2007 was the watershed year for the then-untested Dubfire solo project. An assault which began with the singles "Roadkill" and "Ribcage," a remix of the Richie Hawtin classic "Spastik" and a re-rub of Radio Slave's "Grindhouse" that left in its wake a vast groundswell of fans and detractors alike, both ready to argue vehemently from both sides of the Dubfire divide. To the former he was a Beatport smash. The proponent of a largely new and exciting microniche centred around a booming minimal production aesthetic and those love-em-or-loathe-'em white noise blasts; to the latter he was a prog house deserter, come in from the cold of commercial success to jump eagerly on the underground house bandwagon.
But as Ali himself will tell you, all he ever really wanted to do was live out his latent techno fantasy.
I guess it was just hearing and reading about everything that was going on in the UK in those early days: 1987 and around that period. There was a magazine called Street Sounds, DJ magazines and various other things. It was an event to find the latest issue of these magazines and pore over each page.
I wasn't quite old enough to get into clubs, but I had a fake ID. There were two local clubs where the resident DJs were English: There was The Fifth Column with Christian Wolff and literally right next door there was a club called The Vault with Ian Cairns.
Those guys were really instrumental in exposing me to all this great new music. The difference was Christian was an incredible mixer: he would mix all different kinds of styles and he would play from open to close. (Both DJs would actually play from open to close and kind of tell a story.) But Ian didn't know how to mix. The important lesson I learnt from him—and he always used to say this to me—was, "it's not how you play, it's what you play and how you program."
When would you say your interest in production began in earnest?
It was Brian Transeau (BT). Because we were quite close and he was kind of an anomaly back then in our neck of the woods in that he came from another school and I remember he was immediately popular with all of the cool kids, as well as all of the arty kids, and he had this classical training in music that was incredible to see in someone like that.
He had a lot of the early synths and drum machines and he was someone who really stood out in school: No one else really had the kind of gear and musical ideas that he had at the time. We obviously gravitated towards each other because of our mutual friendship and ideas about music making and he was a guy that really taught me that music making was something within my reach.
How do you feel your outlook as a DJ has changed over the years?
With Traktor it changes the way that you play and it took me a while to get my head around that. Not only from the standpoint of moving on from first vinyl to CD, but then eventually from CDs to laptop. The jump from playing with CDs to laptop for me took a bit of time but I managed to get on it sort of early—a lot earlier than Sharam and a lot of the guys I hung out with at the time. But now I can't think of playing any differently.
The way in which we can manipulate music these days has kind of led to us having to look at the way we are releasing music as well. I may decide with everything that I sign from now on I'll ask the artist—and probably with my own new single that is coming out—to give away long stems of the parts as that allows people to be a lot more creative as opposed to playing one track after another.
When I listen to guys like Ricardo (Villalobos) and Sven (Vath), when they're playing vinyl they are infusing what they do with their personality and obviously Sven has such a magnetic, eccentric personality it really weaves its way into how he plays with just that basic sort of technology.
Do you think that with the thousands of DJs out there it will take people ripping tracks up and starting again in order to impart personality upon a DJ set?
Yeah, it has to happen because especially nowadays there are so many people making music and so many people wanting to DJ. And with all these digital files floating around, everyone has access to everything, so programming becomes extremely important and how you interpret the music in the context of a DJ gig becomes very important. Guys like me and Rich (Hawtin), Chris Liebling, Joakim and Speedy J are really trying to re-define it for ourselves and hopefully trying to inspire a whole new group of DJs.
Do you feel like, on the flip side of that, there is a danger that the original message of a record can be lost?
Sometimes I get something that is so perfect that it shouldn't be messed with and at least we have that option. I'm someone who has always liked having as many options as possible, but I do sometimes get nostalgic for that style of playing. Sometimes when you're programming a set you want to play in that sort of way rather than throwing three loops on top of one another. It's weird; I'm still kind of grappling with how to do it effectively because you really are thinking about it in a different context.
Your SCI+TEC imprint is taking over Berghain for a Saturday night show in October. How did this come about?
Yeah, I'm really excited about this gig. A lot of people think because of the music that I was making with Sharam that I tuned out of that scene, but I was always a huge fan. I've been friends with guys like Rich and Carl Craig for a long time and was always into it; it never left me. I always of course kept track with what the top clubs within that scene were and I'd always heard from people that Berghain was like the techno Mecca of the world and to have an opportunity to play there now is just a great feeling.
