DJ Sasha – From the Booth to the Barbican
Found in: Interviews
Sasha is one of the most successful and respected DJs and electronic music producers in the world. A multiple award winner and Grammy nominee, he has performed worldwide to huge audiences and remixed artists like Madonna, Seal and Hot Chip. So what does this have to do with piano? In his boldest musical adventure, he set himself the task of performing his works using live instruments, including a string section, percussionists – and himself, playing keyboards for the first time on stage, having hardly played since childhood. Over several months he threw himself headlong into the task via an intensive program of online lessons with our own Simply Music Teacher, Elizabeth Gaikwad from Sydney, Australia. Their mutual hard work paid off and the event at London’s prestigious Barbican was a spectacular success, with Sasha himself calling it “the hardest, biggest and best thing I have ever worked on”.
Sasha kindly offered us some of his precious time to talk about the experience of intensively learning an instrument and swapping mixing boards for keyboards, speaking with Gordon Harvey from his Ibiza home between gigs at Glastonbury and an international tour (and his regular Skype lesson with Elizabeth). You can listen to the audio or read the transcript below.
Gordon – So maybe you could start by telling us a bit about your musical background.
Sasha – I did learn piano as a kid. We moved into a house when I was I think about five or six years old and there was a beaten up piano in the house and my Mum always used to play music – always had the radio on and stuff – and I used to sit at the piano and copy the melodies from the songs on the radio, like the Beatles. So then my Mum said “right, we’re going to get you piano lessons”, and I started learning and I went through the kind of traditional route, and I got into my early teens and like many people, I just didn’t want to play the piano, I wasn’t interested in music at the time, I was much more interested in wanting to play football and going out with my mates, being outside, and the piano became this thing that I hated really. I hated the lessons, and I hated the drills, the scales, the repetitiveness, the just going over and over and over, you know, I never learned to play any songs with my teachers that I liked, it was all very… I mean I look back now and I’m very glad I learned to play some of those beautiful Chopin pieces and Beethoven, Mozart, all those classics, you know, but it was very much about technique and not messing up and… the pressure of not making mistakes and that sort of thing.
So I got to the age of 16 and I had a deal with my parents that I had to play the piano until I was 16 and if I wanted to stop then, I could stop, so I stopped. I got to grade 7 or something, it all gets very difficult and technical at that point, and it’s always been a regret! I basically went into a studio 3 years later for the first time and of course there’s synthesisers everywhere and I was like “oh, I sort of know how to play one of these” but I really had forgotten a lot of very basic things. A lot of the music I had learned as a kid and in my teens had gone, completely gone, and I had only had a hiatus from it for 2 or 3 years. But because I disliked the learning process so much, I had really kind of erased it out of my head. So even in studios to work with people people I never really felt comfortable playing again. And then of course as I got older it had become something I would really regret, that I hadn’t actually continued playing, and I’d go into a studio with someone who really knew how to play and I was really jealous, watching them play and coming up with these amazing ideas. My whole process of making music, even after all of this musical training, had really come from learning to use samples and drum machines and nicking ideas from different records, chopping them up and repurposing them – it didn’t come from sitting in front of a keyboard and playing music. Maybe it was in there and I just had to practice but I didn’t realise it, and I was very self-conscious of stopping the studio session and playing something. I was always conscious of making mistakes and it was just really… yeah – this musical training got really buried inside me, lost.
So time ticks on and we get to last year, when I was making this very beautiful, very cinematic album for Late Night Tales called Scene Delete, and the Late Night Tales guys have a very close relationship with The Barbican, and asked me if I would do a live performance of Scene Delete at The Barbican. I wasn’t too keen, but they spoke to The Barbican and The Barbican were like “oh yeah, we’d love that”. I was still like “oh, I don’t know” and they said “why don’t you come see a show at The Barbican, you can get a feel for the place, meet the people behind it”. And so I went to see Nils Frahm play at The Barbican. It was exactly about a year ago, and he just absolutely blew me away. I love his music anyway, I listen to him all the time at home, but seeing him was one of the best live experiences I’ve ever had, actually. Just the way that he is a concert-grade pianist, but he plays things in these hypnotic loops, and building things – it’s almost like techno without the beats in it. The way he was mixing live instrumentation, the piano, the Rhodes with synthesisers and electronic drums, and the way it sounded in The Barbican and the whole vibe, the lighting, the sound, everything. So at the end of the show, I was like “I can’t not say yes to this gig!” So I agreed to do it after going backwards and forwards with my team, and then the next day, I realised “oh, right, in six months I have to stand up on stage in front of 2,000 people and play something”, so I was like, OK, I need a teacher!
