Making music is a personal calling for the majority of producers we admire, but we should be glad that for some it’s not a career. The notoriously fickle entertainment industry often forces compromise on artists who want to make a living from it, many times to the art’s detriment. Detroit native and current Chicagoland denizen Alex Israel quickly realized that his passion for making hip-hop and dance music needed to be separate from his bread earning. Walled off from commercial requirements, his music was allowed to flourish for his own enjoyment; and after a few years spent releasing digitally with Beretta Red and SUBTRAK, Israel’s breakthrough came on the Walking To Guntersville EP for W.T. Records and continued on the Front Butt EP for Crème Organization. His style of house — stuffed with melody and hyper detailed while maintaining a practiced looseness — is all the more intriguing for being undiluted. And as he revealed to Little White Earbuds, there’s a lot more where that came from. Israel also pulled together LWE’s 133rd exclusive podcast, a whirlwind tour through his record collection that reveals a deep respect for American dance music and contains a few unreleased gems.
LWE Podcast 133: Alex Israel (77:44)
01. Snd, “08:22:61″ (AMI 06:44:79 Edit) [Raster-Noton]
02. Codine, “Expandalator” (Patrick Russell’s Contractalator Remix)
03. Vedomir, “Forks, Knives and Spoons” [Dekmantel]
04. Petar Dundov, “Sparkling Stars” [Music Man Records]
05. Delano Smith, “The Exploration” [Third Ear Recordings]
06. Redshape, “Dead Space Mix” (Edit) [Delsin]
07. Hunee, “Folga” [Future Times]
08. Shawn O’Sullivan, “Unarmed” (WT Records)
09. Svengalisghost, “Marathon” [Long Island Electrical Systems]
10. James Cotton, “My Zel” [Spectral Sound]
11. Entro Senestre, “Sun High” [Echovolt Records]
12. Alex Israel, “Angulas” [*]
13. Specter, “Short Stack” [Altered Moods Recordings]
14. Ron Trent & Chez Damier, “Morning Factory” (Dubplate) [Prescription]
15. Alex Israel, “She Is So Nice” [Night Gallery*]
16. Kashif, “Rumors” [Arista]
17. Boxcutter, “Zabriskie Disco” [Planet Mu]
18. Alan Braxe & Fred Falke, “Palladium” [Vulture Music]
19. N.Y. House’n Authority, “Window Guards” [Nu Groove Records]
20. Audio Atlas, “Guatemalla” [Mathematics Recordings]
21. Elizabeth Merrick-Jefferson, “Bubo Blakistoni” [*]
22. Steve Moore, “Panther Moderns” [Long Island Electrical Systems]
23. Kevin Reynolds, “Instruction” (Love What You Feel)
24. CL Dawkins with Lavell Williams, “Untitled” [*]
* denotes tracks which, as of the time of publishing, are unreleased
So let’s just start at the beginning, shall we? I know you grew up around jazz music, but I’m curious what were your first experiences of making music?
Alex Israel: Like everybody will tell you, I took piano lessons when I was really young, and, I was in band in school and stuff like that. I played sax and I was in a ska-punk band in high school. When I was, like, 15, we had a Pentium 100, I think, and I wanted to start a rap group. I don’t really remember exactly — I was dialing up BBSes for free games and stuff like that, and I stumbled upon the MOD tracking feed. I downloaded FastTracker 2, which was free, obviously, and I just started sampling stuff and making loops, and I started to download other people’s MOD files and steal their sound samples and stuff like that. And then I would buy instruments and equipment at garage sales. I bought a Korg organ and I used to play that. I had a few little crappy drum machines. I actually found a Roland CR-8000 for, like, 10 bucks at a garage sale when I was 16. So I was making rap stuff and I made some house stuff like that. And yeah, FastTracker 2 was really where I got started. I guess I should mention, in high school I did some arranging also. I arranged a Charles Mingus track for five saxophones and a drummer. So I was fairly good at reading music and stuff like that. Of course all of that has pretty much gone away. I had a more well-rounded basis than what I’m working with now, I guess.
So being raised around jazz and the like, is that where your vamping on your records comes from?
