No rest for the world's last 'rock-star deejay'
By : Colin James
Photos By : photos courtesy
I could see it in his eyes before he even uttered a word: Sasha is well beyond tired. It's not surprising, being that he flew from London to Chicago the day before I met him, played a set well into the next day and caught a flight to New York to do press before another gig at Crobar that night. Anyone who's ever suffered from jetlag knows this disorientation and bleary-eyed fatigue is no fun at all; take that feeling and multiply it across the span of global tour lasting well into December.
This blur of city, airport, hotel, airport, new city is nothing new for Sasha -- he's been at it for quite some time. Dubbed the last true rock star deejay by James Lavelle, of UNKLE fame, Sasha is set to continue the frantic pace for the duration of this tour in support of his latest mix CD, Involver, released in June on Global Underground.
It's been quite a journey from his days as a hack deejay blagging himself a spot playing various clubs in Northern England to becoming perhaps the most recognized name in dance music, period. He's progressed from the dual decks and vinyl of 1989 to 2004, where you can remix and edit during a train ride to the venue, burn a copy and have the mix road-tested that same day. He champions the use of Ableton Live, technology that could well change the face of dance music production and live performance for good.
Involver is a unique take on the mix CD. Rather than blending tracks from various artists, Sasha has taken tracks from different genres including rock and electro and re-edited them to fit the context of a proper mix.
"Involver stemmed from boredom mostly," said Sasha. "I completed my artist album (2002's Airdrawndagger), and when I sat down to put together another conventional mix CD, it just didn't really feel right. After everything I had done with other mixes, sitting down to do another felt like taking a step back."
Inspired in part by the on-the-fly bootlegs of the Beatles, Queens of the Stone Age and Mercury Rev that Lavelle and Richard File have been rocking as UNKLE on the dance floor at London's Fabric, Sasha sought to take tracks that didn't necessarily fall into the dance-music realm and re-contextualize them for a dance setting.
Perhaps what is most noticeable is Involver's variety and track selection. Great, largely underexposed bands such as England's Grand National and German producer Ulrich Schnauss are featured prominently as the first and last track. But how does someone who is completely inundated with dance-music releases keep up with the goings on outside the realm of 4/4?
"I get sent a lot of music, and a friend from [the English label] Sunday Best sent me the Grand National record," Sasha said. "I took that and Ulrich Schauss's A Strangely Isolated Place on holiday with me, and they served as the soundtrack."
He spoke to Grand National, who gave him free choice of anything from their yet-to-be-released record "Kicking the National Habit" to re-edit. Schnauss's "On My Own" was the first track he worked on, chopping it up, adding extra tracks and beefing up the drums and bass line from the original. After hearing this early bootleg and loving it, Schnauss sent each element to the track, which Sasha gradually added into the equation.
Sasha's relationship with Lavelle and File allowed him access to the masters from the recent UNKLE record, Never, Never Land. Sasha used two tracks from the record: the a capella from "What You Are To Me" as a bridge track from Petter's "These Days" into the warped, elastic bass line of the Youngsters' "Smile." He used "In a State," a track he remixed previously and cut the vocals into tiny shards while dubbing out the bass line and creating another variation of the song. The rest of the tracks range from those he road-tested on previous tours, such as Spooky's "Belong," to those that stem from other personal friendships, like that with Felix Da Housecat.
The album flows together freely, sounding like a conventional mix CD on first listen. Only upon closer examination do you discover the painstaking work and reconstruction that has gone into each track to make it fit in context. It's a labor of love, one to cure the boredom of mixing other people's records together day in and day out, and it makes the entire process a bit more personal.
To translate this to a live setting, Sasha has embraced technology that, though sure to make the vinyl purists of the world scoff, allows significantly more artistic breathing room. To start, in his regular sets around the world, Sasha has switched to CDRs and the Pioneer CDJ-1000s, which emulates the familiar touch of a record.
"I've lost too many record boxes at airports, and CDJs offer exactly the same sort of cueing and feel," Sasha said. Not to mention getting rid of about one hundred pounds worth of burden on the way to and from airports all the time.
Though a fairly recent phenomenon, Sasha plans to use even more innovative digital technology to move things a bit farther, eventually planning to implement it in every live appearance. "I have three people currently transferring my records (he has about 35,000 of them) to digital, and I'm having a hardware controller built so I can play live using Ableton."
Used often on the record, Ableton is software that allows a deejay to take elements of one track and put them over another, simultaneously synching beat and key.
"It's like being able to use twelve decks at once," he said. "[Ableton] kills any need for filler tracks -- you create your own moments. Need a breakdown? Put in a breakdown. You need a bass line? Put in the bass line in on the fly. All those tracks used to build or get from one place to another are quickly going to become redundant."
Sasha called Ableton "much more intuitive and spontaneous," allowing him more creative control over sets and a greater ability to react to a crowd. It also will allow him to be more eclectic with his performances; the technology allows thousands of songs to be readily available rather than being limited by what can fit into a record box or CD case.
"It's going to let me to do stuff in my own personal way. If I want to incorporate a one-off bootleg or re-edit, it's much easier to fit it into a set," he said. More importantly, he believes this technology will allow him to focus on what deejaying is actually about.
"It really takes it back to the true art is: having the best content and the ways you present it," he said. "Everyone is too into the idea of mixing. Is it just the fact that you can lock two records together, or is it the way you play one record after another and how you drop it? Beat-matching is tedious and takes up too much energy. This technology allows you not to have to worry about it."
This sentiment is sure to irritate the purists. But consider that the enlightenment toward this digital technology comes after nearly fifteen years of putting in the hard work the old fashioned way -- with two decks, a crowd and creativity.
It's clear to see that Sasha's enthusiasm stems from a basic love of music in general. This has translated to his recent playing, which has moved away from the long, progressive mixes from the Twilo days with John Digweed and even further from the piano-led trance he began his career on. He professed an affinity for the "acid electro sound," citing Tiefschwarz as producers that have been catching his ear as of late, along with James Holden and some releases from Cologne's techno/minimal label of note, Kompakt.
Not one to be tied down to dance music and all things electronic, Sasha tips me off to a few new bands I hadn't yet heard before gushing about the Langley Schools Music Project.
"It's essentially this choir instructor in Canada that had his young students sing David Bowie, the Beach Boys and Neil Diamond tracks instead of the traditional songs," he said. "It's amazing."
Later at the gig, I hand him a CDR I brought of the Brian Wilson's masterwork, the unreleased Smile, which he is equally excited about. From this point, he's off to embark on another multi city tour, propelled by this sheer enthusiasm for new music and the opportunity to play it in front thousands of people. It's an opportunity well worth fighting through the jetlag for.