“oh, right, in six months I have to stand up on stage in front of 2,000 people and play something’, so I was like, OK, I need a teacher!”
I was living in Spain at the time, in Ibiza, and it’s the off-season – the place is quiet, very, very beautiful but quiet. I tried to find a teacher here, and I just couldn’t find somebody who I felt could teach me at the intensity that I was gonna need. You know, you read about actors studying for roles in films, going on boot camps for three months, four months, five months, of learning how to get into character. I realised I have to approach this in the same sort of way. The other thing is I have a very young family, and my days are very busy. When I’m not touring, I’m home with the family, and the only time I have to myself is if I wake up at five or six in the morning, just to have an hour or two to myself to sort my day out, and that’s the time in the day for me when I am the most focussed, I do most of my mental housework at that time. So I thought, “Who am I going to be able to get to teach me piano who’s going to be able to do three or four days a week at six o’clock in the morning?” It just wasn’t going to happen, I just wouldn’t be able to physically get someone here.
So then, a good friend of mine, Gaëtan Schurrer, he’s involved with running the Perth Symphony Orchestra. His Mrs, Bourby Webster, plays the viola and is the founder/director/CEO. When they offered him this job he said “I can’t take a job of this magnitude without actually learning how to play an instrument!” He’d heard of this Simply Music Program through a friend of his who had learned, and he went “Okay, I’m going to give it a shot”, and within a year he was seriously playing. His Mrs was like “I can’t get him off the piano, he just won’t stop, he’s just obsessed with it.” I’d worked in the studio with him for years but he was a programmer – he know everything about synths and drum machines and stuff – but I never saw him play anything. He taught himself through Simply Music how to play, and I so was taken aback by this because he never had any proper formal training at all – he very much came from the technical side of things.
So I asked him about a Simply Music teacher, and you know, there’s none in Ibiza, and he goes “oh, look on the website, there are all sorts of online lessons, and maybe you could find a teacher.” So I went onto the forum and I kind of sent a message out to sort of 10 different teachers, and Elizabeth just came straight back to me, she was the highest-rated teacher on there, and she was like, “is this a hoax? I’ve had a few weird things in the past and is this some sort of joke?” So I basically sent her an email saying that I’ve got a recital coming up and I need to learn how to play and I need to do a very serious amount of lessons, like three or four a week, and I’m really serious about this, and she was still like “is this a hoax,” so I sent her the link to The Barbican. It sold out in 45 minutes, that show. She’s like “OK, this is for real,” and we got on Skype together and started talking about it and she’s like “yeah, we can absolutely do Skype lessons”. So that’s where it started from really.
Luckily, I had gigs lined up in Australia last December so I got to fly out and spend a week in Sydney and managed to get 2 days in with Elizabeth, like five-hour kind of boot camp days, where I got to go to her place and work with her in person which was lovely. But I must say that the whole Skype thing has been fantastic for me. Initially, in the summertime when all her students were off, I was doing these 5am, 6am lessons which I really loved. The whole process has just been phenomenal, she’s a wonderful teacher.
We had the show at The Barbican on May 20th, and it was probably one of the highlights of my career, one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, one of the most nerve wracking things I’ve ever done. But to step out on that stage and play, I mean, I’m no concert pianist but I think it’s something that’s going to give my whole music career a new trajectory.
Gordon- In other words, you’re going to be doing more of these kind of gigs in the future?
Sasha – I am absolutely planning on doing more of these kinds of gigs in the future, I’m trying to work out the nuts and bolts right now, and Australia is definitely on the top of the list. I’d love to come and tour Australia!
Gordon – It really is amazing to me that you’ve managed to do so much in such a short space of time.
