Interview: DJ Alex Graham

At the new exhibit celebrating rock promoter Bill Graham, his son reflects how his father’s legacy inspired his career in music

Alex Graham grew up on the island of Maui and spent the summers in the San Francisco Bay Area with his father Bill Graham, the most influential rock promoter of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. In 1991, when Alex Graham was 13 years old, his father died in a helicopter accident—but the time they spent together had already planted the seeds for what would influence Alex Graham’s career as a DJ. It was in the parking lots at Grateful Dead shows he had attended with his father where Alex found a community that thrived on creativity and inclusiveness. This DIY spirit inspired him to collect records and purchase a Technics 1200 turntable—and eventually open for names like Chemical Brothers to the Prodigy and Jane’s Addiction.

Alex, his brother, the Bill Graham Foundation team and biographer Robert Greenfield have spent years creating an exhibit celebrating the legacy of the 20th century’s most prolific rock show promoter. Skirball Cultural Center Director Robert Kirschner and curator Eric Clancey helped them make the museum-scale show a reality. Bill Graham, a Holocaust survivor, is the epitome of an American dream story of survival and success. Now on view to the public for the first time, the story of Bill Graham’s life is told through posters, photographs, documents, costumes, instruments, video and audio in the exhibition “Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution” at LA’s Skirball Cultural Center. CH met with Alex to talk about his childhood, his father’s work, and how his dad influenced his own journey in music.

My exposure to electronic music, house music and DJ culture started there in the parking lots at [Grateful] Dead shows. It was totally DIY.

How did your childhood and some of the things you experienced with your father at all of those concerts inspire your decision to become a DJ?

Any band that was on tour in the ’80s I saw them, rock bands, hip-hop—all of it. There was no band I saw more than the Grateful Dead. Dad liked to be at every show possible. Going to Dead shows—every part of the experience was fascinating to me. My exposure to electronic music, house music and DJ culture started there in the parking lots at Dead shows. It was totally DIY. People thought of these imaginative ways to harness the power of a generator on their bus to power a sound system that they had clearly pieced together themselves. Guys were playing 12-inch records with a mixer and creating grooves. I remember being struck by how inclusive the whole vibe was. It seemed very… without boundaries.

What are some memories of your summers in Marin when you were young?

Dad had a house he called Masada at the top of the hill where Corte Madera and Mill Valley meet. You had to drive up a thousand feet to get to the house. Masada was special to him, solitude—it was his sanctuary. Huey Lewis, Mick Jagger, Jerry Garcia would come over and we would hang out and watch 49ers games. I remember Prince visiting one time. “Purple Rain” had just come out. I fell asleep, I woke up in the morning in my room and there was a purple tambourine. My dad said, “Prince left that for you.” I still have it.

When did you start DJing?

When I was 12, I had collected tapes and CDs and I managed to become the DJ for the high school dances. I had a few Discmans and a tape player. There were some Japanese exchange students at our school; one named Katsuya was the first person I saw trying to beat match cassettes, playing with the speed, which is really hard to do. He had a tape player from Japan that had pitch control on each tape deck. There was another kid in the dorm named Nate, his dad was in War. He was a DJ and had a turntable in his dorm—he was the reason I wanted to get a pair of turntables. I had saved up some money when I was 13, a year before my dad died. I found a used pair of Technics 1200 turntables in the Maui Bulletin. These are the classic model of turntables and are built like tanks. I still have them. Now I have about 5,000 records in my loft.

How did you amass that collection?

Starting during high school whenever I would come to SF I would go to specialty vinyl shops and buy records, many imported from Europe. I remember going to the lower Haight to Tweekin Records, the Groove Merchant, Star Alley… the old school record shops. I would find flyers for underground parties and raves there too. I would come home with vinyl and started throwing outdoor full moon parties on Maui. It was an awesome vibrant scene in the early ’90s. In hindsight, what I was doing was mimicking some of what I saw at Grateful Dead shows. Picking an unconventional venue to create an experience and trying to make it safe and inclusive. We built a community and whenever possible the events were free. Any money that was made we just bought more records.

How did you meet Jane’s Addiction’s Perry Farrell, who you’ve worked with for years as a touring DJ?

We first met when my dad was alive, in 1991 at Lollapalooza. Perry was really inspired by the US Festival that my dad produced and wanted to produce a true festival. There was a kismet between them. Then Perry got into DJing and electronic music. Years later, my brother’s friend was managing Jane’s Addiction, they were playing what had been renamed the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, with Goldie opening for them.

My brother and I would try to go out to San Francisco each year for the lighting of the Bill Graham menorah in Union Square. The importance of the menorah for us was about honoring him. In 1997, Perry and I DJed the menorah lighting. It became a dance party by the menorah at dusk. My brother and I rented a penthouse suite at a hotel nearby—Perry and I DJed that too. There were rabbis dancing on tables. It was hilarious and amazing. That’s where we bonded. I went on to play Coachella and hundreds of dates with Jane’s Addiction for years. When he toured solo, I’d open, close and be the tour manager.

What kind of events have you been DJing more recently?

The scene for dance music has never been so vibrant. Some friends opened a club in Brooklyn called Output. There’s no VIP, no bottle service, no door policy, no photos allowed inside the club because they don’t want people to be distracted. It’s a music-driven place for dancing. The sound system in there is one of the best in the country. And with a group of friends I started Techno Breakfast. We serve breakfast. It’s a daytime party that goes into the night.

What’s next for you?

My dad used to say, “You play the cards you’re dealt.” We own the rights to Dad’s book. We would love to have a film made about Dad’s life. There is a trilogy worth of material in his life story.

Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution” is currently on view at the Skirball Cultural Center through 11 October 2015 and will move next to the New Jewish Museum and continue to tour the country.

Lead image by John Olson, Bill and Alex portrait by Marcia Sult Godinez, Prince image by Ken Friedman, final images by Anya White