Yeah, I mean I used to do that all the time. Like when I was still working with FastTracker, I would just sit there and play solos on the keyboard. And so every once in a while I make a track, and I’m just like, “Alright, I’m going to put some real, human keyboards in this.” So yeah. I had a teacher who was real — she was a very good piano teacher, but she was not exposed to popular music, I guess you could say. I told her I wanted to play jazz and I wanted to play blues, and she was like, “Why would you want to do that?” And she got me some pops book, which was 30s popular music. So I was like, “Alright, I need to find somebody else,” and I found a different teacher, and he taught me how to play blues scales. And I played “Bohemian Rhapsody” and stuff like that when I was in middle school, which was, you know, a cool party trick or whatever. I have no independence in my hands so I can’t really play very much anymore; I can’t really play a song, but I can still play solos.
And if I understand correctly, you first became really intrigued by Chicago house and acid house on a visit to Israel, is that right?
Yeah, that’s where I really started. I’d heard lots of stuff on the radio growing up in Detroit, but really hearing an end-to-end acid set and really just having that blow my mind and just listening to nothing but acid for an entire night was — yeah, that was in Israel. And that was kind of a crazy, life-changing experience, I guess.
Do you think that maybe how you first became interested in it impacted how you see Chicago house? Like, I know obviously being raised in Detroit, you were exposed to a lot of it, but do you think that maybe sort of gave you a little different perspective on Chicago house and acid, specifically?
I don’t know, man. I never got caught up with where things were coming from, you know? That kind of sound just sounds right, you know? I don’t want to say the 303 sounds right or whatever — I mean it’s a pretty amazing instrument, but just those kind of ideas and really rough songs and gritty patterns and stuff. I mean I like pretty house too sometimes, but over the years I’ve lost interest in the screaming diva-type house, I just can’t even take that stuff anymore. If it’s not rough and tumble, I lose interest. I used to listen a lot more different kinds of house music and stuff like that, and I’ve always just been drawn to that dirty sound.
I wouldn’t say that your tracks really reflect that, though. It seems like a lot of your music is a little bit more clean — I wouldn’t say “pristine” necessarily, but — it doesn’t necessarily reflect that back in the actual tunes.
I mean, I try to keep things — I’m not one of these guys who doesn’t use compressors and stuff like that, you know, but — and another thing about me, I think, is that no matter I do I just can’t escape melody. So I get, pigeon-holed as this deep-house guy or something, but I like raw stuff too; I just don’t tend to make it very often.
So I’ve listened to some of your more hip-hop stuff on your SoundCloud page, and it was interesting because although the beat structure was different, some of the melodic elements and some of the synths you were using are very similar to the sort of stuff that we’re hearing on your records. Are you very specific about the palette that you’re using, or is it sort of coincidence that those sort of things happen to carry over from one to the other?
I remember a couple sample tracks that are on my SoundCloud, but when I make hip-hop, I take a completely different approach. I’ll use any sounds, pretty much. There are a handful of synths I use frequently and a handful of synths I grab once in a while. I haven’t made hip-hop in a couple years, I don’t think. I’ve made maybe one or two beats here or there. I just heard a sample that killed me or whatever and I had to use that, but I totally put my stuff together completely differently than with dance music. I don’t use a drum machine, typically, for a rap track or whatever. I might pull out the MPC or just sample drums or something like that. I think maybe I’ve had some of those West Coast-sounding tracks up there. Sometimes I grab the synths I’m used to and sometimes I hear a sound in my head, and I go to the Juno or something like that because I can quickly get what I want. So it all depends, I guess.
When you started making tracks for the first time, you said that you were making mostly hip-hop, but you did have a little bit of house. Was there ever sort of a period where you were like, “OK, really what I really want to be making, what I want to be know for, is house music”?
Up until the last few years, I’ve always made a lot of music that I just never gave to anybody. That maybe a couple people have heard that don’t fit any of those genres, or whatever. I kind of quit making music after a while, in 2000 or something like that. I just got frustrated; I had a bunch of gear, and I wasn’t using it, and I was getting sick of FastTracker, and I had Cakewalk but I didn’t want to use that. And I didn’t like what I was making on top of it. So I just stopped. And then when I came back to it, I was living in the city of Detroit and I was going out a lot, and I was hearing a lot of DJs play, and I just started making dance music again. And then after that I started making hip-hop again. So I guess I never aimed to be known as anything; I just want to make good music. And if nobody likes it, then screw ‘em. I don’t really care. I just happen to be making stuff that makes me happy, too; but I’ve never said, “I want to make Chicago house.” You know, whatever comes out.
