Alex Tepper is a name you have possibly never heard of, yet the British Record Producer, Engineer and Mixer has had his hand in some of electronic music’s most charted releases.
An engineer for the likes of Black Sabbath and Steel Pulse at the beginning of his career, Alex now works with, and produces for, some of the biggest names in the industry including Nic Fanciulli, Nicole Moudaber and Steve Lawler to name just a few.
A hotly-debated subject for some, Tepper has a career spanning 25 years in which he’s co-produced, co-written & mixed some of the biggest dance floor hits in our scene. His role is that of a co-producer, working alongside DJs to create a partnership that culminates in the release of successful tracks. In a role that is arguably no different than that of a rock band’s producer — think Nigel Goodrich for Radiohead, or Brian Eno with talking heads for example — Tepper helps DJs achieve what they hear in their heads thanks to his skills as a producer and engineer, while the artists he is working with bring a set of skills and talent of knowing what works on the dancefloor and of course creative ideas for their own music.
6AM sat down with Tepper to dig deeper on his role, and to dissect this modern take on the traditional role of a band producer, but with a DJ in place of band members and their instruments:
Nice to meet you Alex and thank you for taking the time to chat with us here in Los Angeles. Where are you now?
Hi, nice to meet you and thanks for having me. I’m in my flat in East London, UK right now.
Is that where you live?
Yes, I’ve been here for 10 years or so and my studio is a 15-minute walk away. I like to be close to it.
When we heard about your work we were immediately interested in talking to you, but before diving into the nitty gritty of what you’re up to now, can you tell us how you got involved with the electronic music industry and music production in the first place?
I was always really into music and various musical instruments growing up. My most influential years were through the 80s, which was the birth of the “affordable” synthesizer – even rock bands were electronic back then ha…But yeah, growing up in the 80s, I remember loving the way that Prince records sounded for example, those heavy electronic drums with powerful synthesizers was exciting to my ears.
At around 15, I started working at a recording studio near where I grew up helping out on school holidays and weekends. It wasn’t long before I was in there myself using the studio in down time to try and make my own music, which was a slow learning curve resulting in a lot of totally un-listenable material!
I then went into sound engineering, professionally working in a studio in Birmingham on all different styles of music and with different bands. I met up with a couple of guys running a house label and started engineering and mixing their records and doing my own stuff for the label under various artist names like X-Presidents and Latino Circus among others.
Then in the late 90’s I started my own dance act with one of the guys (Phil Dockerty) called Futureshock and we had a label with Junior Boys Own and an album on Parlophone Records. We did loads of remixes and toured with Underworld.
You’ve been a house music fan throughout your whole career, and by that mean various sub-genres under the umbrella of house. What is it about house that speaks to you on such a profound level that you’ve made it your career for the last quarter of a century?
I think what really drew me to it originally was its simplicity and honesty. It had a rawness, it was underground and was designed to sound great on club sound systems.
Up until then I was being inspired by producers like Trevor Horn and Martin Rushent which was kind of the opposite; Trevor Horn was like the musical equivalent to Steven Spielberg and his productions were super hi-tech and polished.
You could only achieve that level of production in a million pound studio but along came people like Mark Bell from LFO who would be in a sort of bedroom type studio with a bunch of synths and drum machines he probably picked up at a cheap price in those days.
Making Acid House & Techno records was a bit more accessible and against the grain for me. I still find that the type of house and techno I’m drawn to now has that same feeling about it, raw and honest and not too polished.
Some people reading this may sound surprised, as was I when I first heard your name. I say so because truthfully I wasn’t aware of who you were, yet I was aware of SO MANY tracks you’re actually responsible for but which have been released under the name of other artists. Is this reaction of “surprise” one you encounter often?
Well, firstly it’s Co-Responsible – I work alongside the artists and it’s definitely a collaborative process. But yeah, I do get it a lot. Mostly because of the type of person I am, I don’t put myself in the spotlight very much. I never really took to being on a stage and being centre of attention. But also maybe because of the misconception in the dance music scene of the sort of production work I do and that it’s supposed to be kept some kind of a secret, which is crazy. It’s purely down to people being misinformed.