Sasha – The first month was very hard, I’ve got to say I was really getting frustrated, because there are certain things from my past that I remember very clearly, but there were certain very simple things that I had forgotten, like even now I really struggle to read the bass clef notes. I know, it’s so simple, the treble clef is so ingrained into me, but for some reason, it must be when I was a kid I didn’t learn it properly either. Things like that really tripped me up. The thing with Elizabeth was that the first month was mostly the coursework, learning that beginner’s section of Simply Music, but very quickly we really needed to learn my parts. So we spent the next few months really drilling into those parts, and we’d go back to the coursework every now and then for a refresher, when the parts playing was getting a bit monotonous…
It was very much focused on the bits I had to play, but a lot of the stuff I did with Elizabeth was a lot of mental preparation for playing in front of people, as I had never done it before. Something funny happened about halfway through the whole rehearsal process. I was staying in this hotel in London, and I’d just got one of the main songs I was playing, I’d just nailed it with Elizabeth that morning and I was really feeling happy about that. And I walked into this hotel I was staying at next to the rehearsal space, and there was a beautiful Kawai grand piano in the lobby, and it wasn’t that busy, there was about 10 people in the lobby, this very big grand lobby in the hotel, and this beautiful grand piano. And as I’m walking in I’m like “wow, that’s a gorgeous piano” and the bellman said “oh, can you play?” and I’m like “yeah, I can play!” and as I sat down and started trying to play that song that I had nailed that morning with Elizabeth, I suddenly became aware of all of the people in that room were looking at me, and I completely froze, completely made a hash of it, and went back to my room with my tail between my legs. It was a really good lesson to learn actually, that feeling of playing in front of people and that well of emotion that sometimes gets in the way, the nerves… I’m so glad that actually happened in the middle of the whole process, because I think the next few lessons with Elizabeth, we didn’t actually do much playing, it was much more about how to prepare yourself, the mental preparation for doing the performance.
So that’s where the one-on-one teaching really came in, but the online lessons really really helped me immensely, especially just getting my playing back, certain things with my hands, positioning, …those beginning pieces that you learn with Simply Music are such pretty little pieces of music to play, they’re such a joy to play. And the fact that you’re playing them within two or three lessons – it’s just so inspiring. It really makes you want to keep playing the piano, I mean – we have a piano in the front room now and I’m constantly going over to it and playing around with it.
Since the show, I’m focussing in with Elizabeth on pieces of music I really want to learn, and Chilly Gonzales is an absolute hero of mine at the moment, I’ve watched his performances and I love his music, so, yeah I’ve been going through some of his pieces, learning those, doing some classical pieces too. I’m kind of a big fan of the impressionist composers. Eric Satie’s piano pieces are absolutely beautiful. I feel like this is the beginning of something really special now, and I won’t ever write music the same way again now, it’s going to be a very different approach now I’ve got my confidence back and I’m playing and I’m learning music again it’s going to change the way that my music evolves now.
“I won’t ever write music the same way again now, it’s going to be a very different approach now I’ve got my confidence back and I’m playing and I’m learning music again”
Gordon – I can well imagine. To me there’s a big arena between pure electronic music, the kind of music that you’ve been writing, and the classical sphere and the jazz sphere and so on that hasn’t really been thoroughly explored.
Sasha – You’ve got a whole new breed of these guys like Nils Frahm, Chilly Gonzales, Max Richter, a whole new breed of these guys who are releasing records on Deutsche Grammophon but they’re making records with synthesisers and real instruments mixed together, there’s something really interesting happening at the moment. The reason I like Chilly Gonzales is because it sounds like a mix of all these hypnotic techno melodies, mixed with a bit of Satie, some jazz chords, and then everything’s in a pop format, they’re these short pieces that have a kind of verse and a chorus to them, I really love how he turns things on their head. His chord structures are always very unexpected. Because I’m learning how to play Satie now a little bit, I’m really hearing a lot of that in his work as well.
I have a lot of technique stuff that I really need to get up to scratch, but I can’t sing Elizabeth’s praises high enough, she’s just been such an inspiration and so wonderful to me, and she’s had so much time for me. Where I was at, even two months before the show, she just whipped me into the shape, and was so positive. I might get this tattooed on my hand – the main thing she always says to me is “slow down!” It’s funny how when you struggle with a piece of music, you tend to go faster, it’s really strange how whenever you’re struggling you just speed up.
Gordon – That’s very common across all instruments in my experience and definitely with piano. But you can’t always get onto those sorts of disciplines if you’re still worrying about the what to do. There’s layers to the onion.
