You've heard it before: a huge, airy, electronic beat that crashes against your ears while massaging them with plaintive, heartbreakingly soft melodies. It seemingly rises and falls with every song, taking you on a journey of peaks and valleys, and speaking to you truths and reconciliations. It is a sound known by many names -- trance, progressive house, electronic dance music -- and associated with a handful of internationally known DJs, including Welsh producer and remixer Sasha.
So it comes as a surprise when Alexander Coe, the man behind the Sasha myth, who has remixed huge dance hits for everyone from Madonna ("Ray of Light") to Maria Naylor ("Be As One"), turns out to be frustratingly uncommunicative as he tries to conduct a phone interview via a hectic car drive through London traffic.
Not that he would tell you where he was going if you asked. Over the course of a brief conversation, he hesitatingly reveals few details about himself, then flashes, "You're asking the most broad questions, man. I don't have fucking four hours to listen to you."
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He immediately apologizes for the snippy remark, but it's probably true that Sasha is more comfortable when he's working instead of talking. An artist biography on his Web site, www.djsasha.com, reveals that he remains "shy at heart" in spite of his "hero" status. (DJ magazine, the influential British dance music monthly, ranked him as the No. 4 DJ in the world.) "Like meeting new people, small talk. Just never been good with that," he was quoted as saying.
There's an audible sigh of relief from Sasha, then, when the conversation turns away from his personal life to the making of Involver. It's more than a standard mix CD; he remixed all ten of its tracks, creating a hybrid between his own production skills and pre-existing dance-floor hits such as Felix da Housecat's "Watching Cars Go By."
"It's halfway between an artist album and a mix compilation," says Sasha. "Rather than mix two pieces of vinyl together, I tried to take all the separate sounds to all the tracks" and recombine them, "and it allowed me to mix the tracks together on a much deeper level."
Sasha recorded Involver in Orlando earlier this spring. On the opening track, he strips London pop duo Grand National's "Talk Amongst Yourselves" of its raging rock backbeat and fresh guitar hook, slows down Lawrence Rudd's vocals, gives it a new, darker bass underpinning and converts its melody into a moody keyboard tune. The end result is like an electronic dub version of the original. In contrast, his remix of UNKLE's "In a State" is less radical; he merely adds some echoing effects, mutes its rhythm track and slightly tweaks the melody, making the track sound more ambient.
"Each different track takes a different approach. You just have to work out what you're going to keep, what you're going to add, and what you're going to throw away," Sasha explains, adding that his next album will probably be another mix-remix hybrid. "Sometimes the core elements of the track are really strong, but maybe the beats aren't something that really work for me in a club way, so I'll just change the beats."
As creative as Involver is at times, it's not a full-fledged artist album. For someone who first rose to prominence at the start of the '90s, Sasha has a remarkably slim discography of original music. In 2002 he released his debut album, Airdrawndagger. Don't expect a follow-up anytime soon, however.
"Writing an original album takes over your life, really. I want to do something that's a bit more fun. Remixes are a bit more fun," says Sasha. Perhaps, like an essayist (or, worse, a music critic), he's more inspired creatively by what goes on in the heads of others than what goes on in his own.
Sasha also has a 1999 EP, Xpander, and numerous 12-inch singles such as "Scorchio" and "Higher Ground" to his credit. But what he's really known for are mix CDs such as Global Underground: San Francisco and Global Underground: Ibiza. Made for the best-selling Global Underground series, in which DJs record two-CD mixes "inspired" by cities around the world, these two titles stoked Sasha's reputation as a superstar DJ.
Over the past decade, Sasha and his longtime musical partner, John Digweed, have been one of the most beloved -- and reviled -- teams in dance music. A mix CD they recorded together in 1996, Northern Exposure, as well as other key compilations such as Paul Oakenfold's Tranceport, fueled trance's explosion on the international club scene, when it supplanted house music as the genre of choice.
But trance's omnipresence -- in 2000 you couldn't walk into a big club or a rave without hearing it -- led to a major backlash. Today trance has become a dirty word; even its champions prefer to call the music they spin "progressive house" in an attempt to distinguish it from the cheesy, highly melodic strains that became associated with the term. But while cutting-edge electro and house producers such as Felix da Housecat and Basement Jaxx get jocked by critics (who have turned a deaf ear to trance), Sasha and like-minded DJs such as Paul Van Dyk and Tiësto still draw massive crowds eager to dance to an epic, big-beat sound.
However, as Sasha explains, the days of ten- to 20-hour marathon DJ sets and "all trance all the time" gigs are probably over. "Right now I'm playing shorter sets. The clubs I'm playing at finish earlier. I'm not stumbling out of the club at ten in the morning anymore. I'm playing sets that are a lot more funky, a lot of the more electro-punky kind of sounds," he says. "When I used to do those long sets, it was all about these long, drawn-out grooves, and building up, and building the energy up in the room, which I really enjoyed. But I think people are into hearing a bit more of an eclectic set when they go out to a club now. It's not all about one sound.
"I just think the massive explosion that led up to the year 2000 ," he says, trailing off without finishing his thought. "Things have changed a little bit, you know?"
Which leads you to wonder how Sasha will be remembered years from now. Will he be rehabilitated, like Benny Goodman, into a pioneer who successfully brought a mixture of underground electronic styles to the masses? Or will he be maligned like Glenn Miller, and forever charged with dumbing down dance music?
"I don't know," says Sasha when asked about his place in electronic music history. "I'm just doing what I think is right at the moment. People are still coming to hear me play, so I guess that's a good thing."
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