LWE Podcast 195: Amir Alexander

Photo by Lauren la Quiche

Thank the universe for artists, for without them our lives would be devoid of the colour and sound and movement and thought that they give us as their deepest expressions. I was reminded of this after interviewing Amir Alexander. Even though our exchange was email based, there is no denying the overpowering force of the artist that comes through in his words and ideas. For some people, these ideas might be pretty out-there, for others, down-right absurd, but I would argue that those who feel like that lost touch with the muse a long time ago. Alexander makes house and techno and has been doing so for a long time. His releases began gaining more traction a couple of years ago and nowadays can be found on labels like Finale Sessions, Deep Vibes, Hypercolour, Secretsundaze, Argot and of course Vanguard Sound! Like a true artist, Alexander took my questions and ran with them, giving us a deeper insight in to his music and purpose at the same time. He also put together our 195th exclusive podcast, which is about as good a way to start your week as I could imagine. So thank the universe for the artists. They are our connection to the eternal; a touch of the otherworldly here on earth.

Download LWE Podcast 195: Amir Alexander (75:17)

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01. Moby, “Move (You Make Me Fee So Good)” [Mute]
02. Mikael Stavöstrand, “Blau” [Kontra-Musik]
03. G. Marcell, “Groove With Me” (Worthy’s Aesthetic Treatment) [Aesthetic Audio]
04. Gemini, “A Taste” [Classic]
05. MDIII, “The Pressure Cooker” [Underground]
06. DJ Qu, “Secret Place” [Strength Music Recordings]
07. Fred P, “It Is What It Is” [Strength Music Recordings]
08. Amir Alexander, “Black Hole” [Plan B Recordings]
09. &Me, “Everless” [Keinemusik]
10. Unknown, “Untitled” [*]
11. Mr. G., “New Dayz” [Bass Culture]
12. Chris Mitchell, “Drum Trax” [Proper Trax]
13. Andrea, “Hits” [Ilian Tape]
14. Polirican Alarm, “Shelter or Funkbox” (NY Or Detroit Mix) [subBASS Sound System]
15. Hakim Murphy, “Creeper” [Vanguard Sound!]
16. Chicago Skyway, “I Don’t Give a Fuck” [Eargasmic Recordings]
17. Guerrilla Soul, “Into The Woods (ft. Cecilia Bruun Hansen aka Clara Stjärna)” [Vanguard Sound!*]
* denotes tracks which, at the time of publishing, are unreleased

Your bio tells us that you started DJing a long time ago, then started making some tracks but quickly went into incubation mode to really hone your techniques and skills. I understand that you have some formal music training, so what was the incubation period about? What were you studying?

Amir Alexander: I made tracks for about a decade before I ever shared my material with anyone. Around year number eight of ten I was feeling very inspired to contribute to the Chicago scene in a much more active way. By that time I had begun to feel as though I was really beginning to find my voice and that I had something valid to say, artistically, you know. But my experience was much like that of Steven Tang’s in that I wasn’t met with a very warm reception overall. It seemed as though cooperative teamwork between different/rival crews was totally non-existent. It also struck me that if you were an outsider/newcomer, or not a close friend of the “promoter” if you will, then your chances of playing a gig of any significance was slim to none.

All of this was extremely uninspiring and by that point I had played enough around town enough to know that I could take a break from DJing for several more years and not lose my competitive edge so I decided to refocus my energies completely on production once again. My official Chi DJ career was actually played out during a six month hiatus form my Production Monk-hood boot camp decade, so to speak. In that very brief amount of time I had received enough positive feedback to be assured that I had made my presence felt by the Chicago underground. Regular (although unpaid) gigs, a few headliners, a couple label nights that were relatively successful all things considered, and a DJ Watch Feature was enough of a barometer for me to know that I could swim with the sharks and not take too many bites… those things and the fact that I began to be put on flyers of parties I wasn’t booked at told me that there were a few heads out there checkin’ for me.

I only really pursued getting gigs long enough to peep the cypher on everything and realize that the traditional way of “getting on in The Chi” was not for me. I decided to bypass the local rat race and focus on a more cosmopolitan and international approach. I went back to the wood shed as they say in jazz studies and really begin to focus on making music to try to release. During all of those years I was studying life; living, loving, losing, working shit jobs, becoming wiser, harder, hipper to the game, honing my skills, and listening to the greats.

At what stage did you really start taking it seriously and was there something that provoked this shift?