So let’s talk about the arguably controversial subject of you co-producing tracks with “household” house and tech house artists the likes of Nic Fanciulli and Steve Lawler. In your own words, what would you say your job or role is here?
My role is very similar to that of a traditional Record Producer. I work very closely with the artists (which in this case happens to be DJs) in order to facilitate their vision and their ideas in the studio, using my skills and experience in that environment. The artists bring their own unique ideas which come from performing in clubs and on stages to thousands of people week in and week out, and in a roll that they’re passionate about and feel comfortable in.
The DJ/Producer relationship is nothing new; it’s been around for decades of dance music. Sasha and Charly May, Digweed and Nick Muir, Martin Buttrich with Timo Mass and Loco Dice, and those are just the publicly known ones. I guess the difference with me is I’ve kind of made it my career where as maybe those guys had and still have their own things going on as well. Essentially, I just really enjoy working with other people in the studio making club music.
How did you start working in this manner, “behind the scenes” if you will, rather than using your productions to pave your own career as a producer and DJ?
It was sort of a natural progression after my involvement in Futureshock came to an end around 2006/2007. I found myself continuing to make music and got a call from Steve (Lawler) one day asking me to help him out with some of his productions, which I agreed to. We ended up making Kalimba, Femme Fatale, Courses For Horses, Violet and a few others. I guess word got out from that and started getting a few other calls to do the same with Nic (Fanciulli) and then Nicole (Moudaber) and some others along the way.
Take some of the biggest hits you’ve co-produced and answer this question: could you and would you have produced them without working with the artist whose name ended up being recognized for these tracks?
No, I wouldn’t have. I’m a firm believer that a record is a product of what happens in the studio on that day. The ideas that go into it are from both of us ultimately, not just me. No two artists I work with sound the same, which shows you that their stamp is well and truly on each of those tracks.
I remember working with Steve once on a remix and we got it to a point where it was OK but not really giving us the buzz we want to get with something, I went upstairs to make a phone call or something and left Steve at the computer, when I came down he was all excited and was like “I’ve got it!”. It was the most simple trick with the arrangement that he’d done, making the break a bit longer and right before the groove kicked back in he did a little edit with a percussion hit and it made the track kick in 10 times better than it did before. It was simply an arrangement thing but this is what DJs know from hands-on experience, and how to work the crowd through the music. It was at that point for me proof of how well it works bringing that back into the studio in such a positive way.
It is a total team effort. I’ve learned a lot about arrangements, in particular, working with the calibre of DJ’s that I do. Also had a similar thing happen with Nic & Mark’s track “Star” recently. The three of us were in the room, jamming around and we stumbled on a bass-line that just suddenly took the whole thing up a notch. We all just looked at each other as if to say – yes that’s it! That’s the one! You sort of strive to get those moments in the studio and it’s far better when there are other people to share it with.
Conversely, could they and would they have been able to produce those tracks without your help?
Well I guess they come to me for a reason. Would Frankie Goes To Hollywood have made Welcome To The Pleasure Dome without Trevor Horn? I’d say they would have definitely made something great but it wouldn’t have been that exact same album.
But you know, this is the point I think, no one thinks twice about Robbie Williams working with Trevor Horn or U2 working with Brian Eno, or Max Martin with just about every pop act out there. It’s just all part of the process in those genres and even celebrated and boasted about, but for some reason it’s not the same when it comes to dance music. The DJ is expected to be great at what DJs do AND make great records on their own in the studio at the same time. Either that or the opposite happens and people make the assumption that they don’t get involved in the process at all. It seems there’s not much in-between, which is of course not the case.
Maybe a large part of the problem is that there are a lot of DJs breaking through now because they happen to be dominating the Beatport Top 10s with their laptop productions.
And promoters will book those guys, but in quite a lot of those cases when booked they can’t actually DJ with the skills of someone who has been working tirelessly most of their lives, mastering that craft. They are a different set of skills which are intertwined and go together well but just because you make a great dance record doesn’t mean you are a great DJ and vice versa.
Is there a reason you prefer working “quietly” as a producer rather than touring the world and possibly even making more money as the recognised name behind these productions?
