Sasha interview: Old school manners, new school techniques

Mark Dale caught up with him for a chat about the old days and the new.

Becca Frankland

Last updated: 26th Nov 2018.
Originally published: 9th Dec 2015

'Son Of God' were the words that adorned the front of Mixmag in 1994, the first time Sasha made the cover story. It was a bold pronouncement, especially as the DJ, originally from Bangor in Wales, was only around a half decade into his career.

At that point in the year he hadn't yet released Renaissance – The Mix Collection (below), the landmark mix CD that set a new benchmark for DJ mixes and which was such an accomplishment that his career is judged by it to this day. But, to the leading dance music magazine of the day, and to many clubbers, it was a pronouncement that was justified.

In early 1994 Sasha was riding the wave of his successful residency at Renaissance in Mansfield, an out of town rave where he'd first partnered with regular future collaborator John Digweed. At the club the pair refined their long, intricate mixing style that was to be taken to new levels when the global phenomenon mix compilation emerged.

Sasha was also celebrating the release of his highest charting single to date “Higher Ground” at that point (he was to better it two years later with “Be As One”).

Before all this, in the 1980s, Sasha's love of The Hacienda prompted a move to Manchester. Two of his neighbours would have a significant impact on Sasha's life. The first was Jon Dasilva, resident at the Hot night at The Hacienda and Sasha's favourite DJ. Dasilva taught Sasha the skills he used as a DJ and within a relatively short space of time Sasha was playing in places like Blackpool.

The second was Gary McClarnan, now manager of Mr Scruff, but back then a friend of Sasha's, a photgrapher at The Hacienda for people like Mixmag, ID and Boy's Own. Following the appearance of gang violence at The Hacienda, McClarnan would go on to found and promote famed rave night Shelley's in Stoke On Trent and become Sasha's first manager.

It was at Shelley's that Laurent Garnier, Dave Seaman and Sasha would all make names for themselves, although Sasha was already well on his way thanks to his reputation spreading beyond his Blackpool and Blackburn gigs. It was his residency at Shelley's which earned Sasha an invitation to become resident at Renaissance.

From Renaissance, not least the aforementioned Mix Collection CD, Sasha's stock as a DJ rose to unprecedented heights. Alongside a successful solo recording career he remixed tracks for artists such as MadonnaThe Chemical Brothers (below) and Hot Chip. He also mentored or influenced other famed DJs such as BTCraig Richards and James Zabiela and has been an innovator in regards to hardware and software used for DJ performance.

He founded a record label emFire and his mix CDs are amongst the highest selling and most cherished of any DJ. Although he may only be a DJ, he's undoubtedly a very good one, the likes of which had never been seen before he matured in the field.

But to Sasha the 'Son Of God' title didn't sit comfortably. He was only a DJ, it was embarrassing for him. It still is, although thankfully, now 25 years into a career full of achievements, there are plenty of milestones much more memorable than his first Mixmag cover.

You can tell such hyperbole isn't Sasha's kind of thing when you talk to him. Even though he was voted World No1 DJ in 2000 by DJ Magazine, has been nominated for a Grammy, is a four time International Dance Music Awards winner and a four time DJ Awards winner, when Skiddle speaks to him in his current home of LA, it's almost shocking just how down to earth, humble and modest Sasha is.

It's difficult to spot any traces of a Welsh accent, although he definitely still sounds like a Brit. No American twang is evident, despite him having lived in the States for many years now. He's extremely polite.

When he talks about the old days at The Hacienda, where his love of house music and Djing was inspired, he sounds more like one of your mates reminiscing in the pub than a PR savvy, globe trotting DJ who's reeled these stories off a thousand times before.

Coming from Bangor how did you first hear about the Hacienda?

Well we just used to go up there at weekends. It would have been about 1987 when I first started going there. We'd drive up maybe once a month. In 87 it was the rise of the whole jacking house thing. 'Jack Your Body' was at number one and those very first Chicago house compilations were being released.

There was this amazing dance group called Foot Patrol who would be there. Everyone was dressed quite goth-y at the time, very dark clothes, quite cool. I remember not going for a few months and we went back in early 1988.

Acid house had arrived and the place was just going bonkers. Absolute carnage. Smiley faces, strobe lights and smoke machines that seemed to be working all night, everyone dancing like mental patients. People were just erupting to every record that came on, the energy was just unbelievable. I'd never experienced an energy like it from a crowd of people.

Do you remember which DJs you heard at The Hacienda?

Originally I would have been going on Friday night. That turned into the Nude nights when it went proper acid house and that was Graeme Park and Mike Pickering.

That was before I moved to Manchester, but once I'd moved there my favourite night to go there was the Wednesday night, which was Jon DaSilva's night. He was my favourite DJ there because he used to do lots of creative stuff, like using acapellas. He'd been very influenced by some of the mixtapes he'd heard from New York where the DJs were using sound effects, acapellas, things like that.

