|808 State – Andy Barker Exclusive Interview|
3 June 2017
Andy Barker was regularly DJing in Manchester at the likes of Thunderdome before joining 808 State in 1989. With 808 State, he had nine Top 40 hits and two Top 20 albums in the 1990’s with some of the most uncompromising music to ever chart, managing to cross over commercially and remain credible on the underground. He is still DJing and performing with 808 to this day. We caught up with him on our recent trip to Manchester to talk about his career.
TC: Before joining 808 State, you were already DJing and playing House music in clubs, can you tell us a bit about that and how you got into the scene?
AB: Before I was playing House music, I was playing Hip Hop. We had a kind of Hip Hop crew and that was where me and Gerald’s (A Guy Called Gerald) relationship grew up coz we used to do battles and stuff like that. They had MC Tunes and we had MC Shine, we used to do youth clubs when I was about 15.
TC: That was with The SpinMasters, yeah?
AB: Yeah but at the time we were called Turntable Rockers which was a bit of a bad name really (laughs) and they was called Scratch Beat Masters. We moved from that into House music.
TC: With House music, the likes of 808 State would have been founded by a group of like-minded people coming together in the Eastern Bloc record shop in Manchester in the late 80’s. As someone who used to DJ, going into record shops every week to try and get the newest tracks and to meet other aspiring DJ’s was very important to me, how important to you think that was?
AB: It was quite important because every Saturday afternoon was spent in Eastern Bloc.
You’d go into town just to buy records and you’d be in there all day, just waiting for them to play you something you liked and a lot of the time they just took the rip out of you and just played something you’re not gonna like (laughs)! But at the end of the day, we always came away with a bag full of nice tunes!
TC: Do you think that’s something that the current generation are missing out on given that most music is now online and there maybe isn’t that camaraderie that you got out of hanging around record shop and, like I say, meeting like-minded people?
AB: Yeah, slightly but today you’ve got to trawl through tons and tons of stuff. I mean, you go online and you’ve got to search for music whereas you go into a record shop and someone will go, “Here, check this one out” but nowadays it’s a set list of whoever DJ’s and you’ve got to trawl through it all and it’s just time consuming. Back in the day someone would say “Get on that one” and you’d go “Yeah, you’re right”.
TC: Yeah, the people you’d talk to would influence you or point you in a certain direction or even the lads who worked in the shops who’d know what you bought from them in the past would have a bag or records ready and would say “you’re probably gunna be into that”.
AB: I mean, every Saturday there was a bag waiting for me in Eastern Bloc and they knew my kind of style. I liked quite a lot of Belgian stuff, a lot of New Beat stuff.
I was playing in The Thunderdome at the time which was like your alternative to the Hacienda.
The Hacienda was more Garage, more floaty kind of stuff whereas you went into The Thunderdome and it was heads down, let’s go for it.
TC: I’ve heard The Thunderdome was fairly legendary in terms of the crowd and the atmosphere alright!
AB: Yeah and you could try stuff out on them, you could play what’s just come in that Saturday later that night and you’d get a reaction out of it. If it got a bad reaction you’d be like “Right, that’s going back” but most of the time it was quite good! We used to play Pacific State in there off a cassette before it was released as last tune of the night at Thunderdome and it probably helped it be a hit because they loved it.
TC: The band had already been together for a year or so and released some records when ‘A Guy Called Gerald’ was still a member, I know you were DJing with them but how did how did you actually joining the band come about?
AB: Well, we all knew each other because of the record shop and were doing different bits and bobs, we started out with about five or six hip hops groups and then slowly people got bored because nothing was happening. Everyone was expecting to get signed straight away and eventually we started talking to Martin and Graham (Massey) and saying “We like what you’re doing but there’s no song structure” and I’m not sure but I think they realised this, it was just like set the machines off and off they go. When me and Darren (Perrington) joined it was like “we need a start, we need a middle and we need an end” so I think they accepted that idea and obviously they accepted we were slightly younger than them! (Laughs)
TC: You joined around the same time that Gerald would have left, yeah?
AB: Yeah, at the same time we were doing Pacific, Gerald was doing ‘Voodoo Ray’ in the same studio complex. He was in one studio, we were in the other. That version of Pacific that charted was the one where me and Darren got involved and said let’s structure it as a song.
TC: You joined in 1989 right when Acid House / Manchester was peaking and Pacific State had become a massive hit, was it much of a culture shock going from DJing in clubs like Thunderdome to suddenly finding yourself on Top Of The Pops?
AB: Not much actually but it was all a bit of a blur! They used to call us Bob State at Top of the Pops, like “Could Bob State come to the stage now.” (Laughs) We ended up being on that many times that we got to know and have a laugh with the camera crew so it wasn’t so much of a shock. I mean the first time we were on obviously you have nerves, it’s like “Oh, we’re going on TV” and I remember saying to my Mum, “By the way, I’m on telly on Thursday”, she says “What?” and I’m like “Yeah, I’ll be on Top of the Pops.” She was blown away by that!