I’ve always taken it pretty seriously looking back. I think that anyone who has known me even a little in the past 20 years would agree. I have always been very focused and driven. There was however, an immense personal/family tragedy in December 2009 that led me to search my soul quite thoroughly. Upon doing so, I knew that I was born onto this earth to do what it is I now do.

Tell us about Vanguard Sound and the difference between that and Anunnaki Cartel.

Vanguard Sound is a movement, akin to an Art House. Something like a conscious and militant Warhol studio. A state of mind, if you will. At the present moment Vanguard Sound has been manifested in the forms of two vinyl record labels, a six member DJ Crew (G. Marcell, Dakini9, Chris Mitchell, Hakim Murphy, DJ Spider, and myself), some short films to accompany our compositions, a series of crew based V/A compilations, and a raised level of consciousness in regards to the arts, wisdom, humanity, and common sense.

The music released on VS will be the material of the six member crew, their aliases, and side projects perhaps, and for now it is a closed shop that is pursuing a particular vision. Roughly-hewn and gritty yes, but always musical. Vanguard Sound releases musical dance music. Music with a strong sense of melody and harmonic structure. As opposed to rhythmic sound design, and or functional dance music, which we also love. Just not for that label. VS began as a website back in February 2006 just as a vehicle to showcase my mixes and as a feeble attempt to stand out from the thousands of other gifted DJs in Chi city. The concept of the crew was an idea I was kicking around, but it came to be a few years later.

At first, I would go out four to five times a week, (as one must do if one is trying to “get on” in the Chi), hand my cards and mix tape CDs to anyone willing to take one, and I would dance and study. I was learning which promoters and crews were doing what, where. I was seeing the North/South division first hand. The hard style warehouse raves, The Glam Scene, all of it. What I also saw was a very localized center of focus. It quickly dawned on me that I could get trapped in “the rat race” for years and have nothing to really show for it. I remember being particularly disappointed one night when I went out to hear G. Marcell play a party put on by a couple colleagues in the scene. The venue was so un-supportive. The DJs had to pay for their own drinks, bring their own gear, no one got paid, and the some of the employees who wanted to hear top 40, booted my friends off the decks and shut the event down early.

It was on that night that I decided that my energies would be wasted in a city/scene where at that particular time that experience was status quo. With so many international veterans and established artists already, I figured that it was nonsense to try to ice-skate uphill, or piss into the wind as they say, so I began to forge my own path. Some time later, I had decided that it was time to try to submit some music to labels. The first round of demos were crap. None of the tracks were engineered properly, many were produced poorly and not mixed well. Needless to say, I was rejected by all. One notable rejection was from Dust Traxx. Marea Stamper (The Black Madonna) was doing the A&R at the time. She turned down everything, and rightly so. I did however get some good feedback for “White Rhino” and “The Abyss” from a few European labels. Two of the first house/techno tracks I ever made. This was the first of only two times I ever shopped demo tracks to any labels.

The main complaint everyone had in late 2006/early 2007 was that my music felt too much like that of the 90’s.
It’s funny how I was either 18 years behind, or two years ahead of of the curve, since not even a couple years later we all witnessed a U.S./deep house revival in which the very same sound that was rejected only 18 months before was now the flavor du jour. It was around this time that I began to toy with the idea of a crew once again. Chris and I had kept in contact for over 13 years (half of that pre-internet and cheap mobile minutes via snail mail and land line calls) even though we lived on opposite sides of the country. Like me, he was always making tracks and doing mixes despite never getting booked or signed, so I invited him to join the crew officially. Although it must be stated that Chris and I were together on a night in the winter of 1998 when the very seed that would become Vanguard Sound was planted, so the invite was just a formality.

G. Marcell was also already a member of the crew from the first (unsuccessful incarnation), and Hakim and I were really beginning to hit it off as friends, so we had a nucleus around which we were coalescing. Then by chance, I sent off a demo to a crazy insane New York City label I had just discovered. One that really blew my mind by how apparently like minded we all appeared to be. I felt like Plan B Recordings NYC and I would be a lovely union and I was right. Less than 24 hours later they had accepted my demo and we were discussing a release. That very day marks a turning point in my career as an artist. In dealing with Lola and Spider I began to realize that we were all indeed kindred spirits so I invited them into the crew as well. Everything else took off really quickly and of its own volition from there. Perfect time and place for something much larger than all of us to unite and use the collective for some timeless, positive reverberant frequency transmission. Anunnaki Cartel is an extension of the pre-existing template. One that allows us to release the material of artists who are not part of the six member crew. It is also a place for Chris and I to experiment and express our diversity.

And where does the Anunnaki Cartel name come from?

