Traditionally, dance DJs have had to become producers in order to capture a wider audience outside of clubs. But Sasha, 43,—born Alexander Coe in Bangor, Wales—is the rare dance act who’s made his name primarily through selection and mixing. On his own and with former DJ partner John Digweed, Sasha’s got one of the more beloved (and formidable) album catalogs in the music. It just happens to consist almost exclusively of DJ sets. That is unless you count 1999’s four-song EP “Xpander,” which, considering that it’s 45 minutes long, you might.
Though mixes have long been dance culture’s lingua franca, the rise of the DJ podcast and streaming/download sites such as SoundCloud and Mixcloud have made them central to the larger pop-music conversation as well. On the occasion of Sasha’s newest mix, “Involv3r”(the third in a series that began in 2004), CODE’s Michaelangelo Matos spoke with the DJ about his history in mixes.
DJ mixes have played a major role in your career. Your mix CDs have tended to be statements unto themselves, the way an album might be. Did you always intend that to be the case?
Yeah, I think so. I didn’t want to go down that commercial route where you do one every year and people just throw away the last one. I always want to make things that people would hopefully hold on to and cherish for a few years—trying to make something that’s timeless. I listen back to some of the “Renaissance”CD [1994, with John Digweed] now, and some of the music hasn’t played all that well, but it certainly lasted a long time and it’s still referred to. That’s always been in my head to try and make something that lasts. Otherwise I’d just be playing commercial music.
There are lots of early ’90s tapes by you that were released with nice packaging. Were those sold to people who were members of the clubs where they were recorded?
No, they were bootlegs. People would record my sets at various clubs and raves and festivals by the promoters, and would get passed around and dubbed. Sometimes I’d record them myself and pass them out to friends then they’d get copied. Somebody would get hold of a copy and then package them up, put a nice label on it, and put them on sale on record stores. I’d go into the record stores to buy vinyl and there’d be all my cassette tapes on the wall. I’d be like, “Who’s making these and where are they coming from?” [Laughs] Obviously, when it came around to actually something legit that we got paid a little money for, I felt a lot like that was payback.
I know that a lot of early mix CDs were basically done with ProTools. Was that the case with yours?
No, they were all handmade. I never used a computer until we started working on them. We recorded three or four mixes in one go and then we’d get that chunk in the computer and take it on to the next three or four [track sequence]. We didn’t use it in any kind of complicated way that you go about in making mixed CDs now. If there was any editing done, it was done on the real tape machine on the studio or something.
Obviously, you and Digweed weren’t picking every single record together. Did you each take turns putting those strings of tracks together?
It’s hard to recall it exactly. Definitely it was a collaborative effort, but I had certain records that really mixed together, whether it’s three or four or even five or six, and then John would have a load to mix together. We fused together like that. On one CD I did more of the mixing, and on another one, John might have done more of it. A lot of that “Renaissance” CD came from playing out live.
With 1996’s “Northern Exposure,” the sound was a lot more honed—in one lane, though it’s a wide lane.
There was so much of that music that I was listening to at home. So much electronic music had come out in the years since the “Renaissance”CD. It wasn’t really dance-floor music; stuff that I wasn’t really playing out, but that whenever I went back to someone’s house to DJ after the club, I would love to play. “Northern Exposure”came from those after-hour moments.
At that point, in terms of the U.S., you had already gotten a foothold in San Francisco and Florida, and were about to start at Twilo in New York.
Yeah. Florida, San Francisco, Denver, Atlanta. Even in Canada we were doing some stuff. We got a lot of markets in America but New York was one that we hadn’t really got a foothold in. I played there a few times but [with] not very successful results. I felt like it was a closed shop. [At Twilo], the first gig went down so well that they invited [Digweed and I] to come back here. We started doing it on a regular basis. It became a residency—3,000 people cheering us every Friday night.
By ’98, you’ve got your first Global Underground mix, “San Francisco.” That’s a little more techno but also a little bit West Coast house, like Freaky Chakra. Was the idea with that to play San Francisco stuff or to play like you would have in San Francisco?