He used to mix in key as well. When I first started to understand DJ sets, he was the one. Through some stroke of luck or serendipity or whatever I rented a flat in Manchester and he happened to be in the flat right next door to me, my next door neighbour.

So we ended up becoming friends, he took me under his wing, he mentored me. That was just one of those amazing strokes of luck that can sometimes happen in people's careers.

Were Eastern Bloc and Spin Inn your first experience of record shops like that?

Yeah, of course. I used to go to those shops a lot. I had a credit card of mine cut up in front of me in Spin Inn once. I'd been buying records there for a while and one day I had this big pile in front of me that I wanted to buy, I was there with all my mates.

It was my first credit card and I was young and stupid, I hadn't paid it off properly. They just cut it up in my face, in front of my friends. So I never went back there after that, I was so mortified. So Eastern Bloc became my sole outlet.

Where is your vinyl collection now?

It's in Florida in a storage unit. I moved it around with me a few times. I was in Florida for a while, but then I moved to New York and I was like, I can't move it to New York, storing it would have been impossible. I've got over 50,000 records.

So it's in this place in Florida, it's all air conditioned and looked after, but I'm not sure when I'll have it back around me. But I'm not getting rid of it. It's just I haven't got anywhere to put it right now.

How did you get involved in the Blackburn rave scene?

I got involved quite towards the end, really. I was DJing in Blackpool quite a lot. I used to go up there and play every Thursday night, it was quite a thing in the summertime, they'd throw these mad parties up there. I did one called Shaboo, which was wicked and there were another couple too.

A lot of the people who used to come out on a Thursday to hear me play would talk about the Blackburn raves, telling me that I should go up there and play. They said a lot of the records I was playing on a Thursday were also getting played on a Saturday. So I was like, ok, I'm gonna go up there. But I got involved right at the end, maybe the last seven or eight parties, I wasn't involved in the birth of that.

How different was Shelley's compared to The Hacienda?

Manchester was going through a really bad period at the time. I think it's all been pretty well documented what was happening at The Hacienda, they were going through some very rough times. There was a lot of violence in and around the club. It just got very heavy in Manchester. The Hacienda got shut down for a short time.

I remember being in Dry Bar at the time thinking that was it, it was the end of the world as we knew it. We were all sitting there, shellshocked, thinking what are we gonna do with ourselves. But then Shelley's came along and it was a bit of a release from the hassles of what was going on in Manchester at the time.

It was a different neck of the woods. It filled the void after loosing The Hacienda and I think the timing of The Hacienda's closure is what really gave it a push to get established very quickly.

By the time The Hacienda re-opened Mike and Graeme, who were both really into their American house, decided to take the music policy away from the kind of big records that they'd been dropping on Friday nights and play more American style house and techno, not necessarily the big anthems that they'd been playing before.

I think that was a musical preference thing but it was also a change in direction for the club, the energy they were creating in the room. But it was around the time that all those big Italian piano anthems were coming out and I loved all that stuff, big vocals, big piano breaks, so that's what I was playing at Shelley's at that time. It just went down a storm. 

When it came to choosing your next residency you must have had a lot of offers from a lot of people. Why did you choose Renaissance?

I didn't have a lot of offers from a lot of people, to be honest [laughs]. It wasn't like that at all really. I was doing guest spots here and there but I really missed doing a residency. At the time I mentioned it to a friend of mine, Geoff Oakes, that I missed doing a residency, I missed Shelley's and that it was a shame that it had gone. And he just came to me with a venue, saying, come and look at this, it could be amazing.

I just walked in the venue and straight away I was like, ok, we could do something magic here. And even though it was Mansfield, it was in the middle of nowhere, we were like, we can do this.

I remember the first night being absolute chaos. The first six weeks were very quiet, I think so many people had had problems on the first night, people not getting in having driven so far, getting messed around on the door because we didn't have the right security and all that sort of stuff. It had been a bit of a disaster the first night even though it was packed. So it took a while then to build it back up. 

So, I wasn't bombarded with offers, I was just playing guest spots and I missed a residency. I guess I could have done residencies in a few places, but this just felt like something big, special.

That kind of opulent style Renaissance had was in sharp contrast to the grit and grime of Blackburn raves and to some extent the Hacienda.

Oh, I dunno.... it wasn't that opulent! The venue itself wasn't really much. Its bones were fantastic, it had this big, high, domed ceiling. It was this old, working men's club, it hadn't had a lick of paint in a few years, it was pretty grotty. Geoff had decorated the place to distract from the fact that the paint was peeling off the walls.

Why do you think you and John Digweed were so compatible together as a team of DJs?

