The State of Technology
England's North has consistently produced some of the most innovative electronic music. Simon Trask talks to a band set to take their place alongside New Order and Heaven 17.
The North of England has a fine history of electronic innovation in music - bands like Cabaret Voltaire, Heaven 17, New Order. Now add to that list 808 State.
IF ANY GROUP REPRESENTS ALL THAT IS good about technology-based music at the moment, it's Manchester-based 808 State. Experimental, yet far from esoteric, inventive in a way that eludes most other groups, their progression from last Autumn's acid-influenced debut album NewBuild through a subsequent single, 'Let Yourself Go'/'Deepville', to their second album Quadrastate, with it's massively popular opening track 'Pacific State', has seen both their musical stature and their popularity rise dramatically. Radio 1 airplay for 'Pacific State' and a major record deal with WEA are only the beginning of a very bright future for a group who refuse to compromise on their musical integrity.
808 State were made for the cover of MT, and so it is that I travel to Manchester to meet up with the four members of the group; Martin Price, Graham Massey, Andrew Barker and Darren Partington. It's almost a year to the day since I first heard a couple of tracks from Newbuild on the radio and just had to have that album. It's also the weekend before MT's press week and the deadline has passed. Whoever said a journalist's life was easy?
In the event, the interview takes place with Price and Massey at Square One Studios in Bury, a few miles outside Manchester, where Massey is mixing a track for indie group James and discovering the delights of the AMS Audiofile into the bargain. It seems there's a chronic shortage of studios in Manchester. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, one of Price's ambitions is to open up a 24-track studio in the city.
As it is, the group work in Spirit Studios, a poky 16-track studio in the heart of Manchester where Massey once took a record engineering course. Newbuild and Quadrastate were both recorded there, and the group continue to use it as their base. The recording studio is 808 State's natural habitat. As Price explains: "You have to build your craft up within the studio."
And the group's name? Well, the 808 bit is obvious. What about the State? Price again: "808 State is our world that we exist in - an 808 state of mind."
808 STATE WAS BORN IN THE SUMMER OF '88 AS a trio consisting of Price, Massey and Gerald Simpson (otherwise known as A Guy Called Gerald of 'Voodoo Ray' fame), initially producing 45-minute backing tracks recorded straight onto two-track for the Hacienda. The music for what became their first album followed on naturally from this time, with some of the tracks being recorded early in the morning at Spirit after gigs - it's no accident that one of the tracks is sub-titled '4am mix'. With no multitrack tape to hand, they recorded straight to two-track reel-to-reel using old BBC tape which already had masses of edits on it.
When the group recorded Newbuild they weren't trying to "fit into" the acid scene. Now that major success beckons, Price still doesn't see them as a "fitting in" kind of group. As he puts it: "808 State aren't going to be peacefully marketed into a bracket. I don't think we need to change, and I'm very wary about anybody trying to change us. Also, I don't want to take the thousand-quid-a-day remix route and let that interfere with our development and the way we work. 808 State is number one in importance."
Price started a record stall just under four years ago after selling all his gear to raise the necessary money. Some eight months later he moved into shop premises, and Eastern Bloc, the most upfront dance music shop in Manchester, was born. Price had realised that a shop was needed to help create a scene for new dance music, and sure enough it became a centre for budding musicians, with kids bringing in tapes of their music. Massey was working in a cafe across the road from the shop; and he and Price got talking about technology and discovered that they spoke the same language. Simpson used to come into Eastern Bloc, and before long the three of them were putting on live hip hop jams with other hip hop crews under the name of the Hit Squad, using Simpson's TR808, TB303 and SH101. Barker and Partington, collectively known as the Spinmasters, were also involved in the Hit Squad. Other crews gradually dropped out, till eventually there was just 808 State and the Spinmasters, who by this time had turned to house music. In time, Simpson left the group to pursue his own career, leaving the present four-piece line-up.
PRICE AND MASSEY, AT 34 AND 29 YEARS OLD respectively are the elder statesmen of the group (if you'll pardon the pun); both have a wealth of experience in experimental music. Also a veteran of the Northern soul scene, jazz-funk all-dayers and the early '80s electro scene in Manchester, Price got involved in experimental electronic music in the late '70s when he met a guy called Leonard, a mad professor type with a Thomas Dolby haircut.
"This guy had the first 303 I'd ever seen", he recalls, "and he was messing around in a calculator with a pin that was connected up to a lead that was going into an amp. He was getting all these amazing sounds out of it through reverb. When I asked him what he was doing, he said he was trying to get some calculator feedback going. He didn't even know the names for what he was doing, he was just doing them. I got caught up in that magic and I've never been able to escape since."
