Coming from a musical family, Brighton-based DJ Alex Downey has always been surrounded by the culture. With his parents filling the house with jazz and classic vocalists, Alex’s early experiences with electronic music include Kiss FM, Universe raves such as Tribal Gathering and Big Love and the infamous London techno party Knowledge. It wasn’t until he moved to Brighton that attending parties became a weekly, sometimes bi-weekly occasion. Seeing early Detroit legends like Derrick May and Jeff Mills at the Zap Club was a massive influence for Alex who became obsessed with the scene, regularly making the trip to London for the Lost parties and attending underground events in Brighton. During those days, Alex was experiencing anything from acid, house, psytrance and techno and it’s this diversity that still runs throughout his mixes, where trends are left to one side and his only focus is playing quality electronic music. As a resident at Third Ear and the esteemed Freerotation festival, Alex is quickly gaining recognition as one of the best and most exciting DJs in the UK right now. With previous key dates at Wiggle, fabric and Japan’s Labyrinth Festival, Alex is now being booked to play at renowned venues and events such as Concrete, Paris, Berghain – Säule, Berlin, The Cause, London and Houghton Festival to name a few.
With the need to experiment and embrace new styles, Alex hosts a weekly radio show on Brighton’s 1BTN FM called Voyage De Lux where uses the show to test out new purchases and sequences as well as hosting guests such as Ben Sims and Kirk Degiorgio. Alongside DJing, Alex also runs a warehouse called ‘The Temple Of Vinyl’, a space that is stocked floor to ceiling with the black gold and can be found on Discogs. Ahead of his next London show with Unbound Events, we chat to Alex about growing up with classically trained parents, Brighton then and now, the future of vinyl and the role of the resident.
Having come from a family where both your parents are classically trained, do you feel like there was pressure for you to follow in their footsteps and also build a career in music?
No, there was more pressure to do well at school, to be academic. They wanted me to pass A-levels, get a good education – standard! My mum always reminds me I wanted to be a doctor – classic parent stuff. So no, they didn’t pressure me musically. I say to my mum “what do you expect, I’m the progeny of 2 musical people, of course, I’d go into music.” My mum was a singer, classically trained from a young age, won competitions, she was really talented. When she was a bit older she was in a girl group – The Kerry Sisters, one of the first – they gigged and did TV, but she gave it up – she used to get nervous and didn’t feel confident in following an artistic path, maybe now projecting that onto me as a lot of parents so often do – “you should have been a doctor” rather than saying “of course, you’d get into music.”
My dad was a very well known musician within his sphere of music, lead trumpet player, composer/arranger, worked with the best, mainly self-taught but some long distance learning for the composition aspect. He was really naturally gifted at the trumpet and well respected. I sang in choirs and learnt the trumpet to a reasonable standard for a couple of years, but he never pushed me to.
Was it difficult to find your own niche in music away from what your parents were showing you?
I didn’t think they were showing me anything at the time, I was just around it. Lots of jazz and classic vocalists – she’d be singing along, and my dad would be using the piano to play stuff he was composing, for bands, orchestras and dons like Maynard Ferguson. Mum would be singing in another room, and every day he’d have to do 25-minute trumpet warm up, so I was surrounded by music. They’d take us to gigs and festivals, we just thought that was a normal life.
Now I’m older I can appreciate the legacy – I find it amazing what musicians of his day achieved, how professional and tight they were. Not many people can do that, and I’m blown away to think I come from a family like that. But when you’re younger, you’re just surrounded by a load of people who drink too much, put on too much weight and talk about jazz all the time – you’re just not interested as a child.
Later you then discover the more musical side of Techno, like Detroit and Hi-Tech Jazz, real musicianship on electronic instruments and it comes full circle. But my dad wasn’t a fan of the Techno I played him, didn’t really get it. I did get taken to Ronnie Scotts on numerous occasions when I was around 17, but I think I enjoyed the social side of it more, cos everyone bought me drinks knowing I was Alan Downey’s son.
You’re originally from London but have been living in Brighton since the 90s, what inspired the move south?
I had a lot of older friends who’d moved down to Brighton- they were having a great time, I had to choose somewhere to study so it was a no-brainer – it was gonna lead to an architecture degree, but I lasted about 3 months on my building studies HND. My friend Ed said I’d love it down here, so I completely trusted what he said and didn’t even question or visit first, and these friends were living together so I moved in with them without any hesitation.
What was the music scene like in Brighton in the 90s? What were your earlier experiences of raving like at places such as The Zap Club?
