An ear injury can be a DJ's biggest nightmare, but when Sasha perforated his eardrum in an automobile accident last year, it was an unusual blessing. Unable to fly or be exposed to loud music in clubs, he had no choice but to take some time off from his globe-crossing DJ itinerary. While Sasha waited for his ear to heal, he kept himself busy by working on his debut artist album, Airdrawndagger (Kinetic, 2002), which his fans have waited nearly eight years to hear.
“I hadn't taken my foot off the gas since I started DJing 12 years ago,” says Sasha. “I really needed to take some time off to finish the album. The accident forced me to slow down for a while and gave me the opportunity to write some songs, which ultimately allowed me to finish the album.”
The delivery of Sasha's record was promised and delayed so many times during the past six years that many of even his biggest fans began to wonder if he would ever complete it. During that time, he satisfied his supporters with several outstanding releases — including collaborations with BT (“Ride”) and Darren Emerson (“Scorchio”), as well as remixes of the Chemical Brothers' “Out of Control,” Madonna's “Ray of Light” and “Substitute for Love” and Orbital's “Belfast.” When Sasha released the acclaimed 4-track Xpander (Deconstruction) EP in 1999, even he thought that it could be the precursor to a solo album. However, shortly after Xpander's release, Sasha felt that he wasn't quite ready to finish the album and decided to focus on his expanding DJ career.
“I signed a deal to make this record eight years ago,” he confesses. “I had already put out The Qat Collection, which was just a bunch of club tracks that I had on the shelf, and I thought I'd just go ahead and work on the follow-up. But it didn't work out like that. Even after I completed Xpander, I still felt that I needed to learn my way around the studio. I wanted to make a record that was truly mine, and to do that, I felt I needed to know how to use the equipment in my studio. But when you spend most of your time traveling as a DJ, you don't have the time you need to learn everything.”
Sasha could have taken the same strategy as most other superstar DJs and hired a producer to help him complete the album, but he avoided that approach to keep as much of his own personal stamp on the album as possible. He assembled a team of supporters who would strengthen his efforts: songwriting partner Charlie May, whom Sasha started working with in 1997; Dutch producer Tom Holkenborg of Junkie XL; and sound designer Simon Wright. To help him further establish his own sound, Sasha decided to forego the current trend of inviting big-name collaborators.
Airdrawndagger sounds unlike anything Sasha has released, but at the same time, it manages to sound completely like Sasha. Newer fans may be surprised by the lack of progressive-house anthems a la “Xpander” or “Scorchio,” and the presence of moody, beatless soundscapes and dark, evil-sounding nu-skool-breaks tracks. But anyone who has followed Sasha's career since his earliest acid-house remixes and first original tracks as BM:Ex, through his efforts as a DJ defining the sounds of trance and progressive house, knows that he has always looked forward and never overstayed his welcome on one particular style.
That desire to constantly move forward may explain why, after 12 years, Sasha remains one of the world's most popular DJs. In an effort to give his fans a little extra, he recently crossed the United States with John Digweed on the ambitious Delta Heavy tour. “We played places in middle America that we'd never been to before,” says Sasha. “It was a dream to go out with our own sound system and lights. But it was intense, too. Nine weeks on a tour bus is pretty fucking mental. John and I have worked together for almost 10 years, so we have a friendship that goes beyond music. We've hardly ever had a fight, but if we'd stayed out on the road for a few more weeks, we probably would have ended up strangling each other.”
With the album completed, Sasha plans to remain focused on his DJ career for the time being, although he's hinting at doing work on the follow-up to Airdrawndagger. “I feel like I finally have a solid foundation under me,” he says. “Before I finished Airdrawndagger, I never felt complete. I was always playing someone else's music or remixing someone else's tune. Now I feel like I can really call myself an artist. This album feels a bit more grown-up than my other work.”
What influenced the direction you took on this album?
I wanted to make an album that was listenable on different levels: at home, on the way to the club, after the club. I didn't want to make something that only worked in a club environment. There are a few tracks on the album that do work in a club, but the record's atmosphere and sound make it accessible at home, as well.
