The New Statesmen
808 State - Absolutely Gorgeous
They may be the ultimate techno band, but you could list every last MIDI lead in their studio and still know nothing about them. Who are they? The people who are changing dance music from the inside, that's who...
If 808 State were the Marx Brothers, Graham Massey would be Groucho: sharp, detached and somehow calling the shots. Darren Partington, garrulous, cheery, and with a particularly strong regional accent, falls naturally into the role of Chico. And that leaves Harpo and Andrew Barker - a shock of hair being the loudest thing about each of them. Andrew may not punctuate the conversation with toots of a horn or loud whistles, but he's there - part of the team, part of the act.
And if 808 State were the Marx Brothers, their new album Gorgeous would be Duck Soup - one of the Hollywood trio's big-budget outings in which they first tried to confine their raw, unbridled stage talents within the strict framework of a high-profile movie; taking on the big time and trying to stay faithful to their origins.
It's a step all truly successful artists have to make. A small but loyal audience hangs on to what you were, as a much larger and more fickle audience looms into view and demands what you will become. How do you please them all? Should you try? The finest technology-based dance acts of the last few years are facing these questions right now, just as new wave bands did before them, just as entertainers riding the crest of a wave of popularity always have done.
The Marx Brothers did OK; some see Duck Soup as their finest moment. Sitting in Sheffield's Fon Studios, the three members of 808 State have every reason to believe that this is theirs - so far. Gorgeous is certainly a breakthrough, of some sort, but Graham Massey is well aware of the pros and cons...
"There's a huge audience of people who buy Jean Michel Jarre, or Tubular Bells II or whatever, who'd be really into bands like Orbital and Future Sound Of London - and us, hopefully - if they could just get over the fact that it's come from dance, and that dance music can function at that level. Last year, Ex:El was in Radio 4's top five classical albums of the year, believe it or not. Things like that really cheer us up, when we can get things across all over the show.
"But it's frustrating not to have such a direct line to the dance floor. It's really important to get vinyl out there onto the scene, but it's hard to sell experimental stuff into the shops. To do a really hip underground tune now, is as difficult as doing a great pop tune. Everyone's an expert, everyone's a critic, there's so much stuff, so many producer/DJs. Sometimes you feel like you can't move at all."
Darren Partington is more optimistic. "The good thing about 808 State is that we're in between things; we don't want to ignore the underground scene, and we don't want to ignore the album scene, and there's no reason why we can't appeal to both. If we watch that it doesn't get too polished, we don't have to lean one way or the other. We want to produce a great little pop song, and we want to do the most gritty underground tune as well. We know both markets really well, I think.
"Everywhere you look now, there's a house band, you know - two DJs and a couple of lycra dancers. Every town's got one. Only a couple of years ago these kids would never have dreamed of doing a single, and in that sense it's great that people are getting their shit together and doing something positive. Instead of going out and robbing a guy's stereo, they'll put a tune together, or put on a night at a club. The 'scene' has done very well for it. But on the other hand, it's driven pure dance music a million miles away from where it was; it's certainly given it a bad name."
Graham identifies everybody's favourite culprit... "It's the Top Of The Pops scenario, with the two keyboard players and the lycra dancers, which has made it difficult for good dance music to appeal to the wider audience." "Especially," adds Darren, "when it's a dance tune with just four samples, and no quality or depth to it; you can only take that for so long. We were at a rave in some field recently, and every DJ played exactly the same groove, and every tune consisted of just four samples. That's not what I got into the scene for; I got into it because it was progressive. When we started, when house was just starting in this country, you'd go to clubs expecting to hear DJs play something fresh and new. That's only happening now with the trance/ambient stuff, which is looking good for the next year or so. It was good to see Future Sound Of London on Top Of The Pops, in amongst all the lycra."
It's true to say, however, that 808 State are no strangers to albumland. A turning point, perhaps, but Gorgeous is only the latest in a distinguished line. As Graham points out: "We started making albums early on - 90, especially, and Ex:El were complicated works - and this is our fifth album. 90 had more edge, Ex:El had more texture, and Gorgeous is just a lot more solid. You can tell by the timings of the tracks how concise we've become, whereas before we'd go off into a good ten minutes of self indulgence."
Darren interjects as Darren will: "There are DJs, especially in America, who ask us 'why is this track only three minutes long?' - but if you can say it in three minutes, why drag it out?"
"We had to edit the album down a lot," continues Graham, "because there was several hours of music for it, but we wanted to get plenty of tracks on it because there were a lot of different ideas, and we wanted to get a balance. It was almost like three albums; it could have been a really hard album, or an ambient album, or a real disco album, so we cropped a lot of the tracks to get an array of different feels. But there is a free 12" disco single with it!"
