808state - The Calm before the Storm

(From Dazed & Confused Magazine Issue No. 21, June 1996)
Interview: Rachel Newsome
There are precious few tracks which slip through our disposable culture to become canonised as the sound of an era. Orbital's "Chime" is one, Alison Limerick's "Where Love Lives" another and, more recently, Josh Wink's "Higher State of Consciousness" also made it to this select beat elite. But before all of these was 808 State's 1989 classic, "Pacific State".

It was the legendary end-of-night anthem at the Hacienda for almost a year; its organic, orgasmic flow of dreamy analogue loops galvanised a new wave of electronic music when it fused with the ecstasy explosion. And as the first instrumental house track to appear on Radio One, "Pacific State" also marked the beginning of dance music's crossover from fugitive club culture to mass accessibility.

Providing a prototype for a new brand of UK dance music, Graham Massey, Andy Parker, Darren Partington and Martin Price were jamming live with A Guy Called Gerald at a time when The Chemical Brothers were still snogging behind the school bike sheds. That said, the haunting wails which soar over "Cubik"'s crunching robo-bass, the terrace sloganeering of "In Yer Face" and the wildly inspired collaboration with Bjork on "Oooops" could only ever be collectively described as weird, mad and experimental. What goes around inevitably comes around. And, as British club culture now approaches its first decade, we're currently witnessing a return to diversity and selectiveness marked by a renaissance of the Detroit/Chicago sound which helped inspire it, together with the tangential evolution of drum'n'bass. Although dance music has become absorbed by mainstream culture, the postponement of Tribal Gathering proves that it still has the potential to raise temperatures in more ways than one.

With the release of their fourth LP 'Don Solaris', it seems that the 808(080808...) recursive loop has come full circle too. After a four years hiatus following the below-par 'Gorgeous', it's return (less Martin Price) to 808's original state of experimental bliss.

At 35 the now slightly thinning on top, filled-out Graham Massey isn't quite the lanky, sandy-bobbed lad he was at 25. Yet his artistic integrity remains resolutely intact and 'Don Solaris' isn't a consumer-friendly pack of 12 instant hits'; it's an indulgent, pan-European flight to a virtual reality, 808 State Fantasy Island.

The piano-led rhythms of "Kouhoutek" present you with a glowing Balearic sunrise, infused with the original 808 watermark. The plaintive vocals of the Manics' James Dean Bradfield, entwined in the wistful guitars of the slo-mo "Lopez", flee the borders of 'dance' music altogether.

Ask Massey whether he sees himself continuing to make music another decade down the line and his immediate reply is an unequivocal 'Yes'. And, whatever sound he evolves into, there are no prizes for guessing it'll still be as weird and mad and experimental as ever.

Dazed & Confused: In the early '90s, 808 State were one of the biggest British dance acts around. Don't you find it ironic that you've since been superseded by outfits who followed on from you like Orbital and Underworld? Graham Massey: When we first started we were breaking new ground, but I think it's just inherent that you don't reap the benefits of that. You're breaking a door open, but it's always the people who come through the door after who end up becoming more established. I don't resent the fact that we were the first people to do it because we just rode the wave right in and put our music in new places.

D&C: It must have been very exciting being right in the middle of that sonic revolution.

GM: We used to go to Mike Pickering's night at the Hacienda and the thing that stood out was this optimistic atmosphere where anything could happen - you could make a contribution that mattered. That's the difference in attitude between then and when it suddenly became all commercial and more about getting numbers in nightclubs.

D&C: Do you remember the time you took your first E?

GM: '88 - but it was the atmosphere of the club that influenced you long before you took drugs. I wouldn't say it changed the way we made music, it was more the case of the fact that you could contribute to the whole of that club scene. But before that I was making non-club music.

D&C: Yes, you were in Biting Tongues on the now defunct Cut Deep label. It must have been quite an inspired leap to move away from that idea of a 'traditional' band?

GM: In a way, but Biting Tongues was still very improvised. Like sometimes it was 16 people and then it was four people. It was all about noise, and before we had samplers we were using standard backing tapes. One of the biggest influences on our kind of music was the revolution in technology. I was doing an engineering course at that point, so I was learning all about it. But it was very expensive and the only people who could use the equipment were people into hip hop who we met through Eastern Bloc. That's how I met Darren, Andy, MC Tunes and A Guy Called Gerald - we were all in a hip hop act together.

D&C: What new outfits do you see taking advantage of all the doors you opened?

GM: I'm still looking for bands who can do it on album level. There's all the obvious ones... but I really like Autechre and one record I've hammered over the past couple of years is Black Dog's 'Bytes' - now that's a proper album.

D&C: 'Don Solaris' isn't a 'dance music' album in that you couldn't shake your booty to most of the tracks on it. Do you think the term 'dance music' will eventually become obsolete?

GM: I don't like the term 'dance music', because it implies that it's only for one thing. You certainly couldn't play any of 'Don Solaris' in the disco. But that applies to all the other albums we've had - they've all been 'heavy listening'. Some of the best musical experiences we've had have been playing in some shithole in the Midwest of America where they've got no idea about techno or anything. They accept it as just music and that's very rewarding. A lot of people here are so overloaded with what they think they should think, that they can't actually shut up and listen.

D&C: Do you think audiences have become more cynical and exacting and therefore harder to please?

GM: When you get a completely drugged-up audience like at Megadog, they're the easiest people to please on this planet. That created confusion because lots of things got through the floodgates and made people less discerning. It's only now that people are beginning to sift all that out again.

D&C: Can you still bring yourself to feel excited about the current state of club culture after over ten year of being involved with it?

GM: If you look at an act like U2, they're as big as The Rolling Stones, but they still realise that if they're going to stay ahead they've got to do something else. So that's why they've worked with Eno and Howie B, because their music is the new cutting edge. Even someone like Madonna has Bjork writing songs for her. It's good that everyone still looks to British club culture - it's still got a pulse (laughs) ...just. So it's nice to feel that you've contributed to this change too. At the beginning there was a sensation of unknown territory... like, 'Wow, you can go anywhere with this,' and I think that feeling is returning again.

Updated on: 16 August 1996

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