It begins with an arresting arrangement of orchestral percussion and plucked violins that dances dizzily around a kick drum that is slow. Behind an assortment of keyboards and sequencers, Sasha bobs his head in concentration. An eerily recognizable string refrain eases gently into the arrangement, until the beat drops from the distinctive riff of his 1999 only “Xpander” divides the soundscape open just like the very first rays of sun after a storm.
In its original shape, “Xpander” was among those endorphin-rush anthems that cemented Sasha’s standing as one of dance music’s best talents, years after the early 90s hype which saw actors printing hyperbolic coverlines such as “SashaMania” and “The Son of God.” Therefore, it is a tune that the Welsh DJ has played hundreds, possibly thousands, of times. It’s always felt like a miracle, but never quite like this.
Onstage around him in London’s Barbican Centre before this year there have been also many folks around him to rely in one glance: one of them, a complete string section, also a set of percussionists, an assortment of guest vocalists and a handful of manufacturing buddies assisting on synthesizers and other more digital music hardware. This isn’t the normal stage setup that the manufacturer born Alexander Paul Coe was utilized to over his decades in dancing music. Usually it’s been him or in a duo with John Digweed, stoically clubbers on a kaleidoscopic journey through the deepest feelings and the most blissful ecstasy. But assisted by a few additional sets of hands–and almost two decades of perspective–that the live version of “Xpander” feels different, more full of breath and life, than ever.
The new rendition of the piece–that arrives today, as part of a Blu-Ray launch of a set of shows he played before this year named reFracted: Live at the Barbican–builds for at least four minutes before the arcing melody that fans know and love ultimately appears. “I had a walk-through in the Barbican and just imagined what it would sound like if Steve Reich was enjoying ‘Xpander,'” he states.
While the intro is really a nod to this icon of minimalist music, those long buildups, slowly teasing fragments of a recognizable melody or deep into the mix before unleashing it in total, are Sasha through and through–something many other DJs imitate but nobody does like him. Experiencing this in a Sasha series could be moving, but Sasha talks in a manner that is typically understated. “I actually liked this notion of starting it off with some thing where individuals would not know exactly what it was to begin with,” he states.
However, in a way, this new variant of “Xpander” feels a perfect metaphor for where Sasha’s head is at right now. It’s a look back to bygone euphoria, however, the speed is slower, which, in Sasha’s words “opens the record up.” The effect is a feeling of spaciousness and depth that is difficult to put into words–it is evocative of raves gone by but in precisely the identical time pulsing with new energy. In the same way, Sasha is bursting with thoughts, but he has also learned the benefits of slowing down once in a while. “Everything was a bit quicker back into the nineties,” he says, laughing.
Until last year, Sasha had not published a full scale album in almost a decade and a half. Scene Perform, his first since 2002’s masterly Airdrawndagger, was a melodic, downtempo record that echoed his passion for the ambient music produced by behaves such as KLF and The Orb in the height of his stardom. It was a low-key affair, however, the launch appears to get kicked him back. Since that time, heimproved his touring schedule,’s set out many paths and built that the show. Perhaps most importantly, he’s also reunited with John Digweed for their very first shows in a decade. His recent gigs, and those sets, were electrifying by all accounts — but for this point he had to strip everything back and focus on what was most significant.
“My touring gets the better of me, actually,” he clarifies. “I felt as though I was chasing my tail with my career. Back in 2015 and 2014, I had got to a point where I said yes to nearly every gig I was being supplied. I didn’t feel like I had a central strategy for where I was going with things.”
He took six months off touring and abandoned New York to work in The Village studio in Los Angeles–a mythical space which has hosted a litany of musicians, from Herbie Hancock to Neil Young to the Red Hot Chilli Peppers–to operate on Scene Play and get a perspective. He also learnt the value of having a normal pattern: “Going to work each and every single day, and getting home in time to get supper, spending time with my family. Getting plenty of exercise and remaining sober, doing things which were good for my head. After I had got any emotion it was very clear what I wanted.”
Among the things he wanted, it turned out, was to create some of the best club records he has made in years–running the gamut from the claustrophobic techno of “Gameovr,” through the the chugging bass and moody vocals of “From Time” and the piercing synths of “Do The Maff,” all of the way to the anthemic come-to-Jesus breakdowns of “Trigonometry” and the blissful Destiny’s Child sample which runs through “Track 10.”
“All that stuff came off the back of working on Scene Delete,” he states. “it was this kind of spaced-out, ambient album that I actually wished to create some techno then. And it all came out of me taking a step away from the street and clearing my head for the very first time in quite a long moment.”
That break also aided him realise there were people that he wished to be part of his life again, such as the producers Charlie May (obviously Spooky celebrity) and Barry Jamieson, who both collaborated from the reFracted gigs. “2016 was annually of me reconnecting with a lot of people I had possibly lost contact with,” he states.
His reunion with Digweed specifically has put both chatrooms and dancefloors alight, and it’s definitely had an effect on him. Considering that the duo stopped playing together regularly in 2009, theories concerning the divide have raged in traces in the club and audio forums, but even the most eccentric explanations seem to have been put to bed by the utter pleasure it has given lovers to watch them playing too.
Sasha himself refers to it as “repairing my connection with John” but provides little colour on the split. “Although we had not dropped out, we’d grown apart from being on the street for 12 years,” he states. “A lot of bands do not last anywhere near that long.”
“Sometimes you only need a break from individuals. And John certainly needed a break in me,” he chuckles.
Has ignited hopes of gigs together. However, Sasha’s not confident on the notion of another residency before the club’s closure in 2001.
“I think it’s really very important to leave people wanting more,” he states. “If they can see you each month, there are times when it is possible to eliminate the magic a little bit. But there are plenty of areas John and I want to playwith. That area in DC [the gig at Echostage in August of the pair] was amazing. I would love to find someplace in NYC at which we could do something similar.”
It does not look like much of a stretch to connect this restraint with the equilibrium.
“The thing I strive for in my own life is finding equilibrium, and I look back and see phases where there is equilibrium and intervals of time at which it is out of equilibrium,” he says, before offering a classically self-deprecating spin on the successes of the past calendar year. “Every year I believe I am going to do it better next year.”
A 1000-copy streak of reFracted: Live at the Barbican is now readily available for pre-order for September 18.
Can Caiger-Smith is a writer and reporter based in New York. He’s on Twitter.