Here I sit in the passenger seat of a 2005 Toyota Highlander, Kayte and I are trekking across the mid-West from Boston in search of our new home in Los Angeles. While leaving those you love is difficult, we’re equally as excited at the prospect of cultivating and building a new life together in a place surrounded by inspiring, creative people. So much of the inspiration for Mass Musings is energy from the beautiful individuals we encounter – harnessed — and repackaged into an electronically consumable art medium.
As such, the initial catalyst for the Mass Musings Artist Interview series was to connect with the artists who inspire Kayte and I to set aside our inhibitions, leave caution to the wind, and just fuckin’ dance – and then try and figure out how we could capture their energy in an interview, photoshoot, or whatever. Aside from sheer sentimentality, I mention the above because Sacha Robotti’s interview below perfectly embodies the essence of our mission.
Hailing originally from Belgium, Sacha has spent the last decade spinning records around the globe as both an individual DJ/Producer and as part of the Berlin-based DJ duo Robosonic. As an individual act, Sacha has released on many major House labels around the world including: Dirtybird, Food Music, Klasse Recordings, and Snatch! Records.
We had the pleasure of catching Sacha’s set at the Inaugural Dirtybird Campout this year and were blown away. As we relocate to Los Angeles, we’re excited to see more of Sacha live!
You were recently granted a 3 year work visa and moved to Los Angeles. First of all, congratulations! Secondly, what are you most looking forward about living/working in the United States?
Hi guys, thanks for having me! Yeah I’m stoked this Visa thing happened. I wanted to play in the States legally for ages. The whole Visa process was a bit complicated, confusing, and unpredictable. Me and my partner Cord from Robosonic even flew to Frankfurt for an interview at the U.S. Consulate. Luckily there was professional help in the form of a booking agency & Visa agent, otherwise it probably would’ve taken years.
You mentioned in an interview with relentlessbeats.com that in Berlin you play mostly techno, but in the United States people may like your “Galatic Tech Funk / Deep Booty House” better. Aside from music, what else separates the German and US underground club scene?
Hehe, even though I had a few sips of Whiskey during that Relentless Beats interview, I’m not sure I said that I only play Techno music in Berlin, I’ve always played dance music across the board, not just one genre or sub-genre. How hard or deep I’ll get depends on the venue, the crowd, the time of day or night. What’s true is that I often play tougher tracks in Berlin, and I love being able to do that. It has to be funky nonetheless. But yes, I feel that my mix of “Galactic Tech Funk / Deep Booty House” as you quoted is understood better in the US. Maybe people are more open to it because of the music culture they’ve grown up with here, like the influences of Funk, Soul, Hip Hop, Jazz etc., all that is part of American musical folklore.
Berlin’s musical folklore is one of a kind in Germany, especially in regards to electronic music. From the 80s-90s new electronic sounds crossed the pond to Europe from the States – Techno from Detroit, Acid House from Chicago – and Rave music from the UK. Inspired by all that, German DJs and record stores started playing this music, especially in cities like Frankfurt and Berlin. When the wall came down in ’89, there were all these empty unregulated spaces available in Berlin, and there was a feeling of freedom. East and West could congregate, make art and dance all night long to this new loud music, getting high and celebrating unity after some 50 years of political chaos, atrocities, occupation and separation. The city had lost its face after being bombed to the ground, and it had been trying to redefine itself since then. In a very short time, Nazis, Allied, Communists, FDR parties etc. all have walked the streets of Berlin, deciding over the Berliners’ fate.
I guess that around the time when the wall came down, this new electronic music became kind of a soundtrack for some of the young Berliners in their search for an identity of their own. Looking back, it’s now a success story that has brought the city to worldwide fame in a positive way again, like the “Golden 20s” did for Berlin. Not only tourists or party people from all over the world are attracted, but also artists, DJs, producers who want to try to make a living. An infrastructure around the people’s needs to party and create music has developed, effectively turning Techno and all things related to that into a business. The underground is now mainstream. That in turn creates friction and debate related to over-saturation, competition, appropriation and selling out of cultural goods, realness (“underground” vs. “commercial”) etc. A case study for that could be the “Love Parade”, which started as a private birthday party for Dr. Motte in ’89, shortly before the wall came down. It was registered as a protest march but it wasn’t necessarily political, and over the years it grew into a huge event with millions of people dancing on the streets, effectively doing PR for the city and for electronic dance music in general (and I do not mean “EDM”), until it became so commercialized that greed took over and people died as a result of that at the Love Parade 2010. But I digress!