Sasha – It’s a big onion, I feel like I’ve got the first layer off now, and it’s the beginning of relearning how to play properly again. I’m digging up all these pieces that I want to learn – some of them are way out of my league at the moment, but playing in front of those people in The Barbican was way out of my league six months ago, so it’s all a process, I’m continuing it. I’m not continuing it at the same ‘boot camp’ pace that I was before the show, but I’m still trying to get at least a couple of lessons a week in with Elizabeth.
Gordon – I want to get my head around the DJ side of your work because to me that’s a skill, it just seems to me like you’ve been more nervous about the piano than the kind of work you’ve done in the past, even though I know you’ve played to huge audiences.
Sasha – It’s a different kind of animal completely. When you DJ in front of a big crowd and you’re nervous, you tend to kind of go into this ‘autopilot‘ mode where you try to detach yourself from what you’re doing almost, you know. I’ve done my 10,000 hours probably a couple of times over when it comes to DJ sets, so the whole technical side of mixing two tracks together is not something I have to think about technically too much. I worry about what the reaction to the records is going to be, and what records to play, but the thing about a DJ set is that you sort of remove yourself, almost zone out – you’re listening to the music very intensely but you’re trying to zone everything else out. When you’re performing, you can’t do that, you can’t just drift off and zone out and listen, you’ve got to be acutely aware of your practising and of what you’re about to do and why your fingers are following these kind of instructions that you’ve given yourself in your head, so you’ve got to be very very focussed. At the same time, you’ve got to try and blank out what’s going on in the room, you know, if there’s a problem in your in ear monitors or a noise in the room, you’ve kind of got to zone that out, you need razor-sharp focus. But with a DJ set, you can kind of ease into it, let the music take you a bit more.
Gordon – Yeah, I get that, but it’s still a skill, isn’t it? I think some people don’t appreciate DJing – that it’s not just a matter of putting on records, it’s just a different kind of skill to playing an instrument.
Sasha – It’s something that I’ve done so much it’s just natural to me, the same way as someone who’s played the piano their whole life – knocking out some tunes in front of people is not something that would stress them out. For me I don’t know if I will ever be as nervous as that, ever again in my life, it was just so nerve-wracking. Even a couple of weeks before the show, there were just so many technical problems or whatever, but just about a week before the show, everything got sorted technically, and this cloud of calm came about the whole crew. As we got closer to the day, everyone got calmer and calmer, and less stressed, everyone was so chilled in the last couple of days of rehearsals, just because nothing was going wrong, all the stuff we planned for for months had all come together, everyone was playing great, it was just sounding fantastic. That was an incredible buzz, to see it all come together like that. Everyone said that shows always come together like that, but a couple of weeks out, when we were having all of these problems, I was like “aargh, it’s all going to be a disaster!” But, it just did, even my playing, the first time I played through the show without the music on my iPad was the night of the show. I had it under my arm on my iPad but I had gone through it that morning with Elizabeth over and over, and she was like “don’t worry, you’ve got this, every part nailed.” So I walked out on the stage, put the iPad on the piano next to me, and it wobbled next to me, and I thought “I don’t want this to wobble during the show” so I just put it on the floor, and I knew it was there if I needed to pick it up to play, but I played the whole show without having to look at the music, and that felt really good.
“everyone was playing great, it was just sounding fantastic. That was an incredible buzz, to see it all come together like that”
Gordon – Well, obviously something has worked for you. Maybe the next issue will be overconfidence!
Sasha – Overconfidence could be an issue, but I don’t know if that’ll ever happen to me – I get quite nervous at my shows. But we’ll see.
Gordon – To me it’s just an awesome thing to have taken on a challenge like that. It sounds like you need to do more of these shows just to make it worth the effort.
Sasha – Now that we’ve kind of worked in this format, the way that my workstation is set up and the rest of the band had their workstation set up, I think we’re going to write to that format now. The next time we get together to write I think will be in a rehearsal space where we can all jam together, rather than going into a mixing studio, which is what we’ve done before – all fighting over the computer, taking turns. I think we’ll go into a rehearsal space and just record ourselves for a few days just playing ideas, and I think that’s how we’re going to write from now on, and that’s a massive change.
Gordon – That’s huge. You may give yourself opportunities to work with people you wouldn’t have otherwise considered.
Sasha – Absolutely!