1994 Renaissance: The Mix Collection
Sasha and Digweed's debut collaboration is often considered the first true fully mixed CD ever.
1996 Northern Exposure
The first in the series that arguably catapulted progressive house and trance into the mainstream.
1998 Global Underground 009: San Francisco
Sasha's debut solo mix showcases the sound of his sets at San Francisco's Spundae club.
1999 Xpander EP
This stone-cold classic is one of the finest pieces of prog-trance ever recorded.
1999 Global Underground 013: Ibiza
Sasha, at the peak of his progressive influence, delivering a genre-defining compilation.
Sasha's debut artist album was a hit-and-miss affair that favored ambience over climax.
Mix? Artist album? Something in between? Four years later and most are still trying to figure it out.
2005 Fundacion NYC
Sasha tests out his Ableton/Maven set-up on record for the first time.
2008 New Emissions of Light & Sound
This soundtrack features Sasha's finest original production of recent vintage, "Coma."
Since then, Sasha has done just that: Other superstar DJs have come and gone, fresher faces have since taken on the pin-up role and progressive house has risen and fallen, but Sasha remains at the forefront of the business of pleasure. From The Haçienda to Renaissance to Twilo to Delta Heavy; from Renaissance to Northern Exposure to Global Underground to Fundacion; from "Higher Ground" to "Xpander" to Airdrawndagger to Involver, Sasha—like Richie Hawtin, another DJ/producer who has remained just as vital—knows that innovation is the best business of all.
But if Richie Hawtin is Google—a hip brand that has promoted minimalism as the key to the future—Sasha is like Microsoft—an unavoidable behemoth in the '90s that has been hit and miss since. To extend the metaphor further, you might call The emFire Collection from earlier this year a Zune moment. Sasha himself probably isn't ready to go that far: "They were club tracks that I just wanted to put out there, to see the light of day. They got received to wildly varying reviews, but it was part of the creative process leading up to Invol2ver and, to be honest, I think they helped set up the record in a very important way." As anyone in business will tell you, sometimes you have to suffer a loss before you can reap a major profit.
Amazon.com claims that the original Involver "lives up to its title," referring to the way that Sasha involved his audience completely, drawing together disparate tracks into a coherent sound. Listening back to that mix, though, there are moments that drew you out of the experience. The rework of Felix Da Housecat's "Watching Cars Go By," for instance, stops the album in its tracks for an eight minute Grammy audition. (To his credit, it worked—Sasha bagged a nomination for the rework only to be beaten out by Jacques Lu Cont's No Doubt remix.) Invol2ver, on the other hand, doesn't have any tracks that require an excuse—sidelights that bow to genres du jour, pop moments designed to bring in new fans.
If there's a DJ analogue to what Sasha has done with the record, it's a familiar one: As John Digweed makes tracks his own, stripping them of their original personality and simply making them fodder for Digger's celebrated mixing, so does Sasha—in an even more radical way. On Invol2ver, Telefon Tel Aviv, Thom Yorke, Apparat and M83 have all been reanimated into Sasha's pop electronic vision. These are less like remixes, and more like cover versions, where Sasha and his studio hands take only the core hook of the track and build the whole thing all over again from the ground up. That's probably why Global Underground tried to slot the original into the Grammy category for Best Electronic/Dance album when it first came out—and why the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences denied the designation. They didn't know what to make of it.
It's pretty simple to hear what they are, though. Both Involvers are original works of art—despite the names of each track being attributed to the artists that inspired them. If you listen to Ladytron's "Destroy Everything You Touch" back-to-back with the Invol2ver mix, you'd be hard-pressed to find much in common, aside from the vocal line. The same goes for Apparat's "Arcadia," which beefs the wispy, emotional original into a muscular beast of a tune. Hearing the former on Apparat's excellent Walls, you can imagine Sasha slowly rubbing his hands together and running the various drum machines that he had in his arsenal over in his mind, figuring out exactly the one that would undergird it properly.
Or maybe not. As Sasha tells it, the process that went into making Invol2ver was an arduous one, filled with setbacks and false starts. "We started working last year right after the Winter Music Conference and all the stuff that we mixed down into the computer—the same way we had done with the last Involver—sounded really dry and flat. It just wasn't the sound that I wanted for the record." The solution came from a source that fans might find unlikely in a world where the Sasha brand is often held up as an antidote to minimal.
"I was listening to a lot of those amazingly produced German records...They're quite anal about the fact that it has to go through analog circuitry, so we began to talk about how we could incorporate that side of things into the studio." That sound, egged on by a host of guitar pedals, drum machines and mixing desks acquired from eBay, is gloriously warm. But to get that warmth, Sasha didn't have to put himself or Global Underground into debt: "A lot of the stuff wasn't that expensive," he claims. "We got some amazing deals too. We picked up an EQ that would've cost about 5,000 pounds six or seven years ago in England for only about 1,000 dollars." A true businessman, you see, always watches his budget.
and I'd put the first track on and
start to turn green."
The business of pleasure is hard work. "Even when I finished the record, I didn't know if we'd got it right. I was so close to it and so burnt out. The last 5% of the album was quite a torturous bit, because I was on tour in the States and sending mp3s backwards and forwards. That whole process was quite exhausting and, by the time I was actually done, the sound of it actually sickened me, to be honest. People would ask to hear it and I'd put the first track on and start to turn green."
Sasha, though, isn't one to dwell on the past anyway. Another important tenet of business: Don't look back. They might be gaining on you. It's an idea that ties directly into the idea of innovation. And, for Sasha, it seems to be a core value. Sasha rarely listens to his work, although he admits it's a nice feeling to hear a song of his on the radio—if he happens to catch it.
As he points out in nearly any interview that you'll read with him, his goal is to stay ahead of the fans that chart his every move, the ones that post full tracklistings of sets that he's completed only hours before. It's a tiring task, surely, but one that he continues to relish. When asked if he plans to insert any acid house classics from his early DJing days into his set as a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the genre, the answer is a quick no. When quizzed about his upcoming 40th birthday, you'll be met with an even more curt response: "I don't want to talk about that."
Fair enough. No one wants to think about middle age. And, with a new baby entering his life recently and his well-documented hedonistic lifestyle seemingly behind him, he surely has reminders all around him. But it'd be unfair to take this as a disavowal or a disinterest in his past: It's just that the glow of uncertainty is like a clarion call. The possibility of the new still strikes him as one of the most important things that dance music can offer. "There were loads of happy accidents on this record," he says. You can almost hear him smiling on the other end of the phone line.
Another thing that makes Sasha happy is the re-emergence of melody in the dance music world. "It definitely got a bit minimal and glitchy over the past few years...Over the past few months, though, the music that I've been presented with has been warm and melodic without being cheesy trance." Layo & Bushwacka, King Roc, Smith N Hack are all singled out for exemplary work. So, would there be another live mix CD in the works? The answer is emphatic. "I would never do another live one again. The Avalon thing was an experiment and I had terrible technical problems that night. The computer crashed halfway through the set...It was so nerve-wracking. I never even listened back to that CD. It was fun to do, but not something that I'd like to revisit."
What is next is loads of touring. The rest of the year will see Sasha once again touring the world with his customized DJ set-up that will allow him to basically perform his own miniature version of Invol2ver each night, remixing tracks on the fly in Ableton, wowing throngs of admirers. After all, if it wasn't pleasurable, it'd just be business.
Bottom photo credit: Rubin R. Roche (Sasha live at House of Blues)