Invisible Jukebox with Graham Massey - Tested by Dave Haslam
The Wire
Issue 148
June 1996
Page: ??

Every month we play a musician a series of records which they're asked to identify and comment on - with no prior knowledge of what they're about to hear.

This month it's the turn of.. .

Graham Massey (808 State) Tested by Dave Haslam

Graham Massey is a founder member of Manchester's 808 State. His early group, Biting Tongues, recorded for Factory Records during the mid-1980s. His work with Darren Partington and Andrew Barker in 808 State dates back to 1987. Despite scoring hits with singles like "Pacific State", "In Yer Face", and "Cubik", their tangled collisions of studio technology and dance culture energy have given them a reputation for releasing uncommercial, uncompromising recordings. The fluidity gained through the group's history of collaborations they've worked with A Guy Called Gerald, MC Tunes and Bjork in the past - is mirrored by the trio's own ceaseless extra-curricular activities. As The Spinmasters, Partington and Barker DJ in clubs and on Manchester's Kiss 102 radio station, while Massey was involved in writing and producing Bjork's Post LP. Their remix credits include work for Quincy Jones, REM, Jon Hassell, Primal Scream and David Bowie. The trio have just released Don Solaris, their fifth LP, on ZTT.


CABARET VOLTAIRE "Yashar" (Factory 12")

I've fallen at the first hurdle here; I've got no idea. It sounds like primitive sequencing, it's stumbling along.

It's Cabaret Voltaire when they'd started going funky, from 1983.

Yeah, right. 1983. It sounds alarmingly like New Order. It's completely un-Electro. It's super-white, Sheffield white. They're trying desperately to be funky, but there ain't an ounce of funk in it. I prefer Cabaret Voltaire when they were nasty and savage, doing "Nag Nag Nag" and things like that. This is from that period when technology has come in and a whole lot of groups were trying to use it as a short-cut to funkiness. But there was a period of not quite managing it, and this is a classic example. It was an interesting period in the sense that people from Sheffield and Manchester were trying to assimilate New York influences, whereas people in New York and Chicago were probably trying to assimilate Joy Division, or even worse: Marshall Jefferson being completely into Led Zeppelin and Yes. He was into Prog rock in a big way. A lot of the Detroit Techno guys were into Prog rock.

This came out on Factory at the same time that Biting Tongues were signed to the label. Did you feel any connection between yourselves and the groups in this post-New Order bracket?

Not particularly. There was something very austere about it, and that was something that we never wanted to be. It was a period of raincoats and long fringes, and that's not really the way we wanted to be perceived. Factory had a strong label identity, but that was more to do with style, the design of the covers, rather than the music, which was always pretty diverse. The reason we got signed to Factory was because of the soundtrack LP that we did.


Feverhouse, yeah. It was barely music. But it was avant garde.

Yeah, and I think they liked the idea of that, and once we got our foot in the door we became ourselves more again, which was more in line with something like Can.

The things that were going on around that time that I liked were things like 23 Skidoo, and to a certain extent A Certain Ratio. Ratio live round that period; they had all the right elements, they were an influence.

And The Decoding Society, were they an influence?

It was more that James Blood Ulmer sound, which came from Ornette Coleman. Listening back to tapes of stuff we were doing at that time, we aspired to doing that kind of music, but it came out completely different. Again, it's that thing of looking at someone else's culture and trying to assimilate it and accidentally ending up in a completely new area.


"Radioactivity (Francois Kevorkian Remix)" (EMI 12")

Kraftwerk. Is this a remix?

It is; by Francois Kevorkian.

Is it? We had conversations with him about being involved in the recording of our new album. Tommy Boy in New York put him in contact with us when we were in New York sussing studios out. He comes from the disco period, doesn't he? He was very interested in finding out what we were doing, but we convinced him that we weren't really interested in just doing the dance thing. I think he had perceived us as dance band.

Full-on and four-to-the-floor?

Yeah. And the way he's putting a four-to-the-floor with Kraftwerk on this is upsetting a little bit. With Kraftwerk it was the angles they used to throw in, on the drums particularly, which I liked, whereas this kind of treatment makes it sound like everything else. But Francois Kevorkian seems to have a bit of a profile going at the moment.