The name came about as a result of a brain-storming session between Chris Mitchell and myself. The first phone conversation we had after my first tour back in 2012 actually. It is broken down like this: Amir = “A” Chris = “C”. We had come up with another name using A and C but then decided against it. However, we liked the concept of using those two letters. We also tied numerology into it. Chris is a 3 and I am a 4. A is 1 and C is 3. 1+3=4, and so on. Lastly, the crew is full of conspiracy theorists, and the name Anunnaki Cartel plays right into what we’re collectively all about anyways. Ancient and lost wisdom, raising of consciousness, exposing of the elitist/Illuminati agenda i.e. their false flag operations, the fact that every war since the middle ages has been funded and or created by them, the whole U.F.O. hoax. The faked moon landings.

Anunnaki: Those who from the heaven came. The supposed ancestors of humanity who are the real rulers and leaders of the world today are theorized to actually be trans-dimensional demonic forces using the Illuminati to carry out their will on this planet. The “illuminated ones” are the Illuminati because they have this knowledge and keep the rest of humanity in the dark. A variant of this theory is followed by the Five Percent Nation. Five percent of the world are the poor righteous teachers. Ten percent are the wicked devils. Devils (Illuminati) who keep the other 85% in the dark. For those who subscribe to this sort of knowledge, we wish to be a focal point. I was first hipped to this knowledge by conscious hip-hop back in the golden era. Go back and do the knowledge and you’ll find that a lions share of the best hip hop ever was made by the conscious, third eye seeing, five percent-er, or like minded artists. The message has always been the same… WAKE UP!

You see the theme in pop culture in films such as “The Matrix.” That is an extremely watered down version so as to appeal to the masses, but the core message is the same. So, Anunnaki Cartel can represent the Cartel, or covert group of individuals with a cooperative arrangement to keep the masses in the dark and themselves illuminated. These people are occultists and believe in things that most would find crazy, but to discount the fact that they, those who rule the world believe that they derive power from their dark rituals would be a grave mistake. Why? Because they run shit and they dictate the rules of the game. Anunnaki for the great and mystic lie being told, and Cartel for the very nature of their insidious fleecing of society. Through our track titles, prose, video and still imagery we hope to stimulate critical thought.

The Vanguard Sound’s artist samplers have not just appeared on your label; they started out on Hakim’s Machining Dreams and then the second volume appeared on DJ Spider’s Plan B label. What’s the story with that?

Hakim Murphy is a creative genius! That’s what’s up with that. The whole concept was his idea. He knew that Chris and I were wanting to start a label. So he came up with a concept that would make Vanguard Sound a household name (as far as the deep and street level underground is concerned) before the label ever released a record. His idea was to do a series of floating V/A comps that would consist of projects from the various members of the crew. One on each of the labels within the crew all leading up to the eventual debut release on Vanguard Sound! A brilliant tactic, expertly executed. You’re interviewing me now, so it obviously worked. We have just restarted the series after taking a little time off from it to refocus, and to settle in to our newly acquired international DJ statuses.

For the most part Vanguard has been yourself and Chris alternating between releases. Is it set to continue like that or are you planning on bringing other artists onto the label?

As stated before, VS will be primarily for the material of the Vanguard Crew. With six members who all have at least one alias and all of the possible collaborative combinations, we should be able to go for several more years just reppin’ the crew. We feel it very important to represent cooperative unity in the scene. To hopefully inspire and to show other hungry up and coming artists the value of a supportive collective. As a crew, we have laid out a template on how to successfully stage a collective breakout. As time passes, it will be interesting to see future crews take what we did as a reference and flip it into something even more exciting and fresh. As students of history, we are doing our part to leave something that the next generations can truly draw on the give them the strength and desire to persevere though all the ups and downs that come with choosing this as a career.

We also feel that the role of women in all of this is grossly under-represented, therefore we are blessed to have Dakini9 in our ranks. Her works with Jenifa Mayanja on their label Sound Warrior is a beacon of light in this male-dominated industry. A close affiliate of the crew is my collaborative partner Clara Stjärna who herself co-owns and runs the Swedish hip hop and dance-hall label Illegyal Records that heavily supports female artists. So as you can see, the roles of the two branches are pretty clearly defined. VS is for the music from the crew that only fits the label. The music that we must release, but we know that no one else will do it, and AC is to reach out to other like minds/kindred spirits, to continue to expand the vision, and to release records by other people that we would like to play. Having a second label also allows Chris and I more artistic freedom. We can just make music and then decide where it should be released after it’s made.

