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Sasha: 'Your health and sanity are the most important things to protect'

The original DJ cover star, Sasha was the face of ’90s clubland success and excess. His new Refracted:LIVE show redefines his special talent, delivering a fresh take on his biggest hits and reinvigorating an artist who’s often struggled with his place in the spotlight...

It’s a cold, rainy night in 2013 at a spit-and-sawdust East London venue, the exact location of which is lost in the mists of time. Sasha is launching ‘Involv3r’, the third instalment of his acclaimed mix series. With a forensic attention to detail that’s become his trademark, every one of the 18 guest tracks has received an exclusive remix. The project has even been released with an official film. It’s the crowning night of hours of studio time, and the dancefloor is buzzing as he plays to the fanatical following that he’s attracted since, somewhat reluctantly, becoming one of UK house music’s first pin- ups. It’s a time for celebration. 

 

Then his agent comes up and poses a question: if you could do anything creatively, what would be your wildest dream? In that moment, he doesn’t have an answer, and it bothers him. One milestone has barely been laid down, yet already his restless nature is looking ahead.

 

“Personal shit takes priority,” says Sasha, the Welsh-born artist turned international nomad, as we take a table at an empty cafe in Santa Getrudis, Ibiza. He’s dressed down in a plain T-shirt and jeans, graciously accepting our apology for not being able to stay to see him DJ later owing to a prior engagement moving house, adding, “I’ve got three children so I know all about having to prioritise.”

 

Having flown in with his family at the crack of dawn for a 7am photo shoot, it’s now mid-afternoon, while his first set of the Ibiza season, starting his account at the Privilege opening with a back-to-back session with Kölsch, doesn’t kick off until 5am the next morning. It’s a glimpse into the logistical challenges of a DJ, producer and now live performer who has weathered the storms of trends and technological changes.

 

Sasha is currently in a purple patch. Spurred on by the hanging question of what the next step should be, in May 2017 he launched his Refracted:LIVE show at the Barbican, London. Working alongside long-term studio collaborators Charlie May, ex of Spooky, Dennis White, aka ThermalBear, and Dave Gardner, it proved a revelation, both personally and in terms of audience response. Selling out within 45 minutes, the backing of a string section, live percussionist and vocalists elevated classics such as ‘Xpander’ to new heights of stomach-gripping emotion, while widening the cinematic scope of his more recent productions. This year he’s followed it up with dates at North London’s The Roundhouse and Manchester’s Bridgewater, while December delivers the next phase of the project, with appearances at the O2 Brixton Academy (14th), Manchester’s O2 Academy (15th) and Glasgow’s Barrowland (16th).

He admits that this has become his main focus, but his DJ career is as strong as ever. Now living in Ibiza, after stints in the States (he left the UK in 2000, the same year that he topped DJ Mag’s Top 100 DJs poll), the summer sees him pick up his partnership with DJ sparring partner John Digweed again. The pair make their 2018 debut for Resistance at Privilege on 17th July, returning on 31st July, 21st August, 28th August and 11th September, reprising a pairing immortalised on classic compilations such as 1996’s ‘Northern Exposure’. He’s also compiled ‘Fabric 99’, the penultimate edition of the EC1 club’s iconic mix series. Eschewing the drawn out technical process that’s characterised his more recent outings, it’s a back to basics, from-the-heart DJ mix that also serves as his own personal love letter to the club.

“I always like to have something that I’m building towards, and if I don’t, I can get a bit lost,” he picks up as we sit down to fizzy water and coffee, speaking on the moment that planted the seeds of his current incarnation. “I love a project,” Sasha says.

The precursor was 2016’s ‘Scene Delete’, an album that explicitly drew on his love of film soundtracks, as well as neo-classical composers such as Max Richter and Steve Reich. Scoring, indeed, at one point seemed like the next logical step, and was something that he did investigate while out in LA, till a few horror stories — of films being re-edited, taking years to finish, then bombing — gave him reason to pause. “We’re all aware of the success stories but there are so many that don’t go that way, so I made the conscious decision to really concentrate on my own music,” he tells DJ Mag.

IN AT THE DEEP END

It was Late Night Tales, who released ‘Scene Delete’, that floated the idea of a live tour and suggested a trip to the Barbican to see Nils Frahm as a primer for what was possible. “It’s in my all-time top 10 gigs ever,” says Sasha, still under its spell. “It just blew my mind. I’d not seen him before, I’d not been to the Barbican since I was a kid. Hearing an 808 kick-drum in that space absolutely floored me. They asked me directly after the show if I wanted to do it.”

Buzzing from the experience, he instantly committed, then sat on his hands for a few months, spending the summer talking to anyone and everyone he knew who had ever done a live show. “The general answer was fucking do it, try it! Once we’d worked out that technically it was possible, I agreed to it. Then the real work began.”

