The Secret Life of Language

Go, go, go to The Nervous Breakdown to read my profile of psychologist and author James Pennebaker, a lovely man bursting with clever ideas who was kind enough to share his time to talk about life, linguistics and his book The Secret Life of Pronouns.

Academics are easy to caricature. Sketch a figure in a rumpled suit jacket with messy hair and a pair of glasses clinging doggedly to the tip of his nose and you’ll win that round of Pictionary. Dr James Pennebaker, though, defies expectations. A renowned researcher, author, and chair of the psychology department at the University of Texas at Austin, he blends down-to-earth bonhomie with a taste for Lanesborough Hotel martinis, and hones his brilliant mind with long-distance running.

I contacted Dr Pennebaker after reading an excerpt from his latest book, The Secret Life of Pronouns. The product of fifteen years of research, The Secret Life of Pronouns argues that the way people use pronouns – the itty-bitty words like ‘you’, ‘I’ and ‘we’ that account for more than half of daily conversation – can predict things like emotional state (depressed people say “I” a lot), social status (powerful people use “I” less frequently), or truthfulness (liars tend to say “we”). No self-respecting word geek could fail to be intrigued.

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Higher Education Academy Winning Essay

In the spring I won the Higher Education Academy Student Essay Competition, which paid for my Kindle. Hurrah! Anyway, below, my winning essay on “What do English or Creative Writing have to say to an age of austerity?”

When the recession first bared its teeth a literary friend of mine was blasé. Writers are used to being poor, she said, what’s new? She was right. The age of austerity is simply the rest of the world getting a glimpse of life as lived by “lifetime English majors” (as Buddy Glass called us) and creative writers since – oh – just about forever. Writers ranging from George Orwell to Hunter S Thompson, Oscar Wilde to Mavis Gallant, have lived in – and written some of their most exquisite, lacerating prose on the subject of – abject poverty.

You will have to have another job, Italian novelist and poet Natalia Ginzburg noted matter-of-factly in her essay, My Vocation, a love-letter to the art of creative writing. Few writers are fortunate enough to be able to prove her wrong. Even when times were good for the rest of the world: when hedge funds grew into dense money-thickets and credit was easy, when house prices rose and investment portfolios swelled with promise, writers shared little of the bounty. There were – and are – exceptions, of course. Some writers sell enough to buy a house in the country, a few nab movie deals, or churn out novels regularly enough to enjoy life in a certain style. Once in a while, a six-figure publishing deal makes headlines. For most, though, the act of writing, even for publication, is so remote from any prospect of financial reward as to render money virtually meaningless. The best advice I can give you, a literary agent told my course-mates and I, is to marry someone with money. She was only half joking.

Writers take for granted that talent, education and dedication do not necessarily lead to material success. This particular reality has come as an ice-water shock, however, to those who followed the beaten path from A-levels to university assuming it would lead them right into a secure job in their chosen field. During the boom years this progression seemed irrefutable; like two-plus-two equalling four. All you had to do, in order to have a comfortable life, was learn something useful like business, banking, marketing, or management, and then sashay into a comfortable office, regular paid holidays and the eventual promise of a respectable three-bedroom semi somewhere on the commuter belt. When there were plenty of well-paid jobs available choosing to pursue English or creative writing was seen as at best frivolous, and at worst a dangerous brand of stubborn, self-defeating stupidity. Writers, like other artists, were asked: “Why don’t you get a proper job?” Now, there is no such thing as a “proper job”. Graduate unemployment is at a record high and it isn’t just humanities students who can’t find jobs. According to the BBC more electrical engineers are unemployed than are modern languages graduates, and fine arts is no worse a course, in terms of employment potential, than economics or civil engineering. The promise of the proper job turns out to be hollow.

