With ‘Involver,’ superstar Sasha uses technology to put the mystery back into spinning
If anyone represents the quintessential superstar DJ, it’s Sasha. His shy-boy persona and cool, detached DJing defined the rise of DJ culture in the ’90s. His icy, sweet sound of synthetic, “progressive” house came to dominate the global underground by the mid-’90s as countless bedroom DJs followed his charts, collected his magazine covers, and emulated his understated pose behind the decks.
However, the spread of DJ culture and its easily learned techniques has deflated the pomp and circumstance that once surrounded top jocks like him. Buying hot records (once a treasure hunt), and beat-matching them perfectly just like the spinners on stage (once an enigma), have become quite a bore. Every other young workaday cubicle dweller has turntables at home and can surely unleash a blend of beats that would be at home in almost any mega-club. And Sasha is the first person to tell you so. It’s time for the scene to move forward, he says. In fact, with a new mix-CD that combines his own remixes and edits into a seamless journey, he’s willing to show the way.
Involver, released this week on Global Underground, is a new breed of compilation that has Sasha not only blending other people’s music in traditional mix-CD form (originally intended to give you that at-the-club feeling), but also taking each track and remixing or editing it for perfect placement inside the stream. For the 34-year-old DJ, the idea was precisely to push the medium into the future. Sasha actually helped create the club-inspired format in the early ’90s, and he pushed it beyond the million-selling mark with his and John Digweed’s Northern Exposure mix-CD series. Born in the U.K.’s North Wales as Alexander Coe, the DJ got his start as a teenage spinner at northern nightspots such as Shelly’s and Renaissance, and soon came to define the DJ-as-rock-star cult with his patented sound of chilly synths and warm female vocals.
“I actually signed up with Global Underground to do a normal mix compilation,” Sasha says of his latest effort. “But I wasn’t getting enough out of it. And, after all the work I did on my own album [2002’s Airdrawndagger], to do a normal mix album felt like a step backward s. With this, I was able to combine my DJ and production work in one project, seamlessly.”
The 10-track compilation starts in typical Sasha fashion, with a brooding ambient interlude that builds into a slow-burning ballad (Grand National’s “Talk Amongst Yourselves”). Soon he erects, with the help of his own custom transitions, a loose, lubricated house of bass and “nu skool” breaks (Shpongle’s “Dorset Perception”). Finally, Involver peaks with Felix Da Housecat’s crunchy, new-wave-tinged “Watching Cars Go By,” in which Sasha loops the song’s robotic refrain, “I am no cyber whore.”
“We had all the parts to every single track,” he says. “It was DJ mixing on a molecular level.”
Sasha says the compilation – which was done with the help of fellow producers Barry Jamieson, Simon Wright, and Charlie May – has helped him ascend in the studio. Involver was put together using Ableton Live, a sampling and sequencing program revered for its ability to allow performers to throw snippets and tracks into a mix, in time and on beat, with the click of a mouse. For the final mix he also used Logic (a sound-editing suite) and some outboard polishing gear.
“With Airdrawndagger,” he says, “it was like being at a university of sounds. This is where I applied what I learned. I was much more hands-on with this project.”
In fact, Sasha was so inspired by Ableton Live that he’s made a large and potentially dance-world-shaking decision to abandon vinyl altogether for DJ performances, instead using a laptop to unleash a chain of tracks. (Other artists, including Sasha collaborator BT, have done the same.)
“I’m about a month away from transferring all my records to my hard drive to be 100 percent digital,” he says. “I’m building a custom controller because I think the idea of DJing with a mouse isn’t very cool. Everything on the screen can be manipulated with this controller.
“The accessibility has taken some of the mystery away from DJing,” he continues. “I used to come to America and play for people; there was no way they could get those records, and so there was a uniqueness to my sound. Now it’s everywhere, but that pushes it to another level. The technology will move things forward and enable you to give unique performances every time you play. A set of Technics turntables and a mixer is not enough now. It’s time to move on.”