"Don’t get too comfortable, always look further than what's immediately in front of you"
Gray Area Agency is the result of Alex's work, whose taste for art, music and social awareness led him to create a platform with sound that captured his attention and took away his creative curiosity. Since then, they have not stopped, being internationally recognized, without losing fidelity to the music and its message: increasing the rhythm, reducing the differences.
What was your first foray into the world of electronic music?
Growing up I skated for most of my teens and hung around with some older kids. They were making English hip hop at the time, along the lines of Klashnekoff, Terra Firma, early Foreign Beggars etc. I can remember spending nights in their studios, stoned and lethargic, after long days skating. Those are warm memories. But in terms of electronic dance music, it would have been around 12 years ago. Driving into London from Suburbia every weekend with friends to hit my first raves and warehouses parties.
When did the idea of starting an agency begin to take shape? Has it always been something you’ve wanted to do?
I wouldn't say it was something I always wanted to do. The only thing I have ever been sure of growing up was that I would do my own thing. What exactly that would be, plagued me for years. I grew up with the misguided belief that doing something I was actually passionate about as a career was too idyllic, almost utopian and unattainable. But after my first raves in London, I knew something was there. Music became integral, it was all we really cared about.
The idea of Grey Area was formed around my friends, they had started DJ’ing and in my opinion, had mastered the skill of mixing and track selection in a very short space of time. They had this insane capacity to continuously discover new music and artists that very few people had heard of. During this time I could see a loose outline of a path ahead of me. Almost naturally, I took on the role of managing my friends projects. Giving some structure and direction to their raw talent. I started Grey Area in 2015 with the intention of providing a platform for my friends and started signing the people I had around me. In the same year we started our own night in London, Grey Matter, to showcase our roster alongside international artists that were pioneering some of the sounds we were into. I ran Grey Matter for 3 years until putting it to sleep late 2017 and it was after this that I turned my full attention to operating as an agency.
Can you pinpoint any early inspirations for Grey Area in terms of labels, artists, aesthetics or otherwise? Similarly, can you highlight any formative experiences that led you on the path to its inception?
As above, the initial inspiration for starting Grey Area was born from the talent I had around me and through soaking up the new environment I found myself in after moving to London. But in terms of labels and sounds outside of the immediate circle, anything that we saw as pushing in new directions. Things evolve fast, the sounds were much less industrial in the beginning, more danceable. I found classic forms of techno boring, almost soulless. We started out listening to more melodic stuff, but it still had some grit about it. It was an almost paradoxical sound in the beginning, melancholic in the sense of having dark atmospheres, yet still uplifting, underpinned by melody - like some early material from Clockwork and Avatism. Their joint album ‘Conducting The Method’ released under the CW/A moniker was for sure something we could relate to - it broke the noose of convention when looking at things like drum patterns. We actually had Avatism play live for our first party. So I’m not really one of those people that claims to have listened to industrial music since leaving my mother's womb. That would be a misrepresentation of the truth. But it also didn't take long for us to find ourselves there. Interestingly, Thomas discontinued the Avatism alias and since started his Maenad Veyl project, as well as the label Veyl. I’m a fan of what he’s doing and find it funny that most of his current supporters are totally unaware of where he started. For me, that example shows how fast things move. Different sounds for different times. It went from having Avatism headline our first night, to having artists like Phase Fatale and SHXCXCHCXSH play for us only 2 years after and later, finishing the parties on a night with Pessimist. The point here is I have no intention of conforming to trends. I’ll go wherever my interests take me. If I was to choose one label that continues to inspire me musically, I would say Hospital Productions. Dominick knows what he’s doing.
Outside of the music itself, there were other art forms and aesthetics that helped form a graphic and visual identity. In the beginning, an old friend from highschool created our branding and would work on any of our poster artworks for the parties. I’m forever grateful for his work, we had a close relationship and would spend hours on the phone discussing the smallest things; textures, tonal significance, conceptual ideas etc. I’m also grateful that he let me play a part in the artwork for Grey Area. You need to tread carefully when working with an artist, you should respect their methods, their skill. But it was refreshing to be involved in the creative process, sourcing material both physical and digital, which he could later use as a direction. A lot of the artwork was centered around collaging and photo montaging. It definitely had a DIY aesthetic to it.
