|808 State: New Bold Dreams|
18th November 1989
SIMON REYNOLDS TALKS TO THE BAND WHO BELIEVE THAT ENGLAND IS A REALLY FUNKY PLACE NOW THE ACID HOUSE BOOM HAS TAKEN OVER, AND REPORTS ON THEIR NEW ALBUM 'NINETY'. PICS: PHIL NICHOLLS
808 STATE IS THE CHILD OF THE UNION OF A "LOVE OF BLACK dance culture" and "the edge" that comes from 10 years of dabbling in the avant-garde backwaters of post-punk. 808 State began when Martin Price (owner of Eastern Bloc, Manchester's premier dance/indie shop) ran into Graham Massey (formerly of funk-noir experimentalists Biting Tongues).
Martin had been itching to get into the music business for years, while Graham was "frigged off with bands, the sluggishness of musicians, the limitations of their imagination.
"I was on a sound engineering course in order to cut all that out, get to the nitty-gritty,' he says. "The rock band is a dinosaur concept."
Before he knew it, Martin was "blagging money to start projects". First came "New Build an album of Acid jams. Along the way, 808 picked up two very young DJs called Darren and Andy, who started out at their local Salvation Army youth club. Then came "Quadrastate", the source of two of this year's hottest dancefloor tracks, "State Ritual" and "Pacific State".
"State Ritual" is particularly stunning, a voodoo matrix of polyrhythms that sounds like aborigines attempting to imitate DAF armed only with wood-flutes and gourds. After being wooed by a hefty posse of record companies, 808 State have now signed to ZIT, the double lure being the prospect of access to Warner's world-wide distribution combined with complete creative control.
Martin: "I was thinking as we were doing 'Sunrising', on the new album, about how Bugs Bunny and 'Batman' were paying for us to be weird ..."
THE new album, "Ninety", is most impressive. Following on from the "new age House" of "Pacific State" (which has been revamped as the single "Pacific 202") the album opens up a whole new realm of "oceanic" Aciieed. "Magical Dream" is a dance of golden lights that invites you to "close your eyes and disapppear".
The poignant "Ancodia" turns samples of close harmony soul into an heavenly host hovering over a dense undergrowth of jungle rhythms. "Sunrise", with its tendrils of flute and lambent horizon of synths, is a Polynesian dawnscape. Overall, you're made to think of a cybernetic Weather Report, or the Art Of Noise if they were on ECM rather than ZTT.
In their write-ups, Graham and Martin invariably get tagged as, respectively, a boffin and a motormouth. Sure enough, Graham has the sallow, ill-fed look of someone who spends most of his life hunched over a console, while Martin is an exceedingly vehement fellow, whose favourite phrase is what /think is...
Thankfully, none of Martin's over-abundant attitude percolates into the music. 808 State's music is ego-less and text-free in more ways than simply being predominantly instrumental. It's not mouthy, but it is oral, oozily enfolding, like being suckled at the bosom of Mother Nature. It's not inane, but it is profoundly superficial.
Graham and Martin are better on what 808 State's music isn't than what it is. They reject my "every dog will have its day" thesis that the avant-fur& dreams of the early Eighties have finally come true in the form of Acciieed.
Martin: "There's been odd singles from that scene that have been good - Sensoria' by Cabaret Voltaire, 'Riot In Lagos' by Ryuichi Sakamoto - but most of those groups were off the mark. Test Dept, Cabaret Voltaire, 23 Skidoo were well off the mark. I'd prefer to put us at a complete distance from all that, actually."
Graham: "I suppose they were aiming that trance-like groove, but you can see now that they were never gonna get there."
Martin: "What I didn't like was that whole this-is-art thing. I was really disappointed by all those bands disappearing up their own anal posteriors. And I just thought, 'I want to distance myself from all that.' See, I like kids getting into our stuff.'
Your music is certainly more embracing than the frigid forbidding ambience of avant-funk.
"It's got a sort of a gospelly effect. It's a celebration. It's saying that these are all our favourite records. It's a search for the Perfect Beat, which is what Afrika Bambatta was doing. A search that will never end."
What do you reckon of the "New Age House" tag that's been applied to "Pacific 202", as well as The Beloved's beatific "The Sun Rising"?
"A lot of people are looking to bracket it, and they think that if they take it down the Sixties' road, you know - coming down music, a sound for when the sun's coming up and the trip's near its end - then they make the scene to be more important than the actual music. I think there's music for all moods, and why can't it just be left as dance music? To me, all the 'new age' thing boils down to is that there's a gentler sound available."
808 State have very little time for rock ("it's just whistling dixie up its own bottom") and only very slightly more for indie rock's attempts to get a handle on the sampling revolution.