So you’re Chicago based right? Is that where you grew up? Where was it that you first got a taste for dance music?

My mailing address is still in Chicago, but I have spent the bulk of last year touring/gigging in and around Europe, the Middle East, and Australia, so to minimize on the transatlantic flights (and also because I have a Swedish girlfriend), I have relocated my main base of operations to The Dirty South of Sweden. I split my time (rather unevenly) between the two. Malmö, the 3rd largest city in Sweden, is known as Little Chicago, and I can see why. There are definite parallels as far as the former industrial glory both the cities once enjoyed as well as the overall roughness and grittiness. It’s not too hard to get yourself shot up if you want to. Cats are definitely wilding out around here.

I grew up all over the States. My father was in the Army so I am a bit of what is known as an army brat. Once I grew up and left my grandparent’s house I made my way to Chicago by way of San Francisco, and have spent more of my adult life there than anywhere else. I moved there to gauge myself against the best DJs in one of if not the most competitive DJ market in the world to see where I was skill-wise compared to them. In the small ponds I was a big fish, so I wanted to plunge into the proverbial ocean to sink or swim. I first got a taste of dance music at home even before I could speak. I learned to dance before I could walk. The parents were disco dancers, so I was fortunate in that sense. They bought me my first records and record player at age three. Dance music was always a close ally even when I was awkward and really couldn’t dance to save my life. I just loved the energy and the way it made me feel.

In the early 80s b-boy culture had begun to find its way out of the South Bronx and became accessible to me and my friends and we were hooked. Up rocks, down rocks, spins, windmills, hand spins, 1990s and cardboard to break on. We were all about it. I stayed with the music as it evolved. My mid-teenage years were particularly exciting as I witnessed the birth of the three daughters of disco: house, techno, and hip-hop. Chi, The D, and The NYC Tri State Metro had all taken records, samplers, and turntables then freaked these three new variants that became the voices of my generation. We had new forms of music that were completely our own. Everything was new, and talent was paramount. Lovely times indeed! My late teenage years were like most. I had heard of these underground clubs that didn’t serve alcohol, stayed open all night and the music never stopped. I happened to be handed a flyer one day and I felt so honored and privileged to even be given a flyer. I was like “you even accept weirdo’s like me? Wow!” I went to the first event and was hooked. That would have been my first club/rave experience, but I had been a fan of dance music for almost two decades since.

There are a load of producers now who didn’t necessarily have a musical upbringing by way of the clubs — more centered around the internet rather than speaker stacks. How was it for you?

There are, really? What a foreign concept. I feel bad for them. That makes me a little sad. I learned my craft by being fully immersed in every aspect of this movement for over two decades. My education was quite natural and organic. For me (and what I am trying to say and do), there is no other way to gain the knowledge, wisdom, experience, and expertise necessary. That isn’t to say that one could not become an adept producer of music or a DJ via the solitary non interactive internet based route, but to be more than just a producer or a selector one must know why it is they do what they choose to do, how it applies in real world applications, and one must have an intimate connection to the dance floor.

I am not a DJ who makes tracks, and I am not a producer who DJs. I am a musician operating in the world of modern electronic dance music. My skill set in one discipline informs the other and vice versa. I have sought to learn how to apply the production knowledge in real time to the environment in which the music is to be experienced. Dancing is the most crucial element of the equation. Not only does the 10,000 hour rule apply to my production and mixing. It also applies to my dance floor studies. I have spent as many hours on boring, uninspiring dance floors learning what not to do and why I wasn’t dancing as I have on amazing ones observing what works and why. You can watch all the live streams you want, but I feel that the artist who is a true fan will always have the edge… that is, as long as the real trumps the virtual. I rue the day if that ever were to change.

I read in an interview that Kristan Caryl did with you for Teshno where you said that your goal is to make art that will be relevant in 500 years time. Granted there are timeless pieces of music, but for me the transient nature of releasing electronic music these days is almost like making a sand mandala.

Yes, it is in many ways, but I have never been one to care about outside forces when it comes to my work. What’s more is that I have the ability to read and write music. I can compose and have plans to do so in the near future. The dance music arena is how I chose to introduce the artistic entity that is Amir Alexander to the world first. It was the most organic and natural route. I could have written my books of poetry, novels, screen plays, or cookbooks first. I could have pursued hip-hop and MCing more seriously at first as well. I also could have finished my studies and became a director of bands at some high school or university, but the path was revealed to me the very day/night I went to my first underground party.