Some of the initial inspiration on the visual side would come from artists from all different disciplines, such as photographers like Nan Goldin and Ren Hang, or collage artists such as Jesse Draxler. It could also come from film, it might be something from a scene, or even just particular lighting that gave us a basis to work from. I think it's also important to remember how much we draw from subconsciously. Literature has always been something I have felt close to. Still to this day my mother will remind me that I ‘Should’ve studied literature’. But I know that my favourite authors have inspired me just as much as any music has and that comes through, even if it's unknowingly.
My main heroes don’t play 130bpm, they write novels and poetry.
Another clear inspiration for starting Grey Area was to do things differently. After running the parties, it became obvious that there was a toxic disconnect between agents and promoters. It used to baffle me how agents would be with us, with their ridiculous expectations and general arrogance. We were fortunate enough to also work with some great agents on bookings. But I can’t make excuses for the others, they were fucking inept and part of the problem in the scene. So, I made a promise to myself I would never be the same. It was paramount to me to keep my feet on the ground and always work with promoters, rather than against them. I think I’ve upheld that promise to myself and everyone I have worked with. In fact, part of the reason I am giving such long answers to these questions is to try and bridge that divide a little, to show some humility behind the cloak of the word ‘agency’.
What is your criteria for choosing artists or projects?
I don’t really have a preset formula or criteria when choosing artists. It has to make sense to me, I have to feel something towards the artist's music. But if I had to choose one thing that is important to me, it would be originality. Grey Area isn't a numbers game. I have little interest in having 40 artists on the agency that all play techno. I would prefer to keep things tight, with a select roster of artists that all represent their own sounds. When you run an agency, you have many artists coming to you for representation. Very rarely do they become an artist on the agency. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t appreciated their interest. I try and always take the time to write these people back and give some constructive feedback and encouragement to keep pushing. This music thing can seem almost impenetrable for artists trying to break out. So keep humble, be kind and measured when responding to someone that has just spent the last hour battling the anxiety of what to write and how to present themselves.
What is your current trend? What sounds are you interested in?
I don’t really have one. I try not to confine things too much. What I’m into can change almost daily, depending on my mood or surroundings. I could go from enjoying a 140bpm rave set to wanting to listen to only classical music the following day. There’s a broad range of music I have a connection with. But I guess the Grey Area roster itself represents my preferences, from industrial and EBM, to experimental, power electronics, rhythmic noise, dark ambient, post punk, wave, broken techno and drone.
Since you started Grey Area until now, how much has the concept of the agency changed?
The fundamental concept has remained the same. But the agency has naturally evolved over the last 5 years. In the beginning I would say there wasn’t such a spread of different sounds, as I was only managing a few close friends. But since stopping the parties I was able to dive much deeper into the agency, expanding the roster into becoming international and with that, working with new sounds. One thing that has changed since starting out would be how I view the industry and the space in which we operate, it continuously changes and it’s important to never sit still. Don’t get too comfortable, always look further than what's immediately in front of you.
What’s the most satisfying and unsatisfying thing about running an agency?
The most satisfying thing is watching the artists grow. The majority of artists I work with are still emerging in the grand scheme of things. It's a special thing to watch someone grow and realise their dreams, whether that is releasing on one of their favourite labels, or playing a gig they would’ve only dreamed about a couple years ago. To play some role in the materialisation of that is what keeps me content with what I am doing.
I’m not sure I would use the word unsatisfying. But one of the most difficult things would be if it doesn't work out for an artist. I take what I do personally, it comes from a deep passion above everything else. So if we are not able to help in realising an artist’s aspirations, that can be difficult. I don’t get everything right and we are dealing with people’s careers and lives. I feel that pressure, it's my alarm clock in the mornings.
What have been your personal highlights and lowlights?