Did you have an overall flow in mind from the beginning, or did you record separate tracks and piece them together?
There were certain key moments, like when we nailed “Mr. Tiddles” and “Magnetic North,” that I felt we had a flow going. Charlie May and I were working on “Mr. Tiddles” one night in February, and we realized how the album should flow. The whole track listing for the record fell into place after that. The track order didn't change from that point onward.
Did you test any tracks during your DJ sets to see how people would react?
I didn't road-test anything until the whole album was done. I was very aware of what happened before whenever I played a new track out: Suddenly a buzz would happen, and the record company would bother me about putting it out quickly. I didn't want to get the ball rolling on the album and have the record company breathing down my neck to release a single.
Your fans have waited eight years for an artist album. What caused the delay?
It's been difficult for me to take the time off to make an album. I didn't really want to spend time in the studio, to be honest. I completely focused on my DJing. I spent four-and-a-half years playing at Twilo every month, and every time I did that, it would take a week out of my calendar. Then there were my gigs in the rest of the world; I really enjoyed being out there DJing. I would take a month off here or there to work on music. The most I ever took off was two months, thinking I'd get my album done, but you can't write an album in two fucking months — well, I can't anyway.
That was the great thing about getting some time off at the start of 2001. Things were ticking along, but I had an accident and perforated my eardrum just before the Winter Music Conference. That put a lot of things in perspective for me, and I really got the ball rolling for this album. I finally got to the point where I was ready to commit to making the album. The closest I had come before was the Xpander EP. If I had taken another three or four months and carried on working back then, I could have finished the album, but I wasn't prepared to do that.
I got a lot of writing for the album done two or three weeks after the accident. Then I hooked up with Tom Holkenborg from Junkie XL. Tom took a lot of the ideas that Charlie and I had been working on over the last three years and made them sound like album tracks. Suddenly we had four or five tracks together, and we were in the zone. I was ready to get on with it. I spent several months in Amsterdam finishing up the production side of things and doing some more writing.
From writing to mixing, it took about 10 months of work for me to complete this album, which I feel is pretty normal. A couple of the tracks were written several years ago when William Orbit asked us to do some demos for Madonna. We kept a couple of them for ourselves. Charlie and I have been working together for about five years, and we've done a load of tracks. While there are 11 tracks on the album, there are another 40 that didn't make it.
During that time, you also collaborated with artists such as Darren Emerson and BT. Did those side projects influence the work you did on the album?
Working with BT set me back a bit. I used to watch him work in the studio, and he does everything. He's an amazing engineer and programmer. Working with him was extremely inspiring, but I felt if I was going to write music, I'd have to do the same thing. But BT has spent his entire life in the studio. He has no social life, and he's been locked in the studio for the past 15 years. There's no way I'd have the time or inclination to learn how every single box in the studio works. I was holding on to the idea of what this record had to be so firmly that I was suffocating it. As soon as I eased my grip on the record and realized that I didn't have to engineer and program everything myself, that's when it started to happen. I decided to try working with some different people. After I worked with Tom, I knew straight away that he was the guy who was going to help me finish the record.
Because of my DJing career, it took me a lot longer to learn the things I needed to know about the studio. That wouldn't have happened if I just sat in the studio the whole time. But I had to maintain my DJing career to build up my fan base. It's like being on tour with a rock band: Hopefully, it's going to pay off with some decent record sales.
What did you feel you needed to understand the most?
I really got inside some of the programs on my laptop. I learned [Emagic] Logic inside and out. I also got into plug-in processing and some soft synths like [Native Instruments] Reaktor. When you're making a record, you need to have a refined sound, and that sound only comes from being in the studio every single day. You need to build up your sound libraries so that you've got everything at your fingertips.
I used to be obsessed with getting the very latest boxes, and I would buy magazines every month to see what the latest box was. I would buy equipment all the time, thinking that's what I needed to do to make the kind of music I wanted to make. From working with Charlie, I learned that you only need to know a couple of boxes inside out, and you're set. Charlie does almost all of his work on a couple of specific boxes. He really knows his way around the Yamaha DX7. Once I got out of that buying cycle, I figured out what my favorite boxes were.