TC: How does it feel looking back on the old Top of The Pops footage? It’s all there on YouTube!
AB: It feels…let me think about this. My son is now the spitting image of me back then except he doesn’t have the dreaded ginger hair, he’s the double of me. So any time it comes up now I’m like, “That’s you, it’s not me.” (Laughs)
TC: On the one hand you were suddenly in the charts but on the other you were still DJing in some pretty underground clubs in Manchester, how was that scene going off at that stage?
AB: It was good, we had a pretty vibrant scene. No matter how big or small the club was, you could go in and enjoy yourself.
TC: Outside of the Thunderdome and the Hacienda, were there any other smaller clubs that stood out?
AB: You had a place up the road from the Hacienda called The Venue which was a great place, you’d go in there and it was all smiles and you knew everybody. Back then it was nice to know you could go into a club and feel safe coz you were surrounded by people you knew. Nowadays I’m probably a bit too old so I don’t know everybody! (Laughs)
TC: There was a bit of madness in the clubs then as well, you’d meet some serious characters, like people you possibly wouldn’t have even thought of having a conversation with a few years previous. Everybody just seemed to come to the same level.
AB: Yeah, at that time everyone came to the same level. I mean, take football, you’ve got Manchester United, Manchester City and they’d be killing each other all day and then night-time comes and they’re all hugging and getting on with it, enjoying themselves even though they’d been enemies during the day. It was good.
TC: ZTT picked up Pacific State after it was originally out on the Quadrastate EP on Creed. They were well known in the 80’s through Frankie goes to Hollywood and Art of Noise as not being your average label with Paul Morley having a fairly off the wall situationist thing going on. Was he involved with your stuff and how were they as a label to work with?
AB: He was, yeah, I think it was Morley who actually swung the deal in the end. He spent quite a lot of time with us before we signed. Lots of nights out just chatting, talking business, he had an idea what he could do with us.
Trevor Horn, no. He just said “Just get on with it, I haven’t got a clue what you’re doing, just get on with it.” (Laughs)
TC: Was Morley involved on the scene at that stage, obviously he’d have come from a slightly different background?
AB: Well, what Morley was doing at the time was a sort of anarchist thing and I think he thought that we were kind of anarchist but we was just doing what we were doing, we were stumbling basically. I mean every tune we made was like “Let’s go in the studio and see what we come out with”, we had nothing written at all, it cost us a fortune.
Every album cost us an absolute fortune as we’d nothing written. You go in the studio at £1200 / £1500 a day and you start writing or just go “What are we doing?” (Laughs)
TC: After the 90 album, rather than going straight into an 808 State follow up, the band ended up doing a successful rap album with MC Tunes. I know that 808 had originally formed as a Hip Hop act before moving into House, was that album a nod back to that?
AB: Yeah, that was going back to the old days, he had been Gerald’s MC and he said he had loads of rhymes and asked if we fancied it. I think we made that album in six days. It was one of them, let’s get straight into the studio and it just worked. We delivered it and the label liked it.
TC: And again, back into the top ten with The Only Rhyme That Bites.
AB: Yeah, yeah, it was good.
TC: A lot of acts that had chart success with dance music in that initial 88/89/90 period either couldn’t repeat it or went very commercial but you came back in ‘91 with two stone cold classics in Cubik and In Yer Face and the brilliant Ex El album, all of which went top 10. What was the secret and was that you’re most creative period?
AB: I think with Cubik, that was a reaction to what was going on in the dance scene at the time because it got a bit….cheesy, should we say and we was like nah, give ‘em that and see what happens. It was really a guess, it was like “have that” and it worked. It worked and created a completely new scene, I mean once Cubik came out, Belgian went mental.
People started firing various versions of Cubik back at us. In Yer Face, again that was another one that was just a reaction to what was going on. The scene was getting a bit Garagey, pianos, kind of a bit soft and we were just nah, we’re not having that.
TC: The scene was splintering a bit by then with the Hardcore thing getting a bit cartoony, too many samples from kids TV shows and that, it was turning me off it by then.
AB: Yeah, the Hardcore scene just got ridiculous, it turned itself into a joke. It was all double speed beats and stupid lines repeated through it, it was a joke.
TC: I think Cubik and In Yer Face showed that you could make proper hard edged dance music and still be successful.
AB: Yeah, it wasn’t Charly says (laughs). I’m sorry, The Prodigy!
TC: Club wise, how had Manchester progressed by ’91, you were still DJing out as well as working with 808?
AB: Yeah, the Manchester scene went through a lot of ups and downs, went through gangs, went through good clubs and bad clubs.
Sankeys lasted but has just gone recently so there’s a gap there if anyone has any money! (Laughs)
TC: Founder member and the original proprietor of Eastern Bloc records, Martin Price, left the band after Ex El, was there ever any chance the band wouldn’t continue after he left?