The two of them started working together, using a Boss Dr Rhythm, a Roland TB303 and TR606, tape loops and a lot of guitar effects pedals. A typical track combined a funk rhythm on a Dr Rhythm with tape loops of music recorded from. Depeche Mode and Kraftwerk records and noise generated from an amplifier put through a series of pedals back into another amp.
"I've got a huge catalogue of tapes going back to that time", he reveals, "and there's three particular tracks that I'd do again, using the same sort of techniques. I think that time was an excellent grounding for me, because I'm never going to turn into one of these glorious gear-orientated people. It's always going to be chucking pots in the sink and recording them, so there's always going to be that experimental edge to what we do. I'm so glad that sampling's happened, because now I'm heading back to what I was doing before; it's just easier to do, nowadays."
Massey has played in bands ever since he left school. Outside of 808 State he is part of Biting Tongues, a band which has been going for some ten years and is now down to a duo. Both like and unlike 808 State, the music combines a strong electro-based dance beat with experimental music collages which make interesting use of sampling as well as using acoustic instruments. It's well worth investigating in its own right. Massey recalls that the group were using cut-up tape techniques and tape loops back in the '70s, and were prone to doing such things as making up a backing tape of pure noise and running it throughout a track. His musical influences came from from early '70s Miles Davis electric records like Bitches Brew, Live Evil and On The Corner, German experimental rock group Faust, Fripp and Eno's tape-loop experiments and the electronic sounds of '70s Stevie Wonder albums like Talking Book and Inner Visions.
Barker and Partington (at 21 and 20 the young half of the group) began their DJ'ing activities eight years ago, inspired by the electro/breakdancing scene in Manchester. Today all of the group have a liking for Detroit techno music, which of course has its roots in electro among other things.
"Quadrastate is our version of techno", Price says. "May, Saunderson, Atkins, they're my heroes. Detroit is the place that I want to go to. I can still remember the first time I heard Model 500's 'No UFOs' played at a club - I knocked a table over in my hurry to get to the DJ and find out what the record was."
Price provides the first clue as to what makes 808 State tick.
"Andy and Darren turn around and call us weirdos and tell us to shut up. They've got a new attitude to the music, and they're a lot of our discipline. They won't have a lot of weirdness, and they stop us from being indulgent."
"Its always going to be chucking pots in the sink and recording them, so there's always going to be that experimental edge to what we do."
"Also, they're working as DJs two or three nights every week", Massey adds. "Having that DJ input into what we do is excellent. They can tell us 'that hit goes on too long, you'll lose your dancefloor'. They know where the changes should be, and if you can run the track into a certain other kind of track.
It's almost like you're building tracks to fit onto a track that's happening at the moment. We can finish a track and get it played in a club the same night, get a reaction off it and change it."
As well as their valuable DJ input, Barker and Partington contribute musically to the group. All the members have their own musical ideas, and it seems that when 808 State get together in the studio their approach to recording is neither studiously professional nor coolly calculated, as Massey reveals:
"If anyone saw us they'd be astonished. It's just a horrendous amount of shouting for 12 hours at a time - completely exhausting. The music's born out of conflict."
"It's mayhem, but we all know we love each other, and it's done in the nicest possible way", Price adds, in case anyone thinks 808 State are soon to be in a non-existent state. "We're all fighting to get our own bits in but we're all working for the same thing, too, and at the end of the day it works. The 808 State magic comes from the battle."
And who, I wonder, is responsible for the unusual endings, like the drastic speeding up and slowing down of the drum machine at the end of 'Firecracker', or the false ending of 'State to State' (the last two tracks on Quadrastate).
"That's 'im - weird-ending Massey!" Price says, pointing to the guilty party. "He tends to try and do it on everything, though. It's him freaking out at the end of a track, 'cos he can be terribly studious all the way through the track while we're freaking out behind him trying to do all sorts of mad things. He wants as much weirdness at the end as he can get. It's his way of getting back at us for all the annoyance we've caused him through the track; we end up cutting most of it off tape when we're editing, though. It's just mad Massey at the controls. But we all try to do our own version of endings, just to try and annoy each other. It's a bit of fun. We have a great time in the studio, really."
The group have a very practical attitude towards the gear at their disposal, summed up by Price:
"It's always been our attitude that whatever you're stuck with, that's what you use."
"It's just a matter of what you can get your hands on", Massey confirms. On Newbuild the group used almost exclusively Roland gear, with a TR808, TR909, TB303, four SH101s and a Juno 106 which sports a broken key and a note which sticks on every patch except patch 41. Quadrastate sees the introduction of Roland's latest flagship drum machine, the R8, which the group use in combination with their 909. The ailing Juno 106 is joined by another Roland synth, the D50, which is used liberally on the album as well as, logically enough, on the D50 mix of the single 'Let Yourself Go' (where the washing machine-ish bassline comes from an edited version of the D50's 'Bass Marimba' preset). To say that Roland gear has quite an appeal to the group would be a grave understatement. They even gave out a thanks to Roland UK on the sleeve of Newbuild.
