|Too Clever For Their Own Good|
Volume 2, Issue 62
808 State were among the UK's first house music pioneers, they were one of the first electronic acts to tour live, they 'invented' hardcore, and now they're back with a new album of mind-frazzling complexity. But it's been four years since the last one and that's a hell of a long time in dance music. Is it too late for 808 State?
Writer: David Davies
COULD it be that 808 State are just too clever for their own good? Yes, it's a quiz! And we all can play. The prize is their undeniably amazing new album 'Don Solaris' but it's not free. If you want it you'll have to pay your 14 quid. The choice is yours.
First take this simple test. Underworld, BT, Orbital, Portishead, Jamiroquai, Prodigy. Top acts all of them but think for a moment what do they sound like? Clear? Now do it for 808 State. For the first lot sounds and images focus in your brain, highlight moments and a sort of definitive sound for each of them. But for 808 it's all over the place. No identifiable icon, no obvious 'sound'.
'Pacific State', 'Cubik', 'The Only Rhyme That Bites', 'In Yer Face', '10x10', six albums and always pushing the boundaries, re-inventing themselves, relying on the sheer quality of each release rather than just one style to keep it going.
Graham Massey (35), Darren Partington (26) and Andy Barker (28) have always fucked with the rules of engagement while we all know the record-buying public like to know what they're getting. You don't ask the Colonel to change his recipe. It's a high risk strategy by anyone's standards and you can double the stakes if you're the record company financing it.
Now multiply this scenario by a protracted absence punctuated only by the odd, unsubstantiated rumour of record company friction. There was a stray 808 single in the Summer of '94, 'Bombadin'. Simple, mesmerising and 100% catchy with a touch of flamenco and a tight little Todd Terry kind of appeal, it Impressed those who heard it but charted no higher than 67. It's getting worse. 808's new album arrives on the back of public indifference. Double those stakes again.
808 virtually invented British dance music. They pioneered the way with the lush instrumental hypnotism of 'Pacific State' in 1989, kick-started hardcore with 'Cubik' in '90 and even (they reckon) messed around with strange trip hop sounds on MC Tunes' 'The North At Its Heights' LP in 1991. They were one of the first electronic acts to play live, even touring Europe; appearing in Berlin at an electronic festival with Renegade Soundwave and Baby Ford EIGHT years ago. They hooked up with Bjork to much acclaim on their 'Gorgeous' album in 1992 and everything they do comes touched with this lust for progress, this endless pushing forwards. Forcing the pace, predicting, foreshadowing the future. Check the dates and you'll see that they've been playing this game roughly two years ahead of everyone else.
Which was fine when there weren't so many players in the game. But in 1996 it's quite possible that you could be two years ahead and no one would notice, swamped by a deluge of electronica with as many genres as records and more crap than a man could listen to in a lifetime. Last time out it was Utah Saints, D:Ream and The Orb. Now it's tougher.
808 State have done their arithmetic and they're aware that with their new album 'Don Solaris' they are not returning to the 'same dance world they last played in, with 1992's 'Gorgeous.' "If," as Darren points out, "you are 20 now, you were only fucking 13 when we started. You were playing football and coming in for your tea at five o'clock. So you've got to relaunch yourself in a way." And 808 don't want to miss out. "We're interested in new fans," says Graham. "Your average 20 year old these days is a bloody sophisticated audiophile. They've gone into music in depth. To under-estimate how sophisticated your average sub-urban kid is, is stupid."
The 808 gambit in 1996 is inescapably a leap of faith. Believe them and they are two years ahead of everyone else. Doubt them and you might admire their musical bravery but you won't be heading up to the till in Our Price with 14 quid in your hand. Add in a nation of 20 year olds who have never even heard 'Pacific State' and 808 could be sweating. And just in case anyone should think 808 State still aren't risking enough, they've turned in the most extreme, most intense and dense album of their career to date. As the first single 'Bond' has already demonstrated we're not talking snackattack sugar-coated pop here. Not even a snaking little piece of dancefloor action. 'Don Solaris' reeks of heavy importance and monumental musical flashiness. Even 808 know it. "It's not easy listening," admits Graham. "It's heavy listening."