AB: At that time, no, there wasn’t. We’d chartered a flight to go to Ibiza to play in The Quarry in San Antonio and on the way back in East Midlands airport we all got strip searched which wasn’t good. The next day we were going out to do a three month tour of America and there was some….not happy people in the crew who were on the plane and Martin decided he wasn’t going out to do the tour. So we went out and started doing the tour and a couple of weeks in people started asking “Where’s the other member?” and we just had to say “He’s not come.” I’ve never seen him since.
TC: Wow. Did the rest of you have a clear vision of where you wanted to go at that stage?
AB: Not really, we felt we were doing quite well in America,
we were playing 10,000 capacity venues. It was like we were introducing rave or dance music to the Americans. It died down then before EDM, whatever that is, arrived.
We are going out there in May for a tour and I really don’t know what EDM is but I know we won’t fit in with it!
TC: Over the course of Ex El and your next couple of albums, you worked with some serious singers such as Bernard Sumner, Bjork, Ian McCullough, James Dean Bradfield and Guy Garvey. Who was the most rewarding to work with?
AB: It was all quite good. Bernard was good, we did the music and left him to it. We left the studio while he put his vocals down. Guy was great but he lost his lyrics book. I’m sure he still to this day he thinks one of us nicked it. But we didn’t! (Laughs) Bjork was a bit of on odd one, she turned up when we were doing Top of the Pops and someone at the show said there’s an Icelandic girl here who wants to meet you and we didn’t really know who she was till someone mentioned The Sugarcubes. So we met and got on well and spent a lot of time together before we started writing music and we’ve been friends ever since. She’s a nice person. I think she discovered dance music and though “Who’s good at that? Ah, 808 are good at that” and we ended up going over to Iceland and did a couple of gigs she organised which was awfully weird at the time! James Dean Bradfield, we recorded in a studio in Bath and did the video in Gibraltar which was fun. I recently met him and he couldn’t remember me! And then when I said “Remember Gibraltar?” and he went “Oh, no!” (Laughs)
TC: Any friction with Ian McCullough seeing as he’s Scouse and you’re a Manc?!
AB: Ha! No, we recorded that one in Sheffield so it was neutral ground! We recorded that when we were doing a tour with Madness and Ian came out and did that tour with us.
TC: As well as being fairly prolific in the studio, you also played live fairly extensively around that time. What were your favourite gigs and other acts to play with?
AB: Probably the best tour we did or at least my favourite was one with New Order in the States.
Smallest capacity was 80,000, biggest was around 120,000, Hollywood Bowl was great, things like that. Hollywood Bowl was really strange though, you’re performing and the first ten rows are sat there having their dinner! And then behind them there’s a mosh pit! That was really bizarre, I dunno if it’s still like that but it was then.
TC: Any other funny memories stories from those tours you want to share?
AB: I’ve got loads of stories but I’m not gunna say any on tape! Sorry kids, you’ll never know!
TC: 808 have been cited as influences on many acts including the likes of Aphex Twin. How does it feel now to be considered influential elder statesmen of the dance scene?
AB: You know what I’m gunna say, it makes me feel old! (Laughs) No, it’s good because somebody had to open the doors and I hope we opened the doors and the younger crowd went through it. People like The Chemical Brothers, people like that. We went, “There’s the door opened, we’re experimenting, you know what to do.”
TC: Is there anything at the moment you’re listening to that’s impressing or inspiring you?
AB: Not really, my inspiration these days is listening to Coldplay in the car so I don’t speed! (Laughs) Otherwise I’d be banned!
TC: Maybe you should get Chris Martin in for the next 808 album?!
AB: Maybe, I think he might do it as well, I’ll ring him later!
TC: As well as your DJing, you’ve also released some solo stuff as the likes of Atlas. How does working in the studio on your own compare to working with 808?
AB: When I’m doing my own stuff, I always think it’s never finished. I always think it’s never good enough because it stays at home. I play it to the odd person and they’ll ask “When are you releasing that?” and I’m “Ehhh, no, I’m not.” It’s a bit of an odd thing with me, I find it difficult to say okay, it’s finished, and away you go. There’s a lot of stuff there gathering dust.
TC: Would that be House or Techno or do you still experiment with the Hip Hop or B Boy stuff you used to do with The Spinmasters?
AB: All kinds of stuff. I leave the Hip Hop to my son though! The kids would be playing me something and going “Get on this, Dad” and I’m like “Yeah? No.” (Laughs)
TC: Finally, what have you got lined up for 2017, either with or without 808?
AB: 808 are going out in May to do an American tour. Then in June I’m doing a stage at Glastonbury called The Unfairground, it’s normally on the Saturday. I still have to decide what DJ’s to get this year. Last year I had Carl Cox which was amazing. This year, I’m struggling on who to choose because it has to be Acid, no Garage, it has to be Acidy Acid because we live in the naughty corner and we’re going on till six in the morning! (Laughs)
TC: And the naughty corner is all about Acid!
AB: Exactly, yeah! (Laughs)
[Words: Tony Considine / Editing Page Design: Mike Mannix / Transcription: Tony Considine]