Interview by Chris Zaldua
It’s hard to imagine being a regular Bay Area partygoer and not knowing who Sepehr Alimagham is. The San Jose native has been a fixture in the world of Bay Area house and techno for quite awhile now — on the dance-floor, behind the decks, in the studio, or all of the above and then some.
Most who know Sepehr know him as a DJ; he’s made his mark everywhere from all-night warehouse affairs to bottle-service clubs and everything in between. But he’s also been producing his own music for years, and lately, has begun playing live sets of his own productions.
This latest installment of the As You Like It Podcast is a recording of Sepehr’s live set, re-created in the studio based on a performance earlier this year at Monarch. No track IDs on this one — just Sepehr’s own productions and jams. Read on to learn more the spirit behind Sepehr’s hustle, and make sure to catch his live set Friday, Mar. 9, when As You Like It and Parameter join forces to host Kassem Mosse and Tin Man live at Public Works.
CZ: Tell me about yourself — where are you from, and how did you end up falling in love with electronic music?
SA: I grew up in the Bay Area — San Jose to be exact, essentially a culturally-devoid zone that I grew up in (at least when I was going growing up) — so I count myself very lucky to be a part of the music scene I am in now. Had it not been for chance interactions with certain people and certain websites, I’d probably be listening to Creed right now, or DJing at Persian weddings. Before anything, I was a big hip-hop nerd. Early in my teens, I somehow discovered a rap review website, aptly named rapreviews.com, that was literally just HTML text reviews of hip-hop records. Here, I discovered all that underground hip-hop music that set the stage for my taste. From there, my good buddy Ardy (Ardalan from Dirtybird Records) who I met early in high school exposed me to stuff he and his brother were listening to in Iran — Boards of Canada, Aphex Twin, and bands like Mellowdrone and The Avalanches. I think it was stuff like BoC that really ignited the first flame within me. Then he and I just started getting lucky and discovering thing after thing — I remember playing hacky-sack with him and other friends while we both zoned to Ricardo Villalobos in our headphones, still juniors in high school. So I guess I wrote my love letter to dance music in that era, because we’d spend 8-10 hours sitting on chairs in front of the computer at friends’ houses digging (Kazaa’ing) for more stuff like that, and getting our minds rocked. I think also my natural transition of getting into post-hardcore/math-core/post-whatever bands later in high school also kick started my affinity for off-kilter, underground music.
CZ: I know you’ve got a long history in electronic music here in the Bay Area — and that you started DJing well before you were legally allowed to buy your own beer. How have things changed from then til now, specifically with regard to your own sound and the Bay Area scene at large?
SA: It has been a pretty wild ride, to say the least. Part of why this podcast/interview/upcoming show is so special is because AYLI definitely played a pivotal role in my electronic music upbringing. I met Jeremy Bispo from As You Like It through going to an 18+ Tuesday night techno party in Berkeley called “Sonus.” It’s how I met other people who are still involved in the scene — Max Gardner, Mattie Bowen (Mossmoss), Brian Knarfield, and others. My other underage friends and I would caravan to Berkeley on Tuesday nights from San Jose just because it was the only place we could go to hear techno/underground dance music at that age. There I met Bispo, who invited me to come to the infamous Compound, an SF underground institution, where he was throwing parties. We were literally 17-18 years old getting bodied by the most forward thinking music at the time, at the vibiest space in SF at the time. This was huge for me. I had no idea who anyone in the music scene was, I would just show up with a squad of friends from San Jose and have an out of body experience.
From there, I had so much inspiration bubbling up that I decided I wanted to do it myself. I started off really struggling to find my voice, DJ- and production-wise, and made sorta tech-house/booty-bass and wanna-be minimal hybrids, but felt like it wasn’t what I really wanted to do deep down. I think it was interesting because I feel I caught the very tail end of that “proper” time of the scene with the Compound, 222 Hyde, and all those crazy, loft parties that are now remnants of the past. So it’s like right as I came in, stuff started winding down, and “tech” slowly began rearing its head. Since then, it has been a constant push/pull, continually growing as an artist, but all the while struggling to scour for inspiration where ever it can still be found.
CZ: You’ve also been producing your own work for quite some time. How did you get introduced to production? What drew you to it?
SA: Me and one of my best friends Michael Claus actually started music production together while we were still in high school. He downloaded FruityLoops first — FL 6, I believe — and I would see it when I’d come over to his house and it looked like complete hieroglyphics to me. We learned by literally turning random knobs until something happened. Me and my friends joke all the time about the funny situations I would always be producing in. One monitor…half a working headphone…my little sisters laptop which had Disney princesses as the wallpaper…you get the idea. I was essentially a knob-twiddler producer until I met Chelsea Faith, aka Cherushii, who really played a big role in me learning music production through-and-through and pushed me to go outside of my comfort zone with it.
What drew me to production, probably the most, was that I went through a few traumatic and tough things growing up and music production truly did take the edge off of life. When I could just sit down, and for 5-6-7-8 hours completely be in a different plane of existence, expressing myself, without any of the troubles and pain penetrating me. It still is my comfort zone today. I can’t really go a few days without producing music in some form.
