808080808 State: An Interview With Graham Massey
4th February 2010
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February 4th, 2010 by Robert Ham

During their ’90s heyday, 808 State were one of the first groups to bring the sounds of techno and acid house to the pop charts in their native England. The quartet – comprised of Graham Massey, Marc Price, Andrew Barker, and Darren Partington – peaked right out of the gate, thanks to their 1989 single “Pacific State”, a still-entrancing song anchored by Massey’s siren-like soprano sax hook and pulsing, limber rhythms. They went on to score further Top 10 hits with punchy electro numbers like “Cubik” and “In Yer Face”, as well as the hot stepping, UB40 sampling gem “One In Ten”.

Apart from these chart hits, 808 State were also one of the earliest rave-era acts to embrace the spirit of the album. They releasing a series of cohesive statements – Ninety, Ex:El, Gorgeous, and Don Solaris – on Trevor Horn’s ZTT label (the group was signed to the iconic hip-hop label Tommy Boy here in the States). These discs showcased the artistic growth of the band as they moved from collections of dance floor ready work shoehorned together with rough transitions to a fuller, more spacious sound augmented by a cadre of guest vocalists. In March, these four discs will be reissued in remastered editions by ZTT, each one accompanied by a second disc of remixes and b-sides.

While the group hasn’t released any new material since 2003’s Outpost Transmission, they are still very much a going concern with the full live band playing festival dates throughout the year, as well as Barker and Partington DJ’ing around the world under the 808 State moniker. Pampelmoose spoke with one of the band’s founding members, Graham Massey, about the history, legacy, and the spirit of 808 State.

What was it like to revisit these recordings some 15 or more years after the fact?

The 808 Archive was in a bit of a mess. ZTT had certain DATs at their offices. Some were in a place called Music Bank, and some were over at Warners. I had a full set of DATs but all labeled with working titles, in the wrong boxes. So it was a bit of archeological dig to put together the “extras” CDs. We had decided to add a second disc of B-sides and rare tracks to each album. We got a lot of help from our fans at 808state.com who are thankfully better at archiving than both the band and the record company (to be fair, there is no one at ZTT who worked there back in the ’90s). I have always been aware that the CD editions from the early ’90s were mastered with a lot of headroom making them comparatively quiet to modern CDs. I am really glad we’ve brought them up to date and that almost the entire archive Is now available for digital download as that’s been fairly limited so far. I also am relieved to have some physical product back in the stores. I don’t think it’s right for instance that you can walk into HMV Manchester and not have an 808 State section.

Are you excited to know that there is still an interest in the band’s music after all this time?

Yes, of course. I’m really pleased that a different generation has taken an interest. It’s pretty weird to think that 20-year-olds weren’t even born when we made a lot of this stuff. To me it doesn’t seem that long ago. It’s surprising how young the audience is when we do gigs these days. Certain tracks are really well known: “Pacific”, “Cubik”, “In Yer Face”. Kept alive through compilations and games culture, I guess. I don’t know how you get people to go to the deep end these days. The way digital culture works is always to present the most popular tracks in a playlist. I’ve noticed the way my listening habits have changed. I’ve turned into a picker: music’s like one big salad bar or buffet. I’ll have a bit of this and that – and leave it all half finished on the plate. But we sort of designed the albums with an overall architecture. It would be nice if you had the time to sit and listen to the way we made them in the long player format.

You came of age, musically speaking, at a very exciting time – living in Manchester as the music scene exploded there and so many influential bands came into being – what was it like to be a first hand witness to that?

My perspective goes further back into Manchester’s music scene. I first got involved during the punk/post-punk era which was equally as vibrant for the city’s music scene. Just before 808 State and the Rave era, it actually felt like everything was dying out. 1987 was the winter before spring in ‘89. I think if you look at a lot of the successful bands of the Madchester era, they all been grafting away in ‘87, not knowing what to do other than local gigs. All the seeds were in place but it needed a catalyst to bring this music out. I think the rave scene brought self empowerment and that feeling of, “Lets do the show right here.”

The club scene and the radio galvanized that and stopped looking outside itself so much and looked toward Manchester instead. We did foster the North/South Divide only half jokingly. The Hacienda was very important and now there’s a lot of books written around that, but there was a lot of other equally important venues where bands could get their stuff together: The Boardwalk, The International, The Thunderdome. It was a music lover’s city run by music lovers. The radio the same: run by music lovers not ad executives. There’s a whole tapestry of individuals who made a difference, who gave you pin pricks of hope. Tony Wilson did. John Peel was important in looking to the UK suburbs and giving that music a platform.

There were also dozens of equally bullheaded characters all coming together. Martin Price should get a lot of credit not just in the context of 808 State but as a musical evangelist behind the counter of Eastern Bloc Records. He would be very passionate about what he believed in and generous in making sure DJs were spreading the gospel of Techno. I think he must have given away more records than he sold.

