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From the Archive: Sasha on re-Fracted

Nothing Concrete text
23 Sep 2020
28 min listen

In this episode from May 2017, Ben Eshmade speaks to DJ, producer and musician Sasha about 're-Fracted', his live debut performance at the Barbican over two sold out nights.

Those moments where there’s no distractions, I do find a lot of that time is really good for writing.

From the Archive sees us dig into our extensive contemporary and classical music and cinema podcast archive as we rediscover interviews and discussions with artists, with our long-standing producer and presenter, Ben Eshmade. 

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Ben Eshmade: Hello and welcome to Nothing Concrete the Barbican podcast, I'm Ben Eshmade and this week we look back to May 2017 when we spoke to DJ, producer and musician Sasha about ‘re-Fracted’, his live debut performance at the Barbican over two sold out nights.

Sasha: Those moments when there's no distractions, I do find a lot of that time is really good for writing especially when you're in that altered state of being jet-lagged and everyone else is asleep and you're wide awake, I find that quite creative time actually.

BE: Taking inspiration from his own 2016 album, ‘Scene Delete’, a record of original material on the Late Night Tales series, and a powerful live performance at the Barbican by contemporary composer Nils Frahm, Sasha put together this new live project. So let's discover the story of how he stepped out onto the stage on the 20th and 21st of May 2017 to make his live debut with strings, percussion, and some piano lessons – as we'll discover, chasing him across the globe, I spoke to Sasha. 

BE: Where did music enter your life for the first time? 

S: Well, I moved into a house with my family when I was probably about, I think about six or seven. There was a really beaten-up old piano in the house and my mum used to play lots of music in the house, used to play records. I used to like copying the melodies of the records and I think we were listening to things like Wings and the Beatles and Gerry Rafferty and ELO. I used to love sitting at the piano and copying melodies tracks.

BE: The sort of next step then, then how did you get into DJing? Where did that begin?

S: I moved to Wales when I was a kid. I was trying to finish my school there and then my friends were going up to Manchester every weekend going to this club called the Hacienda and saying, they said, ‘It's amazing, there's this thing called house music’. I was like, okay, what's this? And I went to Manchester, I went to the Hacienda and I kind of just had my mind blown by the music and yeah, I just was like, okay, I want to do that. So, I mean, for me personally I was, I made an effort to be the first person on the dance floor. I would queue up at nine o'clock at night and I will be the first person into the club and onto the dance floor and it was like this kind of rite of passage thing that I had to do that I had to be the first person in. The music that the DJs played at the start of the set was the most important music to me.

BE: Was it a big step to release your own music?

S: Like ‘91 or ‘92 was my first releases. Yeah, I’d been putting out, I'd been doing lots of remixes for people and doing singles and stuff like that.

BE: And you talked about re-mixing. Did that sort of inspire you when you were making your own music? How did that sort of input in do you think?

S: I don't know. I mean, when I was re-mixing, it was more of a production house that I was involved in. You know, I worked with an engineer and a programmer, and we sort of, we'd go in on Monday, and mix a track and we had a way of working; by the time we finished on Friday, we'd have the remix and dubs done and it was kind of a process that we went through every week. When it came around to writing my own music the writing process is very different, because you have to get a little bit lost sometimes and you have to kind of, you know, you have days where you're noodling around with maybe a new piece of equipment, or finding a new way of working or pushing it, pushing things in the studio. And you might not really be getting anywhere in terms of finishing music, but you're sort of digging away and trying to discover a new sound to work with. Because you can lose a lot of days like that, can lose a lot of weeks like that, a lot of months like that of just kind of trying to find your sound. You know when you're on that, when you're on a schedule with remixing, you know, you have to deliver on certain dates. They're usually breathing down your neck to hear what you've done and you’re very much under time pressure, but I think when you're writing your music, you sort of have to get lost in it a bit.

BE: Where do you find the pockets of time for your own music? I mean, you're doing it on your laptop,

S: A lot of the time when I write, I'm on the road and I'm jet lagged, and it might be three o'clock in the morning in Tokyo and I'm wide awake and I have a little setup in my hotel room and I work on a melody or something or I might be on a plane with my headphones, I'm working on some beats. So those moments when you're sort of, there's no distractions I do find a lot of that time is really good for writing, especially when you're in that altered state of being jet-lagged and everyone else is asleep and you're wide awake and I find that quite a creative time actually.

