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Sasha interview – “I’m always so jealous when I see DJs pull out vinyl and play a vinyl set”

Sasha talks us through his new LUZoSCURA collection and tells us why he’s considering heading back to vinyl

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To say that the year we’ve collectively endured has been a challenge is, of course, something of an understatement. Along with the majority of Planet Earth’s human inhabitants, subterranean dance icon Sasha found his lifestyle dramatically altered due to the dark shadow cast by the ongoing Covid pandemic. The long-serving artist has spent much of his enforced clubland hiatus reconnecting with nature in Ibiza, and – aside from a break while his studio was temporarily dismantled for a house move – he’s also managed to channel a healthy amount of energy into sporadic bursts of music production. “I had some very creative spurts,” he says from his basement studio on the White Island. “I haven’t been especially consistent, but, when I’ve been working, I’ve got a lot done.”

This week sees the digital releases of his latest compilation album, LUZoSCURA with vinyl to follow in June – a refined selection of ambient, breaks, electronica and deep techno evolved from his Spotify playlist series of the same name. The idea to curate the collection was born out of a shift in focus towards the more introspective end of his sonic repertoire – a change in direction largely instigated by pandemic living.

“It seems like the perfect record to express the last 12 months and I’m excited to get it out there,” he says, before reassuring that there’s no danger his diversion into mellower territory has dampened his enthusiasm for the dance, “and then I’m looking forward to getting back out on the dancefloor and banging it out again!” The inevitable gig cancellations that ensued early last year signalled a dramatic about-face in schedule and behaviour, and Sasha’s musical leanings morphed to adapt to the change of pace – with the energy levels of the music he began engaging with temporarily transposed a few degrees horizontally versus his signature club sound. “Once I lost my reference points as to where I was gonna play it, I stopped listening to banging club music for quite a while,” he says. “I can’t help but become a bit of a librarian when I listen to club music. I just start analysing them. Like, ‘when am I gonna play that, where will that fit in my set? Is that a 3am Fabric record or is it a 6am sunrise record?’”
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The gentler realms Sasha began immersing himself in lent themselves perfectly to his popular Spotify series, and the impetus of the project naturally began to develop and evolve as a result. “I started focusing on different sounds, listening to a lot of the stuff we were curating for the playlist, and started making records in that zone as well,” he says. “Going into Covid, LUZoSCURA had already established itself. But then – during lockdown – it was the sound that really pulled me and that I really gravitated towards.” While undoubtedly less energetic than the body of his club sound, followers of Sasha’s career won’t be entirely surprised by the subtle movement in musical direction, as he’s no stranger to deviating from pounding 4/4 intensity to incorporate abstract sonic textures into his sets. The now-legendary Northern Exposure mix series he compiled alongside long-term collaborator Jon Digweed journeyed deep into the leftfield, as did the most recent Essential Mix he recorded for Radio One’s Pete Tong. “I’ve always been really into that sort of ambient, breaks sound,” he says. “I’ve always tried to inject some of that sound into my music sets as well.”

The increased time spent submerged in the LUZoSCURA project led to exciting new associations with a diverse crop of artists to whom he might otherwise not have been exposed, and it didn’t take long for the seed of inspiration behind the compilation to germinate. “I was getting connected with a lot of artists that I really liked through the playlists… getting direct feedback from artists that I probably wouldn’t have had that connection with through my Last Night On Earth club label. It was really nice to get a personal connection with these wonderful artists and then I was like, ‘let’s do something about that! There’s a sound here, let’s do a compilation, get some original tracks with these guys.’” He set to work putting out feelers among some of the creators who’d been featured in the playlists, and high-quality demos began arriving thick and fast. As someone who’s released scores of DJ mixes and compilation albums over the course of his career, Sasha is certainly well-versed in the curation process, and he feels things unfolded particularly smoothly this time around. “It all came together really effortlessly,” he says. “Sometimes mix compilations can be quite stressful – when you’re constantly crate-digging, and you’re missing some tracks when the deadline is looming.

With this, because it was all original music from the artists, they’d send over four tracks, or six tracks or whatever, and say ‘take your pick’. So the pool of music that I was putting this together with was smaller and a lot more focused.”

One of the first tracks to make the cut was the delicate ambient synth work of Felsmann + Tiley’s soul-soothing ‘Yin/Yang’ track and Sasha shares that he knew early on that he wanted to use the track to mark either the beginning or end of the album.

“I’ve always found with these compilations, if you can get your opening track and closing track sorted, you’ve got your anchor points then. You know where you’re going and you can plot a line with it.” Other early inclusions were the jerking drums and vocal chops of Ultrista vocalist lau.ra’s ‘I’ll Wait’, and the yearning harmonics and broken rhythms of Brooklyn-based BAILE’s ‘Gone’. Another key piece of the puzzle to fall into place was the delicate future garage shuffle of MJ Cole’s ‘Maestro’, and – perhaps unsurprisingly – Sasha reveals that he’s long admired the cultured UK producer’s music. “MJ Cole gave us a brilliant track. He sent us a few that I wanted to use, but we had to choose one. I’ve always loved his production, you know, massive respect.”
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The first digital single from the album was unveiled in March in the shape of Sasha’s own composition, ‘HNDI’, a track manifested out of a cloud of lockdown despair. At the end of an especially taxing day, Sasha found himself in a “foul mood” and – reluctant to go to bed in such a funk – he hit the studio in an attempt to channel his frustration.

