808 State. The Joe Normal of the pop charts. For Mancunian with a taste for technology and a preference for kick 'n' dance tunes. Chris Sharratt sits in a shed in Ardwick and tries to get a word in egeways. Photos: Matt Anker.
Despite coming to the public eye with their single Pacific State at the tail end of '89, when the charts were over run with Manchester guitar acts such as the Roses, Mondays and Inspirals, 808 State took an altogether different route to the Top Of The Pops stage, Whilest all and sundry were taking on board the rave scene, employing top djs to spin discs at gigs and drafting in the likes of Farley and Oakenfield to remix trad rock into a dance groove, 808 were actually involved with, and influenced by; the house revolution of '88, through both their own music and the dj-ing of Darren Partington and Andy Barker. Oh, and not forgetting the ever expanding Eastern Bloc Record Shop, run by 808's Martin Price. The significance of Eastern Bloc in the band's formation is paramount. Long time musician and sound engineer, Graham Massey, worked in a cafe over the road, whle Darren and Andy became involved through bringing tapes into the shop in the hope of getting them released on Martin's newly formed record label, Creed.
"In the early days It was a big, messy collective," admits Martin. "We were knocking stuff out like wallpaper. No one knew what the genre was, it wasn't defined, so you were in the studio doing miles and miles of tape."
Such is the 808 approach to music: accessibility, a lack of pretension and an emphasis on a good time for all. Style gurus they are not. "The big thing at the moment is Jazz Rap, like OaDiana," explains Darren sceptically. "Trying to mix Jazz with old aka music and you've got to dress right or you don't get in a certain club. They all want to belong to subcultures again." It's the antithesis of what attracts Darren to the dance scene.
"One of the strongest factors about the scene at the moment is the European connection," continues Darren more positively. "A couple of years ago, no band in Manchester would know a band in Belgium, there was no communication. Nowadays, through record shops, you can relate to what someone's dancing to on German or American dance floors. The communication at work is a lot better than it was."
But hold on a minute. If it's the clubs, small dance projects from small time operators, where do 808 State the band come into it? What relevance does such a mighty institution as 808 Incorporated have to a scene which is sizzling away nicely in sweaty little clubs around the globe? Graham is quite clear about the role the band has to play:
"It's important that we're doing it on this scale because it's so easy for the music industry to close back on it and get back to something which they consider comfortable. You've really got to feed it, otherwise the industry will just sit on it because they'd rather do something easier, like sell Chris Rea lip's."
But, as Graham reveals, its not just the big wigs of the music biz who need to be shuck up a little. "Dance music has its own status quo that we're interested in interrupting as well, and that has a lot to do with the album sound. it's trying to find space where no-one else is working."
Ah, yes, the album, Ex:El, where 808 State really go to town, revealing that a dance band can make a var ied and imaginative Ip with mood changes for (almost) every occasion. "If Work and Bernard hadn't approached us it would have been a totally instrumental album", is Darren's view on the matter. Bernard is fellow Mancunian, Bernard Sumner who lends his voice to Spanish Heart, while Bjork is the one and only Bjork Gudmundsd of the Sugarcubes, who warbles in her own distinctive way on Ooops and Qmart. "We met Bernard In the Sock Shop," jokes Darren. "Yeah, buying stripy pop socks," sniggers Martin. After a little more sniggering, Darren starts to speak a bit more sense.
"We did the G-Mex with the Happy Mondays about a year ago and we've got a tune on the 90 album called Magical Dream. We wanted to do it at the G-Mex, and Bernard was Into us 'cos we were technology based and all that, so he came down and did his thing. He came back from London on the Friday, rehearsed with us, did the gig on the Saturday, and he was doing the vocals for that England tune on the Sunday. The lad's a workaholic. But he still did it. He could have said 'fuck it, I've got too much on', but he didn't."
Bjork's collaboration with the lads is a little more surprising, being from Iceland rather than just a GM bus ride away. It is, however, no less successful, and she also gets a big 808 State 'shout going out'. Her unconventional attitude to music making went down a storm. "She wanted Abba to produce the next Sugarcubes album, but it was too much money. It shows her angle on it, she really does not care about what she does. she enjoys it, where as some people scrunch up their face," declares Darren with obvious affection. "it's lust music to her, you see", points out Graham.
By now, Darren's getting really excited, the subject of Swedish lovelies, Abba, revealing his fetish for the 70's disco stars. "He's got Abba - The Movie," he says, pointing at Andy, who's still keeping stumm, "And right at the end of It, they do this tour of Australia and there's this massive forest." "Yeah, that's their island, they own it," pipes up Graham. "And there's a shed in the middle of this fucking Island where they do their rehearsing. This is where they get their Inspiration."
So, found them out at last. All this talk of 'the kids' and keeping their credibility and what they really want out of this music biz malarky is their very own private island. "Well, we've got our shed already," says Martin. Darren agrees; "You're sitting in it. It's in fucking Ardwick!"