Boys Noize: Banging the Drum for Berlin

The electro outsider on following his punk spirit

Words By Dan Cole
Photos By Viktor Richardsson

In a career now more than a decade long, Boys Noize has established himself as a behemoth of the electro world. Through DJing, producing original music and remixes, and founding his own record label, he has come to define a sound. Berlin has been his home since he was 21. Here we talk with him about being an outsider, working with huge artists, and retaining credibility when following his punk spirit across genres.

Alexander Ridha, a former record store clerk from Hamburg who used to DJ under the alias Kid Alex, is now one of Berlin’s musical mainstays. He’s the quintessential music nerd with racks of gear in his bedroom-like studio, having remixed everyone from the likes of Depeche Mode to Snoop Dogg and AtomTM, while his multitude of records are in constant demand. His label and parties have been filling dancefloors for over a decade with their unique brand of brash noise, always pushing conventions, frequencies and volumes in equal amount. As Boys Noize, Alex set the precedent for post-house electro-punk during a period when Berlin, by contrast, was making a name for itself in the stylish minimal techno world. And while most of the minimal scenesters have fallen by the wayside, Alex is still in Berlin, making lots noise with the fevered determination and ambition of a man who truly loves what he does.

“Hamburg was so amazing,” he recalls. “I used to work at this record store, Underground Solution, which is how I got my first gigs. My old boss would pull some strings to get me support slots with local legends like Boris Dlugosch.” Nowadays, Alex lives in that grey area between superstardom and geekdom. We meet him, clad in a hoodie and a big, effortless smile, to learn about his story. The fresh looking 34-year-old has a childlike earnestness about him, and is keen to to play us his new productions, while eagerly spinning some of his older records as well. Alex couldn’t be happier, and who could blame him? He’s worked with some of the biggest names in the business: artists such as Jean-Michel Jarre, Skrillex and Chilly Gonzales, all of whom have been in that very apartment studio.

“To me, Berlin has always been so mysterious. As a kid, my family and I would go from the west part of Berlin to the DDR as visitors,” Alex describes. “Everything was always massive in Berlin. It all looked so different.” The fascination with the city stuck with the avid music lover, and as a teenager Alex would regularly visit the Berlin Love Parade to see his idols, only to eventually become an icon within the clubbing scene himself. At the age of 21, already playing the city’s clubs on a regular basis, he moved to Berlin to be with his girlfriend, leaving behind his job and the city where he grew up. This also brought him closer to his greatest passion: music. “[Berlin has] always had this dirty, ravey vibe to it. Even the yellow trams and the trains; it was all so different when you compared it to Hamburg. And that hasn’t really changed.” Even then, the musical styles of the two cities were worlds apart: “Hamburg and Berlin used to be so different – and the two scenes would not fuck with each other,” Alex recalls. “Hamburg was more house, and Berlin was techno, noise, and punk.”

“I loved the punk influence with electro, and the techno at the time,” he continues. Growing up, Alex played drums in local bands, listening to house and late ‘90s techno, all of which would go on to play a significant part in his musical outlook. His career as a DJ started to peak during the electroclash period around 2003, when the likes of DJ Hell’s International DeeJay Gigolo Records label was at its height. As Kid Alex, he supported Felix da Housecat and other significant contemporary acts. “I would play with T.Raumschmiere and he was a big influence on me, as were labels like Sender and BPitch.”

Alex’s first gig in Berlin was at a gay party at Kalkscheune in Mitte, where he’d been booked by a record store regular who used to purchase his under-the-counter mixtapes. During his initial DJing escapades in Berlin, Alex became a regular at spaces like WMF at Cafe Moskau, Pfefferberg, Polar TV, and Sternradio – venues permanently recorded in the annals of Berlin’s clubbing graveyard. “Sternradio at Alexanderplatz was a crazy place,” he says. “Me and Housemeister would play there from like six to nine in the morning, and it was full of proper, East German ravers.” Alex met Housemeister, also known as Berlin’s colourful wild-man, and producer Martin Böhm, during a late night–early morning DJ set at WMF. The two became good friends and struck up a musical partnership, leading to multiple co-releases infused with the same punk ideology. “He’s a really hearty guy,” Alex laughs. “We met up for a drink together the week after our first show and I was so inspired by his studio. It was full of analogue gear, you could just press play and everything was running.”

Berlin is still the city full of freaks. I was thinking back in 2006, with all the artists from New York here, how much more crazy can it get? And it did.

‘The Bomb’ was the first record Alex released as Boys Noize in 2004 on Hell’s label. “I met Hell and Westbam at a gig we were all playing together in Berlin at Polar TV, a space near Hauptbahnhof that doesn’t exist anymore. I was doing the warm-up and I handed both of them a CD with some new tracks. They both called me back, which was quite funny because I was such a huge fan.” In 2005, Alex founded Boysnoize Records out of a desire to release more music. The prolific, fast-paced nature of his music production made it difficult to release everything he was creating; there was just too much material. It got to the point where he was inventing various aliases under which to release the music; Einzeller, Morgentau, PUZIQUe, and EastWest – Alex’s collaborative project with Housemeister.

