Alexander Ridha loves sound. He uses the word 45 times in 62 minutes of conversation. That’s once every 82 seconds, if you’re counting. “My main thing is really to express myself with sounds. The sound is more important to me than the melody or a lyric. It’s always the sound that inspires me.” Under his DJ-producer alias, Boys Noize, Alex is responsible for elevating his passion to its highest form, both behind the decks and as a maverick in the studio. His ears and instincts are uncannily predictive, able to pick out trends before they’re trending, define genres before they exist and know exactly what everyone will want to hear tomorrow, even if they don’t today.
Over the course of an hour-long Skype discussion, DJ Mag USA discovers what drives the artist is more than just sound itself; it’s a desire to make sound that never conforms.
Alex apologizes with sincerity for being five minutes late for our interview and we’re fairly certain it is not just because he’s from Germany, where punctuality is more than a formality. The Hamburg-born artist is gentle and genuine, with a countenance that projects the kind of grounded honesty that’s hard to come by. We get the impression that he means what he says. And he says a lot, with thoughts that tumble out of him in streams, like the channels of his tracks. He flickers to life on screen and adjusts his position on a chair in a friend’s home in Los Angeles, where he’s staying between shows. The room is hazy and Alex is backlit from the late-afternoon sun streaming through a window.
“Is that okay? Can you see me?” he grins broadly into the camera, welcoming us as his digital guest. Open, genuine. Dust particles filter through the light and float across his face. He blinks and leans forward. We want to discuss ‘Mayday’, his upcoming artist album — the fourth, released on Boysnoize Records — and we begin by sputtering effusive compliments because sometimes even journalists forget their words when confronted with a piece of work so unique. Alex beams with pride and smiles again, pressing his palms together as he accepts the praise. “It means a lot,” he says, and excitedly launches into a detailed explanation of the album’s genesis.
Alex has assembled a small creative team in anticipation of the ‘Mayday’ unveiling: multiple videos are in the making, artwork is being finalized, and he has made certain that he is “100% sure about the music” before releasing a single beat. “I had more time this time around to identify where I am, what I want to do with the music and what the idea behind it is,” he states, pleased by this fact. “It’s a really interesting new process for me, to create this sort of essential part and now be able to grab from it, like from a garden — you take the little fruits and you make things from them. From this one fruit, you do a video; from the other one, you work on the artwork; from the other one, you work on the live show. It all comes from the music and this one idea.”
The idea behind ‘Mayday’ is one of individuality, of a person raving to the sound of his own inner beat without regard for the crowd. “This idea of the outsider and the individual... it started from looking at myself, how I've been always a little bit the outsider of the techno scene, or the outsider of what's going on now with the crazy EDM world. I never really quite fit into this one particular box,” Alex concedes. “I like to make a lot of different things and try out and mix up styles.”
This is, we suspect, the very thing that diehard fans would say has always been the appeal of Boys Noize’s music: defiant and unpredictable. His output moves against the grain with purpose and finesse — never bucking the trend for the sake of bucking trends, but offering up sounds that make people pause to wonder what they’re hearing. A craving for something you can’t describe only makes you want it more.
That attitude resonates with people, especially in an age where every market is hyper-saturated with daily offerings that feel the same and everyone wants to be seen. The individual has always been reflected in Boys Noize productions and more so than any of his prior LPs, ‘Mayday’ is a shining example of this theme. The album is impossible to define, spanning the sonic spectrum from grinding electro to accessible vocals, and yet it comprises a satisfying whole. There is a collaboration with Hudson Mohawke and Spank Rock titled ‘Birthday’ that offers up hip-hop vibes and a track called ‘2 Live’ that is infused with everything from house to breaks and pop vox. ‘Hardkotzen’ sounds like what its name implies, while one way to describe ‘Los Ninos’ is ‘80s-new-wave-meets-EDM — a cross-generational marriage that works astoundingly well.
The industrial, pulsing breakbeat and distorted vocals of a track titled ‘Midnight’ take us back to ‘90s warehouse raves, where glow sticks and JNCO jeans were as essential as The Prodigy. It’s a vibe that is woven throughout other parts of the LP, too. But the album’s most stunning cut is also one of the most surprising, with glittering keys and longing lyrics that stand out in contrast to the aggression of other tracks; ‘Starchild feat. POLIÇA’ is utterly addictive. It shines with emotional vocals that soar over a relaxed drum and bass beat. A chorus croons, “We’re where we belong, because you belong to me.” And whether Alex Ridha intended it or not, we can’t help but hear those words as a suggestion that the artist is where he belongs, owned only by himself and his creative urges. A starchild, indeed.