In my opinion, the main difference nowadays between nightlife in Berlin and most other nightlife in Western cities, is that 90% of the Berliner clubs play Techno and House. Some of these places stay open very late (noon or sometimes later), and sometimes they don’t even close the whole weekend. Also, you can go clubbing every day of the week. I hate bouncers and doormen with a shitty arrogant attitude (you get a lot of that type in Berlin), but what I find quite nice, is that some clubs have the policy to not allow you to take photos with your smartphone – on the door, your camera lens gets stickered. This policy helps to avoid flashlights from smartphones on the dance floor, but it also keeps the activities inside the clubs more private… and in some clubs that policy makes sense, as most people don’t want to be photographed doing drugs or having sex at parties… what happens inside the club, stays inside the club. I think it’s only a matter of time that some spots in other countries will do the same out of elitist “wow effect” reasons and to be as cool as certain Berliner Clubs. Another difference is, you don’t find many bottle service style clubs in Berlin. At least not popular ones.
And finally – as a DJ, I enjoy taking my time and playing longer sets than 1-2 hours, this leaves more room for expression and developing a story. I feel this is harder to do in cities in the States where the clubs close at 3AM!
At age 8 you began playing the Cello and were introduced to classical composers like Bach, Dvorak, and Shostakovick – How do you think studying classical music since a young age has helped you produce House music?
I originally wanted to play the double bass because it was huge, it looked cool and I loved the low end. But I was too small to play such a massive instrument, so my parents pointed me towards the Cello. I think that playing it helped me with harmonies, timing, tempo etc. before I started using the computer to make beats. My sister, who I guess is my first ever musical influence, was studying to become a professional pianist when I was a kid, so she accompanied me on the piano many times. I also played in an orchestra, where I learned about different voices and how to play together with other people. So yeah, this whole classical experience was good musical exposure for me no doubt, just like the jazz & gospel music that my Dad listened to.
That being said – I’m very happy I’m not a Cellist! Don’t think I could bare to sit in an orchestra for 40 years, which is where most Cellists “end up” in real life. You have to be a certain type of person for that – and although classical music is epic music composed by historical figures that you’re keeping alive by playing it, it has been performed a million times before… and nowadays typically only for a certain type of crowd. Which is great and all but just a bit too “rigid” for me. I like how Jeff Mills tried to mix the classical world with the Techno world. Maybe one day I’ll get back into the Cello, and try to make something new with it. But for now, DJing and producing electronic music is more fun for me!
You said back in 2011 that starting a solo project was like “filling in a blank sheet of paper with music and writing [your] own story.” How’s that story coming?
I’m very happy how the story is coming to life and where music is taking me right now. I’m super excited to be in California, and I’m inspired again. I feel lucky that I have so many awesome friends and supporters in the US, don’t think I could do it otherwise! For instance, I met my friend Joe while partying hard at the Dirtybird Campout and he invited me to stay at his house. We knew each other for like one day… and I’ve been staying there since I moved to Los Angeles last December. I’m so lucky! And so thankful about all this.
I feel like if you’re putting yourself out there, if you’re positive, confident and work hard, good things will happen. Sometimes you have to do something totally different or get out of your comfort zone, if you want a change of perspective and have new ideas. This is what I’m doing right now. I felt that I hit some kind of creative ceiling in Berlin after living there for 16 years, and doing the DJing thing there for the last 10 years. I didn’t want the musical rat race to make me bitter about the music business. Don’t get me wrong, there are truly many great people in the biz. But there’s also a dark side, which somehow seems to get stronger with hype. In Berlin as of late, I kind of felt that I live in an over-saturated musical environment, which also has too long winters for my liking. Or maybe I was just sick of everyone talking about their Berghain experiences 24 hours a day, haha. It’s very easy to forget how dope other music scenes in other countries are, when you live in a microcosm like Berlin.
One of the things you learned from your time as a student of Karl Bartos’ was to “simplify and reduce” – could you tell us more about how that manifests itself in your music?
I’m far from being a minimalist, or only having one set of clothes 10 times. What you’re quoting is more an idea to me, manifesting itself mainly in the work flow. If I feel that a certain element in a tune isn’t essential or needed, I get rid of it. This doesn’t mean that I’m making serial music here at all, it’s just a way of thinking. Also, I feel that the fewer elements your ear hears at once, the clearer these elements can be perceived and identified, and the better you’ll remember them. Much of that is subconscious and based on feeling. Less elements in a track also means that the track will probably sound louder and more ‘open’ when mastered by a good engineer. The most successful pop songs have the most simple vocals and melodies. Dubbing out a track, getting rid of elements in a song, that’s very satisfying to me. It’s kind of a whole science I’m still learning about, check out the movie “Dub Echoes” for inspiration.