Because English students and writers have never really participated in the collective fantasy of eternal satisfaction through consumption we are uniquely placed to help our stunned compatriots make necessary adjustments. Creative writers and English students don’t make calculations based on salary packages; we choose differently. We don’t talk about how much money we will be earning in five years, but about the novel we’re writing, our next article, or the screen-play we are going to adapt. Since we have no corporate ladder to climb, no water-cooler politicking to do, we spend our time reading, writing blogs, publishing journals, running workshops or teaching. We define ourselves by what we create in a world where the phrase “creative type” is commonly used as a pejorative. Compelled to question the petty orthodoxies about what we should or shouldn’t do with our lives, creative writers develop the habit of asking questions, of deciding for ourselves – day by day – who we are and how we want to live. “Freedom is a choice,” Hunter Thompson said, “You decide who you are by what you do.” Because writers have typically fallen outside of society’s casual assumptions about money and success we have learned the art of self-definition.

Writers have valuable truths to share in an age of austerity. We can encourage people to stop chasing illusive financial gains and focus on building a life around work they love. We are here to testify that creative work is a vital and satisfying life choice, not a privilege of rich dilettantes. Most of all, writers are proof that poverty is not fatal. We know from experience that there are many ways to take the sting out of a scant bank balance. Our leisure time is different: most writers don’t spend Saturday afternoons shopping, or own the latest flat-screen TV. Instead of going to restaurants we have friends round for dinner. We cultivate gardens, learn to sew or cook, take the time to bake home-made Christmas treats or make our own marmalade. We are familiar with frugality, with library cards, discount vouchers, charity shops, battered trainers and hand-made gifts. Rather than feel deprived, writers and “lifetime English majors” embrace the challenge of freedom and creativity, and can help show society that there is more to life than scrambling up the property ladder, or wearing the latest fashion. As Henry David Thoreau, a writer who knew a great deal about austerity, so beautifully articulated: “It is life nearest the bone where it is sweetest…. Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.”

Penn – the Social Ivy

I am amused to find a 1999 newspaper column (see below) that I wrote for The Daily Pennsylvanian preserved on the Harvard Crimson site. Did I write it at their request? Syndicate it? Damned if I remember but at least I can claim to have published at Harvard.

Joan Didion wrote: “We are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the poeople we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.” I don’t think I’d find my 19-year-old self attractive company. Her politics are non-existent and the jokes are toe-curling. (The Fresh Prince! Really?) But bless her, she had chutzpah.

In West Philadelphia, The Social Ivy

Welcome to the University of Pennsylvania.

If you want to find out about that state school with the good football team, you’re in the wrong place. But if you want a school that offers its undergraduates a vast array of academic opportunities; great sports teams (well, for the Ivy League); and a thriving metropolis (if you can call West Philly that), then read on.

Here’s an account of the good, the bad and the toast throwing to help you see if Ben Franklin’s university is the one for you.

Academic Life

Before you applied to Penn, you selected which of the four undergraduate schools you wanted to be a part of: Wharton School of Business, the College of Arts and Sciences, Engineering or Nursing. What you probably didn’t know is that when you chose a school you also chose your academic reputation for the next four years.

Wharton is the best undergraduate business school in the nation, and the Wharton students will never let anyone else forget it. From their building in the center of campus to their computer labs from which everyone else is banned, Whartonites spend four years looking down on everyone else on campus.

The college, often referred to as the College of Arts and Crafts, is the largest of the schools with departments in the liberal arts as well as the natural and life sciences. The college also offers very popular interdisciplinary majors, such as biological basis of behavior and politics, philosophy and economics. Some college students have an inferiority complex, because they do not have a clear professional path to follow after graduation. But most enjoy the flexibility the college offers.

Students in the school of engineering and applied sciences (SEAS) are not known to be the most fun-loving people on campus. If you see someone in the library on a weekend night, they are probably in SEAS.

Nursing is by the far the smallest of the four schools with only 80 students in each year. But nursing students have the highest average starting salary of the four schools.

No matter what school you are in, you will find that your classes are almost always taught by professors. The only classes that teaching assistant lead are some of the introductory foreign language courses and many of the writing courses.

Penn has its share of the huge lecture classes, too. If you take introduction to economics, psychology, biology or chemistry, expect to be in a class with hundreds of other. All of these big classes break into recitations once a week to discuss the material in a smaller setting.

You will also have the opportunity to take small classes of under 18 students, especially if you are in the college. It is not unusual to have dinner at the professor’s house once during the semester. Many students have found themselves at past Penn President Sheldon Hackney’s house after taking his seminar on America in the ’60s.

