Ali “DubFire” Shirazinia
Welcome to the 405 Ali! I’d like to start if I may by inquiring about your creative process as a DJ (you’re the first DJ I’ve ever interviewed being a film guy). What is your creative decision making like when you’re playing show?
My decision-making. When I’m choosing a gig… ?
Yeah. I suppose we could start there — when you’re choosing it and then when you’re actually playing it to.
Yeah, I’ve been doin’ this for about 30 years now and have a pretty good team of agents and assistants and people like that who kind of filter everything — like all the offers, etc.
The majority of the people on my team have been with me for many, many years. So they understand what kind of offers are going to appeal to me on a creative level and as well as like a financial level… so, we have certain strategic shows that we try to slot in, in addition to the financial ones. So it’s kind of a balancing act between the two.
Sometimes the larger festivals, the more mainstream festivals, open one up to a wider audience so we try to be conscious of that as well. Because, you know, if it were solely left up to me, I would do only the venues that speak to me on a creative level. Sometimes that can make you a bit one-dimensional and keep you kind of in a niche place as opposed to opening your sound and yourself up to a wider audience
Sure. Most certainly. The second part to that question: what to you makes a great show?
It’s a combination of so many different things. Obviously, the promoter is pretty important because the promoter has like a built-in audience — I am only as good as the audience I am playing for.
It begins, I think, with the promoter, who they draw, and also my fans. Then it extends to the type of venue: whether it’s intimate or like a big concert hall, and the kind of production that’s involved in that — the kind of atmosphere that’s created with the lighting, the stage design, the visuals, the sound system…
It has a lot to do with who’s behind it and what the venue actually looks and feels like. That kind of frames the entire experience.
I’m curious what kind of art gave you that impetus to pursue DJing: in short, what and who were your principal artistic influences?
You know I’m 46 now and my influences are pretty broad. I don’t really come from like disco like a lot of my other contemporaries do.
I kind of came into my love of electronic music through new-wave, industrial, alternative music. I grew up in the Washington D.C. area which had a pretty big and thriving punk scene. So I used to go to A LOT of punk shows.
You know I think new-wave and industrial music kind of brought me into electronic music and I was listening to a lot of that when the early dance records started coming out of the UK, Chicago, Detroit, New York, and everything kind of started to mesh together and kept me really, really inspired and interested from a very early age in electronic music — especially that forward-thinking, underground electronic music.
I felt like that kind of music — you know I loved pop and rock and alternative and stuff — I have a great appreciation for very well-written, well-crafted songs, with a typical verse-chorus-verse. I was always into the production that went behind certain songs or certain instrumental pieces of music.
I was always inspired by technology and how certain artists use technology or a lack of technology. People create very interesting, innovative, forward-thinking and inspiring music.
I was going to say the acid jazz part of the film really caught my attention. My aunt turned me on to St. Germaine some years ago which got me hooked on that scene being as I loved jazz already.
Yeah, he was pretty big back in the early ’90s — when I was pretty heavily into UK jazz, “acid jazz” as it is sometimes called.
Being a part of the film section, I have to ask, what role (if any) did film play in your artistic development?
Yeah, I was always inspired by the arts. Photography — I took a lot of photography courses when I was younger — I was into film. I was into sculpture, painting, gastronomy has always been a big love of mine.
Anything that is creative — a creative form of expression or a unique form of creative expression appealed to me and film was always a medium that I really, really enjoyed.
I think if I wasn’t making music I would probably be a chef or I was always into like science fiction and horror movies — the make-up that went into that — or I probably would’ve been a make-up artist if I wasn’t involved in music.
Interesting. You’re a very eclectic guy Ali.
Yeah, you know there’s just so much incredible art and incredible things to keep you busy in the world.
I think time is my enemy, or a lack of time to devote to all of these things that I love.
Most certainly. Your background is really something. How does it influence you as an artist?
