Music Interviews

808 State’s Graham Massey: “When rave came along, I felt culturally and technologically equipped” – Interview

808 State

808 State

When electronic dance music exploded into the pop charts 30 years ago there were doubts around its longevity in the UK. But to the surprise of some, the music has proven naysayers emphatically wrong. Few groups embody the genre’s longevity more than 808 State, who captured the whole movement in a sumptuous five minutes with the dreamy yet acidic Pacific State. As the song reaches its 30th anniversary, the reconfigured band – founder member Graham Massey, and Andrew Barker – are back with Transmission Suite, their first new album in 17 years.

On catching up with Massey, it transpires that recording the album marked a return to source of sorts, created as it was in a downtrodden building on the site of the old Granada Studios. “It’s true,” Massey confirms. “We left there over a year ago though, because they were turning it into a hotel. That’s why we were in an abandoned place, we knew it was a short rent. We were only there for the past few years, because I got a commission from Manchester International Festival. It was a Jeremy Deller art project where I was the musical director, working with buskers from Piccadilly Gardens. I needed a big space to incorporate a lot of musicians, and that’s why I took it on, but Andrew (Barker, the other half of the duo) and I used it to attempt an 808 State album. I find home studios are not conducive to that sort of creative environment, and I’d been working from home for years, so this social space was ideal.”

To Massey there was never any doubt of their ability to rekindle 808 State’s fire. “We were pretty confident we could do stuff, because neither of us abandoned music. It was always going on in one sense. Once you get to my age if you’re still making music you realise you’re a lifer. You never put music aside, it goes into more diverse projects. It’s natural to diversify with different projects in the way that we do.”

The new material flowed freely. “Transmission Suite is extracted from 30-odd tracks”, says Massey, which explains the bumper EPs released in the lead up to the long player. “There was a load of stuff lying around, and it was difficult to commit to a whole set of work. You have to curtail it, especially when you’re in a generation of people that flick past things. Getting something that hangs together well is important, like paintings in a gallery show. The more you do it the more it starts flowing!”

“Once you get to my age if you’re still making music you realise you’re a lifer.”
– Graham Massey

They have allowed for the odd misty-eyed reflection. “When I look back on early rave days we had so much momentum with the music coming out. When he was in the band, Martin Price from the Eastern Bloc record shop would bring armfuls of new releases for us to hear. It’s not as intensive now physically, but it’s overwhelming with the internet, so having the spirit guides is important. Our sons are now teenagers or in their early 20s, so musical discussion in home life is part of our perspective.”

Do the 808 State juniors have much input? “Well that’s a can of worms!” Massey laughs. “There is always a healthy debate that goes on. Ask them one week and they’ve moved on to something else by the next. Our generation grew up through the 1970s, which was a really interesting time as a British subculture unfolded. It was about learning from people slightly older than me, rather than getting stuff passed down. Music emerged in to the punk era, which was really exciting, and that’s when I started playing in the DIY age. It felt tangible, like something you could do because you were surrounded by makers.”

As time progressed, he moved with the developments. “When electronics came into it I was learning how to become a sound engineer at school in Manchester with all Atari computers and affordable samplers. It opened up huge possibilities. When the rave thing came along, I felt culturally and technologically equipped. Going out in the clubs, that energy formed a perfect storm, and we were using it as a benchmark to live by.”

Did they anticipate their music would be so well loved 30 years on? “I don’t think we thought in that way. Back then you thought you could come out of the studio, and it was like being interested in cooking in a really good restaurant. You had to strike fast, and the expense of recording in a studio really sharpened you. That’s changed with the technology now, you can work on numerous projects, like flitting about on different issues. It can take an awful long time, partly because I do like other forms of music-making, like improvisation, which is really satisfying. It’s immediate – you’re responding to people in the moment. I keep it as sketches or painting in the studio, to throw some more things down and then come back and flesh it out. Sometimes you end up with something weighty.”

808 State

808 State

Looking back for a little longer, Massey considers 808 State as an international entity – which was surprisingly broad in their early years. “We were already travelling a lot back in the early 1990s, and we went and did raves in America when there weren’t really raves there. We could do a hanger in Long Beach or Texas, and we were surprised to find there was enough of a scene in Dallas to do a gig. They were dotted around, so we were quite pioneering in that sense. It was the same with Japan. It was really exciting, not representing just you as a group but the UK scene. Some of the initial inspiration for Manchester came from the Balearics, and you could see that in bands like James. You’d go to a gig and they would be wearing Chinese outfits, holding fans, that sort of thing…”

Alongside their touring endeavours, 808 State continued to break new ground with their albums. On the 1991 release Ex-El, they were among the first to collaborate with starry vocal guests, with Bernard Sumner and Björk. Massey has vivid memories of both. “With Bernard we really loved the Technique album, and we were in the Hacienda when they had a massive party after finishing it. We felt like a gang, so it was a really natural progression to work with him. He was always in Eastern Bloc, and so a really conversational piece of work came out of it.”

