March 13, 2013  

Interview: Sasha Speaks to Point Blank ahead of Involv3r Release

Sasha is a DJ who almost needs no introduction, but we’re going to give him one anyway… A living legend to many and certainly a widely-acknowledged inspiration to a plethora of DJs all around thanks to his advanced skills, blending tracks together into one seamless composition and playing with keys and chords like no other DJ. It was a complete honour for us to be able to not only speak with Sasha over the phone for this interview, but also to welcome him into Point Blank a few weeks back where he took a tour of the college. The latest installment in Sasha’s Involver series, Involv3r, is due for release very soon, so we began by speaking to him about that, before delving into his past, his relationship with technology and looking to the future… Point Blank’s Marcus Barnes was on interview duties and here’s the result..

Marcus: I guess you’ve been pretty busy lately, as always?

Sasha: Yeah. Just finishing off the Involver record.. and touring, as usual. I’ve just been to Asia and Australia the last couple of weeks.

Marcus: I see you’ve been in a studio with Betoko?

Sasha: I haven’t actually been in with him. It’s his studio. It’s brilliant. We’re mixing the record down there.

Marcus: Yeah. It looks like it’s a pretty impressive setup he’s got there.

Sasha: It’s amazing. The studio is a legendary studio from the eighties. Everyone worked there… A lot of hits came out of there. I don’t think they’ve been doing a lot of stuff there recently, but his uncle owns it, so he’s gone in and sorted it out and recapped the desk. It’s a great sounding room.

Marcus: So, you’ve just been doing your mixdown there?

Sasha: Uh-huh.

Marcus: Cool. So where have you been working on the Involv3r stuff then?

Sasha: All over the place. We had to move about three times. This is one of the reasons why it’s taking so fucking long. We moved to a new studio and it sounded different. Yeah, it just dragged on and on. I had to move out of my studio in New York and Grayson had to move out of his place in Ibiza for the same reason. So, we ended up working in about five different studios.

Marcus: Bloody hell. What a pain.

Sasha: Yeah, it was a bit.

Marcus: How are you feeling about it?

Sasha: I fucking hate it at the moment. I can’t listen to it right now. I’m always like that at the end of my records. I’ll leave it two or three months before I listen to it.

Marcus: When did you first get started with it?

Sasha: We started off in the spring but I couldn’t get the track listing to start off with. I don’t know, it was weird. We got knocked back on a couple of things that were really integral to the sound of the record. It just didn’t come together, we were working hard on it but it just didn’t come together. I seemed to have a load of filler tracks, and not the actual meat of the record. We put it on ice over the summer. The Hot Chip record Flutes was originally on there and a couple of other things… We just decided to release those as singles. And I guess off the back of Hot Chip being so successful, when I started asking people for tracks again in September/October, everyone said yes. It was like people were throwing music at me. Having a number one on Beatport helps!

Marcus: Yeah, I can imagine so… Massively. Your label’s flying at the moment as well.

Sasha: Yeah, it’s doing really, really well. I’m very, very happy with it and the way that it has grown and the sound of it as well. I have a really amazing team of people working on it, that’s made all the difference, really. They’ve really got their ears to the ground and they’re always sending me producers I’ve never heard of. I’m supposed to know everyone… What’s going on?

I think when we first started the label, eighteen months ago, it was like people were sending maybe their filler tracks for consideration, whereas now I think they’re purposely writing stuff for the label. We’re getting amazing stuff. That Ejeca EP is fantastic. Simon Baker’s working on some new stuff for the label. Thermal Bear is working on an album for us.

Marcus: Thermal Bear’s brilliant.

Sasha: Yeah, he’s fucking on it. I think everything [on the label] has a common thread to it. It’s all got a really beautiful melodic signature to it, whether it’s a Ghosting Season thing, which is really out there and kind of electronic and leftfield or whether it’s something that’s more of a club track. I feel like the label’s developing a sound to it but the sound is quite broad. We’re not just putting out one big club banger after another. That’s not really the intention. I’m not really doing it to make a load of money out of it. I just want to have something that I’m involved in creatively that gets me closer to artists that I’m really into, and that allows me to put out beautiful pieces of music.