Something that both hip-hop and at least early house had in common was sort of like a vulgar sense of humor. And that’s something that comes through on some of your track titles and some of the lyrics in your tracks. Who can forget on “Habituation Micturation,” “Stop peeing on my house”? Which, you know — when you hear it in a club the first thing you’re hearing is “house”; you don’t really get the rest of it.
[laughs] That was exactly what I was going for on that track.
I just was curious where that comes from that you’re willing to put it actually in your music as well, whereas a lot of people sort of are very serious about the music and are total cutups outside of it.
Yeah, there’s a lot of people like that, and a lot of people you read about on RA or whatever, I hung out with them when I lived in Detroit and I went to go see them DJ, and they were totally normal dudes, you know what I mean? And I was always like, “How can they put on this face and be like, ‘This stuff is such serious business,’” I always thought that was so weird, like — I’m making music to enjoy it, and I want people to enjoy it, and I want to go out and have a good time. And I like to have a good laugh, you know. Looking for material has always provided me an opportunity to lighten the mood, too. Years ago Mike Servito left me a voicemail, and it was just — he was a little tipsy or something — and it was just hilarious, and I made a track out of it. A friend of mine wanted to put it out, and Servito was like, “I’ll sue you.” [laughs]
But this particular track ["Habitation Micturation"], I called Kevin Reynolds — I wanted to get a bunch of my Detroit friends to do this song about how living in the city of Detroit really sucks, you know? It’s coming out on Muzique at some point, but I asked Kevin to record some vocals, and when I asked him for a couple phrases and just throw it down or whatever, he just had a beat in his headphones or something, and at the end he was just saying a bunch of different stuff. And so he said, “Stop peeing on my house; I just bought this house,” which was, one day he was walking his dog and he came home, and some bum was actually peeing on the side of his house. He was putting that in there as joke between me and him, and I was like, “Oh my god, I’ve got to use this.” So I made another track out of it. I want to respect the music that I love, but I mean, I want to have a good laugh. You take yourself that seriously, nothing’s ever going to be fun.
So you’ve known Kevin for quite a while, then?
I think I met him in, like, ’04.
I know you probably talk music and it sounds like he sort of helped you on some stuff; have you ever collaborated before?
No, that’s an interesting philosophy that I think he and I both share. He had a lot of notoriety, especially after that first record that he put out, and so a lot of Detroit people who were…. Detroit is like this constant revolving door of people who want to appear talented, you know what I’m saying? I grew up in the suburbs and stuff and I went to college, and then I moved to the city, and I was hanging out and DJing and making music and stuff. And then eventually you get sick of it and you move somewhere else. Kevin, he sticks around. He loves it. I mean I love it too, but I just am not there right now. He’s always around these people who are like, “Hey, man, I want to hang out with you; I want to learn how you do this. Why don’t you show me how to use this machine?” And he’s just constantly got all these people on his jock who want to come up, or whatever. And so they’re like, “Hey, why don’t I come over and we can work on music.” And he’s like, “I don’t want to collaborate with you.”
He’s been quoted as saying, “Electronic music is the only form of music (beside maybe classical) where it’s straight from your head to the listener’s ears.” So it’s not that he and I don’t want to collaborate, but I think to both of us, it’s like personal expression. And it’s not necessarily something that either of us would want to share with anybody else. If at some point we had been roommates, maybe there would have been some kind of 2 AM/FM type thing going on. I think for both of us it’s in our head, and it comes out, and that’s how it is. That’s how we keep it. We do talk production quite a bit and our processes are so different I don’t know how they would ever mesh.
Interestingly enough, though, I know that you have in a way collaborated with another artist. I know that your track “GAZ 13″ was actually something that was started by Sanys. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Yeah, he’s another guy who I just have undying respect for his opinion about whatever kind of music. And so we bounce ideas off each other, and he’s started that Downfall Theory label. At a point in time maybe, like, six years ago, a bunch of us who are now known, like me; Mush, who runs Sharivari; and him, we were all on this IRC channel, and we were all kind of a little obsessed with Detroit techno at the time, and I wasn’t making anything very Detroit. He started this label and put out a bunch of stuff.