There’s been countless of both. I would say one of my most recent highlights would be going on tour with Autumns in the U.S. It was only a mini tour, hitting 5 cities from coast to coast. But it was a blast and opened my eyes further. The scene in America is very, very different to Europe. It’s kind of built on the back of a more tour-orientated framework, following in the footsteps of the older bands. We made some good friends and he killed it at every show. You can’t knock their DIY scene, it's real.
In terms of low points, they are mostly contained to when I was still running parties. As much as we loved it, it was fucking crippling financially and that was always a shit thing to deal with - pouring yourself into something over weeks and months of planning, to then be called in the clubs office at the end of the night and be told you owe 4k on the bar because your party people didnt come to drink beer. It was difficult to keep bouncing back from outrageous bar expectancies in venues we used.
Can you name a couple of albums that you like and come to mind when thinking of Grey Area?
In terms of albums that have come from the roster, I would say Crystal Geometry’s ‘Senestre’ LP on Sonic Groove, Autumns sophomore album ‘Shortly After Nothing’ on Death & Leisure and Filmmaker’s ‘The Love Market’ on Detriti Records. All of these albums are very different from one another. But each is masterful in its own right. Outside of these, there are two solid albums coming from the roster soon; OPERANT’s debut album to be released on Instruments of Discipline and also Verset Zero’s debut album, coming on IOD soon also. They are both very different musically speaking. But from what I have heard so far, they’re both insanely good.
Apart from Grey Area artists, I would say Giant Swan’s self-titled album released last year on Keck. The album encapsulates a range of sounds that I’m into. Again, there is a clear disregard for convention present in the music.
What is missing from the dance music scene nowadays?
Recognition of the importance of producers. Without them, DJ’s wouldn't have any music to play. Producer’s aren’t properly remunerated for their effort and creation. I’m not sure that’s an issue with the scene itself though. I think it's more to do with how we consume things in the digital age and the capitalist structure of our economies spilling over into the arts. Across society at large, we have become bound by supply and demand which has led to unsustainable behavioural tendencies when looking through the lens of consumerism.
Do you think that after the Covid-19 event, the music industry will change?
I’m sure it will in some ways. To what extent, we don't really know. As humans we seem to have a tendency to return to how things were, regardless of how starkly the lessons of an experience are laid out in front of us. Naturally, there has been a surge in streaming simply to get the music to people. I’m not against this at all, but I’m a little bored already of things being so saturated with it. You can’t replace the physical aspect of hearing music live. I’m not a fan of social media in general. I’ve always found it confusing how insistent people are about living their lives through it. Or, should I say, portraying their lives through it. I’ve known it's toxic from the beginning. I don’t use it in a personal capacity, only for operating Grey Area. Anxiety levels in my generation are fucking rife and this comes almost single handidly from this bizzare belief that you need to let people know how much fun you’re having every 5 minutes. Trust me, you don’t. It’s ok to just be.
What lesson should we learn from this paralysis?
How profoundly fragile the world is as we know it. Take nothing for granted and stop feeling so deserving at the planet's expense.
What tracks would you recommend us to liven up the confinement?
None right now. I’m enjoying silence and the feeling of nothingness.
What’s your favourite “save the dancefloor” song?
If the dancefloor needs saving, let them have one of Sawf’s productions. Maybe ‘Booma’ on Vanila. Or Phase Fatale’s remix of Schwefelgelb’s ‘Bis Zum Nächsten Tag’ on Fleisch. And if they don’t work, you’re in the wrong place.
What are your future plans?
We are working on the first Grey Area compilation to mark 5 years of the agency. This will feature a track from each artist / project and come as a digital release. Although I am also flirting with the idea of it being on tape, too. We’ll see, things are tight with the production of anything right now. I also signed another artist who I’m excited to work with. That will be announced when things chill out a little. Moving forward I plan to grow the agency in the way of having a second agent or booking assistant. I do everything myself currently and although I have no complaints, we will outgrow that model.
Describe the agency in 5 Words.
Everything you didn’t ask for.