|808 State: The New Statesmen|
Too spiky for House, too textured for
techno, too distracting for dance - with
their fourth LP, 808 STATE defy any
tag thrown at them, boldly experimenting
where few have experimented before...
"There are new forces in the world...a conflict between the generations; a powerful feeling that the American system is failing to deal with the real threats to life: the Bomb, the pollution of air and water, the population explosion, the mounting slums and crime..."
What do you do on the day before a war? A cold blue January morning when strangers in bus queues nervously discuss the passing of the UN deadline, and shop assistants become suspiciously, guiltily polite. A day when newspapers are empty because they've only one thing to say.
Nothing in England makes much sense this morning, least of all interviewing pop bands. 808 State's large, whiskery manager Ron Atkinson wonders aloud about the Gulf and the Russian republics as he drives the Select SWAT team across Manchester to Ardwick and the upmarket industrial estate where 808 conduct their business affairs and plan to build a studio.
Today, somehow, we're going to have to talk about House music, about 808 State's curious crabwise approach to success and about their dazzling new LP 'Ex.EI' - which is as transfixing as electronic dance music gets in the 1990s.
It will be hard work.
"What the fuck was that the other day, that march in London? What was that in aid of? A march against the fuckin' Gulf war! Well, fuck me, I'll put me fuckin' gun down!"
Darren Partington, one of 808 State's two young Ws and an unabashed rent-a-quote, is demonstrating two things: his cheerful willingness to plunge in unbidden on any subject, and the impossibility of directing any kind of conversation with 808 State. It's like trying to steer a mad bull.
"What a load of bollocks!" continues Darren. He's a big lad, as loud as his orange, yellow and turquoise shirt, all laughs and gestures and sweeping opinions, and a sharp contrast to the shy Andy Barker. Andy is 808's other DJ and Darren's partner in the Spinmasters DJ duo, who play clubs and host the syndicated House programme The 808 Show on Manchester's legal dance station Sunset FM. He says barely a word in the next hour.
"What is a load of people getting it together in London for a big march gonna do?"
"It's better than a load of people not saying anything at all about it, is what," snaps a terse Graham Massey, 808 State's engineer, cofounder and voice of reason.
"It's just drawing attention to yourself," interrupts Martin Price, who formed 808 State in 1987 with Massey (after years as electronic duo Biting Tongues) and A Guy Called Gerald Simpson.
"It's saying, I am a plonker, I am a conscientious objector, please arrest me now. There's no way they're gonna get away with it!"
So your alternative is to go to the Gulf and die?
"No. Your alternative is to fuck off."
And that's the way it goes. Ask one question, get two quotable soundbites from Martin and Darren, a measured response from Graham and sometimes Andy's twopenn'orth, and then watch helplessly as the chat spirals skyward like a drunken Scud.
808 State have none of the inbred timidity that makes most musicians conversational corpses, so talking to them is good knockabout fun. But even when they're speaking about their music, it's hard to connect these four disparate characters - Darren the amiable mouth-on-a-stick, quiet Andy, the measured Graham and rugged-faced Martin, the nearest 808 State has to a spokesman - with dream 12-inches like the panoramic 'Pacific', and chrome-plated digital wonders like last year's '90' album.
Words fail 808 State and the people who write about them. In the 18 months since the original 'Pacific State' made their name (and started a messy legal tangle with its co-creator A Guy Called Gerald, which keeps the royalties tied up to this day) they've been dubbed as British techno - for want of a better library tag. Martin Price wants none of this.
"Techno has lost all of its meaning now," he declares.
"Anybody who knows anything about techno knows that it comes from the bass movement, and it was an LA thing more than anything else (a contentious point, that, but never mind)... and it was about using other technology with a bit of other people's sounds, like Kraftwerk. Now it's allowed itself to become mutated."
"Yeah, yeah!" exclaims Darren Partington. "But a lot of people today will say, I want to make a House record, and they'll either refer to the deep techno stuff, the Detroit gear, or they'll make a typical Italian track or a typical Euro-style track. But when we go into the studio we totally stay away from them three channels."
"But at the end of the day," Martin again, gesturing around the meeting room, "it doesn't matter what these four guys making records think because people think in those terms, or those three channels.
"The thing is, we can't make records like anybody else. We just do what we do and there's no explanation for it. It just works."
"What got me, right," Darren grins, "was when we took the album down to ZTT (808's label) and they didn't know what the fuck they were getting - it coulda been an album of screaming dogs.
"When we played it to 'em, they was shittin' it, going, What have these lads done to us? And that buzzed me, that we can slap an album on the table and they have to take it. They can shout and bawl for remixes and redoing tracks. But at the end of the day they've got to take it."