He was one of the first New York guys to get involved in remixing British stuff, wasn't he? He even did a mix of The Smiths' "This Charming Man" in 1983.

Did he?

Yes, but that was back in the days when remixing meant something different. Now a remixer takes the song apart; then it was more a case of just beefing up the drums.

Or extending the middle eight. Remixing now is like a pool of money which record companies spend in order to promote something. You can get something that's just basically an indie rock record and they get incredibly diverse people to remix it. They don't even release an indie record without doing remixes, which is obviously great for people like me!


"La Trompete Y La Flauta" from Descarga 77 (Salsoul)

We've just done a tape for Matt Thompson's show on Kiss 102 and we actually included this track on it. I've got loads of Cachao. I've got one album he's on, Ritmos Cubanos, and I've been through about four copies of it, I've hammered it so much. The thing I like about it is that it's Cuban-based rather than Brazilian-based. There's a lot more dirt to the Cuban stuff: it's a lot more earthy. I certainly wouldn't call it Easy Listening. The Ritmos Cubanos record is by a group called Ecué, and it's just a bunch of session men, but you can tell they're not doing a tourist version of Cuban music, they're really doing it for themselves; it's them enjoying themselves.

How does this sort of stuff filter through to what you do?

Well, do you remember Inner Sense Percussion from Manchester? They were often seen busking, doing sambas outside Marks & Spencer. The guy who ran Inner Sense Percussion was Colin Seddon from Biting Tongues. He and I were in bands together when we were 14 and we learned a lot of music off each other. We've just recently been doing a little album together in Phil Kirby's studio in town, just me and Colin, doing percussion based stuff with electronics. We're trying to get the gutsy feeling of this kind of stuff.

It's an attempt also on my part to get away from being stuck to time-codes and things, so there's a lot of free electronics, and I've got a lot of old electric pianos and old organs which I've used in this project, and I've played a lot of wind instruments. Colin has played with 808 quite a lot, on things like "Bombadin", and we've just done a remix of a track on the album, "Joyrider", and that's very Cuban-based; he played on that.

There are all kinds of ways of twisting the beat up. Latin music has a lot of similarities with drum 'n' bass in that way, and the same kinds of feelings come out of it, of floating through things, and riding beats. It's not a military thing any more, it's about waves. In Latin music and drum 'n' bass there's the same twisting and turning, which is great for dancing.


"Carino" (DeConstruction 12")

It's T-Coy, isn't it? "Carino". Again, it's extremely unfunky by today's standards. A lot of music from that era, when you hear it now, you wonder how people ever danced to it.

You must have danced to it a lot in your time.

I did, didn't I! Mike Pickering's Friday night at the Hacienda, where this was obviously a big track, because it was his record, was basically a Latin night first, before it became a House night: Simon Topping bongo-mania, and loads of dancing in spats. The Latin element in this record is so cod, cod Latin. There's a certain charm to it.

You can't imagine how there'd be 1200 people in the Hacienda going mad for it.

Yeah, because there's no madness in it.

And the BPMs are pretty low; this sounds so slow.

Definitely. Our body clocks have speeded up since those days.

Mike Pickering came out of the same scene as 808 State and a whole lot of other people. But he's gone in a very different direction from you, with all his chart-topping, arena-filling, award-winning stuff with M-People.

I guess we could have got a singer and gone the whole hog, but that wasn't what we were like. Even when we were on Top Of The Pops with our records, they were pretty uncompromising records: "Pacific State", "In Yer Face", "Cubik", "The Only Rhyme That Bites". It was just a fluke that because of timing and circumstances nobody knew what this new music was supposed to sound like - there were no rules - and it was accepted on Radio One and people got to hear it, and they liked it, it stuck in people's heads.

When we got "Pacific State" in the charts people kept telling us that it was the first instrumental in the charts since "Stranger On The Shore", which is an exaggeration, but since that era there's been a lot of instrumentals. The only other time when instrumentals have been as popular was the early 60s, late 50s stuff, with Link Wray or whatever. Look how much that era of instrumentals has been used in films ever since to pin down a period of time much more than a vocal track. Instrumental music is undervalued in pop culture.


"Moussaka" from Inside Out (Capricorn)

Is it something from this year?

No, it's something from 1973!

