy day care”. It’s with answers like this that we see the real thoughtful side to Amir Alexander, the deeper thinking individual that, while seeming carefree and laid back, occupies himself with thoughts of the future and perhaps elements of his past. To the outside observer, Amir Alexander is seen as an enigma, and whether he likes to admit it or not, he is hugely respected for what he does. There’s a sparkle in his eyes that wasn’t recognised until recently, but now the world is truly taking note.

Love & Fear is released on Anunnaki Cartel on the 26th July. Photos shot exclusively for Stamp The Wax by Lewis Khan

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