While most people outside the 0161 area code catchment area might think that the Madchester scene died out when pills started getting shit in the mid-90s and City were about the descend into Division Two, recent years have seen it making something of a comeback. Just last week Ian Brown and the rest of the Stone Roses found themselves becoming the talk of the timeline after releasing their first new single in 20 years. We've seen the Happy Mondays and Black Grape reform within the last five years too, presumably (in part at least) motivated by the cash incentives of reuniting a once iconic group to bleed a bit of cash out of Samba wearing dads. There's a hunger for the sound of those baggy-jeaned glory days.
While most bands from that period seem content with thrashing through those hits of yore, a new collective has emerged from the weedy ashes of the scene, and they're looking to push boundaries Manchester style. Big Unit is the brainchild of 808 State's Darren Partington, and contains members and affiliates of numerous different '90s rave and indie groups. Their music combines two genres that are rarely mixed: acid house and rock. They've received praise from the likes of the Happy Mondays and New Order's Peter Hook, which suggests they're doing a good job of blending together these seemingly incompatible styles. I caught up with vocalist Darren Partington, keyboard player Ben Knott, guitarist Ian Eastwood, and percussionist Roufy to find out more...
THUMP: Do you want to start by introducing yourselves, and saying a bit about the bands you've been involved with in the past?
Ben: I do the keyboards and program the drum machine. I was in Jeep with Darren and Ian. More recently, I was in Vinnie Peculiar. I was also a roadie for the Happy Mondays, and played the odd sample for them.
Darren: I'm Darren from 808 State.
Ian: I play guitar and write with Darren. I've been a sound engineer for years and years, and done the sound for groups like The Stone Roses and 808 State.
Roufy: For the last 20 years, I've been running round with a tambourine and a shaker in my hand in all the clubs, shaking my bollocks off. That's how I ended up in Big Unit. I've also got a background as a deejay, and did that for 20 years. I was deejaying funk, soul and jazz in the '70s.
Darren: Roufy's very well-known in Manchester. When you mention him to people, they're like "Oh, that's the guy who's always shaking that tambourine." Phil Beckett's also in the band, but isn't here today. He's the Stone Roses tour DJ, and was in 2 For Joy.
What inspired you to mix rock and acid house together?
Darren: That's just the types of music we like. We love rock 'n' roll, and we love acid house. We don't like to limit ourselves. We're not a rock band and we're not an acid house band; we're just Big Unit. If we wanted to make a reggae song tomorrow, we'd do it.
You've also got a bit of a hip-hop influence, with Darren rapping on a lot of your tracks
Darren: Yeah, we're influenced by Public Enemy and The Beastie Boys and stuff like that.
Ben: We like using loops and drum samples as well, which is very similar to what they do with hip-hop, even though that's not what we aim to be.
What made Darren want to start rapping and singing after spending so long behind the decks?
Darren: I got bored and started writing lyrics down as a kind of therapy. In 808 State, we'd never write songs – we thought sitting down and writing songs was the devil! I'd like to think I've learnt the art of song writing now, but then again, "Get Fucked" seems to be our most popular song, and it's just 4 lines of swearing. It's kind of a Tourette's anthem.
You've described your sound as "an inner city for inner city people". Would you say your lyrics reflect that?
Darren: We were talking about our lyrical content there, not the way we sound, because anything goes when it comes to the music. When it comes to our lyrics, we write about what we know. We aren't going to write about meadows and flowers, are we? We write about the city, because we're all from the inner city.
You seem to have a pretty big following amongst Manchester's football hooligans. Do you think that's down to the fact that they can relate to your content?
Darren: Our songs aren't written for the terraces, but there's definitely stuff in there that the football crowd can relate to. There's also a softer side to our music, though. I don't want to be typecast.
Ben: I think with every band, you've got to draw your initial audience from your mates as well.
Darren: Yeah, and we know a lot of lunatics.
Roufy: When we performed at the Manchester Food and Drink Festival at Albert Square, they all invaded the stage when we did "Get Fucked". Everybody loved it! It was funny.
Ben: It reminded me of the old Mondays gigs, when you used to end up with 40 or 50 people on stage, all dancing and enjoying themselves.
I heard that Roufy used to be in a crime group called the Wide Awake Firm, which included a lot of Man United and Man City hooligans. What's the story there?
Roufy: In the late '70s and '80s, we used to go abroad, robbing banks and jewellers and that sort of thing. We ended up going round the world for 20 years, making lots of money. What more can I say about that? I don't want to get myself nicked!
Yeah, it's probably best for me not to pry too much into that one! There's been a lot of stuff in the media at the moment about the raves of today supposedly losing their edge by becoming overly safe and sanitised. What's your take on that, given your origins in the era when dance music events definitely were edgy?
Ben: I think people have actually always been saying that. 6 months after I first went raving, I was saying "It's not as good as it used to be". It's because the excitement when you first do it is hard to capture again. When we went to a Bangface gig in Southport a few weeks ago, the people there were loving it, and some of the music was fantastic. People are still really big fans of raves, and there are a lot of different styles of rave about nowadays, so you can't say it's boring.
Ian: There's definitely a temptation for people to think the time that they got into something was the time that it was at its best, and that it got boring after that.
Darren: Saying that, we were there at the very start of the acid house raves, so we're blessed in that respect.
Do you perform to a lot of rock audiences, and if so, how do they take to the acid house side of your sound?
Ian: We've done some support shows for The Fall, and were worried that the dance side of things wouldn't go down well, but it all went really well in the end.
Ben: We've got different sets for different audiences. They're basically the same, but slightly tailored to each crowd. We always get everybody dancing, which is what we set out to do.
Finally, what can we expect from you throughout the years to come?
Ben: Our first EP is set to come out soon, so look out for that.
Darren: Also, watch out for our monthly night in Central Manchester.
Ben: That's going to be a sound system night, rather than a gig as such. It won't be a night where people come down and there are a load of other bands on as well as us that the audience has never heard of. We've got 3 deejays in the band, so we figured that we might as well use them to create the vibe before we go on, and keep the vibe going after we've been on.