The one thing that students in all four school agree on is the problems with the advising system–or lack thereof. Although all students get an adviser in their school and then one in their major, many students feel that advisers exist largely to sign innumerable forms and to give unsolicited advice based on precisely no prior knowledge of one’s skills or goals.

Out of the Classroom

The place where you will learn the most is probably going to be your extracurricular activity.

You can join the oldest all-male college comedy troupe in the country, Mask and Wig, or one of our many a cappella groups. You can write for a daily newspaper or go skydiving with our outdoor clubs. Whatever you choose, you will find yourself and other students completely in charge of running organizations that are among the best in their respective field in the nation. And who cares if that means no sleep?

Many students complain that Penn is a completely apathetic campus. This school is not the type where you will find students having many protests. Penn students this year were the only ones in the Ivy League not to hold a rally about sweatshop labor.

But Penn students do get excited about some things, namely our football and basketball teams. After the third quarter of every football game, students sing a song which ends with the line, “Here’s a toast to dear old Penn.” Back in the day, Penn students used to drink alcohol after singing that line, but many years ago the administration clamped down on the practice. As a protest, Penn students threw actual toast on the field, and the tradition continues to this day. Many Penn students also spend a whole weekend in October camping out at the Palestra, our fabled sports arena, in order to get season basketball tickets.

After the football team clinched the Ivy League title this year, Penn students stormed the football field, tore down one of the goalposts, marched to the Schuykill River and threw it in. And students loyally followed the basketball team to Princeton to see them capture the Ivy title and then tore down the Tigers’ own nets. Some students even flew to Seattle to see the team play in the NCAA tournament.

Housing

Last year, Penn decided to create a “college house” system, so its dorms would feel more like communities. Dorms, or college houses, now have senior faculty living in them and many programs based in the residence. Many students say they don’t notice the difference with the new system, but it is too early to tell how these will pan out.

As a first-year, you likely want to be in one of the four college houses in the Quadrangle. About half of the students decide to move off-campus. But most of the off-campus housing is directly adjacent to campus, so even if you live there, you are still close to everything. Many upperclassmen who decide to stay on campus move to one of the three high rises, apartment-style college houses.

Social Life

They don’t call Penn the “social Ivy” for nothing. Come Friday and Saturday nights (and often Thursday nights, too), you will find Penn students leaving their work behind to find a good time.

Much of your social life during the beginning of your first year will center around fraternity parties with cheap beer and bad ’80s music. However, only a third of people at Penn are involved in the Greek system. Rush occurs in the spring, so you will already have a group of friends and a better idea of how you fit into the school before you have to decide about joining.

Penn students do not confine themselves to campus, but rather take advantage of all that Philadelphia has to offer: from attending concerts at the Electric Factory to dancing at the many downtown clubs to dining out at Restaurant Row. You can easily reach downtown using the subway system, SEPTA, or taxis. But we warned, SEPTA, is dirty, slow and not so safe to ride alone at night.

Penn is also home to Spring Fling, the biggest party on the East Coast (or so they say). This year, however, the University implemented a new alcohol policy that slowed down, but certainly did not stop, people form drinking. A committee is still reviewing the alcohol policy, so it is unclear how is will affect future years.

The ‘Hood

Perhaps Penn’s most famous feature is its location: West Philadelphia. Everyone has heard the stories about the threat the neighborhood and the neighbors pose to the safety of Penn students.

However, while West Philly certainly isn’t Hanover, N.H. or Ithaca, N.Y., it is not half as bad as it is made out to be. In the past few years, violent crime has dropped dramatically. There have been a few major incidents, including an assault in the fall, and there are always the nuisance crimes, such as panhandling and bike theft. But overall, students, including the large number that come from “sheltered suburbs across the country, feel safe.

By now, you have learned almost all there is know about Penn. (You’ll have to wait until you get here to find out about Naked Dash through the Quad.) If you are looking for a school situated among rolling green hills with students who spend their free time discussing Anna Karenina, Penn is not the place for you. But if you are looking for an urban environment with students who study hard and party hard, then head on over to West Philly. The Fresh Prince is waiting.

