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Boys Noize on Skulls, Pills, and the Bellyaches of Corporate EDM

Boys Noize

I never expected to find myself standing in a rehearsal space owned by Rammstein, but here I am, weaving my way through mountains of flight cases, dodging cables and determined-looking roadies beneath an enormous black skull-and-crossbones flag. Which is kind of funny, because it’s a skull that I’ve traveled to the outskirts of Berlin to see.

Not a real skull, of course. The cranium in question stands perhaps seven feet high, is painted silver, and boasts stylized, vaguely sci-fi contours as well as evil-looking red bulbs lodged deep in its eye sockets. It is to serve as the centerpiece of Boys Noize’s new live show — his first live show, in fact, despite the fact that he has been DJing for over a decade — and on the day I visit, just days before his tour begins, there are still many kinks to be worked out with the death’s-head-cum-DJ-booth. A technician dressed in black stands with his arms crossed, glaring at the skull, while two more pop out of the top of the totem, fiddling with its innards.

“To be honest, I don’t know what’s wrong,” says Alex Ridha, better known as the Berlin-based electro-house producer Boys Noize. “There’s a thing with, I don’t know, something with the server that controls lights and synchs stuff.” The team has been trying to work it out for the past three days; in fact, the Berlin debut of his show has already been postponed owing to technical issues. The life of a DJ/producer/label owner, in 2012, is apparently full of such SNAFUs; our interview is repeatedly interrupted by Ridha’s manager, trying to sort out which stems the musician has authorized for a remix contest. Screenshots are taken, laptops are summoned, but, time and again, the files are incorrect.

But Ridha takes it all in stride. It’s all part of a day’s work for an artist who, despite having produced for Kelis and the Scissor Sisters, is determined to remain independent. His third album, Out of the Black, has just appeared on his own Boysnoize Records, which, despite his own profile — when I visited Las Vegas in 2011, there were Boys Noize billboards towering above the strip, and in Germany, there are bottles of Becks boasting labels that read “Boys Noize Techno Beer” — still makes room for resolutely left-field acts like Siriusmo, Chilly Gonzales, and Housemeister, along with more festival-filling acts like D.I.M. and Dog Blood, Ridha’s duo with Skrillex.

It wouldn’t be hard for Ridha to grab the EDM brass ring right now. His amped-up productions and DJ sets are like manna to the crowds at Electric Daisy Carnival and Hard; he could conceivably become a producer-for-hire in the vein of Guetta, who worked on the same Kelis album as Ridha did. “But that’s not the music I want to listen to,” he says. “It’s not the sounds that I like. It’s not the music I would play. David Guetta fucking loves his music — that’s why he’s successful. If I would try to make that music, I wouldn’t be as successful. If you decide to make that music, it’s fine – I just can’t.”

While the technicians tugged at wires in the enormous, trepanned dome, Ridha and I retired to the cafeteria to talk about pop crossover, live performance, and producing for Kreayshawn. Boys Noize’ U.S. tour kicks off this Friday, November 23, in Fort Lauderdale; see his website for dates and cities.

You’ve been playing for years, but this is the first time you’ve done a live set.
The main thing about the live set is really performing my own music, which I haven’t done before. At festivals, I do play my own stuff, and I have multiple CDJs to be able play stems of my tracks, so my DJ sets do have a live element as well. But this time it’s really a full show with just my own music.

What took you so long to get around to doing a live set?
It’s my third album, so I have a lot of material. At one point I was just making an iTunes playlist with all of my jams, and I was surprised by how easily I could just play my music and get away with it, in a way. [Laughs] On the other side, I’m a really passionate DJ — I love DJing, and for me it’s always been the most fun and the most comfortable thing. I’m playing new music all the time. I buy new music every day. I look out for new music, I get sent a lot of stuff, so when I get something new, I want to play it out. But I think another reason is also because the perception of a DJ has changed a little bit — it’s not so much about the music. And for me that was always the most important thing: The music, the content. So I think it’s good to use this time and just play my own music.

Is there an expectation at the big festivals that you should be doing a live set?
I think so. I think it’s a natural thing that someone who goes to a festival sees a name, and he just expects the music from that artist. Most of the time I got away with just playing a couple of my tracks and then mixing it up with other stuff. That’s how I’ve done it all the years.