BE: Could you just tell us a little bit about ‘Scene Delete’, I mean, it's a, it's a different step for you and I think you were inspired by the Late Night Tales series.

S: Well, a lot of that music was already, about half of the album had already been written.
I'd written a lot of these ideas down and they were little sketches of ideas that I'd written down over the previous sort of couple of years. I didn't really know what to do with them, you know, little melodic hook here and there, a little groove here and there, a vocal that we'd got that we didn't know what to do with. And what I'd been doing, I'd collected about 40 or 50 pieces of little ideas of music and I think one day I put them all into a playlist in iTunes and just hit shuffle and it was just, they were just playing all day. And it was one moment where sort of three or four things played in in a particular order, and I'm like, well this actually sounds like it could be a record and then I was like, well, what kind of record is this? Where could I put this out? I don't know what, where it would fit, and my first thought was Late Night Tales. So you know, I called them up and they're like, well, you know, mainly Late Night Tales is kind of, people doing DJ mixes, using other people's music, maybe re mixing other people's music. It's not really, they don't really put out original music albums, but when I sat them down and played them what I’d done they were like ok, they got their heads around it and they thought well, okay, we can work with it. So that's why we did it under the Late Night Tales banner, but it had its own name, you know, ‘Scene Delete’. So yeah, a lot of those ideas were from hotel rooms, late flights, being up jet-lagged, or up super early in the morning, playing around with little ideas, and my laptop was just full and once I’d actually compiled it into one list, we realised how much music was there and we were like we’ve got to do something really. And then Late Night Tales was the first thing I thought of really.

S: You know, we were listening to a lot of like all the Olafur Arnalds, Nils Frahm, Max Richter, and then you know older stuff: Philip Glass and Steve Reich and stuff, we listened to a lot of that stuff while we were making ‘Scene Delete’ as well, it was kind of, we were just absorbing that.

BE: How did the opportunity arise to bring this album ‘Scene Delete’ to the Barbican, to perform it live? 

S: Well basically, I mean basically, it was the guys in the label and my PR people in London that worked on the record, were all like you should do this live, it would really work at the Barbican. And I, you know, I never thought of playing live before and I never, it never really entered my head that that would be an option when we we're making it. So I took some persuading and then they were like come and see a gig at the Barbican so you can see how it all works and stuff. So you know Nils Frahm was playing, so I took a Friday off from DJing and I came to town especially for that gig. And he just absolutely blew my mind, actually, at that show, the Barbican show. After seeing the space full of people and seeing kind of the sound in there and how powerful it was and that performance, I was like this is a gig I can't turn down. So then it was more of a case of like, well, in theory, I'm up for it, but I really have no idea how to put a live show. So I started talking to my team and then of course everyone's very much gung ho about it, ‘Let's do it. Let's do it. Let's make it work. We can make it work’. So I started talking to some friends of mine who’d done live things before: ariend of mine, TommyD, his wife is Rosie Danvers, she does strings for people like Kanye West and Adele.

S: You know I started watching kind of some of the electronic guys and seeing what they were doing live and with some of the new technology available. This concept of playing electronic music live, you know, there's quite a few people – like Jon Hopkins, Four Tet, Nicolas Jarr, Bonobo. And I was like, ok, there's ways to do electronic music live and with the technology available now that maybe wasn't there a few years back and I kind of said yes to doing it on the spot, and then tried to work out the details later, which I think if I'd known how complex it was gonna be and how much work was involved at the beginning, I might have thought twice about it to be honest. It's been the most consuming, all-consuming thing I've ever worked on and it's completely taken over, like all of our lives, everyone involved in it, and it's, but it's been a fantastic process and really, really inspiring. And I don't think I'm ever going to go back to writing music the way that I wrote music before, I think it's going to be much more about performances from now on. You know, I spent hours practising the piano, having piano lessons, again. I played when I was a kid and stuff, but I haven't really touched the piano properly since I was 16. So I kind of went back to roots and sort of, you know, went back to studying piano again, I was having piano lessons on Skype from a piano teacher that I found in Sydney. So I'd be waking up at five in the morning to have a 6am piano lesson on Skype because that's the only time of day that she was free. But I found that actually doing those lessons at that time of the day were really, that was really great, because, you know, you wake up, the house is quiet, you know, your head isn't full of all the stress of the day and you're kind of a clean slate. So I found that to be really beneficial. And yeah, it's just, it's taken over.

BE: Run me through who you have on stage with you. How will you transport the sound
to the live arena?