THERE is no doubt in 808's mind that 'Don Solaris' is the bomb. They are certain. Darren is adamant. "It's quality. It will stand the test of time. Don't forget we've got to spend the next two years taking this album around the world. You've got to be waking up on a tour bus in the middle of fucking nowhere and what you're promoting has got to be genuine because if it's not you'll never write another album."
But whatever their conviction now, 'Don Solaris' comes after some heavy duty record company grief. Nobody will confirm the album was rejected six times by ZTT but it's clear there was a major meltdown late last year when the band dumped two years' work and started again.
Neil Cranston is 808's A&R manager at ZTT. The way the band tell it he's only come in to the equation to find some productive middle ground between the two factions.
Cranston found them with about 35 tracks in various states of completion and not much of a concept. "It was a case of me bringing in some direction rather than any lack of talent on their part," he says of the problems. "You have to tell them what is shite, really. If I was doing anything for three years I would lose sight of the wood for the trees. There was no succinct thread and to me records have to have some overall direction. Three years in the studio and your head goes up your arse, to be blunt about it. All it was was holding a mirror up to them and saying this is where you're at."
Cranston turned them on to a more London-influenced musical view; Wall Of Sound and more trip hop and drum n' bass. He then helped bring in the guest singers; The Manic Street Preachers' mournful vocalist James Dean Bradfield, Lamb's Louise Rhodes (sounding wickedly like Kate Bush here) and Satanic-sounding US rocker Doughty from Soul Coughing.
Cranston is overwhelmed by the results. "I think it's fantastic. It's two years ahead of itself," he declares. "It's industrial coffee table music, it takes everyone else's beats and fucks with them. I think it's the best record 808 State have ever made."
Accordingly, he's planning the big record company push for this one. "We're going to really shove it. We're going to keep promoting this until everyone gets it. I hope that the Manics fans will get into it as well and it crosses all the barriers."
Cranston knows he's going to have to spend to get it out there. "I just hope the public gets it," he confesses. "It is a heavy album. You have to dig deep with a record like this. This isn't a record for the dancefloor, this is a great listening record, you can get in there and there's layer after layer." He's planning a marketing push that will last nearly a year.
IT would take a week to describe the bruising, sexy chaos of the 'Bond' single in any detail. And you can forget any attempt to do 'Don Solaris' justice. So many styles and genres have been crammed into it that it's like entering a wonderland of musical possibility and blurring round the whole thing in little more than an hour. At first it's impenetrable, overwhelming, but play it again and again and slowly it begins to drop into place and what first sounded like a disturbingly messy load of pony gradually focuses into a great, fantastically layered kaleidoscope of sound. Seven plays and I could say I liked it. By the tenth I was drunk on it. It's a bit too flash in places, like on the incredibly complex drum n' bass backing for Louise Rhodes's spooky yell through 'Lopez' and the insane sonic distortion on 'Banacheq' but then 808 were always like that. Long time believers in the more is more school of thought.
But even on the first listen this is an album that obviously involved a phenomenal amount of work. "For six minutes of music, there's about a hundred hours of work," reckons Graham. "There's been a lot of grubbing in the dirt." And it shows, there's enough material on 'Jerusahat' for example, for a world music soundclash album, a didgeridoo masterclass, a throbbing ambient track and a baggy groovin' session.
The aim, according to Graham, is to fry our brains. "I hope some kid in his bedroom puts his headphones on and gets his head blown off," he says. This is an album for listening to. The band, ZTT, everyone agrees; it's an album that sounds great on drugs. This then is the sound of a band progressing beyond the dancefloor. "We've always done albums for revising to and cleaning the car," insists Darren, but all of them concede 'Don Solaris' is the farthest they've gone yet. "We're just trying to make a great fucking album." Dance music is only the starting point.