The traditional way of DJing.
Exactly. So that’s going to change.

Are you going to incorporate other people’s music as well?
No. It’s strictly my own music, which I will mash up and remix. It’s funny, because when I announced my live tour, people weren’t really going crazy, because they were like, “Well, I’ve seen you live many times, so what’s the big deal?” It’s true, every time I DJ, I do a lot of things very spontaneously. I mix it up with my own parts of my own tracks. I think there’s a big part of a live element when I DJ. To me, a live set is more about playing only your own music.

What do you do in your DJ sets?
I have four CDJs, so on one I play a CD with someone else’s track and then I mix in my track, then on top of it I might mix in an element from one of my songs, like a synth or a vocal or something on top. I can loop something on the other CDJ.

Is that tough to keep in sync?
For me, mixing was never that difficult. It’s not like playing the piano or something. I think if you have a good musical feeling, it’s easy to beatmatch. And nowadays, software and the technology makes it so easy for you. But of course, if you have three things running at the same time that you constantly have to go back and adjust, it gets busy.

What kind of venues are you going to be playing in the U.S.?
It’s mostly rock venues rather than nightclubs. It depends. In Berlin, it’s one of the biggest ones, around 3000 people, the Columbiahalle. The other ones are a bit smaller, around 1000 to 2000 or 3000. In New York I’m playing Roseland Ballroom and in Los Angeles the Palladium, so those are bigger as well.

Are you traveling by bus?
Yeah, it’s my first time! I’m very excited about it. I still imagine it not being as exhausting as flying all the time, because I can go to bed after the show, if I want to.

Tell me about your new album, Out of the Black.
After my second album, I wanted to try out new things, work with other people, and the first thing that came around was Gonzales. For me, that was one of the most wonderful things to do, musically. He’s connected to Feist and Peaches, so when I did the Feist remix, he wrote that song with Feist, so he knew about it. Then he asked me to do a remix, and I was always a big fan of his too, so I did a remix for him. After that he was like, “Man, we should do a full album. You do the beats, I play piano.” He sent me really rough piano songs, the individual stems, and all the other music you can hear is what I did. It was really uncomplicated — I never told him what I wanted to do, I just took the stems and did what I wanted and then sent him the finished thing. He loved it. It was done very quickly. It was just so refreshing for me.

I had smaller collaborations with my friend Erol Alkan; we did a couple 12-inches. Then I produced that Spank Rock album, which was a totally different scenario. He already had a lot of demos, but a lot of producers let him down. It was a funny situation where he didn’t know how to finish his album. There, I worked more in the traditional sense of a producer: He put everything together, I co-produced a lot of songs, and I wrote two or three original songs with him. In the end we released it on Boysnoize Records.

And then I was already halfway through the Scissor Sisters album, which was so, so different again. If you look at the three — the Gonzales, the Spank Rock, and the Scissor Sisters records — it’s all so different. With the Scissors there was a major label involved and stuff like that. It just happened because they were in Berlin after a concert, and we wrote two songs; then I was in New York, and after my gig I stayed for a few days and we wrote a couple more songs, and at one point they asked me to produce the whole album. It was cool for me, because it was so far from my own music. I learned a lot about producing in a classic sense. There’s a lot of communication — you have to guide things; you have to find out what the artists want.

So, long story short, after finishing the Scissor Sisters album, I wanted to do my own stuff again. So I basically took off seven or eight months this year. I didn’t do any festivals, and I only played one club show a month or something. It was cool, because I really got back in that daily creative mode where you lock yourself in the studio and just record a lot of things. That was great.

Did you find yourself doing anything differently than on previous records?
Not really, because when I make music, I never follow any fixed template. I always start from zero. I have a lot of machines, so one day I’ll start to work on one machine, like a drum machine, and I make a lot of sounds and just keep recording. Sometimes I have like 12 ideas in one arrangement, until I find out what fits together. It’s more about the sounds that lead me to a song. I’m very uncomplicated with this. I actually can finish tracks really quickly. The creative part just takes a couple of hours; it’s the technical or the mixing side that takes more time.