What they have to take is 'Ex.EI', 808 State's fourth and best album.
At this point in most bands' careers, talk turns to 'progression' and 'maturity', but 'Ex.EI' comes from a different lineage. After 1988's cut-and-paste acid House 'NewBuild' LP, the flexing of creative muscles on 'Quadrastate' in 1989 and '90' (which one reviewer called "a soundtrack without a movie"), 'Ex.EI' sounds like a travelogue from a parallel dimension.
'Nefertiti' gives us a future Egypt in sodium twilight, 'San Francisco' a nightmare city vision in warring guitar samples and maddeningly funky drums, and 'Lift' a surreal heavenly orchestra - 808 State On Ice. There is a crushing raggamuffin-House hybrid ('Leo Leo') and three celebrity guest spots: mutant space baby BjOrk of The Sugarcubes appears on 'QMart' and 'Ooops', and Bernard Sumner reprises the pleading tone from New Order's 'Mr Disco' on the beautiful 'Spanish Heart'.
A world of textures, a new idea at every turn - this is what you are getting on 'Ex.EI'.
And you get your money's worth. Graham Massey modestly says the LP was designed to be all things to all people.
"With this record we tried to make it something that works in a club and at home..."
"And in the car," interjects Darren.
"So frequency-wise it's a club record," continues Graham. "It works on a dead physical level if you crank it up dead loud. But it'll work on the radio too because there's enough interest in it. It's not easy listening. It's fuckin' music from Mars again."
Sure, there are indomitable beats and at least one bassline (on the current single, 'In Yer Face') so crunchy and powerful that they've already hawked it out as the theme to Channel 4's The Word. But 'Ex.EI' is by no means House music, nor are parts of it even dance music. It's too spiky, too distracting.
"It's the most listenable, yet original and experimental thing that I've ever heard," Martin Price affirms. "It's accessible but it's different too, it's not your archetypal Cabaret Voltaire next attempt."
Funny he should say that. Cabaret Voltaire underwent a creative renaissance by delving into House, just as 808 are growing by going the other way to make the 'electronic head music' that Inner City's Kevin Saunderson lambasted in last month's Select. But 808 State are now setting their sights way beyond the dancefloor.
"With us, it's like New Order," says Darren. "The only reason they blossomed was cos they travelled, they went to all them clubs and they'd been everywhere. You could hear American disco creeping into their music as time went on."
"Wherever we go," says Martin, "we hear the same fuckin' music, but we don't cut ourselves off from anything, anything at all. Especially not TV adverts! We're a big advertisements act. When we're collecting material, samples and that, for a new record, we always Face'sapes with titles like 'Bounty' or 'All Because The Lady Loves' or 'A Taste Of Paradise' and all that."
"Soundtracks too," says Darren.
"Yeah," Martin agrees. "If anyone wants something special as a soundtrack, then we're the men for the job. It would be far more productive to do something like that than just to go out on the road. If Cübikan pull it off, it'd bring far more respect and success than just treading the boards."
Nevertheless, 808 State are presently planning to tread the boards with their diminutive protégé MC Tunes at the 'In Yer Face Turbo Rave' at Manchester's G-Mex Centre on March 10.
808 State have become more than a little embittered about samples especially since a snatch of the theme from The Big Country on MC Tunes' The Only Rhyme That Bites' cost them an arm, a leg and part of a writing credit.
And now, with the Gulf War raging and radio stations twitching in fear of any record that can be accused of bad taste, comes the 'In Yer Face' single.
Goaded by the increasingly ridiculous demands of the 'sensitive programming' lobby, Radio 1 controllers have ordered their producers not to play the record's chilling opening sample, taken from a late 1960s edition of Alistair Cooke's Letter From America which dealt with the US counter-culture and anti-Vietnam war movement.
Though sources at the Nation's Favourite Station say that they would not play a record with a 20-second vocal introduction like 'In Yer Face"s anyway, they described the voiceover as, "Potentially sensitive under the current circumstances".
But the otherwise reticent Andy Barker denies that the sample was chosen for its topical impact.
"We released this one cos of public demand," adds Darren.
"All the ravers round Manchester, everybody in Ibiza, they've all been into it for months.
"And it's not as if we started the fuckin' war!"
808 STATE FACT FILE
Graham Massey (programming, engineer), Martin Price (programming), Darren Partington and Andy Barker (DJs, programming)
RELEASES - 808 STATE:
•'Deepville' Creed Records 12-inch only, 1988
808 STATE VERSUS MC TUNES:
•'The Only Rhyme That Bites' ZTT Records 7-inch, 12-inch, cassette, 5-inch CD, April 1990