When I started producing music, I sometimes took months to finish a track… day in, day out. In the end it was so “over-produced” and over-thought that it had no feeling, no fire, no grit, no spontaneity. Currently, I like to work fast in the ‘ideas stage’ of a track, so I don’t get bored listening to it in a loop over and over again. I guess that in order to work faster, it helps if things are simpler, so decisions can be made quickly and I can keep my flow/momentum.
Professional DJing isn’t always considered a physically strenuous job, but if one considers all the hours spent standing, travelling, and (most of all) not sleeping – it can really take a toll on your body and mind. You’ve dealt with some physical adversity during your career in the form of a painful back injury. What was it like battling through that injury while still trying to grow your career?
Yeah, doing the whole “DJ on tour while producing music yourself” thing can be a tough job, strenuous on the body and mind, and problematic for your relationships and social life – all of these interactions aren’t easy to keep up. If you don’t have someone at home who can help you taking care of stuff while you’re away or in the studio between tours, home can quickly turn into a mess.
It’s especially hard if you don’t have monetary reserves (rich background, full bank account from previous jobs etc.) to keep you not feeling worried about the path you’re on. I always had a no-compromise kind of approach to my musical venture, dedicating myself 100% to the cause and not taking other jobs on the side. So basically I’ve been living from gig to gig, and I remember times when money to buy food or pay rent was non-existent. A precarious lifestyle like that can lead into a vicious circle. In my case, I worked more and more to make ends meet, which meant more gigs, late nights, loud music, planes, alcohol, etc. – more stress essentially. I lost touch with my body and health.
Regarding my injury, I haven’t really shared this publicly much. But since you want real talk…
I had a bike accident in ’95 with two broken vertebrae. As a consequence of that, I suffered from a few herniated disks over the years… 2008 and 2012 sucked especially. For six to nine months at a time, I was practically unable to walk or stand, or sit on a regular chair without incredible pain, and basically I had no feeling in my leg… even on a daily diet of heavy post chemo painkillers and like 20 joints I would still feel pain. Once you can’t do 80% of all your usual everyday tasks, and are fueled by meds, you may get depressed and addicted, and you realise how essential it is to have a balanced lifestyle in order to perform even the simplest tasks.
Doctors told me in 2012 that I wouldn’t be able to walk again, let alone DJ or tour or anything, if I didn’t get surgery. But since I didn’t want anyone to mess around with my spine, I opted for no surgery and ‘trained my pain away’ with Pilates plus acupuncture and osteopathy. That combo worked and the pain dissipated after some months… I can still feel tingling in my foot every day though, it’s a constant reminder to stay active and take better care of myself.
During those times, DJing was the only way to make money for me, so I bit the bullet and apart from two or three occasions when I cancelled gigs because I simply couldn’t do it, I played. But instead of standing upright in the DJ booth, I was sitting down on a bar stool… proud to say that I still managed to kill it at most parties. I remember playing at a Dirtybird event in London sitting down like that until I had to leave because it hurt too much, or at the Fusion Festival for a crowd of 6000 people.
Moments like that were the proverbial light at the end of my tunnel. Luckily I had a girlfriend at the time who stood by me, my sister, dad and my close friends were there for me, and Cord especially helped me while we tried to make the best out of it. I’m thankful for all that and I feel blessed to walk the earth!
On a lighter note, the Dirtybird Campout – how awesome was that? What was your favorite moment from that weekend?
Dirtybird Campout was simply one of the best and most fun festivals I’ve ever been to! I loved pretty much everything about it: the fans, the friends, the DJs, the organisers, the weather, the details… I have to say, my favourite moment was playing my set, it felt like “full circle” and I was sooooo stoked to be a part of the whole experience and bringing my own note to it. After my set, I hung out in the DJ booth a lot during the weekend and listened to the music or danced. I simply felt happy.
Although I’ve been a fan since the second Dirtybird release and remember us sending them demos since like 2006, it took some years to connect in person. Christian Martin was the first bird I met in real life at Miami WMC 2009, I believe. We were introduced per mail by my friend Harry Avers, Christian was the Dirtybird label manager around that time. In Miami he kind of took me under his wing and guest-listed me everywhere, so we went to lots of parties together and I had the opportunity to catch a few sets of his. He’s a very dope and experienced DJ who’s not afraid to test out new music and ‘risk’ it. A Miami highlight for me was the Dirtybird party – it was hosted in a hotel I can’t remember the name of, and there was a wedding upstairs at the same time lol. I met Claude VonStroke at this party as well – I have a memory of him calling a limo because there were no taxis to South Beach available after the party. I was so excited to share that ride with CVS, Justin (Martin) & Christian, Worthy, and the Germans Max & Willy who were doing graphics for the Dirtybird and Mothership at that time. I loved the whole Miami experience. When Christian came to stay in Berlin for a few months during that summer, we recorded a weird kind of Dubstep track that we called “Milf”. It consisted mainly of a dirty slow Moog Voyager bassline, a 909 beat, horror movie style vocal effects and pitched down Christian Martin vocals. It’ll be funny to release this Christian Martin & RS collab some day!