IF 808 State look rough in the video for their new 'Bond' single then you can blame me. It was a 7am start and I'd had them in the Hacienda drinking beer and checking out LTJ Bukem at way past one the night before. You couldn't wish for more accommodating people to interview. Nigh on ten pints, a Waterstones book reading, a roof-clambering photo session, a walk in the rain, Korean food, miles of interview tape and a select tour of Manchester's newest bars.
Andy is the ginger one. Gentle and shy, he's the one you'll find buried alive underneath a bank of keyboards on stage, utterly unflappable. Darren is big and breezy, passionate and vocal, with a nice line in dry little asides. Graham is older and more serious, the one pushed most to the fore since the departure of the outrageously mouthy original fourth band member, Martin Price. All of them are as friendly as you like.
They originally came together in Eastern Bloc in 1988. Price owned the shop, DJs Andy and Darren bought their records there and Graham was a local studio engineer. Today they are one of the longest-running instrumental electronic bands in history: take out the po-faced military beat of Kraftwerk and the wacky ways of Yello and they are out on their own.
But it's hardly given them delusions of grandeur. Probably it's a Manchester thing. No one in this driest and most down-to-earth of cities would let them. Today, for example, so keen is Graham to meet punk chronicler Jon Savage that we all walk through the back streets of Manchester in the pouring rain to see Savage give a reading of his latest opus at Waterstones. We're drenched and arrive too late but we stand at the back drinking the free beer, Darren and Andy whispering and fidgeting.
"I'll come here again," grins Darren, holding up his second beer. Until Savage recognises them from the front and offers them Cheesy Wotsits as well. The boys look pleased. Not forgotten. But we're hungry (and getting drunk) and Savage's new book isn't so interesting and so Graham leaves a CD sampler for him and we leave, Andy and Darren still joking around. This is Graham's kind of thing, not theirs.
IN their studio/office space in Manchester's arty Ducie House complex, amidst all the clutter on the walls; baby photographs, 808 artwork, flyers and even a Queen poster with Freddie looking very ill, there's an A4 sheet of paper stuck up prominently behind their manager Mandy's desk. It's neatly titled Six Phases Of A Project. 1. Enthusiasm. 2. Disillusionment. 3. Panic. 4. Search For The Guilty. 5. Punishment Of The Innocent. 6. Praise And Honour For The Non Participants. Darren sees me copying it down into my note-book. "We," he smiles, "are in Panic."
It is time then to put them out of their misery. Answer the question. Too clever for their own good, or just clever enough?
Or, if like me, you need to cheat the answer, dig out 1993's 'Gorgeous' album and figure out if that was two years ahead of its time. But I think you know the answer already. It's not called 'Don Solaris' for nothing. They know it too.
'Don Solaris' is out now on ZTT
The Heavy Stuff
Do you believe in God?
Andy: "I reckon God was an alien. I believe in a multi-verse."
Have you enough money not to care any more?
Darren: "No, never have, never will."
Would you be as successful if you didn't come from Manchester?
Darren: "I don't think so."
What has success as a band brought for you?
Darren: "A sense of belonging and also a sense of carrying on: I think what we have achieved as 808 State has made us want to do it the following year. Maybe that's why we're here eight years on, if we had success too quickly too early maybe we would have fizzled out by now. But one thing we've still got is integrity."
Are you scared of failing?
Graham: "Don't know. What's failing?"
You mean if they don't fit, it's their fucking problem
Darren: "Dead right. You've just done an album and you're in front of the press and you're going this is my best album ever but you've got to have the material to back it up. We've written a real quality album, one of our best albums to date, so we can sit here and talk bollocks and have a beer and have a chat but you know your bollocks is backed up by a quality piece of material. That's a quality of material behind me. So I can talk what the fuck I want because I know my material is fucking havin' it.”