Come in, spinner
By Andrew Drever
Honestly, the life of the globetrotting superstar celebrity DJ isn't all you'd imagine. So says the DJ they call Sasha, although he would say that. He wouldn't talk it up too much, lest we'd all want in on the action.
Sasha's reputation as a formidable party animal precedes him. One urban legend has him lying face-down in a ditch in Ibiza as the sun came up, wads of money, his payment from the night before, fluttering from his pockets.
But he says his life has now morphed into Sashacorp and he has little time for such exploits.
"No, it's not all Lear jets, bottles of champagne and the glamorous lifestyle!" he says, not quite convincingly, down the line from Baltimore, in the US. "There's a lot of physical and mental work involved in terms of just going places and promoting yourself. I'm running a business now, managing people around me and making important decisions every day. There's a lot riding on my shoulders. DJs have evolved into businessmen now and it can be quite a lot to manage."
How about his well-documented work in the business of f---ing himself up? Is he still Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up?
"No, not really," he says wryly. "I'm getting a little older and a bit more sensible. This year's been very, very busy and I haven't had much spare time. If you're going to go out and party all weekend you need recovery time, and I basically haven't had any recovery time this year. I'm taking things pretty seriously. When you're DJing night after night and you have to get up at nine in the morning to do press and stuff, it's not really conducive to going out and caning it."
Sasha wouldn't claim to be the world's biggest-name DJ, but if anyone had a right to that title, he does. It's no thanks to his record sales, though, as his debut artist album came out this year to a lukewarm public response, and his mix compilations hardly sell by the truckload. What sets him apart from the rest is his pull. The elements of trance, breaks, progressive and deep house he mixes with hypnotically liquid grooves result in around-the-block queues and festival tent-flap jams. He also has credibility in the dance music world.
Discovering house music as a punter at Manchester's Hacienda club in 1987, Sasha, then plain old Alexander Coe, struck it lucky when he volunteered to spin tunes at a nearby pub. The fact he had only about 20 records in his possession didn't hold him back - a talent for bullshitting, he freely admits, had more to do with his start than any talent behind the decks.
"Oh, I definitely blagged my way into it!" he says with a laugh. "My first gig, I basically told someone I could DJ and I just turned up with my records. I'd never even used Technics decks before. I actually thought the pitch control was some sort of volume!
"But it seemed to go OK. I probably didn't catch on to it that quickly. It took me a while. I'm sure my first few sets were absolutely abysmal, but I seemed to get more work, so it can't have been that bad!"
Gigs at his beloved Hacienda and the famed Hipnosis raves in England's north-east followed, before he scored a residency at Shelley's in Stokes, gaining a following while playing Guru Josh anthems, Shamen tracks and layering cheesy a capellas over Italian piano-driven house.
While a resident at Mansfield club Renaissance, he struck up a friendship and musical partnership with fellow DJ John Digweed. They mixed a two-CD set for Renaissance, later releasing three volumes in the Northern Exposure series, considered classic compilations in dance music circles.
For many, the first Northern Exposure volume was an introduction to electronic dance music, and its significance years later is both confusing and exhilarating to Sasha.
"It was bizarre!" he says. "The punters loved it, but it got so badly received in the press. I think we actually got zero out of 10 in DJ magazine, with the review just absolutely slating it. But then suddenly it gets voted as one of the best mix CDs of all time and everyone starts calling it a classic. It was a real labour of love, so to have it received so badly by journalists was a real kick in the nuts. Quite demoralising."
Sasha would like to make another mix album like Northern Exposure, "with breaks and ambient sounds and songs", but not for a while.
"Since then, there's been so much amazing new-school breaks," he says, "and with the pool of music I've got to choose from over the past six years, I'd really like to make another album like that. But it's a much more arduous process than just doing a club-based mix CD, with four-to-the-floor, progressive, banging house, because you're talking about a lot of mood and tempo changes. It's definitely more of a difficult animal to handle."
After several successful tours of the US, Sasha and Digweed began a monthly residency at New York City club Twilo in 1996. The all-night sessions drew crowds of up to 2000 until Twilo was shut down in May last year. The duo's deep, pumping, late-night house sound become central to a burgeoning US DJ and club culture.
Although Sasha had production and remix credits on labels such as Deconstruction, Yoshitoshi and his own Excession imprint, it wasn't until 1999's Xpander EP that he finally made an impact with his own material. The record continues to be a staple of DJ record boxes throughout the world, and was designed to whet appetites for his debut album. That, however, was to be three years in coming. A car crash confined Saha to the studio for much of 2001, and when the record was released in August, it wasn't what many fans expected. Where were the pumping club anthems, progressive beat-led mayhem, or perhaps real songs sung by big names?
What we got, as always with Sasha, was a "journey" - a 69-minute album that he says people don't understand at first.
"I wanted to make an album of my own music that flowed the way that the first Northern Exposure did," he says, "with all the breaks and downbeat ambience that eventually led into more progressive territory."
From the eerie melodies and sweeping strings of Mr Tiddles and the twisted electro-funk of Boileroom to the closing quirky breakbeat of Wavy Gravy, the album oozes class and production nous. It's a complex beast that reveals itself slowly - a grower. Although sales have been solid, it probably missed out on striking when Sasha's musical iron was at its hottest, after Xpander.
"I think if it had been released two, three years ago, even last year, it would have done better," he agrees. "It's an instrumental, left-of-centre record, and I think people were expecting me to make something big and clubby with vocals on it. I think it certainly confused people a little bit in the States, and I don't think they understood why I wanted to make an album like this. I wanted to build the perfect DJ Sasha set, I guess, and because it's quite a personal album, I think you do need to spend time with it. I want to build a career as an artist now, as well as a DJ, and it's my first big step."
Airdrawndagger was recorded with the help of longtime cohort Charlie May, Amsterdam underground producer Tom "Junkie XL" Holkenborg - whose name has been well and truly made with his recent remix of Elvis Presley's A Little Less Conversation - and engineer-programmer Simon Wright.
A musical, post-club instrumental voyage, it feels like the type of album people will be buying - maybe even just beginning to appreciate - in five years. Crucially, Sasha didn't cave in to pressure from outside forces to incorporate vocals.
"I don't really feel like I'm a songwriter," Sasha says. "We had a lot of pressure to record vocals, but when the album was done, it really felt like that was the sound of the record. To have vocalists put their songs over the top of my tracks, then it was almost like it wouldn't have been my tracks any more.
"Me, Charlie and Tom slaved over these backing tracks, and to just give the backing tracks to a vocalist who's going to have their interpretation or whatever, it just didn't feel right. Alternatively, if I was going to collaborate and get involved in the songwriting process, it would have put the record back another six months, and I don't think anyone involved could have handled that."
Sasha would now think long and hard before locking himself away in the studio to record the next album.
"Taking a year in the studio, to take that time off, is a costly endeavour," he says. "To turn down a year's worth of DJ work on a record that can be downloaded for free around the world isn't as straightforward as people probably think it is. Also, taking on another album project is something that I've got to be totally mentally prepared for, because it's an emotionally draining thing."
He'll experience a lifestyle change when he moves to New York next month with his girlfriend, Zoe. Another change came this year when he stopped smoking.
"I'd tried lots of different things, and in the end I went to a hypnotist, and it worked," he says. "Incredible. It's really weird. It's like the hypnotist broke the spell I was under."
Sasha DJs at QBH, South Melbourne, tomorrow night. Airdrawndagger is out through BMG