Around the corner from Sasha’s home in upscale Notting Hill, west London, is a private members’ bar on Portobello Road. It’s a low-key establishment, all knee-high tables, comfy sofas and discrete side door, although international drugs smuggler turned raconteur and novelist Howard Marks has just walked in so it’s unlikely to stay quiet for long. Sasha is something of a conversationalist himself but despite his reputation as a bit of party animal, he speaks with a quiet determination, a complete absence of hyperbole or self-promotion. He’s charm personified, talking lucidly, calmly and intelligently, his eyes never failing to twinkle. It’s no surprise the girls love him.
He’s the first to admit that the past couple of years have seen seismic shifts in his career – and much of that is thanks to his fanbase and standing in the States. For 2003 wasn’t a good year for dance music in the UK. Record labels folded, magazines went to the wall, doom and gloom filled the air. In the States though, it was a different story.
“Everyone’s still very positive about dance culture there. I think it’s because the US didn’t have that mass explosion of interest. In 1988 it was like a nuclear bomb went off here. In States it was all about little pockets and isolated scenes. But although it didn’t have huge cultural bang, it looks like it has more staying power.”
Sasha’s love affair with the USA is one that began more than ten years ago. He was one of the first British DJs to go out to the States, tour and make an impact.
“It’s a glib comment to say ‘I’m touring America’ but it’s like touring the rest of the world. It’s mental. We [Sasha and John Digweed] did the whole country on the Delta Heavy tour two years ago. Ten weeks on the road, five or six shows a week. And it’s not a band thing where you play eight ’til ten and then you’re on the road at midnight. There were a lot of late nights, shipping out at 6am.”
He reckons the tour bus was the most “un-rock’n’roll tour bus” in existence – although the first couple of gigs after a five-day sojourn mid-tour in Las Vegas were “delicate”. “Vegas was probably the worst place they could have given us time off,” he says with a smirk.
Not content with slogging around America, Sasha then toured the rest of the world for nine months straight until January 2003, an experience that – understandably – drove him “absolutely insane”. By the end he was “physically and mentally fucked”.
So he took some major time out, nine months in Florida in fact. Not South Beach Miami, mind – this was way out in the sticks, a place where everyone eats their ‘early bird’ dinner at 5pm and the restaurants are closed at 8pm.
“Being in a place like that with no external distractions was good. I was in this beautiful ’50s beach house, 50 yards from beach, perfect sunsets. It bought me some space. For the first time in 15 years of DJing and touring I got to put a few things in perspective. I asked myself questions. What is it that drives me? What’s next? I was a little bit lost really. I scratched my head a lot.”
The food also drove him mad. “If I hear another American whinge about the quality of food in England, I’ll punch their lights out!” he laughs, although you suspect he half kind of means it.
The real problem, he says, was that he’d achieved so many of his goals and that when he’d met them he was left with an “empty void”. Still, the upshot of a couple of months sitting around contemplating his navel was that Sasha found the creative juices had returned. Suddenly the ideas were gushing forth like a torrent. And one of them involved the death of the DJ mix album.
“You listen to people like Richie Hawtin who have really paved the way for the future of how a DJ set should be. He’s pioneered the introduction of technology into the DJ booth, blurring the line between DJing and live performance. The wheels of steel have served me brilliantly for 15 years but to do a ‘regular’ mix album would have felt like step backwards.”
Which brings us to Involver. What started as a “regular” mix album started to mushroom, with the idea being to completely remix and rework a bunch of favourite tracks. Suddenly “everything becomes possible” and cuts that had been in his box for ages – ‘Belong’ by Spooky, ‘Burma’ by Lostep – took on a new lease of life. “I wouldn’t have used them in their original forms. ‘Burma’ and ‘On My Own’ [by Ulrich Schnauss] were the first two tracks to get made over. Felix da Housecat said pick a track. Same with UNKLE.”
The result is an album chock full of breakbeats, rather than the more linear progressive house rhythms you get in his DJ sets. It feels looser, fresher, more developed, like Sasha’s finally cast off the chains of his success and created an album on his own terms.
Of course, when he did eventually finish the album, the first thing that popped into his head was: “What the fuck am I doing in Florida?!”
Craving external stimulation, it was time to ship out out. He headed straight for New York and “overdosed” on culture. “I was eating out three times a day, going to galleries, seeing movies. Yet just nine months before I hadn’t wanted to be around anyone.”
So invigorated was he that by the time you read this Sasha will have relocated to New York, where he intends to stay until at least the end of 2005.
He hopes to bag a residency in the city – what he calls an “anchor point” – and it’s there you’ll hear him play out with his no-vinyl sets. Sasha has built a special console – which he describes as “Batman-looking” – enabling him to play digital tracks yet not even touch a computer. Why? Because laptop DJing, he says, “looks shit”. He’s debuted this new gadget at all-back-to-mine house parties and everyone’s been “gobsmacked”.
“I want to pull music apart, re-edit it on the spot, imprint my own unique sound on every set I play. This direction is the ultimate form of DJing. For so long it’s been about where you bought your records from, what label contacts you have, what shops. But it’s now got to point now where everyone can download everything from the internet – so everyone’s style has been eroded.”
He wants every set to be “completely fucking different” and maintains it’s what DJ culture needs: unless you’re Jeff Mills, he says, the whole idea of going to a club to watch a guy spin vinyl or CDs is increasingly close to being played out. More excitingly, kids starting out as DJs today will be doing so from this point. “They’re the next wave. It will wash away a lot of people. But that’s evolution.”
Sasha has been no slouch when it comes to nurturing new talent, a case in point being James Zabiela, who Sasha has been mentoring for a few years. “I get a buzz from James doing well. It’s a shot in the arm, a kick up the arse. Watching him is amazing.”
And that’s the thing about Sasha. He’s still as enthused today about the music he loves as he was dancing like a loon to the Happy Mondays and Stone Roses at Manchester’s Hacienda back in the day. Hearing the Mondays for the first time in 1988 was a seminal moment for him, he says, as they “united the tribes of dance and indie rock” with their pilled and thrilled sets of jacked-up funk. Fast forward to 2004 and he’s lauding the achievements of Jason Bentley and Brian Transeau for their work in getting electronic music finally recognised at the Grammys.
“I can’t give up now after putting 15 years into this business. Travel anywhere in the world, go out on a Saturday night and people are still dancing.”
© Kieran Wyatt