They are letting me do what I want with that night. I'm not quite sure what to expect as I've heard so many different things from so many different people, but I've actually never been there so playing there will be really unique as it's my first exposure to the club.
SCI+TEC visuals by Human
I'm still trying to decide what a SCI+TEC event is. I don't just want to brand a night as a SCI+TEC showcase and not offer anything new or different from a typical gig. I want to make it interesting for myself and other people so I'm still trying to figure out what it will consist of. I know that it will incorporate a visual element and the guys Human who used to be with The Designers Republic are responsible for all my visuals right now so whenever I do a SCI+TEC night I'll tend to bring them along and do the visuals live alongside whoever is playing. Maybe with a club like Berghain though you don't need to though as the club is the star.
I read in an interview last year that you were working on a "new musical approach." Is this in the form of a new project or just how you approach the production process generally?
Yeah, it's how I generally approach it. I don't like to repeat myself. With my co-engineer Matt Nordstrom we are always trying to come up with innovative ways of fusing the music I'm making with its own sort of personality. Starting I guess with the little "nitrogen blasts" that people are using, through to just mixing up styles. My approach hasn't really changed that much from how I thought of things early on: I try to bridge the gap between house and techno and be as experimental as possible while making something that will fit into my DJ sets.
Your output has been relatively low recently: Do you have much in the pipe line? And have you actually been in a good place creatively?
Part of the reason was that I had been so busy in the studio and everything was so new to me and I had so many ideas that had been in me for so many years, I wanted to get them all out and I think I worked too much and I wore myself down a little bit.
It wasn't a conscious thing, I wanted to be as prolific studio-wise as I have been in previous years, and I have been to a certain extent. Like this year I had the Paul Ritch remix. I said no to a lot of remixes because they weren't really interesting projects for me to take on. There's also my ongoing collaboration with Oliver Huntemann. We wrapped the first in a series of four releases a couple of months ago beginning with a song called "Fuego" which is going down really well.
Do you often feel stifled by your own desires to be not repeating yourself? I've heard you describe the production process before as "torturous." Does your own head get in the way?
I'm always getting in the way of myself [laughs]. I can't tell how many tracks that I have worked on that are sitting there just half finished or in their early stages or in some weird mutant form; the ones where I've lost interest where I felt like I'd headed down roads that I'd already been down.
I don't want to make it sound like I haven't been working in the studio, as I have been a lot, it's just that nothing has really materialized to my satisfaction. The one sort of pact I made with myself when I perused a solo career was that I was going to do it on my own terms.
Obviously I've been in the industry for a long time now and I know how you can be manipulated by labels and by other people into doing things that you're not very comfortable with. So I make sure everything I do is on my terms and I have ample time to devote to it and I can give it my complete focus and attention. Having said that, I have a complete disregard for deadlines and traditionally sound business approaches, but I think that's helped in a lot of ways kind of re-brand me as this Dubfire guy.
Do you like there was a learning curve when you slipped into your Dubfire gear full-time?
I was so excited so obviously there was, but to be completely honest there wasn't an issue. A lot of the issues had to do with the fact that I had to see things through to the end. There wasn't that other person that when I got tired of listening to something over and over again, or when I'd come home from tour and I'm too exhausted to work in the studio, or have to deal with business things or whatever, there wasn't that person to take care of it.
I think both Sharam and I got comfortable in that position of being each others ying and yang and trying to balance each other out and work with each other in that context but I then didn't have that luxury.
Could you see yourself getting back in the studio with Sharam?
I don't know [laughs].
So no immediate plans?
Obviously we are still good friends and are extremely proud of the work we did together so I think the first order of business would maybe be to do some retrospective compilations and digging into the DAT vaults and finding things that sound really interesting that maybe we lost interest in at the time or things that remain unreleased and getting them out there and I guess introducing our legacy to this new wave of budding DJs and producers.
I think that will be the first order of business, then we can see how we get along [laughs] sitting around doing that process that doesn't involve being in the studio together and then see if we can make tracks together. I think that he's really busy doing his thing, which is completely different from my thing, so it would have to interest both of us. It would have to be a project or an opportunity to offer a new chapter because what we both don't want to do is just get back together and have a reunion tour and make some reunion music. The stakes will be higher if we ever get back together.
You made a tongue-in-cheek reference recently on Twitter regarding some of the negative comments that came up on RA when we announced you'd be mixing the Cocoon Ten Years of Ibiza CD.
