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Three Decades Behind The Decks - By chris-zaldua - October 14, 2016 - SF Weekly
SF Weekly

Three Decades Behind The Decks

Sasha (Credit: Lucy Barchan)

Britain’s Sasha has been DJing for nearly 30 years, first stepping behind the decks at the legendary Manchester club The Haçienda. In the ’90s, he became a superstar DJ, plying expertly-mixed progressive house all over the world. Today, he’s still at it, enthralling crowds all over the world. Ahead of his appearance at Public Works this Friday, Oct. 14, we caught up with him to hear a few stories he’s picked up throughout his travels across the world.

Sasha performs at Public Works on Friday, Oct. 14, 9 p.m.-4 a.m. More details here.

Chris Zaldua: I looked up a complete list of your DJ sets, and I noticed they string way back to the late ’80s, when you were playing The Haçienda.
Sasha: [laughing] I’m one of the last fossils left.

CZ: Do you have any stories from that era that are still kicking around?
S: Oh …. probably nothing I haven’t talked about before, really. It was an amazing time to be in Manchester. It’s amazing when a city goes through something like that — and there’s a musical movement, an energy in the city, and you’re part of that. Being there at the right time … it’s the whole reason I discovered dance music, it’s the whole reason I wanted to do it. I never thought it was going to be a career, but everything I learned about DJing I learned on the dancefloor of The Haçienda, really.

I used to be first in line. I used to try and get there around 8 o’clock. Doors would open at 9, and I would try and be one of the first in the door. The DJs between 9 and midnight would play all brand new music; from midnight onwards, they would play their “recognized set” of big records. But from 9 until 12, I used to love being in the club at that time, watching the room fill up, and hearing the music that the DJs were testing out. That was my favorite part of the night. What I used to really like was, I’d hear the DJ … Jon DaSilva or Mike Pickering or Graeme Park, those guys that I learned everything from, I’d hear them drop a record at 9:30 one week, and then the next it’d be at 10:30 or 11, the week after at 1 in the morning, and then a month later … they’d be finishing their set with it. And I’d see how a record — how they’d break the record to the crowd, and I learned so much just analyzing those early sets, really. That was my university. 

CZ: Sounds like learned how people would become familiar with music — begin to love it more and more — and eventually know it intimately, then want to hear it for themselves. That whole cycle.
S: Yeah, I learned about programming DJ sets from Jon DaSilva and Graeme Park in particular. They used to mix stuff in key — I mean, we take all that stuff for granted now. Today everyone has programs to help them, beatmatching programs to help them, but back in the day, when records were mixed in key and beatmatched perfectly, it was very confusing. [laughs] You didn’t know what was going on up there. There was a kind of magic to it, back then. It helped that the DJ booth at The Haçienda was on a mezzanine. There was a lot of smoke in that room, a lot of smoke machines all the time. So the DJs were up in this mythical cabin, up in the roof of the building… it was an amazing time.

CZ: When you first got started, did you think you’d still be DJing 20, 30 years later?
S: Certainly not. I was just — I was doing it as a muck-around, really. I was really just doing it in the beginning to get my friends in on guestlists. [laughs] I had no idea what I was doing. There was no concept back then that the scene had any longevity, or that a career could be made out of [DJing]. It wasn’t until the ’90s when I started getting asked to do remixes and production work, and I got a manager, and an agent, and it all started to get a lot more serious and I started getting booked to travel around the world — that’s when it really became a career. But that still wasn’t until mid ’90s. There was a period of time in the early ’90s when I went without gigs for quite a few months… I thought I was going to have to sell my records and get a real job.

CZ: You’ve witnessed the whole “life cycle of the DJ.” Things are very different now — DJs have become modern rockstars.
S: Yeah. People get into DJing now because it’s a lifestyle choice. [laughing] They see pictures of DJs flying around on private jets, DJs at top of the Billboard charts, they aspire to that.

CZ: Was there a time, or a gig, or a moment, when you realized, “this is really my career — this is what I’m meant to be doing”?
S: There’s been many kind of landmarks, when you’ve been around as long as I have. The first time I came to the States was massive for me. First time in Australia — that was the first big proper trip I did, playing a massive rave in Sydney for about 8,000 people. That was my first taste of international travel. Getting booked to come to America in the mid ’90s, coming to play in Orlando, where a great scene had developed … walking into a club where everyone knew my music, my records, knew who I was — that blew me away, really. And later on, touring the States with John Digweed, the first time any kind of DJ had done a proper “bus tour” of the States with production, that was a big moment for us. Residencies in New York … there’s just so many, you know.

CZ: How has your taste in music changed over the years? Have you found yourself drawn to different things in dance music over the years?
S: Yeah, when I look back … you move with the times, you have to. If you’re going to have a long career, you have to. At certain times you’re gonna lead the way, at certain times another sound is gonna come out that influences you and changes the way you look at music — that’s the great thing about electronic music, dance music, it’s always eating itself and spewing out a new version of itself.