If Boys Noize is a glittering progeny of the cosmos, he’s one that ignites the birth of subsequent generations. There’s a pattern in Alex’s output: it predicts the future, every single time. He was busy making the predecessor to dubstep long before anyone thought about defining the genre, and certainly long before it was a widely welcomed sound. “It's funny because when ‘Oi Oi Oi’ came out, a lot of people hated it. When ‘Power’ came out, a lot of people hated it. And now these people are like, ‘Oh, you know what? I actually listen to it now.’” Alex shakes his head as he recalls the reaction to his first two artist albums, laughing heartily, “I'm like, ‘just get out of here!’”
He owns his position as the outsider but is careful not to judge others harshly or compare the scene to what it once was, insisting that he tries to catch himself before saying that things used to be better. “It’s so hard to be judgmental of kids who grow up without the electronic music culture that used to exist,” he muses, “because where can they find out about it? I met a 25-year-old kid who didn't even know what Wu-Tang Clan was!” At age 33, Alex realizes that an eight-year gap can be a major hurdle. But it’s part of why he does what he does, wanting to expose everyone to different sounds and styles, regardless of age.
“I mean, I'm cool with everything that's going on right now,” he says, tacking on the disclaimer, “I'm not even mad at the crazy commercial EDM scene. I think it's all good. For me it's more or less what we went through in the ‘90s with the Eurodance scene in Europe. It's like, commercial dance music. So what, right?” He admits that were he a teenager today, he’d probably take advantage of the immediacy of laptop production, too. “I think that's all great. It's just that the cultural background of electronic music that really got me into it – that's the only missing part for me.”
Resurrecting that culture is something Alex has done, intentionally or not, through his wide range of collaborative projects. Like his most recent album, they span vast swaths of genre and time. His remix list alone will leave anyone’s jaw agape, as it reads like a Grammy’s seating chart: Daft Punk, David Lynch, Jarvis Cocker, Marilyn Manson, Feist, Santigold, Scissor Sisters, Snoop Dogg, Depeche Mode. “I sort of fell out of my seat when I received all the [Depeche Mode] single tracks and you could hear Dave Gahan’s vocal dry, without any fx,” Alex remembers, smiling in disbelief. “It basically sounds like he’s standing next to you singing ‘Personal Jesus’.”
For most artists, a crowning achievement of that measure might be enough. But for Boys Noize, it’s an impressive moment in a collection of many that began with electro tastemaker and Phantasy Sound label boss Erol Alkan in 2006. Alkan was among the first artists to support Alex in the UK, and together the two released tracks that straddled the electro-techno gap, like ‘Avalanche’. Another collaboration, with renowned French filmmaker and musician Mr. Oizo, resulted in a marriage of minds called Handbraekes that supplied the dancefloor with a stream of industrial tech bangers. And a 2012 encounter in Berlin with America’s dubstep titan, Skrillex, culminated in Boys Noize joining him to form a group called Dog Blood that offered fans three releases and a slew of live performances.
Alex explains that the birth of Dog Blood occurred during a time when Skrillex had burst into the US scene in a big way and many producers overseas angrily viewed Skrill as the guy who stole the genre. “And for me it was interesting because I thought, ‘You know what? Fuck all these people. Let's shake it all up and make a fucking amazing record,” Alex grins, ever the happy instigator. “And we didn't even have to announce our names, we just put it out there under a different name, so people could find it without having any pre-existing notions.”
But if there’s one collaboration that illustrates the artistic range Alex Ridha is capable of, it’s his project with the ingenious Chilly Gonzales. The joint effort manifested itself as Octave Minds, an alias for the duo under which they released an album by the same name in 2014. ‘Octave Minds’ is 180 degrees of sonic difference from anything else in the Boys Noize catalogue. It is exploratory and euphoric, with emotive piano movements and ethereal vocal samples that sparkle against ambient fx. Each song sounds as if it is breathing in and out, swaying back and forth in time with its own pulse. There is nothing industrial, nothing heavy; Octave Minds is the feather to Boys Noize’s brick. The project culminated in a live concert featuring a string quartet, Chilly on piano and Alex on keys during a rainy evening in Berlin at Teufelsberg, an abandoned Cold War spy station. Onstage, Chilly Gonzales affectionately introduced Alex Ridha as “the first robot I ever really grew to love, Boys Noize.”
