808 State: ‘We were somewhat like a cartoon punch-up when we started’

Electronic music pioneers 808 State are back touring a new album. Co-founder Graham Massey spoke to Duncan Seaman.

Thursday, 5th March 2020, 11:45 am
808 State

Graham Massey has a frank explanation for why techno pioneers 808 State are back with their first album in almost two decades.

“Because you need to be putting music out in order to pretend that the music business still exists,” says the Mancunian collective’s co-founder, now aged 59. “The power now lives in the live part of the game; agents have all the power. There isn’t really a record industry, people are just streaming things, you can’t really pretend that you can make a living putting out product, at least not in our case. If you’re somebody like Taylor Swift maybe. We just saw it as a device so that the agent could turn a fresh page.”

Today slimmed down to a duo comprising Massey and Andrew Barker, 808 State are determined to eschew being labelled a heritage act, trading on a past glories such as Pacific State, In Yer Face and Cubik. “We didn’t want to get caught up in this nostalgia thing,” Massey says. “For years we’ll keep bumping into that thing where people want you to be the thing that you were.

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“[When people ask] what were you doing for 17 years the answer is trying to change, trying to expand as an artist. You’re responding to an inner voice as an artist; trying to do something different and to try to get escape velocity from that takes every fibre of your being.”

He points to a number of recording projects in the interim, that include EPs, remixes, solo projects and collaborations. “Each one of them is about trying to do something different,” he says.

Transmission Suite, which came out late last year, was made at the former Granada Studios in Manchester. The building, which was due to be converted into a hotel, has significance to many Mancunians, not least Massey.

“We performed there in 1988, just after we’d recorded Pacific State,” he remembers. “On YouTube now there’s a clip of us performing on The Other Side of Midnight, Tony Wilson’s late-night arts programme, and the track doesn’t even have the correct title at that point, it was literally that new when we performed it. So in a way we do see it as a bit of a starting off point as well, Granada.

“Granada represents so much of a north-western, anti-establishment culture, that’s the way I see it. It was the only alternative to the BBC and as such was slightly irreverent. Growing up in the black-and-white 60s, they would present stuff the BBC wouldn’t present such as early rock ’n’ roll stuff like Jerry Lee Lewis and Sister Rowetta Tharpe. They had a real beatnik, left-wing slant that presented alternative culture. The Beatles were first broadcast on TV on Granada before anyone else would go near them, and the Rolling Stones, all kinds of a reflection of the underbelly of the 60s that we would get at tea-time growing up. It represents very much a big cultural hub in the life of people that lived in the region, so to be in that building felt like being in some kind of epicentre.”

The building is not without its ghosts, too. “If you delve into the Manchester Evening News archives there are all sorts of reports of exorcisms. There are reports of ghosts in Studio One going back to the 70s, it’s a constant theme in that building, and it is in fact built on a plague pit so there may indeed be some body to that legend.

“Sometimes we were the only people in there at the weekend in this massive complex and because our studio was made of several layers of glass you would constantly be catching your reflection in a kaleidoscope of glass and you would be at times on edge.”

While Massey agrees that music can reflect the buildings they are made in, he says: “It was more this musical legacy. This was a control room above one of the studios where all this musical activity happened, for instance the first time Joy Division and the Sex Pistols were on TV was below our feet, all this fantastic sort of musical battery that lived beneath your feet. Even if it didn’t exist outside my head, it still existed in my head and therefore you felt an obligation to be on your mettle making music. That’s the way I viewed it, I took energy from the building.

“Of course you can make music anywhere these days on your laptop, you can go and sit in the park and make it, but it’s just this idea of building up an energy in a room. That’s a lot to do with technology as well, because we were making this fantastic toybox of technology that has gone into the record. All these different energies go into the music.”

The record adds contemporary elements to 808 State’s sonic palette. Massey says: “Even if I wanted to hark back to the past sound there’s so many factors in making it when you understand what actually made those records sound like they did.

“If you go back to a record like Don Solaris from 1996, basically that record sounds like a lot of money to me. It’s got the best engineers we could get, it’s got the best studios we could afford at that time, with the technology that was around at that time. We couldn’t afford to make a record like that any more, so we will not be making a record that sounds like that ever again, that era has passed. And we could not go back to 1988 and make a record that sounds like because the equipment has changed radically. If you really wanted to acquire all that equipment again you could do but it depends how deep you want to go into production.

“We’re just responding to the technology that’s arriving now. We’re at another interesting point where it’s more to do with technology companies having retrospective reverie at the moment, people like Roland addressing their old equipment, and Korg addressing their equipment of the 70s. Berringer are another company that are basically cloning everything we’ve collected over the years and re-presenting it with better connectivity and a price point where it’s really democratic. It’s an interesting point in technology and this record is a response to that in a way.”

The inter-band conflicts that sometimes occurred when they were a four-piece may have lessened in a duo, but Massey says: “I think 808 State has always been about creative tension. We were somewhat like a cartoon punch-up when we started. Four is a lot of people and that’s a lot of energy and a lot of ideas knocking round. That youthful energy just impacted on the chaotic nature of those early records. They sound like they’re made by somebody with three heads back then, there are a lot of ideas crammed into one space.

“In effect it’s a lot easier these days. A lot of those things played out and we’ve accumulated enough knowledge of what we’re doing to be a lot more direct. We don’t hover around on a bad idea like we used to. When we used to have a different studio in the centre of Manchester we’d be in there every day and accumulate so many ideas and only a very small percentage of those ideas came into the world as a finished product.

“It’s also about knowing that you can’t hang about and you must be effective. If an idea’s not working we’ll throw it out.”

While he feels proud of the band’s legacy, Massey finds the suggestion that 808 State took inspiration from Detroit techno and made something new and enduring out of it too reductive. “I don’t see it as that,” he says. “There was an inspiration from clubland. The inspiration from Detroit techno was deep and heavy but also around that time there was so much other music happening. It was the eclecticism of the music in places like the Hacienda in Manchester where you had Latin music butting up against modern electro soul records, it was the mish-mash of this quite often American culture but also a lot of music coming from Europe, a lot of the records that were really exciting to us were from Belgium, Holland and Italy. It was the fact that the world connected up, not just the American side of it, that went into our pot.

“But a lot of the thinking and a lot of the musicality had come from previous years of record collections. There’s this quote from Tony Wilson when he was asked, ‘What is it that’s so special about Manchester?’ and he said, ‘People’s record collections and how open Manchester is as a culture’. It’s a multi-cultural society that actually worked, that was one of the great blending pots of our country, and therefore the record collections were far more interesting. I often feel that went into what 808 State was, it’s a fantastic amount of DNA in 808 State’s music that comes from beyond just things like Detroit techno.”

808 State play at the Foundry, Sheffield on March 21. www.808state.com