An interview with 808 State
There is no shadow of a doubt how important 808 State were to the foundations of British techno and house music. From the very start with Newbuild they were able to carve out a career that has spanned 30 years and in that time produced some truly bonafide classics with Pacific State being my own personal favourite electronic music record of all time. I was lucky to have the opportunity to talk to 808 State founding member Graham Massey about those embryonic days in Manchester and the groundbreaking impact they made on the acid house scene and electronic music for the past three decades.
It is 30 years since your Newbuild, it is a seminal LP - I remember John Peel being a huge champion of it. What was the driving force and inspiration for that record?
It was an enthusiasm for the acid house scene that we were picking up through Eastern Bloc Records at the time. I had started doing an audio engineering course a few blocks away from the record shop, so we started to try and make a record and the first thing we did was Hit Squad MCR. It's sort of a hip hop car crash really and wasn't an auspicious start but it got us together as a group and introduced a lot of the people who were involved in the scene at the time. Most were in their teens apart from me and Martin who were about 10 years older.
We started to do gigs around 1987-88 as this motley hip hop crew and one group was A Guy Called Gerald and MC Tunes and they were called the Scratch Beat Masters and another group was the Spinmasters which was Darren and Andrew from 808 State and another rapper called MC Shine. We used to go round in a mini bus in the suburbs and places like Wrexham Supporters Club and other similar locations. Because we had this equipment, of which a lot of it was Gerald's including a 303 and an 808 and which we used for hip hop at the time. We were all listening to a programme in Manchester called Bust This which was a three hour dance music programme on a Sunday. They had an hour of hip hop an hour of house and an hour of electro. Some of us were really enthralled with an abstract version of house music and started to jam it at the end of our hip hop gigs and people were really freaked out by it. We used to make these tapes of these jams, whilst Gerald had already been making his own form of abstract music and was going down his own road by sending tapes to this Manchester radio station. I had access to a recording studio so we made Newbuild in a weekend - it was a jam really. Money was really tight so we would blag studio time and I would pretend to be the caretaker so we could stay in overnight. The tape we used to record the record was out of a skip from the BBC and when we took that tape to get it mastered the engineer was totally freaked out as it there was audio from old newsreel tape still on there.
Electronic albums were not really in vogue in the early years of house and techno, what was the thinking about that focus rather than just 12 inch releases?
The album was super exploratory as me and Martin had come from an album oriented era and that was kind of imposed even more by giving it a side A and side B vibe which spread the music over an album, it was almost like second nature to do that really. It didn't have that focus of singles when it was played out as we'd pushed song structure out of the window. It was more like a landscape painting than a figurative painting really.
What was feeding your inspiration - clubs like The Hacienda or the development of music technology?
I think the thing about Newbuild is that it is limited by the technology, there is just one or two tracks that uses the Atari computer, so we didn't heavily rely on the sampler in the way we did with later 808 State releases. It was a limited palette of sounds that we used over that weekend as we had three 101 synthesizers which definitely flavours that album with the tangled quality and with three live sequencers running at once. When you have that amount of sequencing you have to think in a baroque kind of way and the density of tracks was something that was kind of new as acid house records often had very simple things like one 303 featuring in it. Newbuild had multiple layers and odd time signatures which wasn't very common in acid house at that point. We were taking it a bit further over the edge than acid house was - it was throwing ourselves into the indulgence of it all.
Your early releases had a quality that was equal to what was coming out of Detroit at the time - did you get much reaction to your music in the United States?
We really weren't focused on what Americans thought about it, we operated in our world and we were thinking about getting it onto Stu Allen's radio show in Manchester and getting it played in The Hacienda - but that felt a bit far-fetched at that point. I don't think we over-thought it at that time, it was a case of 'right studio time, get gear, press go, GO!' Gerald was always making music, I was always making music and Martin was completely surrounded by the music that was coming out at the time. We were all a bunch of heads that were soaked in music and if you put those three people in a room then something is going to come out.
Pacific State has truly stood the test of time as an anthem - it is pretty unique. How did you come up with the idea of adding the saxophone as you apparently said that you didn't really play the saxophone at the time.
