From new ventures in live performance to reunions with Digweed, fresh collaborations to the birth of a baby, the godfather of progressive is busy building a new future in what he says is his most productive era yet.
Words: ERIN SHARONI | Pics: LIAM SIMMONS
“Music has that power, to really take you back to moments in your life when things were different.” Sasha looks away, immersed in thought. The Grammy-nominated champion of progressive dance music knows a thing or two about nostalgia. “Sometimes, especially in this day and age, when the world has gone so crazy, a record can make you think, ‘Oh, I was so young and life was so much simpler then.’ And you’re back there suddenly. That’s the power of music.”
It’s a few days into the new year and New York City is a cold gray grid, the remnants of holiday celebrations littering its streets with muddy flecks of color. Sasha appears rested, clad in a simple black sweater and black frame glasses, from behind which animated expressions take shape; his eyes crinkle at the corners when he laughs, which is often.
He joins DJ Mag USA from his agent’s Manhattan office, seated in a large, glass-walled conference room. People passing through the hallways peer in, but no one stops. Here, Sasha is just a man in a black shirt, regaling a rapt listener with stories of what he’s up to, what the future might bring, and – with some slight prodding – what he thinks about the past.
With a broad smile on his face, Sasha speaks of his family; his wife and three children, the eldest nine and the youngest just a few weeks old, are here in New York for the holidays. They’ll return to Ibiza shortly, which they’ve decided to adopt as their year-round home.
“It’s our first time spending the winter there, so we’ll see how long we last. The kids love it; food’s good, football’s good.” The music’s good too, but the kids haven’t yet internalized the fact that their Welsh-born father is one of the most influential DJ/producers the electronic dance music world has ever known.
“I have no control over the stereo in my house,” Sasha laughs. “I have no control over the Spotify lists or anything that gets played.” He wipes a hand across his forehead, nodding, “I know far too much Top 40 music; it’s terrible. But I can’t argue, really.” He shrugs and suggests that his children would probably prefer it if he were a producer for Katy Perry.
Sasha’s newborn, Ivy Love, was delivered in November. We presume she isn’t curating Spotify playlists, but she does have a firm grip on her father’s heart. “She’s gorgeous… absolutely perfect,” he says tenderly. And while raising children is at least as daunting a task as DJing to stadiums full of strangers, Sasha seems to have command of it, radio control aside. What keeps him up at night these days is more than colicky cries; it’s the birth of a new step in his career.
On May 20th, Sasha will make his stage debut at London’s iconic Barbican concert hall. There, amid an audience of 2,000 people, accompanied by a small chamber ensemble, some special guests and a band of his closest production partners – Charlie May, Dennis White and David Gardner – he’ll embark on a live performance of his 2016 ‘Scene Delete’ album and reinterpretations of music from his back catalogue. “I’m absolutely terrified,” he insists, emphasizing the verb with mock horror.
Remarkably, despite Sasha’s fabled 28-yearlong career, the endless innovation he has brought to the DJing craft and scores of number one tracks, he’s never played a show with live instrumentation. And as it turns out, even kings can quake in their boots.
“I swing between this sort of blind optimism one moment – when I talk to my studio crew or the producer of the show and they say how amazing it’ll be – to a total blind panic, within the space of a few hours,” Sasha laughs, shaking his head in disbelief. “I’ve DJ’d in front of 30 people and in front of 30,000 people. But I’ve never sat down and played an instrument in front of anyone, really. And I’m going to have to stand up there and not just play, but play perfectly.”
He’ll have to be perfect on two nights. The first date sold out within 45 minutes of being announced, prompting the addition of a second. “It means that I’ve really got to get my shit together!” he exclaims.
In preparation, Sasha has been teaching himself how to play the piano again, a talent he developed in his youth that faded amid decades of sleepless treks across the globe. Growing up in North Wales, he wasn’t surrounded by a particularly musical family – he recalls one uncle who was a gifted pianist and another who was a “vinyl freak,” each of whom influenced Sasha’s eventual propensity for both things.
His mother used to play pop songs on a beaten up old piano the family inherited when they moved into a new house, and Sasha says he followed suit, picking out melodies to songs he heard on the radio, note by note, on that same piano. Naturally, his mother signed him up for lessons.
Young Sasha didn’t particularly enjoy the way he was taught to play piano. The traditional drills, with scales and sight-reading, never quite drew him in and he suspects that they don’t draw any child in; children would rather be playing. “I think people forget that when you say you play music, you are actually playing – it should be something that’s fun and engaging,” Sasha reflects. “Teaching myself how to play again is really going to help me teach my kids how to play, because I’m having to totally re-learn the instrument.”