It's this concern with exploring a range of different ideas which makes 808 State more than a functional dance combo. They're an experimental band - feet on the ground, for sure, but heads well and truly in the clouds when happily ensconced in their embryonic Manchester studio. The serious business of making an album, however, leads them further afield, as Darren explains. "A lot of bands go down that route of buying their own studio and then being lazy. Or you could do what Johnny Marr does; he's got his own place, but there's an in-house engineer who turns up every day, so you've got to go in and do something."
"Yeah," adds Graham, "but the edge goes off it; that adrenalin of paying cash and having to get a day's work done in 12 hours. If we did have our own full-size studio we'd probably end up going elsewhere to mix. You can rent out your own place, anyway, when you're not there. In the end, though, we do want some kind of facility. The way technology's going, with prices coming down, it's pretty feasible. And with the ADAT coming out..." his eyebrows raise at the thought "...we'd be all right with a system like that.
"Any shortcomings are well-useable on the dancefloor, anyway. Sometimes our records are a bit too polished. You go to extremes, with EQ and so on, that you don't do if you're in a polished environment. In fact, we ended up back here at Fon because at Amazon it was getting a little bit too glossy."
"It was like a Trevor Horn production," points out Darren, "really clean and crisp, and we're not about that. We'd rather have that cheap, 12" white label feel. Although we are going into that clean CD market..."
"We had to put a bit more of the excitement back into it," continues Graham. "It's an attitude thing. If someone's bringing you a nice cup of coffee and fresh fruit every ten minutes, it's bound to end up clean."
Apart from its unfructiferousness, there is another special advantage to using Fon, it transpires: "One of the good things about working here is the acetate machine in the next room. A lot of this album was premixed onto acetate, so we could take them into clubs and hear them as product amongst other people's product, and some things become blindingly obvious only when you do that."
Darren agrees: "You could hear where the weight should be, where the beats should be. What we also do is imagine what time any given tune we're working on would be played in a club - is it an early Doors tune, or a one o'clock tune, or a two o'clock tune? We played the UB40 tune, 'One In Ten' at a club on Saturday night as a last tune, two o'clock, and it worked. It's good to do that while you're mixing."
"It's horrible hearing one of your own unfinished tracks in a club, though," admits Graham. "Like poison through the blood."
Another part of the 'becoming successful' curriculum is going to America. This means you get to visit those legendary places of your musical roots. And if you're 808 State, this means Chicago and Detroit. But for three Northern lads, it can all be a bit of a let down. Graham complains first: "Chicago's not nearly as happening as a lot of the other places, considering that's where it all came from."
"Same in Detroit," comes a voice. Everybody turns - Andrew has spoken. "You'd go to all these places where you think 'this is it', but they seem to have no regard for their own thing. Derrick May can't even get a gig there."
"There's a huge audience who buy Jean Michel Jarre, or Tubular Bells II or whatever, who'd be really into us - if they could just get over the fact that it's come from dance"
Darren elaborates: "He has to come over to Scotland to DJ, and make a few quid at that."
"It's like, the grass is always greener," concludes Graham. "We felt like The Beatles, or something. But you don't have to fit into a neat little box, over there. The minute you get out of this country, you realise how myopic it is. Everybody's in a little box, and it's all very fashion-oriented. In America, nobody cares. Anything that isn't mainstream music is just alternative, and it gives you a bit of space. And they play album tracks on the radio that wouldn't stand a chance over here."
"The network is really international though," says Darren. "You'll find the same records in shops in Texas, Japan or Manchester. Whatever trends get going in each country, the distribution of music is really quick. You can't tell where a record has been made, any more. A couple of years ago you could recognise a really 'eadbanging German tune, but you can't tell any more." "We had this on Saturday night," adds Graham. "There was this real New York tune, and we looked at the label and it had a Chorlton phone number on it - from up the road. You could have put a hundred quid on that it was from New York. But that's down to the change in communications; the early '80s alternative scene was all gig-related and very localised - now it's down to records, which you can mail anywhere."
808 State are quite gig-related themselves. Part of the their expansion into new territories has seen them adopting a role more familiar to your tight-trousered, large cod-pieced kind of a musician - the role of 'band on the road'. But all in the name of pioneering, of course. Graham remembers it well: "Our first American tour was like 'Techno Tap' - there's no fighting it, there's no avoiding the boredom, so you might as well behave like Led Zeppelin. There's no sensible way of getting through touring." Darren makes a brave stab at justifying any unruly behaviour: "As long as 808 State are going out there and doing a rock'n'roll tour, we're getting the message across.