Creative Writing Courses – What Are They Good For?

Discouraged by an aimless and effortful morning’s writing, I go browsing for inspiration. Perhaps the University of Iowa Writing Center will have some wisdom. Sure enough, the first words I encounter are so to-the-point that I check to make sure the author isn’t peering over my shoulder:

I’ve noticed three frequently recurring traps that beginning writers tend to fall into when developing characters:
[First] The narrator or protagonist of the story will often be a barely veiled version of the writer himself (in this situation, secondary characters will often also bear a close resemblance to real-life people from the writer’s life). The first problem with this is that the story tends to become autobiography dressed up as fiction.

I feel exposed, caught red-handed making up a story about someone who talks, moves, reads, dreams, and fails like I do; someone who has friends, a sister, parents, and a house like mine. Disgruntled, I go to the beach, take refuge in the lee of an abandoned boat and pull my sunhat over my face. Footsteps pad along the wooden promenade; a bike creaks past. The protagonist is a thinly disguised version of the writer. Unbidden, my brain chirps: so what? Like the final click of a combination lock, this thought is succeeded by a heavy door swinging silently open. A stream of ideas tumbles out, insistent. I sit up, fish around for a pen and notebook, and start channelling:

Is that a bad thing? First novels have to begin somewhere – why is the writer’s life a less-legitimate subject?


I’m propped awkwardly on one elbow, holding the sunhat in place with my left hand. F Scott Fitzgerald – This Side of Paradise, Mavis Gallant – When We Were Nearly Young, Martha Gellhorn – The Fall and Rise of Mrs Hapgood, Evelyn Waugh – Brideshead Revisited, J.D. Salinger – For Esme – With Love and Squalor. I could go on, and on, and on, listing magnificent fiction starring protagonists who are quite patently “barely veiled version[s] of the writer” and are, unapologetically, “autobiography dressed up as fiction.” Plainly the implicit criticism of autobiographical fiction is nonsense. Why would a writing teacher suggest otherwise?

I continue:

The problem with [creative writing] MFAs is they make you self-conscious before you should be. By telling you the stages of a writer’s development they make you want to skip through [them] but knowing and experiencing something are two different things. The self-consciousness doesn’t automatically make you better it just makes you self-conscious – this is only intermittently useful. Making dire blanket statements is lazy, and promotes the idea there is a formula to good writing – [an] ideology designed to keep people fearfully shelling out for MFAs. If I had it to do again I’d have paid off my credit card instead, or bought a round-the-world ticket and a Kindle and had something to write about.

The more I think about it, the more creative writing MAs seem like an audacious con. Writing is like having love affairs. You go through good, bad, ugly, heart-breaking, stupid, euphoric, and catastrophic iterations. You learn by doing, by making bad choices, by making good choices by accident and only recognising them as such in retrospect. There is a certain, limited amount you can absorb through studying the experience of others but, ultimately, when it’s you and the page, nothing anyone tells you is going to make your writing right. At best, you might start off being a little less wrong, but I imagine a good writer only gains a few metres competitive advantage by taking an MFA, and a bad writer will still be a bad writer – only armed with jargon.

If you wish to have a faculty for reading, read; if for writing, write…
if you wish to acquire a habit for anything, do the thing. – Epictetus

If there is a justification for teaching writing it is that most writers need deprogramming from the rest of their education. After a lifetime of rote learning, exam scores, grades, etc they need to rediscover the ability to not-much-give-a-fuck what anyone else thinks. They need to unlearn the habit of respect for authority. They need to trust their instinct and learn from the language itself. In The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas (a work of fiction U Iowa would presumably disparage) Gertrude Stein writes: “The English language was [my] medium and with the English language the task was to be achieved, the problem solved.”

A useful, necessary writing course is one that begins from the premise that great writing cannot be taught. Its function should be to protect writers – especially from excessive self-consciousness and self-criticism; to guide them around obvious pitfalls; and encourage them to write joyously, with increasing control and confidence. Good writers are invariably readers. They will absorb all the linguistic nutrients they need if they just stay rooted long enough. Writing courses should exist to give succor and space to think. Advice and writing exercises are only aids, toys for children to splash around with while they gain the strength to tackle deeper water.