I had played a saxophone on a Biting Tongues record and we were recording a Biting Tongues record at the same time as Pacific State. We were using the same technology as we were on the 808 State records. This idea of using brass instruments along with technology was really a 'wow!' moment as a saxophone had got left in the studio that night and we decided to simply try it out over the track as it reminded me of the warmth of the chords. Pacific State was done in several sessions and it was originally done for a John Peel Session that didn't come off. If you did a Peel Session you had to go to the Maida Vale in London and we were trying it so we could do it under our direction in our own studio as we didn't have it all written, we just had it all in our own studio. We didn't pre-plan it, so in one session it was quite linear with the chords and we felt it needed something to take it over the top. It was assumed that would probably be a vocal and that was what most people were suggesting. I just thought that it had that kind of Herbie Hancock vibe and the Strada Saxophone is the instrument that goes with that kind of sound that we certainly all into at that point. We were listening to Hancock, Miles Davis and Pharoah Sanders at that point. Also, it's not a clarinet as people keep saying. That was probably confused by our Top of the Pops performance with an instrument that looks like a clarinet but we were trying to look as techno as possible.
I remember your performance live on TOTP in 1989 - it really stayed with me and many people in my generation. I was also struck by the fact you were the only person I'd ever seen wearing a bum bag look very cool. How did it feel being thrust on to national TV?
Everyone had bum bags at the time, it was embarrassing, I also had a filofax that I had modified to invent something called the Filostrap. It was a strap off a bag that I clipped onto my filofax so I could carry it over my shoulder and walk into the Hacienda wearing it, that's how 1980s I was. We didn't know quite how to perform this kind of music and we had never thought of performing it. Before Pacific State our idea of performing was gathering around the mixing desk. We had seen people like Gary Clail and On U Sound and that was a big inspiration for us. We just took our music and played it from the mixing desk where the engineer was almost the star. It was from that West Indian soundsystem tradition where the activity took place around the mixing desk and performing was not really the point of it. The rave thing was good space for that, in the early days we were everyone's favourite support band as we would be up the other end of the venue plugging our gear into the mixing desk, mainly because it was the simplest way of connecting into the soundsystem. So we would support people like A Certain Ratio and Inspiral Carpets and we would make this bridge between dance and indie music. I had come from a band world and was doing live mixing at the Boardwalk, so those two worlds kind of met together. We were listening to John Peel and he was mixing genres at the time and it seemed normal to be doing that kind of thing. It seemed normal in Manchester to mix the various scenes and sounds together, I'm not sure if that was just in that city.
That is where interesting music lies really, it's kind of outsider music that has interested me more and music by people who are auteurs and have a strong vision. I always liked people who made music by themselves as that was quite uncommon at the time. I always liked Stevie Wonder who played everything by himself as he had an idea of what he really wanted. He wanted his records to sound a certain way and play everything himself so they sounded a certain way.
You were one of the first of that generation of UK electronic music artists to gain a wider acceptance in the wider music fraternity especially with later collaborations - did you feel like flag bearers at the time?
When we collaborated with Bjork for example, we definitely had a common view of music and was sending each other tapes of stuff. I think it's important to bridge the past with the future and that music can enable time travel. Back in the day it was like fumbling around in the dark before the Internet, now everything is much more transparent. It was amazing if you could find someone who was on your wavelength.
Pacific State is just one of a good number of incredible tracks you created, but if you had to pick one 808 State track that never really got picked up and deserves a second listening, what would it be?
You can't force attention on certain tracks but there are certain ones that people are more obsessed about, one being Flow Coma, Nephatiti off Excel and there is a great fondness of the Don Solaris album as a block of music. It is funny as I am trying to incorporate tracks from Don Solaris into this tour but it doesn't translate easily into a gig. It is quite difficult to pick something from it for a live performance. I think it is something to do with its richness and overall effect as an album, you can't just cherry pick from it. I am also quite fond of some of the tracks from Outpost Transmission which I think often gets overlooked with some proper landscapy type stuff like Chopsumwong. I have created a playlist on Spotify called Terraforming by 808 State and it is my favourite landscape music. I love that thing where people have a context for some tracks such as fans who talk about how they had a track on a tape in their car and how it became a soundtrack for that summer.Get music similar to 808 State's with Trackhunter
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