In Germany towards the end of the nineties, Berlin was synonymous with hard-edged techno sounds but Hamburg was flying the flag for a more traditional flavour of house music. So the young Alex Ridha grew up surrounded by influences from Detroit and Chicago, which provided the fuel for a serious life-long vinyl addiction.
“I was born in Hamburg and I lived there ‘til I was 19 or 20,” Alex tells DJ Mag when we meet in London's Red Bull Studios, surrounded by the paraphernalia of a traditional studio recording process. “I was DJing and working in a record shop for many years and I had started to produce some stuff when I was sixteen.”
The early material was very different from what later emerged under the Boys Noize name. “It was disco-house or whatever, and it gave me some DJ bookings in Germany,” he says, somewhat playing it all down. In fact, he was making quite a name for himself as the young kid who was regularly opening up for far bigger names. “I had a chance to play with people like DJ Hell and WestBam, who was one of my favourite DJs of all time. One night I was actually playing with both of them, so Hell was playing after me and I gave him a demo CD, and I gave Westbam — who was playing after Hell – the same demo CD. And both of them called me next day.”
The tracks Alex was touting around were 'The Bomb' and 'Boy Neu', which became the debut Boys Noize single on Hell's International Deejay Gigolo label. Another release quickly followed on Anthony Rother's label Datapunk. “At that time it was my favourite label,” says Alex, “because it was very electro and very techno at the same time.”
Witnessing a set by Richie Hawtin in which he dropped a track by DJ Koze under his 'Adolf Noise' alias gave Alex a sense that his energetic DJing style was on the right track, but it was the maverick genius of Felix Da Housecat who proved to be his true epiphany.
“When I was 17, I opened up as a warm-up for Felix and that was the time before he released 'Silver Screen Shower Scene',” Alex explains. “He played all the promos and I didn't know anything he played, and there was so much fresh stuff and it was so energetic.”
It was to prove a pivotal teenage moment. “I heard Green Velvet's 'La La Land' for the first time, Par-T-One 'I'm So Crazy' for the first time, it was before the peak of electroclash, there were so many good records around like Alter Ego ['Rocker'].”
A relocation to Berlin marked the real start of the Boys Noize story, so was this a music-based decision to better suit his nascent harder-edged sound? “The real reason I moved to Berlin was because I found my love there and I just wanted to be close to that person,” Alex says, coyly. “It didn't have anything to do with the club life or music.”
The Berlin scene was a melting pot of creativity, a continuation of the process that had really kicked off with the fall of the infamous Wall that divided the city some years before. “Berlin already had a vibe, but when the Wall came down I've heard from friends how there were warehouse raves and illegal parties and people were going crazy trying out all the drugs,” explains Alex, “and the music really expressed that so much. Techno started pretty much as a riot against everything, which is kind of a punk rock vibe — hard music that relieves all the pressure.”
The economic conditions of the reunited city still provided fertile grounds for creativity. “It was a very exciting city, at that time rents were super-cheap so you didn't worry about having a day job, you could just have one shitty paid DJ gig in a month and you paid your rent with it, so you could do whatever you want in the free days, you know?”
Already having a distinct idea of where his music was leading him, Alex decided to keep the emerging minimal scene at arms length and take the stance that all successful mavericks have at one time chosen. “I've always liked to mix up styles, so actually I felt really good being an outsider and doing the opposite to what everyone else was doing,” he says.
The next step was an especially important one — setting up Boys Noize Records. Did someone come up with a big fat funding deal, then? “There was no one offering me anything,” says Alex, “it was really just because at the time I had put out tracks on Gigolo, Datapunk and Turbo and I had so many tracks laying around. I was kind of bored of sending the stuff and waiting half a year or nine months til it got released.”
Alex rightly deduced that if he had his own label, he could release some of his music almost immediately. “At that time I just wanted to make 1000 vinyls, with no promotion, just like in the original way I knew from working in a record shop,” he says. “I started with selling 1000 and then 2000 vinyls, which was amazing and it was me packing all the white labels, sending them directly to Laurent Garnier, 2ManyDJs...”
