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.
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’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.”
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.”