808 State Are Three Decades In and Still Looking to the Future
Graham Massey and Andrew Barker reflect on their groundbreaking band's history of constant reinvention.
Photo by Antony Crook in 2002
Nostalgia can be an enemy of innovation. Think of how many older iconic DJs get by unleashing the biggest tracks from their glory days on festival crowds, unaltered, seemingly forgetting what made the tracks such groundbreaking spectacles in the first place. But it doesn't have to be this way, as the two remaining heads behind the Manchester-born experimental act 808 State—Graham Massey and Andrew Barker—are keen to point out.
"I like tradition, and I know why we made a particular tune," Massey explains. "But they are like buildings—you can revamp the rooms, whilst still being aware of the building."
That spirit of remaking and remodeling, but never repeating has been central to the project since its very beginnings. 808 State first came to prominence amid the Madchester movement, a fruitful period when UK rave collided with indie in Manchester, England during the late 80s and early 90s. This accidental but significant period in British music history saw once-divided scenes merge; boundaries disappeared. The result was a cultural link stretching from techno to psych-edged guitar acts like Stone Roses, and druggy dancefloor funksters Happy Mondays, united in a haze of ecstasy pills and baggy trousers.
But while those two bands bear some resemblance to established musical styles, 808 State represented something far more cutting edge, and, to the establishment at least, challenging. Referencing the iconic Roland drum machines in name, the outfit quickly became standard-bearers for acid house adventures and experimental electronics.
Their 1988 debut LP, Newbuild, is cited by the likes of Aphex Twin and Autechre as a major influence. Veering between stripped back electro and house mutations,—orchestral stabs and and looped vocals blur into meet arpeggiated oddness. An orgy of samples, strange noises, and otherworldly vibes. 1989's canonical anthem, "Pacific State," then propelled the group into a British Top 10 which was only just opening up to beats built for sweaty warehouses. The song was a watermark in a wider social and sonic tidal wave. Although grounded in a house tempo, the lush strings, tropical bird samples, lackadaisical sax riff, and percussive build of hi-hats, chimes and snares combined for a very British take on the genre. It felt escapist, euphoric, frenetic.
The loss of key member Gerald Simpson to solo pursuits, also in 1989, was quickly followed by the arrival of Barker and his then-DJ partner Darren Partington. They released a sophomore album, Ninety, that winter and sold enough to claim a gold disc. Two years later, In Yer Face, from third album Ex:el, gave them their highest singles chart position, placing the emphasis on an industrial wall of sound aesthetic that wouldn't feel out of place amid the more ethereal moments of a Surgeon live set today. Underpinned by staccato piano low ends, and jacking breaks, it cemented their place as spokespeople for a scene the mainstream music industry, and fans, were still unsure about how to take.
A triptych of LPs would follow the departure of original member Martin Price in 1991, concluding with 2003's Outpost Transmission. Previously unavailable demos and rarities aimed at die-hard fans then dominate the post-millennial years. 2004's Prebuild comprised work from the Newbuild-era, Blueprint (2011) was a career overview, O.T.E.P. (2012) presented bonus tracks from Japanese and North American versions of Outpost. Meanwhile, live tours and club sets have continued, as has music research. The most prominent example being Massey's coveted Sisters of Transistors project, where genre walls again cave to sonic possibilities, only this time rooted in rock and pop. All of which is a reminder that even when 808 State is looking back, they're still pushing forward.
Recent remixes of In Yer Face from headline techno-house types Bicep have helped introduce them to younger ears, some of whom will be present this weekend when the duo descends upon Moogfest in Durham, North Carolina. As with every 808 State effort, their set won't just be a trip down memory lane, they're intent on bringing—vital, engaging tunes, leaving room for daring improvisation, and, of course, still welcoming people to the party. We met Massey and Barker in the ever-changing "Student Corridor" of Manchester, where, above the din of widespread construction work in a city where the only constant is flux, they explained why their music has always been about progress.
THUMP: You're in the US for Moogfest, the audience might not have the same cultural connotations with 808 State as they do in the UK. Is that good or bad?
Andrew Barker: Well, I mean, most of the gigs we've been doing recently have been younger audiences anyway. Printworks in London was mostly early-20s, and they take it well. A lot of them are smart now. They know their history for sure.
Graham Massey: It's funny how that history has seeped through a lot more now. We've both got sons who are in their teens and into the music scene and we know how musically educated they are. Much more than we were when we were kids, because of the internet, and the ability to skip around stuff online. You can also see that it's kind of dictated a bit more on the internet now.
In what ways do you mean?
Massey: Like in a Spotify playlist most people will know your big three or four tunes. And then there's 100 they don't even go near. We're kind of an odd example—the class of 1990 or whatever.
You had lots of people in the charts at the same time—The Orb, KLF—each one of those bands is peculiar. They formed from a scene, a cultural movement, but each one retained a very solid identity.
Barker: And we didn't stick to one formula either. Some people say you have to, but we were like "nah." We just rebelled on that. We're going this way now, a left turn here, right turn there.
The idea of a history decided by search results is strange.
Massey: We had an album mentality too. Which was a surprise to people we were working with at the time, the record companies.
In some ways dance music is more about albums than ever now.
Barker: I think there is that. When we were starting out there were very few electronic artists going into the album idea at all. There were a couple, but most of them were just making a couple of tracks, or hanging an album on one or two tracks with no thought about it, no continuous idea.
