It was a tough gig, perhaps the toughest of Sasha’s career. None of the crowd knew who he was. Why would they? After all, they were only four years old. The occasion: music week at Sasha’s son’s pre-school nursery. “The teacher of his class said ‘You’re involved in music, aren’t you?’” he recalls. “Before thinking, I said, ‘Yeah, I can DJ’. As soon as I said it I was like, fuck! What have I committed myself to?”
He spent the next three weeks worrying about what he was going to play before hitting on the idea of constructing a set from each child’s favourite song. There were kiddie songs like ‘You Are My Sunshine’ and ‘I’m H.A.P.P.Y.’, ‘I Gotta Feeling’ by Black Eyed Peas, ‘Hotel California’, and, of course, ‘Yellow Submarine’. When the day came, the teacher told the kids to dance, but they were too embarrassed to start with, so he hooked them in with ‘The Goldfish Song’ by Luke Wallace (sample lyric: “I’m just a stupid goldfish / I swim round and round my bowl”). Sasha grins at the memory.
“I was like, this is so much like my normal Saturday night! You tease them in with the first couple of records and everyone’s a bit shy. Then you get that one record that pulls them in.”
By the time he finished, with ‘Yellow Submarine’, they were going bonkers. “I’ve not had a reaction like that to a last record for years,” he laughs. “At the very end, when they were all leaving the room, this one kid came back in and said, ‘How did you do that?’ I was thinking, ‘You’re going to be a DJ, mate’. It was the most fun I’ve had DJing in a very long time.”
There you have the reason why, 25 years since he started out, Sasha, real name Alexander Coe, is still a big deal. He has a gift for connecting with people via music, knows how use it to make you feel good, and gets off on it himself at the same time. He can do it in any situation, whether it’s Ushuaïa in Ibiza, the main stage at a festival, or, it turns out, a kindergarten in New York’s Chelsea district. It’s the golden formula for a DJ, and it never goes out of fashion. Which is why Sasha has never gone out of fashion either.
Tonight, he’s playing at La Mania in the Romanian seaside resort of Constanta, four hours of white-knuckle, 100mph plus driving from Bucharest. Like seaside towns the world over, Constanta looks a little bit sad, tacky and run down, but La Mania is, by all accounts, one of the best clubs in Europe. Coe is here to play the opening night of the 2012 season. A reformed hedonist, his occasional vices these days are red wine and a cigarette. He orders both, and starts to enthuse about the Romanian scene.
“The local DJs here have built a sound that they’re really passionate about, and that influences me more than anything in the UK or US. There’s an energy that’s really exciting.” He’s softly spoken and still has a gentle Northern accent despite having lived in New York for the last seven years. When he’s finished saying what he’s got to say he looks down and to the left while he waits for the next question. It’s not defensive – he likes a bit of banter, and a gruff laugh comes easily – it’s just a polite way of moving the conversation on.
It moves on quickly. He’s currently finishing off ‘Invol<3r’, the third instalment in his much-loved re-edit series.
“Over the last couple of years, people on Facebook and Twitter have been asking me if I was going to do another one,” he says. “I wanted a project. It seemed like a good idea.”
However, struck by DJ’s block, he’s waiting for the album to pull into sharp focus.
“It’s going well, but currently I feel as though I’m at the bottom of a coal mine with a candle trying to do a puzzle.”
His other big project for the year is the Friday night residency at Ushuaïa in Ibiza, which opened on July 6 with guests Guy Gerber and Adam Beyer.
“Ushuaïa has given everyone on the island a massive kick up the arse,” he says. “It’s great. Being able to dance outdoors in Ibiza: that’s kind of where it all came from. Things needed shaking up a bit. Change is good, isn’t it?”
Absolutely. Sasha doesn’t do resting on his laurels.He could if he wanted, though. Coe is properly old- school. He started DJing in the late 80s, playing at infamous illegal warehouse raves in Blackburn and at Manchester’s famous Haçienda. In the early 90s there was his legendary residency at Shelley’s in Stoke-on-Trent – people there travelled from all over the country, and if you weren’t inside by 10PM, you weren’t getting in. Shelley’s was followed by a residency at Renaissance in Mansfield, where, alongside John Digweed, he defined prog house. All this is before he went global in 1999 with the release of the ‘Xpander’ EP. Coe doesn’t think any of the matters, however.
