Most Excellent: 808 State
i-D Magazine
Issue 91, "The News Issue"
November 1991
Page: 63

"We're rubbish at being pop stars. We're trying to learn how to do all those things like spending loads of money on clothes. Actually, we're learning fast." Five top 20 hits into their career, 808 State are still the complete antithesis of what pop stars should be. It's hard for the public to see as stars men who deal in instrumental dance music, but it's even harder for their record companies, as Martin Price explains: "We walked into Warner Brothers after four top tens and no one knew who we were..." Working with such well known faces as Bjork Gudmundsdottir from the Sugarcubes and Bernard Sumner from New Order on their new LP, 'Ex-El', only exacerbates the situation, because the press begin to treat them only as collaborative artists/producers. A totally incorrect reading, Graham Massey points out: "We didn't want to do a Traveling Wilburys of house with all these stars on it. If those two hadn't shown an interest in us, all the tracks on the LP would have been instrumental."

What 808 have managed to achieve with 'Ex-El' is a totally integrated collection of hard dance tunes. Even the tracks recorded with Bjork the gloriously sensuous 'Qmart' and the shivery, sly 'Ooops', are stamped with 808ness. They've filled out the hollow centres of '90' and introduced a sense of personality into their machinic sound. 'Ooops' might be the high spot, but not far behind is the opening 'San Francisco', a jerky, brooding track that eats and breathes like Freddy Kruger's home computer.

It's taken time to reach this level of 808ness, a style that's all their own, produced out of mutations on a theme by the original techno kings. Kings like Detroit's Derrick May, for instance, who seem to object to having his crown stolen. Martin laughs at this: "It's getting boring now, we look at an article, and in the first three lines we think, 'oh, Derrick's upset again', and forget it. Honestly, I'd like to see a of less of Derrick getting upset, and a lot more Derrick May records." What Graham reckons they have achieved is "taken those things, pieces of source material and mutated them into something else. We've taken three years to build up a trust with the public. They know they're going to get quality product, and we now have to really put ourselves out to not get in the charts." Martin agrees: "You've got to keep sight of credibility, even when you're doing pop singles, to make an effort for the underground." What 808 have managed to achieve is a series of hardcore club anthems, from 'Pacific' to 'In Yer Face', that also sell like pop songs.

In search of new adventures in the underground, 808 went to Iceland to record a video for 'Ooops'. It was not, as they describe it, without severely nerve-wracking moments. Filming a video version of 'Journey To The Centre Of The Earth' amidst real stalactites and stalagmites was all very well, explains Martin, until "the guide suddenly just stopped and said, 'that's it, I'm lost, all is lost!'. We've only just had the bill for the dry-cleaning of the 12 space suits we were wearing. We cacked ourselves basically." And once they got to the cave they were meant to be filming in, Graham says "it basically looked like Santa's grotto at Lewis's, it looked so plastic, like you could have done it in the studio with Walt Disney and all the dwarves and everything." Presumably whistling the theme to 'Cubik' as they worked...

The one advantage that instrumental dance music does have, as Iceland proved, is that it needs no level of linguistic understanding. So, for as long as people want a beat that's right in yer face, 808 will continue to excel.

[Author: Vaughan Allen]

'Ex-El' by 808 State is out this month on ZTT