Is it Herbie Hancock?

Yes, in all but name. The track was released under Eddie Henderson's name, but the personnel was the same as Herbie Hancock's group of the time.

The voicings and the gaps in it are very Herbie Hancock. It just shows you; I was very prepared to accept it was from this year, by Red Snapper or someone! It's well riffy, like sequencer music. I've got a tape of Herbie Hancock just doing sequencer based stuff, an early 70s thing, where it's just him on keyboards, sequencers, a Rhodes and things, and that sounds surprisingly modern as well. I love his textures. I love the Headhunters stuff, and the Thrust era. Sometimes he blands out completely, but there was a period when it had the right amount of colour for me.

I got into jazz through the jazz rock thing via Santana records when I was 14 or something. I didn't really get onto Headhunters until 1988 when I got lent some and I subsequently went through the complete Miles Davis thing. I love those colours, from the Rhodes and the bass clarinets; we still use a lot of those things in our music.

I really like the feeling of being able to listen to a record and not being able to absorb it completely. The information overload of that form of music is what's really attractive to me; that you have to surrender to it because you're getting fed so much information on so many different layers. Your brain grinds to a halt and it's doing what I like best about music; it's cleaning your head out.
The layered aspect to it has also been a big influence on what we do. I always think that if you can take it all in on one listening then you're not doing something right.

Which is why you're not in M-People.

That's right, exactly.


"Voodoo Rage" from Black Secret Technology (Juice Box)

[After about 15 seconds] It's Gerald. I win a fiver! I bet someone a fiver you'd play me a Gerald track! It's one of the tracks off Black Secret Technology. That album for me has got that thing I was talking about with Herbie Hancock, of not being able to absorb it, of being so multi-layered and drawn out and colourful.

It's funny what Gerald used to listen to. He used to go to Longsight library like myself and borrow the records. He used to come back with Chick Corea LPs, and we'd share things like Tania Maria LPs. So in the period when we first got together as a group, under the guise of dance music, we were listening to a lot of 70s stuff really.

The great thing about Gerald is that he's completely autonomous. He lives in Gerald world. No industry person could ever get near him or deal with him because it was too much hassle. You could do a great Jackson Five type cartoon of Gerald in Gerald world. Despite that dispute we had with Gerald when he filed for 100 per cent of the writing credits for "Pacific State" - which I still think is completely outrageous - I have a lot fondness for him. I should hate him.

The thing about music technology is that it has enabled people like Gerald or Aphex Twin to make music alone in their studios, whereas before they'd never have made music because they could never have functioned in a group.

Exactly. Gerald never felt comfortable about being in a group when we first did 808 State. God knows why we formed a group, I think it was largely to do with the fact that he had a drum machine and I had a keyboard that we got lumped in as a band.

This track's called "Voodoo Rage".

What's he raging about now? There's bound to be some sort of story to do with someone's misdemeanour.

Drum 'n' bass covers a very wide territory now, with one version with obvious roots in Ambient music, it's all a bit soft and sunny, and one which is much more raw, dark; real hard, booming stuff. Where do you think this sits?

You can go a lot rawer than Gerald. It's head music, really, it's got much more of a head element than a lot of Jungle. It has got authenticity about it, though, it's certainly not just pissing about with technology. He's transcended pissing about with technology and it's second nature to him now, the technology, so he is actually expressing himself. To me it sounds like hours and hours of staying up all night in the studio, whereas a lot of Jungle records are made on limited budgets when there's a chance of a few hours studio time and a borrowed sampler That's a lot more like it was when we started working together. When me and Gerald were making records together if we had the chance of six hours of studio time we'd go in and do it. I've got tapes and tapes of me and Gerald that have never been put out. We used to hammer out a C90 and take it down to Jon Da Silva DJing at the Hacienda, and he used to play it off cassette to 1500 people E'd up. It's like you were saying about the T-Coy record, it was really primitive, one beat and a bassline, tweaking Acid stuff, but at that point it was completely acceptable We used to churn it out like wallpaper


"Acid Rock" (Music Man 12")

It's "Acid Rock" Top noises There was a period of early Acid that was dead paranoid and strange, but there wasn't this kind of rock aggression.

Until the Belgians got hold of it.