NB: All of this is written with respect and appreciation for the wisdom and support of my creative writing tutors. Among other things they prompted me to read a number of excellent books based entirely on the authors’ lives and experiences.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – James Joyce
The Things We Used to Say – Natalia Ginzburg
Another Country – James Baldwin
To The Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf
Goodbye to Berlin – Christopher Isherwood
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas – Gertrude Stein

F-Word Britney Spears Daddy’s Little Girl

Britney Spears & dad Jamie

Britney Spears & dad Jamie

Posted by Cila Warncke

I wrote this feature on Britney’s conservatorship titled Britney Spears, Daddy’s Little Girl? for UK feminist blog The F-Word.

When Britney’s life went into a flat spin two years ago, the tabloid knives came out, not just for her, but also for ‘stage mom’ Lynne.

Anytime anything goes wrong with a child (even a grown-up child) bad mothering is an instant blame button and Britney’s hard-drinking, head-shaving, fanny-flashing antics were taken as classic delayed teenage rebellion.

The tabloid press had a field day when Britney served her mother with a restraining order in 2007. Obviously it was Lynne’s ‘pushiness’ that finally sent Britney to the brink. After Britney was twice-sectioned in early 2008, the courts made dad Jamie her conservator and Lynne, once a constant presence at Britney’s side, pretty much vanished from the scene.

Jamie’s absolute control over Britney’s finances, property, business ventures and person (she reportedly isn’t even allowed phone calls without his permission) has been widely lauded as a very good thing. “Too bad he didn’t step in years ago when Lynne was in charge. Britney might not have been this much of a mess!” is a typical fan-site comment.

Luckily dear old dad, a big, silent, crumple-faced man whose only previous public role was standing at the back of the occasional family photo-op looking awkward, has done what any good paterfamilias would and stepped in to set things straight
The minor matter of Britney’s human rights, or rather her total lack thereof, is accepted on the basis that the conservatorship is ‘working’ and that she is ‘stable’. The courts said as much when they made the situation permanent in late 2008, meaning unless Britney – who isn’t allowed to hire her own lawyer – is able to challenge it, Jamie will be her legal guardian until he dies.

This ties up the loose ends in a neat, patriarchy-approved package. According to the script, Britney is a flighty, irresponsible female who cracked under the strain of overzealous mothering. Luckily dear old dad, a big, silent, crumple-faced man whose only previous public role was standing at the back of the occasional family photo-op looking awkward, has done what any good paterfamilias would and stepped in to set things straight….

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Exclusive Sasha Interview

Originally published in OWTL issue 39. Posted by Cila Warncke

Meeting Sasha is roughly the dance music equivalent of an audience with the Pope. Even people who don’t know (or care) anything about dance music know who he is. On the other hand, rabid fans don’t seem to know much more – only that he’s a genius mixer, DJ, and producer; that his music can change your life. No one’s quite sure, though, how a shy lad from North Wales became possibly the most recognised, and revered, DJ on the planet. Least of all him. “I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t fallen into this, ‘cause I was a lazy twat,” Sasha says, fidgeting with a Marlboro Light.

Sasha

Sasha

Part of his mystique is down to his wariness of the media merry-go-round. Before he arrived his PR runs through a list of the don’ts: Sasha doesn’t do photo shoots; Sasha doesn’t do lists. When he arrives he’s utterly amiable though, only saying he wishes he’d “handled things differently,” in the press, when he was younger. Now, he is professionally friendly, engaging; he makes eye contact, smiles a lot, when there’s a question he doesn’t much like he leans back, chuckles, and subtly shifts the topic.

Luckily, this doesn’t happen often. When we meet, Sasha is about to play his first London gig in over a year (at The Key), and is anticipating his first large-scale set at TDK Cross Central. He seems genuinely happy to be back. “I really do miss London,” he says, settling into a corner table in the Electric, on Portabello Road. For the three-odd months a year he lives in town, he’s based in West London. A handful of his mates are scattered noisily around the next table, downing mid-afternoon beers, waiting for him to finish. His PR team hovers nearby. Clearly he’s taking no chances on anymore slip ups with the press.

