Electronic Dance grooves with flair(s) - courtesy of 808 State
ONE OF THE PROBLEMS WITH being a successful group is that once you have become entangled in the demanding clutches of the music business it is very hard to find the time for creative experimentation. More often than not your timetable will be booked solid for the foreseeable future and when you get around to that all important recording session then you just have to make the most of it.
This is a situation that 808 STATE have recently found themselves in and one that they have had to face up to as GRAHAM MASSEY explained.
"Very often we go into the studio with nothing planned, which is a bad habit, but it's largely due to the madness of the stage we're at where we're doing gigs and in demand. So you have to slot things in - especially with studios."
For their new single, a total rework of the album track Lift along with a new 'B' side, the band have opted to use FON studio in Sheffield, which features an Amek Mozart console - which is very much part of the bands recording process.
"There are not many studio 'up north' worth bothering with," continues Graham. "We had heard from people like MARTIN MOSCROFT out of A CERTAIN RATIO, who had been working here and raving about it.
"We're quite lazy in the way that we work - a lot of people do their work in the computer, whereas we do most of our composing in the mix and that's why we've come here because it's dead easy to use. It's a lot easier than SSL - even we can understand it!
"What we tend to do is lay down a lot of parallel tracks of sequences, not organise it overly in the computer but do it in the mix computer (Super True Automation) and leave everything to the last minute. Other people's ways are more sensible - but we're not incredibly sensible people."
The 808 quartet are split into two age groups - ANDY BARKER and DARREN PARTINGTON have only just turned twenty whilst Graham Massey at 29 and MARTIN PRICE, who describes himself as "no spring chicken", represent the more mature half. How do the band work in the studio?
"It's a bit of an all chip-in situation," recalls Graham, "what we're all good at is mouthing off and shouting at each other!
"It's a very animated thing - very human and not calculated. It is a product of the people involved. I do a lot of the programming and
keyboard stuff, just because I've been doing it longer. Darren tends to
Martin Price lips similar views and attempts to explain the mini-dilemma that the band finds themselves with.
"We're at odds with the total Indie side of things - I fucking hate that retro-Indie attitude, it's pathetic and I hate the whole commercial side of it as well. So we're constantly trying to find somewhere to fit in.
"We're at the same position that we arrived at with Cubik - we're frustrated because of the way the scenes going. Cubik was made out of going to Ibiza with all the trendy London bods when they were trying to slow the music down and after that we just got nasty in the studio, reacted and Cubik came out. A lot of our fans demand something like Cubik and that's not necessarily what we want to do."
It's obvious that 808 State do not adhere to any commercial formula although their DJ qualities mean that they certainly know what works the floor.
"We're quite proud of the fact that we've got stuff like Cubik and In Yer Face into the Top 10," announces Graham. "It just shouldn't be there. Everyone has said that you'll never get in the charts with an instrumental and every time we have got in the charts it's with an instrumental! Apart from M.C. TUNES. It's quite ironic that the only stuff we've put with vocals on it (Ooops with BJORK from THE SUGARCUBES), didn't do so well - but again that wasn't your ideal Pop song either."
By the very nature of their own name, 808 State have been associated with the kind of technology and equipment which has revolutionised the music of the last decade. I learnt from Martin that at their concerts in Japan, fans would bring along 808 drum machines and 303s to wave at the front and have signed afterwards! So what type of gear have the band utilising most?
"The one piece we use most," recounts Graham, "especially on the last album (Ex:el), is this old MiniMoog which Trevor Horn presented to us. It's just so good for bass. We mostly sample it, but we've also got a Roland MIDI/CV box that we use with it.
"We've got the JD800 which is brilliant. Roland are finally listening to what people want rather than just churning stuff out. people have been screaming out for a synth like that for 4 years - something which has modern sounds but with old style manipulation."
"It is good," admits Martin, "but it mimics analogue rather than being it. It hasn't got as much warmth as I'd like. The add-on waveforms are quick to use and you can come up with stuff that nobody else is going to get, without having a 100M Series all over your room and a million patchbays. But I like that - all that Roland modular stuff is where it's at for me, I love it. It would be my idea of heaven to wake up in the morning with all that around the room. But I'm a.bit perverted like that! We're all the same total gear slobs; get it, mistreat it and throw it in the corner.