He’s currently using a novel piano teaching method out of Australia called Simply Music, which bills itself as “playing-based” music education, and loves it. “But the [Barbican] show is going to be two hours long. And two hours is a long time to play for,” he adds seriously.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
If DJing is the ultimate act of playfulness, the best of it is defined by a willingness to surrender to feeling and flow. “It’s about your ears… rather than what you’re seeing or reading. It’s much more about how you’re feeling the music and how it sounds,” Sasha says.
It’s what he has found most remarkable in rehearsing for the Barbican concert with his live bandmates. “You get these amazing moments there that you wouldn’t get if you were trying to draw it in on a computer screen... A lot of new stuff has come out of rehearsing for this live show,” he muses.
Realizing how important such moments are in creating fresh, exciting music, Sasha plans to channel the energy of the Barbican rehearsals into the studio. “I know that so far as writing music, after this show, things are going to change drastically for me; it’s going to go back to how I used to make music.”
That statement alone will be music to many fans’ ears, and it’s far from hypothetical. Sasha already has a number of releases lined up on his Last Night On Earth imprint as well as on German labels Kompakt and Watergate – “and another 10 things that haven’t yet got homes” – plus a slate of remixes and collaborations.
Case in point, he’s revealed that he is working with techno’s dark horse Alan Fitzpatrick for a project that, even without any details, makes us as giddy as schoolchildren. “It’s just been the most focused, productive time in my career,” Sasha says with a satisfied grin.
And then there’s his reunion with John Digweed. On March 24, 2016, at Digweed’s Easter Bedrock party at Ministry of Sound, something we thought we might never see again took place: Sasha and Digweed, together in the DJ booth after six years, two silhouettes backlit against the fog that hangs beneath Ministry’s low ceiling.
“I think a lot of people, maybe even including ourselves, had given up hope of it actually happening again. But it just came together so easily,” says Sasha.
A quick YouTube search will bring up fan videos of the night that are far more revealing than a written recap could ever be. Suffice to say, the crowd lost their minds. But they were unaware of Sasha’s presence in the booth for an entire 60 minutes – the set was totally unannounced, and the duo wanted it that way.
John snuck Sasha in through the back of the club via a green room, “and I just sort of wandered into the booth at 3am and started DJing,” Sasha chuckles. It was so dark, no one noticed. “You could feel it kind of go around the room and after about an hour, people suddenly realized that we were playing together.”
As he tells the tale, Sasha bumped into John while touring in Tokyo, and the two caught up over lunch. They didn’t talk much about working together again; it sort of just happened. “It felt very natural. We were so happy to see each other and the idea of playing together felt very cool again,” Sasha explains. It’s always been about the feeling, above all else.
The history between the two DJs is as fabled as it gets, but there’s not much more to say about what’s to come. Neither artist is doing press around the comeback, and apart from learning that the pair will reunite again for shows at Ultra Miami and EDC Mexico, and a general assurance of “a lot more on the horizon” from Sasha, we’re in as much suspense as anyone. Like the duo’s approach to working together, there’s little room for words.
“There’s something about when John and I play together that I just can’t put my finger on,” Sasha says, pausing to consider the thought as he gazes off. “It’s an X factor. I don’t know what it is, but something happens where we both bring things out in each other – and what comes out of the speakers is more than the sum of its parts.”
A FIELD LONG AGO AND FAR AWAY
In the early days of dance music, everything felt fragile. The scene was grittier, edgier, powered by the rapid flutter of impermanence. Parties were impromptu and illegal more often than not. Anyone who came up in the ‘90s as a DJ or raver, from Manchester to New York, knows the feeling of exhilaration that accompanied each night. We cling to things and love them harder when we’re not sure how long they’ll be around.
Sasha was a big part of that moment in time. “I started off doing these proper illegal parties in the UK. One of the last Blackburn [warehouse] parties I was at got raided by the police and they came in with SWAT gear and tear gas. It was full on. It was kind of like the Wild West then.”
The father of three adds that what the scene has lost in edginess, it has gained in safety, and there’s something to be said for that – “There’s definitely nowhere near as much of the drug culture as there used to be back in the ‘90s, which is good for the kids.”
And while Sasha recalls the heyday of rave culture with as much affection as we do, he recognizes that the death of illegal parties was inevitable, especially as acid house ballooned in the UK, much like EDM has blown up in America: “You can’t have 25,000 people in a field illegally and expect the police not to notice! ‘What’s going on here?’ ‘Oh, we’re just having a church meeting,’” he quips with a laugh. “They paid a lot of notice and then came down very heavily.”
Thankfully, the crackdown didn’t come before eager young talent like Brian Transeau – now known to the electronic music world as BT – took their turns dancing in those fields. In an interview for his own DJ Mag USA cover story last year, BT told us a tale of once raving in a remote stretch of English countryside dotted with sheep, where Sasha was DJing inside of a barn. There, he handed Sasha all of his new music on DATs.