I love your track “Shaky” that you released with ZDS (Zombie Disco Squad) earlier this year. Could you tell us a little about what it was like to work with your fellow Dirtybird Camp Counselor on this EP?
Thank you! I’ve known Nat for a little while now. When Zombie Disco Squad were a duo (Nat and Lucas, now aka Luca Lozano) in the time when Myspace was super popular, they did something we hadn’t seen before: taking music to social media in a cool way. They had an edge about their PR and ‘image’ that I loved, and their music was a fun mix of fidget house, baile funk, and tech house with a hip hop attitude that culminated in “The Dance” on Dirtybird. After ZDS split, Lucas moved to Berlin and founded Klasse Recordings, which I was a part of as an artist. The first Klasse release is actually a collaboration of both Lucas and me, and I was involved in the label heavily for a while. Every so often, Nat would come to Berlin to play a gig, or I would meet him somewhere else for a gig we’d both be booked for. We got along, and were like “hey why don’t we make a record together”. It took a few years until we actually started laying out some trax, but finally we came up quite quickly with an EP and released it on Toy Tonics, a sub-label of Gomma from Munich. I’m always amazed how easily you can work together via Internet.
As evidenced in your Dirtybird Campout mix for THUMP, Chicago’s DanceMania had a massive influence on your taste and style. Would you mind giving a brief overview of the Chicago House scene from the 1990s? – I think many people are unaware of the impact that guys like DJ Deeon and DJ Funk had on House music.
So many artists I love hail from Chicago – two of my favourites, Green Velvet and Gene Farris, are still killing it. I made a graffiti piece of Green Velvet in 1996, just so you know how much I respected him. I’m sure there are better experts on the history of Chicago House though, or on DanceMania, who have like ALL the vinyls from this amazing label. What DanceMania represents to me, is simply one of my favourite labels ever. I love everything about it: the logo (I even designed and printed DanceMania t-shirts for myself), the records and artwork, the “ghetto” attitude, and especially the music: simple drum machine beats, raw, dancy, sexy, sometimes trippy, with dirty lyrics on top that people love to sample (watch out, DJ Funk has a great lawyer 😉 ). I don’t think anyone has done it better since.
For some reason, DanceMania was super popular in my native Brussels when I was 15 in 1995. The music you listen to at this young age can have a deep influence on your sound preference and attitude for years to come. I can safely say that DJ Funk, Deeon, Paris Mitchell, DJ Rush, DJ Chip, Paul Johnson, Milton etc., as well as Dave Clarke who as a resident at Fuse Brussels played a lot of Dance Mania in his sets, are all partly responsible for my DJ career. Work it work it work it work it!
What are you listening to right now?
Right now: a podcast in which Tim Ferriss interviews Rick Rubin. Both these dudes are real motivators, and Rick is just such an amazing character with such a surreal life story. I’d love to meet him one day!
What inspires you?
A beautiful sunset, people who persevere against all odds, amazing art, kindness and love.
What does 2016 have in store for Sacha Robotti? Do you have any upcoming releases or shows that we should be keeping an eye/ear out for?
I just remixed Billy Kenny’s “Work Me” for This Ain’t Bristol which was just released last week, Kevin Knapp and I have an EP ready for April, and I’m working on some new tracks in my current Santa Monica home! There will be some more cool collabs in the making… working with Bot on a track and planning a collab with Will Clarke. Regarding shows, I’ll be spending lots of time in LA so you can probably catch me playing there and in the rest of California in the next months. I’m supporting Ardalan on his ‘Thunder Tour‘ which will be great fun, and I’m playing two awesome festivals: at CRSSD in San Diego, and at the amazing Lightning In a Bottle in Bradley, which is going to be so rad. I’m sure there will be another Dirtybird Campout this year too!
Lastly, you gave some excellent advice in an interview with “Stylist Berlin” in 2011:
“Just remember not to forget to take a break from clubbing, turn off your computers, stop blogging, log out from Facebook, switch off your mobiles, breathe some fresh air, and cook dinner for your lovers from time to time.”
I’d just like to thank you for that tidbit, it’s easy to get lost and forget what’s most important in life.
Totally! Thank you guys. PLUR and all that 😀
*images via Sacha Robotti
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