"Roland has got a sort of romanticism for me", Price explains. "It was the first stuff I worked with, it was easy to use, and the Roland sync was good. Their drum machines were always easy to use, which is more than I can say for Yamaha's."
Sampling is handled by a Casio FZ1 - purely because it happened to be available in the studio. On the whole the group have an abstract approach to sampling (the spiralling strings sample on 'Let Yourself Go' being the most notable exception - it's lifted from an old Love Unlimited Orchestra track, 'Love Story', because Price and Massey both have a fondness for the Orchestra). A technique the use a lot is to start out with a sample purely for atmosphere, build up a track around it and then take it out - a process which Price refers to as "silhouetting".
"Another technique we use quite often is sampling a chord into the FZ1 and playing it back from single notes", Massey adds. "We got that off Derrick May. There's something about a whole chord being shifted like that which is very techno."
It's this technique which was used to produce the parallel major seventh chords of 'Pacific State', with a chord on the D50 sampled into the FZ1. Sequencing is handled mainly by a 1040ST running Hybrid Arts' SMPTEtrack, which Massey describes as "A real sledgehammer to crack an acorn for what we're doing."
"A typical track combined a funk rhythm on a Dr Rhythm with tape loops of music recorded from Depeche Mode and Kraftwerk records and noise from an amplifier."
The group prefer to commit successive parts to the multitrack rather than build up a a number of sequencer tracks - so SMPTEtrack functions as a means of getting each part together as they go along. Many 808 State tracks use two basslines (another musical technique the group have in common with Derrick May), but it seems this can be more a consequence of their way of recording than a deliberate action.
"We do record two, sometimes three, basslines for many tracks", Massey explains. "A lot of them aren't intended to be there at the same time, but sometimes they accidentally end up that way."
"We like a lot of things to run straight through a track so we can punch them in and out manually on the mixdown", adds Price. "The basslines might be sequenced differently as well, like one'll be off the computer, one'Il be off the little sequencer in the 101, and one'll be off the drum machine. They'll all have different feels, and that goes towards getting the feel of the whole track."
AS THE CLICHED SAYING GOES, NECESSITY is the mother of invention, and having such an array of non-MIDI and MIDI gear means a certain amount of ingenuity is required when it comes to syncing everything up - especially if you don't have any little black boxes around to mediate between the two systems. One syncing system the group have employed in the past runs as follows. The TR909's code is recorded to the multitrack and then used to sync an MC202 to tape. The 202's two DIN sync outputs run a TB303 and the 909, with MIDI output from the 909 running the computer which in turn can sequence the other MIDI instruments.
These days they mostly use SMPTEtrack synced to multitrack via the sequencer's plug-in SMPTE unit, running non-MIDI gear via the old faithful Korg KMS30 sync box. But it's not only SMPTEtrack which gets used for sequencing. One technique they've adopted is to use the 909's onboard pattern-based sequencing to trigger bass and piano lines.
"There's a tightness with the 909, especially with swing on it, which you don't get off the sequencer", Massey explains. But that isn't the group's only reason for using the 909 in this way. It also allows them to experiment with randomly selecting patterns to trigger samples - the hypnotic rhythm of the FZ1 flute sample on 'State Ritual' from Quadrastate was arrived at in this way.
A pattern-based step-time approach is something which appeals to the group, and recently they used Bit by Bit's MIDIdrummer software on the remix of 'Pacific State'. Not that they want to tie themselves down to any one way of working or to any one feel.
"Generally we quantise, but we know when to put feel in", Massey explains. "There's only a certain amount of things that need feel, like the hi-hat. Now we can use the R8 to add the feel."
The R8 gets used in combination with the TR909 in the 808 State scheme of things. For Price, Roland's new drum machine has brought about a re-evaluation of his attitude to rhythm, as he explains:
"I like rhythm tracks that are perfectly in time, with just a little bit of feel, but there's this track, Mr and Mrs Dale's 'It's You', which is R8 and it's all over the place, the pattern is so swung, but somehow it works." Massey has been quick to find another advantage in using the the R8: "Back to that thing of triggering samplers and synths from randomly-chosen drum patterns, the R8's great for that because it's got such a high resolution. I've been using that technique quite a lot. When we got the 909 we'd put swing on everything; now it's all R8 groove. Also, we've done a track where we've taken nuance to extremes on cymbals.
"Unfortunately the sounds on the R8 are a bit hollow, a bit transparent, which is why we always use it in combination with the 909. We use the R8 congas an awful lot because we haven't got a Latin machine, but I wish we had a TR727 because there's something plasticky about its sounds which is just right. The R8 is too nice, so I end up tuning the congas by some weird amount."
