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Slices of Life with Ali Berger

rapid pi movement

A walk through the artist’s mind, into liminal states, breakfast, meditation, and more.

By kiernanlaveaux


Ali Berger wears many hats. Between his prolific Trackland imprint, his work behind the mixing board of your favorite new EP, and his shredding, improvised live sets that explore strange crevices of the beloved DR-5 Rhythm Machine, over the past decade, the Pittsburgh-based MIDI sorcerer has concocted a vast musical universe. 

Touching upon party rocking sounds from dance music’s storied 80s and 90s heyday, the improvisational modalities of jazz musicianship, and a practice of maintaining inspiration from within, Ali’s developed a unique place in underground American electronic music. His work references musicality and synthesis throughout time, but connects itself to the dance music lineage in a deeper way. Much like past innovators, Ali distills the complexities of life into moments of elegant simplicity.

He also rocks it on the 1s and 2s. Ali can often be found smiling in the booth next to a drum machine as he fuses all manners of buddhist bubblegum pop and housed-up deep-in-the-blend journeys, all with a sense of space that approaches Loft-style selecting.

Ali and I first connected in the middle of the hopeful-yet-wayward landscape that was mid-2010s underground American dance music. We met one Detroit Electronic Music Festival weekend, where he gifted me a copy of the now-infamous Trackland Circle Tracks CD and an all Jeff Mills DJ mix he’d recorded on three decks. I thought to myself, who exactly is this maverick? What makes him tick? What am I supposed to do with a CD? Eventually, we ended up living together for the better part of four years in Pittsburgh. In that time, there’s been a lot of character development and change—we are now in more of a Mad Max-esque mid-2020s late-capitalist era of American dance music. 

Over all this time, Ali and I have shared laughs over Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Ouran High School Host Club, deep thoughts on balancing the ins and outs of diligence versus sweet spontaneity, and wisdom on the elasticity of consciousness. In celebration of Ali’s recent 12” release infinite chime and the burning embers of friendship, we took a walk through his mind into liminal states, breakfast, meditation, and more.

Ali Berger - Earth Groove
Ali Berger - Earth GrooveTRACKLAND

Tell us about this track. What does it mean to you? Is there a story behind it?

I’m gonna boldly state that there is not much to say about this track. I do sometimes make stuff with verbal/conceptual meanings, or associated stories, but often I’m happy to take a break from these things when I make music. I usually finish a track within three to five hours of starting it, so there’s not a lot of time for all that stuff but instead there’s this intuitive and flowing exchange between my consciousness, the music that’s unfolding, and the equipment that’s at hand. With this one that’s pretty much all there is.

What role does music play in your life? What often surrounds you when music is entering your eardrums?

Making music has been a really important part of my spiritual/emotional/psychological growth and regulation. On most days I wake up feeling like I have to justify the fact that I’m alive; there’s a basic sense of okay-ness that’s lacking and I’ve tried all kinds of things to fill that space and feel solid. Making music works with that in a couple of ways—the stuff I make and release is a hopefully positive contribution to others’ lives, which feels good, but what’s really healing is that when I’m engaged in the process, being here just makes sense and that need to justify drops away. It’s a taste of how I hope things could be more often, an experience that I’m learning to bring into the rest of life. 

This is a big part of why I’ve made so much music, it’s not really about the product but more about getting into that zone. This relationship is changing a little bit as I build a better internal foundation, which is exciting, too. Ultimately, I want that solidity there on its own, and then I can engage with music (and anything else) in a way that’s truly free, that’s about benefit instead of obligation or catching up.

In terms of surroundings, my studio has almost always been in my bedroom, so listening to stuff I make happens in this cozy and intimate place, surrounded by way too much gear (I’ve gotten good at using vertical space) and also about six feet from my bed. I probably do most listening in the car though, especially while running errands to the suburbs. The cover of my forthcoming record on Scissor & Thread is an homage to this (which label owner Francis Harris suggested without us ever discussing my love of strip malls).


What inspired you most recently?

Public Service NYC! A party Toribio and DJ Mickey Perez do in Herbert Von King Park. It was a Sunday afternoon, raining all day but a good crowd showed up, the music was uplifting, the full Karlala Soundsystem was in effect and it was so fun to dance. Sometimes it’s that simple. 

It’s also inspiring to see students going so hard to demand their institutions stop supporting the genocide that Israel has been carrying out in Palestine with the help of the United States. We live in systems designed to make us sick at all levels—physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, in ways subtle to overt, individual to global. Any resistance to this situation is the greatest gift, we can all give it in our own ways and I’m inspired any time that happens.

You’ve spent over a decade in various underdog hotbeds of American Dance Music—growing up in New Jersey and  cutting your teeth in Boston, Detroit, Pittsburgh. Is there anything about these places that influences your work?

Going one by one … I didn’t know anything about house music when I was growing up in NJ but I always feel some Jersey pride when I pick up a Burrell record or a Boyd Jarvis cut that would’ve been played at Zanzibar. Boston was a great place to start playing gigs because there weren’t as many rules as there would be in a city with more of a historical identity in dance music—I built a habit of being myself. Detroit is hard to sum up but I learned a lot being around so many great DJs, producers, and record stores and it made me work really hard to get my skills up. Pittsburgh has been a place to slow down and get to know myself better and I think the music I’ve made these last five years reflects that.

