Interviews

Synth Wizard ALX-106 Plays Meow Wolf This Friday

Alex Anderson, ALX-106, in his studio.
Alex Anderson, ALX-106, in his studio. Alex Anderson
ALX-106 is the deep house, downtempo electro, and ambient music project of Denver-based synthesist Alex Anderson. This Friday, April 29, he'll play with Montreal leftfield house producer Jacques Greene at Meow Wolf.

Originally from Loveland, Anderson has played music for as long as he can remember. His first love was the drums, but he quickly started playing anything he could to create a “full band” sound. This desire to be a one-man band spurred his foray into music production from a young age; he even learned to multi-track record when he was thirteen years old.

After playing in a “ton of bands” in high school and college, Anderson's first mature endeavor was with the band Mancub. Inspired by the band Holy Fuck, Mancub created a live performance using pedals as its instruments. It would play back the loops it made with its Roland TR-707 drum machine and Moog Realistic MG-1 synthesizer, warp the sounds with the pedals, and sing over the organized cacophony. To Anderson, it was as dancy and loud as it was fun.

After Mancub, Anderson started playing in a duo with Ethan Converse called Flash//Lights, which quickly changed its name to Rose Quartz. “Rose Quartz is where I feel like I really homed in on production,” Anderson recalls. “Mancub was super raw and energetic, whereas Rose Quartz was much more polished.”

Anderson saw some success with Rose Quartz, going on tours around the United States and Canada supporting bands like El Ten Eleven, Tesla Boy and St. Lucia.

This success continued locally, where Rose Quartz supported Hercules and the Love Affair, STRFKR, !!! and Cut Copy. The act also had the honor of opening for post-punk luminaries New Order at 1STBANK Center as Flash//Lights.

However, despite its upward trajectory, the duo fell victim to tour burnout and called it quits in 2016. Since then, Anderson has performed as Nasty Nachos, which released a few EPs before he retired from that project and formed ALX-106.

What separates Anderson’s music from that of other electronic musicians is his understanding of modular synthesis. Modular synthesizers are made of separate modules that perform different functions, all chosen and wired individually by the musician. These functions can be a combination of various aspects, including the raw sound itself (the oscillators), the filters that determine what frequencies are expressed, and the timing and voltages that determine how the sounds are played, among many other functions. These modules can also include effects such as delay, reverb, chorus and more. Modules are then patched together using audio cables in order to control the signals that in turn create the performance.

While most electronic music in Denver is made digitally and performed either as a DJ set or as a quasi-live, sample-triggering session in Ableton, Anderson’s performances as ALX-106 are as live as a guitarist's.

“[Performing with modular] is super fun,” exclaims Anderson. “It allows me to be creative in the moment and improvise a bit while also playing some ‘anchor’ tracks that people might have heard before, or fun remixes of stuff. It allows me to not be locked into a set list, and really cater to the crowd or how I’m feeling. If I want to take a left turn into a huge halftime drum break or just ride it out on a tribal, four-on-the-floor beat to engage the dance floor, I can. I find that so liberating and inspiring.”

Anderson has been attracted to modular because of its potential for portability. He can condense his drum machine, synths and pedals into a travel-sized suitcase, with all modules patched together in an ergonomic row, rather than having each piece of gear need its own case. He says it took a minute for the Eurorack gear manufacturers to catch up with that philosophy, but at the time, he still saw the potential of easy-to-transport hardware synthesis.

“I do need about five minutes prior to my set to check the sound in headphones and make sure that everything is still connected, in tune, and that it traveled okay, but it's actually way less stressful than a hardware set, where you have to set up each piece of individual gear at each show,” says Anderson. “With modular, my patch is set and the case folds up into a suitcase, so it's super easy to move around and set up to play.”

In 2013, Anderson started working at Denver-based modular-synth company WMD Devices. At that point, the company was a half-decade old and still operating out of founder William Mathewson’s garage before scaling to a full team and becoming globally respected. The experience continues to provide the skills he needs to hone the craft, and now he consults on the device's design, drawing on his experience as a performer.

This immersion into modular eventually inspired him to start two events: Freq Boutique and Patched Out!. Freq Boutique is hosted at Fort Greene, and Patched Out! recently moved into the Black Box after also being at Fort Greene.

Freq Boutique is formatted similar to an open mic, which is meant to ease people into live performance and break down the wall of intimidation around it. It includes twenty-minute sets and a five-minute Q&A for each performance.

Patched Out!, meanwhile, is the next level. Each performer plays for a full hour and seamlessly transitions from one set to the next, similar to a club night with DJs. Anderson hosts the event with Matt Tanner, who played for a time with Rose Quartz and who now goes by Love Cosmic Love.

“Matt and I both play each month and have two guests,” explains Anderson. “Then at the end of the night, he and I do a fully improvised back-to-back set where we jam out together and see what happens. It's always a super special and fun time.”

Patched Out! Is a free event, every third Friday at the Black Box in its lounge.

However, Patched Out! may have ended before it even began at the Black Box, as a scheduled performance there with Richard Devine could have resulted in Anderson’s death. Before his performance at the Black Box, he took Devine to City, O’ City for a pre-show dinner. As they were walking back to the Black Box, a speeding car turned left at the last minute from 13th Street onto Grant, disregarding the group of people in the crosswalk.

“Luckily, Richard and my wife, who was walking with him at the time, were not hit," he recalls, "but I was hit directly by the hood of the car. It hit me in the hip and sent me flying about six feet across the street. When I got up, I immediately realized my arm was broken.” The car also hit the friend who happened to introduce him to modular synthesis, but his injuries were less severe. The police say the car was likely stolen, and they were unable to find the person driving.

Luckily, the collision wasn’t severe as it could have been. While he wasn’t able to perform that night, a metal plate was inserted into his wrist, and within a couple of weeks, he was back to making music again.

Now that he’s recovered, Anderson is excited about the future with ALX-106. “This project is so fun because I’ve given myself the freedom to play with dance music DJs, do more modular-focused events and ambient shows,” says Anderson. “Opening for Jacques Greene feels like an affirmation that I'm headed in the right direction. I'm happy that the show is at Meow Wolf and not at a club, as I feel like it gives me a bit more freedom to get weird and travel through a few genres while also leaving plenty of time for a proper dance party.”

ALX-106 supports Jacques Greene, Saturday, April 29, at Meow Wolf, 1338 First Street. Tickets are $25.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.