Sasha laughs heartily when we mention the memory. “I didn’t tell BT this, but I had it all cut to acetate that day. He’d given me the DATs at like 12 in the afternoon and I couriered them straight to my cutting room. My guy cut them and got them back to me, and the last hour of my set I literally played all BT’s new music... and there he was, in the middle of the barn dancefloor with his top off just going ballistic, and everyone is like, ‘Who the fuck’s this weird American dude?! He’s really sweaty!’” Sasha grins at the recollection.
“Some of the greatest creative experiences of my life have been at 4am with him in one of our studios,” BT says. Sasha eventually went on to form a partnership with BT, as he has with only a small number of artists, producing an alternate interpretation of BT’s lauded 1996 album ‘Ima’, which was included as a bonus disc on the US release.
“The joy of that time period is absolutely indescribable,” BT insists. And while everyone, Sasha first and foremost, is eager to push ahead instead of drifting through the past, there’s something to be said for where things began, muddy fields of sheep and all.
HAÇIENDA, I'M HOME!
In the opening scene of the 2002 cult classic film 24 Hour Party People, protagonist Tony Wilson crashes into a field on a hang glider and turns to the camera to tell the audience what to expect for the next 120 minutes: “I’ll just say one word; Icarus. If you get it, great. If you don’t, that’s fine too. But you should probably read more.” In other words, buckle up… you’re in for a wild ride that veers too close to the sun.
Wilson, played in the mock documentary by actor Steve Coogan, was founder of Manchester’s legendary Haçienda nightclub and owner of Factory Records (label home to synthpop icons New Order). Weaving his way across the dancefloor one night in the late 1980s, the character declares: “Being at The Haçienda was like being at the French Revolution. ‘Bliss it was that dawn to be alive. But to be young was very heaven!’”
The latter quote is borrowed from poet William Wordsworth, and who knows if the real Tony Wilson ever said such a thing. But if Sasha’s memory of The Haçienda as a young raver is any indication, it’s more likely than not, and he references the film as he recalls his induction into dance music.
“That was my place. My mecca. I literally lived in The Haçienda from 1988 to 1990,” Sasha declares. It was there that he fell in love with acid house, and ultimately, with electronic dance music.
Every addict has a vivid memory of the moment they were hooked: “The sound was so, so big. They had these big plastic sheets you’d push yourself through to get into the club, and they acted like a sound barrier. Once you got through them, the sound just hit you,” Sasha recalls, throwing his head back as if a wall of music is headed straight for him.
At The Haçienda, Sasha learned to appreciate the art of DJing by watching the openers from week to week. He would arrive ten minutes before 9pm in order to be the first person inside. There, he took notice of how the DJs crafted their sets. “I’d hear a record at 10pm one week, and then two weeks later it’d be played in the last hour. I loved watching a DJ build up a record over a few weeks and then, suddenly, it becomes a record everyone knows; it becomes an anthem.”
He remembers thinking the DJs were like gods, tucked away from sight in a booth near the ceiling. “You couldn’t see them, just their heads popping out and this incredible music playing. Once I started to work out the mechanics of DJing and realized how they broke records and built up the night, that’s really what got me hooked.”
Everyone has a different reference point for their entry into the scene. It’s why, Sasha suggests, there’s never been a retrospective film that definitively captures the electronic dance music movement. “If you’re from Detroit and you’re into techno, you’re going to have a very different experience of what is important to you than if you’re from London and into dubstep, or Manchester and you grew up in The Haçienda with acid house,” he reflects.
Or, we add, if you’re from New York City and grew up with Sasha and Digweed playing minimal progressive records under a low-slung ceiling at Twilo. Like us. Sasha smiles and waves his hand modestly. But he’s right; it’s all relative. The single thing stringing our collective experiences together is that sensation of coming together late at night, moving to the same beat in the dark.
STATE OF MIND
Our material universe is built upon the certainty of balance: night turns to day, yin to yang. Without it, things fall apart. “When you suffer from depression – and I’ve had it mildly, in bouts – you can’t understand yourself, why you feel so shit. It’s just this black cloud that engulfs you, and somebody telling you to man up is the worst thing you can possibly hear,” Sasha says, running a hand across the back of his neck.
“There’s a general attitude to mental health issues in society, not just in electronic music, where especially for men, it’s like, ‘What the fuck are you depressed about? What could you possibly be down about?’” He says he’s heartened by the fact that people are discussing mental health openly now, particularly as the trappings of the DJ lifestyle can be conducive to health problems.
For Sasha’s part, he didn’t know what was happening to him when his anxiety attacks began, years ago. To make matters worse, they were triggered by the music. “I thought I was going mad,” he recalls.