Just the way it’s grown as well is pretty nice. It’s a really gathered pace over the course of the first sort of couple of years and it’s really got to the point now where people are really taking notice of it now. When we first started sending tracks out we got very little feedback, and now it’s like the feedback we’re getting, across the board from a lot of different genres of DJs is really, really positive. And it helps. Like I said, it helps every now and then to have a big record on the label that really gets everyone’s heads turned, but you know, we’ll follow up the Hot Chip record with something like the Ejeca record which is different, completely different vibes, than the Ghosting Season thing. Of course, it’s great to have an anthem on there every now and then but it’s the other weird and wonderful music on the label that I’m really excited about.

Marcus: Well, the thing that I noticed as well is the label seems to have brought out a different side to some of the people that are on there. I mean, Ejeca is known for big nineties House sounding stuff but his EP on Last Night On Earth is a bit different for him…

Sasha: Yeah. Like I said, because we’re pushing people to do EPs. It’s a different format, if someone sends us a couple of tracks, we’re like, “Well, we like them but we’d like you to do a couple of other things that are maybe a bit different.” We’ve really tried to A&R people and push them to go a bit leftfield and go a bit deeper or weirder or whatever, whatever they fancy. I think the EP format is great, they’re like mini albums aren’t they, but they’re allowing people to experiment a little bit.

So, there’ll be one track on there that’s a club record, there’ll also be something on there that’s something very different. I really like that. I really like that format.

Sasha with Betoko working on the mixdown for Involv3r

Marcus: Yeah, I think it works really, really well. I get tired of getting EPs through… Well, they’re called “EPs” but they’re not really EPs. It’s just a single with a hundred remixes. It kind of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it?

Sasha: I can never remember which mix to play when I’m in the club!

Marcus: Exactly. And are you going to be making any more contributions to the label yourself? Because you remixed Thermal Bear, didn’t you?

Sasha: I will do. I’m going to take a couple months off making music after spending all of last year with my nose to the grindstone. I’ll probably take a couple of months out. To be honest there are so many outtakes from the album. Two or three of them will probably end up turning into tracks for the label.

Marcus: And, in terms of what you’re doing production-wise, do you have a real strict setup in terms of your studio? Do you have your set equipment that you use or do you try to implement new software and instruments?

Sasha: I’m always pissing around with new stuff. I mean, there are a couple of things I always fall back on, the Access Virus, I use that to write on. But in my studio, I’ve got… I just dismantled it, but in the studio we used for the album, which has got loads of gadgets and toys, we were playing around with iPad apps. It depends on whatever you fancy that day.

Marcus: I guess that’s a good way to work, isn’t it? Quite loose and free..

Sasha: Well, I think especially when you’re starting out it’s very important to kind of limit yourself. It’s very easy when you’re not getting a sound that you want to go, “Alright, I need to buy another plugin or I need another synth, or I need to do this”. I think it’s really important to learn something and learn something inside out.

Marcus: So what kind of stuff did you start on?

Sasha: When I started producing on my own, when I was producing ages ago, I’d just go into the studio with a team of people. I’d just play records, just samples and there would be a programmer there and stuff like that. When I started doing stuff on my own, the MPC3000 was the machine that really… that and the Roland JD800, they’re the two things I really learnt how to program on. Once you know how to program one synth, the rest of them usually make sense.

Marcus: Did you find it sort of strange making the transition from working with a team to working on your own?

Sasha: Yeah. I didn’t make any music for a couple of years, it was definitely different. And since then, to be honest, I’ve gone back to working with teams of people. Once I’d learnt what I was doing, it was much easier to communicate with people to get the sound I wanted.

Marcus: Have you found it easy to train your ears? Have you ever done any musical training or anything like that?

Sasha: Yeah, I learned the piano when I was a kid. I got grades and stuff.

