Right-now Manchester. 808 State, the city's original dance pioneers, are back with a new album, Don Solaris. It is the sound of the weather, of James Dean Bradfield and a woman from Iceland called Ragga, of electronic visionaries. Who better to unravel 808 State's future sound of Manchester than local boy-turned-best-selling sci-fi author Jeff Noon? No-one, that's who.
A mutated saxophone plugged into a black box with knobs on. Listen up, Manchester. A few notes blown into the sax, caught in an infinite loop of harsh joy. Another burst of melody, 808 at the controls. This, too, captured by the new gadget, stretched to fuck, and pretty soon the whole studio is filled with layers of music, to which fragments of our conversation get added. Echo dance...
Outside it's raining, raining, raining; freezing cold, freezing and grey. Yesterday it was sunny. Outside it's forever Manchester, the rain-dancing city, but inside the studio, I'm getting my first taste of how Graham, Andy and Darren make the heavenly, glorious noise that is an 808 State track. Three years of hard work stretch between such simple, mad beginnings and the epic moodrush of the new album, Don Solaris. Mister Sun, indeed, fighting against the raingod...
It all happens in secret, in the studio.
Darren Partington kicks in first, as always. "No way!" he shouts. "Technology has made music more accessible. In the early days it was like only Kraftwerk were using computers, like German guys in suits, and that put people off. Plus the equipment was so expensive, anyway. Now, any kid from Manchester can afford it."
Graham Massey tells me that "this new generation hasn't got the fear of technology that we had. They've grown up with it. We had to learn it." He's including me in this generational round-up, and I suppose we are more or less the same age, the Manc boys that were fired-up by punk, the ultimate guitar explosion.
Andy Barker just smiles his bemused smile, at seeing his two colleagues spout off like this. So I get my second clue about 808 music: three totally different personalities, fighting it out to produce a soundtrack for Manchester. Dub scientists.
Graham is the elder 808 Statesman. He came into dance by escaping from a dark-edge group called Biting Tongues. He makes a spirited plea for guitars in dance music. Darren and Andy are younger; refugees from a DJ crew called the Spinmasters. Darren is pure Manc passion, mouthing off like a warrior for the new technology. He plays Butch Cassidy to Graham's Sundance Kid, arguing that forming a band in the early '80s was just too much trouble. "It was a total ball-ache," he says. "You had to find a guitarist, amps, a drummer. Now all you need is a set of decks, then you're a musician!" Whilst Andy plays Cool Hand Luke to the both of them, dropping a succinct comment into the mix every so often, like Lee Perry meets Miles Davis.
I tell this story about how I was on tour in the USA with my novels and this woman asked me why Manchester bands were so miserable. Like, why can't Oasis ever smile? So I tried to tell her about the other side of Manchester, that it wasn't all grey skies and raincoats. That there was also dance music. There was the raving thing; all waving your hands in the air and smiling. Okay, so let's talk about why Manchester can always produce such great sounds. When I set out to write Vurt, I wanted to write a novel that would be the equivalent of listening to a great Manchester tune. To give a voice to the city. Because Manchester is not a literary city, it's a musical city. Why is that so?
"It's because we're so far from London," reckons Graham. "In London they immediately pick up on the latest thing. In Manchester we wait for the next wave, hidden. That gives us freedom. We can experiment endlessly. It's like Lego music, the have-a-go mentality."
But I'm not so sure. I think it's more to do with the weather. Whilst Darren reckons that "Shaun Ryder couldn't have come from any other city." Now ain't that the truth?
We make music in the rain.
Okay, so let's talk about Don Solaris, the next 808 State album.
Let's talk about the track called 'Lopez' on which James Dean Bradfield gives one of his best-ever vocals. Manic Street Preachers meets the rainbow. You bet your life. A track of infinite beauty, starting with a mutated Hawaiian guitar, transforming into mist and a melody to die for...
"Joy," he sings, "gives me my last regret."
"He's the last great rock singer," Darren says about James. "The best thing to come out of Wales since Tom Jones."
On the album, the trio continue their dialogue with imported singers, both the weird and the wonderful. In the past they've worked with Bernard Sumner, MC Tunes, Bjork. On Don Solaris they work with Doughty from American band, Soul Coughing; with Ragga (what, another weird Icelandic singer? Is this an obsession?), and also with Louise Rhodes from fellow Manc band, Lamb.
Louise's sultry tones illuminate a track called 'Azura', a transformed drum and bass ballad about the dark and the light. "Let me be the moon and stars for you," she tenders, "let me be your sky of blue."
"We finish a track," says Darren, "and then think it needs an extra element. Most bands are happy with just two ideas in a song. We want at least half-a-dozen in there. And some tracks are just begging for a vocal. So we think who would sound good on that track, then we ask them to sing. We don't want your obvious dance vocal."
I talk some about that moment when music started to shift from rock to dance, and how New Order's story, for instance, is all about the journey from dark to light. From the ultimate darkness of Ian Curtis's suicide, to the affirming football glory that is 'World in Motion'.
All three of 808 State are in agreement about New Order's courage in learning how to dance. In teaching grey-hearted Manchester how to dance! Darren reckons it's all down to "New Order travelling all over the world, picking up disco influences from America, say. You've got to keep travelling. Like, if something new comes along, trip hop or drum'n'bass, whatever, we take some of that, but we don't just follow - we use it, take a flavour of it. We build up layers and fuse styles. But once a genre is nailed down, it's time to pack your bags; move on."
Only 808 State have managed to follow New Order's example; taking elements from both rock and dance, the dark and the light, making them into a new disorder.
Listen to a track called 'Jerusahat', for instance.
Starting with a lonely harp and building into a map of love. Joyful drums and a deep-fire bassline while simple, majestic chords support breathless, wordless vocals. A ride through sunshine, with all the windows open. "I deny anybody", claims Darren, "to come up with a track like that. Nobody else but 808 State could make such a noise."
"There's a swamp of possibilities out there," says Graham. "Most of it won't exist in six months. It's amazing that we've survived for eight years now, as a group."
Don Solaris is full of drama, stories, interaction. Sometimes quiet, then blisteringly loud. Sometimes jazzy, or classical. Sometimes a funky bass-line might dig into your soul. Sometimes a blues harmonica, a church bell, a naive, playful piano.
Sometimes a drum sample, or a live drum.
Sometimes, even a real guitar plays a tune.
But always the mad rush to make something good happen. A soundtrack for Manchester and the modern world.
So, just how do they do it?
"We have an 808 sound," says Darren, "but we don't see what it is. We just make it happen. There's a lot of anger in the new record."
"Not anger," replies Graham. "More like attitude."
"More like sexy!"
Whilst Andy just smiles away to himself, dub stylee.
"We're trying to be celebratory," says Graham. "We don't want to be dark. We're taking risks. We want to celebrate the human spirit. We're just constantly looking out for the up thing."
That's it! The swamp of possibilities. The up thing, surfacing. Taking risks. Sometimes, in the new album, you sink under layers of noise. But sometimes you just float, like an echo dance.
Later on that day, we stand frozen solid in Castlefield, a place where old Manchester meets the future. Hi-tech structures next to Victorian railway bridges. On the longest day of the year, the group will stage a festival in this arena, to promote Don Solaris.
Let me be the sun and moon for you. Let me be your sky of blue. And joy will give me my last regret.
808 State. Joyriders supreme, making waves. Listen up...
How does Manchester make such great music?
Blame it on the rain god.
Updated on: 16 August 1996