Are you following me on Twitter? [laughs]
Well no, I'm not an avid Twitter guy.
I tend to put my foot in my mouth a lot when it comes to Twitter [laughs].
...it was getting over the perception that people had of me, and in the beginning I'd be lying if I said that it didn't sting."
I've been in the scene for such a long time and I know how the game is played...I mean yes, I do get criticised but I think the proof is in the pudding. A lot of people—including some of my closest friends—were very skeptical of what I was trying to achieve early on. It took a long time. Someone like Loco Dice, who I knew before he even had a career in music when he was good friends with Timo Mass, who I gave "Ribcage" to four or five times before he finally listened to it...it was getting over the perception that people had of me, and in the beginning I'd be lying if I said that it didn't sting.
I was getting it from people who I thought knew me better than that. I think I caught a lot of flack in that sense in the beginning where people thought I was just trying to cash in on a trend. But you don't go from what we did [in Deep Dish] back underground.
Taking the pay cut...For me it's never been about money. It's always about keeping interested. The day I lose interest is the day I hang up my hat. For me, my intentions were always 100% genuine.
Every once in a while I'll happen to read a review or I'll read some comments your readers, or other readers have made about the work that I'm doing just because I'm anxious to see what the perception is. Frankly I get bored sitting in my hotel room sometimes, so you just end up sitting there Googling yourself or whatever—and everyone does it, but most people won't admit it.
Every once in a while it gets on my nerves, sure. But when I sit in the studio, honestly, none of that enters my head at all. I'm usually hardest on myself in the studio, that's why it's a torturous process I guess, it's me really battling myself.
Why do you think it is that music audiences—and I'm mainly thinking about electronic audiences here—are so quick to put artists in boxes?
I think you could say this about people in general. In all aspects of society people like to be in their comfort zone. They don't like to step outside of that so they'll do whatever allows them to be comfortable whether it's pigeonholing themselves or their careers, or their associations or friendships, people do tend to box themselves in which is how people see society.
For journalists, you have a difficult job in trying to explain to your readers what a certain artist or a certain type of music is about. To put things and people and music in context is difficult to do, so I guess you create boxes just as your readers do and just as a lot of artists do.
I wanted to bring up the recent unrest in Iran, as I'd seen the "Count the Votes" slogan on your Twitter page. Is that something you'd mind discussing?
I generally don't like to talk about politics, but depending on the question...
I was wondering if you'd been able to gauge what the mood was like out there at the moment. I thought having seen the slogan on your page it might have been something you wanted to draw more attention to.
I haven't been to Iran since I moved to America in 1978. Most of my family members are still there, a few have gotten out and are living in Canada and Sweden and I see them as often as I can. My parents do communicate with our family back home as often as they can, but it's hard to get a clear picture of how things are and how they are feeling, as everything is monitored.
Obviously for journalists it's been hard to get news out, but what we've seen on YouTube and Twitter has been a firsthand account of how people are feeling and what the Islamic regime is doing. I think that the seeds of change and revolution—"revolution" may be a strong word but I'll use it—may have been sown. I think the wheels of regime change may have been put into motion.
Do you have any sense of what it is like for young people out there in terms of civil liberties?
It's probably horrible. I think 60% or so—I'm not sure what the exact statistic is—are under the age of 30 and with the internet you can't try to hold technology back and put yourself in a bubble or cocoon and not accept technological change and acknowledge the fact that the world has opened up.
So it was pre-revolution when you left?
Yes, I think the revolution happened around late '78. So for a few years up until that time we saw civil unrest. We saw it brewing. I have a lot of childhood memories of having to shut off the lights in our building. We had bomb scares and late night rallies. I was seven years old when I came to America but I have some vivid memories of that time. I never thought in my lifetime I would ever see what we've seen happen and I think that has to do with 30 years of Islamic fundamentalist law.
Would you say there are any sort of collective gatherings among young people in the name of music?
Sure, every day. But it doesn't happen legitimately. I don't think they allow dancing; I've lost track of all the silly rules that they have instituted. You can't have a public gathering where music is played, and I don't think they allow music to be played in restaurants. Obviously alcohol is illegal.
What tends to happen is everything is forced to the black market and everything is forced behind closed doors. The people are having to find more creative ways to do the things they always did: In their houses, behind closed doors, bribing, turn the other cheek. And really that's nature. As Jeff Goldblum so eloquently put it in Jurassic Park: "Nature will find a way."