Brighton was life-changing in the early ‘90s. The Zap was one the few places in the UK at the time where you could go and listen to dance music all night long. There were a few others like the Arches in Glasgow and Ministry of Sound, Bagleys. All my mates were going to The Zap every week, sometimes twice, it was like a religion. We could spill out of there on a Monday and go to a beach party that would go all day at Ovingdean, Shoreham or Black Rock. It was amazing. You’re young, no responsibilities, so you can go to all these amazing events and hear all this music. I remember seeing Derrick May there, and Eric Powell who ran Bush, he booked a lot of people – Dave Clarke did the Red series of records then, the night was called ‘Red’, so he played there often, and Jeff Mills played twice. Monday nights were legendary – Garnier, Cox, Vath, Hawtin etc.
It was a hotchpotch, a melting pot. On any given night The Zap was Chicago House to purist Techno to Trance to Hard House, and at free parties, you wouldn’t know if it was gonna be House, Psy-Trance, Techno, or Acid. It was more about experiencing this new thing that was going on than being pigeonholed. I enjoyed listening to Zap resident Dave Randall – some of his records were awful when I look back, but many stood the test of time and still excite me today. I had a real soft spot for his DJing, he was fast, intense, tight mixing, my favourite DJ at the Zap. Eric Powell played some amazing records, many that I still hold dear today I heard there first. But there was a lot of cheesy stuff too – ha!
The free parties like Positive Sounds, Warm, Innerfield / Blue Room, Slack / Bob Dobbs parties, were all amazing. To be honest, then it was often more about the party – when you’re young you wanna be partying up late, outdoors, in a beautiful setting. You’d dance to anything.
What are some of the notable changes you’ve noticed in the Brighton scene over the years?
I dunno if there are free parties down here anymore – must be, but I’m out of the loop, and probably too old to go anyway – ha! But when I was younger they were on every weekend, sometimes two or more, but all my friends who used to do them have got tired and moved on / grown up.
When I first moved here, this [Techno] music in clubs was almost a fringe thing, quite niche, so we were the rebels, in a way. As it became more popular it seemed everyone wanted to open a club, there were around 20 clubs all fighting for the same small demographic, people couldn’t fill their clubs and it got saturated for a while.
Brighton’s always been a bit behind the curve, not always but mostly, especially compared to places like London. I went on pilgrimages to places like Lost, where you’d experience the cutting edge of Techno – again, people like Jeff Mills, Derrick May, Suburban Knight, Juan Atkins, Steve Bicknell doing his tribal minimalist dark vision of Techno. In Brighton, there wasn’t anyone doing anything like that. There were the guys running the party Defunkt, led by Brighton Techno producers like Christian Vogel, Justin Berkovi, Ibrahim Alfa, but it wasn’t so well attended or supported. There was a big free party scene but it was more like squat Techno. A community of music producers, yes, but no serious social scene like there was in Berlin for example.
I just felt like Brighton was lagging way behind – Sonar, Fabric or Lost were all ahead of the curve. There were too many cubs and everyone was struggling to get people in. There were people like Ben Gill who did Club Foot at The Escape and later the Ocean Rooms with great bookings, he was one of the only people sticking his neck out and booking really good artists, and Stompa Phunk who booked some great names. But most promoters were worried that certain names wouldn’t pull enough of a crowd – people popular everywhere else in Europe, like Adam Beyer or Ben Sims, some of the biggest Techno DJs at the time, but they didn’t wanna book ‘em. People not wanting to take a punt on what I thought was good music. Some clubs closed as the years went on, and it so started to become more focussed.
Most notable of late, The Escape became Audio which became Patterns – that venue has always been good for music. Patterns are booking loads of great acts, you go down there and you won’t be the only old person. I’m really supportive of their bookings, it’s the best thing to happen in Brighton for ages. Other than that I don’t know – lots of people doing production and smaller events, like the Brighton Modular Meetups, but don’t ask me what goes on elsewhere here, I’ve got no idea.
A big part of the Brighton scene are parties where the music’s just the soundtrack to a drink and drug experience, not the focus of the night – nothing wrong with that, if that’s you’re thing, go out meet the opposite (or same) sex and have fun, but that’s never what it’s been about for me. As far as good music, people like Charles Green and his First Floor night at Patterns have had some great bookings.
You started digging before you owned a turntable, what drew you to the vinyl format?
Basically when I got into it, vinyl was the only way of getting hold of this music if you wanted to be able to DJ with it, there were no CDJs or options to play digitally with a laptop. I had a lot of older friends who were buying records and I got massively inspired when I saw them mixing it up on their decks – Technics spinning looks amazing when you are tripping so I fell in love with the whole artistry of it.
Vinyl is like candlelight at a dinner, where you wanna have a nice time with friends or someone you’re really into, with nice food, nice lighting, nice music, and maybe nice sex. You don’t want an energy saving bulb hanging in the middle of the table with those fucking horrible harsh light frequencies that they give off, you want a nice wax candle flickering, organic. It’s a bit like that with the romance of vinyl.