While the boys were making their noise, minimal techno was about to reach its peak in Berlin. Richie Hawtin had just moved here, and M-nus Records had become the city’s hottest property, something that was far removed from the Boys Noize sound. “It felt really good being a total outsider,” Alex says. “As a DJ, I can see how people might have thought I was making late electro-house, but for me it was a new world.” Minimal techno came and went, but Boysnoize Records stayed. And so did Alex, unlike some of his peers who were no longer on the scene. “Some of the guys who left just had enough of partying. Some came here to make music and didn’t get anything done. Some people felt like they had to go back to where they came from – the older you get, there is this feeling that you have to return to the environment you came from. I like Hamburg, but I won’t go back. I love St Pauli and the Harbour, but Hamburg has more money and you can see and feel that too.”

More than ten years later and Boysnoize Records is a tour de force, with releases from everyone in the electro-party, music community, including Peaches, Strip Steve, Josh Wink, SCNTST, Spank Rock, and more. And of course, there was Octave Minds, Alex’s spatial-collaborative project with Chilly Gonzales. Boysnoize Records fittingly embodies a desire for pure enjoyment, with earnest respect for electro, and bits of techno thrown in. It’s also a product of Berlin’s wider influence. As Alex says, “There are a lot of exciting things happening here. There’s a lot of EBM and new wave productions coming through, which I really like.” He adds: “I also enjoy going to Berghain and having a proper techno night out every now and then. Berlin is still the city full of freaks. I was thinking back in 2006, with all the artists from New York here, how much more crazy can it get? And it did. It got crazier and crazier. It’s one of the last places where, as an artist, you are able to express yourself.” This is something Alex has lamented before. In a 2016 interview with Pitchfork, he likened the city to a refuge for outcasts, from its bohemian Weimar period to the present. “When you live here for a little bit you realise that you can have a good life without being distracted by capitalism or what society wants from you,” he says.

For all his success, Alex is far from living in an ivory tower. Stowed away in Prenzlauer Berg, he can be seen walking his dog up to four times a day. He is also a regular at local music establishment, OYE Records, adding to his already vast collection. “Everyday, when I see something online, I send a message to the store to put stuff aside for me. I think it’s the best record shop in the area. They have everything.”

When you live here for a little bit you realise that you can have a good life without being distracted by capitalism or what society wants from you.

As a local guy, albeit one who sells out arenas and has worked alongside Skrillex, Diplo and Snoop Dogg, getting recognised on the streets is not such a concern for him. But that isn’t the case everywhere he goes. “In Paris it’s happened a few times, but in Berlin it’s rare. Sometimes I feel that people recognise me, but don’t say anything, which is definitely not the case in somewhere like LA.” Back in the early days, Alex would always hide his face on press shots to avoid fame. The iconic photos of Alex with his hands in front of his face came to define his image in the mid ‘00s. “Being recognised is not something I wanted. I love the idea of faceless techno, where you don’t have to put out a press shot. Even my MySpace page was just a picture of a skull,” he tells us. As Alex’s profile grew, there was no way to retain his anonymity. “With YouTube and everything, I couldn’t keep it up. I considered wearing a mask at one point, but it was just no use. When Skrillex was here in 2012 to record our Dog Blood record, it was totally crazy. We went out, and even late at night he would have drunken kids coming up to him all the time. It was totally crazy.”

Sitting in his studio, Alex seems fulfilled by his achievements to date. Towards the end of our conversation, he starts playing a new remix of D.A.F. (Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft), the pivotal electro act that influenced him so much. We remind Alex of an earlier interview in which he said it was an ambition to work with the legendary German electronic label, Raster-Noton. “For me it was pretty awesome to have a release on Raster-Noton,” he says, proudly pulling out the remix he did for AtomTM, released on the label two years ago. “I love to meet people who make stuff that I don’t know how to.”

Last year, Alex even got to work with another one of his idols, Justin Vernon, otherwise known as Bon Iver. “For me, he’s one of the best musicians I’ve ever met. And he’s fucking awesome. It’s so funny, he said he was a fan of Boys Noize on MySpace back in the day.” The two hung out, sharing accolades, and eventually got to work with each other in Berlin last year at Michelberger Music, a two-day festival at Berlin’s riverside Funkhaus location. Alex got to write and perform with Vernon along with Nils Frahm, Mouse On Mars, Erlend Øye, Woodkid, The National’s Aaron Dessner, and others. “That was one of the coolest things I’ve ever been involved with, for sure,” he says. Without too much of a preconceived plan, the artists locked themselves in Funkhaus’ many studios, jamming and rehearsing on the fly to put together a set of new material resulting from collaborations and unique arrangements. “Every single person I met was a genius,” Alex recalls of this experience. “Everybody made music with each other; people that had never met before. I would end up in a session with The National, and then with a folk singer with a drum machine, and then I would do a techno set with Justin. It was almost psychedelic. I think some people were confused, but it was such a cool idea. I have recordings of everything we did, I still don’t know what I’m going to do with them.”

From playing warehouses and famed party locales, to jamming with his idols in former DDR broadcasting studios, Alex has come a long way. No longer Kid Alex from Hamburg, Boys Noize is beating Berlin’s drum. He smiles and leans back, “Berlin still feels like the city where anything is possible.”

Boys Noize is on his Warehaus Tour until May. Find more European dates on his website.