Master Manipulator Keeps It Spinning

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 31, 2006

Think of British superstar DJ Sasha as the Merlin of electronic dance music. He gathers assorted musical ingredients, mixes them together and then waits for his magic potion to transform an audience.

And the wizard always smiles at the results.

"When you get that build right in the club and drop the perfect record at the perfect time and the place explodes -- t hat's what the job is all about, you know."

As a pioneer in making electronica/dance music a global phenomenon, Sasha knows explosions. It's how he became one of the world's most renowned and popular DJs and, rumor has it, the highest paid. The roots of it all were his club residencies in the early '90s at Manchester's Hacienda and Brighton's Renaissance in England. (Sasha's 1994 "Renaissance: The Mix Collection" was one of the first commercially released DJ albums and remains one of the best selling ever.)

Renaissance is where Sasha met fellow DJ John Digweed. As Sasha + Digweed, they helped take the British dance club scene international, with gigs in South America, Southeast Asia and the United States, where their legendary residency at New York's Twilo became the epicenter of this country's late-blooming club culture.

Such far-flung travels explain the "million or so" frequent-flier miles the 37-year-old Sasha says he has accumulated in the past 15 years.

"It's nuts," Sasha admitted during a recent day off in New York City, where he has had an apartment since 2002. All those frequent-flier miles are pretty much useless, he adds, since they're mostly with British Airways. "They want me to book 18 months in advance, and I don't even know what I'm doing 18 days in advance most of the time! So it's a nightmare. They're just sitting in my account."

At least the flying has gotten easier the past few years. Those endless international flights used to entail schlepping crates of 12-inch vinyl records and CDs.

Not anymore.

Say hello to the brave new world of laptop DJing via an iMac G5 and, in Sasha's right hand, not a mouse, but a custom-built, one-of-a-kind controller called the Maven. Over the past 18 months, Sasha has abandoned his old tools in favor of the G5 and Ableton Live, software that facilitates such advanced techniques as mixing multiple sources at once and adjusting their pitch and tempo independently and cutting up and rearranging tracks on the fly.

Sasha had used Ableton Live in the studio for several years but never thought it right for club work. Clubs, in fact, were the last stronghold of vinyl, so when a superstar DJ like Sasha ditched that format, it signaled a revolution in the DJ booth.

"It really is amazing," Sasha says. "I'm almost starting to lose the memory of DJing with vinyl and CDs."

Ironically, Sasha says, he had been one of the last DJs to switch to CDs. "I was really holding on to vinyl. Even when I got sent CDs, I used to have everything cut to acetate, and that was an expensive process in itself: Each plate cost me $25. Before I would go on a tour I would have $5,000 worth of new acetates cut."

But, he adds, "they're quite fragile. I had a couple of tours where the acetates I had cut just weren't up to scratch, and I got two or three gigs into the tour and they started wearing out, and I had to switch to CDs because I was in South America and there was nothing I could do about it. When I got hold of one of the Pioneer CDJ mixers, I thought, 'This really is the way forward.' "

Now it's up, up and away, with a lot less baggage and no waiting at airports for misplaced record crates.

"Now I carry [the Mac] on one shoulder, the Maven on the other. And it all fits in the overhead."

What if his Mac crashes? According to Sasha, all he has to do is get a high-speed Internet connection, plug into his server at his home base in London and download all the music files he needs. He already does that to freshen up his repertoire while he's on the road.

According to Sasha, the Maven was a reaction to the likelihood of mouse-wielding DJs losing audience interest when it looks like they are checking their e-mail. That certainly counters the romantic image of the DJ that Sasha helped to popularize, to the point that many clubs train a camera on the decks in a DJ booth so clubgoers can follow the dynamics of a DJ's performance on a video screen.

"There is still that whole thing when you're watching DJs spin records where it's that samurai thing -- the needle and the record and it could go wrong at any moment," Sasha says. "I still get a buzz watching people play vinyl, and there is definitely something different happening when you're in front of a computer screen.

"But at the end of the day, you still have to know how to put a DJ set together. You still have to know how to program, how to build a vibe up in a room, how to get a groove and stick with it and manipulate it. That's what DJing is about."