Massey: Yeah, but what I'm trying to say is there was a class of British bands that were doing that, and now represent a period of electronic music. There's an oddness to it. The way we present ourselves is more of a band format.
We'd go off doing tours where you were playing every night. So you want something that has a bit of play to it—where you can improvise within the tracks. So you're not thinking "Oh god, not this again."
Are you ever concerned people will be disappointed by the live versions?
Massey: But I think I'd feel trapped if we weren't allowed to do that. They need to allow you some wiggle room in there, otherwise essentially what you are being asked to do is a PA. And we did that in the initial stages when we were trying to figure out how to perform, because we were a studio band.
The earliest gigs were properly improvised. Then once we got a couple of records out we were doing two tracks at a night, and that whole rave scene was a bit like that then—turn up in a field at 4AM and do your big tunes. And everyone else would be at the side of the stage, Moby or whoever, ready to do their big tunes next.
So how do you keep things fresh—for you and the crowd?
Massey: Well, I'd say there has been a technological shift which is something that keeps things interesting. Every now and again it moves into a different area. I can't help thinking that people are very complacent about the laptop.
I mean, what a marvelous, fantastic piece of kit. If we had one back in the day, which could hold that amount of memory and perform that many jobs—we used to struggle with an Atari, waiting for floppy discs to load. It took years off your life.
Barker: Waiting for the egg timer to turn round—"c'mon, c'mon."
How was the US when you first played there?
Massey: Some of the first gigs we did over there were some of the first raves over there, and they were on a large scale. We filled the boots they needed as a known act.
Barker: It was mainly local promoters though, localized scenes. Not national stuff.
Massey: It made us realize how radio connected it was. For instance on the West Coast there was a techno station called Mars FM, which was quite a pioneering station. It would have been '89 into '90. It only existed for a year and a half or something, but they built up a massive audience for techno on the West Coast. So we went to a huge auditorium in Long Beach, and did this massive rave there. Because it had that radio support you could do it. Texas had a lot of support too, there was a big scene there in the early-90s, but it hardly gets talked about.
Was it surprising how much was going on in places you didn't expect?
Massey: I think the scale out there means it doesn't connect up as easily as it does in the UK. So geographically those big distances did count in that you could be in one area on the radio, and you'd play a certain kind of club.
When we went to New York we were taken around various scenes—Latino, gay, all these segmented clubbing conditions. Then we'd be in Pittsburgh and we were classed as industrial, like Depeche Mode. You were a different thing depending on the radio station and what you were played next to.
Barker: In quite a lot of the smaller towns we were industrial. We ended up on the road with Meat Beat Manifesto, and they're quite industrial.
Massey: That might have had something to do with it.
It sounds very different to the UK, which is obviously much smaller.
Massey: But before rave, in a place like Manchester, it produced a lot of really interesting bands because they were all kept in Manchester. It was really colloquial.
We were talking recently about the impact of the Roland equipment. We got involved in 808 The Movie, and we'll probably pop up in America on there and people will wonder who we are. We're probably one of the few British people represented, obviously because of our name. But it's interesting where they talk about the ability to transcend.
That music could be from New York, or anywhere. It started this connected world of technology and music, and we definitely took up that flag. We were using machines and spoke from everywhere, stepping out of Manchester, or trying to. Transcending your shit house. Trying to connect the world. You have to remember how cut off you were back then. It was about talking over bigger distances with sound.
Barker: Everyone had the same equipment. Sort of.
Massey: Another thing we were about was addressing the audience issue, trying to break barriers down with that. It was really important that it wasn't an idolization thing, we'd play from the back of the hall with the audience on the stage. People often floated through the band, some had nothing to do with the band at all, just performers.
Has electronic music forgotten the inclusivity, separating artist and audience again?
Graham: Yeah. There's a return to the thing of putting on massive visuals, and there's an elitism within that—you need an incredible budget to do something like that.
Barker: A lot of people judge you on that, whether you're doing it or not. For a lot of people in the dance music industry it's all about putting in as much as they can afford, whatever they can afford.
Massey: There are some really good visual artists working, though. And it's great for them that there are these platforms. Again it's a technology-led thing. But for us it still has to work on an intimate level.
So how does Moogfest fit with your view of events?
Massey: Well, it's a fascinating festival. Kind of like Supernormal in England. It's not just about putting bands on, there's all sorts happening. It's very educational. Moog as a company is, well, more Bernie than Trump, and always was. Have you seen the Bob Moog documentary?
Massey: He's an interesting guy. Very organic. Hippie is the wrong word... he's an engineer but the people involved could not have made the journey without being people people. The idea of selling something almost as esoteric as what they did, coming up with a new instrument.
There must be so many stories about people unable to make that work. There's a brilliant book called Analog Days, the story of Moog, basically how they made the company work. It's full of individual stories of people determined to be the best and selling those things out of boots of cars, following artists round, making sure there were models to buy in shops where people could demonstrate how to use them.
So are you giving workshops?
Massey: Probably just attending them. There's other stuff out there like that, Music Tech Fest I've been going to for a few years, which happens in different towns around Europe, and that involves company heads that are making new technology, inventors working on ideas for disabled people and things like that.
So there's a whole set of different people brought together to talk about things, and mad shit goes on. You don't know who you are going to meet, and you don't know what will happen as a result. I think that's a great way to do a festival, because it's not just about music, it's about all the other things that go alongside.
808 State perform the first day of Moogfest, Thursday, May 18.