|MUSIC INTERVIEW: Graham Massey, 808 State|
|Yorkshire Evening Post
19th March 2010
By Duncan Seaman
They were the godfathers of the British acid house scene, the group who took the sounds coming out of Chicago and Detroit and gave them a Mancunian makeover.
Now, seven years after their last album, 808 State are back - with a stack of deluxe reissues and tentative talk of a UK tour.
When he, Graham Simpson and Martin Price, owner of the Oldham Street record store Eastern Bloc, formed the group in 1988 they were not, he says, quite the outsiders in their home city that one might expect.
"Manchester was a place for unconventional music, it was the nature of what went on back in the city," he says. "The live scene was quite insular, few bands played outside Manchester. It was a breeding ground for interesting music."
Massey himself had played in prog rock and fusion bands then the post-punk outfit Biting Tongues, who were signed to Factory Records. Simpson, from Moss Side, and Price, from Bolton, had been experimenting with electronic sounds.
The music they decided to make together, though, was heavily influenced by the "Chicago acid tracks and Detroit early techno stuff like Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson" they heard on the Stu Allen Show on Piccadilly Radio. "We were trying to emulate the American sound," recalls Massey. "What we got wrong is the most intersting thing."
The trio arrived at a point where technology was revolutionising music. Electronic instruments were becoming cheaper and more accessible since the introduction of Midi, "the language which computers talk to synthesisers", in the mid-80s. That, in turn, stimulated a growing second-hand market in analogue synths and drum machines. For the first time, says Massey, "we could afford Roland gear".
As soon as the Akai sampler arrived in Britain, the scene exploded. "We were slinging ideas through that," says Massey. "I would say it was the most important instrument of all. It opened up whole new vistas for musicians working in a textural way."
Suddenly he and his colleagues were free to experiment like their other heroes, Adrian Sherwood, Throbbing Gristle and New Order. "They were right on our doorstep," says Massey. "They were using that technology and doing interesting things with it, stretching records out to 10 minutes."
The trio would record 45-minute jams "because that was the length of one side of a cassette at the time", then they put out an album, Newbuild, for Price's independent label Creed.
It was played on the radio by John Peel ("to us that was a big achievement") but things gained momentum when Gary Davies picked up on the track Pacific, from their mini-album Quadrastate. "He heard it Ibiza and started playing it on daytime Radio 1. That was amazing. We had no pluggers to get that there."
By then Simpson had left the band, to record as A Guy Called Gerald; he was replaced by two techno young techno DJs, Darren Partington and Andrew Barker, who had been "hammering" the track at the Thunderdome nightclub in north Manchester.
The Hacienda soon caught up and Factory Records boss Tony Wilson invited 808 State on to his regional television show The Other Side of Midnight. "Everything came together fantastically at the same time," remembers Massey.
The band signed to ZTT, then part of the Warner Brothers stable. "It was considered a bit of a risk to go to ZTT," says Massey. "They were famous in the mid-80s for the Art of Noise and Frankie Goes to Hollywood but it seemed like their time was passing. Everybody had left them, there was controversy over people taking them to court.
"One of the attractive things about them was we were a big fish in their pond. If we had gone to Factory we would have had to compete with New Order and the Happy Mondays."
As exciting for the now four-piece was a Stateside deal with Tommy Boy Records, until then primarly a hip-hop label known for acts such as De La Soul, Queen Latifah and Afrika Bambaataa. "We were really proud of being on Tommy Boy and the possibilities that opened up to us in America," says Massey.
Pacific became a top 10 hit and the band quickly followed it up with the album 90 and two top 20 collaborations with Manchester rapper MC Tunes, The Only Rhyme That Bites and Tunes Splits the Atom. Their greatest commercial success followed in 1991, with the album Ex:El, and its era-defining singles Cubik and In Yer Face.
"We were feeding off the energy around us," says Massey. "We did not have a lot of time to write (Ex:El). We were almost panicking a little bit. What do we do next? But there was an atmosphere of people not knowing what this scene was. We were able to dictate to that scene and the rise of club culture was dictating rather than reacting to what was going on."
For the first time the band also worked with vocalists - Bjork (on Oops) and Bernard Sumner (on Spanish Heart).
"Within the group there was a lot of tugging about how far do you go with an album," remembers Massey. "Do you make stuff for dancefloors or listening album? To put singers on was considered NME territory.
"Because of that 'Madchester scene' (surrounding their contemporaries the Happy Mondays, the Stone Roses and Northside) we would have to act more like a band than we wanted to. All the attention was being taken by bands. We felt our music was a bit more in tune with the scene but the media would not deal with people just making records. We began to play raves and develop more of a band personality."
The shift, perhaps, didn't suit everyone. In 1992 Martin Price left the band. "That was a big shock," says Massey. "The night before we were due to leave for America he told us he was not going. It was like having your arm cut off. There was no way we could stop him. Then we suddenly had to think really fast.
"We did that American tour - big raves in LA and Texas - and it really fired us up. We saw the possibilities of America and with carrying on. Perhaps if we had not gone on tour it might have tailed off but it put brio in us and we charged on."
By their 1993 album Gorgeous, Massey recalls the band dynamic had changed. "In the studio I was pushing a lot harder for more of an ambient, artistic thing." He wanted 808 State to become more like Future Sound of London, "expansive and fanstastical"; the two DJs "were pulling in a club direction".
"There was a schizophrenia about that album."
ZTT enthusiasm for a track with vocals to gain radioplay prompted the band to create one of the first 'mash-ups' with a decade-old UB40 track, One in Ten.
"It proved to be a big seller though it was not the coolest thing to have done," says Massey. "There was a lot of debate in the band. We've always been a band that have disagreed a lot. We're always pulling in lots of directions at once. When you listen to these records you can hear that."
Don Solaris, in 1996, proved to be 808 State's final album for ZTT. Though it was completely overlooked as the music press was saturated with trip-hop, Massey feels it's up there with the band's best work.
"At that point we were very much sure of who we were. We'd been touring, doing America, being on stage, using guitars. It's more of a reflection on where we had been. I see it as a much under-rated album. We knew what we were doing. It's got more balls. I'm proud of it."
After a 'best of' in 1998 little was heard of 808 State until 2003 when they attempted an ill-fated comeback, on an indie label.
"Outpost Transmission is a really difficult album for me to think about," Massey says ruefully. "I was pleased with a lot of the music but the record company went under almost immediately. That saw us off in the end, it took all the wind out of our sails."
Though band members drifted off into their own projects, 808 State never officially split up. "We've not stopped doing concerts," explains Massey. "In recent years we have started to play festivals. We'll do it if there's a nice trip involved to somewhere like Japan or Argentina and it's fun again."
Massey would "never rule out" the prospect of new material but with "no record company momentum anywhere in the world" it looks unlikely. He does, however, occasionally toy with the idea of updating some of the old tracks. "People are doing remixes all the time. Perhaps we should revamp them ourselves."
This August Massey reaches his half-century. Did he ever imagine, back in 1988, that he would still be making dance music at 50? "I never ruled it out," he laughs. "I've always been quite determined in doing music. I've done it since I was 17. It's the only thing I can do.
"To stay on the horse is always a challenge but a lot of the colleagues I grew up with through music are still doing it. If you are not serious about it you are usually thrown off the horse by 25 or 30."
Massey wonders what project that could bring 808 State sufficient attention in 2010.
"Maybe an 808 State musical in the West End," he jokes.
Stranger things have happened.
Deluxe editions of 90, Ex:El, Gorgeous and Don Solaris are released on Salvo on March 22.