I wouldn’t say that there is a direct influence. Obviously I am — and we all are — a product of our environment: how we were raised; what environment were we raised in — both in the family and who your friends were. Where you lived, what you ate, and who you interacted with.
All of these things help shape who you are as a person and how you interact with others. How you express yourself through your art or through your work.
So, in that regard, coming from Iran (and really the arc of the documentary) is that I am an immigrant who came to this country in pursuit of the American dream, and I achieved great success. But I was unhappy and I realized that what everyone viewed as a “successful career” for me was the complete opposite. I tried to understand and come to grips with why that was.
Once I realized what I needed to do to get myself into a better situation, I realized I had to kind of start over again. That was a pretty risky move but for me there was no other choice.
It was either deal with the status quo and continue moving forward in that situation which wasn’t making me happy — it was actually making me miserable — obviously the money was there, the money was attractive, but for me it was never about the money.
It was always about expressing yourself in the truest possible way and being happy as a result — having a fulfilling life as a result of that happiness.
So, for me it was a no-brainer, but it was a risky move. That’s sort of the tale that I think the film-makers tried to zero-in on as opposed to me as a electronic musician as part of a documentary. There’s actually been a lot of other electronic music documentaries that have really kind of punctuated and accentuated the clichés of our industry.
That was the only thing I told the film-makers: “try to steer clear of the clichés of previous documentaries and try to tell more of the human story.”
I think they understood what I was talking about and they ultimately made a film that has a more universal kind of message.
That’s the exact word I was just thinking with that. I would say they definitely have succeeded in hitting that universality.
Yeah, for first-time film-makers they did a pretty good job. Obviously the more I’ve seen the film, the more times I’ve finished it, the more flaws I’ve picked up here and there just because I am a complete film buff but I think they really nailed it.
The few screenings that we did have, the people that I talked to afterwards and the questions that were asked of me, I came away with the feeling that the film resonated with a lot of people on a deeper personal level. Which is ultimately what I hoped for and what the film-makers intended to accomplish.
Greatest triumphs and greatest challenges of being a internationally known and respected artist with a Grammy win?
I think the triumphs are the creative goals I’ve set myself — I’ve mostly been able to achieve them all — and also winning the respect of my peers. That’s always been paramount to making money for me. For me, I never really thought about the money. I just followed my true passion, followed the art that I’ve always gravitated towards — realizing that if I stay true to myself, I would eventually be able to earn a living at it.
The challenges and hurdles — especially these days — is that there’s so many people, electronic music is big business now. When I first started out, there was more space for everybody. But now it’s a pretty saturated industry.
Especially with the kids of today, and how the internet changed everything and changed the music industry and continues to change the music industry on a daily basis. It’s a lot harder for an artist to remain relevant for the kids because they have so many choices out there and their attention spans as a result are so diminished.
You’re constantly having to reinvent yourself. You can’t rest on your past success or coast on your past success. Its good self-competition to see if you can remain relevant to the kids, to the youth of tomorrow, and not to just your old fans.
Last, what is next for you?
I wrapped my debut live show which is called “Hybrids,” wrapped it earlier this year. Right now there’s another film crew that’s piecing together all of the footage. We recorded about 14 shows around the world — there’s going to be a concert film along with a live album and a coffee-table book with photographs.
That’s kind of happening in the background — a pretty big project. I’m going to be working with Midge Ure who was the vocalist of the British new wave group Ultravox, on some things. He was someone I was very into in the 80’s when I was a teenager.
I’m working on a debut artist album which I’ll launch with a new live show hopefully by 2019. I’ve already begun that.
Besides that, there’s lots and lots of studio, and I’m always on tour — I’m constantly gigging in between all of these things.
Yeah, they really emphasized that rigorous schedule in the film.
Yeah, it’s pretty rigorous. I do about 140 to 150 shows a year. When you factor in travel and all that, I’m pretty much away 250 days a year. So it’s a pretty grueling schedule.