Martin: "The Young Gods are okay, but it's just not my cup of tea. And there are other Swiss groups that are better than they are: Dr Felix, Zantrix . . . See, I didn't like hip hop when it had the heavy metal guitars. Cos it lost the groove. It said, look at my stance. Whereas all our stuff says is listen to our music."
Graham:' We don't like Tackhead either. It's very brown rice, that scene. Very hippy. You go to a Tackhead gig and you see all these people standing around thinking they're so alternative, but the actual mainstream is so far ahead of what they're doing, it just craps on it from a great height."
Martin: "Tackhead should just rethink the whole thing cos they've turned into the Hawkwind of electronic music."
Graham: "Mainstream clubs are just so out there and futuristic in comparison. You get beer boys and Sharons and Tracies dancing to the weirdest crap going, at places like The Thunderdome in Manchester and they don't know what's hit 'em. Yer average Joe Bloggs is dancing to stuff that's basically avant-garde. And I think it's blown the whole indie ethos out the water."
Martin: "All these indie interlopers like The Shamen are trying to tip-toe into the scene and be part of it, while still imagining that their indie-ness is adding something. But I don't think it works, I don't think their stuff cuts the mustard at all. They're trying to add all this stuff, y'know, Stonehenge, ley-lines, and what the fuck has that got to do with house music? Zero, zilch, nothing. People have got to drop the crap, start to come correct, as the hip hop terminology has it.
"See, I feel so protective towards this music, this scene. And now big business is involved, and indies are trying to muscle in on the action, on false pretences, by creating categories like 'new age House'. And the whole thing is being made open to being marketed, and fucked up. But the majors can move in on this scene with as much money as they like, but they won't ruin this scene, as long as people aren't complacent about it. I don't want to see the whole thing go down the shifter, it's the best thing that's ever happened to this country, England is one damn funky place at the moment."
Graham: "The other thing is that its so international now, the whole idea of proclaiming 'British House' is a red herring. With a lot of tracks not being vocally based, sometimes you can't tell if it's from England, Belgium, Switzerland, America ... A lot of Euro styles are coming out of America now. It's trans-national because everyone has basically the same technology, and the music doesn't have a particular lyrical angle to it."
Martin: "It could be such an international language of love and care."
"WE'RE lost in music/Caught in a trap/There's no turning back/Lost in music" - Sister Sledge.
MARTIN and Graham are obsessives. They can identify brands of drum machine and sampling keyboard at the drop of a hi-hat. And the 808 sound-spectrum is the product of decades of drowning in vinyl (Graham is 29, Martin is 34 and has been buying since he was 12).
Graham: "I've always been a rummager in record shops, I've always been the person that's bought the Graham Danger-field wildlife records for 30 pence. I've got like a huge collection of weird records and tapes. I couldn't say I sit at home and listen to them, but I've always collected them, for about 10 years, for a lot of the music I've done in the past."
The birdsong on "Pacific 202" was sampled from a Bootsy Collins song, but apparently it's originally from an Akai disc of standard sound-effects.
"Originally, we tried to make it a big jungly. To me, it's like a Martin Denny track. He was the king of Exotica in the Fifties, he did all these records with birdsong on them.
"Then there's Arthur Lyman and his 'Taboo' records. Lyman used to be in Martin Denny's group, he was the vibraphone player. 'State Ritual' is actually me playing a real flute, plus a beat inspired by Magma, these German prog rockers.
"My interest is always to do with the way a record's put together. We always listen to the production. I like the way a lot of early Stevie Wonder's put together, and the things Todd Rundgren does, the way he gets altitude in, makes sounds soar. Ultimately what we want to get good at is being a production company."
What do they reckon on The Shamen's attempt to articulate an idea of Aciieed as the Eighties counter culture?
Martin: "It's all very well, but on the dance floor, I don't think those ideas translate, cos a lot of people who are dancing are just ordinary Joes. The psychedelia idea is just a cul-de-sac. It's just gonna end up like the hippies at Stonehenge. Cos the police are gonna go, 'No more', and it'll all be over with. Whereas if it's used properly, the music can move into a lot of other areas. Like Soul II Soul have done. I think if people want to change things, they should do it like that, by getting involved in a positive way, rather than just sticking on a headband and pretending it's all different now.
"The more the Sixties thing gets attached to it, the worse it gets. I don't think there's any room for complacency now. It's getting heavy out there. I don't want to go to a club and see someone sitting cross-legged on the floor seeing doves coming out of the fucking speakers, cos that's what they've been programmed to fucking believe."
But isn't the scene hermetically sealed from reality? It's not exactly a sound suited for the expression of rage.
"I disagree. Down at the Thunderdome the other night, which is a real United Nations, rainbow coalition type club, they played these really heavy Euro-Acid records, and there was black guys going 'Oh no!' and white guys going round with their fists in the air, cracking up to it. It's like punk, almost. Real Acid stormtrooper stuff."