It starts unexpectedly, with an arresting arrangement of orchestral percussion and plucked violins that dances dizzily around a slow kick drum. Behind an assortment of keyboards and sequencers, Sasha bobs his head in concentration. An eerily familiar string refrain eases gently into the arrangement, before the beat drops out and the distinctive riff of his 1999 single "Xpander" breaks the soundscape open like the first rays of sunlight after a storm.
In its original form, "Xpander" was one of the endorphin-rush anthems that cemented Sasha's reputation as one of dance music's greatest talents, years after the early 90s hype that saw magazines printing hyperbolic coverlines like "SashaMania" and "The Son of God." As such, it's a song the Welsh DJ has played hundreds, maybe thousands, of times before. It's always felt like a miracle, but never quite like this.
Onstage around him at London's Barbican Centre earlier this year there were too many people around him to count in a single glance: among them, a full string section, a pair of percussionists, an assortment of guest vocalists and a handful of production buddies assisting on synthesizers and other more electronic music hardware. This isn't the usual stage setup that the producer born Alexander Paul Coe has been used to over his several decades in dance music. Usually it's been him alone, or in a duo with John Digweed, stoically leading clubbers on a kaleidoscopic journey through the deepest emotions and the most blissful ecstasy. But aided by a few extra sets of hands—and nearly two decades of perspective—the live version of "Xpander" feels different, more full of breath and life, than ever.
The new rendition of the piece—which arrives today, as part of a Blu-Ray release of a series of shows he played earlier this year called reFracted: Live at the Barbican—builds for more than four minutes before the arcing melody that fans know and love finally appears. "I had a walk-through at the Barbican and just imagined what it would sound like if Steve Reich was playing 'Xpander,'" he says.
While the intro is a nod to that icon of minimalist music, those long buildups, gradually teasing fragments of a recognizable melody or vocal into the mix before unleashing it in full, are Sasha through and through—something many other DJs imitate but no one does quite like him. Experiencing this in a Sasha set can be uncontrollably moving, but Sasha talks about it in a typically understated way. "I really liked this idea of starting it off with something where people wouldn't know what it was to begin with," he says.
But in a way, this new version of "Xpander" feels a perfect metaphor for where Sasha's head is at right now. It's a look back to bygone euphoria, but the tempo is slower, which, in Sasha's words "opens the record up." The effect is a sense of depth and spaciousness that's difficult to put into words—it's evocative of raves gone by but at the same time pulsing with new energy. Similarly, Sasha is still bursting with ideas, but he's also learned the benefits of slowing down once in a while. "Everything was a bit faster back in the nineties," he says, laughing.
Until last year, Sasha hadn't released a full-length album in nearly a decade and a half. Scene Delete, his first since 2002's masterly Airdrawndagger, was a melodic, downtempo record that echoed his love for the ambient music made by acts like KLF and The Orb at the height of his stardom. It was a low-key affair, but the release seems to have kicked him back into high gear. Since then, he's put out several new tracks, increased his touring schedule and assembled the reFracted show. Perhaps most excitingly, he's also reunited with John Digweed for their first shows together in nearly a decade. Those sets, and his other recent gigs, have been electrifying by all accounts—but to get to that point he had to strip everything back and focus on what was most important.
"My touring had got the better of me, really," he explains. "I felt like I was chasing my tail with my career. In 2014 and 2015, I had got to a point where I was saying yes to virtually every gig I was being offered. I didn't feel like I had a central plan for where I was going with things."
He took six months off touring and left New York to work at The Village studio in Los Angeles—a legendary space that has hosted a litany of artists, from Herbie Hancock to Neil Young to the Red Hot Chilli Peppers—to work on Scene Delete and get some perspective. He learnt the importance of having a normal routine: "Going to work every day, and getting home in time for dinner, spending time with my family. Getting lots of exercise and staying sober, doing things that were good for my head. Once I had got some clarity it was really obvious what I wanted."
One of the things he wanted, it turned out, was to make some of the best club records he's made in years—running the gamut from the claustrophobic techno of "Gameovr," through the the chugging bass and moody vocals of "Out Of Time" and the piercing synths of "Do The Maff," all the way to the anthemic come-to-Jesus breakdowns of "Trigonometry" and the blissful Destiny's Child sample that runs through "Track 10."
"All that stuff came off the back of working on Scene Delete," he says. "it was such a spaced-out, ambient album that I really wanted to make some techno after that. And it all came from me taking a step away from the road and clearing my head for the first time in a long time."
That break also helped him realise there were people that he wanted to be part of his life again, like the producers Charlie May (of Spooky fame) and Barry Jamieson, who both collaborated in the reFracted gigs. "2016 was a year of me reconnecting with a lot of people I had maybe lost touch with," he says.
His reunion with Digweed in particular has set both dancefloors and chatrooms alight, and it's clearly had an impact on him. Since the duo stopped playing together regularly in 2009, theories about the split have raged in lines at club and music forums, but even the most outlandish explanations seem to have been put to bed by the sheer joy it has given fans to see them playing together again.
Sasha himself refers to it as "repairing my relationship with John" but gives little color on the split. "Even though we hadn't fallen out, we had grown apart from being on the road for 12 years," he says. "A lot of bands don't last anywhere near that long."
"Sometimes you just need a break from people. And John definitely needed a break from me," he chuckles.
Their enormously popular summer residency at Privilege in Ibiza, which closes on September 12, has sparked hopes of more regular gigs together. But Sasha's not convinced on the idea of another long-term residency like the monthly gig the pair had for years at New York's Twilo until the club's closure in 2001.
"I think it's really important to leave people wanting more," he says. "If they can see you every month, sometimes you can lose the magic a little bit. But there are lots of places John and I want to play. That room in DC [the pair's gig at Echostage in August] was fantastic. I would love to find somewhere in NYC where we could do something similar."
It doesn't seem like too much of a stretch to connect this restraint with the equilibrium Sasha seems to have discovered over the past couple of years.
"The thing I strive for in my life is finding balance, and I look back and see periods where there is balance and periods of time where it's out of balance," he says, before offering a classically self-deprecating take on the successes of the past year. "Every year I think I'm going to do it better next year."
A 1000-copy run of reFracted: Live at the Barbican is now available for pre-order for September 18.
Will Caiger-Smith is a writer and reporter based in New York. He's on Twitter.