Eastern Bloc supplied the legendary 808 State radio show on Sunset FM hosted by Darren [Partington] and Andrew [Barker]. People used to park their cars in circles up on the Pennines hills around Manchester to tune in, party and record the show. Cassette was the medium back then. Hardly anyone had a CD player. Good music floated to the top and a surprising amount was local. I must say most of the music we were excited about was American. Sometimes music has to travel to get appreciated. I think we almost loved Detroit more in Manchester than Detroit did certainly more than the rest of the U.S.

What attracted you to the sounds that eventually got 808 State on its way – acid house, electro and hip-hop?

The main thing was the newness of the music technology back then. Technology felt empowering in that it instantly transcended your playing as a musician. What I mean by that is it gave you a shortcut to sounding like someone from somewhere else – a wider international communion. None of us had traveled abroad very much – we traveled through music. An 808 and a 303 sounded the same from New York or Chicago as it did from Japan or Manchester. Back then that was novel. Now I hate that music lacks geography. It’s almost gone too far and differences really matter to me now. But in 1988, as a musician in Manchester, you were always trying to reach for the sounds of the wider world to break out and if you tried really hard, you could even sound like you came from further out still.

Transcendent music has always been an ultimate goal and listening habit. We were latching on to the fact that the trance-like nature of machines could get you near that mind state then you could help it with almost landscape-type music and colors. The advent of the sampler really was like getting a paintbox. Then we had the big wax crayons that were analogue synthesizers.

It wasn’t very long after the band formed and started recording that you attracted the attention of DJs on Radio 1 and started getting some commercial success – was that daunting at the time to have so much attention on you that early on or were you all just rolling with it?

I think we felt fairly grounded in that we had the instant feedback of the record store and the dance floor and we had our own radio show in MCR. We felt that the BBC and the NME were all out of step with the street and were the ones fighting to catch up. We were probably more than a little arrogant with the press back then. I feel the “Madchester” scene was still very much shaped by the NME and they would lean toward the more traditional bands. I think they had a couple of journalists who were pushing for techno but even when we were having a chain of chart and club hits, filling stadiums and headlining festivals, they still would not give us a front cover. Probably too ugly.

We did feel very supported in Manchester. There’s almost a football supporter mentality about it, a pride, and that connected the other groups together and of course at the Hacienda all the bands were socializing. There was no VIP velvet rope stuff going on. It was one big rolling party.

You wisely decided not to sign with Factory Records, instead choosing Trevor Horn’s imprint ZTT – what attracted you to the label?

One of the things that was attractive (aside from the advance) was the fact that ZTT could concentrate on just us at that point. They did not have a current flagship band, whereas Factory had two already (New Order/Happy Mondays). ZTT had a great tech-y music legacy and we all looked up to Trevor Horn. Also from a personal point of view, I’d seen Factory operate from an insiders point of view as my previous band Biting Tongues had been with them for a few years at that point. They just seemed chaotic. We were chaotic enough by ourselves.

Your albums were known for the singers that you collaborated with – from Bjork and Bernard Sumner to James Dean Bradfield (Manic Street Preachers) and Mike Doughty – how did you you choose who to work with? Did they find you or did you seek them out? Were there particular things that you were looking for when you were looking for singers to work with?

I think we could have carried on quite happily being instrumental. All of our hits were instrumental. All of our songs with vocals involved singers adapting to our soundscapes rather than more traditional verse/chorus type structures. Bjork adapted really well because she’s an improviser. I absolutely loved it when she performed “QMart” in the studio. I wasn’t aware of her Jazz sensibilities until that point. I would always worry that words and human issues in lyrics would break the atmosphere of the albums, so we were always after obtuse lyrics, or atmospheric lyrics. We thought very much in terms of albums which was probably not the norm for dance acts at that point. I think we loosened up around the Gorgeous album and we did a lot of experimenting with singers, but we left a lot of it off these reissues. Gorgeous was a rocky time for us as a band. Martin Price had left and we were trying to find our footing in what had become a very established Dance Music Industry at that point. So, as an album, it’s less flowing but both more club friendly and more ambient if that makes sense. But the extra CD really gives the wider view here.

There’s some stuff in the can we did with Tim Booth (of James). We did more stuff with Robert Owens, Billie Ray Martin. A strange one-off project with Rolf Harris (Australian cabaret artist and TV personality) and we did a version of “Love Can’t Turn Around” (by Farley Jackmaster Funk) with Tom Jones. Trevor Horn was working on an album with him at the same time and hooked us up. These kind of experiments were never going to be on our albums.