"We do have a small 16-track studio in Manchester, with a TAC Scorpion desk, but I don't see too much point in it - you need to go straight ahead with the whole thing and put it to tape. Ideally we'll have our own 24-track so you can wake up with an idea and go straight into it - 24 hours, total. That's what I've always striven to have at hand, where if you've got an idea you don't have to wait."
In an attempt to capture this spontaneity the band have all just bought themselves Yamaha QY10s. Graham is more enthusiastic than Martin.
"They're great as little notebooks for writing bass lines and sequences and you can dump them straight into the computer or just use them in the MIDI chain. I kind of use mine like I used to use the 303, for tight mid sequences.
"We were all sat on the plane the other day with the manuals, because more and more you're having to find situations like that where you can do writing."
"I find them too fiddly," admits Martin. "The idea was right, but we bought them as toys really and I don't like the Yamaha mode of programming. Although Roland are thinking about the kind of bods that make music, they also lost their way after 909s. They should have made programming more like building blocks and not get into all your 'cissy Steinberg' land and stuff like that. It should be dead easy, like Lego. I'd love to be able to sit down with a programme designer and say 'look, do this'.
"When we were in Japan and this really impressed me, guys were coming over and talking to us and they'd bring out a design of a mixer and say 'what do you think?'
"We thought of the idea of having a pitch bend type of wheel on a DJ mixer, so you can flick between channels quickly and it's all spring-loaded. Now some firm has actually taken that idea up."
808 State are the first to admit that they are more technicians than musicians.
"I love the way that KRAFTWERK work," confesses Martin. "They clock on and it's like a factory to go and make music. Now that appeals to me because automatically you're in a different mood.
"We're not considered to be dead musical, although I think we really are - we just get at it from a different way. I was listening to the new Kraftwerk album and although it's not the greatest thing ever, I never realised how musical they really are or how brilliant the melodies are. People would give their robotic arm to get at the kind of melodies and things that they do."
808 State are well aware that the increased access to the means of producing music has meant that nearly everyone and their dog is having a go at it.
"Dance music is not just about having the gear," retorts Darren, "you've got to know how to use it and you've got to have an idea. People think if it's got a 909 beat then it's acceptable - but it's not."
"Everyone's getting into it - like DJ-ing. If there's something wrong about the scene or a certain flavour's not happening, then we tell the people and try to educate them."
"There's such a lot of boring Dance music about," confesses Graham. "It's quite hard flying the flag for Dance music because maybe only 5-10% is any good. Martin works in Eastern Blok Records and gets a good perspective of what's happening and the amount of stuff is astonishing."
By the time this reaches press, 808 State will have appeared at this year's biggest one-day Dance festival - 'A Midsummer's Day Dream' at the Milton Keynes Bowl. So just how is the 808 sound transferred into the live arena?
"We don't use computers," offers Graham, "we have done and we've failed miserably. There's just something about a 1040 and dry ice that doesn't happen.
"What we do is leave all the bass and drums on DAT and then have a certain amount of keyboards, sax and guitar live. I've got a load of old gear that I use - some old ARP stuff, D6 Clavinet and I'll even have my Fender Rhodes. We admit it's not the livest thing and not very flexible, but we try and battle with that as much as we can."
"The biggest point to me," professes Martin, "is that you should do something different. People have been stood in front of stages since the 13th Century."
I mention Adrian Sherwood's approach where what's going on at the mixing desk is as much a performance as what's on stage - to which Martin quickly snaps back. "Well we have done that. What people don't understand is that before all the interest in us, we'd done nearly two years live and I mean all live - like using all the Roland sync stuff. But doing it live is like as uninteresting as standing over your Mum and watching her make your chips! People go through various stages of trying to cure it, like getting some dollie birds, dancers or 'foot patrolmen' - but to us it's like a cop-out."
"The Milton Keynes show will be the big one for us this summer and then we're going to lay low for a bit," says Graham, before realising that he's omitted a few 'minor' details. "Well, we're going to play America, Japan and Australia which will take up the rest of the summer and then we're back into the next album."