The first question was possibly the most difficult. “What am I going to do?” he says, on the sudden gulf that appeared between being a studio producer and being an actual performer. “Tambourine? Triangle? I played the piano when I was a kid, but it was a long time ago... and I’d never played the piano in front of anyone. When I was in the studio working with people, I’d always have my headphones on. So going from that to playing in front of 2,000 people, it was definitely a case of setting the bar a little too high and striving for it.”

Setting these goals has been Sasha’s way of overcoming the vagaries of the music industry, or as he puts it: “At certain points in my career when I’ve pushed myself creatively, my fans have really responded.” In Ibiza the winter before the shows, feeling he needed possibly five piano lessons a week if there was to be any chance of pulling them off, he was unable to find a teacher. An Antipodean friend then introduced him to Simply Music, which bills itself as ‘The breakthrough Australian-developed piano teaching method’. It was invented, he says, to help teach a blind child who couldn’t read music, and throws out the usual foundation of learning scales and theory in favour of diving straight into playing.

His teacher Elizabeth Gaikwad thought the initial enquiry, along the lines of ‘sold out upcoming gigs at The Barbican, must learn how to play the piano’, was a hoax, but convinced, committed to a regime of three or four lessons a week. The only time that they could meet online was for an hour at 5.30am, Ibiza time. “It was so good to do it at that time, your brain is a clear slate and it just goes straight in,” Sasha tells us, with a sentiment that probably wouldn’t have applied in the early stages of his career. “I like to wake up super early in the morning and have a couple of hours to get my shit together, I find it a really productive time.”

Six weeks before the first show, he’d got a handle on two major pieces that had proved the most elusive, and his confidence was coming to a head. On a trip to London, he walked into the hotel he was staying at, which had a piano in the lobby, and stopped to ask the doorman about it. “He asked if I could play, and I said, ‘Yeah, yeah, I can play!’ As I sat down at the piano, I immediately felt everybody’s eyes burning into me. It was really late at night, there were only about 10 people there, and probably nobody was paying attention... but I got stage-fright. I tried to play this piece I’d learnt, I completely fucked it up, and I went up to my room really embarrassed. I sat there thinking, ‘Shit, if that’s what the hotel lobby is like, what am I going to be like at the Barbican?’”

For someone who has played to crowds of thousands as a DJ, and overcame a terrifying period of panic attacks that plagued him as he rose to fame in the ’90s, it was discombobulating. “I’d been nervous playing, but this was like a wave. My brain just turned to mush and my hands were like... yeah,” he trails off, unable to encapsulate the sheer overwhelming magnitude of this phenomena. “The next week of piano lessons, I don’t think I even played any music, it was all about the psychology of breathing, performing and focusing.”

As might be expected, the feeling backstage at the Barbican was of a greater magnitude entirely. “I don’t think I have ever been or ever will be as nervous in my life, even on my wedding day,” he says, still palpably remembering it. Starting the performance on his own with no band to hide behind, he can only recall himself feeling like a robot on autopilot. As the show went on, however, moving from reworks of tracks on ‘Scene Delete’ to club classics such as ‘Wavy Gravy’, he began to relax and eventually enjoy it. By the end, the high, fuelled by cheering fans, left him with a feeling you sense stirred something new and unexpected.

FULL CIRCLE

This might be the current driving passion in Sasha’s professional career, but his ‘Fabric 99’ mix also marks an undimmed love of DJing. “I get sent certain records and they’re just Fabric records,” he says of its special place, not just to London but him personally. “I can’t get away with that sound everywhere,” explaining that because of the club’s dedicated sound engineers, out on the floor tweaking the system on their iPads, it’s often a case of: “the deeper and spacier, the better”.

Starting in the subterranean depths of Quiet Village’s remix of Agnes Obel’s reverb and hum-filled ‘Stretch Your Eyes’, he gradually shifts gears through a melodic landscape that takes in Tom Flynn, Jus-Ed’s remix of Ghosts On Tape, and Exercise One alongside Mathew Jonson (on the evocatively titled ‘Lost Forever In A Happy Crowd’). At its peak, Sasha’s own ‘Smoke Monk’, whose brooding strings hark back to his rave past, starts a sequence that moves through the breakbeat of Objekt’s ‘Needle & Thread’, the pulsing bass of Jono Ma and Dreems’ ‘A Love Trance Mission From Nk To 7s’ and DJ Koze’s woozy remix of Efdemin’s ‘Acid Bells’. The finale, his own ‘Sasha Fabric1999 Mix’ remix of A Last Night On Earth artist Baile, is a soaring piece of progressive breaks that brings his relationship with the club full circle.

“I think I played the opening weekend, or the weekend after the opening weekend, with Lee [Burridge] and Craig [Richards],” he says of his former two partners under the banner of Tyrant Soundsystem. “Those early days were fantastic, the buzz that London had finally got a club that it deserved.”