You run the record warehouse ‘The Temple Of Vinyl’, what inspired this project and how have you seen the vinyl market change over the years?
I think my main inspiration would be having run a successful record shop for 10 years, I never really wanted that to stop. My old pal Japhy and I ran the shop in Brighton for ten years., it was called ‘Covert’ We had a successful website and sold internationally, we were doing well but the whole thing collapsed around 2005 – people just stopped buying music, everyone expected it for free it would seem, so it didn’t look hopeful.
I call this 7-8 year period ‘the dark ages’ – people literally just stopped buying music, I went on picking up people’s collections, or stuff from charity shops, and eventually, I got an office as somewhere to store it all. I started selling casually on Discogs and at some point realised it was a viable business, interest in records was picking up. People fell in love with vinyl again, especially younger people. Having sold records for most of my adult life and then going through a period where people didn’t buy them, I was surprised when interest picked up again, and it’s what I love to do so I just went with it.
As much as I enjoy selling online, and it works well on Discogs, I always much prefer face to face, that’s the real buzz. That’s why I sell records at the Brighton Music Conference, Houghton, Freerotation and the odd record fair. These records have a life of their own, they travel the world. You don’t know how many owners a record has had or where it’s been geographically. It’s great to turn people on to new music.
What is your view on the future of vinyl? Where do you see it slot into the musical landscape as technology continues to evolve?
The image that came up in my mind when I first read this question, is that Vinyl is like candlelight at a dinner, where you wanna have a nice time with friends or someone you’re really into, with nice food, nice lighting, nice music, and maybe nice sex. You don’t want an energy saving bulb hanging in the middle of the table with those fucking horrible harsh light frequencies that they give off, you want a nice wax candle flickering, organic. It’s a bit like that with the romance of vinyl.
I don’t think it’ll ever go away. Whatever formats or ways of playing come and go, there will always be something very beautiful, artistic and skilful in watching someone physically take two things, pushing them around with their body and hands, and getting those two things to sing together.
It’s not a money maker for labels or artists, but most producers would be happier with a physical thing in their hand that they’ve had a part in – it’s much more of a buzz than sending your unmastered Wav to Beatport.
The industry standard now is CDJs, memory sticks, multiple CDJs, using fx, combinations of live and DJ performance – to be honest, I dunno how much more you need to add to putting 3 pieces of music together that sound good together. Do you really need to add more?
Houghton this year to me was amazing for so many reasons, it’s a great festival. But the way they accommodated vinyl DJs was brilliant. Loads of vinyl DJs playing sets, myself, Billy Nasty, Adam Shelton and the guy from Ransom Note had record stalls in ‘Trevinos Record Hub’ which was buzzing all weekend. I felt it was ultimately a vinyl culture festival and I was really proud to be a part of it. It’s not dying.
Outside of the record store, what are some of your go-to formats for finding new music?
I’m on some good mailout lists digitally – No More Words which has strong links with Rush Hour / Delsin, Dean Driscoll, Tailored Communications… there are some great digital promo resources but I mainly just go digging in record/charity shops.
My friends are all record sellers that stock new stuff, Japhy at japhy.co.uk, Aidy at Vinyl Underground, Jo at Middle Floor in Brighton, and there’s obviously people posting great music on Soundcloud / Facebook / Instagram, so I check out stuff there. DJ mixes – you know the standard thing that everyone’s always done since the beginning, listen to a mix try and find the tracks.
But bargain bins as well – I’m not only interested in new music, the first place I go in a record shop is the bargain bin usually on my knees, there’s gold in there. Because it’s cheap people think it’s not worth having. Same with Discogs, there are £2 records on Discogs that people think aren’t worth having, 3 months later it’s a £40 record.
There are also good Facebook pages like We’re Going Deep, Strictly Electro etc, so I’ve got a hell of a lot of things in my saved items that I haven’t looked at yet – ha, but I can’t own everything hey!
Also, mates tip me off – I did a radio show with Ben Sims last night and he played tracks that I wanted to know and vice versa. There are so many sources.
As the trend of different genres come and go do you often find yourself digging further to find unknown gems and obscurities?
I’m not interested in going with trends, but trying to be authentic; following your heart and playing what resonates, and expressing your own musical voice.
For example, for decades I’ve been collecting all this electro, and I was doing a weekly radio show, often with a different theme each week, so I decided on electro a few times, and it seemed to be ahead of the curve, inadvertently predicting a trend – a wave was picking up that I didn’t even know I was on until it crested. But it’s been good for me gig wise, so I’m not complaining.