Interest in their material was spreading. “Björk rang up while we were in the studio to arrange a collaboration on beats, around some of the material she had for Debut, and we arranged to meet her in London. She played us versions of the songs on trombone, trumpet and alto saxophone, so you had to have a lot of foresight to see what it would become. There was a sense that we had similar paths through post-punk, and an interest in jazz. We ended up chatting about music endlessly so that work again felt really natural. We were just music nerds who got on, and in 808 State it was pretty nerdy as rave music – yet it had layers of sophistication that some didn’t. She was interested in that. We had carte blanche for the Ex-El album because no one knew exactly what was happening. ZTT left us to it, because they thought we knew what we were doing. We didn’t, but we learned that down the line.”

On Transmission Suite Massey and Barker ultimately decided to go it alone. “Certainly on the record we thought about getting some singers but something in the music said let’s not do that, let’s return to a start point. We were not looking back in a nostalgic way, and were conscious of making it a bit timeless. A lot of that Detroit stuff, the music of that period, has become the classics of the era. There was no way of dictating that at the time, because ultimately the people decide it. It’s odd for us now though to find those tracks in Homes Under The Hammer or The Great Pottery Throw Down.

“We have tracks that appear at big life occasions, like weddings, and even quite a lot at funerals now. That’s when music becomes part of the fabric and culture.” – Graham Massey

The use of their music is increasingly personal, too. “We have tracks that appear at big life occasions, like weddings, and even quite a lot at funerals now. That’s when music becomes part of the fabric and culture. There is so much music that you’re lucky to get one of those things, let alone a lot. As an ambition I think it’s the ultimate, rather than making millions of quid, which is something we’ve never done.”

More recently dance music has expanded to arena gigs, courtesy of orchestral ventures from Pete Tong and Hacienda Classical. Massey embraces those trends but is cautious of his own involvement. “We’ve quite often been invited to support Hacienda Classical. It is surreal that MC Tunes is the MC of the Hacienda Orchestra, and it’s funny to see him saying ‘Well, I’m here at the Royal Albert Hall with my orchestra! The key factor is that every tune is big, so in that sense it’s a jukebox show. Everything is a proven hit and the singers are really amazing.”

His home city has always been a rich source of vocal talent it seems. “Manchester’s always had that tradition where singers have come through the churches. Someone like Rachel MacFarlane (who sang on 10 x 10 on 1993’s Gorgeous album) has a long pedigree in dance music, but when she was 17 our sound engineer Pablo mentored her into the group with a singer I’d known called Barrington Stuart. There was also Diane Charlemagne (the voice of Goldie’s Inner City Life) and Denise Johnson (who went on to sing with Primal Scream). It’s like a community.”

He considers what his own input might involve. “I get why the whole orchestra thing works and it’s a good night out. If I was ever to approach it I think the music of 808 State would work really well. A track like In Yer Face is already pretty orchestral. We did a 30-year anniversary version, and got a six piece brass ensemble in for it. That’s what you can do with those gnarly sorts of sounds, and it’s great.”

“The character of the city is changing. There are a lot more people living in the centre, and the buildings are aimed at a certain bracket…” – Graham Massey

Massey has enlisted the Manchester community on previous occasions, most notably as a member of Homelife, formed in the late 1990s by Paddy Steer. The extended collective made two albums for Ninja Tune. “Homelife used a lot of people from the Royal Northern College of Music,” he recalls. “We did a lot of those albums one person at a time, crafting the orchestra, so when we played it together it was a really rich experience. I couldn’t write those things down but the computer was allowed serious time for arranging. I’d end up doing stuff like Les Baxter taking on Debussy or Stravinsky, but when you listen back to the results it all works somehow.”

With Transmission Suite released just before National Album Day, Massey is gearing up for a few promotional events around the city, including one “at a listening bar, with a fancy ass stereo, and a Q&A”. He is a little cautious about recent cultural developments in Manchester, however. “The character of the city is changing. There are a lot more people living in the centre, and the buildings are aimed at a certain bracket. There is no social housing on the agenda, so it’s changing the demographic to become more of a generic world city. I do have an appreciation of when we’re doing new experimental music that we might go to Liverpool or Leeds instead of Manchester.”

Why so? He qualifies his observations. “Where there’s a scene that’s more fluid I think you have to consider it. Manchester has still got it, and I’d hate to lose it. But I think it’s more towards the suburbs now with localised clubs, and people in the communities. Not all music goes on in the centre, it’s going wider. In rave all our experiences were often in the satellite towns, like Bury, Oldham and Stockport. They were deader than Manchester but a lot of things happened there. It’s interesting where music finds a space. For the rest of Manchester if’s finding spaces where music has never been. As the vape shops move out of the north of Manchester the clubs are moving in. Islington Mill in Salford is a space that is community run, and it can accommodate spontaneous stuff. You don’t have to wait six months to put on a gig.”

808 State’s Transmission Suite is out now through. Tour dates and further information can be found here.

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808 State’s Graham Massey: “When rave came along, I felt culturally and technologically equipped” – Interview
808 State – Transmission Suite