Did Alex feel that the vinyl format had an effect on how the music itself was perceived by the people he sent his records to, that it added a level of legitimacy? “Yes, for sure, 100 per cent,” he offers. “I don't ever want to sound like everything was better back then, but I've just had the same again with the Mr Oizo record. Because I'm a huge fan of his, I bought it on vinyl to complete my collection and I listened to it and I was just like, this is so good, and everything just sounds so much better.”
A vinyl connection is still essential to BNR's identity, but reflects how the world has changed in a relatively short time. “I think it's the heart of the label,” Alex explains, “but now we sell 300 copies. It's an amount that means you have to pay on top, but we sell digitally too so it's covered.”
Alex doesn't really care how this fits with a modern label's business model. “The idea for the label was never to make it a business, I've never signed any hits, and I've never signed music because I thought it's a big tune,” he states. “I sign music because it's cool and I like it.”
Alex's altruistic attitude to running a label might not have led to the success it enjoys if not for the input of the other members of the team. “I'm very lucky, I have a partner on the label and she's taking care of the whole business side of it and she's so good at it because I'm not the best business person,” he admits. “It’s a family business for sure, my partner is my partner in real life as well and we have a label manager who is an old friend. So she can overlook the whole, he can do the daily stuff, and I'm good at what I do with my ears. It gives me time to concentrate on the whole creative side and figure out the music.”
The input that an artist singed to BNR can expect from a label owner who is a successful artist in his own right depends on who the artist is, Alex tells DJ Mag. “Most of the time I'm very much into a classic A&R way of being involved,” he explains. “There's guys like SCNTST, he makes 100 tracks, and with him it's only really trying to figure out what the fuck's going on and to find the real pearls of it, you know?” he laughs. “With Djedjotronic, anything he does is just amazing already, and with Housemeister it's always back and forth because he only uses analogue gear and sometimes it's shit but sometimes it's magic!”
Being the first to get hold of brand new tracks from artists he respects is a perk that Alex makes full use of by playing them out in Boys Noize DJ sets. “That's one of the reasons I can make my sets very unique, I've got all this new music from my friends and that's what keeps me loving it,” he says. “Maybe it's because I have this background of opening the club as a warm-up DJ when there's no-one else around, and as it fills up you have to make the people dance. That's what I always tell people as well, I don't know if it's harder to get people dancing or to keep them dancing.”
As a vinyl lover, where does he stand on laptop DJing? “I use CDs, I could have never brought a laptop into a club, just personally I don't feel comfortable with it,” he replies.
Having come up through the ranks via a classic old skool DJing path, what does Alex make of the disparaging comments recently made by Deadmau5 about the DJ profession. “I've met him very briefly at, I think, Lollapalooza a few years ago, before he was wearing the mask,” Alex says. “I think what he said was an attempt to be very cool and kind of, 'Yeah, I'm the punk rock guy', but I didn't feel it was real really. I get his point where he says a lot of people really just have pre-mixed whatever mixes and edits, and they have the same sets all over the world and at every festival they play, and that's true for sure, but I didn't really see the honesty in what he was saying.”
DJ Mag suggests that you can't simply dismiss 30+ years of DJ culture by taking a swipe at the choreographed performances of a clutch of current megastars. “Yeah, and especially if you put on a mouse mask, you know? That's the most ridiculous thing you could have ever done,” suggests Alex. “Come on man, hey, and I would say that to him straight away as well, putting on a mouse mask and going on stage is so ridiculous.”
Mention of another major Stateside name draws a very different reaction, as one of Alex's many regular side-project collaborations has recently been with Skrillex, under the Dog Blood moniker. “He was in Berlin and we know each other from before, we've met each other at festivals and after-parties,” Alex explains. “He's a super-nice guy, very down to earth. I just invited him to my studio, so he came and saw it and was like, 'Man, I've never seen an 808 or a 303'.”
When we express surprise that Skrillex hadn't seen the iconic tools of the trade before, Alex says that Skrillex was cool. “He played me some of his stuff, I played him some of mine, and it was really two different worlds in terms of how to produce music.”