"We'd rather do a more high-tech show, but at least we're showing it can be done. We're showing that albums can be made, gigs can be played, and hopefully, in a couple of years' time, people will be taking that on board, and there'll be more on offer than just a couple of PAs in clubs. It's important to take things on a bit further. But, bloody 'ell, six weeks on a 12-bed tour bus, 14 of us hitting a town every night. You can see where all the old rock'n'roll stories come from, and there's no escaping by saying, 'oh no, we're techno, we're '92'. You break windows just for the crack."
"Not only that," adds Graham, "we had loads of people stage-diving at the gigs! Somebody let off CS gas in LA while Bjork Gudmundsdottir was singing..." "Everyone," claims Darren, "was pogoing to our tunes, and you think, 'come on', but there they are, jumping up and down and head-butting each other. You can see what these hardcore indie bands have to go through. Rocktastic."
So what sort of gear do the baggy-arsed 808 roadies load in every night? "I use the Casio MIDI guitar for all the postures," admits Graham, "hooked up to the JD800 and stuff. On previous gigs we've used DAT for the drum and bass sequences, and play a lot of the melodies on six live keyboards. But there's also percussion, turntables, octapads triggering samples, plus acoustic guitar and saxophone. We've also thought about getting the ADAT and running submixes to it, so you've got all the drums separate, bass, and a sync track going to it as well. I think that would be more reliable.
"But we were a live band before we did any recording; we'd have a DJ box with all the sequencers set up, and graduated to using Ataris live - but we learned our lesson. Soon ended up with egg on our faces."
"We do a real minimal mix," continues Darren. "We're going to do that for the next tour; re-do the album for the stage, for backing tracks. When you talk to people like New Order, they've been out with just a couple of samplers and an MC500, plus a spare. And everyone swears by them - MC500s never crash. Nitzer Ebb use them. And with both those bands, there's been some heavy touring."
"There is a lot of interaction when we play live," Graham points out. "No two gigs are ever the same. On that level we don't feel so guilty about using DAT." "Glastonbury was our biggest gig," adds Darren, "about 80,000, and at a place like that you've got to have the confidence to put across a good set; you can't just go on cold and hide behind a keyboard. It's not very giving, electronic music, so we try and give it as much extra as we can. Without that front person, it's especially hard with an English audience. We've had MC Tunes with us before, but it's changing. If we can, we'll get the guests to do stuff off the new album - Bjork, Ian McCulloch, Hooky (Peter Hook)." And not a square inch of lycra in sight. But then, dance music has come a long way, and, according to Graham Massey, still has a long way to go. "The good thing about dance music is that people are still swapping ideas. With rock music all you talk about is the past, whereas with dance music, you meet people and you talk about the future. And electronic music is so diverse, now; you hear some really physical, rollocking music that's electronic. It's not just about being robots any more. The best of that still sounds good - the first time I heard Kraftwerk in a club was the other week in Dallas, and it sounded mega, brilliant. But that image always put me off."
"A lot of people see electronic music as only coming from that," adds Darren, "but there's so much more to it. There aren't many bands like us who are trying to turn that around a bit, to show that you can rock out. That's why we played Glastonbury, to get it through to people that, while we're electronically based, we can still kick arse on stage. Who else is doing that?" Well, Graham has a suggestion: "Meat Beat Manifesto". And he's right, of course.
But you can't help the suspicion that the studio is 808 State's truly natural habitat. The success of their attempts to take their music on the road, as for all bands, owes everything to its intrinsic qualities - qualities which gestate in a modest 16-track facility in Manchester... "It's nicely compact," says Darren. "The samplers are there, the modules are close, you're at the desk... it only needs one of us to be 'hands on', the other two can be sat back listening. So good monitoring is essential for us, so we can tell if the weight's there when we're writing bass lines, and so on."
"The first two albums were done in our 16-track studio," explains Graham, "and they still have a certain quality that I like. But we consider it more as a laboratory than a studio. It's for getting disks and programs together. And samples - it's great to have an S1000 as part of your hi-fi stack."
Indeed it is, but don't bother looking in the window of Dixon's.
Graham has plenty of other tips, though, as he expands on some of the techniques used on Gorgeous.
"Everyone's gone off on the analogue thing, and we've got the ARP stuff and the Moogs in the last 12 months - ever since we got the Moog it's been on everything, mainly just because of the bass.
"But we got half way through making the album on this analogue trip; there's a track 'Orbit' where all the drums are ARP 2600 - we were reading August's MT with Vince Clarke and we thought 'let's have a go at that' - and we did find that it was becoming a bit of an analogue mush. So we got the Microwave back in, and even the D50. We've also used a Bit One and a Bit 99 quite a lot, they've got a really hard sound. If we had a DX7, we'd have used that. It's a matter of contrasting sounds, getting a good balance going; not just one way or the other.