Londoners could be forgiven for thinking he’s gone off-radar lately. “I’ve been in America, doing residencies like Crobar and Avalon, and doing regular shows. Recently, I’ve been in New York setting up my studio,” he explains. New York is where he spends about five months of the year (the remaining four are in “airports and hotels”). The NYC connection started back when he and John Digweed were residents at Twilo, playing regular 12 hour sets of banging, dark progressive tunes. Now resident in the trendy (but not cheap) East Village he enthuses about the café culture and the way “on any given night, anything can happen.” Including moving into Garth Brook’s old studio. “It’s a really nice sounding room,” he says, of his new space, “but the last album recorded there was Kenny G’s Christmas album. We hope he hasn’t left any weird vibes,” he says, chuckling.

Sasha imparts this casually, sipping his beer, as if jet-setting between two of the world’s hippest (and most expensive) neighbourhoods were totally normal behaviour for a Bognor lad. Yet he admits when he first moved to Manchester, to try his hand at DJing he didn’t expect it to last. “A lot of my friends were DJs [too].Every winter when January came and the clubs emptied out we thought it was pretty much the end of the world. The end of the scene. All my mates thought it was a two year flash in the pan. My parents were disappointed [in me], very disappointed.”

By a stroke of good luck, as their playground, the Haçiencda (“the Haç” as he still affectionately calls it), sank into a morass of gang violence Shelly’s opened down the road in Stoke, and he landed his first residency. “People were pissed off at going to clubs and getting beaten up. There was nasty shit going on. [Shelly’s] was an hour down the road and it exploded. Even then, though, I didn’t really [think it would last].”

Sasha behind the decks

Sasha behind the decks

Sasha’s career took off and, as the international bookings started rolling in around ’93 and ’94 he thought, for the first time, maybe it would last. The next ten years are well-documented. In 1994 he and John Digweed mixed the now-legendary Renaissance compilation. It’s an album – and a friendship – that has stood the test of time. (In the course of the interview John gets 13 mentions, Sasha’s wife, two.) “John and I have a really unique relationship. It’s great working with John. He’s so professional. The exact opposite of me,” Sasha laughs. They work so closely, he says, that he can’t remember whose idea it originally was to open the Renaissance album with a daring three remixes of Leftfield’s ‘Song Of Life.’ “It worked beautifully together, but I don’t know who it was. When I work with John it’s very difficult to pinpoint after the fact. We lock ourselves in a room and listen to records for a couple of weeks, then we go and mix it down together. It’s very much a collaboration.”

And he doesn’t just mean in musical terms. Though Sasha and Digweed are only playing 10 dates together this year (“and that’s more than we’ve done in the last five years,” he says) he clearly treasures their camaraderie. “He’s a dark horse, I tell you,” he says, more than once, chuckling at some remembered mischief. His stories often loop back to reference his pal. “I’m not very good at travelling. John [Digweed] gets everything into one rucksack – CDs, change of clothes… I end up with two suitcases, two huge pieces of hand luggage. John’s always laughing at me [because] I’m always getting charged for excess baggage. If I’ve been in a hotel room ten minutes it looks like I’ve exploded… clothes everywhere! But it kind of makes me feel at home, a little bit. It helps me keep my sanity.”

The other constant in Sasha’s itinerant lifestyle is, obviously, music. It always has been, really, but technology has made it instantly accessible, all the time. “I used to check my record boxes, and – especially in the middle of the summer – they’d invariably go missing for a week at a time, somewhere,” he recalls. This sneaky respite turned into a nightmare on the eve the ‘Airdrawndagger’ launch, though. “I was flying back from Ibiza to play [the launch] at Bedrock, and my records went missing. I got back at five in the evening and basically had to go to a record shop and cobble together a DJ set from promos and stuff. It was such an important night for me, and to have that go wrong… I decided to switch to CDs, and from CDs to computer was quick.”