We worked with local singers Barrington Stuart and Rachel McFarlane. Some people in the U.S. remember us touring with them back in ‘93, doing a number of the songs from Gorgeous. On some of the dates for the Don Solaris tour we had Alison Goldfrapp singing a number of the songs from that album (we shared the same management as her at that point). She was very versatile. I really love the track “Mooz” from that album featuring another Icelandic singer called Ragga. It’s a good example of the soaring improvising mystical thing we were after. Don Solaris is by far my favorite 808 album as I think it does achieve a total atmosphere throughout – it’s the most vocal-orientated but all the singers serve the big picture.

808 State has done a lot of remixing and had your work remixed by some notable artists – again, is this a case of you seeking out folks to work with or they coming to you?

We never actively sought out remixes. We just sort of fitted them in. We must have turned down some good ones through being away touring or being busy doing our stuff. We also accepted some odd ones through mates or partying. I would like to compile a CD of our mixes at some point though it’s a lot harder as we would have to license it all. But it would be a hell of a cast and a good snapshot of the times. I think other musos picked up our vibe so we got left field guys like Jon Hassell and Yellow Magic Orchestra, mainstream guys like Bowie (apparently his son was the big 808 fan) and Quincy Jones, both we considered a great honor. Bands and other dance producers, Primal Scream, Future Sound of London, etc.

As far as other people mixing our tracks we rarely asked other people. Being typically Mancunian, we were really tight with our money. We’d rather mix ourselves than pay someone else. We were on Tommy Boy Records in the U.S. and they would commission mixes specifically for NY clubs, so there’s a lot of those as we felt we should play ball. But I’ve not included any of those on the reissues. I have included one of Brian Eno’s mixes of “Lopez”, which I’m really fond of. There’s also a lot of 808 bootleg mixes from back then. People didn’t always ask for approval, especially Italians. We should do a comp of those!

How did you go about choosing the bonus material to go on these reissues? Was it hard to narrow down the mixes and rarities to fill out these sets?

We didn’t want to end up with too may multiple mixes of the main tracks. Let’s face it, we could probably fill an album of mixes of “Cubik” alone. So we picked some rare mixes at the request of 808state.com. We used any of the exclusive B-sides of each era. We did a lot of 12” singles back then and we always use the B-sides to experiment on. Then there was often some session tracks left off the albums – more so on the later albums when we spent longer in the studio. I had compiled lists based on discussions on the website forum, but ended up changing things at the last minute in the mastering sessions based on what sounded good. It feels good to have put them into some order, but for instance on some digital music sites such as Spotify or even iTunes, it’s frustrating to me that it is not complete because we have the early album reissues on Rephlex missing (Newbuild, Quadrastate and Prebuild) and two other albums in State to State 1 and 2. And the last album, Outpost Transmissions. We would like it all in one place at some point.

I think some people here in the States – if they are just getting to know your music – would be surprised to learn that you used a lot of live instrumentation in your live shows. How important was that to have that added element on stage with you?

When we first started we simply set up our machines up, usually near the mixing desk of a venue (not on stage) and simply improvised. There was no performance element, it was a very socialist vibe – no artist above the audience stance. But pretty soon we realized to do larger raves and concerts we were going to have to put in a performance. We developed this in a number of ways. “Pacific” had the sax, “Cubik” had the guitar. We had about three MC Tunes hits where he would come on. We went overboard with the lighting and carried a full laser rig with us which was rare back then. Once we started touring in the U.S., we just got into playing more freely. We started adding a drummer at certain gigs. We had a couple of guys who learned the set sometimes we used both. One of them was a young man called James Ford who now has his own techno outfit Simian Mobile Disco. Now we’ve added Paddy Steer on bass which gives a very beefy sound to the whole thing. So we are a five-piece on stage but still running the sequencers on Logic. Andrew and I handle the synths, Darren does percussion and MCs. I also still do the sax stuff and guitar. It can get quite messy for a techno group. I mean that in a good way. “Pacific” can turn into a 20 minute jazz odyssey these days.

Are you planning on releasing any new music in the future?

If the modern equivalent of the King of Bavaria would like to act as our patron, bring it on. But you couldn’t market a band like us, we are from the age of freak occurrence. We were in the right place at the right time and ran with the ball like a Mancunian shoplifter.

What can you tell me about the new project you’ve been working on Sisters Of Transistors?

It’s a group with four ladies playing ’60s transistor organs with myself on drums. I work it all out on the computer, print it out as manuscript then we rehearse it all. We all sing, so that’s a couple of new roles for me drumming and singing. It’s also about limiting choices – music technology gives you so many decisions to make. In SOT, it’s about what can we do with these old instruments – it will bring out something new. So much electronica is beginning to sound the same. Everyone is using the same equipment. It’s turned out to be more clubby than we first intended, but that’s because we get offered a lot of parties. We are a great party band.

What would you like to do next?

I’d like to do some more soundtrack work. I like the context/boundaries and the tradition. I’d like to play live more. It’s why I’ve got so many band projects. It’s still the thing I like best. Strap me in and point me at the sky!