"We did go off on analogue madness for ages, but it does get a bit soft and a bit undefined."
Darren agrees: "I've got an JD30 at home, and when you're writing with it you seem to get into a bit of a block, because it's all too clean and too nice. I use the sampler more, for writing."
"The initial phase of making a track," continues Graham, "is the most important. The first ten minutes of working on it - whether you get a buzz off it or not. And you always get that off sound, just pure sound, like a killer bass drum pattern, or something. That's where it happens, in that first ten minutes.
"We were at a rave recently, and every DJ played exactly the same groove... every tune consisted of just four samples. That's not what I got into the scene for - I got into it because it was progressive"
"So the equipment is incredibly important - that's why we've amassed a lot of gear. It's not self-indulgence, it's because you keep needing that thrill to get something started. But you might limit yourself, like saying you'll only use the ARP Quartet, or something, so you can take it as far as it can go."
Try this at home, kids. "It's good to stretch gear like that," thinks Darren, "and the great thing about the ARP 2600 is that it seems to be saying 'fiddle with me', and you need that. A lot of this new stuff is very cold - you just have to look at it to be put off."
"When the JD800 came out," continues Graham, "everybody thought it must be the equivalent of analogue synthesis because of all the sliders, but it's still a very modern synthesiser: it's got a definite sound, and that sound won't go away. We've used it most for drum and percussion sounds, the quality was good enough for it to provide drums all over the album. Plus the fact that you can stack them up and tune them, and put weird little clanks into the drum sounds.
"On the 12" 'Reaper Repo' there's JD800 tablas with a tabla loop, from a record, and Akai tablas, plus a sample of the bass tabla from the set I've got, and then there's a Cuban loop, with congas, that gives it that weird timing."
"That track," says Darren, "just had to be ten minutes long, and it was great to do that after the discipline of the three-minute album tracks. We've tried not to use that many breakbeats, because they're flavour of the month, you know. We're always looking for something different. You know them old school bins? We just dropped a mic in there and 'it it with a stick. It's worth going to these lengths to get the meanest snare drum you can. You've really got to push the boundaries with rhythm."
Oh, er - try this at school, then, kids. Graham continues: "We've used the worst kit in the world for drum sounds before now - this crappy, battered old kit in the studio where we did Ex:El. It's on 'Techno Bell'. They should put 'out-of-tune' drums as presets on drum machines as well, so you could get a great garage sound."
"Every dance track," adds Darren, "has got a 909 snare, so we've always thought 'we can't use that again...'" "But," interrupts Graham, "we got to the point where we were so bored not using the 909 snare, we started using it again."
"Do something," concludes Darren, "anything, to keep it fresh."
Now that is good advice. The boys are in perfect sync when discussing studio habits and techniques like this, just as they are on stage. But the other problem of stepping into the wide and wonderful world of showbusiness - the problem of image - seems to raise one or two concerns. Darren begins defensively: "We're not into pulling on silver boots and hanging out in clubs; we're not in a fashion band."
"You're not, anyway..." taunts Graham. Unperturbed, Darren elaborates: "We like to wear what we're comfortable in; but you've got to do videos, there's got to be some visual impact." "Yeah," says Graham, "there's no point turning up for a video looking like a plank."
As he says this, Graham is fixing Darren with an oddly accusing stare. I don't like to pry, so Darren continues with, it must be said, great pertinence. "It's stupid to be purist about it and say 'don't do Top Of The Pops, it's selling out'. Why make a tune if you don't want to show it to people? We came from a very purist scene, very hardcore and underground, but we always wanted to share it - to show what was happening. I think that desire is what's got us into the position we're in now. Just as we're not afraid of getting in a bus and touring the arse off an album. If it gets to people, it's worth it."
808 State, it seems, are well on their way to reaching people, and dance music appears to be in safe hands. To Glastonbury can now be added sell-out shows at Wembley Arena supporting none other than Madness, whose reformation is itself an injection of character back into the lamented musical mainstream. It's an odd combination, maybe, but it's only a measure of how things have changed, and of how well an outfit such as 808 State can now be a part of it all. As Graham says: "There's more of a sense of history to it now; there was a time when Elvis was the only blueprint, but so much has happened, people have learned a few lessons. Everyone's a lot more clued up, and that's why it'll change in the next few years." Darren grabs the last word: "You don't have to be a 'band' any more. You don't have to be a unit like that; there are other avenues that the technology has opened up. You don't need that pressure to do everything together. You don't have to wait until your vocalist comes out of rehab, or whatever. We can go off and do other things, remix, produce, without destroying the unit that we are. That's what's happened to some of the great bands of the past, and there's no need. It's cleaner this way, more progressive; you don't have to do the rock'n'roll nonsense. This is the way forward."