"A lot of equipment's gone really nice", Price adds. "Nice sounds, nice effects..."
One instrument which could hardly be described as nice is an old Pearl Syncussion unit which the group sometimes use.
"You can get some 808 analogue-type sounds out of it", offers Massey by way of explanation.
"Brian Eno never played keyboards, all he was doing was messing with joysticks and white noise - being a non-musician I could identify with all that"
For Price, the Syncussion is an old friend: "I used to use Syncussion units a hell of a lot on my really early stuff, triggering them straight off the audio outs of a drum machine. You can get some really nasty sounds out of them, like the old disco 'pow-pow' sounds."
Like the tacky sound at the beginning of 'Disco State' off Quadrastate?
"Yeah", replies Massey with a grin. "That's a corny track, and we just had fun with it. People either hate it or they love it. We made it for the people in the curry shop around the corner, 'cos every time we went in there they were playing a tape of Boney M!"
When it comes to signal processors, the group haven't exactly gone overboard on the digital variety. A couple of MIDIverb Ils handle most of their reverb requirements, while a Yamaha REV7 is used for short pre-delays. A Yamaha SPX90, which Price and Massey characterise as "tinny", is confined to providing weird panning effects, while delays come from a Korg DDL. In fact, the group are just as likely to turn to a variety of old guitar pedals for their effects.
"We bring in guitar footpedals a lot because a lot of them are better than the rack-mount digital effects", Massey explains. "You can't get a decent phase sound out of an SPX90, for instance. We've got an old Roland flanger that we use a lot, and on a track that we're working on at the moment we've put a Fender Rhodes sample on the FZ1 through an old MXR phaser to dirty the sound up a bit."
The group plan to spend some of the money they're getting from their deal with WEA on new equipment. Price is quick to clarify their priorities, however.
"I don't think we're going to become gear-bores. It's the music that's dead important, and having a good time along with it, and basically experimenting. I want to make records that are accessible, but I want to make different records. I think our background in experimental music gives us a head start in that, and I want to use a lot of these weird techniques that I've learnt over the years. Somebody reviewed one of our records and said that it had Jacques Cousteau on bass 2000 leagues under the sea, and I thought that was brilliant."
AT ONE TIME THE GROUP BOUGHT ALL their gear from a second-hand shop in Manchester going by the the dubious name of Johnny Roadhouse, which Massey claims is central to a lot of musicians in the city. Getting the money together wasn't always easy, though.
Price: "Graham and Gerald used to come into Eastern Bloc and say they've got this and that at Johnny Roadhouse, and I'd be madly trying to sell a few more records so we could get the money together to buy the gear. We put down no end of deposits.
"There's always kids in Eastern Bloc saying 'they've got a 202 in Johnny Roadhouse!'. It makes you realise there must be a lot of people chasing this gear. There's lots of second-hand shops I know in the North-west where you can find things like a Micromoog for £150."
On the subject of old gear, it turns out that Massey is a big Fender Rhodes fan. Roland's new all-digital Rhodes electric piano hasn't gone unnoticed, either.
"I was playing one in A1 Music in Manchester the other day", he reveals. "The feel of it is wonderful; I'd love to get hold of one. We've tried getting a Rhodes sound out of the D50, but you can't do it. We use things like Rhodes samples off records; there's a lot of that on the Biting Tongues and 808 State records. I've got the Rhodes sample on the FZ1, but it's never quite as good. You have to feed it through an amp and then record the result to get that distortion, or, like I was saying earlier, put it through an old MXR phaser. The Rhodes sound is for me one of the most important sounds ever."
All this talk of old gear sets Price on a trip down memory lane, too: "I remember getting my first synth, a Korg monosynth. I used to sellotape one key down and just mess around with the filters and stuff like that. I'd heard a few Brian Eno records, some of the B-sides of Roxy Music singles, and I wondered how he got his sounds. By chance they were playing at this technical college near me, and I went to see them. I managed to sit right behind him, and he never played keyboards, all he was doing was messing with joysticks and white noise. With me being a non-musician, I could identify with all that."
"Biting Tongues used to have an EMS VCS3, and we never used to use the keyboard", says Massey. "But back to the Rhodes coming out with MIDI, it's happening all the time now, with things like the MIDImoog and the Obierack. People are finally waking up to what people want. I think it's got a lot to do with your mag; I love all those articles about old instruments like the Mellotron."
"Music Technology is like the bible to us. It's really made our week doing this interview", Price adds generously but sincerely. (Excuse me while I blush on behalf of staff and contributors.)
The last word, however, goes to Massey: "There are a lot of the electronic equivalents of boring guitar bands about. People who would once have been making boring guitar music, they've got their MIDI setups and now they're making boring synthesiser music. There's always good and bad; it's just down to imagination. People's personalities still get into electronic music."
And I can think of no better example of this than 808 State.