|Flux, Issue 32
Text: ROBERT HINCHCLIFFE
"A history isn't always a great thing to have in music" reckons 808 State's Graham Massey, and he should know. Since its formation almost fifteen years ago his band has managed to retain its position at the forefront of a dance scene that has seen numerous evolutionary stages come and go. But over the course of six albums 808 State have managed to form a distinct and unique sound, pulling off the enviable feat of making electronic music that is able to exist outside of the zeitgeist.
This summer they are set to deliver their first LP in five years. Entitled 'Outpost Transmission' it will be an event akin to tapping a finger against the barometer of electronic music. For years 808 State have been showing people where to go, and with this LP they have laid down a whole new set of directions. But, as always, they've started in the same place: Manchester.
It was in Manchester in 1998 that Graham Massey and his mate Gerald Simpson got talking to record shop owner Martin Price. The trio soon found some common ground and, along with local hip hop artist MC Tunes, they recorded an EP under the moniker Hit Squad Manchester. An album followed and, without MC Tunes, the musical direction took a far more raw-edged, acid house direction. The band also decided to rechristen themselves, taking their inspiration from the Roland drum machine they were using to such effect.
Over the next two years they recorded two more albums while Gerald Price moved on to pursue his solo project and made some of the most memorable house tunes of the Nineties under his pseudonym A Guy Called Gerald. To fill the gap a DJ partnership was brought in: Andrew Barker and Darren Partington, otherwise known as the Spinmasters.
Throughout the nineties the band produced three more albums and lost one member in the form of Martin Price. As the band received increasing acclaim they also received more and more work and, as a result, each 808 State album seemed to take longer to arrive. Eventually, after the release of Don Solaris in 1996, everything went quiet.
"We spent quite a while touring that album," explains Massey, "and we more or less did another album straight away. But then our label, ZTT, left Warner Brothers so we left ZTT and after that we just couldn't find a label that wanted the new album."
That 'missing' album eventually ended up on the 808 State DVD released earlier this year. In the meantime the band found themselves a new home at the relatively young Circus label. "We've got our own musical agenda," says Massey, "They allow us to be ourselves."
Massey is obviously excited about the new album. His ongoing side project 'Toolshed', has allowed him to get his interest in more basic instrumentation out of his system ("it gets all my muso tendencies out of the way") and he describes 'Outpost Transmission' as "a return to the pure electronic form".
"Music technology usually means that style wins out over content," he explains, "but I'm much more interested in the writing side of things; the way in which tunes are put together. If our music could be performed by different musicians in completely different places and still sound like 808 State then I'd be happy."
Like Don Solaris, Outpost Transmission benefits from the use of guest vocalists on some tracks. There's an appearance from Alabama 3, who the band met while DJing in South London and are now most widely known for their Woke up This Morning track; and experimental indie band Simian guest on one of the new songs. Initially though the band were against the idea of inviting guest vocalists on to the new album. "We almost didn't do it because so many other bands have done the same thing," admits Massey, "but, in the end, it helps the sense of balance on an album. Some tracks just don't sound complete until they have a vocal on them."
Outpost Transmission is immediately recognisable as an 808 State album. The warmth and urgency that Massey, Barker and Partington manage to extract from their various technologies is unparalleled in today's dance scene. But as Massey admits 808 State's history can work against them in an industry where everyone wants to hear something new. "There's a big generation gap within our fan base," he says, "twenty years or so. But I see the 808 State stuff as a body of work. Each album has to be a progression, something better than what's gone before. With electronic music it's easy to make trendy, clubby stuff but we want to create something timeless and that's a lot more difficult."
The album is out on Circus on the 7th October.