“I don’t think those things mean a lot to people buying records these days, and that’s what’s important to me,” he shrugs. “I’m more inspired by up-and-coming DJs.”
Sasha has a horror of becoming a heritage DJ. He recently appeared at Renaissance’s 20th anniversary party. He did so on the condition that he wouldn’t play any classics.
“I couldn’t bring myself to do that. I was adamant that I would only do the gig if there was a relevant roster. Guy Gerber, Matthew Jonson and Jozif played. It was a night of cool music.”
In the end, he did play a couple of the old tunes: “‘Angel’ by Annadin, which I still think is brilliant. And I played my mix of ‘Talk To Me’ by Hysterix as the last record.” But only two.
“The whole classics thing is one step away from becoming a karaoke DJ,” he says. “That scares me to death, to be honest”
As might be expected for someone of his vintage, to start with Coe wasn’t a big fan of the impact of the internet on music. He’s since come to embrace social networking.
“I understand it now. Some people do genuinely have something interesting to say in 140 characters. And it’s a great way to find out about music.”
The problem for DJs is that the internet also means that everyone has access to everything. There are no secrets any more. “It used to be part of the magic, but you can’t keep records to yourself now. You have to work a lot harder,” he admits.
He sees that as a positive, and talks about how more DJs make re-edits of tracks these days, as he is doing on ‘Invol<3r’. It makes him think about every gig more. “You’re under a lot of pressure to deliver a new set every time,” he says. “Especially because people post sets online. It’s shocking. I’ll play a set with loads of exclusive music and the next day someone’s posted the tracklisting online and they’ve got ninety per cent of it right. How the fuck do they know? Have they got my phone bugged?”
It’s six in the morning on the dancefloor of La Mania. Twenty-three year old Romanian clubber Laura is trying to pass Sasha her phone. She reaches up towards the DJ booth and waves it in his face while shuffling with the fizzing excitement of a rush coming on strong. She has to tell him something, but he’s too busy crafting his next mix to pay attention. She looks for someone else on which to unburden herself. The message reads: “Sasha has the POWER to make Romanian people happy! He is sent from heaven!” She grins: “I’m not supposed to tell anyone, but I’ve taken some ecstasy.” No kidding. La Mania’s combination of a dark room and thundering soundsystem is hardly groundbreaking, but boy does it work. It’s clear why Sasha likes playing here. This is clubbing at it’s most basic and visceral. The sheer weight of the bass sets your stomach fluttering. You could lose hours lost in the groove.
Maybe it’s something to do with that timeless appeal of dark room and loud music, but Sasha permits himself a moment of retrospection. “It seems to me that a lot of the stuff that’s being played in supposedly underground nightclubs is commercial music, and when acid house first came along it was a reaction against that. You used to have to wear shiny shoes to get into Cinderella Rockerfellers,” he says, talking about a nightclub in Chester, close to where he grew up in Bangor, Wales.
“You wouldn’t get in with trainers. The whole Haçienda movement was about growing your hair long and being a Scally. It was a reaction against all that. I try and hold onto that a little bit.”
Mindful that a 40-something DJ in wistful remembrance mode is only one comment away from coming across like an old git, he kills the conversational thread. He’d rather talk about where he’s at now.
“At the moment a lot of the records that make me happy are deep and weird and wonderful,” he says.
“Like Maya Jane Coles. She’s on fire. Jamie Jones, Lee Foss, Art Department. I like a lot of the post-dubstep stuff that’s bringing that Burial sound onto the dancefloor. Though you could never DJ out with Burial even if you wanted to.”
He’s revved up about his new record label, Last Night On Earth, launched last year.
“I want to nurture cool music. We’ve signed this Ghosting Season album, these guys from Manchester. They’re in the same vein as Apparat. There’s a band from New York called Knox. No one is under any pressure to deliver a Top Ten Beatport record. That kind of stuff helps me feel young.”
It works. Sasha still loves the music and wants to share it. He’s still excited about how things are now, not how they were then. The result: he’s as relevant now as he was then, perhaps more so. Forget the past. Fast forward to the future.
Sasha's 'Invo<3r' mix is out soon on Ministry Of Sound