CZ: And on that note, you seem to have really come into your own lately. You’re producing new cuts at a rapid clip, released your first 12″ last year, and I believe you have more to come this year. Have things fallen into place, production-wise?
SA: I think this year is coming at me fast, with a lot of things that I had previously always wanted to do but could never seem to make happen — like getting *anyone* to listen to my demos. I think I had always just been wishing for a little bit of recognition or respect or whatever, but now that I don’t have that as a priority, and am simply focusing on getting my chops up, I think it’s working out for me. I’ve always been working on music, but I’m finally starting to find my voice a little bit. I’m paying a lot more attention to minute things in my production I hadn’t before, and taking my time to make things have more spirit. All that said, I’m just on “level 1” of a new beginning right now, so I am excited to see what else is in store for me to learn.
CZ: Let’s talk about your AYLI Podcast, which isn’t a DJ mix — it’s a re-creation of a live set you performed at Monarch earlier this year. You’ve been playing live a fair bit lately. Is this something you’re going to be doing regularly?
SA: 100%. Now that I’ve finally made the jump, I realize how much I enjoy doing it and how it feels so much more artistically fulfilling than anything I’ve ever done. I want to re-configure my music career to really be focused on this and develop it as much as I can, and take it on the road as much as I can.
CZ: How does playing live differ from DJing? Obviously, the setup and gear required is wildly different. But how is preparation different? How does it differ in-the-moment?
SA: Well, since every live set is different, it all depends. The way I’m playing, it’s basically just bits and pieces of music or soundscapes I’ve created over the years, plus brand new work I am producing for the specific setting I am going to perform it in. The flow and energy of the live set is definitely parallel to my style of DJing — which I guess is very physical and in your face, it’s just how I am, I can’t help it! — and I try to make it as fluid as possible. The big difference though, that makes me love live performance, is that when there is a beautiful moment that the crowd is really dialed into, I can ride it out or keep that energy/sound going for as long as I want. Whereas in a DJ set, those moments are much more fleeting. I have more control over the canvas, so to speak.
Prep-wise they are very similar, because you are either choosing (DJ set) or creating (live) tracks or elements that you think will be relevant in the context of whichever place or setting you’re performing. I think preparing for a live set is more fun for me because I can literally do anything I want, and I am more excited to share my results of what I prepared than with a DJ set. Of course, I still love DJing, and always will. But part of what sucks about live performance is that it is A LOT of work. There has been times where I have found tracks hours before a show and ended up playing really well. You can’t do that with a live set.
CZ: Is there anything you’ve come to discover you love about playing live and miss when you’re DJing, or vice versa? Are they different kinds of performances for you or is it more like two sides of the same coin?
SA: Like I said before, there is definitely a big parallel, so far, with my DJing style and my live performance style in terms of the flow. It comes in hot, I want it to mess with your head, and I want it to be a rave (most of the time). I think since I have just begun this new journey of live performance, time will tell the things that aren’t so fun for me, to make me remember what I miss about DJing. Something that clicked in my head, also, was that I thought I was going to be so stiff the first time I played live, and I ended up looking and feeling like a raving (pun intended) lunatic the whole time, so I realized it was going to be something I am gonna keep doing. One thing I want to do to differentiate between my DJ sets and live sets is to do more things that almost feel theatrical in nature — like long beatless parts in the middle, designed just to mess with your head for an extended period of time.
CZ: What’s next for you? Do you have new records in the works you can spill beans on? Anything else you’d like to share?
SA: What’s next for me is to really focus on getting more records out, and continuously sharpening my sound. I want to play my first overseas gigs. I am not sure how many beans I can spill out of my bean can right now in terms of planned releases, but I can say ecstatically that I have five different records coming out this year (hopefully by the end of the year). All of which are either appearances on compilations or solo records, and all of which are on labels working with people who I am absolutely honored to work with. I still can’t believe it’s all happening, really.
I also want to say that I am so happy to be here, and I hope that everyone can enjoy whatever musical offerings I bring to the table, and I hope I can enrich as many people and work with as many of the beautiful artists in our community (and beyond) as possible.
CZ: Finally, tell me about some of the most exciting music you’ve discovered in 2018. Doesn’t have to be new — just new to you, and it can be dance music or not. What’s got you hooked lately?
SA: Lately, I have been secretly getting religiously back into jungle from the mid-90’s to early 00’s. The intelligent stuff. It has really freed me from this contrived feeling I’ve been having with regard to a lot of house/techno/electro lately. Re-listening to Photek‘s early albums, and finding material I’d never heard before from Goldie, Trace, Peshay, Optical, Ed Rush, Doc Scott, etc. has been blowing my mind! I found this SoundCloud account that archives old jungle/d’n’b radio shows from Kiss FM in the UK from the 90’s, and it’s been giving me insane contact nostalgia (even though I never even was there). I plan to get back into producing jungle as well once I get some other stuff out of the way.
Another musical discovery from this year for me — Yellow Magic Orchestra, and all of their affiliates. WHOA. These kind of soundscapes are crazy inspiring to me, especially given the equipment they had to use in that time period.