There’s very few people I share my unfinished tracks with, and he’s one of them, and he sends me stuff that he can’t finish. And one day I was just like, just send me the parts, man; I’m going to finish this track. I took one synth line and the hats, and I built the entire rest of the track around those. We’ve actually talked about doing collaborations and we’ve gone back and forth. But it’s so strange because he’ll send me two pieces, and then I make a loop out of it, and then he takes something completely different out of that loop and makes another track. And so it’s almost like from where we started, nothing that was originally made ends up in the song. And so we never finish anything. We have some kind of weird synergy and we’re able to run things back and forth, but it just hasn’t gone anywhere. It was never something that, like, I said, “I want to collaborate with you,” or he said, “I want to collaborate with you.” It was just, like, “Whoa, let me get my hands on this track. I want to finish this.” It was like mutual inspiration, or whatever.
So would you say that you’re fairly prolific as a producer?
For a while. I was at a point in time where work really sucked and I was just able to crank out track after track after track. And I mean it all kind of revolves around my life experiences, you know what I mean? Right now I don’t feel like making any music. A few months ago, I made maybe six tracks in two weeks. And then I just haven’t made anything in three months or whatever. So yeah, I go back and forth. I’ll make a whole bunch of stuff, and then just — I’m done for a while.
So do you have, like, a whole bunch of stuff “in the vault,” if you will?
Yeah, I do. And another guy who I send pretty much all of my stuff to is Will Burnett. One of the reasons that W.T. records happened was because I– I was sending my stuff out to labels in ’08, ’09, or something like that, and I had those few digital releases, and I was like “What am I doing here? I need to get this stuff on vinyl. What’s the point of — ?” It was a different environment when those digital releases came out. At that point I decided I did not want to do that again, and I wanted to do vinyl only.
So I was tossing stuff around and I just kept getting, like, “Cool tracks, thanks for sharing,” or whatever. Nobody gave me any criticism, and I sent these tracks to Will, and he wrote me four or five paragraphs. And he really thought he was going to hurt my feelings. I was like, “Man, first thanks for responding; second, thanks for breaking it down because I couldn’t get anybody to tell me my music sucked,” you know what I’m saying? So yeah, I am sitting on a whole bunch of stuff that’s kind of waiting to get pieced together. And I couldn’t even tell you how many tracks I’ve got. I could probably put out a few records. I just always feel like I want to make another track that’s going to go with another one before I give it to anybody.
from an outside perspective, it seems like in the last 18 months or so you’re sort of taking off. Can you tell me a little bit about what it’s been like trying to put yourself out there and now people are sort of asking you for tracks?
I mean, people aren’t knocking down my door or anything, but, you know, it’s nice. It’s nice to have more choice. Because instead of shopping stuff around, I’m like, “No, I want to put this record together, and I’m not going to give it to anybody until it’s the right thing or it’s the right combination of tracks,” or whatever the case is. Or I have an artistic vision for an EP, and Will’s like, “I want this track, I want this track, and I want this track.” And I’m like, “No, that goes with this EP so forget that until later.” So I don’t know. I’m not still going to leave my house. So in that respect, nothing changes, but as far as getting my music out there, I feel like I have a little bit more choice, and it’s nice to be recognized. It’s nice to get some domestic recognition from a label like W.T., which did pretty well, and then to put one out on Crème [Organization], which is a label that I really respected; and then to have Jamal Moss want to put one out. At some point I was sending stuff to the people I really looked up to, and they were like, “This stuff is great.” So yeah, that was really exciting. Especially when it was Jamal Moss saying, “Let’s do a record.” [laughs] I was like, “Alright.” I didn’t even know if he was going to respond to my email.
So do you have any aspirations to tour the world and to take this thing “more seriously”?
Well, my family comes first. And I love the music; I have always considered that a really, really deep part of me. But at the same time, it’s a hobby because I don’t want to do it and have to make money off of it or it will compromise what I’m doing. And the other part of it is, my career is to the point where I would have to tour constantly to make the same kind of living, and I don’t want to be away. So if somebody wants to fly me and my wife out to London or something, I’m not going to be mad at them. But at the same time, I’m not going to try to do that full time. I want to do it for love and not for money, or whatever — however you want to look at that. It was kind of the same with my career: I got this mechanical engineering degree and I was looking for the jobs, and by the time I graduated, I was working at a wine store, and I would have really taken any engineering job anybody gave me. But in the back of my head, I didn’t want to work for the Big Three because I love cars and I felt like sitting there designing seat belts would ruin it for me.