It was a musical connection, one that's lasted many, many years. I think we both got inspired off each other's mixtapes. I remember the first time I heard his mixtapes and John really had a style that was different, edge-y and very clever in the way he mixed records together.

The first time we played together we played back to back and it just clicked. From then on we just didn't look back. It just felt very natural, we got on well as friends and musically we just seemed to share the same sort of vision about what we wanted to play, even though we both had distinct, separate styles. It just worked seamlessly, the back to back thing. We had a good 15 year run of it.

In the early 90s, when your profile had already blown up, it was said that London was the last city you had to crack. Is that true and if so why was that the case?

I just didn't get that many offers to play in London at the time. When I did go down there the music was so different in London to what I was playing. I remember going down to do a Boy's Own party one time. A lot of the records I was playing came from London, I was playing Leftfield and Fluke, but it was that kind of sound, that hybrid British house and techno.

I think the club where I found it was closest to the kind of music I like to play was the Gardening Club and I ended up playing quite a few times there. But then I started to get booked to do these mad parties, like I was booked to play Kinky Disco and I played these Pushca parties, which were warehouse parties out in Acton.

That's where I met Craig Richards. There were some really great parties that we did in these warehouse spaces where they really decked them out. But it took some time, London, because it had its own sound, a darker sound. Fabio and Grooverider were the kings down there, hardcore was definitely the main sound, so my kind of floaty housey techno stuff, I don't know if it was being played in many places down there.

Your music has been described over the years as many things – house, progressive house, trance, breaks but, thinking back to Blackpool, Blackburn and Shelley's, you actually come from a time when DJs, dance music and raving wasn't so pigeonholed. Is it difficult or even necessary to explain that lineage to a fanbase or the media that weren't witness to it?

I don't know. I've always found it very hard to pigeonhole what I actually do play, it's not house, it's not techno. I think initially when people started using the term progressive house they were trying to describe the music. If you listen to the Renaissance album it's got breaks, it's got house, techno, vocals, it's all over the shop and that's how my DJ sets have always been.

I've never been a purist. I never gone, "this is the sound I'm playing". I've always liked melodies, I've always liked bits of vocals. I'm quite happy to play a big vocal record at the end of my sets, even if I've been playing instrumentals all night.

I've never been one of those DJs that sticks to one pure sound, so it's always difficult to put my finger on what it is that I'm playing. I can talk about sounds that I like, sure, but they can spread across a few different genres.

There are so many different genres. Also there are so many different ways a DJ can mix a record. For instance a hip hop DJ might just slam a record over. Do you think your dedication to detailed and involved mixing can make it less obvious just how varied your music is?

Ha! Maybe. Maybe the subtleties in the mixes do go over some people's heads. But I think the true fans, that's the kind of thing they really buzz off, like when they didn't realise it was four minutes into the next record. Whereas I think the generation that are growing up now, where the sync button is always on and it's very easy to work out the key, maybe there's not so much interest in that being a thing? I don't know.

There's a time for slamming mixes in, making it obvious that you're going to drop the next record and there's a time to wind people in to a hypnotic groove, where the transitions are very slick.

There's a time and a place for both those styles of mixing. If you're playing at a festival you want people to know your next record is coming in and it's going to make a bang, because it's about that anticipation, the build up and the release. When you're playing at a festival people don't want to hear smooth transitions. They don't want to hear something very slick and subtle, they want to hear what you're doing.

Whereas if you're at Fabric at seven o'clock in the morning and you're trying out new music, messing around with new sounds, you want to be able to get lost in that hypnotic thing and you want it to be as slick as possible.

You said earlier that you're working on new music. Is that music for you to play as a DJ or do you have a bigger project in mind, like an album or some soundtrack work?

I've got a couple of things on the go at the moment that are very big, but we haven't announced them yet. I don't really want to talk about them, to curse the projects, until they're set in stone. One's for early next year and the other's for later next year.

I'm sorry I can't be more specific, I don't want to jinx things. I've been working with a team of people in London for the last couple of years, Dennis White who's ThermalBear and Dave Gardner and they're my production partners. Dave actually worked on Invol.

So the actual names of the projects I can't really give you, but there's a lot of music. I've probably got about 40 or 50 demos of stuff that I've been working on the last two years that I'm trying to finish up in this winter break. So even though I'm not officially working, I'm not touring, I am working my arse off in the studio.

As far as the soundtracks go, again I can't really talk about it because we're in negotiations, still finalising the details, but I've got a couple of things in the pipeline for next year. That's definitely an area that I'm trying to get into.

People have always said my music is very atmospheric and soundtrack-y. But I understand in that world there's a huge amount of competition. The guys that do really well in the soundtrack world have been doing it their whole lives and I'm just starting out at it. But that's definitely a world I'm trying to break into, for sure.

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