At what point did you decide that you had the album finished?
Around March this year, when I had around 20 tracks. I just picked the ones that fit together well. It’s funny, because once you have certain key tracks, so many other things can happen. For instance, I have this one kind of rap, or trap, track, “Circus Full of Clowns.” It was actually something I did for Spank Rock’s album. One day we were trying to work with another rapper from L.A., but Spank Rock wants to write everything on his own, so it didn’t work out. It was just a session; it’s a female rapper from L.A., and she did everything in one take. I had this demo for one or two years, and I never thought about releasing it under my own name, but I always liked the vibe of it. Suddenly, once I had the other tracks for the album, it made sense to put it right in the middle.

What are the key tracks for you?
“What You Want,” because that really combines some of the stuff from my first album and some very timeless things. Then “Ich R U.” It’s funny, because with the remixes I did, there were a lot of softer and more melodic ones, and the people I met really like that side of me too. So it’s cool to make a track which is not as aggressive, a bit more funky, a bit on the melodic side. And then maybe “Reality” and “XTC”; those were actually the first two tracks I had. At first I had this idea of doing this whole concept of reality and ecstasy, but then the other tracks didn’t play too well with that. [Laughs]

Do you mean ecstasy in the emotional or the pharmaceutical sense?
Well, I mean, I can’t really say it’s not about drugs. It’s not just dance music — music and drugs have always gone hand in hand. At festivals, and especially in the 1960s.

Dionysus is, after all, the god of both wine and music.
Right, right! I mean, it’s just… [Laughs sheepishly] At the end of the track, I say “Don’t do it!” I mean, of course, [leaning towards microphone] drugs are bad, but, you know.

Did drugs go hand in hand with raving for you?
I think I was 14 when I took an ecstasy for the first time. I went to the Love Parade in Berlin and raved with one million people. That was one of the best moments, for sure. But I think with any drug, if it’s alcohol or sex or whatever, once you have the control, that’s the most important thing — that you keep control of what you do.

It’s funny, because around 2006, there was a time when I felt that the new generation that went to the clubs didn’t take drugs. There was a time when a lot of indie kids discovered electronic music, so there was a lot of this punk-rock vibe, like with Ed Banger and everything. So, being a part of that, I saw a crowd that I thought wasn’t taking any ecstasy or drugs, it was more about drinking beer and throwing stuff and stage dives, punk rock, rock ‘n’ roll. That was actually pretty cool to be in this new concept of clubbing. Because, basically, if you go to any club in Berlin, there’s always drugs involved. So that change was a nice thing to see.

You’re not from Berlin.
I’m born in Hamburg, and I lived there until I was 19 or 20.

Did you get your start raving in Hamburg?
Hamburg was more a city for house music. At that time, it was really like Berlin was the techno city and Hamburg was the house city. At that time, as a DJ, I was playing more Chicago house stuff and a lot of deep house stuff. But then of course when I was 14, 15, I had friends in Berlin, so I went raving there. But I would always come back to Hamburg and not rave.

And then gradually your tastes morphed.
It was around 1998 or 1999 when I got more and more into electro, like Gigolo Records, a lot of breakbeat stuff even, and then the whole electroclash thing started. I was really into that because at that time the styles were so clear: There was house music, there was techno, which was just fast and hard, like Schranz, and electro and drum and bass or whatever. At one point it started to mix together with indie music and band music that was getting more and more electronic again. That’s when the whole electroclash thing started. Electro got harder, but it also got mixed up with rock stuff. I loved that. It was great because it gave me so many possibilities of DJing things together. Then I saw 2ManyDJs for the first time, in 2001, and I was blown away by how they were able to play a Stooges record and then Felix Da Housecat afterwards, stuff like this. That was a big inspiration for me as a DJ.

That kind of eclecticism doesn’t seem like it’s ever been as popular in Germany as in France or the U.K.
The whole “bastard pop” and electroclash thing didn’t really work that long here in Germany. There were maybe one or two years with DJ Hell and Tiga, who played here, and Miss Kittin, who lived here. It was more a thing from London. Of course Erol Alkan was a big part of that with his nights at Trash. That was really refreshing, and it gave me a lot of input for my own music. That was also the time that I moved to Berlin, and one or two years after, that’s when minimal started to get big in Berlin. I liked a lot of the early minimal records, because there was still an aggressive vibe, but then it just… I just didn’t want to do anything like that, and that’s when I came up with my first tracks.