SOUND OF NOIZE
“It's always me in the studio just turning on a sound, and then, that leads into something,” Alex replies, when we ask how a robot makes music as thought-provoking as his. He squints into the screen and adjusts it so that we can see him more clearly. Ever the considerate subject. His love of analog gear is well known amongst his fans — Electron is his favorite brand because “they make a drum machine with the craziest new sound and you can really make unheard shit on that.” Ultimately though, that love of analog ties back to Alex’s quest for individuality. “When you record something you can turn all the noise off and change it, and then all these random things happen,” he explains. “That's what always excites me, the randomness that you can't control.”
Alex grew up in Hamburg, Germany, a place that is presumably more staid than out of control. He credits his older brother, nine years his senior, for influencing him as a kid in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. “He was all into early house records and acid and whatever. When I turned 12, I started to buy all these house records that I knew from my brother.” Alex played keyboard for a handful of years and messed around on a drum kit in the cellar of his school, but was largely self-taught.
“And then DJing started to come up,” he breaks into a wide smile as his eyes light up. “I just loved it, listening to music that no one else was listening to and then finding music, knowing about it and making mixtapes…”
The obsession led a teenage Alex to a job working in a record shop to support what was becoming an expensive hobby — and ultimately, to a gig opening for local house music hero Boris Dlugosch, a fellow Hamburg native. “After that night my life pretty much changed because everybody was going crazy watching this 16-year-old skinny kid playing this party,” Alex chuckles, “and that was definitely a moment when I realized, ‘Okay, this is probably going to be my life.’’ Today, he has 20,000 classic house and techno records lining his shelves at home in Berlin, and he still knows every single one of them.
Alex’s appreciation for the history of dance music is reflected in his DJ sets and his live performances build upon that penchant. One set in particular, his vinyl-only BBC Essential Mix from 2009, highlights his encyclopedic label knowledge like nothing else. It boasts 47 tracks in two hours, featuring everyone from Jeff Mills to Gene Farris, Plastikman to Daft Punk. Being a curator of quality music is a role Alex plays well, thanks to the bug that bit him decades ago. “I desperately had that feeling when I went to see DJs and loved it so much, that I wanted to be one,” he recalls, adding with a smirk, “And by the way, that was at the time when a DJ was far away from the dancefloor. Somewhere in the corner.”
These days, Alex takes his Boys Noize act to the biggest festival stages in the world. Long gone are the nights of DJs stashed away somewhere in the corner. The scene has evolved and with it, so have expectations. Adapt or die, the saying goes; Boys Noize is very much alive. Alex is busy prepping his new live show for its premiere at Sonar Festival in Barcelona this June. “I love to play and I’m good being onstage and being that guy. I know that’s not for everybody. For me it’s always been fine. And I just try to keep it as interesting as always, because I think once I start to feel I’m repeating myself, I would get tired and lose motivation,” he proclaims. It’s what drives him to constantly evolve his delivery both onstage and off. “But it’s definitely the music that keeps me inspired, to play out new music and test it.”
When we lament the fact that our laptop is running out of space for the Skype recording because we’ve downloaded too many promos, Alex bursts into laughter and leans back in his seat, nodding, “That’s classic! I have that issue. Every day I’m fighting for like, a gigabyte on my computer.” He loves to discover new sounds as much as he loves creating them. It’s the thing that has allowed him to build the life of his dreams and he wants to share it with others.
“I think that's what I want to try to give back to kids nowadays,” he smiles thoughtfully. “Even though I do play similar shows, or I happen to be in the same places, to have something that feels different and looks different and has a different aesthetic to it, has a stronger opinion about something... I think that's a cool thing to create. Because it is really missing, especially in electronic music.” Thankfully, Boys Noize is on standby, armed with an arsenal of potential sound just waiting to burst forth from single sine waves into this big, loud world.
Words: ERIN SHARONI Pics: ANDREW RAUNER
Copyright Thrust Publishing Ltd. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.djmag.com as the source.