By Jacob Katel
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People speak of him with reverence, yet he still worries about being seen as relevant. He was recently honored as Top Progressive House DJ at the DJ Awards in Ibiza, yet he thinks the tag "progressive" is still partially a burden. He has long been seen as a herald of Great Britain's club culture, yet he gives places such as New York, Germany, the Black Sea, and the beaches of Brazil credit for keeping dance music from total collapse. He purchases vinyl in order to have exclusive tracks to DJ digitally. But for all of which he has been analyzed and compartmentalized, superstar DJ Sasha has never let the scrutiny, or the overwhelming changes in the dance music scene, overtake his lifelong excitement for sound. And because of this, he has maintained his pole position within the world's DJ ranks.
"In my teens, the music was always synth-heavy — Depeche Mode, Human League, Thompson Twins. I remember seeing Nick Rhodes and his Fairlight [polyphonic sampling synthesizer] in a Duran Duran video and being fascinated by the machine," Sasha recalls of his earliest beginnings. "I guess I went and built my own, so to speak."
Indeed, since those days, Sasha has always taken the concept of "progressive" rather literally. "'Progressive' isn't a sound found on a genre's official charts; it's grabbing the best of what's happening and finding the most moving way to put it together," he says.
Debuting when acid house was on the wane, the Welsh-born DJ developed a pan-European, piano-borne style. He didn't rise to figurehead status until the mid-Nineties, however, when he and fellow DJ John Digweed began compiling benchmark mix CDs (first for Renaissance and then under the tag Northern Exposure).
By the turn of this century, Sasha delved into breakbeats mixed with ambient swatches, producing tracks that could appeal both to headlining and headphones. Most recently he has looked to the German minimal tech-house arrangement style, tucking in volume but bringing ruched detailing to the fore, allowing processed cross sections to seep through asymmetrical perforations.
It's this style that permeates Sasha's latest mix release, Invol2ver, his attempt, he says, to "stamp my flag in the ground again ... to show where my head is musically." Sidestepping briefly from the race for the Next Big Thing, on Invol2ver Sasha eschews his dark, glitchy tendencies of the early 2000s. Pneumatically and gradually more emphatic, Invol2ver uses customized tracks by Telefon Tel Aviv, Apparat, Thom Yorke, Ladytron, M83, and other acts to showcase the convergence of Sasha's technology, methodology, philosophy, and physicality.
As anyone who has seen a Sasha gig in the past few years can attest, he brings more to the DJ booth than just a keen ear for melody. Armed with two laptops, custom Maven MIDI controllers, plus a vast music library including books of CDs and a hard drive expansive enough to match his own drive, Sasha uses the loop-based sequencing program Ableton Live to allow for real-time re-edits of the tracks he collects on his travels.
"I don't get to play records for long anymore, which is a shame, and affecting the artist," Sasha laments. "But with the advent of [online music retailer] Beatport and P2P networks, you have to update constantly. I have a commitment to keep the club rocking as well as push things forward."
Where once Sasha had months to take privately sourced tracks, burn acetates from DAT tracks, and make exclusives into "Sasha tunes" just by association, he now has scant weeks to do the same through disassociation. Now it's about digitally stripping songs of context and grafting them with a new personality. In the modern DJ landscape — where forums post track-by-track set lists online before the club has even closed, and dissect the magic in favor of debating the tracking manner — plug-ins are the new white labels and immediacy is a necessity.
With this in mind, Sasha has set up a system where all of his downloaded music goes to engineers in London, who beat-map it and place it on a central server for Sasha to access anywhere, constantly syncing the DJ and the scene. Still, he finds joy in the sourcing, in the rare find, and is equally happy to keep analog in the chain.
"Small labels are becoming more scarce again, having a run of only 500 or 1,000 vinyl singles," Sasha observes. "And because there are so few pieces, you know each thing pressed has gone through an approval chain and is loved, which is keeping the quality amazing. It's the exact opposite of 10 years ago, when so many awful white labels were flooding the shelves."
The result of all of this refinement is not only to get nostalgic, but also to not lose the feeling of when the right box of records and a sunrise crafted an irrepressible synergy. Sasha might no longer know each record in and out, but he knows what he needs to get out of each and every one of them.
"I'm not saying using digital effects live is the only way forward," he says. "But I'm on the road 80 percent of the time, and this system keeps me on top of things. I'm not a purist DJ. I love working with the emotional structure of songs and want to use the best resources at my disposal at any time. I always think the next batch of tracks might be the best ever."