Analogue and digital? “Yes, that, but also on the techniques,” he explains. “Like I use Logic, he uses Ableton, and it's true that I use a lot of analogue gear, so we just started to work on some stuff. It was cool to see him working, he's very talented and so quick, so it was interesting. I like that.”
Such collaborations led directly to the recording of new album 'Out Of The Black', Alex explains. “The first and the second albums I really produced more or less between my touring, being in the studio during the weekdays,” he says. “After the second, I wanted to try new things, so I worked with other people and produced some other stuff too. Then after a while I thought, 'This is enough, I want to go back to my own music again',” he smiles.
“I had some ideas already in my head at that time, the middle of last year,” he continues. “I decided to take off some time and not do any festivals this year, not do any club shows, which was really hard for me because I love it so much. It wasn't easy to do that. I really got back to that mode where you just record stuff every day and spend hours in the studio and just have fun and create stuff.”
Does Alex 'write songs', or 'make tracks'? “Generally the music I do is not about songs or melodies either, it's really about sounds,” he says. “I always look out for new machines or new plug-ins that help me to create new sounds, or destroy old sounds and bring them back as new sounds.”
It seems there’s also quite a difference between Alex collaborating with other artists, and them appearing on Boys Noize tracks. “On this album, the topic came up of calling all the people I know, the people I've worked with, and have this classic type of album which features lots of people — like everyone is doing,” Alex states. “First of all, I was never a fan of this, that's why I've never done it. Another reason is the music I do when I'm in the studio, I don't really see the vision of someone singing over it.”
This probably explains the use of robotic vocals, which Alex describes as his “obsession”. “Since my first album, I've been trying to work out all different types of creating robotic vocals, and I have like ten different methods,” he explains. “I'd rather use these, because I like them better for the sound than the human voice.”
This isn't because using a 'real' voice brings too much of someone else's personality into his own music, he says. “It's more about the sound, but also about me going too much into a song again.”
The topic of melody seems to be something of a crux point in our interview. “I do hear melodies,” Alex says, “I only have a problem to find a melody that doesn't sound cheesy to me. It has to have the right sound to have the right communication. You can have the same melody, one which David Guetta uses and one which Aphex Twin uses, but it makes a big difference with the sound — and it's the same with the vocals.”
One of the highlights of the new album is 'Merlin', a swirling slab of euphoria which evokes the Chemical Brothers' 'Battle Weapons' series. “It's got a 12 pattern instead of 16, and yes, it's got a melody, but then the sound makes it,” Alex admits. “It's all Oberheim 8 sounds, a big mass of '80s synthesisers, those are dark sounds that give you a light feeling.”
The new album comes complete with a new direction in terms of touring for Boys Noize. “I think because of this whole EDM and DJing and LED shows and entertainment, everything has got to this massive level. I feel that it's good to maybe step away a little from DJing,” he says of his new 'live' direction. “It's going to be a switch to more like a concert vibe where I only play my own music. I haven't done that yet.”
Alex admits that the fact that he now has three Boys Noize albums to draw on means he only now has enough material to do this. “When I play my own stuff out, it gets the biggest reaction,” he says. “I put a playlist on iTunes and thought, 'OK, that's going to be crazy, that's going to be crazy, fuck it, it's a whole show so it makes sense for me'. For me it's a step up, because I am going to challenge myself to new things and I'm gonna present a new show that people haven't seen.”
The Boys Noize show sounds like it'll be in the rich vein of 'live' dance music that the likes of Underworld, Chemical Brothers and SMD have proved can be extremely effective. “I'll be really, actually performing my own tracks,” Alex says. “I'll have the single elements of all of my tracks and play around with those. As a fan, you wanna hear the music from your artist, but then as the artist you want to make it more exciting, so you have to find a way of doing that.”
“I don't think it will change too much from night to night because it's not like a jam session!” he continues, whilst admitting that there is still room to make mistakes. “But I hope it's going to be perfect. I'm very, very excited about it, I have to say. I'm actually kinda nervous, and it's funny because I've never been nervous to DJ even on the biggest stages...”