S:  My main production team I work with in studio is a guy called Dave Gardner who kind of, you know, co-writes stuff with me and does a lot of the kind of processing, sound effects and processing work. He's got a workstation set up that’s just take what everyone else is doing on stage and mangle it. And then there's Dennis White who's Thermalbear, he's kind of, he's on drums and doing a little bit of bass stuff as well. And then Charlie May, who’s a long-time collaborator, worked on ‘Xpander’ back in the end of the ‘90s. We've been working together for many years, about 20 years. So he became involved again, me and him are playing all the main sort of keyboard parts, we both have two keyboard and piano and synth workstations. And then on top of that, Rosie is putting together like an eight-piece string section, which I'm really excited to hear how that's going to add to what we're doing. And then we’re having a guy called Joby [Burgess], who's going to be doing orchestral percussion and that's going to range from everything, just kind of sound effects stuff to actually playing kind of melodies on marimbas, xylophones, glockenspiel, we haven't quite worked out the details of his setup yet. But yeah, and then on top of that, we've got, obviously the guest vocalists that worked on the ‘Scene Delete’ album, we've got Laura [Bettinson] from Ultraista and John Graham – they're the two vocal tracks on ‘Scene Delete’, and then we've also got, we're also doing some of my favourite remixes from my back catalogue as well, we're reinterpreting some older stuff. So we have Abigail Wyles from ‘Battleships,’ the ‘Battleships’ track that I did for ‘Involv3r’, we've got, the Home Video guys are going to be there. We're doing the Home Video track. There's Rodriguez Jr. who's going to be, who sang on The Youngsters track that I did on ‘Involver 1’. I think that's it, yeah. I had no idea how big it was when we took it on really. Yeah, I had no idea how far we were going to end up taking it, how big it was gonna be. I feel like that episode of The Simpsons where he's climbing up the mountain, he keeps getting to one peak and there's another massive one behind it. Yeah, so the next one then another one.

S: The lighting guy what we're using is Stuart [Bailes] and he works, he did the Nils Frahm show that I saw at the Barbican and I was basically like, well Stuart did the lights for that show and I said I want that lighting setup or I want to work with that guy and Terence [Goodchild] did the sound for the Nils Frahm show and I, you know, we've got him doing the sound as well. So Nils Frahm set the bar pretty high for us, I'm afraid. If I'd have seen a different show or if I'd maybe started doing live shows in clubs or festivals, I would have approached it a completely different way, but the fact that Nils Frahm kind of set the benchmark for us, it ended up being very high, so we've ended up stretching ourselves to try and reach that.

BE: Do you still get nervous?

S: I do I still get nervous at my gigs. Yes, I get I get nervous whenever I'm in a DJ booth where I'm really exposed. One of the reasons I like playing at fabric so much is the DJ booth is really closed off and you can really kind of get down to work without people being in your face or being exposed. So it doesn't really get more exposed than being on the centre of the stage at the Barbican, there's nothing there really to hide, there’s nowhere to hide, really. So I've never actually played music in front of people before, I've had some interesting moments over the last few months, we've had people come to the studio, to the rehearsals, and we've had to start playing and I've got very nervous just playing in front of three or four people, so it's something that I'm really working psychologically to get over because it's a whole new performance for me, I've never done anything like this, I've never played in front of people before. So the nervous battle that I'm going to have to get my head around is something that I'm talking to everyday with my music teacher and was getting some help here and there about how to deal with the kind of gremlins in my head really, because it is, it's a scary proposition. Most people, I think when they get to the Barbican, they've already got 100 or 1000 gigs under their belt, you know. This is our first proper show. So, you know, we've talked about biting off a bit more than we can chew and jumping in at the deep end and what have you, but it's something that I think that if we can get it right, it's something that you know, should lead onto some really amazing things in the future as well.

BE: Thanks to Sasha, for speaking to us. You've heard extracts from the original ‘Scene Delete’ album and the release of the Barbican show itself. Resident Advisor’s live review speaks of the ‘Infectious sound of the crowd’, which is apparent, and Louder Than War describe the performance as ‘Polished, thought out and pretty much perfectly executed’. 

I'm Ben Eshmade, thanks for listening to this archive edition of Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast, here to inspire more people to discover and love the arts, with weekly episodes of archive finds and themed series. Subscribe to Nothing Concrete on Acast, Spotify, or wherever you find your podcasts, and if you can, leave us a review to help us get the word out.

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