It was in Washington, D.C., where the Iranian-born Ali’s mind and ears were brought up on everything from hip-hop to rare groove and local bands like Fugazi and Minor Threat. It was also there, in 1991 that he met fellow countryman Sharam Tayebi and formed Deep Dish, arguably one of the most influential dance production outfits of our time.
It’s been 10 years since they parted ways, and he’s never looked back. In the time since, he’s honed his own distinct sound, fusing minimal, techno and house, launched the label SCI+TEC and developed his current live show HYBRID, a multimedia experience that took two years to come to fruition.
If there’s one thing we learn from talking to Ali, it’s that he’s a deliberate soul who’d rather do things right than do them quickly. This is probably also why fans are still waiting on ‘Above Ground Level’, his documentary, which teased a trailer this time last year – although he swears come hell or high water it will be released in 2016.
Have things changed for you with DJing over the years?
“We’re evolving. It’s changed dramatically since I started out. It was pretty underground and more so in America, being a DJ was kind of frowned upon. I think all of us at this level in our career played a wedding or two. Now it’s become big business and mainstream.
Your live setup is a testament to that. It looks like a traditional DJ setup just exploded within the booth.
“Yeah! I’ve been unfairly put in that traditional DJ category. It’s been an uphill battle to try and get promoters to see the value of the live show and what we’re actually doing. It’s unfortunate, but true, especially when you’re trying to play for the underground promoters.
That has to be frustrating.
“It’s very frustrating. I just do what I do and hope they try to get past that and do see what I do now as its own entity. It’s like Al Jourgensen from Ministry… if everyone still brought up his new wave era and viewed him as that commercial act on Arista Records. Nobody is who they were a year or two years ago, let alone 15 or 20.”
You’ve mentioned longevity is your driving force when it comes to your decision-making.
“I wish I had better hair so that I had hairstyles to define particular eras [laughs]. But yeah, I constantly push myself. I consciously try to not repeat, as much as people would like that. Whenever you have a hit song, people want more of that same formula that touched them in a particular way. I’m also evolving as a business owner, trying to give back with my label SCI+TEC – it’s a way to give young producers who are constantly giving me music to play, a shot at stardom.”
You love being able to give back to young artists – you had an idea once about letting people submit loops to you on Twitter moments before a show and then incorporating them live.
“I’m glad you mentioned that! This idea of taking loops and programming on the fly, it’s an idea that for people like Richie [Hawtin] and I, creates a new style and new way of performing. Anyone can take tracks and use the sync button…
“Yes, because that’s how you feel alive, that’s how you feel challenged. Some of the issues Sharam and I had, we were doing what everyone expected us to do, and we weren’t pushing each other anymore. It was too easy. We also drifted apart in how we viewed the business and the creative aspects. I constantly wanted to push the envelope, and do something that wasn’t as accessible as Deep Dish had become, and he felt the opposite. It’s just the way I’m wired.”
Your live show HYBRID has you behind a screen. Considering the thought you put into your live performances and your desire to push yourself, doesn’t performing behind a screen seem counter-intuitive?
“Yes, I’m behind a screen, but that was also part of the concept. The story is about a man/machine hybrid. I wanted people to see there was me, a human being, but I also wanted people to view me as someone in the machine as well. Having the rear projection and the silhouette between two screens was a way to achieve that. Maybe the next show I’ll digitize myself, I don’t know.”
What was the process like coming up with the concept for HYBRID?
“The original incarnation of the show we ended up scrapping because it became something we thought would work for the Deep Dish show, so we had to re-think the stage design for HYBRID all over again. These are those moments where I’m being challenged and the team is being challenged to come up with something completely different at the last minute.
A lot of artists now have tech-integrated shows. What would you say sets HYBRID apart?
“It’s not like a typical EDM show where you’re trying to throw so much at the audience that they become desensitized to the spectacle. I’m trying to create something a bit more refined, something that has more finesse to it. It’s a concept where at the end of the day I hope people can appreciate it visually, sonically, and as something that represents who I am and my evolution as an artist for the past 10 years.”
Have you already started to think about what’s next after HYBRID?
“I’ve already started working on a new artist album that will have a new show around it that will launch in 2018, I’d say.”
Is it odd to think 10 years have already passed as a solo artist?
“I feel like I’ve had three careers, three lifespans.”
Is there anything you miss or feel nostalgic for?
“Sure, I have moments where I immediately think of all my vinyl playing days and all my records. You only had a certain amount of time to mix into the next record and nowadays you can manipulate music in any way, so I miss the innocence of that era. I feel for the DJs that are still playing vinyl but a lot of them are realizing it’s just not possible with the way we travel now, doing five gigs in three days, for example. It’s physically exhausting.”
How do you get through those moments where you feel tapped out?
“I go to the gym; I look forward to a very nice hotel room I haven’t been to for a year, or a restaurant where I know the chef. A lot of it is mind over body. It can be extremely difficult but I’ve found if I have an espresso to look forward to it tends to make things a lot easier.”
I’ve heard you’re quite the foodie and a sake connoisseur.
“I developed a fondness for everything Japanese from an early age. Sake was just an extension of that. I’m taking my level two sake course this week. By the end of level two, if I pass the exam and get the certificate, I’ll have all the knowledge to teach anyone about sake.”
Are you going to follow in Richie Hawtin and Magda’s footsteps and have your own liquor brand?
“It’s just a question of what I want to do. I want to open a Japanese restaurant for sure, I know I want to do it in LA, I know I want it to be modeled after the six to eight seat counter sushi restaurants in Japan. I know I want to do something with sake.”
What are some of your favorite bites from around the world?
“Just Saturday night I ate at a restaurant [in Tokyo] and they served us ants, which was incredible. To some degree I’m open to trying weird things.”
Being from D.C. you probably know fellow foodie Tittsworth.
“Yeah, I just saw an Instagram post he put up the other day drinking snake blood in China. He finds it attractive to eat things other people would find repulsive.”
I saw him bite into a raw tentacle and throw it into the crowd once.
“Speaking of tentacles, my sake teacher took us to a restaurant here and it was one of the most memorable eating experiences of my whole life. We ate live octopus. You watch the chef cut the head off and the tentacles are still moving all over the place when they’re put on a sashimi plate. It was shock and horror. But it tasted absolutely amazing.”
All these stories are making me excited for your documentary ‘Above Ground Level’. The trailer for it came out a year ago… when can we look forward to having it released?
“It’s been an interesting process. Basically the filmmakers had finished it, and they found out you can’t just submit to film festivals, you have to hire a film consultant. The consultant looks at the film, gives you his thoughts on the length and the content and the flow, and once he’s happy you can hire an international sales agent to try and get it into festivals and get a distributor.
What was the intent behind that?
“I tell my story in a voiceover in the beginning of the film. I wasn’t keen on getting interviewed either and they thought that was a really cool way of interviewing me and having me be really comfortable and open. I was basically in a studio vocal booth and they were asking me questions from the control room, like an interview.
Is there anything you think people will be surprised by when they watch it?
“Yes – the honesty of the interviews, especially David Guetta. His had the most impact for me when I saw it at the screening. Initially, when they approached me about this documentary they wanted to film me for Time Warp [in Germany] – the whole experience of getting ready, having dinner, all that stuff.
Was it odd to have them following you everywhere, documenting moments like you in bed waking up?
“I had to give my room key to them and I told them when I was going to wake up. They would tiptoe in and set everything up before the alarm went off. Really funny! Very weird.”