“It was a couple of days after my 25th birthday. I don’t remember it, but my better half woke up as I was having a seizure in the middle of the night. She had no idea what was happening, but thankfully phoned an ambulance straight away.” Zander Hay, the Berlin-based DJ and producer, who makes music as Dream_E, is describing the series of events that abruptly turned his life upside down last October.
Making it to hospital in a matter of minutes, Hay was diagnosed with encephalitis, a rare but severe brain condition that one in three people fail to recover from. He was discharged from hospital after two weeks in intensive care, seemingly unscathed — only to suffer a second seizure five days later. This time the damage was more obvious.
“Things just weren’t right,” he says. “A large part of my memory was essentially gone and was coming back drip by drip.” Suffering damage to the temporal lobes, both Hay’s remote and semantic memory (the ability to understand the world) were affected. “I vividly remember sitting staring at this yellow object in my kitchen not long after getting out of hospital,” he recalls.
“Thinking to myself, ‘I’ve fucking loved these things since I was like five-years-old’, trying so hard to remember the name of it. Eventually I gave up and had to ask my partner, who told me it was a banana. I can finally laugh about it now.”
Despite this, Hay’s ability to write music endured. “I’ve written a fair bit of stuff since — new tracks pretty much every day,” he enthuses. “It kept me going in a sense. If I’d completely lost my ability to make music, I’d have been pretty fucking torn apart.”
Growing up in the small Scottish town of Perth, DJing and producing has been a defining part of Hay’s life since his early teens — initially inspired by techno titans, Clouds, who were a few years above him at school. Similarly galvanising was a chance encounter with local DJ Max Spittal, bonding over a bottle of Buckfast and a back-to-back after meeting at a house party. The pair would live together in years to come, with Max going on to form the revered Craigie Knowes label. After relocating to Glasgow to study, Hay quickly immersed himself in the city’s vibrant club scene, taking up production lessons from South African DJ and producer Esa, who lived locally at the time. ‘Pollok County Classics’ soon followed, a debut EP consisting of four Detroit-flavoured house cuts crafted on a dusty, second-hand Roland Juno-6. Demonstrating poise and maturity far beyond his years, the record immediately singled him out as an exciting addition to the Scottish scene.
Initially making music as The Burrell Connection — a nod to the Burrell Collection art gallery just a stone’s throw from his flat in Glasgow’s southside — further records on Craigie Knowes, Optimo Music and Outer Zone followed, before the move to Berlin in 2019 and a shift in sonic direction heralded a new creative alias. “I feel like my sound has progressed quite naturally over the last five years or so,” he explains. “I’ve been trying to make music that expresses my emotions, and letting that dictate the direction things take.”
Released on fellow Scotland-to-Berlin imprint Pace Yourself, Hay’s acclaimed first release as Dream_E, ‘Dreams On 22’, saw him trade in kick-drums for lush pads and downtempo atmospherics, drawing comparisons to Basic Channel and Scottish ambient oddity Pub. Dropping this month, his second release under the moniker, ‘Crushed’, is more of a breakbeat-led affair. A portion of the profits will be donated to the Encephalitis Society.
“I rediscovered the private SoundCloud upload of ‘Crushed’ fairly recently. Before that, I’d completely forgotten the EP existed because of my illness!” he laughs. “For that reason alone it feels right to donate some of the profits to an encephalitis charity. I was very lucky to have such an amazing support network. No doubt lots of people who contract it won’t be as lucky.”
It took until February, a full four months on from the initial seizures, for the cognitive issues to subside and for Hay’s life to return to some semblance of normality. Sets for Refuge Worldwide and HÖR have helped him reconnect with the scene at a local level, but for now the primary concern is enjoying life and prioritising the things most important to him.
“The illness really has changed my whole outlook on life,” he says, candidly. “I’m just taking every day as it comes, and feel grateful to have such an amazing partner and friends who’ve looked after me through all of this.”