The more intense the music, the worse the attacks got. “I would be sitting there thinking, ‘I’m losing my mind!’ I had no idea what was happening to me, but I couldn’t stop myself from playing these bonkers records,” he laughs and shakes his head. “People in the club are going crazy, and it’s making the anxiety attack go off like I’m hallucinating. It was just insanity.”
In the pre-internet era, information wasn’t as readily available and no one was walking around chatting about symptoms of panic attacks. Sasha was convinced that what he experienced was simply “what happens when people go mad.” It wasn’t until a friend shared his own clinical diagnosis of anxiety that Sasha fully understood what was going on. And once he understood it, he could manage it with therapy and lifestyle tuning – eating well, exercising, sleeping more.
“Stuff like this needs to be talked about, because talking about it is the only way to fix it,” he insists.
But success is a seductive drug, no matter which way you slice it. “When you’re right at the apex of a wave and everyone wants you, it’s hard to say no,” Sasha admits. At the peak of his own success, he wanted to be everywhere at once, saying yes to everything and living in the moment. There was a mental and physical price to pay. For him, it came in the form of crippling panic which, though short-lived, left him feeling lost at the time.
When we ask about regrets, he pauses. “It’s very hard to say that… because I’ve ended up where I’m at today.”
Common scenario: It’s 5am in Ibiza and DJ Mag USA can’t sleep. After leaving Space and dragging our feet along the walk back to a Playa d’en Bossa flat we’re sharing with friends – Scottish progressive DJ/producer Grum and his manager – we reluctantly settle into the sofa, ears ringing. We guzzle water, eat bananas, peel off our socks.
“Now what?” we ask.
No one moves.
Suddenly, Grum jumps up and grabs his laptop – “I have just the thing!”
A few moments later, Sasha’s remix of James Zabiela’s ‘The Healing’ fills our flat. We melt into its trippy groove and put it on repeat. The track is a rubbery, wobbly 11-minute journey that slowly unfolds, sensual vocals emerging halfway through on the heels of mind-bending flanger effects.
“It’s like you’re walking on a tightrope,” Grum remarks, “but you manage to stay balanced, which is enjoyable.” We pause to consider the statement and decide it’s a perfect metaphor for what makes Sasha such a strong producer. He understands the art of manipulation, how to pull on a listener’s heartstrings just enough to elicit a rush of emotion, and gently guides them onto the next moment without wallowing in anything long enough to become cheesy. His sets are handled the same way; visceral journeys that build carefully, whether for peak-hour madness or sunrise chill-out.
It’s what makes his productions feel timeless, even decades later, and why it works when you play a Sasha record – from 2006 or from 1996 – in your flat at 5am in 2016.
“Some of the music has aged well… and some of it hasn’t,” Sasha chuckles wryly, when we relay our story to him. He’s been quoted as saying he doesn’t like to dwell on the past, despite its successes – or perhaps, in spite of them. But he’s softened a bit these days. “It’s nice to look back on some of it and reflect it forward… but I would never entertain doing this live show at the Barbican as a classics thing. It’s really nice to hear older tracks but I feel like when records are put out, they have their moment in time.”
Sasha played a selection of classics at the closing of Space this past summer because it felt right – “records that I’d played in Ibiza years ago and that meant something to me” – like ‘Sacred Cycles’ by Pete Lazonby and Billy Hendrix’s ‘Body Shine’, which tore the roof off the main room.
Sometimes, a future classic goes unnoticed. Or even totally dismissed, ripped apart by critical ears that can’t yet hear which way the world is headed. Like Sasha and Digweed’s 1996 compilation ‘Northern Exposure’ – which went on to be hailed by many as the greatest mix album of all time.
“I remember at the time, DJ Mag gave us a terrible review,” Sasha grins, leaning forward in his seat as he emphasizes the words. “It was literally a 0 out of 10, and scathing. Absolutely slated!” We declare our personal innocence in the matter, but laugh along with him in disbelief as he adds, “I wish I could find that review because I’d blow it up and put it on my wall.”
Good news: we found it. Tucked away in the DJ Mag archives is, indeed, the worst review Sasha has ever received in his professional career.
The reviewer, whose name is only revealed by the initials AZ, appears impressed by the album’s Ambient mix on CD1 (8/10) but appalled by the Club mix on CD2 (0/10): “... the Club set is like being clamped into a helmet made of damp sponge, crying to be let out.” In its rancor, the review also manages to incorporate a reference to Thomas The Tank Engine and suggest Sasha and Digweed are emperors without clothes.
We’re not sure where in his home Sasha will hang this beauty, but it’s being sent over as this story is written. It will be a solid reminder, as he embarks on his most productive year to date, that sometimes you’re so far ahead of the curve, people in the back can’t hear you. But once they do, you’re forever imprinted upon their lives.