|In the Studio... 808 State|
|International DJ, Issue 101
In a departure from the usual format, our In The Studio section has gone back in time to the heady days of acid house this month. As Brit techno pioneers 808 State rerelease their classic 'Quadrastate' album, we catch up with them to find out how their original set-up compared to today's hi-tech studios
As told to: Ben Willmott
There are many things that the late great John Peel OBE gave us in his time. Most of us know how he brought punk and hip-hop to the nation's attention, not to mention drum & bass and hardcore in more recent years.
A lesser known fact, however, is that he was also responsible, in a roundabout way, for the creation of one of the most inspirational classic techno albums of all time. 'Quadrastate', the second and arguably most celebrated album by seminal Mancunian crew 808 State, actually started life as a John Peel session.
"It was actually down to John Peel that 'Quadrastate' came about/the State's Graham Massey tells us before sharing a few old skool studio secrets with us. "He used to come up to Manchester to scout out new records and we had a meeting with him in a café near [legendary student/boho hangout] Afflecks Palace.
"We'd already had word that they wanted us to do a session and so we'd already been working on some ideas. We said to him we'd do it, but could we do it at home, because we didn't really think we could do what we wanted to do at the BBC. But the BBC said we had to do it there or not do it at all, so in the end it never actually happened!"
With various members of the group pursuing other projects at the same time, the tapes lay dormant for a little while before finally being reworked, edited and added to, taking shape as 'Quadrastate'. Note that that's 'tape' and 'edit' in the most literal sense of the words, too. Back then, the band would record onto 1 1/4-inch reel to reel tape and then take a razor blade to it, literally cutting and pasting sections together with sticky tape rather than with a mouse.
"I can't stress what an important part of the recording process 1 1/4- inch tape was", says Massey, "it gave us so much freedom, although some of edits on 'Quadrastate' do make me cringe!"
Having worked their early infatuation with Chicago house out of their system on their debut album 'Newbuild', Massey says they "were really trying to get away from that this time round".
It worked. The smooth techno textures and polyrhythmic complexities, not least on the legendary hit 'Pacific' marked the beginning of a bold new era of British dance music with its own unique flavour.
They were certainly in the right place at the right time - the advent of MIDI meant that lots of older equipment suddenly plummeted in price and became accessible to a new generation of bedroom producers. "We'd use anything we could get our hands on", Massey laughs, "anything that was cheap! But it was a constant struggle to get the machines to talk to each other and keep everything in time. That's when we realised why all our gear was cheap - because it didn't have MIDI!"
Helpfully, though, Graham's fellow band members Darren Price and Andrew Barker both worked in a commercial studio - which meant the band had both free use of studio downtime, and access to some somewhat swankier gear. Although, ironically, it's one of these more pricey synths heard on the LP 'Ninety' that he feels has stood the test of time the least well. "The studio had just got a Roland D50 and so we had a chance to use it," Massey remembers, "but now it's a pretty uncool keyboard."
At least that cheap equipment came in handy when it came to the track 'Discostate', on which the band wanted to give their take on the kind of knowingly cheesy "supermarket, camp element" of early house records by Adonis and Lil'Louis. The restrictions of technology like the Akai S900 and Casio RZ1, as is often said, helped fuel the creativity too."When you only had one and a half seconds of sampling time to deal with", he laughs, "you had to be really imaginative with it".
RETURN TO THUNDERDOME
If you're wondering about the torn-out Filofax page (looking more like an ancient cave painting than a studio plan) that's attached to this article, it was actually for a gig rather than a recording session. The show was at an oft-forgotten (but at the time huge) north Manchester night called Thunderdome. "It was out of town," Massey recalls, "and it was the antithesis of the Hacienda. It's where we used to hear a lot of the Belgian techno that had a big influence on us".
Live shows, often in smaller clubs in the suburbs and surrounding areas of Manchester, were where 808 State really honed their art and improvised at will, interfacing with the city's rising crop of baggy bands like Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and Inspiral Carpets. "I'm sure we used to get so many bookings because we'd set up our gear by the mixing desk," he says,"so there'd never be tons of gear to get offstage when we finished!"
As can often happen, the wheel has now turned full circle. Graham and former 808 member A Guy Called Gerald – who quit during the making of 'Quadrastate' – recently reconciled their differences over the writing of 'Pacific'. How did they celebrate? By digging out their old Roland gear for a freestyle electronic jam at South London's Corsica Studios, of course! iDJ
• Roland SH101 mini keyboard (for use as a sequencer)