If you want to get your teeth into a style, pick out music that resonates with you, put it together in a way that’s unique to you – if you put your feeling into it, others will feel it. Take a risk, and if you can make it work it’s exciting for you as a DJ and hopefully the crowd.
Surgeon’s been doing it for years – he got behind Dubstep, mixing it up with techno, and he continues to juxtapose different influences. His last set at Freerotation featured original dub/reggae mixed in with techno, he’s not afraid to experiment.
But definitely, Techno is supposed to be forward thinking and innovative and fresh, it should develop and grow, not become stagnant. It should be future proof.
How do you approach your role as a resident of Third Ear and Freerotation? Do you often feel like you’re representing them when you play other parties across the country?
Third Ear occasionally does parties and Guy who runs the label likes what I do as a DJ and wants me to be the resident when he puts a showcase night on, he trusts my taste, and it fits in with the ethos of his label. It’s a quality label with a great legacy and back catalogue, and I’m honoured to be asked to play at those events. I’m not playing loads of Third Ear releases necessarily, it’s more like a musical current in sync with what I do.
With Freerotation I think again, it’s symbiotic. The reason why I play there in the first place is that where I come from musically is in sync with what Steevio and Suzybee want to do at the festival, that’s why they asked me to play and become a resident. So by default me being me and playing what I play is gonna be representative of them, otherwise, they wouldn’t have asked me to be resident there.
Playing at Freerotation is an honour and a gift to be involved. It’s a springboard and an inspiration for the artists and people who go there. It’s like a mushroom, the fruiting body that pops up and drops its spores, those spores fly off around the world, and they might sprout new mycelium in different locations but the mycelium is connected underground, out of sight, out of time. When a festival like Labyrinth, Sustain/Release or Field Maneuvers takes place, it’s like a new mushroom has popped up in a new spot for that season, then the mushroom dies, but the mycelium is there the whole time, connected and growing. I think a lot of people feel that – many have agreed when I’ve used that analogy, and I’m very glad to be a part of it.
You also have a radio show on 1BTN FM called ‘Voyage De Lux’, do you treat this differently to your DJ sets?
Yeah. I see it as an experimental journey, an opportunity to get familiar with tracks I’ve been picking up. The aim of the show for me is to put things together that haven’t been put together before, tracks I only played a few times, so it’s kind of a voyage. When you’re in the studio, just the idea that someone might be listening is enough to keep you on your toes, but I feel I can maybe take a few more risks than at a party. When you get paid in advance for a performance you’ve gotta be professional, you gotta know something’s gonna work. You wanna deliver. So I’d say the show is more a kind of experiment, putting the ingredients in the bag and then taking it to the ‘kitchen’ so to speak to see what I might create. It might taste great, might taste a bit weird, but if you’re inviting people over for dinner you wanna serve only the good hors d’ouvres, not the experimental failures.
You’ve only played outside of the UK a handful of times, is this a choice you’ve made? Is a relentless world touring schedule something that draws you in or an aspect of the scene you would like to try and avoid?
I love travelling and would love to travel more. I’ve been to amazing cities over 25 years DJing – e.g. Tokyo, Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam, and that aspect has been great. As long as you look after yourself, get enough sleep, don’t cane it too much – I do lots of yoga and swimming to balance out the late nights – there’s no reason you can’t have amazing experiences around the world meeting amazing people. What’s not to love?
It’s been inspiring to see the trend for bookings moving a bit more away from the focus always being on producers who’ve had one big hit record or a few hits out, who then everyone assumes can turn up and put records together, when often they’ve just learnt how to, it’s good people are getting wise to that. If you wanna hear people play records well…. well, book an experienced skilled DJ. Good DJs have the records at their disposal to take people on that journey, and it’s great to see the success of people like Jane Fitz and Ben UFO doing that. These guys are DJs’ DJs.
So maybe not a relentless schedule, I don’t wanna lose my mind, but I wanna see more of the world. Playing in the UK twice a week will only get you so far, you wanna go out and share the love, there’s a big world out there.
Recently I got asked to play in India – I only recently realised there’s an amazing new scene there, maybe it’s been there a while or maybe it’s because of the changing economy, either way, I look forward to making that happen.
To get the chance to play music I’ve loved for 25 years to people for whom it’s really fresh – who haven’t heard it before so it’s brand new to them – that really excites me.
What are your three go- to tracks in your DJ sets at the moment?
Skee mask – Dial 274 | Ilian Tape
Cignol – Leiden EX | Furthur Electronix
Adapta – Vohx Continues | Frustrated Funk
You can catch Alex Downey at Unbound Events x Loose Lips on the 1st February – buy tickets here.
Thanks to Lee Smith for transcribing the interview.