It was around this period that Sasha was conquering both sides of the Atlantic, hence the end-of- millennium-evoking name of his Baile remix, an artist who he discovered via Spotify.

“I wanted one track that was a nod to those early sets. It was also the same time that I was playing Twilo in New York. So I had this sound with John Digweed at Twilo that was really fast and dark and pounding. We’d play these really long, dark, mental sets. At the same time I was playing with Lee and Craig in London, where it was much slower with breaks. As a DJ it was probably the time I was most musically rounded and strong. I always loved playing breaks, and it was a really important sound for Fabric, especially in the early years.”

There was a period in the mid-2000s when Sasha dived full-on into the possibilities of Ableton for DJing and re-editing on the fly, which also translated to his mix albums, every track having to bear his signature touch. But this time around he simplified the process. Despite starting off trying to get all exclusive tracks and stems for edits, it began feeling like an unnecessarily daunting and laborious task. “In the end, I decided to go through my computer, and every track I’d written ‘Fabric’ next to over the last 10 years I put into a big folder to DJ in the studio. I tried not to overthink it, even though it took me a lot of thinking to get to that decision!”

After recording it in Ibiza, he tidied it up in the computer and, in his own words, “It just sounded shit. It had no soul to it at all.” The question of how to make it more Fabric had one obvious solution: record it in Fabric, the first of the series to have been done this way. “We went in on Monday afternoon, I think Dixon had been playing until midday, and the club still stank,” he says.

With the technical team on hand, they filled Room One with smoke, put the lasers and strobes on, and Sasha ran through the mix four or five times. “I can’t describe the difference between the flat computer mix and the mix that we ended up with, it just feels like Fabric. Everything was played through the Fabric mixer with the EQs. I just felt the room.” As for those left wondering what a ‘Smoke Monk’ is... “I have no idea, that was one of the more sensible ones,” he smiles, later sending us a more complete list of working titles that included ‘Bangers & Mash’ (actually already a track, according to Discogs), ‘Seizure Salad’ (ditto) and ‘David Ikea’ (still available for lovers of puns and far-out conspiracy theories). “That one stuck and I have no idea where it came from,” he tells us, explaining that someone, somewhere in the production process came up with it, and it never got a new name. “‘Cabbage Farmer’ is my next EP, by the way,” he jokes, possibly.

BURNOUTS AND BALANCING

The return of Sasha and John Digweed feels like another full circle. “We’d been in each other’s pockets for 12 or 13 years,” he says of a partnership that lasted longer than many of their favourite bands and even proceeded in a similar way, the duo sharing a tour bus on the road. What inadvertently started as a small break — when both became busy with their own projects, then ran on as they began to follow their own distinctive paths — soon became a big one. “It became so long it was maybe a bit awkward,” says Sasha, adding that he and John always stayed friends. As for their return, which began a couple of years ago when Sasha surprised Ministry Of Sound by popping up unannounced in the booth with Digweed, “Musically it fitted together naturally, but we’ve both grown up a bit since touring together.”

What happened on the tour bus of old is probably of little surprise to any long-term fans. Sasha admits that he was once driven by a live-for-the-weekend mentality, drinking heavily to the point where, combined with the strains of touring and his own natural shyness, he burnt out a number of times, having to cancel gigs and take time off. Following marriage and children (his son is 10, while his second daughter arrived just over a year ago), the last decade has seen a change in behaviour, engaging in what he describes as a constant balancing of home life, studio work and touring. Or, as he frames the challenge another way with a wry laugh: ‘It’s very hard to keep your wife, children, management and agent happy at the same time.

“The one thing I will say is that your health and sanity is the most important thing to protect,” he distils bluntly, recalling unhealthy days of old. “It takes discipline and a lot of support from good people around you.” Unfortunately, in his experience, this is not always there, especially in the first bloom of success. When you’re at the top, caught up in the glamour of high fees and private jets, there are constant demands, he says, with techno DJs expected to play for eight hours, then play the after-party, then the after-after party. Top EDM stars, meanwhile, are booked for 250-300 shows per year.

Indeed, as he tells it, the music industry sounds not far off the infamous quote apocryphally attributed to Hunter S. Thompson. “Having panic instilled in you is very unhealthy,” says Sasha on the pressure to take every opportunity offered, “which I think the management and agents of those big acts do, as they see them as very short-term cash cows. They use them for three or four years before moving onto the next guy. It’s a very cut-throat, horrible way to be.”

In this context, it’s hard not to consider the recent death of Avicii and realise the huge pressures that lie behind the outward glamour of DJ life. On paper Sasha’s own career appears an ever-upward ascent, but the reality, he acknowledges, has been a series of peaks and dips, something that has taught him to “weather the little storms”. Last time he toured Australia, for example, he was shocked to discover it had been such a long time that “nobody knew who I was”.

