31st July 2002
RICHARD HECTOR-JONES SALUTES THE RETURN OF THE SEMINAL 808 STATE FOR GPERCUSSION
"My one lasting memory of playing Castlefield Arena," pipes up Darren Partington, by far the most loquacious member of 808 State, on the arrival of his second pint, "was the time we headlined Manchester's last Olympic bid party in '93. What a flipping night that was!
"We were set to go on after they'd announced the result, right. Of course as everyone knows now we lost that time. And as if it wasn't bad enough having to play straight after such bad news to a crowd of deeply gutted people I had to climb over a weeping and wailing Bet Lynch to get to the stage. Stuff like that can scar you forever."
"Good gig as it turned out though," offers an altogether more positive Graham Massey, approaching things in a way that could be seen as more in the spirit of the games.
We all think about it for a moment and agree on one thing. That was a weird scenario.
Earlier on in the day we arrange to meet at the Museum of Science & Technology in Castlefield to take some photos to accompany the article. There's a Star Trek exhibition on that bemuses the group. It's actually more of a science fair dressed up as entertainment, apart from the excellent recreation of the teleportation deck that seduces even the harshest cynic amongst us. Adult Trek fans slip furtively in and out of the show's exhibits as we run around pressing buttons. Graham Massey sits on a recreation of the space ship's deck trying to guide the USS Enterprise through space, but it sounds like a German soundtrack because he's pressed the wrong button at the start of the procedure. The other are more into larking about. This moment alone captures the dynamic of the group better than any character description.
808 State have been one of Manchester's most pivotal acts for over 15 years now. A bold statement in a city of such rich varied pickings maybe but think about it. They sold out the G-Mex at a time when dance acts didn't even entertain such pretensions. They've toured the world over and over again. They did the States with New Order at Hooky and Co's most hedonistic heights, playing the Hollywood Bowl, along the route of an enormo-dome tour. Back in Manchester they've headlined Castlefield three times in the past and they're about to do it again as part of this year's annual GPERCUSSION event. They've made records with Bjork, James Dean Bradfield, Ian McCulloch and Bernard Sumner way before the phrase 'dance collaboration' became common currency.
Then there's the music- 'Oops', 'Narcossa', 'Cubik', 'Pacific State', 'Olympic', and personal favourite 'Lift. 808 side-steeped the tail-end of rave culture with their generation defining Ex:El album and have also often wrong-footed popularity in favour of doggedly doing what they want. That last bit wasn't necessarily intentional, though they admit they've never consciously written a single. Of course they've made mistakes. That UB40 one was never exactly a favourite in our house (and it remains banned in certain countries on grounds of taste), but all in all it's been a heck of an interesting ride brought right up to date and capped for the time being with the forthcoming release of the band's first new album in five years, 'Outpost Transmissions', whose title alone is indicative of how 808 State perceive themselves in 2002.
"What we always try to do," offers Graham Massey looking up from his pint in a Chorlton beer garden, "is make something we feel is more timeless. All the best stuff we've done has been when we've been a little out of the loop, away from trends, outside of musical fashion. That's certainly where we are now," he laughs knowingly, "But that's where the pure sound of 808 is found."
He's right. If you listen to Ex:El or 808:90 now, both career peaks in many people's eyes, far from being a ravey Davey compliment to the acid house years these remain complex, lush and beautiful pieces of club-infused electronica with barely a 4:4 beat in sight to appeal to the dancefloor. Put it like this, an outsider chancing upon these gems for the first time would be astonished at the sounds within; at how far removed from the scene 808 were even when they were its supposed champions.
"But that does mean that there's been times when we've really lost our way," counters Graham before the backslapping gets too out of hand. They all laugh and both Darren and third member Andy Barker agree. I suggest Gorgeous as a point of notable quality drop and no-one disagrees too strongly. Getting the next round in might be a good idea, though.
The new album is something of a departure for 808 State if you have preconceptions about what 808 State are and do. From the moment you put on opening track, '606' (with guests Simian) it's apparent that 808 aren't being jostled or swayed by the mood swings of club land. Vocal harmonies ride over dissonant electronics that are very Graham Massey, by far the group's most leftfield member. Elsewhere 'Roundbum Mary' (kind of) acknowledges the current breaks scene with it's crisp production. Meanwhile the track 'Lungloo' is no doubt inspired by the crazier leanings of Graham's jazz record collection and possibly time spent with friend Paddy Steer's Homelife and his own Toolshed project. As a package 808 state still refuse to be summed up by genre or soundbite. And one has to wonder, maybe that's been part of their problem over the years.
"Who likes 808 State?" asks Darren at one point taking time out from 'giving it all that' to reflect on issues. "Who remembers us? What social bracket do we fit into? Sometimes I don't know. I think it's going to be very interesting at GPERCUSSION to see if we can convert people back to our sound."
He's got a point. They've been relatively out of the picture since Don Solaris and even that album was pretty much ignored (and critically under-valued). By their own admittance they floundered a while wondering which way to turn whilst listening to the views of too many others. Eventually they just carried on with what they liked. Nevertheless 808 State are, to an extent, still pigeon-holed by a genre they were only briefly part of, by clichés that just don't apply. It's an odd issue only worth acknowledging here on the eve of an interesting new stage of the band's life: a new album and a festival headline show.
808 State weren't born of The Haçienda scene. Graham was a card carrying member from early days due to his involvement with Biting Tongues but Darren and Andy were to a larger extent a product of the other side of the acid house coin. The long-departed Thunderdome club on Rochdale Road, Sunset Radio and early Eastern Bloc makes up their history.
"The crop of Acid House history books and films ignores so much real and important history," says Darren, genuinely animated for the umpteenth time. "A lot of real people's history is discriminated against because the writers weren't there at the time. Out of our scene in north Manchester people either wouldn't go to The Haçienda or couldn't get in. These were all the people who went to the Thunderdome to hear Sasha and Mike Pickering play. Pickering played some of his best sets at the Thunderdome before The Haç. I'll admit it got a bit moody later on...."
That's an understatement though Darren's right. "Yeah " adds Graham. "We took Trevor Horn there once after getting a flight back from New York with him. He just stood there at the bar all night terrified, utterly freaked out by the mayhem."
But that was then and next week is another instalment in Manchester's exciting 'whatever letter they choose next' Percussion festivals which 808 are headlining.
I'm sure they'll rock the crowd like they always do whilst at the same time remaining somehow distant from any prevailing scene or trend.
And it's at times like that that you realise that being 'out of the loop', as Massey puts it, isn't such a bad place to be.
Outpost Transmissions is released on 2 September.