What instruments defined Airdrawndagger's sound?
We used a lot of analog processing and analog synths on the record — some old Rolands and an ARP 2600, which is an absolute beast. We used soft synths for textures. Some of the soft synths for the Macintosh are phenomenal — things like [Native Instruments] Reaktor, FM7 and Absynth. We got the best results when we combined that stuff with real analog processing. Even though we recorded things in [Digidesign] Pro Tools, we would run tracks out into the analog environment and process sounds through old tape machines or whatever to give it a warm sound.
Overall, the whole record has a very Pro Tools sound. It's a very powerful tool. I would throw ideas together on the laptop using Logic. I have all my samples inside my computer, and Logic has the EXS24 sampler, which changed my life. Being able to load all your samples into this program is like having 50 Akai S6000s at once. You have access to every single sample you ever made. A lot of times, I'd just sit there with my little controller keyboard and laptop and write. Once I got an idea together, I'd take it over to Tom to make it come alive. When Tom opened them up in a Pro Tools environment with all these amazing plug-ins, the tracks became 3-D. It was really exciting. I felt that if I could make a track work coming out of the tiny stereo outputs on my Macintosh, it would really work once it got in a big computer.
What was Simon Wright's role?
He did a lot of the album's sound design. His head is completely in the old analog world. He'd connect 20 keyboards and boxes all together and make sounds with them. There were three studios where we'd work: this little writing room with Logic and a keyboard; Tom's room, which had a Pro Tools rig and all of his processing gear; and I had my own studio set up in another room. Basically, that whole room was built for making and processing sounds. A lot of times, we'd get a track together and give it to Simon, who would stay up all night tweaking things out. When we got up in the morning, he'd play us these things that had a completely individual sound. I was using a lot of soft synths, so it had a digital sound, but after he put them through his analog washing machine, they'd come back with this beautifully rich, warm sound. Whenever we came up with a track, he would take all the elements, pull them apart and put them back together again. Sometimes we ended up with completely new tracks. For example, for “Wavy Gravy,” he processed the entire track without any drums on it. Simon came up with all these chopped-up hooks, and I put them together on my laptop. A lot of times, I'd give entire tracks to Simon without drums in them, and he'd process them, chop them to pieces and create new tracks.
Did any sounds become the basis for songs?
Lots of different things could be the hook of a song. Sometimes it was a bass line, a melody or a drum beat. It was different for each track. Charlie is amazing at coming up with melodies and hooks. I learned to play piano when I was a kid, but I can't play keyboards the way Charlie can; he's phenomenal. Sometimes I'd come up with a bass line, and he'd write a melody over it. The melodic side of the album is its strongest point. It has intricate, complex melodies, but it works. I did a lot of writing with Charlie. We have a very mellow vibe in the studio, and we did a lot of writing in the countryside. Some of the best tracks came out of working in that completely chilled vibe. I'd be cooking food at the house, and it was really beautiful and quiet out there.
The lines between producing, engineering, mixing, programming and writing got very blurred on this record. Everyone involved had a hand in everything. Charlie was involved the most with Logic and writing. Tom helped out most on the mixing and engineering side, as well as pulling the whole project together. Simon's role was to turn things on their heads. I sat in the middle of them all with this fairly concrete idea of what I wanted the record to be.
A lot of interesting processing is going on in “Bloodlock.”
That's the one track on the album that has a big-room, club sound, and it was put together differently than the other tracks. I worked on that with James Holden. He used a piece of freeware called Buzz [www.buzzmachines.com]. I've never seen a software program like it. It looks completely different from anything I've worked with before. James knows it inside out. It has its own sound, but we'd also run plug-ins through it. We wrote that track on his laptop and then transferred it to Pro Tools and gave it that big shimmering Pro Tools sound. It came from a different angle than the rest of the album. It also has a bit of an old-school feel with that hoovering bass line and the thrashing 909 stuff.
The album has quite a big cavernous, cinematic sound.
I've always loved epic, atmospheric music like Future Sound of London, The Orb or Leftfield, whose Leftism is a very cinematic album. That really got under my skin. It's taken me 10 years to follow in their footsteps, but I've always aspired to create that kind of sound.