Armed with a Mac laptop and a London-based server Sasha will never have to do a last minute record dash again. “I update my record box every week,” he says, meaning his digital music collection. “I’m constantly downloading music, people send me stuff over Instant Messanger… Before you’d be desperately trying to get decks in your hotel room, now all my music’s on my iPod.”

The trade-off is everyone else has music at their fingertips, too. “Before, you know, I could get hold of a track and I’d have it for a year before anyone else. That just doesn’t exist anymore,” he says, a little nostalgically.

It’s an almost throw-away comment, a statement of well-known fact. But what he’s saying, in extreme shorthand, is the whole system of privilege which helped propel him, and his contemporaries like Judge Jules, Danny Rampling, Digweed, and Pete Tong, to the peak of their fame and earning power, broke down. It can’t have been an easy adjustment for one of the original superstar DJs to suddenly find that being a superstar was no longer enough to keep him ahead of the pack. To discover exclusives he once commanded because he was Sasha, were there online for any two-bit bedroom jock to play with.

The rub being, people didn’t – and don’t – expect any less. Ask if he ever gets tired of being “on duty” all the time, of working flat out to keep up with the onslaught of new music and technology, and he smiles a little. “Yeah, I guess so. But that’s my job. I mean, people expect some kind of legendary set, every time they see me. It’s important that I’m on top of things, and that I don’t disappoint people. You know, it’s hard to please everyone.”

He leans back against the leather banquette, his bright blue eyes narrowing, as he ponders this responsibility. There are several of these little pauses in the course of the interview, moments where Sasha, the musician and music fan, seems wordlessly puzzled, or even a little frustrated, by phenomenon of Sasha the DJ. Unprompted, he says DJing “never felt like a job, it always just felt like a night out, I used to blow off gigs and not really think about it.” As if the pressure of expectations could be dispersed by simply ducking it. But he corrects himself. “Maybe [I did], a long time ago, but the last six or seven years I’ll miss maybe one weekend a year, ‘cause I’m ill or something. I play virtually every weekend of the year, and when you get ill, you get ill,” he says rather vehemently. Then he leans forward, all wide-eyed sincerity. “I mean, if you have your wisdom teeth out and your face swells up twice its size you can’t really go out and DJ, can you?” he appeals.

It’s hard to tell if he’s being disingenuous, or if he honestly feels hard-done-by in public perception. More likely, his is the reaction of a fundamentally shy bloke often caught in a pressure cooker of anticipation. For example, he finds festival sets “nerve wracking.” When pressed for an explanation he shrugs. “I don’t think I play that kind of stadium filling music. I definitely struggle with what to play at festivals. And, um, so many things can go wrong, so many cock-ups can happen.”

Sasha, off-duty

Sasha, off-duty

Thousands of fans who have lost themselves in blissful oblivion at his festival sets might beg to differ, but Sasha likes the paradoxical freedom of “dark and dirty” venues. “You have a play a certain set at a festival, the biggest sound you can muster. When you play for 500 people in an intimate space you can try things out. The crowd will follow you, they’ll go with you.”

This idea of communion is, perhaps, what went missing when MP3s took over the world. Before, people who wanted to hear a certain kind of music had to go to a club, or a festival. Now, they just have to switch on their computer. It is a sea-change, Sasha readily confesses, that left him stranded for a bit. When it comes to production and DJing he does either one or the other. “I try to do studio work on the road, but… well, you’re knackered all the time. I take my laptop and don’t use it.” So, after a self-imposed touring exile of a year, to finish ‘Airdrawndagger’ (“the record label was fine, the pressure eventually came from myself”) he felt disconnected from the DJ scene. “I was kind of lost after that. [In] 2002, 2003 I was treading water. I was a bit unsure of what I was doing and where I was going.”

But luckily technology giveth, as well as taketh away, and the advent of Ableton gave Sasha a fresh perspective. “When I grabbed hold of Ableton I was so hungry to go and DJ again, I was hungry to be out there, playing.” So he did, taking to the road in the States, all over Europe and South America (where, he says, they have the best parties in the world) and dates in the UK including his Fabric residency, which came to an abrupt end last summer. Ableton, it seems, finally allowed the crowd-pleasing DJ and the perfectionist producer to work in some kind of alliance. Instead of locking himself in the studio for months Sasha can edit on the fly, showcasing his mind boggling musicality in a more direct way, satisfying his own creative urges and the audience’s insatiable appetite at the same time. “If I do a boat party in Miami, or a festival in Budapest, or a club in London, I can deliver something special. Five or six years ago I’d have a particular set I’d play, and it would evolve and change, but it would be slow, using a computer allows me to create a unique set every time I play.”