You’ve covered a fair amount of musical ground since you got started, and I’m sort of curious: what style of music feels most comfortable to make, and then what style is most challenging for you, but something that you want to make more of?
I always want to try new things, but I very rarely hear something and be like, “I want to make that style.” And I feel like where my music is right now is just — stylistically it’s a lot different than it was three or four years ago. I don’t think that I’m phasic with regard to what I make. Maybe I might be stuck in the 90s in terms the hip-hop that I make, or whatever, but I don’t hear some thing on the radio and be like, “I bet I could make that. Why don’t I do that?” I only make music that I’m comfortable making, I guess you could say. I guess that’s not totally. Sometimes I’ll listen to old records and it just comes out. And I always wanted to make synth tracks and stuff like that. I’ve made a handful, but I just can’t make them as interesting as I would want them to be. Listening to Steve Moore’s record, that’s the same thing: I’m like, “Man, I wish I could make that,” but at the same time, I don’t want to try.
In your Juno Plus interview, you referred to sort of a breakthrough that you were going through around the time of making the tracks that ended up on the W.T. records release. And I’m just wondering what was that breakthrough like? What was that moment like when you realized, “Oh, I can do it this way,” and it made that change for you?
When I moved to Chicago, I wasn’t working for a few months, and I made, like, 15-20 hip-hop tracks, and I was like, “Man, I want to make some more dance stuff.” The funny thing about the W.T. record was those tracks were made over a span of like three years or four years or something like that. That one with Sanys that I did, that just came out in one afternoon. I just sat down and made it in two hours and it was done. I think the next one I made — I was just making all that hip-hop, and I needed to break my writer’s block with this dance music. I grabbed a sample and I just made a track out of it. And I put a whole bunch of different stupid stuff on there, and I didn’t really want to ever give that to anybody. And it was the same with the afrobeat record. I never wanted to put that out. That was like an exercise, “I’m going to take that, and I’m going to put some drums on it, and I’m going to put a 303 on it, and then I’m going to throw it in the trash.” But Will talked me into it. It was kind of a breakthrough.
I was trying to break my writer’s block by using samples, which is something that I almost never do in dance music. And I was making disco and stuff, and I was like really hating disco at that point, and I was so sick of Italo, and I was so sick of the edits that were coming out, and I just felt like I couldn’t make anything again, and then all of a sudden I made “Walking To Guntersville.” And it was kind of a breakthrough; I was like, “Screw this. I’m using all machines, and I’m going to do it totally differently.” You know, “I’m going to set them up different; I’m going to bust my drums, and whatever. It just sounded right to me and I stuck with it.
Can you tell me about any other breakthroughs that you’ve had sort of in your musical development up until that point? I guess you would call them your “eureka moment.”
The only thing that’s coming to mind right now, it all revolves around the summer of my 16th birthday, which is when I went ot Israel, I went to that acid party, and we were going out to hear DJs play that type of stuff a few times when I was over there. And then I came back here, and I was going to Saint Andrew’s and hearing hip-hop, and I got my car. I was going to Street Corner Music at least once a week and buying used two-dollar tapes, like, Das EFX’s Hold It Down and’95, ’96 hip-hop stuff stuff. That whole summer to me was when I just started gobbling up every piece of music I could possibly get my hands on. I bought a Jimmy Smith record at a garage sale for 50 cents that was worth 50 bucks at the time, and you could still find that stuff easily. I used to just drive around and go to garage sales and pick up old people’s records. So when I got my independence and when I got my car and when I was able to go on my own and go dig for music, that was the turning point when I became, rather than just a casual listener, a real addict.
What’s coming up from you in the next 12 months or so?
Well, I have signed a record to Muzique and I’m just waiting for it to drop. I’ve got a record on Night Gallery that’s going to come out, I think in September. And I’ve got a bunch of other stuff in the works. I have a new pseudonym that will be emerging, and I’ve got one record signed, and I’ve got two more records’ worth of material. People are going to have to figure out who that person is, I guess. So hopefully I’ll have another six records in the next year.