Your personal imprint Trackland has produced various ephemera, digital, and physical media this year—to me, Trackland feels like a poignant vignette into the spirit of Ali Berger. Tell us all about Trackland, and any past and upcoming releases you’re excited about.

I’ve really struggled with this answer because Trackland is so many things. It started ten years ago with a CD-R when it seemed impossible to get anyone to release my music. It’s become kind of like a journal, an alternate universe where I can be safe from harsh definitions of completeness, perfection, appeal, functionality. There are almost 70 releases on the label and about 55 of them are from the last four years. The size of the catalog has made it a helpful anchor as I get deeper into the music industry and feel pressure to do things the “right” way—there’s this huge body of work reminding me of the intimate joy that’s possible when I put the rules out of mind for a bit.

I often think of something Jeff Mills said, that he’s usually thinking of one person (rather than a group of people) when he’s producing, that he looks at it like whispering in someone’s ear. There are some big tunes on Trackland but it’s more about using my inside voice, one on one conversation. Slice of life music. This is probably why I go so light on the promotion, it doesn’t make sense to shout about these quiet moments.

Recently there were a couple of physical releases for the first time in many years—a 12” called infinite chime, where I spray painted the artwork on each of the 100 copies one by one, and a tape called “a refuge / 1,” which collects some music that creates (or came from) a mental environment of peace and safety. Coming up, I’m very excited about a single called “A Touch So Real” by a new project called Heavy Cream. It’s extremely deep, deep house and I’m trying out a new art style with the cover.

Meditation has been a huge part of your life as long as I’ve known you. Anything you want to share about how that affects your music and  personal practice?

The main meditation system I practice (called anapanasati, outlined in early Buddhist teachings) is about developing a relaxed, clear, non-judgmental sensitivity to what’s really going on with the body and mind, which leads gradually to an experiential understanding of natural truths that in turn lead to the end of suffering. (This is the best overview I can give here but very incomplete, please read other stuff if you’re curious because I am not at all an authority.) 

This growing sensitivity affects everything, but here’s one example from music and one from life. My music feels more refined and carries a different sense of ease than it used to, and I’m much more aware of any immature, selfish, or unwholesome feelings I’m bringing to interactions with others and more able to let those settle, so there’s freedom for everyone involved to be themselves.

The theme of this column is sleep, which I find kind of hard to keep up with question wise—anything you like to do when it’s hard for you to sleep and you find it hard to keep up with your own internal rhythm?

I’ve struggled with sleep a lot—usually I can fall asleep fine but I wake up after four to six hours and often can’t get back to sleep after that. One thing that has helped lately is writing some affirmations in a notebook. It cultivates some feelings of safety and then I can relax and pass out for a bit longer.

I say “Skillman, New Jersey,” you say?

Central Jersey is real!! 

Dreams are the both the apex of our desires and the sitcom reruns of the subconscious. Are you living any of your dreams?

Kind of … I always wanted to have an unmistakable sound and my own multifaceted musical universe and maybe I do, or I’m getting there? But an unspoken part of that dream was that I would be fulfilled in other ways too once I did that, and (shocker) this is not how it works. Sitcom reruns of the subconscious is a very apt description for this part—familiarity is very seductive, we can get comfortable trying the same thing over and over, but eventually the jokes don’t hit like they used to and it’s time to watch something else. 

Waffles or pancakes? Walk me through Ali Berger’s ideal breakfast

Almost every morning for two or three years I’ve made the same breakfast—a bowl of oatmeal with blueberries (frozen ones, I cook them at the same time as the oats), peanut butter, ginger, turmeric, and black pepper. A very gentle way to charge up. I only hit the full-on diner breakfast a few times a year since it’s so hard to function afterwards, but a Belgian waffle, pancakes, and scrambled eggs are all in the rotation. I’m lukewarm on diner potatoes but if they’re shredded and crispy they can hang.


To practice mind-full-ness, do you think we must also practice mind-empty-ness?

Here’s a quick rundown of a Buddhist teaching which I’ve been learning about recently: whenever there is a sense of “I” and “mine” active in the mind, there can’t be real mindfulness. The feeling that there is a “me” that is special and differentiated from everything else, or that something we experience can be owned, will always get in the way of being completely present with what’s happening. It can be a subtle interference, or we can have a totally wrong idea about what’s going on because we’re trying to reinforce this “me” which ultimately doesn’t exist in the real world, where everything is interconnected, conditioned, and changing. Again, if this is interesting to you please check out some better sources!

What does the rest of 2024 hold for Ali Berger?

“I” (ha) will be hanging out in Detroit during Movement weekend, and then on May 31st “my” next EP Serious releases on 12” & digital via Scissor & Thread. There will be more Trackland releases later this year, as well as two more EPs (one 12” and one digital) on two other very dope and consistent US labels. Lots of going outside this summer, learning to relax a little bit, exploring new textures in the studio. Gigs in the late summer and in the fall if they come through—I love to DJ and play live so hmu! Probably safe to say this isn’t everything but in a dynamic world I think I’ve promised enough. :)

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