I always knew that I would be a celebrated artist on an international level, and at that very moment I realized exactly how I would do it. So, with every project I strive for that timeless aesthetic knowing exactly how difficult that really is. I also know that I have more tricks up my sleeve than the average bear when it comes to the actual composition of music. In 100 years time almost everything will be electronic music. We at Vanguard Sound are just making what we consider to be the equivalent of modern classical. Thus the emphasis on melodic and harmonic structure. Musical, versus functional dance music. Pieces that translate outside of a club environment, ya dig? Therefore, I shall keep trying regardless of how futile it may seem to others. Besides, I have plans to compose for a jazz quartet that I shall play bass in some day. Both jazz and classical chamber music is in my future if I am blessed to keep breathing long enough to see it through.

One of my favorite phrases comes from Les Claypool of Primus: “To defy the laws of tradition is a crusade only of the brave.” I have lived that phrase all my life and shall continue to do so until my last breath is drawn. Then at that point, it will be for history to decide. That’s all I can do: stay true to my vision.

Through the use of occasional vocal samples in your tracks and then recently seeing your YouTube channel and the videos created to go with your(s and other Vanguard) tracks it feels like you like a sense of narrative in your music. Would you agree with that?

Yes I strongly agree. Most definitely a sense of narrative. Are you familiar with the phrase Tone Poem? This is what we are doing. Musically representing thoughts, ideas, and emotions. There is enough lower-chakra, fun, party music out there already. We are trying to wake people up to the true reality and nature of the multi-verse we live in, so if it takes a track about string theory, or martial lLaw to do so, that’s fine. Recreation is cool and most necessary, but so is information, education, realization, cooperation, and experimentation.
As youth, we all would find ourselves fully lost in the music. Listening to complete albums start to finish and not just our favorite track(s). Reading the cover art and every interview we could find over and over. Watching the videos for hidden clues, and thinking critically. We owe those who shall come after us the same chance we had to be inspired beyond ours (and the ones who inspired our) wildest dreams. We have to give back more than we take in order to keep the whole in balance.

What can you tell us about the mix that you’ve put together for us?

Straight up, no chaser! I recorded a no frills “classy” mix if you will. No intro, no name drops, no effects, minimal EQ cuts, no editing, and in one take. I wanted to put emphasis on the power of music to create a sense of mood and atmosphere, as well as the power of a true craftsman/woman to combine vibrational frequencies to tangibly affect moods and emotions. Just straight up DJing in the classic sense.

In doing so, it is my goal to have the listeners feel what I want them to feel. (That’s the point, right?) To feel what I felt when I was conceiving and recording it. I used 2 turntables, a basic three channel mixer with three band EQ and no on-board effects, and an ancient (by some people’s standards, primitive) CDJ100 for the two tracks I can only find on CD. I spent an hour the first day selecting the tracks and an hour and 15 minutes the next day recording it.

And what can we expect from Amir Alexander over the next year?

A very earnest and concerted effort to continue to advance my skill level in my chosen disciplines. More Vanguard Sound V/A comps. Collaborations with Chris and Clara, an album, some solo as well as Binary Star System (the project I have with Clara) live shows, and some timeless records. Perhaps a few smiley surprises as well.

cory  on March 3, 2014 at 12:22 PM

Utmost respect for this guy. All of his tracks have been killer. Can’t wait to see what is next from him.

Pattern Burst  on March 3, 2014 at 3:35 PM

Amazed he has the time to put out a mix seeing as he seems to be releasing about ten records a month just now. Serious talent. Great mix.

Adam  on March 4, 2014 at 1:58 AM

Favourite mix of the year so far. Killer.

start  on March 10, 2014 at 11:13 AM

Seat of the pants programming, drive, drama, tension, emotion.. skills, respect

Matt Costain  on March 19, 2014 at 9:09 PM

Amir totally ripped shit up down here in Australia in December. Full of wisdom too. Was a pleasure to have him down here..

Doug  on March 27, 2014 at 10:23 AM

Killer Mix!

Killer End Track!

carlJ  on May 15, 2014 at 3:42 AM

Can anybody help me with the first track.
It’s not Moby – Move

CarlJ  on May 15, 2014 at 8:51 AM

Woooow! Great selection & mix!
Also the interview. Always nice when an artist has something interesting to say.
If you are in the South of Sweden i hope to see you in The Netherlands soon with a dj set.
Can someone help me with the first track, can’t find this (awesome) version on Discogs :-/

Jack Ingoff  on September 10, 2014 at 5:27 AM

slept on


Amir Alexander – LWE Podcast 195 | The Hipodrome Of Music  on March 3, 2014 at 4:03 AM

[…] read interview […]


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