CZ: It’s an endless conversation, really.
S: Yeah. There’s always somebody who’s gonna listen to something and think, “I can do that differently.” And then that’s a whole new sound. That’s the great thing about it. I’ve never been much of a purist. I think that’s the one thing that’s consistent throughout my sets — I’ve never played a “pure” sound. I’ve always tried to mix up the best music I could get my hands on at the time — and that usually goes across genres. There are definitely certain records that specifically sound like “my kind of records,” but from the very beginning — and this is something I learned at Haçienda — they would play vocals, techno, big piano breaks, drop in hip-hop records in the middle of their sets, they’d drop crazy old-school hip-hop breaks in the middle of acid house records and the place would go ballistic. That’s where I learned to DJ, so … that never really left me. I’ve never been afraid — even at the end of a 6-hour virtually instrumental set, I’ve never been afraid of dropping a big vocal record so people can go home with a smile on their face. I do get frustrated when I go out and listen to DJs, and after the third or fourth hour, it’s the same monotonous stuff … I get antsy. I like to hear DJ sets develop and build. I definitely like melodic things. I’ve always had that melodic kind of ear, an ear for melodies. And that’s come in and out of fashion, you know. There was a time when that was deeply unfashionable. Right now, it’s a really good time for very melodic electronic music. A fantastic time for it.

CZ: It seems melodic electronic music is on the upswing again. People are responding to deeply melodic, emotional music in a way that I haven’t seen them do for … over a decade, even.
S: Even the guys that play so-called “minimal” house and techno are playing records that have beautiful melodies in them. It’s great! It’s right up my street, anyhow.

CZ: Maybe this new sort of sound is exposing a whole new cohort of people to the wonders of dance music.
S: Umm … yeah, maybe. There’s some not-bad pop music being made right now. [laughs] Some huge stars working with very talented producers, they’re making some great-sounding pop records. That has not been the case for many years. It’s not quite so dire, listening to the radio, at the moment.

CZ: Can you tell me more about your recent album on Late Night Tales? It sounds like an interesting new concept for you.
S: Well, it’s not necessarily a new concept. The idea of me putting all this music together and releasing it like that is, I think. Some of the older stuff on it is three or four years old. Originally, I wanted to do a Late Night Tales album, basically a compilation — on the Jon Hopkins Late Night Tales album that he did last year, he used a few of his own tracks on there. I really liked that album, I found it inspiring. It was very much in the same vein as a lot of the music I had been working on outside of club music. A lot of the time if I’m working on big club records, the first thing I want to do when I finish one is work on something really spacy and ambient. It kind of resets my head, my ears, my sonic barometer. When I’m working on planes or in hotels, I work on low volume or on headphones, and I don’t like listening to beats relentlessly for hours on end. So a lot of the time I’ll write melodies and work on textures … so I had quite a bit of music in that vein. I cherry-picked 14 or 15 of the best bits, then went into the studio to bring them all up to scratch. Then about another quarter of the record was written in those last few weeks. That’s how it came together, really. Some rough cuts, some other projects, a lot of stuff that was floating around. I didn’t actually realize how much of this [downtempo] music I had until I was digging through my hard drive … so it’s great that I found a place to put all of this music together.

CZ: I feel like “ambient” music and dance music, in so many ways, are two sides of the same coin.
S: Well, you’ve got Nils Frahm now, for example, blurring the lines — hypnotic, melodic, repetitive classical music, but using synths, and performing them in churches. There’s a lot of lines being blurred here. A lot of Frahm’s so-called classical music sounds like techno without the beat. And if you go back and listen to Steve Reich and Philip Glass — the artists that started the whole minimal movement — a lot of their music just needs a kick under it to make it a techno record.

CZ: Have you ever thought about performing these downtempo sounds live, in a non-club environment?
S: Yeah, it’s something I’ve talked about, but haven’t quite worked out if it’s something I want to do yet. I’m most comfortable in a DJ booth with no lights on me, so the idea of getting up on stage with a tambourine and a piano … I’m not sure if that’s the way I want to go. [laughs] But the technology’s there now — there might be a way of doing it in a very cool way.

CZ: How do you feel about DJing these days? Is it still as exciting for you as it was back in the day?
S: I still get a massive buzz out of it. When you get a set that clicks right, all the mixes go together, and the crowd goes with you, and you’re locked in together — you can’t beat that feeling. But the traveling and the late nights get harder as you get older, of course. But you just have to be a bit more prepared. Make sure you’re physically and mentally prepared for it. It’s tough, you know — two, three gigs back to back, zero sleep, airports … it’s not so easy on the mind and body. But I wouldn’t trade it for the world.