But they had such sad beats didn't they? They didn't have any good beats, although there were a handful of good records, this being one of them This was a bit of a hit on the dancefloor, but again it's so slow isn't it?

It's got a similar appeal to "Cubik".

I don't know which came first, this or "Cubik" This was a Frank de Wulf record wasn't it? I remember he came over to the studio at one point while we were doing EX-EL.

This was the kind of record that The Spinmasters made their reputation playing wasn't it?

The Hacienda always had a Handbag element, and even though it did get quite minimal, that thread was never broken. But there was a big split between the Hacienda and another club called the Thunderdome. The Thunderdome was in North Manchester, and it was a lot harder and a lot more aggressive, and Darren and Andy did the Friday and then the Saturday night there. It trod the darker path, away from what was essentially gay disco music.

It's the European influence isn't it? You should play that next to the Cabaret Voltaire thing you opened up with How do you combine, The Spinmasters and you; how do you work it?

It's good to have more than one attitude in a band. Sometimes it has negative aspects, and sometimes positive ones, but at least you're always questioning what you're doing. You talk to them about a different aspect of music and they can talk the hind legs off a donkey about it, equally informed or whatever. They're very passionate about music. I grew up in an era when I was one person in a community of musicians and we all played together and learned from each other. They came into music in a period of Electro and HipHop and studio-based music. It's to do with an age gap, and taking different routes on the same journey.

They seem a lot more dancefloor-oriented than you. Is that a creative tension, or is it an upsetting split?

If it was that bad we wouldn't be seven years down the line. There's a lot more to being in a band than just making music, and our relationship waxes and wanes like a sort of marriage. But it means that peoples' perceptions of what 808 State is all about are invariably wrong if they only see it from either point of view. It makes us hard to pin down, but that's one of the reasons we've survived; we haven't been pinned down and buried. But that was a funny question.

No, it was a good question.

I found myself being very diplomatic. No, really; it balances itself out. It's like opposites attract.


"Gold (Mr Scruff Remix)" (Phonogram EP)

It's Scruff's mix of the Lamb single. I actually play on this record! I'm on the vibraphone. And Paddy Steer who was in the Tongues and is now in Lionrock, he's playing bass. There's a lot of creative people knocking it out, and I'm thinking specifically about Manchester now. When this record was being made, I was in my studio in Duce House, I put the vibraphone in the lift and took it up to Lamb's studio in the attic, then Paddy comes in from Sankey's Soap, and then a couple of days later I nip across to Phil Kirby's studio and this is being re-done in that studio; sometimes there is that village vibey thing going in the city.

A lot of people say you can't play this sort of stuff in a club, but some of the most popular nights in Manchester now do that eclectic thing. There was a Ninja Tunes Vs Fat City night the other week and it was absolutely rammed.

Lamb have very eclectic ingredients; the technology, and the beats that Andy Barlow looks after, and then the singer, Louise Rhodes, is a bit older than him, and she's namechecking Joni Mitchell. It's like in our group. Sometimes the best combinations are of different age groups. Andy from Lamb has just discovered My Life In The Bush of Ghosts. I remember discovering it, but he brings a fresh light to it. Again, it harks back to the way our group works, with a fresh perspective thrown in front of you, a new perspective on what you'd taken for granted.

The way the female voice is being used in this club-inspired music seems very important. They're not divas hired for a day, but real songwriters, and very emotional. Lamb are like that; and Björk working with you, and Portishead as well, of course.

Specially with Bjork, the way she's smashed the old idea of songwriting; it's something she's very good at. She is a songwriter, Björk, in almost a classical sense; it's top songwriting, the way it touches certain emotions. Björk has smashed that idea with songwriting which is so strong lyrically that you just have a strumming acoustic guitar and some sort of lame backing.

This feels like it's got the true spirit of HipHop; it's very inventive.

It's fresh, isn't it? Scruff's doing some terrific stuff. Not everyone likes it, but it's right up my street. Andy from Lamb has a really good attitude to technology, as well. He's someone who's grown up with computers; he's only 21 so he's got none of that technofear that people in my generation still can't help having. He's very second-nature about it, and thinks nothing of exploring the outer parameters of Cubase to get weird results. It feels good, getting inspired by 21 year olds. It can make you look differently about the way you do things.