I got tired of playing underage, 18-and-up parties. They turned into something that I wasn’t into. It became very young and not necessarily about the music. I decided to really focus on doing 21 and up clubs. [In] San Francisco, I probably had the best relationship with the crowd in the States at the time. It was so natural to do it, and of course, to play in the city on a regular basis, you get music from the producers there. That definitely summed up what I was playing in San Fran at the time.
Was that similar to your approach to your next Global Underground, “Ibiza”?
I was a resident at Space in Ibiza at the time. I got a lot of resistance from Global Underground at the time, because they very much like, “All the cheesy compilations came out of Ibiza, and no one’s ever done a credible mix around Ibiza.” I was like, “Yeah, but the island’s so incredible, Space is incredible, there’s so many beautiful places to take pictures, and we’ll make it look amazing.” Again, it felt really natural to me.
You have said that when Twilo closed in 2001, you had to leave that sound behind. The first “Involver”came out three years after that. Did it take a long time to find the sound that you were putting out on the “Involver,” the first one?
Yeah, it did. It definitely did. It is the reason why I don’t put these records out every year. I feel like whenever I have something new to say and I have a new direction on something different to say, I’ll put it out. When I’m having one of those down years or I’m just getting on with my DJ sets and maybe I’m trying to find a new sound, I don’t really like doing press because I haven’t got anything to talk about.
Did you think “Involver”was going to be the start of a series?
I knew there was going to be two. I’d signed up to do two records. Obviously once I’d done the first one in that way, with the remixing and re-editing, I realized I had to do the second one the same way. The reason the third one has come along is because since the onset of social media, [I received] requests to do another one from people on Facebook and Twitter. I felt like I had the right kind of music to make another record, [and] something new to say.
When you started working on “Involv3r,” did you have the tracks already? Had you already remixed a lot of the tracks?
No, I didn’t. I had a list of tunes, but at the beginning of last year, when we went after a few of these tunes, we had some licensing problems. There are three or four key records I wanted for this “Involv3r,”but we couldn’t manage to get ahold of. Most of this came around from starting work on it in January and just feeling around to see what tracks I could get ahold of. Some of them came together very quickly; some of them took forever. [It took] probably eight or nine months in all.
I don’t think a lot of people might imagine a mix CD would take so long to put together.
I know. This one took particularly a long time. We had licensing problems. We had to move studios four times, which created a lot of problems. We went to three different countries. It wasn’t a steady process. We were very close to finishing it in April  and ran out of time before I had to go back on the road. Also, I wasn’t happy with the track listing in April. I felt there were too many filler tracks on there. I went away over the summer, listened to some more music, and then when we approached it in October, I think it helped very much with the licensing problems to have a hitrecord with the Hot Chip mix [of “Flutes”]. The Hot Chip mix was originally supposed to be on “Involv3r,” the April version, and I just wanted to get it out because I knew it was such a big, big record, so having that on top of Billboardfor such a long time really helped with all the licensing issues right away. [Laughs]
I’m curious if you took “Flutes” off “Involv3r”because you felt it was too big a hit already?
Yeah. It had a really long run at the top of the chart, and I’m still dropping at the end of my sets. People go nuts to it but I didn’t want it to make the record. I had a big discussion, actually, with management and the label and everything, [whether] to include it or not. We went backwards and forward a few times.
Typically, how big is a wish list when you start to make a mix?
The wish list was pretty big, actually. I would say it was 40 or 50 tracks. We probably worked on about 30 tracks and finished most of those and got it down to . There’s almost another album worth of material that we’re going to be releasing in some way over the next six months, as well.
You were talking about moving studios. What kind of studios do you typically prefer?
It depends. We did the first mix in my friend’s carriage in Ibiza. It had no back door; it didn’t have air conditioning. There were lizards running all over the place, and his speakers were really small, but we got a fantastic sound in that room. My studio in New York, it’s fully equipped with every gadget known to man, [but] we really struggled with the sound in that room. The room was originally designed as an acoustic room and I don’t think it was ever designed to have techno and bass played in it, so we struggled to get mixes right in that room.
Does what you do require not just using a laptop?
Yeah. We use a lot of analog equipment. I bought a lot of stuff off eBay, but also reconditioned some of my old equipment that just sat in storage. I played a lot of stuff myself on this record. It was a fun project. Very hands-on.