“A lot of artists are always looking for ways to do something different and perform in a different way,” mused Sasha, commenting on the integration of live elements into an electronic performance setting.
We caught up with the legendary artist — born Alexander Coe — amid an intensive studio session in preparation for his second round of re-Fracted shows in February 2018 at the iconic Barbican Centre. Not long ago, Coe became one of the very few dance-oriented artists to pull off a neo-classical reimagining of his own work in orchestral form. Now, demand has grown even stronger for him to expand his new live vision.
Hunger for innovation runs deep in Sasha’s veins. The music bug bit him at a young age, when he got his start learning how to play pop songs by ear on the piano. Years later, as an 18-year-old finding his creative direction, he happened upon acid house at famed establishments like The Haçienda in Manchester. Most Sasha devotees know the rest of the story — he wasted no time in building up his record collection and learning his way around the decks, eventually earning a gig at Renaissance and meeting John Digweed to form one of the most fabled dual acts in dance history. He’s also released several iconic dance anthems throughout his tenure as a solo artist.
A look at Coe’s personal discography shows just how willing and unafraid he is to deviate from the status quo and explore the full extent of his artistry. In 2002, he played around with left-field electronica soundscapes in Airdrawndagger, completely avoiding the conventional 4/4 time signature that shot him to fame in the first place. Sasha’s more dance-oriented Involver series saw him undertake the task of completely re-molding favorite songs of his into his own vision.
“Sometimes I know when I make a decision creatively, that it’s going to pull people away from me a little bit. But I might go down this route for awhile because I don’t want to make huge records right now. I want to go down this route and see where it goes.”
Then came Scene Delete, his seminal classical/ambient-leaning album on Late Night Tales. Reminiscent of a film score, grippingly poignant, and artfully arranged, this project was unlike anything Sasha had done before. “I count that record for sure as a marker of my career of where things changed,” he reaffirms when asked if he still felt if the project represented a splitting point in his career. “Now that I’ve actually performed in that space,” he continues, “I’m trying to think about how I can develop that…I’m definitely more focused now on what I can do with the live environment at the moment and seeing where that takes me.”
Coe’s endeavors have been immersive, to say the least. In preparing for his Barbican shows — which saw him adapting Scene Delete and some of his other classic work into orchestral format — he re-learned his traditional training, taking up the piano after decades without touching it and finding a mode of instruction that would ensure his lessons stuck. He’s ventured deeper into the technological side of live performance as well, navigating new equipment necessary to effectively adapt his dance-oriented music into an orchestral setting. “It wasn’t feasible to do this kind of live performance ten years ago, but technology has moved so forward now that we can recreate things live without risking equipment crashing halfway through the show,” he advises, with an air of gratitude in his tone.
Sasha’s vital reconnection with his instrument — which he admits has been his “biggest achievement of the Barbican show” — has also affected his outlook and approach toward music. Since growing into the piano, Coe regaled, “everything we were writing was coming from us performing.” He expresses his admiration for this organic methodology, stating, “when you get people in the room bouncing ideas off each other in the jam session, you get such incredible results.” To Coe, even one recorded rehearsal can yield bountiful moments that can turn into a full track — moments that are more difficult to capture “when everyone is sitting around a computer and fighting for attention.”
“There’s a real power when you find musicians to work together and that can buzz off each other and really react to each other.”
Though Sasha has spent a great deal of time exploring a different path in his career, he has no intention of shedding his dance-oriented roots; he is a DJ at heart, after all. “I still want to make a big anthem every now and then that I can play out and people are crazy for,” he asserts while describing his explorations of live performance.
A tangible example of the type of piece Sasha describes here is “El Jefe,” which he wrote alongside Alan Fitzpatrick. Of the joint project, he notes, “I’ve played a lot of his music and also have been booked on the same lineups quite a few times. Every time we’d meet up we’d always get along really well, until we decided to make a record.” Their styles complemented each other nicely: “It all came together very effortlessly, and it was very fun to do.”
Outside the studio, he remains in a state of “working out what [he’s] going to play for the weekend.” Coe is certainly not one to take the easy route when it comes to the art of assembling a set: “I could just turn up and play huge records that everyone knows and I’m sure I’d get a reaction, but that’s not something I’ve ever really done.” Instead, he chooses to challenge himself — particularly in the field of emotion. “There’s a perfect amount of melody and sentimentality that needs to be mixed into my DJ sets, and I never want to go too far with it, because that just ruins the set,” he elaborates. “Sometimes I might hold back a little too much, but yeah it’s that balance that I really strive toward getting right.”
“I like only a fifth of a gram of sugar in my tea, and if there’s just a little bit too much, I can’t drink it. So it’s a little like that with my DJ sets… It’s about knowing where to place records, and I think that’s where the craft of DJing come in.”
The feeling of being “in the zone” while behind the decks and melting the club into the palm of his hands is naturally a thrilling one for the producer; however, Coe’s core intention lies in “making sure that I’m doing something creatively fulfilling.” His mind is always on the move while mixing: “I’m always thinking, and pushing things, and trying new records,” he states. What the artist finds creatively fulfilling has thus far been proven timeless. “It’s funny to hear a lot of the music being played right now being called ‘melodic techno’…. sounds very close to what I was doing in the mid-90s, albeit a bit slower,” he confidently remarks. History might be repeating itself in a way, but Coe makes sure to mention that it is “a really exciting time for me at the moment.” He finds joy in the fact that quite a few people “are using synth melodies, and aren’t afraid to use melodies in general right now.”
Technology is also moving the past and present closer together, in more than just a melodic sense. He recalls his earlier statement on how new developments have opened a doorway to live performance, bringing our discussion full circle: “I’ve talked to quite a few people lately that have talked about doing live performances — whether it’s with real instruments, or with drum machines and synth boxes — and they all feel capable of doing it now.” He cites Mathew Johnson, Nils Frahm, Bonobo, and Jon Hopkins as personal inspirations for his own development in this arena.
The combination of the current direction of the electronica sphere with accessible technology has put forth a promising blank canvas for the ever-inventive Sasha to fill. In his recent explorations into classical musicianship, Sasha has been re-molded. “In terms of the core ideas, things are changing a lot now,” he acknowledges. While his love for imbuing emotion into his music will never change, he maintains, “I think the methodology of it is changing quite considerably, which is great.” Coe believes it’s of utmost importance to keep himself on his toes and moving in a forward direction. “Curiosity is really the driving force behind my philosophy of music-making.”
Such an outlook is what keeps him humble — another key ingredient in being able to improve and advance creatively. Even in his comfort zone of the DJ booth, “It’s very rare that I think to myself, ‘yeah, you got it!’” he confesses. This translates into his tendency to treat his compositions and performances with the utmost care and attention, ensuring that whatever he ends up doing next will have been meticulously crafted and perfected. Coe’s candor in general exudes perfectionism, and determination to continue the forward path he currently travels.
Regardless of where the future will take him, Sasha has posed quite the accurate theory about his artistic evolution: “I think over the next few years we’re going to be writing some very interesting and different music.”