What inspired the nu-skool-breaks tracks “Immortal,” “Fundamental” and “Boilerroom”?
I listen to breaks a lot at home, and I really enjoyed Adam Freeland's DJ sets. I thought the track he did with BT, “Hip-Hop Phenomenon,” was an excellent piece of music. Brian and I are both really into that sound, and I've tried to work it into my set as a DJ. Playing with breaks creates an interesting space, whereas it's very easy to fall back on old formulas with a four-to-the-floor record. Whenever I make a record with a four-to-the-floor beat, I can't help but take it into a big, huge club sound. I find it hard to make a four-to-the-floor track that isn't banging. With the breaks tracks, I wanted to expand on the music around them. Two of those tracks came together about two weeks after I perforated my eardrum. They're the darkest tracks on the album. I don't know where my head was at, but my injury must have put me in a dark thought process.
I think the challenge for the next record will be to do some four-to-the-floor music that has the kind of instrumentation and melodies that the breaks tracks have. I'm going to try playing around with some ideas. The Orb used to make interesting four-to-the-floor records, but at 115 bpm. Isolée's “Beau Mot Plage” [Playhouse, 1999] was quite influential when we were putting together parts of this album. Charlie and I loved that record. [Radiohead's] Kid A dropped on our doorstep in the middle of when we were writing for this record. That was quite influential, too. A lot of the sounds used on Kid A were similar to what we had been playing around with. Sonically, we were on the same path as Radiohead. Kid A is more sound-based and thematic, and I like it much better than Amnesiac, which is more song-based.
Why did you begin the album with two songs that don't have any drums?
I wanted to make a record that was like Northern Exposure, only using my own music. A couple of people I worked with on the record told me that if I started with the mellowest track and built the record up like a DJ set, it would make the record easier for some people to swallow. I don't know what people were expecting from me on this record. I think it went past the point of people expecting anything anymore, since the record had taken so long. People will probably be surprised by all the moods on the album. I think I'll feel pressure on the next record if I'm ever going to do a follow-up to this. Then there will be some expectations. But since I haven't been doing much as a producer for the past four years, people really don't know what to expect.
You've also taken a break from doing mix CDs. Are you going to do one soon?
I don't know. I suppose I should do one, but the whole mix-CD market is so flooded. John and I will probably do a CD together to support our next tour. I'd like to make another Northern Exposure — style record that's more breaks-oriented and takes listeners on a soundtrack journey, but those things take a hell of a lot of time. The CD market seems to be shrinking, so that's a lot of work to do for something that may not sell very well. If I'm going to take time off to go in the studio, I'd rather work with Charlie, Simon and Tom and do some more writing. I don't have any plans right now. I'm just happy that the album is finished and that I can focus my creative energy on DJing again. I'm enjoying that luxury because it's been a while since I've been able to focus 100 percent on my DJing.
What was the single most satisfying part about completing your album?
It was quite a year for me, being in Amsterdam surrounded by Simon, Tom and Charlie. It was like being in a university. I learned so much about studio processes. The knowledge that you gain by working with other people is phenomenal. Over the last year, my knowledge of production has gone through the roof. There's only so much you can learn when you sit in a room on your own. It's hard to motivate yourself. Too much music is made by people in dark rooms on their own. That's why a lot of dance music comes off as sounding cold and not very soulful. I believe quite firmly in the team spirit. That's what got us through this album.
It was a long and arduous year. We wanted to complete the album before I went to Miami, and it was really quite stressful. But the team helped me pull through it. It's almost like we formed a band to make this record. There was synergy, but sometimes someone would pull the music in a different direction. I sat in the middle of all these people and directed the whole project. I had the vision of what this album needed to be. There were a lot of phases where I thought the record would never get finished, but they pulled me through it. I got to play up my strengths. I can sit down at a keyboard and write tracks, but I'm still not at the point where I feel I can cut everyone out and write tracks on my own. The team that I've built around me is really solid. With Charlie, Simon and Tom, I've found the same partnership in the studio that I've found with John [Digweed] as a DJ.