Although the Maven is solidly constructed ("That was my first brief: If it's going to be carried around the world, it needs to be built like a tank"), it's also "a bit of a home science project," Sasha admits, which is why he's working on Maven II. "It's going to be ready very soon, and it's going to have a lot less gremlins in it."

This is quite a step from the Welsh-born Sasha's first DJing job at the University of Wales's student union in 1987, when he was still known as Alexander Coe. Until then, he had only messed around on his family's audio console and had never touched a Technics deck.

"I had no clue how to use it. I thought the pitch control was the volume, and I didn't know where to plug the headphones," Sasha recalls. "It was pretty funny. Half the buzz of that show was that I got 20 of my friends on the guest list, and they were all in the front of the crowd yelling, 'Go, Sasha, go, Sasha.' "

Which he did, quickly graduating to the Hacienda and Renaissance residencies, followed by exponential success in Europe (Spain's club-happy Ibiza in particular) before heading to points east, west and wherever. Along the way, Sasha moved from being the king of trance to championing progressive house and embracing assorted electro variations, also carving out a lucrative career remixing tracks from such popular artists as Madonna ("Ray of Light"), Pet Shop Boys and Simply Red.

After a series of influential mix albums (with and without Digweed), Sasha stepped away from DJing in 2001 to work on his first full-length production, what became 2002's "Airdrawndagger," But first, he decided to go back to school, as it were. Sasha realized that as much time as he was spending in the studio, he didn't actually know how much of the equipment worked and depended on more tech-minded folks to do what he wanted. His tutors were programmers/producers Simon Wright, Charlie May (Spooky) and Tom Holkenborg (aka Junkie XL, who will be at Nation on April 7).

"I know my way around a studio," Sasha says, "but being in Amsterdam with that team was like going to a university for sound design -- four boffins in a basement working on music every day, and at the end of the day we'd go to a pub and spend hours discussing what we were doing.

"My record label thought I was mental because I spent so much time in the studio with not much music produced, but I was kind of knob twiddling and it was an important time and an important process. It meant when I went into the studio for 'Airdrawndagger,' I could speak the language and knew what I was talking about even if I was nowhere near as accomplished as some of the guys I was working with."

"Airdrawndagger" turned out to be a masterpiece, a 68-minute instrumental suite full of Sasha's trademark melancholy lows and euphoric highs. "It was a selfish, slightly self-indulgent record," he says. "My label went, 'There's no vocals?' I'm still happy with it to this day, and I learned so much from making that record."

On the DVD front, "Delta Heavy" documents the first rock-style DJ tour here in 2002 -- 31 dates in nine weeks via bus caravan, headlined by Sasha + Digweed and Jimmy Van M. "It was a huge production and took a lot out of everyone and it's not the kind of thing you can do back to back or regularly," he says, adding, "Some of the best gigs were places I'd never played before and have never played since. I never even realized there was a scene in Albuquerque! There were some really lovely surprises."

"Involver," a 2004 blend of remixes and original productions, was followed by last year's "Fundacion," his first using the Ableton Live software. It's also the name Sasha attaches to his American residencies, which this year are split among four cities, including Washington: He was at Glow on Feb. 4, returns there Saturday and is scheduled to return every other month until further notice. Now, as when Sasha started, residencies "are very important," he says. "When you go back and play for the same crowd month to month, you have to evolve your set. You can't just go out and play the same things. It pushes you creatively as a DJ. All DJs should have at least one residency in their crazy touring schedules."

Washington and Denver were added to Los Angeles and New York this year because, Sasha says, some of the best shows on last year's tour were in those cities. "D.C. has always been fantastic. I loved playing at Nation, and I love the sound system at Fur. I always feel so welcome and have a great time, and the crowd is so fantastic. They make me feel super, super special when I walk into that place."

Sasha and Jimmy Van M Saturday at Fur at Glow Sounds like: A rollercoaster ride to a pulsating soundtrack blending house, breaks, progressive beats, electro and a few surprises, plus, if Sasha's feeling nostalgic, a taste of trance.

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