It’s a benefit that cuts both ways, as his newfound technological freedom allowed Sasha to record and release a brand new mix album in one night – thanks to Instant Live. This pioneering setup records, masters, and mixes live shows as they happen, meaning fans can walk out of a venue with a legit, properly packaged live CD at the end of a gig. Sasha’s management company set it up, and – remarkably – pre-licensed 60-odd tracks so he could pick and choose what to play on the night. Though he enjoyed it, the recording (at his Fundacion closing party at Avalon in LA) wasn’t exactly plain sailing. “At the beginning of the second CD my computer spazzed out on me. I guess ‘cause I was under pressure I wasn’t thinking straight. Normally I’d mix in a CD and reboot my computer but I thought I could fix it by fiddling with it”, he grins, miming slapping a keyboard. Hiccoughs aside, he is happy with the finished mix, and looking forward to getting to work on a studio album, proper. “I spent six weeks moving stuff and finding my way around [my new studio]. I’ll be going back in January to work on the follow up to ‘Involver’. It’ll be half DJ mix, half remixes, with some of my own productions.”

First, though, there’s the rest of the year to get through, and a string of gigs including TDK Cross Central, and Space, Ibiza, where he’s playing for We Love… since the demise of the Viva parties he co-headlined with Steve Lawler last year. Sasha is still clearly unhappy the night failed to take off. “It was launched badly. I think [the promoters] just assumed with me and Steve it would be a hands-down success,” he says, which seems like a fair analysis. Unfortunately the Sasha and Steve magic wasn’t enough to keep the night afloat. (By the end of August the headliners, including Sasha, had stopped turning up and there were only a few hundred confused looking clubbers wandering around the cargo hold of Space.) He’s philosophical, but disappointed about it. “It was humbling. It taught everyone involved a lesson. I would have liked for it to work out ‘cause you see Erick [Morillo] and Carl [Cox], they’ve both got established nights now, they’re just brilliant. Maybe next year we’ll think about doing something,” he concludes, brightening.

For every Viva, though, there’s a Southfest. Where, last December, he and John played to a screaming horde of 23,000 clubbers in Buenos Aires. “It started raining and nobody left. It was the most amazing atmosphere.” An online video clip is more illustrative: sheets of rain pour past the camera lens, Sasha – sporting film star sized aviators and a huge grin – pogos behind the decks, caught in the flashes of a blinding light show, the crowd stretching, literally, as far as the eye can see. “I felt like a rock star that night, it would be nice to relive that a few times,” he says, laughing.

TDK Cross Central won’t deliver 23,000 delirious fans, but Sasha is back in full, optimistic flow, happy to be home, excited to play for the “educated pests” (as he calls them) of London clubland. “I like festivals where you have a lot of bands and live things, it’s a bit more eclectic. It brings a healthier mix of people together. You can’t just turn up in London and play any old set. They won’t accept that. It’s challenging. But, you know, I love a challenge.”


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Mr & Mrs Smith: Ibiza Alfresco Winter Dining

Posted by Cila Warncke

Ibicenco treats

Ibicenco treats


I’ve just started doing monthly Ibiza dispatches for the excellent Mr & Mrs Smith blog. My first is on alfresco winter dining

The holidays are bearing down with freight-train inevitability so naturally, I’ve been thinking about food. My national origins call for turkey-gobbling in November, but here in Ibiza the sun is still shining and the emphasis is on fresh, organic food. Our neighbours have orange trees sporting fruit the size of softballs, a few late figs are ripening and my daily run takes me past fields of flowering potato plants and rows of ruby red peppers.

Among the best places to taste the island’s delicious home-grown vegetables are traditional Ibicenco restaurants like Cami de Balafia…

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