Marcus: I had to ask, because there are countless DJs who have named you as one of their idols because of your ability to really create these really intricate, melodic transitions. Your skill as a DJ is lauded by so many people that I’ve interviewed. Do you think that comes from having the early training?

Sasha: I’m sure it comes from music lessons and stuff. Even before I started getting lessons, I used to just listen to the radio and copy melodies off the radio onto a piano when I was five years old. Sit at the piano and copy melodies off the radio. I think that’s when my mum was like, “Right, we’re going to get you some lessons.”

It all got very boring with scales and arpeggios and stuff. I think I’ve always had a musical ear, but I always felt like records should be mixed in key.

Marcus: Oh, yeah. For sure..

Sasha: I think it’s pretty much the standard now. I think people are well aware of what sounds good and what doesn’t. Mixes that are out of key really grate now. They didn’t grate so much in the early days. You just . . .

Marcus: Dealt with it. So, would you recommend getting musical training to people who are thinking about starting out? Is it something that you think would give people a good solid grounding, rather than just sort of jumping in feet first?

Sasha: No. There are so many ways to skin a cat, you know. I don’t know if getting musical training or formal training, in some respects sends you down one alley way to make music. There are so many other ways to learn how to make music and there are so many different kinds of music that don’t necessarily rely on those things being perfectly pitched together and stuff like that. When you get a formal training it can kind of shutter your vision a little bit. I don’t really know if there’s a right answer to that.

Marcus: No, exactly… DJing wise, what’s your current setup?

Sasha: I’m just on CDJs at the moment. I’m using Traktor but I’m using it in HD mode so the CDJs are basically tracked to control themselves. It’s a really fun sound.

Sasha and Point Blank CEO, Rob Cowan

Marcus: I can imagine. Have you been through a fair few different setups then?

Sasha: Yeah. I’m always changing it. You know, we’re always pissing around with something. A new program comes out or something changes or a new gadget comes out, you change your set up. After having a really complex setup with all my own gear and the MAVEN controller and all that and having to carry it all around with me, I just got so fucked off with all that.

It’s just nice to turn up to a club and they’ve got everything you need and you just plug your computer in now.

Marcus: So, do you think experimenting with different kinds of technology and different setups over the years and even up to now has kept you sort of motivated? Or is there another underlying factor that has kept you going for as long as you have?

Sasha: Well, the technology is just the tools of the trade, isn’t it? It’s just fun to change it up every now and then. The thing that keeps me motivated is just the quality of music that I keep getting through the letterbox. You keep finding and people reinventing sounds and young producers coming along. That’s the kind of thing that keeps you motivated, keeps you on your toes.

Marcus: Who’s really pricked your ears up recently?

Sasha: It’s mainly the guys on the label I’m really excited about.

Marcus: I wanted to ask you a little bit about Xpander because it’s one of those tracks people always mention it as an all-time favourite house track. I just wanted to know, was there anything different about the production process that you went through when you were making it? Or what was the production process? Can you remember what equipment you used?

Sasha: It’s was an Oberheim Xpander. That main riff was something that when I was working with Charlie May I found that rift on a DAT of his. It was like an unfinished tune of Spooky’s. He was like, “Oh yeah we’ve been using this but we couldn’t finish it.” And I’m like, “I’ll finish it.” But we took our time on it. It went through many different phases. It also took forever to mix that down. I remember that being a difficult record to mix down. We actually went through about two or three different engineers to try to get it right and they still didn’t get it right. In the end, me and Charlie mixed it down on our own. Yeah, it was a big record.

Marcus: So, looking to the future, you said you’re going to take a break from making music for a little bit. Are you just going to be focusing on DJing?

Sasha: Like I said we have loads of offcuts from the Involv3r record that need to be finished so I think as soon as I’ve given my ears a rest for the next couple of weeks or whatever, I’m sure we’ll be back…

Involv3r is available from March 18th, to pre-order the album click HERE.

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