I feel like I’ve been there and done it for a little while with Futureshock – actually being the artist, touring and making an album and doing loads of remixes and having a label. I enjoyed bits of it very much at the time but I’m much happier these days being in the studio. I’m working towards maybe getting back into some of my own projects again but I’m not sure I would ever go back into DJ-ing and heavy touring. It was exhausting and definitely ate into valuable studio time and being creative in the week; basically most of it spent recovering from the weekend just gone.
When it is all said and done, do you feel that the outcome of this working arrangement is fair for you?
Yes absolutely. This is my career choice. I’m credited on everything I do – it’s no secret. I’m able to work with the people I want to and enjoy working with – a very high caliber of artists in this field. What producer wouldn’t be happy with that situation?
Have the artists you’ve worked with invited you to join them in their lifestyle, tours, or even just to release on their label?
There was a time I was doing some solo music, I released a few tracks on Nic’s label Saved and toured with him a few times. I mean, it would be very easy for me to get my music signed and get a leg up if I felt like going down that route again. But it was a conscious decision on my part to stop making my own records around 2014. I suddenly thought – I’m really busy doing great work with great Artists, it’s working well and I’m enjoying it so why am I trying to do the DJ thing myself again. It was like trying to have two careers at the same time and therefore no life or free time at all…It was a huge relief when I made that decision and it also made me enjoy working with others a lot more. I suddenly stopped being torn between the two.
By the way, do these artists come to your studio, do you work in their studio or how does it usually work?
We always work from my studio. I know the room and my monitors pretty well and have developed a fast and efficient workflow in it. Occasionally we may work remotely if their tour schedule is hectic, which is fine, but even when remote we are on the phone or FaceTime throughout the day going over the track and necessary changes etc. Or it may be that we’re just putting finishing touches to things we already started together so it’s not absolutely necessary that they’re with me for that. Or sometimes I get involved much further down the line with projects and it’s more just a mix-down and finishing touches. Whichever way, part of my roll is to make sure it’s going to sound good in the clubs and next to other tracks in their sets so I need to work where I’m familiar with the sound.
Can you share some insight on your studio, what we can find in it ?
Sure, I use mostly outboard and analogue equipment as I prefer the hands-on approach and the unique sound it has. I use Akai MPC2000XL (Modded), S950 (Modded), Eurorack Modular Synth, Prophet 6, my Old Korg MS20, Moog Voyager and DFAM.
I use the computer for Ableton Live as a sort of creative tape machine or Pro-Tools for mix-downs, UADs, and things like Native Instruments Reaktor & Kontakt. Basically I like software that brings something new to the table. It can be a nice way to manipulate the more organic sounds I get from all the analogue and outboard gear.
Do you have any studio rituals or processes you follow to get the most out of your studio time?
Ha…I wish I could give you a really funny answer to this but none that I can think of. Probably just firing up the machines and seeing what happens!
Can anyone reach out to you to work on a track with you, or will you only work with certain caliber artists?
I’m very open to working with up and coming DJ’s. I’m doing some really good work with Alex Kennon who is a great DJ from Ibiza who is breaking through. We just finished a remix on Crosstown Rebels and his 2nd EP On Saved Records.
It would have to depend on hearing some demos first if I were to consider working with someone I didn’t know – or a recommendation from someone I already work within the industry.
What’s your biggest studio pet peeve?
Any time someone says “we need to make a top 10”.
Thankfully I don’t hear it very often!
Can you tell us what some of the most memorable studio moments have been co-producing some of these hit tracks?
I don’t think anyone really realises that they’re making a big record at the time, it’s kind of just another day at the office, so to speak. You really have to see how records do and then you look back and go wow, that was quite big!
So really I think like the few instances I talked about earlier, it’s those moments you get with the person or people you’re working with in the room when you hit on something and it all starts to make perfect sense in that moment and starts to sound like music to your ears! It’s exciting and invigorating.
Is there an artist you would love to be able to get in the studio with one day, that you haven’t yet?
One last Q: What would you say to anyone who has an issue with what you do?
I would say, don’t believe the bullshit surrounding it. The way I work is nothing new or unusual or secretive, It’s been done like this since the birth of modern music across all genres – doesn’t matter which. There’s a process that’s involved in making records and I’m part of it in a passionate way, as are all of the artists I work with.