“I just had one of these nights where I had a creative spurt and went through around ten different tracks and printed these ideas down. I just spent about 30 minutes on each one: bang, bang, bang, bang, bang.” After finally turning in sometime in the small hours, he woke the next day to find his mood vastly improved – buoyed by a strong feeling that he accomplished some productive lab work the night before. “I went and checked out the music that I’d printed, and one of the tracks was ‘HNDI’,” he says. “I came up with that drum loop and it just all came together. I had three or four different sections and it sort of arranged itself. I had two or three nights like that in lockdown where I just locked myself in the studio and just put down as many ideas as possible – not trying to finish things, just getting ideas out – and some really good music came out of that.”

The album also contains work from a number of emerging artists, and – having previously played a part in cultivating the careers of the likes of BT and James Zabiela – this commitment to showcasing and nurturing up-and-coming talent appears to have been a feature of Sasha’s tenure in and around the apogee of the dance cosmos. “It’s always a great feeling to help people – especially when you spot somebody so talented – and to help, not necessarily guide their career, but to be one of the building blocks of their career. It’s a wonderful feeling,” he says. This sincere desire to assist in the development of promising talent comes, at least in part, from a sense of reciprocity. “I got helped throughout my career by certain people along the way, certain people opened doors for me that changed my life in my music career. So, if I can help to do that in any way for other artists, I feel like it’s playing it forward.”

When comparing today’s musical landscape to the one in which his journey began – during the halcyon days of acid house and the eventual explosion of the progressive house sound which helped catapult him to international stardom – Sasha suggests that the abundance of new music production tools coupled with the arrival of the internet prove something of a double-edged sword for aspiring artists. While he feels the dance music is currently “in a really healthy place,” with more people making music than ever before there exists a feeling that competition has never been fiercer.

“I think one of the things that’s harder maybe these days is to have any kind of longevity,” he says. “[Today] you see so many people have a big record, they’re really hot, and then a couple of years later they’ve just kind of disappeared. In my day there wasn’t as much competition, but we also didn’t have access to the internet, so making a name for yourself was very much word of mouth, mixtapes, and things just grew slowly.” And, for Sasha, the ease at which it is now possible to present oneself as an artist adds to the challenge of maintaining a long-term foothold in the industry. “I think making a name for yourself and making a bit of noise is easy, but then holding that attention and crafting a career out of it is as tough as it’s ever been really. There’s more noise now than there ever was.”

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A driving force of this noise propagation is undoubtedly the advent of social media, and the phenomenon of image over substance is something Sasha finds somewhat perplexing. With some acts garnering work thanks to having accumulated hordes of followers or abundant likes in lieu of any significant musical output, it can sometimes be hard to detect any level of artistic yield behind the profiles. “It is strange,” he says. “You see people getting booked off the back of almost nothing. I think those people don’t seem to last. But, as ever, the cream rises to the top. The people who are really professional, really work hard and have got a vibe about them that they really believe in, those people seem to shine through and stick around.”

Another development in contemporary dance – one which has unquestionably been fuelled by the pandemic – is the now ubiquitous DJ streaming video, and Sasha has taken part in his fair share of such broadcasts. “I’ve done streams from lots of places, from Ibiza, indoors, outdoors,” he says. “It’s good to play, put music out there, but you can’t beat human interaction, you know. You’re not getting a response from people, you’re not feeling a room or reading a crowd.” While he understands the appeal as a means of virtual socialising during periods of at-home isolation, he’s unsure that the mode will endure once clubs return to action.

“I think in the beginning everyone felt quite excited by this new way of connecting with people, but quite quickly people got stream fatigue. So many people were doing them, but I think a lot of people dropped off and lost interest. I think people are ready to go back out again!”

The LUZoSCURA album will be available as an unmixed vinyl triple-pack via the Alkaane label, and despite Sasha’s Last Night On Earth label releasing exclusively digital content, it was important to him that the new album was pressed onto wax. “For this record, I really wanted to do nice physical copies – especially for this kind of music – and I’m really glad we did,” he says. “We’ve had a really good response. We put pre-orders up and they’ve virtually all sold out.”

Sasha has long been known to embrace cutting edge DJ technologies that allow for enhanced creative freedom behind the decks. Back in 2005, he opted to leave behind the vinyl crates in favour of the flexibility afforded by digital DJing, and – having experimented with Ableton Live, and Traktor – he now utilises the industry-standard Pioneer kit. “I’ve just got their new V10 mixer which is amazing, and the new CDJ30000s which are fantastic. So, I’m quite happy with my new set up.”

Regardless of his pragmatic embracing of digital music, he retains a nostalgic fondness for vinyl DJing and understands its enduring appeal. “I’m always so jealous when I see DJs pull out vinyl and play a vinyl set,” he says. “I miss that side of vinyl where you get to really know your box of records, and you live with them and you find every little B-side and every single tool that you can get out of your records.” Indeed, he acknowledges that digital music comes with its own set of downsides, and suggests the copious amount of music being released in the format can itself be a hindrance. “The problem with music these days is that it’s just so open-ended. You can change your record boxes every weekend with downloads, whereas with vinyl you get to know those records inside and out. And people really are releasing weird and wonderful music on very limited edition pieces of vinyl.”

Though he suggests that reverting to vinyl for DJing is now probably too great a leap for him personally, he reveals that – eager to get to grips with a growing stack of records that have been steadily accumulating at his house – he recently rescued his decks from storage. Unfortunately, though, the trusty turntables hadn’t faired too well since he packed them away more than 15 years ago. “They’re completely battered! I don’t know where they’d been stored or what they’d been put under, but they didn’t even actually look like the decks that I’d put into storage! I think somewhere along the way they’d been switched out,” he laughs. “I think it’s time to buy a new set!”

Words: Patrizio Cavaliere