Other times in the past there have been periods when his diary looked threadbare. “It’s not a bad thing, that’s how it comes and goes,” he counters, saying you always need to focus on creating the next peak, bearing in mind there’ll be another dip after. “As long as it keeps rising back every now and then, I’m happy,” he laughs.

There’s no doubt he’s back in the rarified air again, but this time he’s better equipped to enjoy it. Living in Ibiza ameliorates one of the toughest facets of the summer. “When you
do the mid-week Ibiza show, it joins all your weekends together,” he points out. “A 12-week season can seem like a 12-week weekend.” Ending up on his knees because of this last year, this summer he’s built periods into his schedule to be home with his family and visit the island’s markets to indulge another of his passions — cooking. While he’d once be away for six weeks at a time touring somewhere like, say, South America, now it’s not likely to be longer than two. Then there’s Ibiza itself. “It’s quite extraordinary, the difference between the nuttiness of August and the serenity of October or January, February,” he says, relishing the quiet, emptiness of the beaches in the off-season and the enduring warmth. Its outdoor nature seems to suit the kidstoo, Sasha proudly telling us about his son’s football team’s rise this season from bottom of the table to league winners.

We touch on plenty of highs and lows from the past — the huge influence of The Hacienda and his original DJ hero Jon Dasilva, the UK’s long lost circuit of provincial clubs, playing alongside Grooverider and Mickey Finn when he was into the ‘refined rave’ sound of Italian piano house, his shyness meeting Madonna, the messy ending of Twilo — but he doesn’t want to dwell on it: “I’m nervous about nostalgia, it makes me feel weird.”

It’s perhaps why his collection of 50,000 records is still in storage in Florida, brought there when he moved almost 15 years ago and now a secret air-conditioned museum until he decides what to do with them.

RENEWED CONFIDENCE 

Instead he has Last Night On Earth, his own label. It’s a name that evokes Sasha’s bittersweet sound, suggesting joy tinged with sadness, a mix of emotions that must permeate the strange life of a DJ. The name was inspired, he says, by paraphrasing something written by Charles Bukowski, while its output is centred around his love of melody, the musical element which most dictates a dancefloor’s mood. 

At the end of June comes the swirling, trancey ‘Through Her’ from Evans, a producer out of Sheffield, joined by vocalist Shawni. Brooklynite Baile’s ‘Amae’ follows in July, a vocal downtempo gem which gets a dancefloor makeover from Sasha, and Jody Barr’s ‘Marlon Brando’ arrives in August, its nervy synth-line dropping into an infectiously driving bassline. He’s been in the studio himself too, working on a collaboration with La Fleur, the Swedish-born, Berlin-based artist who joined him for his Miami boat party this year, alongside Vonda7 and Alan Fitzpatrick.

It’s December’s shows, however, that are most firmly in his sights. While the deeper sound of ‘Scene Delete’ suited the Barbican, he says, as they’ve played other venues it’s become clear that some tracks work better than others in a
live setting. “I’ve DJ’d at Brixton Academy a few times over the years, but to be putting on my own live show is really exciting. It’s definitely a notch above what we’ve done so far.” This means, “big sounds and big moments,” he says. “We have to live up to the venues. We’re going to have to deliver a different level of energy.”

For his part, there’s a renewed confidence that’s come with learning to play again. He feels more directly involved in the writing process, as the four main players in the project search for what he calls the “ever-elusive hooks” for the second phase of the show. Like first time around, where they started with loads of music on the backing track, gradually making more and more of it live until they were left with just a click, it’s taking on a life of its own, where it’ll end up unknown even to those involved. “It feels good to still
be in demand and relevant, still excited by the music,” says Sasha, taking little for granted. “I’d really like my music career extending and having longevity,” he replies when we ask what’s left to achieve, the live show potentially introducing all manner of collaborations.

As for awards or accolades, he says he was never comfortable with ceremonies and speeches, always feeling like a fraud, and doesn’t know where any of his trophies are. There’s a long pause, before he adds with perfect timing: “I wouldn’t turn down a Grammy though.”

Elevated to become one of the first British superstar DJs, Sasha virtually defined what it meant, from breaking America to burning out. Having long outlived that tag by constantly redefining himself as an artist, he’s now writing a blueprint for what it means to move on, taking electronic music into the live arena and seeing how far it’s possible to push it. Alongside that, he’s still got his feet firmly in the club culture that he came from, juggling it all with his ever-growing responsibilities as a family man. You could say it’s the latest in a long line of reinventions. Just don’t, for the sake of someone who distrusts nostalgia, call it his Renaissance.

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Words: Joe Roberts / Pics: Dan Reid / Live pics: Anthony Mooney

Want more cover stories from DJ Mag? Check out some of our previous cover features on Anja Schneider and Monika Kruse

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