I was surprised to see that you’re putting out your new album on your own label; did you get offers from bigger labels?
For sure, it’s been a question this time. Not only [getting signed elsewhere] but also working with big names, and calling all the people I’ve gotten to know in the last few years and having a full album of feature appearances. But in the end, I really felt that I just wanted to keep on doing what I really feel. Even though I love pop music and I love to produce with other people and do different stuff, it’s still a different thing for me. Generally, I’m not a big fan of a lot of vocals. It’s funny, because they work in my remixes, but it’s always a different artist who presents that. I generally prefer robotic vocals. For my own music I do have a creative vision. It’s the music I want to perform, as well.

As for going with another label, I think it’s very difficult right now. Obviously all the major labels want to sign a young DJ who’s a producer, but in the end, it’s just not the way I like to work. You can easily fall into, not really a trap, but once there’s someone else who tells you, like, “Try this,” or, “Do you want to work with a songwriter?” — it might be cool, but it might also lead you very slightly into something else, but then you realize a few years later that you’ve done something that you don’t really feel right about. I was listening to my first two albums, and I’m still super happy about every track I did. It’s exactly what I wanted at that time, and I still like it.

For me, that was the most important thing, to not try to do something for the market or that other people want. Especially on major labels, you are a product. They spent money for it, and they want it back. In order to do that, you have to sell records. And in order to sell records, you have to do a lot of things. I’m down to sell records, you know? But I really want to do it the way I want to, and not be controlled or changed too much in a direction I don’t feel like. It is a tough decision, and I think the only reason I would actually license my album or sign with someone else is basically time, because it is a lot of fucking work to release an album worldwide with just two or three people on your team. It’s crazy times right now. Talking to all the distributors, talking to all the PR people in different countries, it’s crazy.

You worked with Kelis on her song “22nd Century,” off her 2010 album Flesh Tone; would you work with a pop musician again?
Oh, I did. I worked with Santigold: We did a track for her album which turned out really cool. It’s the only rap one. Then I did a couple tracks with Kano, who’s not really pop, and I actually did two tracks with Kreayshawn as well. One is basically just an instrumental I did with Siriusmo, and then she wrote a song on it.

How did you hook up with Kreayshawn?
It was through one of the songwriters who I worked with on the Kelis record. From time to time I just send some beats to him, and he was like, “She liked that, we wrote a song over it.” Then I was in the studio with them for two days in L.A. She was cool. For me, it’s way easier to make pop music as a producer, because I don’t have to be the artist that presents it. And if the music is cool, I’m totally down with it.

In the end, my own music isn’t about writing the perfect melody or the perfect song. It’s really about the sound. And that’s what I’m interested in as a producer. Finding sounds that are not used on other records, or using sounds and combining things — that’s the only challenge I have, and really the only thing that motivates me as well. That’s why I keep looking out for the newest drum machines or plugins and everything, to try to always be a step ahead in the sound world.

Where is your studio?
It’s in my home in Berlin. I’m not really the kind of guy who wakes up and goes to the studio from nine to five. I work at night a lot. The good thing about having the studio at home is you can really go in when you feel like it. I can’t be feeling like I have to make music.

I try to remind myself of what fascinated me at first when I started out producing: When everything is new, you approach things totally differently. Those were the feelings I tried to get back on this album, and that’s what happened. There was one point where I just made music every day for a couple of weeks.

So tell me about this skull you’ll be performing inside.
Siriusmo and I designed it. He’s a fucking genius, man. I’ve known him for a long time, but he never told me that he’s able to model things. I was thinking about how we could create a skull that doesn’t look like a roller-coaster or the St. Pauli logo. It’s so easy to make a cheesy one. We started to get some ideas together, then he drew that one on paper, and then he built one out of clay. It’s crazy, because I didn’t know he was able to do that. I knew he was a sprayer and painter and a genius, but then he did it just with his hands.

And then you sent that to be fabricated?
We scanned it in, and then we mirrored the sides, so it’s the same on both sides, and then it got run through a machine that calculates everything and then it puts it into Styrofoam. They laser it in there, then they put fiberglass on it, and then they paper it.

It doesn’t look like you have much room inside.
No, unfortunately not. That’s what we’re doing now, cutting out as much as possible and putting in the table for my gear.

Does the skull have a name?
No. For now it’s just “the skull.”